Walk Briskly (Short Story)

Well, it’s the last day of the month, and as promised I have had one story a day for the past eight days. The last story here is the newest one in terms of when it was conceived and written (if not when it was published), and one that’s both highly personal and important to me.

As you read, please remember the point of this exercise. I’ve been writing for a long time. I’d like to keep writing for a long time. But to write, I have to live, and to live I have to be able to eat and pay for pills and meet other expenses, and to that, I need your support on Patreon. I will be posting one new short story per month to my Patreon starting in June, so if you like what you read here, that’s the best way to get more.


By Alexandra Erin

The funeral home is very old, old enough that it still has an old-style chapel. That’s where we’re holding what is still called the viewing.

The podium on which sits the now-traditional portfolio album is situated in the middle of a recessed nook that was obviously designed to hold something a bit larger than a person in repose, and which now holds something a bit smaller than the average end table.

I’m being a bit clinical about it all partly because I wish to remain detached from the scene, and partly because I am detached, whether I want to be or not.

The jungle of flowers flanking the photo display do nothing to disguise how small it is. They swallow it up.

From a certain angle, it looks like my mother’s unnaturally youthful face is peering at me from out of a monstrous hybrid rose bush. It is not a pleasant or comfortable idea, all things considered.

I turn away. It’s not easy to detach myself from that image.

My grandmother isn’t any happier with the state of things. She handled the arrangements. She picked the funeral home. It apparently has some history that I don’t remember with her side of our family.

I wonder how many times has she been here, before? How many times after? How long would it take a person to get used to a change of that magnitude? I don’t know. The world I live in is the only one I’ve ever known.

My uncles have been trying to keep my grandmother calm for a good twenty minutes. Their results have varied.

“But I just wish I had another chance to see her,” she is saying when I tune in. “Would that really be so much?”

“Ma, the law’s the law,” my Uncle Mike says.

“It wouldn’t be her anyway,” Uncle Jeff says. “You know a body’s just a body. Anyway, is that how you want to remember her? The pictures are better.”

“The pictures are pictures!” Grandmother yells. “She’s my only daughter!”

“Geez, quiet down, Ma,” Mike says. “People are gonna…”

“People know she’s grieving,” Jeff says. “That’s what this is. Grief. It’s okay. Ma, you know it would break her heart if she knew you took that kind of risk. You know how careful she was all the time.”

“You mean she was afraid all the time,” Mike says. “And she wasn’t happy if everyone else wasn’t.”

That’s when I turn away.

* * * * * * * * * *


This is what she’d yell whenever I was heading out the door. It didn’t matter where in the house she was, or whether I’d told her I was going out. She’d sense the front door opening, zip to the nearest doorway to the front hall, and yell out the reminder.

“I know,” I’d call back over my shoulder.

“Don’t run!”


I did know. Everybody knew. Just like, sometimes, everybody ran, because no matter how brave we all acted around the schoolyard, we still got scared a bit at a rustling in the ditches or saw something staring eyelessly out of a hedge.

There was no need to run. None of them could. Most of them could barely walk. But at the same time, there was no real reason not to run. The point was to get away, right? Running was safer than walking. As for the risks…

“That’s how you trip,” my mother would say.

“But I’m still faster even if I trip,” I said back to her, once. “If they’re not close enough to grab me when I start running, they’re not going to be any closer when I fall!”

“The one you know about won’t be,” she said. “They hunt in packs, remember?”

“Mother!” I said. “There haven’t been packs for years!”

“There are occasional packs still,” she said. “It doesn’t even have to be a pack. It could just be two of them, the one you see and the one you don’t. Anyway, it really only takes one. What if you trip and twist your ankle? What if you break your leg?”

“I’ll still drag myself faster than it can,” I said.

“Oh? Have you ever had a broken leg? Remember when you broke your finger? You almost blacked out.”

“I could still trip if I’m walking.”

“But it’s all about odds,” she said. “It’s all about risk. When you’re running, you can’t keep your eyes on the ground. You don’t have as much time to react when something comes up. You can’t stop yourself if your foot snags on something. And what happens if you wind up running right into a dead end?”

“We don’t live in a labyrinth,” I said. It was a new word to me at that point, and I was very proud of it. Probably a bit too proud, or else I wouldn’t have dared to say that, as sure of myself as I was.

I don’t remember exactly what my mother said in response to that. I do remember I was less proud of my vocabulary afterwards.

I never argued with her about that again. I still didn’t think she was right about running. If it was about odds, then who was to say that it wasn’t riskier to spend more time in the area? If there might be more than one, then wouldn’t it be better to get out of there before they could surround me?

But even if I didn’t think running was as dangerous as she made it out to be, I recognized that there was a different kind of danger in pushing her too far.

In all honesty, the danger posed by the amblers was distant and abstract compared to the danger posed by pressing my mother’s buttons. I had no experience with being dragged down by an ambulatory corpse, but I had been grounded.

Anyway, the debate about running had only been a side point in an older, longer-running argument about the way to deal with things like amblers in the first place.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Hey there, Safety Tip,” my cousin Brian says.

“I’ve asked you not to call me that,” I say.

“Ah, hell,” he says. “I’ve been calling you that for years. Everybody in school did! What else am I supposed to call you?”

“My name. Anything else. Just don’t call me that today.”

“What’s so special about today?”

I stare at him. I know he’s making fun of me, but I can’t tell if this is part of the tease or not. I don’t know which would be crueler.

“My mother is dead,” I say. It’s all I can do to get the words out. I expect them to come tumbling from my mouth in a rising roar, but when I hear my voice, it is tiny, thin, and piercing. I want my words to push him away, but I can see on his face he doesn’t even feel it.

I turn and walk briskly away.

* * * * * * * * * *

My mother always did love her safety tips.

Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t go in the water for a half hour after eating. Stop, drop, and roll if you catch on fire. Stop, look, and listen when you get to the train tracks.

Her favorite, of course, was the famous WALK.

Every time she shouted “walk” to me as I was heading out the door, I knew she didn’t just mean “walk” but “WALK”. I knew this because for the longest time, she would give me the whole spiel before letting me go out alone:

Walk briskly, stay Alert, keep your eyes Low, and Know the area.

That’s what you did if you encountered an ambler. That’s what you were supposed to do, anyway. Don’t approach. Don’t engage. Don’t stop and watch it stumble around towards you. Don’t laugh at it, no matter how helpless and harmless it looks. Don’t stop and take a picture of it. Definitely don’t try to get a picture with it.

Almost everyone else in my class had a picture of themselves with an ambler in the background. Polaroids, mostly, because they didn’t have to be developed. The kids who had actual film photographs were the coolest kids with the coolest parents, the ones who would let them have everything and let them do anything.

Justin Peterson was one of those kids. He had a picture with his arm around one, though it was dead. I mean, it had been rendered inert again. He’d shot it between the eyes and then propped it up for a picture, which his dad took.

He’d been a hero to the whole school, once.

For a while, everyone had wanted to be him.

* * * * * * * * * *

“I’m told your mother died peacefully,” a blonde woman wearing a red pillbox hat with a veil of netting on it tells me. “And that she passed without incident.”

“Yeah,” I say.

I’ve been told that, too.

Everybody keeps telling me that. They clasp my hand in theirs, give me firm, unblinking eye contact, and tell me the news that I had been given long before them: my mother’s body went into the crematorium peacefully and still.

Why do they tell you this? Why do they think you need to know? Dead is dead, even now, or at least gone is gone. My mother is every bit as gone as if something had tried to beat and claw its way out of the box.

Anyway, what do they tell the people whose loved ones did turn unexpectedly? If it’s supposed to bring peace to know that it didn’t happen, what do they tell the family when it does happen? Nothing?

Then I know, with a certainty: they passed without incident. Like an angel. Like a sleeping angel.

Of course they do.

“What a blessing!” the pillbox lady says.

“Yeah,” I agree.

“I had nightmares about my Albert, before he went into the fire,” she continues. My eyes dart around the room looking for an escape, but I know I’ll find none. I came to this corner to escape. It seemed like the last safe place for me to stand. “They tell me that they can’t feel anything, that it’s not really them anymore, but what if they’re wrong? What if they’re wrong? They still don’t know why it happens, and I mean, people used to think cows don’t feel anything. We don’t really know anything, do we?”

“No, we don’t,” I agree.

* * * * * * * * * *

The first thing I asked for when my mother said I was old enough to go out by myself was a sword. Sherry Morgan had one that she said was Japanese. Her grandfather had brought it back from the war, she said, and now it was hers. Everybody thought it was the coolest.

I liked it because I thought its curved, single-edged blade would impress my mother. What could be safer than that?

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “What good is a sword for?”

“Sherry says it can cut right through bone and everything,” I said.

“What sounds safe about that?” she said.

“Mom, it’s not even sharp like a razor,” I said. “You have to, you know, swing it. Hard.”

“Then it’s not going to do you much good at your age, is it?” she said. “Anyway, you don’t have any reason to cut one up. All that’s good for is getting seven kinds of yuck on you, and it doesn’t even stop them.”

“I could cut off its arms and legs and then go for the head,” I said. “Sherry Morgan says she’s killed lots of them.”

“You don’t kill an ambler, sweetie,” my mother said. “They aren’t alive.”

“They’re kind of alive?” I said. “Mr. Grossman says they’re undead.”

“That is superstition,” she said. “They’re just… a thing that happens. Like a storm, or an avalanche, or a sickness. And speaking of sickness, the last thing you want to do is smack into them with a sword. Who knows what germs you’ll splatter yourself with?”

“Mom, you can’t catch it,” I said.

“That’s what they say, but no one knows what causes it,” she said. “And even if you can’t, you can catch other things. A rotting body is a perfect incubator for disease.”

“I’d be careful!” I said.

“Showing off with a sword is the opposite of careful,” she said. “I’ll get you something you can use to keep them off of you and get away. That’s the goal. Just get away.”

When she told me she’d get me a pike instead, I hadn’t known what she meant. Looking it up in the school library, I’d found pictures of wicked looking medieval weapons that looked like a spear had a baby with an axe. It wasn’t a shotgun. It wasn’t a handgun. It wasn’t a chainsaw. It wasn’t a sword. It wasn’t any of the things that I’d ever wished for, but I didn’t care. That just meant no one I knew had anything like it.

It meant that for once, I was going to be the cool kid.

When she actually brought it home, I was horrified. It was nothing like the pictures from the book. It reminded me of a whaler’s harpoon, or at least what I imagined one would look like, only the end of it wasn’t pointed or hooked at all. It was just a broad, flat metal thing, kind of like a boat oar. The patented safety tip, the package had called it.

My mother had loved her safety tips.

“If the goal’s to get away, why not just get me a sword?” I said. “At least then I could run away!”

I knew the words were a mistake as soon as I’d said them, but it was too late to take them back and I didn’t have the speed or eloquence needed to explain that I’d meant it in the sense of retreating, sensibly, at a safe speed.

“Don’t. You. Dare.”

I think I knew then and there that my fate was sealed, that I’d be stuck with the pike forever.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said.

“You don’t run from them. If you see them, you walk away from them. Walk briskly. The pike is only when one gets in your way, when one lurches around a corner or sneaks up on you.”

“How are they going to sneak up on me? Everyone says they barely know we’re here anymore. You practically have to step on one to get bitten.”

“Those are the old ones,” she said. “New ones pop up all the time, and they’re still a bit quicker, and they have better senses.”

“They still can’t exactly sneak,” I protested. “They’re not smart like that.”

“No, but they’re very quiet and they’re very patient,” she said. “Anyway, if you’re so sure they can’t get close, then why do you care if you have a sword or pike? You shouldn’t need to use it very often.”

“Then can I just leave it at home?”

“You were the one who wanted a way to defend yourself.”

“I wanted a weapon!” I said. “I want to fight them!”

“There’s nothing to fight! They aren’t exciting. They aren’t enemies to defeat. They’re just something to avoid when we can, and deal with when we can’t. That’s what you have to do.”

* * * * * * * * * *

They call what happens next the remembrance, though I know I won’t remember any of it.

While her brothers and co-workers get up and talk about the kind of person they think she was, I’m looking at my mother’s face in the big round oval frame that dominates the display. The pictures were chosen from all times of her life.

The biggest one is the one that I guess people thought best represented her. It wouldn’t have been my choice, and not just because I have a hard time remembering when she ever looked that young. Her cheeks are too rosy. Her lipstick waxy-thick. I know she looks happy, but I also know what she looked like when she was happy.

I don’t know what a corpse looked like, lying in a coffin with its face made up by a mortician and fixed into the best approximation of a relaxed expression that can be wrung from a corpse. I’ve read old books, though, where people talk about how such faces are unfamiliar, artificial.

