They keep calling me Belinda, I don’t know why. They’re all nice enough, the ones who come and bring my meals and keep the place tidy, so don’t make a fuss when they do. If I’m honest, I don’t always remember their names either.
Today they had white paper face masks on, which seems a bit rude if you ask me. I asked the morning one, do I smell or something? and she said, no, it’s the bolona virus, hadn’t I seen it on the news? My dear, I said, if you only knew how many times I’ve died of the plague! She laughed at me and said don’t you worry, you’re not dying of the plague, as if I didn’t know that. They sound patronizing at times but they do it to cover up how dense they are, some of these helpers.
The plague was long a-coming to our parish, I said, ignoring her remark, and when it did come, there was no parish in or about London where it raged with such violence. By the time the cart came for you to dump you in the pit, you were glad to be out of it, I tell you.
She gave me a funny look and reminded me to eat my toast.
11:11. If that’s not a good time to start a new journal, I don’t know what is. Four Ones.
It’s a good job I hid all my old journals before all those scavengers looted all my stuff. Downsizing they called it. De cluttering. As if a lifelong collection of mementos and treasures was clutter. No finesse, this lot, no imagination. Clean sweep, bare white, sanitary, efficient. God help us.
They didn’t get their hands on all of it though. I hid things. Don’t ask me where though! ha ha. They’ll turn up when they need to. At least some of it didn’t end up on the trash heap.
No room to swing a cat in here. No pets allowed. Inhuman, I tell you. They don’t know about the mouse I’ve been feeding. They call it sheltered accommodation, and it’s a downright lie, I tell you. I get the full brunt of the westerly wind right through that pokey window because they keep trimming the bushes flat outside. Flat topped bushes, I ask you. Those young gardener fellows cut the flower buds right off, just to get the flat top.
I’ll be hiding this journal, I don’t want any of them reading it. It won’t be easy, they snoop around everything with their incessant cleaning. They don’t even give the dust a chance to settle before they wipe, wipe, wipe with their rubber gloves and disposable cloths. I have to cover my nose with my hanky after they’ve been, stinking the place out with air fresheners that make me sneeze. Not what I call fresh air. Maybe that draught through the window isn’t so bad after all.
Anyway, I won’t be staying here, but they don’t know that. Just as soon as my hip stops playing up and I can make a run for it.
“This is the life, eh!” June said, stretching out on the sun lounger sipping a fruity cocktail. “Turquoise sea and a salty breeze, this is the life for me!” she said, kicking off her new deck shoes in nautical blue and white, and hitching her dress hem up to expose her thighs to the sun.
The skipper raised an eyebrow and smiled sardonically, while simultaneously averting his eyes from the unappetizing sight of the doughy flesh. He could imagine this one rolling around below decks looking green as soon as the weather changed.
“Sure beats that jail. That had me worried, I’ll admit it. I wasn’t sure we were ever gonna make it outta there,” replied April, smiling fondly at Ella Marie and giving her hand an affectionate squeeze. “You saved our bacon, honey.”
“If it weren’t for that there Lord Wrick turning up, even the money might not have got you out.” Arthur chimed in. “Promising ole president Lump that land for the golf course if’n he pardoned you. Jacqui, you done wonders there.”
“Ah well, the young Lord Wrick owed me a favour, you might say. But that’s another story,” Jacqui replied. “The main thing was we had to get out of the country fast before Lump finds out about that land in Scotland.”
June sniggered. “Can’t imagine him in a kilt, can you? I wonder if he’s orange down there as well.”
“Oh, please! You really know how to lower the tone, dontcha? Gawd, what a thought!” April started to feel queasy. Changing the subject, she said, “Hey, did I tell you our Joanie’s going to meet us in Australia too?”
I don’t know how I restrained myself from throttling Finly when she finally handed me the letter from Corrie. A whole week she’d had it, and wouldn’t share it until she’d cleaned every last window. Some peoples priorities, I ask you! The funny thing was that even when I had it in my hand I didn’t open it right away. Even with Mater and Bert breathing down my neck.
It was something to savour, the feeling of having an unopened letter in ones hand. Not that this looked like the letters we used to get years ago, all crisp and slim on white paper, addressed in fine blue ink. This was a bundle tied with a bit of wool pulled out of an old jumper by the look of it, all squiggly, holding together several layers of yellowed thin cardboard and written on with a beetroot colour dye and a makeshift brush by the look of it. The kind of thing that used to be considered natural and artistic, long ago, when such things were the fashion. I suppose the fashion now, in such places where fashion still exists, is for retro plastic. They said plastic litter wouldn’t decompose for hundreds of years, how wrong they were! I’d give my right arm now for a cupboard full of tupperware with lids. Or even without lids. Plastic bottles and shopping bags ~ when I think back to how we used to hate them, and they’re like gold now. Better than gold, nobody has any interest in gold nowadays, but people would sell their soul for a plastic bucket.
