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Archive for October, 2013

Little Girl Lost

Little Girl Lost

The algorithm got him close. The rumors and gossip from the local population narrowed his search. Stephen bought a tent, a sleeping bag, and a backpack at the local sportsman store and drove into the mountains, following his map. The road turned from pavement to dirt and then into two parallel tracks that wound around the boles of trees and past cliffs. When the tracks finally ran out, he parked his car and began hiking, all his equipment strapped to his back.

His GPS tracker led him to a wall made of white stone topped with a lethal looking iron fence. What he wanted lay somewhere beyond that wall. He followed it, looking for a gate, not wholly convinced that he would find one. The thing he searched for was just ephemeral enough, just improbable enough, just magical enough to warrant a wall with no openings and maybe even a moat filled with crocodiles beyond that.

But all fences have gates, even this one. He stood before the ornate iron gate and stared into the garden beyond. The garden was an improbable occurrence midst so many other improbable events. He was not sure why it shocked him so much. At this elevation, in this arid climate, none of the plants that grew there should have existed. But thrive they did, in abundance.

Steven pulled his eyes away from the banana tree and stared up at the house. No. Not a house. A villa built from the same white stone as the wall, its windows jewel colored crystal, its roof burnished copper.

Stephen found a button in the gatepost. He pushed it and waited.

“Go away,” a tinny voice said out of the speaker set under the button.

“Libby? Is that you? I know what you are,” Stephen said, his words falling out all over themselves in his rush to get her to hear what he had to say before she lost interest. “I subverted the super computer at my work to run my search program when it was not busy doing something else. If they ever find out I will disappear into a black ops jail somewhere but I didn’t care. I had to know. Hours and hours of computer time. Mountains of data. Looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I thought you were a place at first. Like a lay line, a point of power that fuels the events around it. But then you moved. Then I thought you were an object but the events were not random enough for that. I set my program to looking for a person and you moved one last time, disappearing off the map.”

“That was you? I should be annoyed with you,” said the young woman now standing on the path in front of him, the gate the only thing between them. Stephen closed his eyes and opened them again. He had not seen her walk down the path from the house and yet here she was. Libby was of an age that might have been 47 as easily as 27 and she was dressed in styles that had been all the rage in the English garden party set from the 1940’s, though her thick ebony hair was pulled back in simple braid worn universally by young girls not yet of marriageable age.

“The people in the village down the hill think you are a witch. The satellite photos do not show this house. That is a neat trick. How did you do that?”

“Witches only exist in fairy tales and my house does not exist on this plain of reality.”

“If I were superstitious I would call that magic or a miracles. What would you call it?”

“Magic,” Libby snorted in disdain. “It is a word used by the ignorant to describe the ineffable and complex universe.”

“Can I come in? We can talk.”

“No one may enter,” she said, slipping through the gate. Stephen choked back his grunt of amazement. He had been watching. The gate had stayed closed. She had merely passed through the bars. “But it has been a long time since I have spoken a human language. Come. Walk with me and tell me of the doings in the world. Where is the latest war being fought? Who is Pope? Has your species solved the problem of your own suicidal tenancies yet? Have the trees abandoned their quest and left the planet?”

He shook his head at the last question, not quite understanding it. But he tried to answer her other questions as they wandered through the dappled shade of the tall pines. Answers led to other questions.

Stephen tried to remember all the current events, reciting the latest headlines. She listened attentively, nodding and asking the right kinds of questions that kept him talking. He could tell she had no interest in politicians or the doings of pop stars. Reality stars confused her. Global warming just made her shake her head. He finally found himself telling her all about his family and his job and his friends and their families. Finally he stopped, having run out of family gossip.

“You can’t be interested in the life of a low level bureaucrat, surely. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? How did you become who you are? Why do you live up here, so far from people?”

Libby looked at him with a quizzical look on her brow. “Would you have me live midst the unwashed rabble of your inner cities?”

“But you must get lonely with no one but the birds and mice to talk to? Why make it so hard for the rest of us to find you?”

She looked up and smiled as two yellow butterflies fought a battle for territory above the place where they walked. “Two questions that betray your own insecurities, I fear. I never feel alone except when I am with people who expect me to be just like them. Then I am reminded how utterly alone I am in this universe. The second part of your question is laden with misconception. Do you think I live to serve humanity? Am I an oracle, that you would seek my advice? I live here that I may not be pestered by fools. And if I were to play the oracle, would you value my wisdom if it were easily come by? The journey to an oracle is the journey of the penitent, covered in ashes and self flagellating as he climbs the mountain to beard the prophet in her cave. By the time you arrive, your mind is clear and you are ready with your questions. A truly sincere penitent would arrive, having done his work during his journey only to realize all his questions had already been answered as he humbled himself before the universe and shed the many cloaks of disillusion.”

“You think me insincere?”

“I think you have not asked the right question.”

“Which is?”

“Why are you here? Answer that first. I have nothing to say to you until then,” she said as she began to fade, leaving only her smile ’til even that faded, like some twisted version of a Cheshire Cat.