I feel that way looking at the picture of my mother. I couldn’t guess the context from which the portrait was cropped. The background is an almost white sky. She’s smiling for the camera, with no idea that this forced, fixed expression is going to be her death mask.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Take your pike if you’re going out,” my mother said when she saw I was heading for the door without it.

“They just did a sweep yesterday,” I said.

“And they always miss one,” she said. “Watch the news and you’ll see. The day after a sweep is always when someone gets taken. Because it makes people careless, you see. Someone always dies after a sweep.”

“They do a sweep every month,” I said. “If someone died every time…”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t mean here. But somewhere. Anywhere. It could be here. Take your pike.”

I sighed and lifted the long, unwieldy pole off its wall mounting.

“If you want to keep me safe from amblers, you should have got me a gun,” I said. I thought my logic was foolproof. “It’s got a lot longer reach than a big, heavy stick.”

“Are you kidding?” she said. “A gun is way more dangerous than an ambler.”

“Isn’t that the point?” I said.

“Do you know how many people get shot every day by accident? Do you know how many people a day shoot themselves?”

Probably not even one, I thought. It couldn’t happen that often or people wouldn’t make guns. I did know that I was on a losing track.

“I don’t even know how I’m supposed to kill an ambler with this thing,” I said instead.

“You aren’t supposed to kill them,” she said. “First, they’re already dead. Second, that’s why we have patrols. You’re supposed to get away from them. If one’s in your way, you push it back or you knock it down. Sweep…”

“Sweep the knees!” I said. “I know!”

“You get it down, and then you…”

“Then I walk away.”

* * * * * * * * * *

My name is called. I remember being told that I should probably say something, and I remember that I had said in response that I would like that. I hadn’t given it any more thought. That’s just what you do when your mother dies, right?

It’s never happened to me before and it would never happen again, but even an hour ago I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t want to stand up in front of a room of mixed family and strangers, that I wouldn’t have anything inside me to say to them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Justin Peterson got his throat torn out when I was fourteen. He’d been hunting in the woods, supposedly for deer but probably not really.

He turned.

There’s no rule that says getting killed by one always turns you into one, if there are any rules at all. It seems to happen more often that way, though. Some people think there is just a correlation between dying violently and alone and turning, but other people say that’s just anecdotal. They say it seems that way because people who died in accidents in the middle of nowhere never get cremated.

I don’t know.

I do know that the thing that had been his body stumbled onto the field during an outdoor day in gym class, I was the last one to know it had been him. I turned, and I walked briskly towards the school, taking the long way around the big sloping hill up to the parking lot, because I might slip. I heard my classmates’ laughter turn to screams and resisted the urge both to look back and to run.

Most of them were okay, physically. They were screaming because they recognized who it had been. Some of the jocks tried to tackle it and bash its brains in. One of them got a bad bite on his arm. He needed stitches and antibiotics, but he lived. His reputation did a 180 overnight, though. No one ever quite believed that it wasn’t infectious. He went from being one of the coolest kids in school to a total pariah.

It wasn’t just that the other kids were afraid of him. He’d get knocked down in the hall, have things thrown at his head. People would shuffle past him, moaning in the way that amblers never moan but people always act like they do.

I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. Everyone acted like at any moment he might turn into a monster and kill us all, but they didn’t act like he was a threat. They acted like he was weak. I asked my mother about it, not because she’d understand but because I didn’t have anyone else to ask.

“Fear does that to people sometimes,” she said. “It brings out the worst in people. That’s part of why it’s so important not to be afraid.”

“You don’t act like that.”

“Sweetheart, that’s because I’m not afraid,” she said. “And I don’t want you to be afraid, either. I don’t want you to think you have to be afraid.”

“Then why do I have to carry a stupid pike around, if I’m not supposed to be afraid? Why do I have to know all the rules? And why are you always checking on me, always hassling me about them? Why all the stupid safety tips?”

“There are things we do when things are scary, so that we won’t be afraid,” she said. “It would be terrifying to go down the road at sixty miles an hour if there weren’t seat belts and brakes and signal lights and, and… safety features. We have all those things, and we have rules of the road, and because we can count on them to keep us safe, we don’t have to be afraid.”

“But people still die in car accidents, don’t they?”

“They do,” she said.

“And people still get killed by amblers.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, they do. They probably always will.”

“You are afraid!” I said. I’m not sure if I felt triumphant or terrified at catching her in this contradiction. “You said you’re not.”

“I don’t have to be,” she said. “Love, things—people—aren’t just one way or another. Sometimes I get scared when I’m driving, too! The important thing is that it doesn’t become all that I am, that the things I feel don’t overwhelm the things I know, like how to drive safely. The important thing is that you don’t panic.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“My mother,” I say, “always kept me safe.”

I know these words are inadequate. I know I should be explaining, elaborating… saying something about how she knew it was a scary world, and she didn’t hide that from me, but she always made sure I had the tools to deal with it.

I should be saying that “safe” didn’t mean I wouldn’t die, though I didn’t. It didn’t mean she didn’t worry every time I went out the door, but that she could let me go out the door.

None of these words will come, though. They won’t form up into ranks inside my head and I can’t make them march out of my mouth.

“She wasn’t afraid,” I say. “She taught me not to be afraid. I love her, and I miss her… and I’ll always miss her… but I still know I don’t have to be afraid.”

People are looking at me like they’re not sure if I’m finished. Have I said enough?

“That’s all I have to say,” I say. “There isn’t anything else…”

There’s some awkward, scattered clapping, which weirds me out because I didn’t expect it. Were people clapping at the other speakers? I get out from behind the lectern and head down the aisle. I don’t go back to my seat. I need air, but more than that, I need to be somewhere else, anywhere else, just as fast as I can safely get there.

I fumble out the claim ticket for the coat check and thrust it with shaking hands to the attendant, who peers at the scribbled scrawl underneath the description.

“It’s the pike,” I say. “Seven and a half feet long, with a safety tip.”

“Right,” he says. “I saw that in the corner. Hang on. You know, I didn’t know anyone still carries these. Sure, you could brain a thing hard with it, but it’s so awkward to swing. There’s got to be easier ways to take out an ambler.”

“I’m sure there are,” I say. “But I don’t have to take them out. I just have to get away.”

“Well, the threat level for tonight is elevated, so if you’re not looking to fight, you’d best be ready to run. Can I call you a cab?”

“No, thank you,” I say, sniffling. “I’ll walk. Briskly.”

Remember, folks… like this story, want more: support me. You won’t just be getting great fiction like these eight stories, you’ll be enabling my internet commentary, award-nominated science fiction and fantasy poetry, humor, game design, and everything else I do in any creative sphere in a month. That’s quite a lot of bang for your buck.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Three Selections (Short Shorts and a Poem)

When I started this project of posting a story a day for every remaining day in the month, my idea was to focus on my short stories in order to show prospective patrons what I have to offer in that area, to give you the reader an idea of what you’d be getting if I offered you one new short story every month for supporting me on Patreon.

But the thing is, short stories aren’t all I have to offer. Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit of “flash fiction”… short stories of a few hundred words. A lot of it is collected on the website Fantasy In Miniature. I use flash fiction as a writing exercise, a way to spin out ideas or get words flowing. Interestingly, a number of my poems started life as a flash fiction experiment, and vice-versa. It was the poetic quality of some of my shorter flash pieces that convinced my poetry mentor and all around superfan Elizabeth McClellan that I had more poetry in my soul than I had ever let on.

So today’s example of my short fiction consists of two of my pieces that straddles the line between flash fiction and a short, and a poem that tells a story.

Who Said Life Was Fair?

By Alexandra Erin

“So, you’re after the fair folk, are you?” the old lush said to me.

I’d been pointed his way as part of my quest. I had been told not to expect any information about where I needed to go or what I needed to do, but that I needed to hear what he had to say, all the same.

“I am,” I said.

“Then you need to hear my warning,” he said.

“I’ve heard lots of warnings,” I said.

“About accepting gifts, or refusing gifts, or eating food, or declining it, right? Things like that. This is a different sort of warning,” he said. He paused, then threw back his glass, draining the last of the beer from it. “I met just one fairy in my life. Saved its life, by its own admission. Three wishes it offered me… three wishes. Said it would come back on the new moon to hear and grant the first of them.”

“Did it?”

“I full-on expected it wouldn’t… I worked hard to resign myself to the notion that my one and only encounter with the wondrous was all I would get out of it, and to be happy with that. But as the month wore on and the moon waned, I started to feel a flicker of hope and yearning. You see, my father had died of a bum ticker when he was three years younger than I was, and I had a certain recollection that his father had also died young in a similar fashion… so it had often been in the back of my mind that a similar thing might happen to me.”

“You wished for a good heart?”

“Good health in general,” the old man said. “So of course the blasted thing came back, and it heard my wish… that my heart and liver and other organs and parts should be strong and healthy until the day I die. And no sooner than the words were out of my mouth than it struck me that the quickest route to fulfilling that one would have been to kill me on the spot, but no, the fairy just crossed its arms and said ‘It is done’ and damned if I didn’t feel the difference right away, and double-damned if I haven’t felt it since. So, the fairy told me it would be back in a month for the second wish.”

“What did you wish for?”

“This time I knew it was on the up-and-up, so I started to plan ahead. I had my health, and could expect to live a good long life, barring misadventure… as a fit man, I could look forward to a few more decades more of hard labor followed by a miserly retirement. So I decided what I really wanted was a certain measure of comfort, security, and leisure to live out my life in style. That’s not one wish, of course, but the thing that secures all of that is. I decided to wish for money. A million dollars. That’s a chunk of change with the power to change lives today, but back then… well, it was a sight more than it is now. I could have wished for more, but I didn’t want to abandon my old life. A million dollars could be explained. It seemed like a credible windfall.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, the fairy returned, and heard my wish… which was for a million dollars to come to me in some fashion that was legal and brought no misfortune to anyone else… and it suggested I spend the next afternoon removing a certain stump from my property. Under there was a cache of old coins, worth just over one million dollars even after the tax man took his share. And I went a little wild with it, for a while, though my brother-in-law was a banker and he invested the lion’s share of it for me, and I’ve done quite well by him over the years.”

“So two wishes worked out well,” I said. “What happened with the third?”

“Well, the fairy again said it would be back when the moon was new. And I had health and I had wealth,” the old man said. “So for my third wish I wanted something special, something extraordinary… something that couldn’t have been come by any other way. I didn’t know what I wanted when the fairy left, but as the weeks slipped by I thought back to all the times in my life I’d been thirsty and couldn’t beg up a drop of drink to wet my whistle. I knew my liver was good for the duration, so I decided to make sure that never happened again.”

“You were rich,” I said. “You could have bought beer anytime you wanted. You could have bought a brewery.”

“Right,” he said. “But the same could be said for nearly anything I might have wished for. Besides, I said I wanted something special. So I made up my mind to wish that I had but to snap my fingers and the glass nearest to me would fill itself up with whatever I wanted most to drink, the best quality. I had a good week and a half to fix this wish in my mind, to think on the possibilities… the exotic liquers I could try, the fond remembrances I could relive. I could sample thirty-year scotches and the greatest wine collections the world had ever known. And if ever I met a man who didn’t believe my good health and great fortune were a gift from the fairies, I could strike them dumb just like this.”

The old man gave a loud snap with his fingers. I looked at the glass he’d set on the counter, but it remained empty and inert.

“…what happened?” I asked.

“The little devil never showed up!” the old man said. “That was its trick, you see.”

“It gave you perfect health and more money than you needed?”

“It made me believe,” the old man said. “It made me hope. It made me wish… those first two things, they were things I wanted. They were things I asked for. But they weren’t a wish like this was a wish. I’d never felt a deep-seated yearning for a million dollars, you see. I’d prayed for health, in the off-hand sort of way that you do, but I had never fallen to my knees and begged for it.”

“You still had your money,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “If it had said two wishes, I would have been satisfied. If it had said two wishes, I would have walked away perfectly happy. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if from the start it said I could have one wish, or it offered its thanks and went on its way. But it promised three wishes, and it spread them out so I had time to get used to the idea, to come round to the way of thinking that this was how things worked.”

“But have you ever in your life since then actually gone thirsty?”

“No,” he said. “Not thirsty, exactly. Not for lack of drink.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I said.

“But you still mean to press on.”

“If I’m offered three wishes, I’ll know what not to do,” I said.

“If you’re counting on two, you’ll get one,” he said. “Or three but something else will go wrong. Or you’ll be offered something else, something that isn’t wishes. You see, the lesson here isn’t how it played out with me. The lesson is about what happens when you trust a fairy.”

“I think I could manage a long, rich life,” I said.

