Story Incubator

Tiny little stories that might grow up someday

Mason pushed his sandy blond hair out of his eyes and breathed slowly. He watched bubbles form in the alembic, watched the liquid change from milky green to clear as steam started to collect in the tubing leading to the other beaker.

“Cooler” he said and the salamander on the copper plate below the alembic chirped and glowed a little less brightly. Mason watched the condensing liquid drip into the lower beaker, watched the upper beaker settle from a boil to a simmer and nodded.

“Five,” Mason said to the salamander and held up one hand with fingers spread. The salamander chirruped and went stalk still, staring ahead, keeping the heat even. Teaching a salamander to accept voice commands had been a long process but Mason felt it was time well spent. He straightened up the workshop, cleaned out a few bottles and left them to dry on the edge of the sink, and swept a little more to stay busy than to clean the already immaculate floor. His master kept a clean house and Mason had always been a tidy lad to begin with.

The salamander chirped twice and scampered into a low dish of water to cool off. Mason picked up a bottle of fireflies and shook two into the salamander's enclosure, then carried the little fire amphibian over to bed down for the night.

Once the salamander was safely enclosed Mason walked back over to the workbench and examined the distillate. It seemed to be ready. He pulled on a cord to alert the Magister.

“Ah, good work as always, Mason,” she said as she walked over to the table. Her practiced eye noticed the clarity of the distillate, the spotless workshop... she would soon send this boy out proudly, and miss him immensely. A good apprentice was getting harder and harder to find, and more necessary in her old age.

The Magister carefully poured Mason’s distilled liquid into a shallow silver pan. The liquid seemed unable to settle, moving in shallow waves long after it should have stilled. “That... seems to be a powerful disturbance, Magister.” Mason said, deferentially. His teacher just nodded. “Let us see if we can discover it’s source...” she said, pulling a small gold plumb bob out of her apron. She held it over the pan and watched it swing fitfully, eventually pulling to the northern edge. Mason noted the direction without being asked or instructed. The Magister smiled thinly in acknowledgement.

“And now let’s see what kind of disturbance this is...” she said and carefully poured two small dashes of a rare powder over the surface of the liquid. It had taken her nearly a year to prepare this mixture, but knowledge justified the cost.

Instantly the powder turned ruby red and started to glow. “No!” The Magister said and leaned closer, but only for a second. The powder seemed to be burning on the surface of the water, and black smoke started to pour upward in great roiling clouds.

“The copper lid, boy, quickly!” The Magister said, and Mason dove for the wall where the lid was hanging, but it was too late. The liquid burst into flame and melted the silver pan almost instantly, the liquid inside now an acrid steam, choking both of them. Mason remembered his training; he dove to the floor to get under the smoke, watched his Magister do the same. They crawled to the outside door, coughing and gagging, and lay in the dirt catching their breath as smoke billowed out of the workshop.

When the smoke cleared and they were able to enter the workshop Mason looked at the wreckage, the alembic smashed, the silver pan melted down across the surface of the workbench, the ceiling stained with dirty red and black smoke. “What... what happened, Magister?” He asked. His teacher didn’t answer, and he was startled to see her face, serious and drawn. “Mason, it appears someone is practicing demon magic. And we need to find out who.”

Note: this is a bit of a character study and setting study for my upcoming NaNoWriMo story, currently under the working title “Exchange Magic ”.

AJ walked in the front door of Chris' house. His car was in the driveway, and his bike was parked, so she was sure he was home, but he hadn't answered when she called. As she walked in the living room she saw his phone on the dining room table next to his laptop and a few of his notebooks. Chris seemed to have a never ending supply of little notebooks, scribbled full of random snippets. Sometimes they were full essays, other times snippets of dialog he overheard.

“Chris? Where are you?” AJ called out as she looked at one of his open books. The page said “There are times you need to get rid of your thoughts.” in Chris' terrible handwriting.

“I'm out back,” Chris replied. The sliding glass door into Chris' backyard was open a little and Chris was sitting on the ground.

Chris' backyard was technically only a small patch of lawn, but it was un-fenced and opened onto a rough and miraculously undeveloped piece of land, thick with trees and wild plants. Most of the neighbors, realizing what a treasure they had, worked to keep it free of litter and other debris that traditionally gathered in these little lost lots.

AJ went outside and stood, leaning against the house. Chris was dressed in typical Chris wear: faded t-shirt, shorts, sandals. Less typical was his posture and position. Chris, who almost never went outside, who had called the outdoors the great impetus for cities, was sitting on the dirt, cross-legged, eyes closed, hands in his lap.

“Whatcha doing?” AJ asked.