I waited until the sun was going down, and sat on the porch with the golden rays of the lowering sun slanting across the yard. I clasped the bundle to my heart and squinted into the sun and sighed with joyful anticipation.
“For the love of god, will you get on with it!” said Bert, rudely interrupting the moment.
Gently I pulled the faded red woolen string, and stopped for a moment, imaging the old cardigan that it might have been.
I didn’t have to look at Mater to know what the expression on her face was, but I wasn’t going to be rushed. The string fell into my lap and I turned the first piece of card over.
There was a washed out picture of a rooster on it and a big fancy K.
“Cornflakes!” I started to weep. “Look, cornflakes!”
“You always hated cornflakes,” Mater said, missing the point as usual. “You never liked packet cereal.”
The look I gave her was withering, although she didn’t seem to wither, not one bit.
“I used to like rice krispies,” Bert said.
By the time we’d finished discussing cereal, the sun had gone down and it was too dark to read the letter.
“Don’t you want to stay a little longer here?” Vincentius said to Arona after his bath in the hot springs of the Doline. Arona’s attention was caught by the dripping drops of water on the chiseled muscles, and took a while to answer.
She stretched lazily on the deck chair, slightly disturbing Mandrake who was napping by her side. He rolled on his side and resumed his nap.
“I don’t know, the place is nice enough. To speak true, it lacks a bit in decor and natural light; still… you wouldn’t find a nicer place to rest. Look at this white sandy beach… And to think that this pool connects to virtually anywhere, anywhen. Endless opportunities of explorations and travels are drawing you towards an adventure, don’t you think.”
“I think I only live to please you, just say the word, and I’ll follow you anywhere.”
“Aw, you’ve always been good at sweet-talking me. Don’t get me wrong, I like our occasional flings… for lack of a better word, but I like my independence. I have to keep exploring myself.”
Seeing a sadness fleeting in his eyes, she added “if only to meet you again and again.”prUneParticipant
That was a first. I had no idea what just happened. And believe me, this girl has seen some serious hanky-panky going ‘round here. Starting with Aunt Idle and her hustling and lascivious seducing of the Middle Eastern pirate cosplayer we had as guest.
But of course, that was nothing compared to how glamorous Mater looked in her red gabardine.
Anyway, something odd happened, like everyone was zapped in a torpor after the Fergus guy arrived. We were all expecting a sort of big reveal, and he did drop some incoherent clues, nothing truly worth the wait sorry to say, so we all went upstairs to sleep.
Blame it on the spiced lizard meat maybe, but I can’t figure what happened after that until I woke up. Everyone this morning was playing it by ear, as if everything was normal. But people are missing. Fergus and his motorbike, and the scarf girl with the young boy and their cat. Maybe others, I’ve lost count, and I’m done putting sticky notes for Idle (funny she insists being called that by the way… Maybe a side-effect of her medications).
There was an Italian corvette parked outside, all black & white. It arrived during the night, it woke me up when it arrived, but I went back to sleep I think. I wonder if those are new tourist guests. The Canadian guests were a bit in alarm, especially after the Fergus reveals.
Mater would tell me, “there is no cause for worry dear, mark my words, in an hour or less, it will all settle back down to the usual deadly boring as usual business.”
I think that planned family time was a bit too much anyway. Or too little. Devan hardly spent an hour with us, he’s too obsessed with his lost treasure conspiracies. He’ll be doing great with Dodo and her friends from the journal. I think they all enlisted Bert for a trip to the mines by the way. For all the good it’ll do everyone to try to unearth old secrets. Might give Mater a serious heart attack, for real this time.
As for me, I’ve had enough. I’m packing my bags and leaving with the first bus back to the Academy. There’s a mission to Mars to conquer.
When Albie woke up, it was shaking all around, as if the ground was quaking under him. It took him a moment to realize he was at the back of the jeep, and the jeep was careening on the dirt road, with none other than Mandrake at the wheel.
“I’m not sure you realized, but we’re being chased!”
The sound of a bullet flew by, missing the car window only thanks to an agile quarter turn of the wheel by Mandrake, followed by a sudden acceleration back onto the road.
“Who’s chasing us!!?” Albie was confused.
“Unclear!” Arona shouted, aiming at the black and white corvette behind them, with Ugo the gecko trying to keep stuck onto her head despite the shaking.