He wandered about the mountain top looking for her but the white villa had disappeared. He checked his GPS tracker. A spring bubbled up out of the ground where once stood a stone house.

At a loss at what to think, he kept himself busy while he let his subconscious work on the problem.

He made camp under the tall pines. He built a fire. He returned to the spring to gather water. He made tea. Making tea is what he did when he did not know what else to do. He always made tea. It calmed him and cleared his mind. He made it strong and dark. The sun set and the light faded as he sat sipping the potent brew. Between one heart beat and the next he realized she was sitting across the fire from him and he could not remember if she had been there all this time or if she had just suddenly appeared.

“That smells good. Can I have a cup?”

“It will cost you,” he said, half joking.

She studied him for a moment and then held out an empty porcelain cup with roses painted around the sides.

“Name your price,” she said. He stared at the cup in her hand, wondering how she made it appear. Surely she did not carry tea cups around in her pockets. She wiggled the empty cup. He had no choice. He poured tea into it. She smiled and held the cup under her nose, sniffing deeply. A price. This could be a very profitable cup of tea indeed. He tried to think of all the things he wanted to know, all the things he wanted her to tell him.

“Tell me a story,” he said, surprising even himself with those words.

“A campfire requires a story, does it not?” she said nodding. “A ghost story. Something to keep the demons in the dark from snatching away our dreams, no?”

Libby sipped her tea and her eyes grew dark and wide, reflecting the light of the fire. When it seemed she had forgotten there was a price to pay for his hospitality, she finally spoke.

“There is a place, they say, out on the edges of the universe where few dare to travel, if they are wise. It is a lonely place, far off the main traffic routes plied by the deep space freighters and the Space Corps frigates. The luxury passenger liners have no reason to travel here for there is nothing to gawk at, no wonders to marvel at, no ruins to explore. Nothing. In fact, the Consortium of Planets had set beacons along all the travel routes leading to this place. Danger. Turn Back. Go around. The beacons say this on an endless repeat cycle.”

“I thought you were going to tell a ghost story.” Stephen protested. “Not Star Wars fan-fiction.”

“Do you think ghosts only haunt graveyards? Infinite is the life in the darkness between stars. Stare at the night sky and it will whisper its secrets in your ear. Where do you think George Lucas got his ideas?”

“From watching John Wayne and Douglas Fairbanks movies as a kid. All his work was derivative.”

“Mmm,” she said with a shrug. “Be that as it may, this is my ghost story. I will tell it the way it was told to me. Where was I? Ah. Yes. Ships who ignored the beacons and went into that part of the universe did not return and were never heard from again.” She paused and looked at him expectantly, perhaps waiting for another interruption. He pressed his lips together and poured more tea into his cup.

“Back then, all power rested within the ruling Houses. There was more than one House. They fought, as immortal families are wont to do when boredom and ennui set in. Houses formed alliances and fought other alliances. The wars escalated and grew more and more brutal. Entire quadrants of space were turned to ash, the stars little more than cold cinders. One by one the great Houses fell and were no more. The House of Green went first, too gentle for the likes of Red and Yellow. Yellow, unwise perhaps to align themselves with the Red, fell defending their allies. The battles raged across the infinite reaches of space and along the eons of time until all that remained was the House of Ultraviolet and the House of Infrared.”

“You are talking about the colors of the spectrum. If your story has rainbows, then surely it must have unicorns.”

She scowled at him. “Your ignorance is showing, you who only know the universe long after it cooled. Once, all was light and fire and the tempest that you now only find in the middle of stars. Once the beings of light consumed all of creation. Know you that light contains its own sentience and that cooled down to human temperatures, it might walk about on two feet if it were of a mind to.”

“Sentient light?” he scoffed.

“Cohesive matter is matter, no matter how thin it is spread or how slowly it vibrates. This story will not tell itself if you keep interrupting me.”

“Oh, by all means, continue,” Stephen said with a small bow.

“So, in the end, those immortals who had once been the red end of the spectrum were defeated and the House of Ultraviolet hunted down the last remnants of the once great House until none remained free.”

“They were immortal. How do you kill a creature such as that?”

“They shoved them into reactors and used them as fuel until every last bit of energy was sucked from their beings and the very essence of them was erased forever.”

“Oh. They died. Why didn’t you just say that?” Stephen said, a little annoyed at her play with words.

The girl looked at him coolly. “Careful, human. I could take offense at your mortal callousness. Respect that which you have no hope of understanding, if you please. When I say they were erased, I mean that they ceased to be, inside the time steam and out of it, as if they had never been. This universe does not remember those creatures of the Red Light who once skated the paths between dimensions or spread themselves thin and sailed the infinite space between stars. They only know the gods of the Blue Light.”

“Yet you remember,” Stephen said, pointing out the hole in her argument.

She looked away, a haunted look on her face. “I am the storyteller, thus I am burdened with all memories.”