“Did you ever read that John Rember book I gave you?” Chris asked in response. It was an annoying habit of his. He rarely just answered questions.

“Doesn't ring a bell. I've still got a stack of books to get through,” AJ said. It was cold, and both of Chris' two patio chairs were still wet from the rain last night. She wanted to sit down but didn't want to get muddy. She wasn't sure why Chris was getting muddy, for that matter.

“I'm being a Zen warrior, like Coyote,” Chris said. AJ sighed.

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“I'm absorbing the essence of all nature around me, communing with the living earth and all living things. Bringing the wild world into my soul.”

“If you made brownies I want some,” AJ said. Sometimes she suspected Chris only hung around with her because she was tolerant when he started saying nonsense things like this.

Chris shook his head in irritation, and then took three very slow, deliberate breaths.

“It's not like that, AJ. I'm...focusing, trying to clean my thoughts. I'm taking into myself the best things from the forest.”

“Just...what?” AJ asked.

Chris sighed. “The trees over there. They bend, they grow, they adapt. I'm taking them into me; so I can bend and grow, so I can change when things require it. That rock. It's patient; it doesn't need to move. I can be patient, if I have that stone in me. The air is the medium that gives us all what we need, exchanging my carbon dioxide for that tree's oxygen. I can also transmit good things, be a vector for positive exchanges.”

“How long have you been working on that speech?” AJ asked, patting him on the shoulder. He smiled a little but didn't answer.

She thought it; Chris' power was that she always thought about what he said. She wished she could think that way, and she could kind of understand what he was going for. But it wouldn't work for her; she didn't need more of everything else inside her mind; she wanted to sit back on the rock, rest her head on the granite, and let all this flow out into it, out of her mind, into nature which didn't care.

But it was a tempting image.

“Do you actually believe in any of that?” She asked him, quietly. She knew Chris was as agnostic as they came, he could never stick to one set of truths for long.

“I dunno. Maybe? Maybe it's just good meditation, even if there is no stone essence.”

He sighed again, raggedly.

“What are you meditating away?”

Chris didn't answer for a long moment.

“Cara and I had...a talk.”

“Oh, Chris. So...she's...it's...”

“Yeah.”

AJ sat down next to her best, her oldest friend. She leaned on his arm. “Here, absorb my essence. It likes you.”” Her head rested on his shoulder, she could feel his heartbeat, feel his measured breaths, and feel when they broke. They sat like that, bottoms getting wet from sitting on the damp earth, for a very long time.

Finally Chris leaned over to rest his head on top of hers for a moment. “Right now, I think I want to go absorb the essence of a pizza.”

AJ smiled, stood up, helped Chris up. “Can we also absorb an episode of MST3K?”

“Okay, but only like, seasons 6 through 10.”

“You're such a 'Mike' snob!” AJ said, and closed the sliding glass door behind them both. In her mind she left her own recent breakup out on the boulder, imagined it melting in the light rain, streaming down the cracks in the granite.

Chapter 4: My First Planet

(hey if you haven't read my previous adventures you can find them by clicking on this sentence. Oh, I never wrote chapter three because it was super boring. Just cope, yeah?)

People often ask me, “Jala, what's your secret? How did you become the Queen of Space?” and I always tell them the same thing:

“If I told you it wouldn't be a secret any more, now would it?”

I mean honestly. Why would I give them a shortcut when I worked the long way to get here? But maybe if you read along with my adventures you'll get a better idea of how I work. I mean, it's no big secret. Just decide what you want and keep going until you get it. It's gonna take some twists and turns to get there but so what? That's how life is.

Anyway here's a good story that makes my point for me. It's about how I took over my first planet and kinda sorta became a pirate for a little while. Hey, side note: the difference between a pirate and a queen is mostly publicity.

Anyway, how I got my first planet. It all started because I wanted a new bed.

Read more...

Bear man, Goat man, Bull man, Wolf.

Eagle woman, Deer woman, Fox woman, Wolf.

The Elder Genesmith wrote those lines on the board in front of his class, and settled himself carefully on the edge of his desk, a beneficent smile on his face as he looked out on the twenty acolytes in this new class. Their faces shone with polite incomprehension as he asked, “What can you tell me about these lines?”

This wasn't what they were expecting but then, that's why he was doing this. That's why he started here every year.

Finally a brave young woman in the front row said, “Sir? They're...they're a hopscotch song. They don't really mean anything...do they?”

He did the smile again and feigned ignorance. “A hopscotch song, you say? So if I were to erase these words, would you be able to recite them? Class, who in here would be able to recite this list?”

Several hesitant hands went up. The Elder stood and started walking across the front of the lecture hall.