She fired three shots of her magical Owl Pellets, reloading after each one.
“We’re going to be short of ammo, Mandrake! How far?!”
“I DON’T KNOW” the cat meowed, braking to avoid running over a loitering marsupial.
“You have no idea how difficult it is to find a body of water in this place, do you?! We missed the turn to the waterhole about 30 miles ago, at this speed!”
“Better not to risk it, not enough water depth! We need the river.”
“Todd River should be around that cliff there,” he pointed. But the road ends… heEEere!!”
“GO FOR IT!”
** S PLASH **
The other car had braked just before the cliff, while the jeep was sinking slowly into the river which was carrying them near the shore.
All Albie could see next was the swirl of pouring light mixed into the water vortex.
He held his breath as tight as possible, for as… long… as… possible.
“Mmm, that was entertaining. But it ruined my dinner.”
The dragon was there, looking at the three of them drenched near its pool. They were back at the Doline.
There had been no communications from either Connie or Hilda for some time. Ricardo went down the usual route of worrying that something had happened to them, and then it occurred to him to try out the remote viewing he’d been practicing. It was too easy to rely solely on technological means, he reminded himself, AI (short for Abnormal Intrusions) or no AI.
Ricardo found himself in a moonlit sweeping landscape, with some dark indeterminate built structure shapes. Oh, very helpful, he snorted, and then reminded himself to simply observe. Then he saw the woman, dressed in gauzy floating white, and found himself sneering at how corny the image was, like a new age art poster woman, beautiful and ethereal in a moonlit scene.
Stranger still was the next thought to waft through his wandering mind. Maybe he inserted that corny woman to distract any remote viewing spies, and throw them off the scent? Suddenly there was a crash behind him. Another picture had fallen off the wall, he assumed. But nothing was out of place. He looked again, sure that something had fallen to the floor to make such a noise. But there was nothing to see. He shrugged.
Later, he wondered: what had made that noise?
Barbara’s office was dead silent apart from the regular bips of the machines. The whiteness of the painted walls made it feel like a psych ward. She shivered away the memories that were trying to catch her attention.
It’s been two hours since the Doctor had locked himself up in his rage-release room, a spacious soundproofed room with padded walls. Not even a small window to look inside and check if his anger had subsided. Barbara clearly preferred the trauma of the shouts and cries and the broken plates that were hidden here and there for him to use when he needed most. But when he started his therapy with the AI psych module, the damn bot suggested he built that room in order to release his rage in a more intimate framework.
Now the plates collected dust and the sessions in the room tended to last longer and longer.
Today’s burst of rage had been triggered by the unexpected gathering of the guests at the Inn. The Doctor was drinking his columbian cocoa, a blend of melted dark chocolate with cheddar cheese, when the old hag in that bloody gabardine started her speech. The camera hidden in the eye of the fish by their agent, gave them a fisheye view of the room. It was very practical and they could see everything. The AI engineer module could recreate a 3D view of the room and anticipate the moves of all the attendees.
When that girl with the fishnet handed out the keys for all to see and the other girl got the doll out, the Doctor had his attention hyper-focused. He wanted to see it all.
Except there had been a glitch and images of granola cookies superimposed on the items.
“Send the magpies to retrieve the items,” he said, nervousness making his voice louder.
“Ahem,” had answered Barbara.
“What?” The Doctor turned towards her. His eye twitched when he expected the worst, and it had been twitching fast.
She had been trying to hide the fact that the magpies had been distracted lately, as she had clearly been herself since she had found that goldminer game on facebush.
No need to delay the inevitable, she had thought. “The magpies are not in the immediate vicinity of the Inn.” In fact, just as their imprinting mother was busy digging digital gold during her work time, the magpies had found a new vein of gold while going to the Inn and Barbara had thought it could be a nice addition to her meager salary… to make ends meet at the end of the month.
It obviously wasn’t the right time to do so. And she was worried about the Doctor now.
To trump her anxiety, she was surfing the internet. Too guilty to play the gold miner, she was looking around for solutions to her boss’s stress. The variety and abundance of advertisement was deafening her eyes, and somewhere in a gold mine she was sure the magpies were going berserk too. She had to find a solution quickly.
Barbara hesitated to ask the AI. But there were obviously too many solutions to choose from. Her phone buzzed. It was her mother.