“You think I don’t feel lucky?” the old man said. “I do, if only because I’ve heard from others who’ve had their dealings and come away much worse for it. But no matter how lucky I am and how lucky I feel, I also feel cheated… and I’ll always feel cheated. It’s a bigger thing than you think.”

“I could stand to feel a little cheated if I had your life.”

“That’s what they all say, when they find me,” the old man said. “But they all find me in a bar.”

“I won’t make the same mistake you did,” I said.

“No, you’ll make your own.” The man raised his empty glass. “Here’s hoping you come out the other end of it.”

How The Minotaur Lost Her Way

By Alexandra Erin

Well, she lit out from Kellisport
so many years ago
bound for Hulmouth Harbor
before the winter snow.
Her holds were packed with cargo,
her sails were full of wind
and not a mortal living
knows where she met her end. 

Who can know? Who can say
where the Minotaur lies today?
She started out so swiftly
but somehow she lost her way.
My heart was packed inside her
when she went down that day.
Oh, my heart was packed inside her
when she went down that day.

She carried tonnes of cotton,
and barrels full of rice,
casks of hearty wine
and sweetly scented spice,
treasures from the conquest
and priceless works of art.
and one lonely young sailor
I trusted with my heart.

Mermaid-snared? Tempest-tossed?
They only know that she was lost.
The bankers know the value,
but no one knows the cost.
Now my heart lies under waters
no ship has ever crossed.
Oh, my heart lies under waters
no ship has ever crossed.

It happened of a sudden,
one calm and moonless night.
My sailor left his watch-post
and doused his lantern-light.
Urged on by the promise
I’d etched upon his skin
he drew steel and crept astern
and did the captain in.

Who can know? Who can say
how the Minotaur lost her way?
Only one man’s certain,
and he will never say.
He took my heart down with him
when the ship went down that day.
Oh, he took my heart down with him
when the ship went down that day.

The Minotaur lies quiet now
in the darkling deeps,
and prowling round about it
my sailor never sleeps.
In the ribs of the wreck
a light no depths can kill,
and at the center of it
my heart beats even still.


By Alexandra Erin

The two stood near the corner of the roof.

“Okay, watch this,” one of them said to his less enthusiastic companion. He pointed down across the street, where a well-dressed but harried and tired looking woman was fumbling with a set of keys beside a dark-colored sedan. She set a laptop case down on the roof of the car. “She’s just come out of the coffeeshop where she waited over an hour for an interview with a man who never showed up. She’s been out of work since her bank shut down eight months ago. She needs a job, needs it badly, but even more than that she wanted this one. It was the perfect fit for her. It was her dream job. It was actually in her field, and the location would have been perfect.”

“How long have you been watching her?” the other one asked.

“The whole time,” he said. “Now take a look directly across the street from her. What do you see?”

“Another coffee shop.”


“The same as the one she walked out of.”


“They built two shops at the same street?”

“I know… crazy, isn’t it?” the first one said. “Now watch, because she’s going to look up and see it in about five seconds… three, two, and one.”

As they watched, the woman’s head tipped up in response to the flash of movement from a passing car and the expression on her face became one of surprise, then dawning realization and horror. Her car keys fell from her suddenly limp fingers, straight through the grating at her feet.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the first watcher said.

“If you saw that coming, you might have done something,” the other said. “Or you might have let her know that the man she was waiting for was across the street.”

“He actually wasn’t, though. He never showed up. He forgot about it. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. She’s going to be kicking herself forever, thinking that she fucked up, when actually it didn’t matter which of the cafes she went into. When he realizes that he blew off a prospective employee, he’s going to rationalize it away so it’s not his fault. He’ll decide he wouldn’t have hired her so he doesn’t have to call her to admit his mistake and reschedule. Nothing she could have done would have made this turn out differently.”

“Are you planning on letting her know that?”

“Are you? Of course not. We’re watchers. We watch.”

“We could let someone know.”

“That’s not my department. Anyway, it’s about to get better,” the first one said. “She’s blaming herself right now, but as long as she’s only blaming herself, there’s still the possibility in her heart that the universe is a kind and loving place. That just makes her kick herself all the harder, of course, because God was good enough to give her the chance to land her dream job and she blew it. What we’re about to see is the moment that she loses all faith.”

“That’s kind of morbid, isn’t it?”

“Morbid how?”

“We’re creatures of faith,” the other one said.

“Yeah, but we’re not like storybook pixies or anything. I don’t think we’re going to die just because someone doesn’t believe in us. We’d probably be long gone if that were the case.”

“Lots of people believe in angels,” his companion said.

“Yeah, but most of them don’t have a clue what Grigori are.” He pointed. “Okay, okay… watch this.”

The woman was looking around for something to fish her keys out. A young man who had just walked past the woman’s car suddenly doubled back and snatched the laptop, then took off running. The woman reacted as if in slow motion, turning, rising, and calling hoarsely for him to stop as he vanished around a corner.

“See, that’s it!” the watcher cried, slapping his knee. “Poof! All gone! Her heart’s breaking in two. She’s never going to believe in a higher power again… and the stupid thing is it’s no more her fault than the missed interview is. It’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Not getting even a disgusted reply from his companion, he turned around and found that he was alone on the roof. The other angel had vanished.

“Probably just left,” he muttered to himself, unconvincingly.

He felt very cold, very small, and not at all sure of himself.

Again, if you like these and want to read more like them, please consider supporting me on Patreon. As an author, I have been limping along on a sub-subsistence level for years, and I know now that I can’t keep going like this. Only your support can keep me writing.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

All About Soul (Short Story)

This is the second of two stories I have selected for this purpose that comes from the MUniverse, the setting of Tales of MU. Like the previous one, it is not part of the main storyline but a separate story that stands on its own. If you enjoy this story, you can show your appreciation either by sponsoring more installments of Tales of MU on its dedicated patreon, or supporting my writing in general on my author Patreon.

All About Soul

By Alexandra Erin

Anno 0, The Township of Phale

Will had made it halfway across the town when the beam of light fell across his handsome, well-formed face.

“You there!” the voice called. He froze. “Halt right there!”

The light bounced around as the figures approached him. When it fell off his eyes, he was able to catch a glimpse. There were two of them. Town guards? No, he could see the distinctive red leather armor. They were Legionnaires from the garrison. They carried pikes, and one held a lantern-like enclosure for the magical light, funneled into a tight shaft by the snout-like opening.

“Blast me with ballistae and butcher me for bacon,” the one with the light said, playing its shaft of light over his forehead, over the pair of symbols there, the Tree of Life and the Circle of Will, Unbroken. The runes, which had once been mere indentations in flesh and bone, had been filled with the purest shining silver.

“That’s the delivery boy for the silversmith,” the other soldier told his mate. “Little late to be going messages all about town, isn’t it?”

“That it is,” Will answered. “Sir.”

“Maybe his master gave him something to deliver to us,” the light-holder said, nudging his fellow in the ribs. “How about it, clayface? Did your master give you a little something for us?”

“What sort of thing might he have given me?” Will asked.

“He’s a silversmith, ain’t he?” the soldier replied. “So it would have to be something silver.”

His expression unchanging, Will reached inside his vest and pulled out five glittering silver coins.

“Is this the delivery you were expecting?” he asked.

The greedy soldier reached out his hand, but his partner restrained him.

“That’s only half of it,” he said. “Do you have the rest?”

Will counted out another five coins and dropped the lot into the eager hands. He nodded deferentially.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said. “You are a credit to our emperor across the sea.”

When the more eager of the two murmured a garbled good evening, Will took that as his leave and hurried off down the street, leaving the larcenous pair to exclaim to each other over their good luck.

“Poor dummy, probably doesn’t know he’s been robbed,” he heard one of them saying.

Will ignored it and pressed on through the dark streets, heading towards the towering stone cathedral that was the oldest building still standing in Phale, the Temple of Holy Khersis. The inside was lit with hundreds of candles… actual candles, blessed by the monks who fashioned them but unenhanced by magic.

One candle flickered dimly behind a pane in the cleric’s booth in the confessional. Will took a deep breath and headed, with a sense of reverence and dread, for the other door. Once inside, he found the matches and lit the corresponding candle, then knelt before the partitioning screen.

“Hear me, Father,” Will said respectfully.

“I hear, my son.”

“Pardon me, your grace,” Will said, in mild surprise at the voice. “I had not expected an audience with the Father Episcopus.”

“My pardon is yours for the asking, my son. The Father Confessor complains of a sore throat,” the Episcopus said. “But we are all one, in the Arms of Khersis.”

“I apologize for taking your time, your grace,” Will said. “I have not come to confess, but to ask a question… about the state and disposition of my soul.”

“You are a golem, are you not?” the Episcopus asked.

“I am, your grace,” Will said. “But… meaning no disrespect, however could you tell?”

“There is a marked quality about your voice… a hesitancy and preciseness about your speech, as of–forgive me, my son–an actor who has learned his lines either incompletely, or too well,” the holy man said. “I have noticed this often, when speaking to golems.”

“And… does your grace often find cause to speak to my kind?” Will asked.

“They are a common fixture in many of the households I visit,” the Episcopus said. “But, I meant no offense by this observation. It is merely another sort of accent, I suppose.”

“I shall school myself to be rid of it,” Will said.

“It is no fault against you,” the Episcopus insisted. “But, come… wherefore would you speak to me?”

“Your grace, I am the servant of one William Barker, the silversmith. I am his property, bought and paid for, but I am treated well enough for it. He has taught me his trade and intends to present me to the guild as his apprentice. I think of him as a father… though it would by no means be proper for me to call him so,” Will said, his voice taking on a pained quality as he admitted the last. “Yet, I was made by the hand of another man. I have two fathers upon the frame of this world… but, I wonder… do I have another?”

“My son, I begin to divine the drift of your thought,” replied the Episcopus. “Speak your question, I pray you, and I shall do my best to answer it.”

“Your grace… do I have a soul?” Will asked.

“The pages of the Librum are silent on this score,” the Episcopus said after a reflective silence. “But… there is a line of thought, and a common one at that, that only a creature invested with a soul would think to worry about possessing one.”

“I have heard that reasoning,” Will said. “It is what my master the silversmith told me, when I put the question to him. Yet, I am afraid it will not do for me. You see, your grace, I am an honest man… or an honest creation… but I did not come by this honesty as a gift of grace, nor did I learn it. I was made honest. I could have just as easily been created curious, and if my maker–my mortal maker–had so desired that I should be curious about the state and disposition of my soul, then so curious would I be, the question of that soul’s existence unanswered.”

“Have you some reason to believe your maker would have played such a cruel trick?” the Episcopus asked.

“None, your grace,” Will said. “Nor do I believe such to be the case. Nevertheless, this example shows us how it is possible to be curious about one’s soul and yet have none.”

“You seem most unwilling to be swayed,” the Episcopus said.

“I am unwilling to be taken in,” Will said. “I am an honest creation…”

“Please, do call yourself a man.”

“I am an honest creation, your grace,” Will said, “and am unwilling most of all that I should lie to myself.”

“I see,” the Episcopus said. “And what if I were to tell you that I find your unwillingness to accept less than the full truth on the matter of your soul an excellent indicator of the presence of one?”

“That will not do, your grace,” Will said. “For the same reason as I have previously indicated. My honesty was created within me. It is no credit to me.”

“I see,” the Episcopus said. “Well, suppose that we were to approach it from the other side. Why should you not have a soul?”

“Only the gods can make a soul,” Will said. “Is it presumptuous of me to suppose you would agree to that premise, your grace?”

“No,” the church father said with a wry chuckle. “I will grant you that.”

“Very well,” Will said. “Then surely golems must lack souls, as we are made by mortal wizards and not by gods.”

“True enough,” the Episcopus said. “But consider… it is not just wizards in workshops who may create new life. Man and woman come together and perform this miracle on a daily basis. Surely, you will grant that they are not ‘compelling’ the gods to give up a soul, and yet, each new child is born with one.”

“Surely, your grace,” Will agreed. “And yet, there are couples who go without child for years, or longer… but not for want of trying. So, it is no difficult thing to see how the gods are notcompelled in such a case, but grant each new life license… and a soul… as they see fit?”

“And do you not see the hand of Lord Khersis at work in the creation of a golem, as in the birth of a child?” the Episcopus asked. “Is that act not as susceptible to failure as any human endeavor?”

“It is, your grace,” Will said. “But, when I look at the base uses many golems are put to, I can little believe that Khersis has taken a direct hand in the effort, nor that he has cast his eye over it in approval.”

“Do you mean to tell me, my son, that an enchanter could create one like you, in opposition to will of Lord Khersis and the other denizens of the heavenly realms?”