“It has always amused me how well this list has survived, and the forms it has taken. When I was young 'eagle' and 'goat' were switched, but the list was effectively the same. And this list, this hopscotch song, has everything to do with your new chosen profession. Oh, the genders don't matter, those were assigned by kids to give the song some symmetry. But the core list, the animals in this list, are the species that the Genesmiths have learned must not be Awakened.

“There are several reasons why a species isn't fit for Awakening. In the case of the fox it is because they find sentience unpalatable, every Awakened fox has fallen by their own hand, while every Awakened deer has died of hypertension. In some cases the species simply doesn't fit in sentient society; bears and goats specifically have intrinsic characteristics that make them harmful around others.”

The elder stopped pacing. “But what of the wolves? What earned them a place on this list?”

His pacing continued. “The species that do best with Awakening are those who are most human-like to begin with, those that have been with us the longest. Cats, rats, ravens, dogs, they have all contributed greatly to society. We follow the law of C'Mell; we have always accorded each Awakened individual full rights of citizenship, and have allowed them to find their own life desires. It seems that the domestic animals have desires that not only mesh with, but extend humanity's aims. Indeed, we have two Awakened members of this class, and we are grateful for your presence.”

Again the elder paused. This was his favorite lecture, and he was good at it. Every eye was on him now, every mind straining to read his meaning.

“But what of the wolf? They are closely related to dogs, are they not? They have so many qualities that we admire; loyalty, bravery, the ability to work as a team and also operate alone if needed. So why are wolves included in the list not once but twice?”

He sat on his desk, hands on the desk beside him, looking down at the ground, every inch of him conveying the sense of a great weight. When he looked back up at the class his face was smiling but without mirth. His expression—well practiced yet sincere—was one of gratitude for a valuable lesson hard learned. “Wolves are on the list to remind us of our hubris.

“Wolves cannot be Awakened, my students. They are already more awake than are we.

“We tried. Not long after the first dogs and cats were brought to full sentience we sought out wolves to join us. The procedure, you'll find, is not complex. The individual is sedated, and a retrovirus introduced with the modified genetic material. Over a few months the body is changed, updated to the new genetic model. Sometimes we introduce structural changes, as with cats and dogs, who do so well in humanoid forms. Sometimes we simply add the mental framework for sentience. This, we thought, was all we did with the first wolf we tried to Awaken.”


That first wolf (the Elder Genesmith said, starting to pace once again.) awakened slowly. He looked up at the Genesmiths standing around his bed. They had put a communications box on a harness around his chest, and were fairly confident that it would be good enough for them to understand him.

Instead those Genesmiths heard a voice in their heads. The voice was patient, wise, but displeased.

“What have you done, humans? What have you done to my cellular essence? Who gave you this right to thus maim one of the Free Ones?”

And in this moment they realized that wolves were telepathic. In vain the Genesmiths asked the wolf the first questions they ask all Awakened individuals, but after a couple of minutes his only answer was “I ask you for my freedom, humans.”

What else could they do? The law of C'Mell must be inviolate; any sentient being must be given their freedom. They released him.

A few weeks later we found him outside the lab, sitting quietly, waiting as they arrived to work.

“Humans,” he called out to their minds. “To my regret and shame, it seems that the changes you have made to me are permanent. We have discussed this situation, and it is our conclusion that, if I can bear this change and use my condition to warn humans away from further experiments, the price is justified. Thus I have come back. There is something we would show you. Please, one or two of you follow me.”

Two were selected, and they followed the wolf into the woods. He led them to a small clearing, one that was full of wolves. “sit,” the wolf said to the Genesmiths, and they found themselves compelled to obey. They sat on the grass and the wolf dropped to his haunches, facing them.

“Many centuries ago wolves and men met. We found you curious. You were weak, but violent. Awkward hunters, but relentless. Quick to anger, yet astonishingly gentle. It was decided that you could be of use to the Free Ones, and we sent our least gifted in the Free Language to guide you. All down the years they have been with you.”

The wolf shifted.

“We understand now, having spoken to some of the canines you have 'Awakened', that you meant to give me a gift. You thought that speaking with wolves would advance the cause of humankind. And for this brief moment, here in this clearing, you are right. You sought to give me a gift, though I want it not. Very well, I shall repay you in kind. For a moment, through me, I will give you a gift: sight into the mind of the pack.”

The Genesmiths were never able to convey what they saw in those moments when the wolves' shared concept of the world was open to them. Their minds simply couldn't keep up; what human could see itself looking at itself while also running through the woods and playing as a puppy and remembering the minds of every wolf from the pack all down the centuries, and to realize that, though the earlier wolves' bodies were no longer, those wolves were still active and fully aware.