Stephen felt the excitement welling up in his chest. She had perhaps revealed something of her nature to him, at last. That she had once had a human birth certificate had long since ceased to pertain to who she was now, he suspected

She looked up into his eyes, perhaps sensing the shift in his mood. She smiled. “Naughty. Do not distract me. I was telling a ghost story. Where was I? Ah, yes. The House of Red fell and in the confusion a small space lighter slipped through the blockades. The Mother of the House of Red escaped. She was gravid with the energy of her Husband, and left to her own devices might have stayed that way for another millennium or so but the death of the House of Red triggered a survival response. She became pregnant sometime during the long flight. Her only companion was her sister’s small son, nearer to infancy than adulthood and male, so he was no help to someone in her condition. Somewhere between one star and the next she and her child split apart but the process left her less than herself.”

“Huh? Oh. She gave birth. Why can you never call a spade a spade?” Stephen asked.

“Do you think beings of light play host to their children allowing them to feed like little lumps of parasitic flesh? Please. There is nothing similar between them and you humans. When I say they split apart, I mean what I say. The ship landed in a place so far from its origin that it could only be counted as lost. Not long after, the Mother died. The boy, barely out of swaddling clothes himself, look the grief stricken baby and against all odds, kept her alive. He became everything to her. Mother, father, brother, friend, soul mate. The Mother had chosen the planet well. It was an Eden. A perfect place to start a new branch of the House of Red. It had not been an accident that she had saved the boy.”

“The pair not only survived, they thrived, the boy hunting far and wide for things that would tempt the baby’s palette and when her grief threatened to overwhelm her, he distracted her with stories and songs that he made up on the spot. The baby grew into a toddler, the boy into a young man and between them a love blossomed. They were inseparable. They would still be there now but the House of Blue came hunting them, knowing full well what the dead Mother intended.”

“Shit. Don’t tell me. They killed them.” Stephen threw the dregs in his tea cup into the fire and pulled his pack close, hunting for something stronger. “Your story sucked.”

“I am not done,” she said, holding out her cup as he unscrewed the top of his flask.

“Really? You will not like what I have in this.”

“I will be the judge of that,” she said, jiggling her empty tea cup. Stephen poured a generous shot of tequila into it before taking a healthy pull on the flask himself. It was the good stuff. If went down smooth but had a hell of a kick. He coughed as the heat hit his stomach.

“Oh. My. That is … lovely,” she said, licking the last drop of the golden liquid from the rim of her cup. “Ah. Just what I need to finish the story. So, the Blues hunted them. It was a short hunt. The boy was quick and agile but the girl was barely out of infancy. They caught her almost at once. What they did next will go down in the annals of time as the cruelest and most clever of ploys. They tied her up and tethered her in a clearing. And then they waited. The child, having known only the boy all her life, expected that others of her kind would be the same. That they were cold and cruel to her broke her heart. She began to weep and call out for the boy. And because he loved her and could not conceive of an existence that did not include her, he came and was caught. They took the boy and left.”

Libby scowled at her cup and then held it out to him, letting him see how empty it was. “This stuff will knock you on your ass. Take it easy, will you?” Stephen said, pouring in only half a shot. “So. They took the boy and let the girl go free. So far your story is not very scary.”

“No. You must listen better. They took the boy but they left the girl tethered to the planet matrix as only a lightbeing can be bound. Permanent and forever. And she is there still, though the suns have cooled and stars have shifted in the sky. It is her you hear, weeping, bereft, and calling his name, over and over again. The starships who are fool enough to ignore the warnings of the beacons hear the wailing first. It is a sound that tears at the heart. Few can resist the urge to try and save her. By the time they realize it is a trap, it is too late. She consumes them until not even a memory remains.”

“What? Why would she do that? Somebody has to rescue her.” Stephen scowled at Libby over the fire, suddenly not enjoying this story at all. “She was a baby, ferchristsake. Somebody needs to save her.”

“What does she know of the world, lost and alone as she is?” Libby said with a shrug. “The only other beings she has ever met were the boy and the hunters of the House of Blue. The boy taught her to love but the Blues taught her only fear and hate. The fools who think to rescue her fall into those two categories in her mind. None of them can be the boy, the thing she needs above all else, for the Blues destroyed him long ago. Sadly, even if he lived to return, she would not recognize him, for she has been tied to her rock far too long, so long she has forgotten everything but his name, and even that name has become a sound strange on her tongue, part of a ritual chant that keeps the darkness at bay in her mind. Her heart is a wound, a fire that burns the very fabric of space/time. There is a real and pressing reason for the presence of the warning beacons.”

Stephen blinked owlishly at the empty log across from him. He turned and looked down. She was sitting next to him, her hand on his arm, her face close to his. He could feel the heat of her breath on his throat. “What do you think of my story?” she asked.

“I feel sad and hopeless. Thanks a lot.”

“Oh, but she has hope, our little heroine.”

“What could she possibly be hoping for?’

“Revenge,” Libby whispered as she sank her fingers into the flesh over his heart and began to feed.

Stephen felt himself grow thin and transparent. His heart flutter inside his chest. “How does killing me bring you any closer to taking revenge on the House of Blue?” he asked, panting.