“I finally found the white jade masks. Bought one for you 2. It helps chase the mental stress away. You clearly need it.” Her mother had joined a picture of her wearing the mask on top of a beauty mask which gave her the look of a mummy. Her mother was too much into the woowoo stuffs and Barbara was about to send her a polite but firm no she didn’t want the mask. But the door of the rage-room opened and the Doctor went out. He had such a blissful look on his face. It was unnatural. Barbara had been suspecting the AI to brainwash the Doctor with subliminal messages during those therapy sessions. Maybe it also happened in the rage-room. The AI was using tech to control the Doctor. Barbara would use some other means to win him back.
OK. SEND IT TO ME QUICK. she sent to her mother.
The sense of being left behind had deflated Lucinda. Everyone off having adventures, and here she was left minding the dog. She liked the dog, but not the feeling of missing out on the excitement, and the clues she received were few and far between.
It was a particularly muggy day and not ideal for a long walk. She felt listless and heavy in the humid air. Before walking very far at all along the riverside promenade, she felt clammy and tired, and found a bench under a shady tree to sit on. Fabio cocked his head to one side and looked at her. Lucinda closed her eyes for a few moments, and started to admonish herself for her lack lustre and frankly boring state. “Buck up, for Pete’s sake!” she told herself, but was interrupted by Fabio’s frantic barking and pullling at the lead.
A man on stilts was coming towards them, wearing long shiny trousers in black and white vertical stripes. Lucinda started at him openly, somewhat shaken, but curious. She could have sworn she’d seen him in a dream the night before.
The peace shattering sound of a loud motor boat engine intruded into the scene, and when Lucinda looked back to the stilted man in stripes, he’d vanished. The sound of the outboard motor receded as the boat disappeared around a curve in the river; the waves it created splashing on the river banks long after it had disappeared.prUneParticipant
It all started to feel insanely crowded and agitated in the Inn, it took me a while to check whether I was tripping on some illegal substance.
Truth was, the funny chicken was doing alright until Finly and Idle came back in a hurry, tried to make me puke and feed me charcoals, as if I’d been poisoned or something.
I overheard Aunt Dodo when she shouted at poor Finly “why would you put my stash with the lizard leftovers! It’s me-di-cine you old cow, not some bloody herb seasoning!”
Finly looked indignant, but she knew better than to argue. Besides, I’m sure her face was speaking volumes, something in the tune of “with the bloody mess of your stuff all over the place, why do you think?” Sure, there was some other profanities hidden in the wrinkles of her sweet face, but she would leave that to Mater to spell them out.
Anyways, I just maybe feeling juuust a little funny, but with years of bush food regimen behind me, my liver is surely strong as an ox and pumping all the stuff out of my system like a workhorse.
So, yeah, I was maybe tripping a little. So many new people came in at the same time, it felt like a flashmob. They were probably real and not just hallucinations, since Dido dashed out to greet some of them.
I went upstairs and spied on them from there. I’m making also a list, mostly for Aunt Dodo, because if her heart is in the right place, her brain probably isn’t (or it’s a tight one).
So there, I wrote on a yellow sticky note:
Dido, if you're paying attention, here are the guests at this moment: - Not counting PRUNE, and DEVAN who just texted me he's coming!! - A jeep-full of loonies: A GIRL with red and white track pants and a hijjab, a black CAT and a GECKO (wait, you can forget about the gecko), a weirdo GUY in a fancy ruffle shirt and a little redhair BOY. TIKU is here too, helping FINLY in the kitchen. - Your old friend HILDA, and her colleague CONNIE - Two townfolks Canadian tourists who argue like an old couple, but I don't think they are, MAYV(?) and SANPELL(?) (sorry, couldn't catch their names with their funny accent)
I guess breakfast is going to be lively tomorrow…
Tak didn’t like school at first. It was only at the insistance of Glynis that he had to socialize that he tried to put some effort in it. He didn’t know what socializing meant, one of these strange concepts humans invented to explain the world, but if Glynis thought highly of this socializing, he had to give it a try, whatever it was.
Rather quickly, he’d managed to make friends. He didn’t realize it at first, but his new friends were all a bit desperate, and more or less called freeks or something. He wasn’t sure he deserved to be called a freek, but he was going to try hard at this too.
“You don’t have to try hard”, his new friend Nesy told him “I think you’re a natural at this.” Nesy’s name was really Nesingwarys which is really hard to pronounce, so she told him to call her Nesy. She had dark and white hair, shining like a magpie’s feather coat, and dark blue eyes that were both kind and ferocious at the same time.
“Don’t mind the others, they’re all ignorant peasants, or worse, ignorant spawns of the bourgeois elite.” She’d told him. Tak had opined silently, not wanting to show that he wasn’t sure about the meaning of all the shiny new words. He suspected Nesy to like shiny words like magpies were attracted to precious shiny stuff.