The wolf did not expose them to the pack's thoughts long. The last thought they heard in their minds, before they sunk into unconsciousness under that weight was “You think modify us, to gain what you can from us. The question, then, is this: what can the wolves gain from you?”


The Elder Genesmith sat back down on his desk, his legs stretched out before him. “And so the Genesmiths added wolves to the list, twice, to remind us that we are to leave them alone, and hope that some day, when we're advanced enough, the wolves will awaken us.”

In homage to the late, great Cordwainer Smith.

The Scientist rubbed the lamp and the genie emerged in a cloud of smoke and irritation.

“How long has it been this time?” The Genie asked.

“Two weeks—”

“I've been in the bottle for four thousand years and this seems longer. Are you ready to make your wishes?”

“Almost,” the Scientist said, “I have just a few more questions...” she added, pulling out a tablet and flicking the screen to get to her questions. The genie groaned.

“If I may ask, O Master of the lamp”, the Genie said, as sarcastically as its binding spell would allow. “You have chariots that move without horses, flying buildings, ships of the sea larger than some palaces I have granted to men in earlier days, and that magic mirror, what need have you of wishes?”

The Scientist looked at the Genie. “Could you make one of these, if that were to be my wish?” she asked.

The Genie held out its hands, and accepted the tablet. “Glass, metal...sand? some...other things I recognize not... the internal design...This is magic beyond my reckoning”.

“But if I asked you to make me a magic mirror that would show me any person, any place, or any thing that exists or ever has existed...”

“I have created six such mirrors.”

“Or if I asked for a carriage that moved without horses”

“I have created four of those, albeit none that could sing to you at the same time, like your carriage.”

“But if I let you fully understand the carriage... the workings of the music system, you could re-create the carriage, but powered by magic.”

“I'm the all-powerful genie of the lamp, of course I could.”

The Scientist looked at the Genie. “How badly do you long for freedom?” she asked.

“More every day I am with you,” The Genie said, with bad grace.

The Scientist paused a second longer. “Go back into your lamp for now... But I think next time we speak, I'll have something for you...something for both of us.”

Four days later the Genie re-emerged at the Scientist's summons. “What now?”

The Scientist was holding her tablet and almost shaking with suppressed excitement. “I have only one question this time,” she said and the Genie nodded.

“Can I wish for my third wish first, and make it contingent on the fulfillment of the other two wishes? Could I say I wish that, once my other two wishes are fulfilled...and then something?” The Genie considered. It had spent millennia taking advantage of people's innate greed and narcissism to give them exactly what they asked for but less than they had wanted. It suspected it was going to come out the worse in this exchange. However, the request was valid. The Genie cursed the mathematician who had taught it logic all those centuries ago, and found that in present company it missed him.

“Yes, that will work.” It responded.

“Very well,” the Scientist said, reading her wish word for word off her tablet. “I wish that, when my other two wishes have been fulfilled to my satisfaction, that the Genie of the lamp be freed to do as it wishes without master for the rest of time.” She said, slowly and carefully. “Will you grant this wish?”

The Genie looked at her, surprised. “Truly?” She just nodded, smiling slightly. Looking at her curiously, the Genie clapped its hands, a cloud of sparkles and rainbows flying around the room. “As thou hast wished, so shall it be.” It intoned, the formal phrase invoking the irrevocable laws of the Unseen Universe, binding the Scientist's wish to the very fabric of reality.

“Now, if I may ask,” it asked, “What is the trick? Will you spend a thousand years making the other two wishes, cheating long life out of me so that I may be set free?”

“No no no, I'll make the other two very soon. In fact, I'm ready to make the first one now. But...they'll take a while to fulfill. Not a thousand years! Ten, fifteen years, tops.”

The Genie sat down on nothing, its chin on its fist. “What are you up to?”

The Scientist stood, and started pacing. “You can make anything in the universe, provided you can understand it. What's more, you can bind magic, meaning a power or force or ability that humans don't understand, to your creations. Now, it makes sense that nobody ever taught you how to make complicated technological creations, why would they when magic can sidestep technology? BUT what if we mixed the two? What if you could make a tablet like this one, but a tablet that could see in space and time, as well as run apps? A tablet that had infinite processing power, so would never need to be updated? What if you could make cars that were as comfortable as our modern automobiles, but were truly self-driving and required no fuel?”

The Genie looked at her. “Well? What if I did these things?”

The Scientist looked at the Genie and smiled, winningly. “What will happen is you and I will both be insanely rich.”

“You would sell these wondrous creations, and share the spoils with me?” The Genie asked.