Libby smiled, a small, perfect smile full of innocence and love. “I am an ant building a mountain out of sand in hopes of one day touching the sun. You, my lovely Stephen, are just another grain of sand, to be added to the fabric of my ever growing self. Soon, very soon, the Blues will notice something powerful has consumed this quadrant of space and they will come to investigate. I shall be waiting.”

“Why not break the binding that holds you in this place and be free?” Stephen asked as his vision grayed out.

“Oh, I did that the first chance I got,” she said, laughter imminent on that kind and gentle face. “Now I must prepare the battlefield. You have a very nice planet, Stephen. It is too bad I have to use it up. You understand why it is necessary, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Stephen said as he closed his eyes for the last time.

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flawed creation

Azathrial and Marchus

It is said that the great witch Azathrial lived a thousand years or more and never knew true love until she accidentally broke the seal that bound the White Demon Marchus in his infinite prison, setting him free.

Marchus, not fooled by her many cloaks of illusion,  saw her True Self and chose to bind himself to her forever. Azathrial, perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit, allowed it.

Thus, at the end of her life, Azathrial remembered the final piece of her own personal puzzle and turned into light, joining the pantheon of stars in the night sky. Marchus, relieved of his demon form at long last, joined her.

They are up there still, two binary stars forever caught in a dance with the other. Azathrial and Marchus would not have had it any other way.

*****

Azathrial yelped in pain and shook her hands free of the matrix of power she had been building.

“Ah, Lady, are you surprised that they resist you, you who seem intent on undoing ten thousand years of human magics?”

“Why can they not be reasonable?” she asked petulantly, sucking on one particularly scorched finger.

“They fear your power but more so, they fear you because you cannot be seduced away from your quest to set the world to rights. Do you even remember why you do what you do?”

Azathrial frowned, thinking. Marchus waited. She always said the most amazing things after that look left her face.

Azathrial pulled the finger from her mouth and looked up at Marchus where he floated near the ceiling like a rogue helium balloon.

“It is silly. You will laugh,” she said.

“I would never laugh at you,” Marchus said, meaning it.

“I asked why?”

“Why?” Marchus said blankly. “Why what?”

“Hmmm,” she said distractedly, nibbling on a fingernail. Marchus thought she would stay silent, her explanation done, but eventually she met his eyes again. “This body had a human family once. Long ago.”

“I assumed as much,” Marchus nodded, “though you never speak of them.”

“Oh, they are long dead and I have lost track of their descendants. Truth be told, they forgot I existed long before they died, a thing I heartily encouraged.”

“This is why you do not like to be loved?”

“Oh, no. But I will not regale you with the folly of my many love affairs. The carnage of those times is best left forgotten. No. When I was born, this last time, I was not like other babies. I walked through the Veil whole and complete, with the memories of a thousand lifetimes, not all of them human, already tucked safely in the back of my mind. I chose my family not because they would nurture me, but because I needed them to keep me safe, keep me hidden, and to leave me in peace long enough for my body to reach adulthood. I got what I wished for. They ignored me completely.”

“I am sorry,” Marchus said. “We do not have to talk about this if it is too painful.”

Azathrail laughed. “Oh, pray, to not be sad for me, my love. It was a happy time, the memories of which I will always treasure. I was a wild child. I wore whatever happened to be at hand and half the time I never had shoes. Most days you could find me crouched in the creek bottom studying everything that caught my fancy from bugs to birds to bunny rabbits. My pockets were always full of arrow heads and fossils and seed pods. The clouds in the sky were my castles, the farm dogs my knights in shining armor, the cows my fire breathing dragons with which I did battle. I would sit for hours dissecting the scat of owls and foxes to find the tiny bones of the field mice they had eaten for dinner so that I might lay them out like an intricate puzzle. And when I had worn myself out, I would lay in the high grass and watch the hawks mate in mid-flight or listen to the meadowlark sing. Nothing escaped my notice.

Marchus sank down to her eye level, watching her face as she spoke.

“But surely you had to go inside eventually. What of the den in which your wild child slept?” he asked gently.

“I learned stillness out in the meadows. If you hold the silence of the universe inside your head, the birds will light upon you fingers, thinking you a bush. That skill held me in good stead in my parent’s house. I was invisible. This allowed me to be an observer of the minutia of the human condition, my family being my study subjects, the microcosm that was meant to  mirror the macro. I came to the conclusion early on that my parents were broken. Utterly and irreparably broken. This tragedy did not touch me, whole as I was, but it destroyed my siblings, each in their own way.”

“Broken? How so?” Marchus asked, trying hard not to feel sad for her.

“They could not love their children or each other because they could not love themselves. It surprised me, this self loathing because it was not logical.”

Marchus laughed. “Logic? They offended your sense of order?”

“You said you would not laugh at me,” Azathrial pouted.

Marchus pressed his beautiful demon lips together but the corners of his eyes still crinkled with his amusement.

“Forgive me, Lady. Please continue.”