“Forgive me, your grace… but much can be and is done in opposition to the gods of good,” Will said. “It is not so strange that wizardly arts could transmute dumb clay into living flesh against the will of the gods, but it is inconceivable that such life could be imbued with a soul without the cooperation of the same. Therefore, it seems to me that we must allow that wizards have the power to petition the heavens themselves in demand of a soul… or else conclude that I and those like me possess none.”

There was silence from the other side of the screen.

“Forgive me, your grace,” Will said. “It was not my intention to blaspheme.”

“I heard no blasphemy,” the Episcopus said. “You merely spoke your thoughts, which seem to me bent most strenuously against blasphemy. You resist the conclusion that you have a soul, because you cannot see how to accept this without insulting the gods. Does that not speak to you of some spark of inner grace?”

“Your grace, it does not,” Will said. “You are most patient to speak with me, but I will not be satisfied with any less than a true test on the matter.”

“A test… for soulhood?” the Episcopus asked. “That’s a most extraordinary proposition.”

“Your grace… have you ever heard of a golem being raised from the dead?” Will asked.

“There is a certain story of a murdered duke, with the only witness–a golem–also slain,” the Episcopus said. “It’s an old tale, and likely apocryphal, but they say most of the old stories have a grain of truth within them.”

“Indeed, but in that story, it is the golem’s worldly maker who brings the creature back to the semblance of life,” Will said. “I have always taken it to mean that the physical damage was repaired and the magic of animation was simply applied to it again. To my knowledge, there has never been a case where a golem, rendered inoperant, has been restored to animation through divine means… through the rejoining of body and soul. Is this because no one has ever had cause to try it, or because there is no soul to call back?”

“My son, the rite of resurrection is the holiest and rarest of sacraments the temple can administer,” the Episcopus said gravely. “It is never done without great need, and great desert.”

“I understand,” Will said. “And I understand that, though my need seems great to me, it may not appear so to others. Of course, there is one other small barrier to this test: I am still alive.”

“Indeed,” the Episcopus said. “And, as you have given this matter much thought, I am confident you have realized that anything you did to correct for that problem would render you outside the grace of the sacraments.”

“I do,” Will said. “But that is a problem which time itself may happily solve.”

“Do golems age as do men, then?” the Episcopus asked.

“We do not,” Will said. “But we do eventually find an end, as everything does. Your grace, it is commonly known–though not commonly spoken of–that the temple regularly performs the rite of resurrection for men of worth and importance, who have done good things for the temple and the community?”

“I hope you are not suggesting that this most sacred and holiest of miracles is something that can be bought and paid for,” the Episcopus said, bristling slightly for the first time since Will had entered the confessional.

“I mean no offense, your grace,” Will said, with great sincerity. “It is just that, today my master has told me he intends to name me as heir in his will, bequeathing to me all his property, his business, and his place in the guild.”

“Such a will could never be honored.”

“It would not be honored today,” Will said, an undeniable quaver of excitement creeping into his voice. “But never? Who knows, save the gods, what wonders the next day might bring? Our new proconsul speaks bold words to the emperor across the sea, and the men in the street talk openly of revolution… of… Republic.” The last word came out as a sort of sigh.

“I do not think they speak as openly as all that,” the Episcopus said. “But… I have heard whispers.”

“And… if this Magisterion brings it about, if these fractured lands become a nation where each manmay have a voice… then why couldn’t one who was made property, be made free and own property?” Will asked. “And if that happens, and I become a…. a man of means, then I would be entitled to the same privileges as any other man in my position, would I not?”

“I cannot say that it would not be so,” the Episcopus said. “But a silversmith, however skilled, is still a tradesman. It’s a far stretch from there to being the sort of man who may… do what you speak of.”

“I do not intend that it should happen overnight,” Will said. “But, golems do not age as men do… I may have decades or longer to increase my wealth, to improve my position.”

“I fear that is the very fact that shall weigh most heavily against you when it comes time to press your suit and claim your inheritance,” the Episcopus said. “But, allowing that it shall come to pass, you must realize that I will likely not be Episcopus here or in any worldly province when the time comes, so what I say to you now will have little bearing on the matter.”

“I realize that,” Will said. “And I know that nothing you say could stand as a guarantee… but still will I ask your blessing for this endeavor.”

“If I will not? If I cannot?”

“If you tell me no, if you say as a man of the cloth that this is an affront to reason and morality, or an act against the heavens… then I shall think no more upon it.”

“It seems a serious thing to take the holy rite of resurrection and turn it to a purpose such as this,” the Episcopus said. “Particularly as you propose to undergo it following a long and prosperous life… there are so many who die so young… but… to speak plainly, it is a better use than many of the well-to-do individuals to whom you have referred would put it. But, have you considered the implications if you put your plan into effect and… it fails?”

“If I fail, I will be no more,” Will said. “But I will not have lost anything. There will not even be anything left of me to be conscious of the failure.”

“But… what of others of your kind?” the Episcopus said. “If the results are made public, might it not be too much for them to bear?”

“I have considered that,” Will said. “For myself, I can choose to say that it is better to know… but how can I make that choice for others? If I can arrange the matter thusly, I shall have it kept secret, unless I should prove successful in my attempt. So, what say you, your grace? Is this not a worthy plan?”

“My son, I say to you that I have met men of my race whose possession of a soul was more doubtful than yours,” the Episcopus said. “But the winds of change do indeed blow across our land, and if nothing else, such a spiritual proof might doubly prove useful in securing material rights for those of your kind. I can find no fault with your plan. You have my blessing.”

“Thank you,” Will said. “Your grace… will you now hear my confession?”

“I will.”

War broke out between the provinces and the Mother Isles the following winter. Will, the silversmith’s servant, was given permission to enlist and fight alongside the revolutionaries. He served in a regiment under Proconsul-Turned-General Magisterion, and died in the Battle of Moncarre.

The Father Episcopus of the Khersian temple in his home town of Phale petitioned for the rites of resurrection to be administered.

This request was refused, as were so many others during the war years.

Remember, you can support Tales of MU’s continued existence by pledging to its Patreon, and my continued existence by pledging to mine.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Attract Mode (Short Story)

This story is a little different than the others I’m sharing this month, as it’s written in hypertext. I created it using Twine, a construction kit that is popular for creating interactive stories as well as simple text-based games and quizzes. “Attract Mode” was very much an experiment, even more so than most of the things I do. It didn’t receive much attention when I released it in February, but it still ranks among my favorite of my story creations.

Click here to read it. And if you like it, support me on Patreon so I’ll be able to make more like it.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Sometimes, There Are Dolphins (Short Story)

This is the most recently published (though not the most recently written) story I’ve selected to highlight this month. Like a lot of the things I wrote in 2015, it has a deeply personal connection for me. The place described in this story is a real place I have been to many times, though only as an adult. Like the character in the story, I’ve stood there on the shore with my mother, waiting for dolphins who show up, sometimes. In fact, I was standing amidst the sand and shells, essentially trying to figure out how to summon dolphins with my mind (as one does) when this story came to me.

I’m posting this along with the other short stories that have gone up this month to let you the interested reader see what I have to offer as an interesting author. If you like what you read and would like to see more like it, please join me on Patreon.

Oh, and it could probably go without saying, but I’ve had people attribute sillier elements of my fiction to my actual life, so let’s make it explicit: apart from the location and the pasttime of dolphin-watching, nothing about this story is autobiographical.

Sometimes, There Are Dolphins

By Alexandra Erin

Honeymoon Island, off the gulf coast of Florida, was connected to the mainland city of Dunedin by a causeway. It was a state park, open every day from eight a.m. until sunset. The beaches of Honeymoon Island were laid with shells as other beaches are covered in sand, with a fresh batch deposited daily by the gulf water tides.

The water as seen from the shore presented a shimmering spectrum of ocean hues, from sun-dappled silver to sparkling emerald to deep azure and many incomprehensible blends in between. The near-constant wind blowing in off the gulf keeps the clouds moving at a brisk pace, ensuring that even the most overcast days often present an interesting sight when the sun begins to dip below the distant waters at the curve of the world.

None of this had made much of an impression on Clara. She’d enjoyed the first afternoon at the beach well enough, and had had enough fun splashing around in the surf and collecting shells that she hadn’t minded staying to stare at the horizon with her mother.

“Sometimes, there are dolphins,” her mother had said excitedly. “They skim right along the shore, swimming in a pod. They trace the causeway and follow the outline of the island. Sometimes they jump and show off, or swim back and forth. They don’t always come, of course, but when they do, it’s usually it right before sunset.”

There hadn’t been any dolphins, though, that night or any of the five that followed. Each night, her mother had repeated the words “sometimes, there are dolphins,” at least once, with a little less fervor. Clara had gone from resenting her mother for dragging her out each night to feeling sorry for her.

This was the last night of their vacation, and now Clara was excited even though her mother wasn’t.

It was all because of the book.

She’d found it in the crawlspace over the garage of Grandpa’s old rundown little retirement cabin days ago, but it had taken her some time to learn how to read it. She’d never seen a book like it before, one not printed with orderly uniform letters but written by hand, many hands. Some of the letters were loopy and sprawling, some were spider-leg thin, but they all crowded against one another on pages that seemed like they should have been roomy enough to accommodate anyone.

Looking at the writing had given Clara a headache at first, as well as an odd, fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach. Curiosity had brought her back to the book, though.

That, and boredom.

Florida was supposed to be fun, but this wasn’t anywhere close to the right part of Florida, as far as she could tell. There was no Disney World here. There wasn’t even a Universal Studios. There was a Busch Gardens, but her mother had said she wouldn’t like it, even though the best description she had mustered of it was “like a zoo with rollercoasters,” and Clara couldn’t imagine anyone not liking that.

“Maybe next time,” her mother had said, though this was supposed to be the final trip, when Grandpa’s affairs were all wrapped up so the funny old house could be sold off.

Clara didn’t know what her grandfather’s affairs had been. She’d asked a few grown-ups what an affair was, but the answers had been amused and evasive.

So while her mother had spent most of her time meeting with people in suits and going through boxes in what she called the study, Clara’s attention had kept drifting back to the book. In time she’d learned how to look at it without wincing, and then how to read it.

It helped when she realized that the parts written in red pen were newer and made more sense than the rest. In fact, they helped her make sense of the others. She learned to think of it as a teacher correcting a badly written essay, suggesting better words, easier words.

At some point, she had started to think of the teacher as her grandfather and imagined that he was giving her some kind of guidance, knowing how much she hated to feel confused. The day she saw some of the papers in his study marked with the same red ink in the same handwriting, she had realized she was right. That was when she decided to keep the book for herself. It would be her inheritance, the last gift from her long-absent grandfather. It would make up for all the missed birthdays and Christmases.

She couldn’t tell her mother, of course. For some reason, her mother hadn’t wanted Clara to know much about him. Probably she was still mad about all her own birthdays and things that he’d missed.

Clara had already somehow known she couldn’t tell her mother about the book, but it felt good to have a reason that she could use to explain to herself why this must be so.

But even though she would keep the book for herself, she wouldn’t be selfish about it.

When she’d found the ritual, she’d known that her grandfather had a gift for his daughter, too. He’d spent so much time marking it out, translating the instructions into simple terms and even drawing clear diagrams. All the words were sounded out in bright red ink. It couldn’t be simpler.

The sea-king’s summoning spell, the note beside the illegible title had read. That was exactly what they needed. If the lazy old dolphins wouldn’t come out and play for Clara or her mother, she was sure they wouldn’t ignore a summons from the sea-king himself, whoever he might be.

She hadn’t fully believed that it would work, of course, when she’d tried it. It had just been something to do. She was a bit old to believe in fairy tales, after all. Not all the way.

But she’d…felt something, something rising up from deep inside and beneath her. She’d seen the candles gutter green and then sputter out. She might have imagined what she’d thought she’d felt, but she knew that candles didn’t look like that when they just blew out.

And the book…the book had slammed shut and spun around in the center of the circle, just like it was riding on mama’s old record player.

The spell had worked.

It had worked!

And so this night, it was Clara’s turn to scan the horizon as intently as her mother had the nights before.

The dolphins were coming, she knew. They were coming. They’d heard the sea-king’s summons and they would be coming. Her mother’s guidebook didn’t say if the dolphins would come from the left or the right…from the south or the north…so she tried to keep watch in both directions.

“Well, it’s a nice enough night for our last night here,” Clara’s mother was saying. She laid a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Better enjoy the view while it lasts. Look, the sun’s dipping into some haze. Do you think it’ll be swallowed up before we get a proper sunset?”

“I don’t know, I’m watching for dolphins.”

“Clara…I know I said there might be dolphins,” her mother said. “But, honestly, it’s best not to set your heart on it. Sometimes, there are dolphins, but it isn’t something anyone can predict or control.”