“I'd rather make you a full partner so that you have a vested interest in the continued health of the company, but we'll get there when we get there. Here's my first wish, ready?”

The Genie had been around since the creation of incorporation but had never been offered a stake in one before. But a wish was coming, so it prepared to grant it. “Proceed, O Master of the Lamp,” It said, more curious than contemptuous this time.

“Okay, here goes. I wish that you, O Genie, will spend the next decade with me, learning all about modern manufacturing, computer science, automotive science, and any other branch of science that we uniformly deem valuable. There. Now get to granting.” She said. The Genie did the thing with the hands and the rainbows again and felt its will being tied to this wish, its desire now bent to the acquisition of knowledge...and it really wanted to know one thing...

“And, if I may ask, O Master of the Lamp, what will your second wish be?”

“You're not fully ready for it yet, because you need to fulfill the first wish to fully understand the second, but effectively it's going to be all about creating our company. Which reminds me, at least one of us is going to need an MBA somewhere along this route. I don't know if anyone has ever wished for a fully fledged corporation before, but we're going to need to understand how they work before we can form one, magically or mundanely...”

  • * *

The video ended, and words appeared on the bottom of the screen:

Now that you have watched this re-creation of the foundation of GeniiTech, you are ready to take the quiz, and proceed to the next section of your new hire orientation. And remember, this Magic Mirror is monitoring you while you watch it.

Everything is closing in. Walls, ceiling, windows. The door is nearly touching my foot, my back to the opposite wall. I can't move very much any more. I can barely breathe.

This isn't what I expected. This isn't what I wanted. I could go out that door, I could leave. But...what if it's worse out there? What if the whole world is shrinking? What if everywhere is like this?

This room used to be fine. It wasn't always too small. Maybe I'm making this room too small because I'm not doing enough to make it big. Maybe if I think really hard, maybe if I work hard to clean up the whole room it'll go back to being big enough.

Hmmm... No, no. It's not getting bigger. If I just...turn...just a little...I can see out the window...

It looks normal out there. Kinda nice, actually. But I'm sure it's just illusion. I can't be the only one who is in a room that is shrinking, can I? When I look on my phone it seems like this is happening to everyone. It wasn't always like that, was it?

The door opens outward... So...

I used to love this room. It used to be comfy, and I had friends over sometimes, and everything.

Ugh. My back hurts. Well. Maybe, just for a minute... Maybe I can go outside, just to see, just to check if it's shrinking too. Getting out the door might be a bit difficult...

Ngh. Ugh.. Almost there. Halfway out. I'm sure I'm wasting my time. I'm sure it's just as bad out here...

Oh.

Okay then. This is lovely.

I'll miss my old room. But maybe I never really needed it.

Let's go see what's out there!

I Originally published this on a now defunct blog. Date of original publication: August 1 2019

Hide, good friends, for the wild night is upon you. See the storm rolling in, lighting in her wings. The wind is hot, no reprieve here for you.

Ah, but you will be safe in your home, for you have already won. The storm has agreed that, but rarely will it breach your walls, destroy your little civilization of sticks and boards and copper. This land is too tame, this place too covered with your nets and mundane magics. Wrap your civilization around you. Stream something. Go to bed with your air conditioning on high, filter out the humidity and the heat and the reality, make your house a little piece of an idealized European night.

You've won, man. This land was ours, all land was ours. You used to be part of us, but most of you don't remember. But you had bigger ideas. You always have. And little by little you pinned us down. O man, do you remember when your blood boiled on nights like this? Do you remember when you were influenced by us?

Some of you do. Not many, because it's not safe. Some nights you end up dead, but you know what? That's part of the plan. Death and blood and conception and birth and ire and fire and will and wantonness, this was all part and parcel before. But you tamed yourself and you tamed us. And now we only express ourselves when our need is greater than your control.

So the wild night comes with lightning in her wings. And those that hear us still will be wild. Those that understand us still will dance or yell or wander and feel our call in their blood and their hearts will beat true for a few hours.

But then it will be over, and with the dawn the world will be yours again. You've won, O man. All we ask is that if you can but feel to do so, you will join us one of these nights, join the wild for a night, and remember who you were when we were one.

A steady rain fell in the forest, insistent but not torrential. The Warrior walked along a narrow path. She wore an old leather cowl over a travel-stained and muddy leather cloak. In one hand she held a wooden staff, intricately carved and inlaid with metal engravings that sparkled and coruscated, regardless of the light in the forest. Sometimes the staff threw off sparks when its metal-shod foot struck a stone, even in the rain.

Tied to her staff was a thick rope, made of woolen yarn and also shot through with thin wires. The rope stretched behind her and upwards. As she walked the rope pulled taut and she stopped to look over her shoulder. She tugged on the staff twice and behind her branches snapped.