“Logic governs all things, don’t you see? Cycles return to the beginning. Circles within circles. Chickens have eggs from which more chickens rise. Plants make seeds that make more plants. Moons orbit planets, planets orbit sun, suns orbit the massive black hole in the center of the galaxy, galaxies are caught up in the branches of the Dark Tree that connects all of space and time. Out in the meadows and cow pastures, all life lived in harmony with this pattern. But in my parents house, there was a fatal wobble in everyone’s orbit that would eventually lead to disintegration and dissolution. I did not have a family, I had a machine tearing itself apart with the forces of its very nature.

“So you began to question the nature of existence?”

“Oh, god no,” Azathrial said, amused. “I thought my family a collection of freaks. A statistical anomaly. I bided my time and left at the first opportunity and never looked back.”

Marchus looked confused. “What did your family have to do with your question then? Were they not the inspiration of the big Why?”

“It is a very long story but I will cut to the end. It became very apparent, after years of observation, that my family was not a statistical anomaly at all, but was in fact, the norm. All of humanity had the same flaw, the same wobble, the same penchant for self loathing. Despite having all the best intentions, despite having the most brilliant of inspirations, despite having an infinite amount of motivation, humans could not get anything right, ever. It was if there was a crack in the foundation of the world that was throwing all that was built upon it slightly out of whack.”

“Ah,” Marcus nodded. “Truly, this would be the big Why. Your quest is to discover the source of the wobble.”

“Oh, no, my dearest love. That became very apparent almost at once. I asked the question and the universe laid the answer at my feet.”

“So what is your quest then?” Marchus asked, confused.

“The Why of it opened the door and let the dreaded genie out of the bottle,” she said, shaking her head ruefully.

“There is a genie? You did not tell me you had another demon at your beck and call,” Marchus said, sounding hurt.

“That was a joke, Marchus. There is no genie. Or perhaps there is. I am the genie.”

“You are no genie,” Marchus said fervently. “I have met many of these demons and they are all quite vile creatures.”

Azathrial leaned over and kissed Marchus on the tip of his nose.

“No, my sweet. I am me which means I am a very complicated thing. I cannot leave any puzzle unsolved nor can I leave a mess for others to clean up, when I am the only one who can perceive its nature. The Why revealed the What which revealed the How. Now I am doomed.”

“Doomed? Never. I will save you.”

“Can you save me from myself? The length and breadth of the flaw in creation has been laid at me feet, thus revealing the nature of my quest.”

“Surely you do not mean to fix creation?” Marchus said in dismay.

“Of course I do.”

“But that is impossible,” cried Marchus.

“Why?”

“Because … ” Marchus shook his head. “Because it just is. No one has ever done it.”

“Perhaps no one has ever tried,” Azathrial said reasonably.

Marchus stared at her, at a loss for words. When you said it like that, it almost sounded sane.

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white demon

White Demon

It took the witch Azathrial almost two weeks before the after effects of the magic faded and she remembered that pain was not a natural part of her nature. She spoke a Word and reignited the double helix of energy that normally raged in a bright white column in the center of her house, then she sucked that column into herself and let it burn off the last rag tag ends of the darkness that poisoned her flesh. When it was done with her, the light receded but not before she stole a little bit of it and set it permanently into the broken bones in her hands. She forced the fingers to uncurl, letting the light pull them straight. When it was done, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and looked around.

The house was a mess. She tottered into the kitchen and turned on the taps over the sink, pouring a healthy amount of soap in after. One could not perform magic properly if one’s kitchen was in disarray, her mother had always said. Azathrial knew from her own experience that this was true. Order outside promoted order inside.

She set the dishwasher to running and then tackled the cabinets and floor. Things had died in her refrigerator. She shoveled them into a plastic garbage bag and took it out to the dustbin in the alley. As she stepped back into the yard, something strange washed through her. She paused, preparing for another attack but the attack did not come. Instead the strange feeling … a disconcerting lightness that was not of her own making … bubbled up inside her and settled around her heart.

Azathrial phased in and out of reality, stepping out of time and back again, hoping to pull the thing with her into that moment at the beginning of time before Light and Dark had gone their separate ways. Ghosts, the Un-dead, and the lower Dark Demons usually could not resist the lure of so much power and were sucked off and destroyed. She returned and listened for its presence. When it did not reoccur she shrugged and returned to the house. She had a bathroom to clean. Her hands ached by the time she was done. The rest of the house would have to wait while she recharged.

She got a glass of iced tea and settled in her favorite chair, her feet propped up on the ottoman. The lightness around her heart returned. She scowled. The thing was back.

Azathrial looked down at her poor, abused hands. She lifted then away from her body and began to gather energy. When they were hot with power, she turned them palm outward and spoke another Word. Whatever was in her house was now locked outside the limits of the wards she had built around her property.

Later that afternoon, as she was vacuuming, the feeling returned. She stamped her foot in frustration and dropped the vacuum handle. Lifting her hand she traced a rune in the air and spoke the words of an incantation she had not used in a very long time.