“Maybe,” Clara said. She almost decided to tell her mother about the spell then and there, but she thought it would be better if she just let her be surprised.

The dolphins would come by sunset. She’d had that idea fixed in her head when she did the spell, and if she’d only been guessing about how the magic would work, she still had gotten the distinct impression that the message had been received and answered in the affirmative: sunset.

“Just don’t get so fixated on looking for one thing that you miss everything else, okay?” her mother said. “My father…your grandfather…did that, he did that his whole life. He ignored everything else, everyone else, while he went off and searched for…I don’t even know what. I’ve been looking through his files for a week now and I still don’t know what he hoped to find. I just know that he died alone, half-crazed and full of regret. He missed so much of my life, Clara. He missed his own wife’s last years. He missed so much…”

“Jeez, I’m just looking for dolphins, Mom!” Clara said, whirling around and pulling away from the hand on her shoulder. “Will you give it a rest? I’m not going to miss my whole life because I spent one night looking for the stupid dolphins that you wanted to see in the first place!”

“Sorry!” her mother said. “I’m sorry, I…that was probably projecting. This is the first time I’ve been back here since papa’s funeral, and the longest I’ve been here since I was a little girl, and I’ve just…I’ve been feeling and thinking things that I left buried for so long. I shouldn’t have pushed all that off onto you, Clara. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry, Mom,” Clara said. “I didn’t mean to get so mad. I just…I knew you wanted to see dolphins, so I wanted to bring them to you.”

“Oh, honey, you can’t bring someone dolphins,” her mother said, with what sounded like a surprisingly nervous laugh. “They’re wild and free creatures, almost like people themselves. Honey, that’s what makes seeing them so special, you see? They don’t operate on a schedule or come when you call them. You can’t control nature. Believe me, your grandfather wasted his life learning that lesson, if he ever did learn it in the end.”

“Well, I don’t know if he wasted it,” Clara said, as she became dimly aware of a commotion among the other late-lingering beachgoers. “But…”

“What on earth?” her mother said, looking at a point behind her, somewhere out over the water. “What…”

Clara turned to look out to sea. Almost straight out from her, at a point on the horizon and moving on a path perpendicular to the nearest stretch of shore to her, something was moving…several things were moving, racing along the shining silver waters, leaping out of the water as they ran along.

“Dolphins?” Clara said excitedly. Behind the frantically frolicking figures, the sun was sinking into the sea.

“Those aren’t dolphins,” her mother said, then corrected herself. “Those aren’t just dolphins.”

And they weren’t.

There were dolphins, yes, but fish of every size and description raced along beside and ahead of them.

“Are they feeding?” Clara guessed.

“Nah, dolphins don’t hunt like that,” a young woman staring out at the onrushing spectacle said. “They try to surround a school of fish and trap them against the surface of the water, they don’t chase them down like lions hunting gazelles. And look, they’re not trying to catch the fish…they’re breaking ahead of them.”

“What are they doing?” someone else asked. “I thought they were supposed to follow the shore.”

“They’re wild animals, they’re not supposed to do anything,” Clara said. “Right, Mom?”

She looked up at her mother for support, but her budding sense of satisfaction was nipped when she saw the look of pure horror on her face.

“Are they racing?” a man guessed. “Or being chased? Why are they trying to get away from the fish? Don’t dolphins eat fish? I’ve never heard of a fish eating a dolphin.”

“I don’t think it’s the fish that they’re trying to get away from,” the young man said. “What’s that saying? If you and your friend are being chased by a bear, you don’t have to outrun the bear…”

The nearest dolphins weren’t so far from the shore now, and they showed absolutely no sign of slowing or stopping. Clara hardly noticed. Her attention, like everyone else’s, was not on the dolphins but on the rising swell far behind them, behind the stragglers and the leaping schools of fish.

The sun set.

He rose.


Enjoy the story? Show your appreciation and help me produce more like it by supporting me on Patreon.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

An Internal Matter (Short Story)

For those just tuning in: for every day that remains in May, I’m posting one example of my work to this blog in order to help garner attention for my Patreon, so that I can start earning enough money to actually live on instead of slowly and forever circling the drain.

My best known work (not counting that Tumblr post where I wrote the words to the song from Aladdin underneath a picture of Batman and Superman, which has been translated into multiple languages and adapted into multiple mediums) is Tales of MU, a sprawling serial story set in a university in a world that is meant to be something like a typical “medieval fantasy” world if it were allowed to chronologically progress to something approximating the modern age.

While the main story of MU focuses on the life and times of one Mackenzie Blaise, a budding queer college student learning to love herself and several other people, from time to time I write “Other Tales”, side stories and spin-offs and prequels and midquels. Some of them relate to the main story. Some flesh out the setting and the world. Some of these work well enough as stand-alone fantasy stories that the setting is more or less incidental.

I recently separated my Tales of MU activities into its own Patreon, to make it easier to market both it and everything else I write. Nevertheless, when I sat down to pick out nine short stories of mine that stand out as being representative of the best of what I do, there were a few of the MU tales of the standalone variety that insisted on coming forth and being recognized. This is one of them.

At the time I first published it, readers compared it to both Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett. I’ll let you decide for yourself how apt either comparison is.

An Internal Matter

By Alexandra Erin

“Sorry sir, but we are currently closed for renovations,” the short, stocky doorman said. His uniform was trimmed with festive holiday garlands. Snow was on the ground and the whole of the high street was decked out with gold tinsel and red ribbons.

“I’m an investigator with the Imperial Bureau of Finding,” Mike Gregory said, holding up his credentials.

“Sorry sir, but we are currently closed for renovations,” the sentinel repeated. Gregory rolled his eyes and knocked on the door, then peered through the little glass panes set into it. He thought he saw some movement in the dim hallway. He held his badge up, hoping it would be recognized.

“Hello, little girl!” the doorman called cheerfully. “Blessed season to you!”

“Bess’d season!” a girl of about three or four called back.

The investigator rolled his eyes again, though he had to fight to keep from smiling. He had to fight even harder when he glanced to the side and saw that the golem had pulled a tiny gift box out of his coat and was offering it to the tyke. The kid was visibly torn, obviously terrified by the bearded figure looming over her but also tempted by the present.

“Tell the nice man ‘thank you’,” her mother said, snatching the box away and handing it to her kid. She looked more frightened of the automaton than her kid was.

The door opened as the doorman was giving more packages to a pair of children. A silver-bearded dwarf, bald as a boiled egg and wearing a pair of pince-nez spectacles, peered up at Gregory.

“Are you from the constabulary?” he asked.

“Investigator Mike Gregory, IBF,” Gregory said, showing his badge.

“Forgive me for saying, but you’re awfully tall for an imp,” the dwarf said, chuckling.

“I haven’t actually heard that one before,” Gregory said. “You going to let me in?”

“Are you here about… the robbery?” the dwarf asked, whispering the last word and looking at the doorman and the latest child, both a good five feet away, as if he thought they were in on it.

“No, I’m here to buy a boat,” Gregory said.

“And I haven’t heard that one before,” the dwarf said. “I’m sorry, this whole thing has me out of sorts. Do come in, Mr. Gregory.”

He pulled the door open further and stepped back so the detective could enter.

“You closed the store but you’re still doing your giveaway?” Gregory asked.

“In all honesty, I didn’t give it any thought when I closed the shop… and since I didn’t say to notgive the gifts, of course it goes ahead and does it. All the same, it’s a very popular promotion,” he said. “The people around here have come to expect it. They bring their children into the city to see the window displays and get a little gift from Clan Sternbauer… it’s terrible that we were robbed, but why should I compound that by stealing away that bit of joy?”

“You’re all heart, Mr….”

“Gebhard,” he said.

“Son of…?”

“Just Gebhard,” the dwarf said. “Master Jeweler, fifth rank, of Clan Sternbauer. I’m sorry for my manner at the door… we aren’t used to dealing with outside authorities. Ordinarily, when items go missing, Clan Sternbauer treats it as a purely internal matter, but given the sheer scope of the transgression…”

“Mr. Gebhard, the Bureau is here to help, not to steal your secrets,” Gregory said. “Also, failure to report a crime can itself be a crime.”

“Well, naturally, which is why we conduct a thorough internal investigation to see if a crime has been committed,” Gebhard said, wringing his hands as he led Gregory through the second set of doors, past a duplicate of the uniformed figure outside, and into the shop. The interior of CS&C didn’t look like a place that had been robbed of millions of silver in merchandise. Everything was bright, shiny, and clean. There were no signs of violence, no visible damage, and plenty of extremely valuable-looking goodies hanging out in plain sight. “In this case, the evidence is unmistakable. A dwarven dozen items, all gone. I don’t know what it is about this time of year. I understand it’s supposed to be a festive season, but we get more trouble at Khersentide… did you know that last year, somebody cleft our Sam in twain with a greatsword?”

“Murder?” Gregory said. “I didn’t hear about that… if you kept something like that ‘an internal matter’…”

“Murder? Well, some of us might have felt it was like a murder, but in point of fact it was an act of vandalism. Sam is our faithful doorman, you see… we took it a little hard, as he’s one of the most visible symbols of our company. We sell little animated plushes on our weavesite, you know, and in the stores during the holidays.”

“I do remember hearing about that now,” Gregory said.

“The perpetrator was never found, unfortunately,” Gebhard said. “It was such a random, senseless thing…”

“Right,” the detective said. “Do you have a list of what’s missing?”

“Yes, right over here,” Gebhard said. He went through a gate back onto the raised platform behind the counter… this let him look the imperial agent in the eye as he spoke, Gregory noticed. Gebhard picked up a piece of parchment and held it out.

Gregory scanned it.

“Platinum… platinum… platinum… what the hell is palladium?”

“For most purposes, it might be thought of as platinum, but more so,” Gebhard said.

“So, what do these things have in common?”

“Well, they’re all quite small, and very valuable,” the dwarf said. “Though, they hardly rank among the most valuable objects in our collection. Certainly none of them are unique. None of them came out of a vault or a higher security area, though we say ‘higher security’ for a reason. Our default precautions are nothing to sneeze at.”

“What are they?” Gregory asked.

“Well, to begin with, do you see this glass?” the dwarf asked, tapping the top of the counter.


“No, you don’t. What you see is metal that has been rendered ninety-nine percent invisible.”

“What kind of metal?”

“That’s a trade secret, but suffice it to say, the frame it’s in would give way long before a thief managed to so much as scratch it. As you can see, that hasn’t happened.”

“And if somebody were that determined?” the detective asked.

“Our first countermeasures kick in on the third violent blow,” Gebhard said. “They would be enough to render most thieves insensate. In any event, any contact with the cases or the merchandise after the shop has been locked down would sound an alarm in our living quarters below.”

“You mean, you live on the premises?”

“Yes. Well, I mean beneath them, of course.”

“How many people are in residence here, exactly?”

“Myself, and seven apprentices.”

“I’m going to need to talk to your apprentices,” Gregory said.

“They’re all waiting downstairs,” he said. “They know the shop is closed, but they don’t know why. But, Mr. Gregory, I can assure you they had nothing to do with it… once we’ve closed the shop for the day, the passage is closed. It can only be opened in an emergency, which requires the cooperation of three staff members and results in a silent alert to all of us.”

“Who would be able to disable that, apart from yourself?”

“Nobody, including myself,” Gebhard said. “And I check those wards and seals every day before opening. I double-checked them when I discovered the shortages.”

“So, nobody used the trapdoor,” Gregory said. “I assume the security on the external doors is even higher?”

“As high as the law allows,” Gebhard said. “That’s one reason we have double doors, actually… those laws allow much more persuasive protections on the inner set than they do on the ones that anybody could stumble against.”

“One reason?”

“I’m sure you could see the advantages during daytime operations,” Gebhard said. “Jewelry frequently leaves the protection of the cases in the normal course of the working day. If somebody does a runner, we have the ability to trap them in the hallway and subdue them through the vertical target access slots.”

“The what?”

“We used to call them ‘glory holes’, but apparently that term’s picked up another meaning in the past century,” Gebhard said. “We also have surveillance balls recessed in the ceiling above the entryway. They record all activity in front of the store and in the hallway. My review of last night’s impressions revealed nothing, though you’re welcome to check it yourself.”

“Thanks, we will,” Gregory said. “Mr. Gebhard, not to be indelicate, but you do realize that with this level of security, any robbery is pretty much going to have to be an inside job?”

“Well, of course I know that,” the dwarf sputtered. “That’s why we usually try to handle things ourselves… but that’s usually somebody being imprudent during the day, when money and jewelry are out in the open and changing hands. I can’t see how one of my apprentices could be involved in this.”