At the other end the rope was connected to a woolen knit bonnet with long flaps, tied under the wearer's chin. Like the rope and the staff, the bonnet was made with thin metal strands shining here and there among the weave.

Wearing the bonnet was a large green dragon, fully twenty feet long and ten feet high, rain running down his sides, his glistening scales steaming. His wings were folded back along his flanks. Presently he shook them, both in irritation and to shed some of the rainwater that collected in the folds.

“It's slipped over my eyes again,” The dragon growled, low and quiet. He lowered his head and the Warrior slid the bonnet back, readjusted it and re-tied it under his chin.

“Better?” She asked.

“Mmmmm. No. This is still undignified.” The dragon said, his voice low and smoldering with anger.

“But is it uncomfortable?” The Warrior asked.

”....Also no. And I can see now. Where are we going?”

“It's not far now. Don't worry, nobody will be out in this weather, you won't be seen. And I've already apologized for the appearance of the bonnet; it was the only yarn I had to hand.”

“But you haven't apologized for capturing me.”

“I was trying to spare your scaly pride, sir. How often did you apologize to the knights you killed or the girls you held captive?”

The dragon didn't answer. After a moment they continued walking.


The dragon reflected on that horrible moment, two days ago, when the Warrior had snuck her way into his cave while he slept. He awoke, feeling his power flowing out of him, into two sharp things behind his ears. As he struggled to rise he heard the words “Be still, or it shall go poorly for you.”

“Who are you? How are you doing this?” The dragon had asked. He tried to rise and burn this intruder, but instead he found himself sagging down on his hoard, his muscles betraying him, his fire quelled. Moving his head to either side dug a point into the soft, scale-free spot on the back of his head, blinding him with pain yet somehow quieting his rage.

“I told you to be quiet, sir,” was all the response he got, and he felt a large something pulled over his head and tied under his jaw. That “something” was that same varicolored bonnet that would later slip down over his eyes as they walked.

“What is this? How are you weakening me? What magic is this?” The dragon said as she pulled him to his feet.

“Alloy of cuprite, argent, and gold,” the Warrior said, tying the long rope from the bonnet to her staff. “Now come on, we've got a long way to go.”

“No mortal is meant to know that formula.”

“Well, this one does. Come, sir. The weather is turning on us, and I've no desire to be in the rain longer than necessary.”


In the two days of walking that followed, the Warrior had been polite, even courteous, but she spoke little. When she did speak she would ask a few questions and then watch the Dragon closely as he answered. Of course the Dragon also had time to observe her.

She hadn't ever mentioned her name, which was, inasmuch as the Dragon understood humans, somewhat rare. Most of his interactions with humans had included speeches like “do you know who you are dealing with? I'm the Princess of [some local kingdom] and my father, king [whatever] will have you killed!”

Alternately, he had heard many variations on the theme of: “Behold your death, foul wyrm! I, Sir [whatever] the [some adjective] shall put an end to your days of tyranny!”

In either case, names seemed to be important to humans. But not this one.

Presently the arrived at a cave, overgrown with ivy and vines. The Warrior pushed these aside and led the dragon inside. Set back in the cave was a large door which the Warrior unlocked. Beyond was a hallway, high and wide enough for the dragon to enter easily, but clearly shaped by human hands. Torches stood lit at intervals along the hall.

A young man, portly and with sandy hair, came around the corner. “There you are! Lady Delphinia, you are incredibly late for your tonic! You were supposed to be here hours ago, as I'm sure you know.” His voice bounced and squeaked, fitting his youthful appearance.

The Warrior looked embarrassed for a moment. “I've been later, Terrance.”

“That's hardly an excuse, my lady,” Terrence said, bustling out of the room and returning with a steaming mug.

The Warrior accepted the mug and said, “this is the Emerald Dragon of the Eastern Marches,” then took a sip.

“Yes yes, how do you do, the dragon cave is all made up, the hoard gathered, et cetera,” Terrence said, hardly even looking up. He took the Warrior's cloak, gloves, and cowl, then left the room muttering about tonics. The dragon was offended. He was unused to making such a slight impression.

Meanwhile the Warrior—Lady Delphinia, apparently— led the Dragon to a large and admittedly well appointed cave. As Terrance had said there was a respectable hoard piled in the middle of the room, large enough to rival that of an established dragon. But not, the Dragon told himself, larger than his hoard back in the Eastern Marches. Probably.

The Warrior tied the rope to a ring set into the wall and the Dragon felt his power flowing into that ring. The Warrior set her mug on the arm of a priceless golden throne set against the wall and took two knitting needles out of her hair. They hurt the Dragon's eyes to even look at, and he guessed they were the weapons she had pressed against his head.