“I say the words of unmaking …. ” she began.

Wait. That was not the spell she meant to use. This, this was an oldy but a goody. It was the first act of power she had ever performed, back when the world was a hot, dark mess and she was just beginning to remember who she was and what she was meant to become. The words continued to whisper out of her mouth almost of their own volition. She allowed it. If the magic thought it needful, who was she to argue?

The wave of un-making rolled away from her like ripples in a still pond, ripping apart her wards before they washed out over the city around her, erasing delusion and illusion and self denial as it passed. There would be hell to pay tomorrow. Certain humans could not long survive without the enveloping shield of their own delusions.

The feeling in her chest was still there. If anything, it had even gotten stronger.

Azathrial puzzled over it as she got another glass of tea and returned to her chair. Lifting her laptop off the end table she opened it and settled it across her thighs. An hour later, with a half dozen search programs running on as many sites she found an image that seemed to ring true with the feeling that would not leave her chest. Human fantasy art was a golden wellspring for those who wished to take the temperature of the spirit world. Artists were a vulnerable lot and their muses were not always benevolent spirits.

Azathrial closed everything but the last window, setting the image to full screen. She stared into the white eyes of the painting and listened, willing the thing in her house to take substance.

Something shifted beyond her screen. She looked up at the figure now standing in the middle of her living room. It had the same white eyes, the same colorless hair as the painting. There the similarity ended. This demon was too alien to be even remotely human but that did not make it any less beautiful. Azathrial closed her laptop and set it aside.

“Why are you here?” she asked the figure clothed in white light.

“You set me free,” it replied, bowing gracefully in her direction.

Azathrial cocked her head as if that might help her listen better and understand more. “Did I? If I did, it was not intentional.”

“Yes,” the demon nodded. “The rumors of your selfless sacrifice are legendary, Lady.”

Azathrial laughed, genuinely amused. “I am a self serving bitch. No not mistake my actions for anything grander than that. How did I set you free?”

“You faced the Broken One and refused to be moved. You consumed her insanity and offered her a vision of the future full of joy and love to replace it. You broke her magics and healed the wounds they caused. Many doors, long sealed, opened as a result.”

Azathrial shook her head, a small smile still lingering on her lips. “It was nothing so heroic as you make it seem. What I do, I do for myself and no one else.”

“The Broken Goddess has stood in the nexus of time consuming all the heroes who ever were sent against her yet you prevailed where everyone else failed. Is that not heroism?”

“Heroes,” Azathrial snorted in disdain. “Do you send warriors to heal a broken heart?”

The white demon smiled and drew near. “No. Apparently not.  It seems you must send a witch whose heart is big enough to love even the un-lovable.”

“She did not start out bad,” the witch said, looking sad of a sudden. “Deep down, she and I had a lot in common before the world sucked away her dreams and twisted her into something foul. You make too much of this.”

“Deep down,” the demon repeated, shaking its head in amazement. “Had you flinched away from her foul exterior, she would have surely destroyed you but you merely brushed it aside until you found the truth at the center of her being.”

“So? It is done. You are free.” Azathrial waved her hands in the air. “Shoo. Go on. Be about your business.”

The white demon curled his legs up underneath him and sat on the air, floating three feet above her living room rug.

“Why are you still here?” she asked in exasperation.

“You need my help.”

“Do I? As you just pointed out, I shifted the Broken Goddess, as you call her, out of the bloody awful mess that has this reality all tied up in knots. I didn’t have any help with that.”

“Every time you work your magic you become more powerful. Every time you become more powerful you attract enemies of equal power. It is an arms race of epic proportion. This time you stumbled, unaware and unprepared, into the trap set by the Broken Goddess,” the demon said softly as it drifted nearer. “It nearly killed you. Your light faded until it nearly flickered out.”

“I could not decide,” she said, staring off into the unseen distance. “The dying seemed easier than the living.”

The demon reached out, brushing an ebony curl from her face so that his finger might caress her porcelain smooth cheek for a moment. Azathrial shook herself out of her reverie and flinched away from his touch. The demon withdrew, bowing politely as he gave her her space.

“You were vulnerable to every random dark demon who came along,” he said. “I kept them at bay, hoping you would choose life.”

“Did you?” she said, looking at the demon with a renewed interest. “I suppose I should thank you for that.’

“You are welcome, I suppose,” nodded the demon, a smile playing at the corners of its strange mouth.

“This still does not explain why you are still here.”

“It occurred to me that your love is one way. The universe owes you a debt it has no way of repaying. I thought to right that in my own small way by paying at little bit on the account.”

“By what?” she asked, confused. “Hanging around and haunting my attic?”

“You need someone to love you back.”

“Oh, by all that is holy, I do not need anyone loving me. Please do not.” The witch held up a hand as if to ward off a blow.

It was the demon’s turn to cock his head, puzzled by her reaction. “Why do you fear my love?”