When she was staying at the cottage, Margoritt also liked to teach him shiny new words, but he would only taste them and forget — to him they were more like sweet food for his tongue than shiny stuff to keep.
When it came to stuff, Nesy had rather simple tastes. She showed him some little clay statues she’d made, and kept carefully wrapped in a small felt satchel. They had all sorts of funny faces, she was really talented. They reminded him of Gorrash, so it almost made him cry.
Tears were a magnet for nasty kids, so he knew better than to let them out, but Nesy had noticed, and squeezed his hand for comfort.
He liked the other freeks too. They seemed to understand him, and he didn’t have to use his hypnotic powers for that. Glynis had told him not to use his powers at school, otherwise he wouldn’t learn anything. Aunt Eleri had disagreed with that, but she disagreed with everyone.
“You should come visit at my home” he said to her spontaneously “I want to show you the baby snoots, now they’re almost grown up, but they look funny and pretty, especially when they eat Glynis’ potions.”
An unexpected shaman tart witch was looking and had spotted them coming from afar.
“Head Shaman Tart Witch, if you please.” She muttered in her breath, happy to break the fourth wall and all.
The sun was already high and the air was sizzling ready to burst out like buttered pop corn.
“A rather lame metaphor. You’ve done better.”
The Head Shtart Witch, as we will call her later for brevity’s sake, was as tart as a sour lemon dipped in vinegar, and prone to talking to spirits, when not cackling in tittering fits of laughter, as shamans are wont to do.
She was surprisingly in tune with the narrator’s voice this late in the day, considering it wasn’t her first bottle of… medicine she ingested today.
“Voices are rather quiet, yes. I was expecting a bit more… quantity if you know what I mean.”
The narrator had absolutely no idea of what she meant, not discontent with the quantity per se.
Three in quantity, they came, looking for her. A girl, visibly in charge, although a bit hard to tell either, buried into the baggy hood and all.
“The star-studded stockings under the striped red and white trousers were a bit of a give-away though… she was a she, and a bossy pants to boot.” the Head Schwtich replied.
“And don’t take advantage to maim my full name… Jeeze, they’re so lazy these days. Can’t even spell right.”
Ignoring the rude comments, the narrator continued.
Then, a man, a bit namby-pamby with the gait of a devil-may-care goat at that.
And a boy, on the threshold of manhood, with lots of red hair and freckles he could have put the bush on fire.
“You have forgotten the gecko… and the cat.”
The cat wasn’t forgotten of course, but was it technically a cat, with the talking and all? Poor thing had ill-fitted boots (probably a clearance sale from the Jiborium’s), so that it wouldn’t burn its pads on the red hot trail. It seemed stubborn enough to refuse being carried, although not confident enough about the surrounding life in the bush to stop checking every minute for all that crawled and crept around.
“That’s why they’re here. The protective charms. That, and the jeep of course.”
The Twitch seemed to know everything so the narrator felt it would probably best to let her finish the comment.
“Oh, don’t you start. That passive aggressive attitude isn’t going to get your story done, is it. And it’s not like I’m going to follow them in their dangerous and futile quest. It’s your job, better get to it.”
Indeed, she was only just a sour, old, decrepit…
“You stop that!”
Sanso yawned and stretched lazily “I hope they have a hot shower now, I feel so dirty.”
Arona chose to ignore Sanso and let him gesticulate. They’d only walked for less than 15 minutes, and the perspective of few more hours of driving with him breathing down her neck started to give her murderous thoughts.
She turned to the team. “Listen, whatever happens, don’t make rude remarks, even if she seems a bit… unhinged.”
“Are you talking about the crazy lady with the chameleon on her head, who talks to herself and looks like she hadn’t got a bath in a century?”
“That’s what I meant Sanso.” Arona rolled her eyes in a secret signature move she owned the secret of. “Listen, it would be better for everyone if you’d stay here and stop talking until we get the keys to the jeep, alright.”
Luckily for all of them, a little sage smudging and a bakchich in kind sealed the deal with the HEAD Shaman Tart Witch, and less than an hour later, with the mountain at their back, they were all barreling at breakneck speed down the lone road towards the Old Mine Town.
That’s where the Inn was, now starting to crawl with unexpected guests and long lost family members.
Distraction always worked best when one was trying hard not to try too hard, and luckily for Lucinda, it came easy. She was a natural. It wasn’t that she’d forgotten her mission to find out more about those mysterious dolls and the twelve addresses, but the Roman themed birthday party was today, and that gave her plenty to occupy herself.