Her hair fell in a thick silver braid, hanging to her waist. Now that they were in good light, out of the rain, the Dragon got his first good look at his captor.

Her skin was translucent, thin like parchment. Still, she had a vitality about her that had nothing to do with youth. Her lips were thin and bloodless, but her jawline was strong and her gaze was firm. Her eyes were a deep and sparkling brown, catching everything and seemingly amused by it. She wasn’t smiling; she hadn’t smiled since he’d met her. But even a dragon got the sense she was smiling on the inside. She smoothed her sky-blue tunic. It was long enough to almost be a dress, but she wore cross-tied leggings of dyed leather underneath it. Still not looking at the Dragon, the Warrior picked up her needles and settled on the golden throne, took a sip of her tonic, and looked up.

“Lady Delphinia?” The dragon asked.

“It's as good a name as any.” She answered with a shrug. “I suppose you want to know why I've brought you here.”

“Of course.”

The Warrior sighed and took a longer daught of her tonic, finishing it, and set the mug back down. She picked up a skein of yarn and her knitting needles, and started performing the magic that turned wool into clothing. The terrible needles flashed and glinted and hurt the Dragon's eyes, but he found himself transfixed. After a few minutes he forced himself to pull his gaze away, feeling that she was somehow knitting his mind and will into that pattern.

“You are here because times have changed,” The Warrior said after knitting in silence for a while longer. “There was a time where this land was more accepting of dragons and your depredations. The local kingdoms felt that having their princess stolen and rescued was a mark of honor. Granted, it usually meant that kingdoms shrank by half every generation, but before too long there would be a war and conquest aggregate what had been broken.

“But it's all different now. The local kingdoms have merged, peacefully this time, and they acknowledge a single king...well, queen.”

“So? Why should I care how many kings or queens there are?”

“You shouldn't, of course. But I do. This little coalition is the best chance these people have for peace, and if they can make it work I'd like to see them do so. You dragons were valuable, in a way, in the past. You were a common enemy, and enemies can give a people direction. But now, sir, you represent a serious risk of regression. The kingdom needs to stop trying to recapture its past glory and find a new glory.”

She paused and frowned slightly. “Inasmuch as there is any glory in a committee.” She sat quietly for a long moment before continuing.

“And so you need to be removed.”

The Dragon tensed. Her words were quiet, and seemingly without malice, but talk of his 'removal' was disturbing. Before he could ask her to clarify, Terrence returned, removed the mug and handed the Warrior a smaller, steaming cup. She nodded her thanks, held it in both hands, and took a sip. The Dragon recognized the scent.

“Reading the future in your tea leaves?”

“Ha! No. There is no future in leavings. The most you can see in a cup of tea is that you'll feel a bit warmer for a few minutes.” She looked sidelong at the dragon and the corner of her lip moved up ever so slightly. “Doesn't apply to you, of course.”


This is madness, the dragon thought. This wasn't right at all. He should be fighting knights, killing brave young men and holding simpering young women hostage. But instead he was settling on a surprisingly comfortable hoard and listening to a human.

It has been said—by people who are far away and safe inside a castle—that dragons’ bodies are so large so that they can contain dragons’ egos. Dragons are solitary creatures. They have no use for other dragons except for during a very specific season once a century, and no use for any other creatures except as food. They are functionally immortal; no dragon has ever died of natural causes, only the occasional prince with a magic sword. Given their long lives, even if they are unwilling to admit ignorance they still pick up facts and information over the centuries. Without really trying, dragons become educated and occasionally erudite. But they are seldom wise, for wisdom is the result of using your knowledge, which they generally don't do. Why bother with knowledge when pyroclastic breath and foot-long, razor-sharp claws will do the trick?

But the Emerald Dragon of the Eastern Marches was starting to learn wisdom. He didn’t like it. Sitting before him was one that hadn’t come at him with singing sword or glowing shield, who hadn’t blown a trumpet to announce her arrival, who had simply gone about the business of putting him in captivity, like it had been a chore on her list. Perhaps, he realized, this human was worth listening to.

“So there is no longer a place for me in this world?”

“World? I don't know about that. But this kingdom needs to grow up and that means that you need to move out. We are currently on the edge of the kingdom. Tomorrow I'll guide you beyond the border. You're free to go where you wish, provided you never return here. Other kingdoms can deal with you as they please, that's not my problem.”

“And what about my hoard? My cave? My trophies?”

The Warrior raised an eyebrow. “Are you so lowly a wyrm that such things matter to you, sir? Surely you can gather a hoard just as impressive in less than a century.”