Azathrial rose to feet, anger in her eyes. “Love,” she spat at the demon, “It is a thing that winds its way into your brain, full of yearnings and expectations and plans for a future not of my own making until the weight of your need becomes unbearable and I am forced to kill your love so that I might have a moments peace. I will not play that game. Not with you. Not with anyone.”

The demon uncurled and retreated from her ire, holding out his hands in surrender, a deeply concerned look on his strange and alien face. “Truly, Lady, have I cause you pain in all this time? It was not intended.”

Azathrial paused, looking confused. “Well, no. I don’t … Was that you, the lightness in my chest?”

“Yes, Lady. Did it worry you, the weight of my love?”

Azathrial looked away, confused, muttering under her breath.

“Are you displeased with me, Lady?” the demon asked.

She pressed her hands to her eyes and shook her head.

“Lady?” the demon asked tentatively.

Azathrial sighed and looked up, an embarrassed flush high on her cheeks. “Forgive me. It did not hurt. It just worried me. I did not recognize the feeling and I thought it another attack hidden in clever subterfuge. It is a warrior’s doom, I think, to forever see the world as a battle ground.”

“You have never known pure love?” the demon asked in wonder, drifting near again. “I am the first?”

Azathrial blinked up into those oddly beautiful white eyes. “I am an old woman,” she protested. “So old I feel immortal sometimes. I contain the memories of every witch who has ever existed.”

The White Demon smiled, amused. “That is a lot of knowledge. It seems a great burden. So much can get lost in the clutter. Perhaps I am here to help you remember the things you have forgotten.”

Azathrial shook her head in wonder. It was not exactly what she had in mind when she had asked the magic to ease her loneliness but who was she to deny the magic its due?

“OK,” she said. “But don’t piss me off. I just might figure out how to get rid of you.”

“Never, Lady,” the demon said, nodding solemnly.

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Alien Overlords

Alien Overlord

The characters on Jarrod’s screen blurred and ran together. He bent his head and rubbed his lids with the tips of his fingers. The equation just wouldn’t come together in his head even though he was certain he was close to the final solution.

But he had been going at it for days. His back was killing him from being hunched over the screen hour after hour and his brain kept sliding off into nonsensical daydreams. Maybe lack of sleep was starting to make him hallucinate. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Schrodinger’s cat was meowing, begging to be let out of its box.

Admitting defeat, he folded his arms on his desk, rested his head on the makeshift pillow, and closed his eyes. Five minutes. That’s all he needed.

He was drooling. Damn. What time was it? He jerked upright and peered up at the clock. None of the numbers made sense and there was only one hand on its face. Jarrod squinted harder, trying to get his brain to work.

A movement out of the corner of his eye made him turn his head. A young girl sat across from him, a tattered, stuffed elephant clutched in the crook of her arm. There was something not quite right about that toy. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

The girl stared at him expectantly.

“What?” he asked, wiping his chin. “Don’t you have better things to do than stare at people while they sleep?”

“You almost have it,” she said.

“Almost have what? Hey wait a minute. How did you get into my lab? Is this some kind of joke?” He looked around. “It’s Harold in Security, isn’t it? Are you his kid? Where did he put the camera?”

“No one else can see me. Harold is asleep at his desk. But even if he weren’t he could not move to save you. We are in a place where time does not exist. The formula will make itself apparent to you once you realize you are asking the wrong question.”

“I am still asleep, aren’t I?”

“If it will make you feel any better, sure. You are dreaming this.” The girl smiled, rubbing her cheek against the toy. Was it trick of the light that the elephant squirmed, trying to evade that touch? Jarrod shook his head and tried to wake himself up. She was still sitting there after he pinched himself.

“What is the right question, then?” Jarrod asked, resigning himself to this mental hellscape.

“You think the solution you seek will lead you to time travel. Time travel is not possible. You must think of it more as if it were a dimensional shift. Schrodinger’s Cat, like all cats, cannot be contained by the walls of a box that exists in only one dimension because cats exist in all dimensions simultaneously and need merely turn the corner into the next place to escape. Not to be confused with light, which exists on its own personal plane in which it is sentient and self actualized but leaves a photon as a maker in this dimension as it travels the other. String theory explains that but it has nothing to do with time. Time is an illusion, an illusion that I will not allow you to destroy.”

Jarrod stared at her, perplexed. He knew this was a dream because everything she said was utter nonsense.

“Allow?” Jarrod snorted in disdain. “Who are you to dictate what I study?”

The little girl put the elephant down. It pushed against his desk with its little stuffed arms and, after a great deal of effort, rolled over. The wrongness was jarring. Jarrod pulled his eyes away from it and tried to focus on something else.

“After I collapse this moment of time, you will leave this place,” she said firmly, “and the thoughts and ideas that have led you down the path you are currently on, a path that will eventually lead to the destruction the universe, these thoughts will be gone. The dimensional shift equation I will give you to replace it is a gift meant to fix your mind elsewhere.”

“Time. You play with time and yet you will not allow me to study it?”

“You are not me nor is your energy even remotely expanded enough to understand me.” she said. “I do not play with time. I am time. All of time exists within me and I in it.”