The costume was easy, just a folded white sheet and a number of nappy pins. The birthday gift was another matter. She still hadn’t bought one, and had left herself no option but to buy something on the way to the party on the other side of the city. Counting the money left in her purse, she decided to travel by bus rather than taxi. She would have to change at the central bus station, which conveniently had a craft and antique market on in the nearby park. If she left home a couple of hours early, she could have a look around the market.
Not to look for dolls! she reminded herself, her mind already imagining unlikely scenes.
Checking the mirror one last time to make sure her toga was securely arranged, Lucinda left the flat and made her way to the bus stop on the other side of the park. She had debated whether to take her costume in a bag and change when she got there, and decided to just wear the toga. It was a diverse multicultural city, and there were often people dressed as if they were going to a fancy dress party, in biblical looking robes and scarves, or exotic coloured sari’s. If anyone wondered about her outfit, they’d probably just think she was from one of those foreign middle eastern places.
The mysterious thing was heavy, brown and looked a tad like a dry turd. It could hold in Shawn Paul’s hand and it seemed shaped to fit in his closed fist, but the young man hesitated to keep it too long because of the way it looked.
A note from his mother accompanied it. Who else could have sent a parcel this way? he thought, meaning not through the post office and delivered by a decrepit old man.
So the thing had been put on top of a pile of his latest scribblings, which was on top of his not so latest scribblings. Before putting it there, he almost saw the interest of a clean desktop or table, but it got lost in the immediacy of the moment and the tiredness caused by his recent fever.
“I’m sure you’re wondering what this marvellous object is.” the note started. Shawn Paul looked at the thing. It looked like a turd more than ever on all that white paper, so he made his yuck face. What he was wondering was rather why did she send me anything? She lives in an apartment on the upper floor. She could have brought it herself.
“I found it in a car boot sale,” she continued, her sharp and melodious voice chirping in her son’s head while he read the rest. “I met that old man, Patrick, who will deliver it to you. He’s a dear nice fellow never frugal with his words, and he told me it had been given to him by an Inuit shaman. It’s a fossil bone of the inner ear of a whale when they escaped Lemuria. Can you imagine that? Apparently it will help you develop your psychic abilities. You know how I’ve always known you had such a great potential in that area…”
Shawn Paul snorted and put down the paper. There was no use keeping up reading. His mother and her crazy ideas. He looked at the pile of papers.
It’ll do for a nice paperweight, he thought.
But Granola had not lost a crumble of what the mother had told in the rest of the note. She was lurking at the inner bone and she wondered if she could make herself heard if she merged with it.
The City of the Seven Hills wasn’t a pleasant city by many aspects, but at any time of the year, it was a sight to behold.
Margoritt was walking with force into the streets, a warm shawl wrapped around her head like she’d seen the nomads do in the deserts, equipped with odd dark specs she’d made herself ages ago with twisted copper wires and cut bottle bottoms blackened over the smoke of dead branches from the Ancient Forest when she’d started to stay there for her escapades over the years. She liked how the narrowed down vision from the dark specs made the reflection of the sun over the tall white buildings less blinding.
It was the time of year where the first colds started to take the land by surprise, and it was more enjoyable to stay in the City rather than in her lodge. She was glad to let her little company of friends remain there, so she had the blacksmith make a few duplicates of the key. It was merely a symbolic gesture, after all, the front door’s lock had never worked.
“It’s going to be the Sprites’ Summer, what a shame…” she liked to talk, but in the City, people didn’t pay much attention to each others, so she could speak to herself, and nobody would care. Sprites’ Summer was that blessed time when the Forest started to change colours and pare itself in gold before the biting colds would strip the trees down to their bare branches and bark. She loved the Forest this time of the year, but she had to come back with Mr Minn when he’d come to check on her. Her knees were painful, and she needed some needle work done on them. Only in the City could you find the best needlepractors.
The light in the apartment darkened and Lucida glanced up from her book and noticed the gathering clouds visible through the glass doors that opened onto her balcony. Frowning, she reached for her phone to check tomorrows weather forecast. The weekly outdoor market was one of the highlights of her week. With a sigh of relief she noted that there was no expectation of rain. Clouds perhaps, which wasn’t a bad thing. It wouldn’t be too hot, and the glare of the sun wouldn’t make it difficult to see all the the things laid out to entice a potential buyer on trestle tables and blankets.
Lucinda had made a list ~ the usual things, like fruit and vegetables from the farms outside the city; perhaps she’d find a second hand cake tin to try out the new recipe, and some white sheets for the costumes for the Roman themed party she’d been invited to, maybe some more books. But what excited her most was the chance of finding something unexpected, or something unusual. And more often than not, she did.