“Okay, let’s leave that alone for the moment,” Gregory said. “We know the doors weren’t forced, and neither were the jewelry cases. Teleportation? Phasing? Dimensional gate?”

“All quite impossible,” Gebhard said. “And anybody who tried would get a nasty surprise.”

“What sort of surprise?”

“I’m afraid I can’t reveal that,” Gebhard said. “You have to understand, I’m hardly comfortable discussing our security precautions even to the extent that I’ve done so far.”

“Do you think the Imperium is going to rob your store?”

“Under the present government? No,” Gebhard said. “Clan Sternbauer has a wonderful relationship with the Imperial Republic… in fact, I personally fought alongside Magisterion I. Which brings me to my point: human governments tend to change at an alarming pace. We’ll play along with the current regime, but we don’t expect it to last forever.”

“Mr. Gebhard, when our office received the report, we wanted to get a whole team of investigators down here,” he said. “Forensic enchanters, diviners, the whole works… but we had to go through the dwarven embassy, and they said the most we could send was a single agent, with no magical sensitivity. What I’m trying to say here is that we’re bending over backwards to respect your privacy here… and that isn’t a great position to catch crooks from.”

“I’m sorry, but my hands are tied,” Gebhard said. “I did anticipate this need on your part, and have sent word to my superiors, but I cannot give any more specific information about our magical protections until I receive that word.”

“What if I come back with an imperial decree ordering your compliance?”

“Then I will compose a brief note to my grandchildren and ask to borrow your sword for a moment,” Gebhard said. “It will be messy, but poison is somewhat unreliable when ingested by my kind.”

“Are you for real?”

“Completely. Mr. Gregory, I will not get my clan in ‘hot water’ with the Imperium by breaking its laws, but neither will I dishonor the laws of my own people,” Gebhard said. “For both of our conveniences, I suggest you wait until I hear from headquarters. In the meantime, perhaps we should see what you can come up with based on the information available? Because I can assure you, if you did know the scope of our protections, you would agree that it’s not possible for an item to have been removed from the premises by means such as teleportation or extradimensional transit.”

“No? What about the Khersentide presents?” Gregory asked. “I didn’t see any bulges in Sam’s coat.”

“Ah. That. Hmm… well, you’ve hit on the one exception,” Gebhard said. “Yes, for our gift giveaway, we attach an extradimensional storage pouch to the inside of his jacket. Patrons… and employees… are stopped in the hallway if they’re carrying similar devices, but the spell screens for Sam’s sack specially.”

“So where is he, at night?” Gregory asked. “Sam the Doorman. Does he stand there all night, does he join you in the basement, does he go home to Samantha and their little Samlings?”

“Oh, no, he comes inside with his brother when we close. They straighten up after we go downstairs… wipe the display cases down, clean whatever jewelry’s been recently handled, and so on. It really is an ingenious system. We used to have one dwarf stay behind and do the cleaning, but there was too much temptation and distrust.”

“That means Sam can touch the display cases without setting off any wards?”

“Well, yes, I suppose ‘he’ can,” Gebhard said slowly. “I didn’t think of that, of course… as much as we have a tendency to imbue him with a personality, he is, after all, only a golem.”

“So, what exactly stops Sammy from slipping a few items in his extradimensional pouch?”

“Are you serious, Mr. Gregory? Sam is mindless… he follows orders and that’s all he does.”

“What if somebody ordered him to?” Gregory asked. “Would he do it then?”

“That isn’t among the orders he recognizes,” Gebhard said. “Our ‘Sams’ are made to exacting specifications. All of our stores use two models: the outdoor one, which is both more durable and more versatile, and the indoor one. Neither model recognizes the Master Jeweler or his apprentices as their owner and master, but instead are given a specific and precise set of instructions by their maker. These instructions include a directive to follow certain sets of orders when given by a Clan Sternbauer & Company employee, and stealing from the company most certainly does not fall within those parameters.”

“Who is that maker?”

“Each location has one golem maker who is engaged… quite literally, as they are under a geas of secrecy about our specs… to produce Sams,” Gebhard said.

“And yours?”

“That would be… well, that would be among the information I’ve requested permission to release,” Gebhard said.

“Really?” Gregory asked. “It hardly seems like it would be a breach of secrecy, if the golem maker’s not able to talk about the Sams’ construction or directives, anyway… in fact, it almost sounded like you were about to tell me.”

“Yes, well, I was, but then I thought better of it,” Gebhard said. “It’s really not the sort of thing I can discuss without permission.”

“Are you sure?” Gregory asked.

“Quite sure.”

“Well, think hard about that,” Gregory said. “And maybe talk to your people about expediting your request, because I can get an imperial decree in a matter of hours and I’d hate to see you punching your ticket over something as small as this.”

“I hardly think it’s important for you to talk to our golem maker, Mr. Gregory,” Gebhard said. “We will be happy to investigate this facet of the matter ourselves, internally…”

“You realize that if you make an act of retribution against an Imperial citizen, on Imperial soil, that’s not only a crime but possibly an act of war, Mr. Gebhard?”

“Sir, I have no idea what you’re insinuating,” Gebhard said. “Why don’t you come back this afternoon? I’m sure I’ll have the go-ahead to give you all the information you need by then… I can have my apprentice notify the bureau the instant it comes in.”

“Yeah, sure,” Gregory said. “But remember what I said: an act of war.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

“Take this under advisement, too… there’s an old human saying: nobody kills a kid at Khersentide and gets away with it.”

“I definitely haven’t heard that one.”

A message for Mike Gregory arrived at the Bureau headquarters at one minute past noon. It contained the name and address of a golem maker and a note that the clan chiefs had agreed with the investigator that this information was not crucial to withhold. Gregory headed to the enchanter’s home workshop with sirens blazing, but he was too late to prevent the golem maker’s death via sixteen crossbow bolts to the back.

Many campaign contributions later, this death was ruled a suicide.

The fourteen stolen pieces of jewelry were never officially recovered. They certainly weren’t found on the golem maker’s body, and if they had turned up back at the store from which they had been stolen there would have been some awkward questions. But as Gebhard had noted, none of the pieces were unique, and items identical to them were certainly available at the other CS&C locations up and down the eastern seaboard.

The unfortunate golem maker’s six-year-old son… who, in what can only officially be described as a freakish coincidence, had been the first person to receive a gift box from Sam the morning of the robbery… happened to be in his father’s workshop at the time of his death, but thankfully he was sound asleep… very sound asleep. He was physically unharmed, and given to the care of his mother.

Early the following year, the firm of Clan Sternbauer & Company bought the exclusive services of a single golem maker and moved production of their trademarked “Sam The Doorman” golems under him.

Tales of MU resumes updates on June 1st. If you wish to support Tales of MU, you can pledge an amount per chapter/posting on its dedicated Patreon. Otherwise, if you support me as an author, any MUniverse stories such as this one that can stand on their own will also be cross-posted to my author Patreon.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Ghosts of Utah (Short Story)

For those just tuning in: every day left in May, I’m posting a short story of mine to highlight an aspect of my body of work. Why am I doing this? Because if you’re the sort of person who likes the sort of thing that I write, I’d like for you to support me on Patreon so I can pay my bills, keep living, and keep writing.

Today’s selection has an interesting provenance. It started its life as a John Constantine fan fic, but before I finished it I decided it worked better with an original character. I first set it in my own superhero fic universe, but it didn’t really fit there so I moved it into its own setting.

I’ve written a few other stories with the same character, mostly shorter or incomplete ones. This was the first Marnie story, though, and it’s still my favorite.

Ghosts of Utah

By Alexandra Erin

I made it to the site much later than I had intended. The sun had already set, though the last angry line of orange had yet to fade from the western sky when I reached the camp.

I had planned on arriving in the afternoon, and getting a good look at the excavations on my way in, as I assumed they had something to do with why I was there… but car troubles had stalled me in Moab, and I’d had to leave my prized Thunderbird to the questionable mercy of a local greasemonkey while I continued on in a rusted-out loaner.

My name is Marnie, by the way. Marnie Masterson. The “Marnie” is short for “Grand Marnier”. Mom says it’s what she was drinking when I was conceived.

Thanks, Mom.

My ultimate destination was an old fashioned tin-can camper, older than I was and very familiar to me. The British call such vehicles “caravans”, and though this particular model had never left the western United States, that was the name its Anglophile owner had affectionately called it: the Caravan. Capitalize it when you say it. Many years out in the salt flats of Utah had done its metal shell no favors, but he’d never heard a word about replacing it. It was a little piece of history, after all.

Worth preserving.

The door of the Caravan opened as I pulled up, spilling ugly yellow light into the desert night.

“I hope I’m not too late for visiting,” I called out to my hostess, hopping out of the car and hurrying forward as if to make up for my hours of tardiness in those few feet.

“Not at all,” she said, giving me a quick hug and the very phoniest of phony-baloney air-kisses on each cheek. “It’s so very good of you to come, Marnie… it’s been far too long.”

“Three years,” I said.

“You might have come to the funeral,” she said. “But… do come in.”

Amelia Conroy was the widowed wife of Professor Ethan Conroy, dead less than a year. Heart attack at fifty-seven. He’d been fairly well-known in his field, if controversial… but of course, the two often went hand in hand. One rarely made it into the papers for saying the same things that everybody else was saying. He attracted attention not so much for having proposed any radical new lines of scientific inquiry, but for stubbornly holding onto long held and established theories long after they’d fallen out of fashion.

As far as I could ever tell, Amelia hadn’t paid much attention to her husband’s work, other than to note how many journals he got his name in and how many times he got his picture in the paper. She had never been much of a serious academic. I think she only went to school at all to get her MRS… and because it took her so long to hook a man, she winded up with a doctorate. She wasn’t exactly stupid, but she also was not what you’d call a liberated woman.

She was pretty much a living fossil herself, a relic of the past… maybe that was what had attracted such a noted paleozoologist to her.

“I’m not much good at funerals,” I said, which was true. I left unspoken the fact that I wasn’t sure how welcome I would have been. Amelia Conroy and I had never exactly been bosom buddies, and depending upon what she’d heard or suspected about me, my presence may have ended up being painful for at least one of us.

“I think… I think Ethan would have liked for you to be there,” Amelia said. She gestured to one of the battered, overstuffed chairs which had occupied the Caravan for God knew how long, settling heavily into one herself. There was a glass half filled with scotch on the small round table beside it, which she clutched like a talisman as soon as she’d sat down. Amelia was in her forties… how far into them, I wasn’t sure… but in this moment, she looked far older.

“The Ethan that I knew would have said that funerals are for the living,” I said neutrally. Ethan had been a die-hard rationalist and card-carrying skeptic. It had been the one point of fierce contention between us that kept us friends.

“I thought so, too,” Amelia said. “Once.”

That single word and the pause which followed it were not just pregnant, they were practically carrying a litter. I knew many people, skeptics and atheists, who’d had similar changes of hearts after their dearest loved ones had passed on. Most of them had seemed to find some comfort in the idea that their parents/children/steady fucks would keep going in some form.

“Well, I’m here now,” I said. “I have to admit, I came out of curiosity more than anything else. Of course I’ll do anything for Professor Conroy’s widow… but I’ve got no idea what I can do. I’m no paleontologist.”

“And Ethan never forgave you for that, you know,” Amelia said. “Turning your back on your education, throwing away your future… you were his favorite student. You know, for a long time I thought for sure you were polishing his knob… nobody ever got full marks in his lectures. That was before I heard you were a lesbian, mind you.”

I wasn’t, but didn’t feel the need to correct her right that moment. I had played a few games on the home court, sure… college had been an interesting time for me. The point was, Amelia was a grieving widow… and possibly unstable. I still had no idea why she had invited me there.

Also, I felt a little bit guilty because no matter how many times Ethan swore otherwise, I still wasn’t sure I’d earned that grade solely for my academic rigor.

Some trace of that must have shown on my face, but Amelia in her blessed distraction misinterpreted it.

“Oh, don’t worry, I have no problems with lesbians,” she said. “To each their own and all that… I just… I think even after years apart, you knew Ethan better than anyone else. I can’t imagine who else I could ask for help.”

“I’m flattered, but surely there are others better suited…”

“I don’t need another paleontologist,” she said. She picked up the scotch glass with a visibly shaking hand. “I don’t need another damned expert, Marnie. What I need is a friend.”

“I can be that,” I said, with more certainty than I felt. “I think Ethan would have liked it.”

“Ethan… Ethan would have hated what’s going on these days… he hated the idea of feathered dinosaurs, warm-blooded dinosaurs,” she said. “He grew up on the big lumbering brutes, the ‘terrible lizards.’ I remember he used to say, ‘They may have been terrible lizards but they’d be even worse birds.'”