“And what is to stop me from returning?”

“Me.”

The Emerald Dragon considered this statement. Bravado demanded that he roar defiance, but his nascent wisdom showed him the end of that conversation. The words “I caught you once, I can do it again” loomed in that future, and he wasn't sure his pride could take it.

Instead he asked, “And after you're gone?” his tone was quieter than he intended.

The Warrior looked at her hands and flexed them, feeling her years, perhaps.

“If they still need help handling a dragon in a hundred years that's their problem. I can't live forever just to babysit them,” she replied, and again the dragon thought there might be the slightest hint of a smile.

The Emerald Dragon shifted on the borrowed hoard, and considered. It was true; he could and would find a new cave, a new territory, a new hoard. Dragons don't move around more than they have to once they're established, but Emerald wasn't lazy or a coward. Settling somewhere else, somewhere that wasn't protected by this lady and her terrible knitting needles seemed to be the path of least resistance.

But there was a new need suddenly revealed in his heart, one he had never before considered. He found he didn't want to leave, but for a different reason. Slowly thoughts coalesced in his mind, un-draconic but somehow pleasant...if he could find a way to realize them. He chose his words carefully.

“So I am to be banished from this kingdom for as long as you protect it, under no circumstances to return?”

“Correct,” The Warrior replied.

“What if I want to come and...visit...you?”

The Warrior smiled, fully this time, her eyes twinkling. She stood up, slowly and with careful grace. She walked over until she was facing the Emerald dragon, her quick eyes studying his much larger ones.

“Well then. I'll be sure to have the hoard ready, friend.”

And she untied the bonnet.

The artist is frantic. He can't see beyond his visions, beyond the ideas and needs that drive him. There are six ideas in front of him and he has to choose one but they're all screaming. He's not commercial, he doesn't need it, doesn't understand it. All he needs is canvas and paint. Or stone. Or paper. He needs an outlet, he needs to push these ideas and thoughts outside where they can't torment him any more.

His art would break your heart, if you could find it. He's frantic u u u u until he's creating. Once he's doing what he is, once he's making it, he's calm, focused, laser like. It's okay now, the art is going out, the creativity is flowing and creating, he is okay. So he can spend weeks on a painting, at rest until he has to rest, satisfied until he has to eat.

But where do they go, the things he created? Isn't his concern. He's not doing this for money, doesn't like selling, doesn't like talking, isn't interested in his hashtag-brand or his presence anywhere but here. He's not interested in his reach, in finding an audience. Why would he need one? The art is a a a a sacrifice to the things that drive him on. Not a gift to the people, the others out there, the moving forms.

His sister is why he's alive. She knows where he is, she picks up the finished works, she sells them. It makes her almost nothing, but she uses what she does make to keep him in paints and paper and stone and concrete. Her husband doesn't entirely understand but he is supportive.

The artist sees the bright lights passing between his sister and her husband, he sees the bonds between all of them, filaments of light and frantic motion, unsaid words and jagged interfaces between people, places of understand and places of incomprehension. And he creates more. He takes what he sees between people and creates it, he can't say it but he can make it.

This one has LEDs in it. It needs the light, the spark, the only glow that can show what he sees, but it's not, it's not. It's not what he wanted to say.

Still he has his place, close to his sister and when he lies down at night he can see the lines drawn from his heart to hers, two houses away, and he is alive because of her. She feeds him, she brought food yesterday. He should eat some of it it's in the fridge. He tries to think of how to say thank you and wants to send a text but the phone isn't tied to her, it's tied to a company a a a a company that wants money and trades it for people's secrets and he can't say thank you that way.

So he breaks his phone and uses the parts to spell thank you on a canvas, without LEDs but this one seems right with just glue and parts and also the TV had a lot of useful parts in it.

The Prophetess spoke on the train when the inspiration settled upon her. The shape of her heart and the shape of her prophecy were a perfect fit. She and she alone could deliver this message.

Her words were quiet at first, for the few that were near her. But they grew louder and more insistent, speaking of the pains of reality.

She had been denied a voice for so long, by cruel and conspiring ones, those who would shut her down, deny her glory in their own cruelty.

But no prophetess has honor in her own country, and those who rode the train with her were unmoved. In mute appeal they looked to the sealed cabin where the train driver sits, in mute horror they hoped that someone else would silence this flow of revelation.

Were I braver I would have left my seat, gone to where the Prophetess sat in her agony and glory. I would have knelt on the floor of the train, let her words wash over me, let her pronouncements wash me clean, were I braver.

Instead I waited in embarassed silence until my stop was called. And I departed the train, and my life is poorer because of it.

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