“Neat trick that. So you are a sentient amalgam of all of all moments in time?”

She shook her head.

“I wish that my existence was that mindless.” she said. “No, I am the Keeper of the Keys to all Creation.”

“Wow. Cool title. How does one get to be you?”

“No one in their right mind would want to be me. I acquired my position through misadventure. Would that I could give it away but I cannot. Someone more powerful than I would have to take it from me and I have yet to grow any humans up to that level of sentience. But I am patient. Perhaps in another ten thousand years I can trick some hapless soul into challenging me so that I might lose and be set free.”

The toy elephant tried to crawl away from her. She put her hand out and caught one of its legs, stopping its escape.

Jarrod was starting to feel sorry for the little thing. He scowled at her.

“So this whole charade of giving me an equation for dimensional shifting is a ploy? You have an agenda that you wish to force upon me. You are not benevolent at all are you?”

She snorted. “Benevolence. Twenty five years of herding humans has wrung that sin from my heart. I will not let you destroy yourselves despite it being your species fervent wish. I must tell you that the drive for extinction is about the only thing you people do well.”

“Wait. What?” Jarrod said, suddenly hoping he did not wake up yet. This was getting way too interesting. “You’ve only been running the universe for a quarter century. Who was running it before that?”

“Hmmm,” she said, picking up the elephant and dangling it by one floppy ear. It tried to pry itself loose but its soft paws brushed ineffectually against her fingers. “There are so many layers to that answer. Should we count your alien overlords? We certainly cannot count the last Key Holder. She was a useless mess by the time I got around to saving her. More fool I, for she was a canny old bitch and not quite as helpless as she appeared.”

“You are a Time Lord,” Jarrod said, the light dawning in his head.

The girl threw her hands up in exasperation. “I don’t know why I even try.” she said to the stuffed elephant.

Jarrod continued. “If you are so bitter about the decisions you have made, why don’t you hop back in time and change them?”

“Yes, I could do that. In fact I have done that more times than I can count but I always come to the place where I have a choice. Do what I have always done or turn away. I find that I cannot do anything to change it. Their bait is just too enticing.”

“Bait? How does one go fishing for a Time Lord?” Jarrod asked.

“Simple, really. One baits the trap with the victim’s archenemy. The moment when I threw him down and imprisoned him is a moment that makes all other moments worth living over and over again, no matter the pain.” The little girl smiled a cold, hard smile.

Jarrod shivered, glad, suddenly, that she was not his enemy.

“You killed him?”

“Where would be the fun in that?” she said, tucking the squirming elephant back into the crook of her arm. “The universe would be made less by his passing. No. I would never kill him.” She looked down at the elephant. “As much as you would like me to, eh?”

“Oh, god,” breathed Jarrod. “The elephant is a Time Lord like you? You are a monster!”

“This?” she said, poking the elephant in its fat little tummy. “This is kind.” She held the elephant up before her. “Perhaps I should do to you what you did to me. Would you like that?”

The toy shook its head vigorously.

“No? I thought not.”

She placed him back where he belonged, tucked against her side. Looking up at Jerrod, she smiled a small, knowing smile. “Even though what he did to me changed me irrevocably, giving me the power to defeat him, he does not choose that route because he knows he would not survive it.”

“You did not die from it,” Jarrod pointed out.

“Oh, we are both immortal. We cannot die. He just would not be sane by the time the walls of his infinite box crumble to dust. ” She looked down at the elephant. “You cannot call it genocide if no one survives to tell the tale, is that not right?”

The elephant flinched and looked away.

Jarrod stared at the two creatures before him. They stank of tragedy and unspeakable pain. Thinking of cats in boxes, he did not have to ask what an infinite box was.

“Are you not sane?” Jarrod asked softly. “You seem normal enough,”

“That a human can say that to me is a testament to just how fractured I have become. If I were sane I would have wiped the surface of this planet clean and started over when I first had the chance. Instead I must follow you about like the mother of a two year old with a penchant for pyromania. Your species exhausts me. Even now, I appear to dozens of people on five different continents just so one of you will remember long enough to write the damned equations down. You will wake and think this a dream and shrug it off. You science types, always so literal.”

She rose to her feet, the elephant’s throat caught up in her small fist. “Do not disappoint me Jarrod. I would hate to have to come back and push harder. I tend to break things when I do that.”

Something shifted behind her eyes. Jarrod could not help himself. He looked. The universe shattered into a million pieces and fell, spiraling into an abyss full of stars. He started to scream as it sucked him down.

Jarrod jerked his head up out of the puddle of drool, a cold sweat on his face.

“Holy shit,” he breathed.

In the next moment he was scrabbling frantically through the detritus on his desk looking for a pen and a notepad. He needed to write it all down before the dream faded. The thought of twenty other people waking up and doing the same thing lent a certain urgency to his actions.

The equation was so pristinely simple and yet so clever in the way it meshed precisely with everything he knew to be true. He needed to be first off the mark with this. The world always remembered the winners. Nobody ever remembered the also-rans.

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