“He said that in class a lot,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “I never got the impression you paid much attention to his work.”

“I can’t pretend I understood it as well as he did,” she said. “Or you… but I was a good wife. I knew what was important to him. I supported him. And now that he’s… gone… I’m continuing his work. I thought that’s what he would have wanted.”

“Thought?” I prompted, wondering at her use of the past tense.

“Since we restarted the dig, there have been… accidents,” she said. “Equipment that breaks, or just stops working. Little things mostly. We have to replace the batteries in the walkie-talkies every day. Little things. Then people… one of the grad students got hurt. Most of them have left.”

“You think somebody’s sabotaging the dig?” I asked. I instinctively looked around. It was just the two of us, in a tiny little tin can with no room to hide in, but I did it all the same. Instinct’s funny, that way.

“I think… I think it’s Ethan,” she said, in a very small and very tired voice.

“Have you seen him?” I asked. I didn’t ask if she was feeling okay, or if she had seen a doctor, or any other kind of friendly euphemism for “Are you nuts?” I knew that such things as ghosts were very real.

She still could have been nuts, but she had asked me there as a friend and so I was trying to be one.

“No… I haven’t seen him. I’ve felt him, though… standing behind me when I go to the dig, hanging outside the Caravan when I’m in for the night… or waiting inside when I’m coming back. I’ve felt him, and I’ve smelled him. I’ve smelled those cigars,” she said. “Those damn cigars. He wore a smoking jacket, but that didn’t stop the smell from clinging, settling all over him. You know what they smelled like.”

“I do,” I said, smiling slightly at the memory. I’d always liked his cigars. I’d even picked up a bit of a habit from him… a habit for men with cigars, that is. I personally felt stupid every time I took one of them in my mouth.

Cigars, that is.

Amelia finished her scotch in silence. I let her pour a glass for me, as that gave her an excuse to pour herself another. I sipped mine a bit, and asked for a top-off when she had drained hers, and in that fashion she finished the bottle. We filled the spaces between the booze with chit chat, safe neutral memories of the dearly departed.

I drank just enough to give myself a little buzz, to make the sharp hard corners of reality just a little bit softer and rounder. I would need that for what I had planned.

Fortunately, she was as much of a lightweight as I remembered, so I didn’t have to think up an excuse for opening another bottle. She was snoring loudly in her easy chair not long after the first one was emptied. I went to the Caravan’s kitchenette and looked for a salt shaker. It turned out Amelia had a big old fashioned salt cellar, and luckily enough, it was full.

I went outside and sat down in front of the Caravan’s narrow metal steps, facing outward. I unscrewed the top of the cellar and poured some of the salt out into my right hand, feeling the weight of it. I moved my fingers up and down, letting some of it sift through. There was very little wind.

For what I had in mind, I needed to find a connection with the land in a primal, bugfuck insane sort of way and I hadn’t thought to bring anything suitably hallucinogenic to help get me there. The salt was going to have to do it. It wouldn’t have necessarily worked anywhere else, but here in Utah it just might do the trick.

Once, a great salt sea had covered this land. That sea had died, and now the land covered it in turn. The salt provided an unstable geological foundation, which was responsible for the rather stunning variations in topography found in the Arches National Park.

Salt had other properties, as well. I saw, superimposed over the desert vista, the Roman sack of Carthage… the buildings razed, the land salted so that nothing would grow there again. I saw a Haitian priestess filling the mouth of a corpse with coarse salt and sewing it shut, so it couldn’t rise again.

I poured some more of the salt into my hand and let it trickle between my fingers, thinking about that.

Salt had been more precious than gold in some ancient cultures… the word “salary” for money or wages had its roots in the Latin word for salt. It was a necessary substance to sustain the processes of life. It was the first preservative known to man, limiting dependence on fluctuating seasonal food supplies and allowing for travel and trade over greater distances. Salt could kill disease organisms.

In large enough doses, it could kill people.

I thought about Ethan’s white salt spray on my face, and let the white grains of salt fall between my fingers.

Hey… you want to know a secret?

I can do magic.

Not just tricks with sleight-of-hand and cards, but real honest-to-goodness magic. Not flashy stuff like you see in cartoons, with lightning bolts and balls of fire, but magic all the same.

I didn’t need to throw any fireballs or doing anything else quite that impressive right at that moment. There are two ways to settle a restless spirit. They’re both roughly analogous to handling a restless drunk: you either talk them through it until they come around and calm down, or you get tough with them.

I wasn’t planning on getting tough with Ethan, because I owed it to him for being a great teacher, and I owed it to Amelia, because I had been docking her husband’s cock.

I thought about that some more as I let the salt fall from my hands and watched it as it fell. The tiniest breeze, the smallest stirring of air, caught the falling grains and sent them swirling.

I took off my watch and set it down, alongside the Caravan but well to the side of the door.

I got up.

I walked.

Then I walked some more.

I don’t know for how long I walked, as I’d left my watch outside Amelia’s Caravan. I am a scientist and a mystic, and the only thing both sides agree on is that time is an illusion. Tonight I wasn’t interested in the illusion, but in the hyper-reality of between-time, the between-place. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the twat of a virgin than it would be for me to slip into the Dreamtime with a clunky wristwatch tick-tick-ticking away at my wrist, just daring me to look at it.

You want to know another secret? The thing about magic is that one-tenth of it is knowing what to pay attention to. The other nine-tenths is knowing what to ignore. If I’d stopped to consider how far I’d walked at the time, it would have all come crashing down around me as surely as poor Wile E. will drop the moment he realizes he’s walking on air.

The moon had risen, sort of, and now hung low over the horizon, big and brilliant and bloody… as alien as the landscape it illuminated, as up close and immediate as the world outside was far away.

When I left the Caravan, I had set out in the direction of the dig, and though I didn’t dare think on it, I knew I should have walked right into the tarp-covered pits long before I encountered anything interesting. I had walked right past where the dig should have been, up through the high desert into the Arches. It would have been a good twenty, thirty mile walk if I’d done it the long way.

Have you ever been to the Painted Desert in Arizona and been stoned out of your gourd?

Have you ever been to Mars?

That’s kind of what it’s like to be there in the middle of the Arches National Park, with a big red moon filling a quarter of the sky and that’s with it hanging so low that a good third of it is still below the horizon.

And there, in front of that impossible moon, clearly illuminated by the bloody red light that shines through it… there stood something that looked like it stepped out of an Aztec priest’s most disturbing wet dream.

It had big, vivid eyes like a bird of prey, which stared down the length of its distinctly beak-like snout. Its neck was relatively thin, but cord-like and powerful looking. Its forelimbs were tipped with grasping claws, though they were very clearly wings and not arms.

Even without the brilliantly colored feathers that covered the creature, you would have seen that they were wings.

Its hind legs had three toes, though it walked with the weight only on two of them. The middle toe of each foot was held off the ground, ending in a “now-that’s-a-knife” style claw. Though it looked stooped over, with its torso leaning forward and its tail sticking out ram-rod straight, the tip of its snout hung more than nine feet off the ground.

I knew as soon as I saw it that I was looking at a one hundred million year old ghost.

I was looking at a Utahraptor.

“Well, you’re sure as hell not Ethan Conroy,” I said. “Haven’t seen him by any chance, have you?”

Its long neck curved backward and down, bringing its head lower to the ground. It shifted its balance… the tail swinging in the opposite direction… and one of the hind legs came up. With its smaller claws, the raptor scratched at its chin in a decidedly cat-like manner, before settling back down on both legs and giving its forelimbs a couple of flaps. It gave a raspy, coughing cry. The sound was faint and weak, muffled and indistinct like an old recording that had been overplayed. It ruffled its feathers a few times, and then began ambling forward. Not quite towards me, but past me. I watched it go cautiously, wondering what I’d do if it attacked… assuming it could touch me.

I was starting to wonder if it it could even see me, when it turned its head around and looked right at me, giving another one of its coughing cries.

“What is it, Lassie?” I said aloud. I felt slightly giddy, almost drunk. I’ve often found that the edge of delirium is useful when dealing with this kind of surreal shit. “What is it, girl? Timmy’s down the well?”

I followed the bird—for while the scientific community could continue to argue about whether the raptors were true avians or not, Lassie’s appearance had made up my mind for me—back down towards the camp. Again, I didn’t focus on the time or distance traveled. It was easier this time, as I had something quite fascinating to focus my attention on.

The raptor was magnificent, not quite like anything on earth. It moved with fluid grace, slinkier than any cat that ever stalked the primeval jungle. Nothing sluggish about it… this was definitely no thunder lizard.

Eventually, we stopped… or it stopped, and I did. It turned around in place, looking me right in the eye to make sure it had my full and undivided attention… as if there could have been any doubt… and then it began scratching at the dirt. Quite ineffectually, I might add, as its toe-claws actually passed through the ground without actually making contact.

“What’s down there?” I asked, then realized the answer was obvious. “You?”

It continued to paw at the ground ineffectually with its clawed feet, even reaching down and snapping with its toothy beak. I had a sudden incongruous image of a chicken scratching for worms.

“Well, that means you haven’t been the one scaring people away on purpose,” I said. “You wouldn’t have lead me here if you didn’t want to be found.”

The great raptor stood and stared at me impassively while I reasoned it out.

“You want your bones out of the ground,” I guessed. “All the salt in the ground has got you trapped… you can’t move on as long as your remains are stuck in the earth.”

It gave a little croak as if in confirmation, and I felt a little thrill go through me as I realized the implication. Not every creature that lived and died left any fossil impression… most didn’t, in fact. Most that did left only a fragment of themselves. For Lassie’s spirit to be stuck here in unliving color so long after its death, it was likely that there was a complete and detailed specimen beneath the spot where the specter stood. As the minerals which filled in the gradually decaying animal skeleton had created a perfect permanent image of Lassie’s body, so had a permanent image of her spirit remained. Immortality, of a sort that would have made the Egyptian pharaohs cream their mummy wrappings.

With that realization, I knew who had been responsible for the accidents that had plagued the expedition. The Widow Conroy had been right after all.

“Come on out, Ethan,” I called out into the darkness. “You might as well show yourself… I know you’re here.”

And just like that, he was… fainter and more translucent than the Utahraptor, and even more quiet. Though Ethan Conroy had died in this area, his body was interred elsewhere.

“You’ve been sabotaging your own last dig,” I said matter-of-factly. “Because you don’t want anybody to see what you know is buried here.”

Ethan looked at me defiantly, arms crossed. The message was clear: I was right, but he didn’t care. Lassie gave another one of her choked cries and she and Ethan glared at each other. The great bird pawed the ground like a bull getting ready to charge, but neither made a move towards the other.

“Look,” I said to Ethan. “You’re a scientist. You know this is right… you can’t hold back a discovery like this. Science keeps marching onwards, and you have to move on, too.”

Ethan gave his shoulders a little shrug, as if he didn’t care.

“Even if you shut down this dig, there will be others,” I said. “Not just here. In China, in the Gobi Desert. They’re finding more evidence of avian dinosaurs every year. I know the image of big lumbering claymation-style dinosaurs is a fond memory for you, but that’s all it’s going to be: a memory.”

“Don’t give me that,” I said, though of course he hadn’t given me anything more than a dirty look. “I don’t owe you anything… well, that’s not true, but I don’t owe you enough to help you destroy a find of this importance. Look, I’m going to make this easy on you… if you don’t stop haunting the dig, I’ll get somebody else to dig up the Utahraptor fossil, and I will keep you away. You’d better believe me when I tell you that I can do that. The only thing you’ll have accomplished is upsetting your wife, who’s only thinking of your legacy. Think about that, Ethan.”

His mouth opened and closed, silently… though I think even if he could speak he still wouldn’t have had anything to say. His form faded slightly more. He looked at me imploringly, a “Now what?” kind of look on his face.

“Go back to your wife, Ethan,” I said. “You’ve been scaring her. Tell her you love her… tell her goodbye. Tell her anything to explain why you’ve been haunting her. She deserves some kind of explanation.”

He was gone then, at least from that immediate vicinity. Lassie and I looked at each other for a few long moments, and she gave a tiny nod of her head before she vanished, too. I knew her spirit was still around, though, and that it would be until the imprint of her body was exhumed from the earth.

It was funny… so many ghosts hung around for years because they wanted a decent burial for their remains. This one had lasted for epochs waiting for somebody to dig its remains up.

The reddish light was suddenly very pink. The sun was rising, and there was no sign of the moon, big and bloody or otherwise. Frozen time melted back to normal as I hiked back to the Caravan. Amelia met me at the door.