She added birthday present to the list, not having any idea what that might be. Lucinda found choosing gifts extraordinarily difficult, and had tried all manner of tactics to change her irrational angst about the whole thing. One Christmas she’d tried just picking one shop and choosing as many random things as people on her gift list. In fact that had worked as well as any other method, but still felt unsettling and unsatisfactory. The next year she informed everyone that she wouldn’t be buying presents at all, and asked friends and family to reciprocate likewise. Some had and some hadn’t, resulting in yet more confusion. Was she to be grateful for the gifts, despite the lack of her own reciprocation? Or peeved that they had ignored her wishes?
Birthdays were different though. A personal individual celebration was not the same thing as Christmas with all it’s stifling traditions and expectations. It would be churlish to refuse to buy a birthday gift. And so birthday gift remained on the shopping list, as it had been last week, and the week before.
A birthday gift had already been purchased the previous week. Lucinda glanced up at the top shelf of the bookcase where the doll sat, languidly looking down at her. She felt a pang of emotion, as she did each time she looked at that doll. She loved the doll and wanted to keep it for herself, that was one thing. That was one of the things that always happened when she chose a gift that she liked herself: she talked herself into keeping it; that it was her taste and not the recipients. That it would be obvious that she’d chosen it because SHE liked it, not keeping the other person in mind.
But that wasn’t the only thing confounding her this time. The doll wanted to stay with her, she was sure of it. It wasn’t just her wanting to keep the doll. It wasn’t any old doll, either. That was the other thing. It seemed very clear that it was one of Maeve’s dolls. It had to be, she was sure of it.
When she got home with her purchases the week before, her intention had been to go and show Maeve what she’d found. Then something stopped her: what if it made her sad that one of her creations had been discarded, put up for sale at a market along with old cake tins and second hand sheets? No, she couldn’t possibly risk it, and luckily Maeve didn’t know the birthday girl who was the doll was intended for, so she’d never know.
But then Lucinda realized she had to keep the strange gaunt doll with the grey dreadlocks and patchwork dress. She couldn’t possibly give her away.
I hope I don’t find another doll at the market tomorrow, and have to keep that as well! thought Lucinda, and immediately felt goosebumps rise as an errant breeze ruffled the dolls dreadlocks.
While doing circles and cooling down at the bottom of the Doline’s pool, Leörmn in his white sea dragon form felt a rush in the probability streams, and pockets of dimensions long closed slowly re-opening.
A flash of green light flashed at his side and a cloud of shimmery yellow energy enveloped him in a white blur. He couldn’t seem to control the energy, and it moved erratically as he came, like a breeze. He stumbled into the middle of a wall that jutted from the floor to the ceiling and slammed into the wall with a thud. The wall cracked.
It was dark beyond a dozen feet at the most, and it wasn’t like the other telepaths either. He stood still for a moment, staring at the wall, wondering if he could get in there at all. Then she said, “That would take more than twice as long as walking.”
The telepath looked at her, eyes wide and mouth agape. For the instant before the wall snapped, she was alive, alive, but she was a shell. He had been able to see, and if she had been in any way injured or hurt, he wouldn’t really have had an advantage. The wall snapped and she came to. It was nearly pitch black, and nothing seemed real to her. She opened her eyes and there was the same bright bright green and blue as the one of teal was now.
The world seemed different, a distant place. She wondered how she would react the instant he found out. But she decided it would be best to give him time to adjust on her own. She reached for him and held the soft green gem. When she looked at him he stared back, blue eyes wide with surprise. How long had he been awake? How long had he been asleep? She wondered why he hadn’t opened for her yet. She reached into her pocket and pulled up his watch. A long minute passed, when suddenly the light came back on in front of her, and she realized she was sleeping. Then, suddenly! He was waking up again, and even more excited than usual, he started to run about her. He kept running, never looking back. He got so nervous that he almost lost himself. His eyes were twitching violently, and she was glad that no one was close enough to wake him, since he knew she wouldn’t want him to fall asleep for anyone, or anyone else. She put up her foot and started to sprint after him, but as she was running in that dark, pitch black, direction, the sky turned white and she stopped at a light.
In the white silence of the mountains, Rukshan was on his knees on a yakult wool rug pouring blue sand from a small pouch on a tricky part of the mandala that looked like a small person lifting his arms upwards. Rukshan was just in the right state of mind, peaceful and intensely focused, in the moment.
It was more instinct than intellect that guided his hands, and when he felt inside him something click, he stopped pouring the sand. He didn’t take the time to check if it was right, he trusted his guts.
He held the pouch to his right and said: “White”. Olliver took the pouch of blue and replaced it with another. Rukshan resumed pouring and white sand flew in a thin stream on the next part of the mandala.
After a few hours of the same routine, only broken by the occasional refreshments and drinks that Olliver brought him, the mandala was finished and Rukshan stood up to look at the result. He moved his shoulders to help relieve the tensions accumulated during the hard day of labor. He felt like an old man. His throat was dry with thirst but his eyes gleamed with joy at the result of hours of hard concentration.
“It’s beautiful,” said Olliver with awe in his voice.
“It is, isn’t it?” said Rukshan. He accepted a cup of warm and steaming yakult tea that Olliver handed him and looked at the boy. It was the first time that Olliver had spoken during the whole process.
“Thanks, Olli,” said Rukshan, “you’ve been very helpful the whole time. I’m a little bit ashamed to have taken your whole time like that and make you stand in the cold without rest.”
“Oh! Don’t worry,” said the boy, “I enjoyed watching you. Maybe one day you can teach me how to do this.”
Rukshan looked thoughtfully at the boy. The mandala drew its power from the fae’s nature. There could certainly be no danger in showing the technique to the boy. It could be a nice piece of art.
“Sure!” he said. “Once we are back. I promise to show you.”
A smile bloomed on Olliver’s face.
In the white silence of the mountain, Lhamom sat on a thick rug of yakult wool in front of a makeshift fireplace. She had finished packing their belongings, which were now securely loaded on the hellishcarpet, and decided it was cooking time. For that she had enrolled the young lad, Olliver, to keep her company instead of running around and disturbing Rukshan. The poor man… the poor manfae, Lhamom corrected, had such a difficult task that he needed all his concentration and peace of mind.
Lhamom stirred the content of the cauldron in a slow and regular motion. She smiled because she was also proud of her idea of a screen made of yakult wool and bamboo poles, cut from the haunted bamboo forest. It was as much to protect from the wind as it was for the fae’s privacy and peace of mind.
“It smells good,” said Olliver, looking with hungry eyes at what Lhamom was doing.
“I know,” she said with pride. “It’s a specialty I learned during the ice trek.”
“Can you teach me?” ask Olliver.
“Yes, sure.” She winked. “You need a special blend of spiced roots, and use pootatoes and crabbage. The secret is to make them melt in yakult salted butter for ten minutes before adding the meat and a bucket of fresh snow.”
They continued to cook and talk far all the afternoon, and when dusk came Lhamom heard Rukshan talk behind his screen. He must have finished the mandala, she thought. She smiled at Olliver, and she felt very pleased that she had kept the boy out of the manfae’s way.
Fox listened to the white silence of the mountain during that brief moment, just after the dogs had made it clear, despite all the promises of food, that they would not help the two-leggeds with their plan.
Fox sighed. For an instant, all felt still and quiet, all was perfectly where it ought to be.
The instant was brief, quickly interrupted by a first growl, joined by a second and a third, and soon the entire pack of mountain dogs walked, all teeth out, towards a surrounded Fox. He looked around. There was no escape route. He had no escape plan. His stomach reminded him that instant that he was still sick. He looked at the mad eyes of the dogs. They hadn’t even left the bones from the meat he gave them earlier. He gulped in an attempt to remove the lump of anguish stuck in his throat. There would be no trace of him left either. Just maybe some red on the snow.
He suddenly felt full of resolve and camped himself on his four legs; he would not go without a fight. His only regret was that he couldn’t help his friends go home.
We’ll meet in another life, he thought. Feeling wolfish he howled in defiance to the dogs.
They had stopped and were looking uncertain of what to do next. Fox couldn’t believe he had impressed them.
“Come,” said a voice behind him. Fox turned surprised. On the pile of his clothes stood Olliver.
“How did you,” he yelped before remembering the boy could not understand him.
“Hurry! I can teleport us back to the camp,” said the boy with his arms opened.
Without a second thought Fox jumped in Olliver’s arms and the next thing he knew was that they were back at the camp. But something was off. Fox could see Rukshan busy making his mandala and Olliver was helping him with the sand. Then he could see Lhamom cooking with the help of another Olliver.
Fox thought it might be some case of post teleportation confusion. He looked at the Olliver who helped him escape an imminent death, the fox head slightly tilted on the side, the question obvious in its eyes.
“Please don’t tell them,” said Olliver, his eyes pleading. “It just happened. I felt a little forgotten and wanted so much to be useful.”
Fox turned back into a human, too surprised to feel the bite of the cold air.
“Oh! Your clothes,” said Olliver before he disappeared. Fox didn’t have time to clear his mind before the boy was back with the clothes.
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