Or rather, the palm of her hand met the side of my face. I guess Ethan must have found enough of his voice to come clean to her. She spit… yet another spray of salt on my face. You couldn’t get away from the stuff, out here.

There’s a saying that “science proceeds from the death of scientists”… no matter what big, bold words scientists might spout about empiricism and skepticism and methodology, they were human in the end, and thus prey to human folly. They each had their own belief systems, their own pet theories, their own favored ideas that they just would not let go of, no matter how much evidence piled up against them.

I think the saying originally referred to the opponents of Louis Pasteur. His germ theory of disease revolutionized our understanding of illness and created the modern science of medicine. By extending the human life expectancy, Louis might have ultimately done more to hamper scientific progress than to help it.

Morbid thoughts.

I got back into my car, said a silent prayer to whoever was responsible for the souls of Utahraptors, and was on my way.

If you enjoyed this story, you can help me bring others like it to life (and keep myself alive) by supporting me on Patreon.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

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A Matter of Appearances (Short Story)

Starting in June 2016, I’m going to be sharing one new short story per month with everyone who supports me on Patreon. I know the benefits I get from this, so for the rest of this month I’m going to be highlighting one of my previous short stories every day on this blog to show you what you get out of it. Today’s selection is a high fantasy story called “A Matter of Appearances”.

A Matter of Appearances

By Alexandra Erin

Most of the great cities of the south were blessed with a wizard tower. Many of them had in fact sprung up around the towers, and any spot on the map that was important enough to be settled for other reasons would eventually attract one.

The City of Stars alone had two. It was big enough to require more than one wizard, but having a double helping of magic was not necessarily a double blessing. Wizards were prickly and prideful creatures, prone to overweening vanity and destructive outbursts that were tolerated only because their services were too valuable to do without… and because no one was sure how to get rid of them, exactly. The two seemed to do everything in their power to try to destroy or expel the other, and if they had not yet managed it with magical might then it seemed foolish to hope that any mere mortal might accomplish such a feat.

Everyone in the City of Stars agreed that the worst place to stand was anywhere between the two towers, which was something of a grim joke. The tower of Bensalon the Gray stood just outside the town’s southern gate. The tower of Malevole the Red rose just within the north wall. Between them stood almost the entirety of the city.

At night sometimes lightning would dance around one or both of the towers. From time to time a dark shape would be seen streaking through the sky from one to the other, only to rebound and land hopefully in some barren and deserted stretch of land far from the city. Occasionally there would be some otherwise inexplicable eruption or disaster within the City of Stars that would be chalked up the wizards’ feud.

Rumors abounded about what each dire display portended, and what had caused it. Stories were told of the bound demons that Malevole sent to infiltrate Bensalon’s tower, of the hexes that Bensalon wove in retaliation. The red wizard was generally held to be the more aggressive of the two, though his partisans said instead that the grey wizard was the sneakier one.

If the conflict between the two had a source more particular than proximity, it was not known to any save the wizards themselves, and rarely questioned. The folk of the city accepted it, as their parents had.

Some felt that the city’s two wizards kept each other in check, that the need for them to be on guard against each other and to put on a better face for the public than the other kept them from descending to the level of the worst excesses of their distant colleagues.

Since every wizard was different and every city was different, it was hard to say for certain whether this was true. Others believed that the always-simmering conflict between them made things worse, though the two rarely resorted to open warfare as it was destructive and wasteful, and would leave them vulnerable to more subtle attacks from wizards in every city.

As a major port, the City of Stars received many visitors by ship. Those who came by land usually entered through the town’s southern gate, passing within a stone’s throw of the gray tower as they did so. On market days there was a steady stream of traffic, and the tower surrounded itself with a crackling aura of silvery fire that was perhaps specifically intended to dissuade the throwing of stones.

On this particular market day, a young woman in a brown cloak was among those who streamed past the glowing tower. She was alone in the crowd and traveling on foot. She scarcely looked at the tower. She scarcely looked at anyone or anything, save the bit of parchment in her hand. There were not enough lines on it to make much reading, just a name and some directions. It could have been memorized in a single pass, but still she read it over and over again, and gave the impression that she had done so many times before.

Once through the gate, she began to look around… not at the tower or the people, but at the buildings around her and their signs. She moved with the crowd for a short time, and then cut from it to go down a side street where she stopped to check her directions again. She set out again in a different direction, but did not make it far before she had to stop and check her parchment again.

“I know where you’re going,” a voice said from just in front of her.

She looked up and saw a young man, wild tufts of orange hair poking out from underneath his cap. His clothes were well-made but not ostentatiously so.

“I have…” she started to say as she held up the parchment.

“Don’t need those,” the young man said. He snatched it from her hand, crumpled it in his own, and released it in a flash of fire that consumed it completely. She gasped and drew back. Ignoring her distress, he smiled and pointed to the distant tower that loomed over the far end of town. “You can see your destination from here.”

All around the pair, the street was growing emptier. People who had been striding purposefully on a course that would have taken them past the young man were now moving just as purposefully away.

“Sir, I beg your pardon,” the young woman said. “I am to meet my uncle. He is a tailor.”

“That may have been true, but a more exciting opportunity has opened up,” he said. “I am called Winslas… you have heard of me?”

“I am afraid I have not,” she said, and a shadow passed across his face, though he shook it off and re-affixed his smile.

“Well, I am known throughout this city as the apprentice of the great red wizard, the First Wizard of the city, and he has sent me forth to find a replacement for the scullery maid.”

“Replacement?” she said.

“A new scullery maid, I mean,” he said. “And now I’ve found her. Oh, don’t worry. To be a servant in a wizard’s tower is better than being the lady of any house! That’s not to say that there won’t be work to be done,  of course, but there will be wonders to behold as well. Wonders, and great pleasures.”

“Sir, my uncle…”

“Will have no cause to complain for your absence,” he said. “What is your name, girl?”

“Mari,” she said. “Mariana Eskul. Sir, I do not wish to seem ungrateful…”

“Of course you don’t, but no worries. You will have ample opportunities to show me your gratitude at the end of your work day,” Winslas said. “Now, give me your hand… it is not good for servants of the red wizard to tarry so near the tower of the gray.”

“Scoundrel, that may be the first true thing you’ve uttered!” a voice boomed down from above them. There was a crack like thunder, and a man dressed in gray robes cinched with a silver-threaded waistcoat appeared between them.

The young man yelped like a kicked dog and took off running, losing his cap and a shoe and not looking back. The woman, Mari, fell backwards onto the cobblestones in her shock.

The gray wizard looked around, then closed his eyes and leaned on his walking stick for a moment. Nodding in satisfaction, he reached down and extended a hand to the woman.

“Lord Bensalon the Gray, my lady,” he said. “First Wizard of the City of Stars. I hope you have at least heard of me.”

“I had thought you would be older, my lord,” she said, accepting his help to her feet.

“One day I intend to be,” he said. “You mean you thought I would have a great big bushy gray beard and long gray hair to match, of course. But I have been a gray wizard all of my life, even when my hair had more brown to it than it does now. Gray is the color of my mind, of my temperament. Steely. Balanced. Subtle. Boring, to hear some tell it. Gray is the color of my magic.”

“And your wardrobe,” Mari observed, a twinkle in her eyes.

The wizard Bensalon laughed.

“So much of wizardry is a matter of appearances,” he said. “How would people know that I am Bensalon the Gray if I did not wear it plainly for all to see? Especially when I do not have the beard. But, come. We must get you off the street.”

He put his hand on the woman’s shoulder and began to draw her back towards the gate.

“I thank you for your intervention, my lord, but my uncle…”

“Will be in as much danger as you if you go to him now,” the wizard said. “The red wizard’s weasel will go skittering back to him to complain of your perceived insolence, which he will take personally. The only place that will be safe for you is within my tower.”

“So I am rescued from one wizard to become the captive of another?” Mari said.

“Not captive,” Bensalon said. “And you won’t be a servant, either. I will simply protect you until you can make arrangements to depart.”

“I can’t leave the city,” she said. “I came here because I have nowhere else to go. My uncle has a job for me.”

“There are other cities. One assumes they have positions for a young woman..”

“Not for a young woman who desires a life of her own,” she said. “I don’t want to sleep on a tatty straw mattress for a fulsome four hours of sleep and then work a loom the rest of the day. I don’t want to scrub floors and mind brats.”

“I take your meaning, but please, let us walk while we argue,” he said. He linked arms with her and set off at a brisk pace, which she matched.

“Why?” she asked him.

“We are too in the open here.”

“Can you not simply take us to your tower in the same manner in which you arrived?”

“I am,” he said. “To walk the streets cloaked in invisibility is no small thing. To bound the gap between the tower and the city in an instant is a different matter entirely.”

“Why were you walking the streets unseen?”

“I sensed mischief,” he said. “Meaning, of course, that wretch Winslas. I was following him. His master dares not venture so close to my tower unless he desires a confrontation, so he sends his apprentice when he desires something from the market… or when he has some scheme against me. I watched to see whether it was mischief or business that brought Winslas out… when I realized that his business was mischief, I intervened.”

“Would what he proposed have been so terrible?” Mari asked. “I am not saying that I’m not grateful, or that I would have wanted to go with him…”

“Exactly,” he said. “He would have taken you where you did not want to go. Is that not terrible enough? I have never seen inside Malevole’s tower, though I have my suspicions about how he uses his servants… and how his second does. In any case, it would have been terrible for a young woman who desires a life of her own.”

“I see your point,” Mari said, and she offered no further objections.

The silvery fire around the tower parted away from the arching set of double doors as the pair approached.

“Looks impressive, doesn’t it?” Bensalon said, waving his hand at the flames as they passed underneath them.

“What does the fire do?” Mari asked.

“Exactly what I said: it looks impressive.”

“But what would it do to one who touched it?” she asked.

“Disappoint briefly, and then relieve profoundly,” he said. “It looks impressive, though. As I said, much of wizardry is about appearances.”

“Why, is all of magic nothing more than an illusion?”

“No,” he said. “For instance, your uncle’s note really did burn. A small fire, completely natural, consuming such fuel as fire would favor…  that is not so hard to manage. A great big pillar of silver flames that dance around stone without consuming it? That is a different matter. But I must ask your pardon as I attend to the door.”

He touched the end of his walking stick to the door and closed his eyes. After a few seconds, both doors melted away.

“Was the door real?” Mari asked as they stepped inside. They only went a few strides into the dim corridor beyond when the door popped back into place, leaving them in darkness.

“Oh, in the sense that you mean it, yes,” he said. He waved his hand and torches lit themselves all along the stone corridor. “Else we could have simply walked through it. But it is not a real door. Rather, it’s part of the wall that must be removed to enter. This is a big thing, a difficult thing… but it is the only way in and out of my tower, and worth the effort to create and maintain.”

“Why not simply have a door?”

“It would not be as secure.”

“Then why make it look like a door?”

“So people… even wizards… will waste time trying to open it.” He pointed up at the high stone arch at the end of the corridor, which they were approaching. “That is the next stage of my defenses. It strips away all illusions.”

He gestured for her to pass through it first.

“Do I make you nervous, my lord?”

“Say instead that I am nervous and this will make me feel secure. One must be careful,” he said. “Naturally, I performed what divinations I could out in the street. Winslas was wrapped up in charms and glamours, as well a wizard’s apprentice might be when straying into hostile territory. I sensed nothing about you… but one cannot be too careful.”

“Fret not, First Wizard,” Mari said. She turned to face him and took a step backwards through the arch. “I am as I appear.”

“You are indeed,” he said. “But mind where you put your foot… the stairs are just behind you.”

Mari turned and looked behind her, letting out a small squeak of surprise when she saw how the floor dropped away into the darkness.

“Fear not,” he said. “There are stairs, though they are hidden. Take my arm and walk slowly.”

She complied, and they began to descend the invisible staircase.

“Why are we going down, when the tower is above us?”

“It is largely solid through and through,” he said. “More misdirection. The red wizard and my more distant rivals expend their energies trying to penetrate the wards built into the tower’s outer walls, and when they find naught but stone or darkness inside they think I have found some new means of obfuscating their sight. Or perhaps they see through it. Perhaps many of them have done the same. What I think of, another man may think of also. In any event, it may give them some pause.”

“Is all of a wizard’s time spent foiling the attacks of other wizards?”

“Much of it,” Bensalon said. “Understand, I feel little real rivalry, with Malevole or any other man… but I cannot control how my brethren feel about me, and if they believe I am a threat to their supremacy or might pose an impediment to their plans, they will strike at me as they can. Thus I must be on my guard.”

“And do you never act against them?”

“Well… from time to time, I must do something to ensure they remain occupied with other matters, or to show them that I will be no easy prey for their ambitions, or to prevent one of them from gaining enough power to make a decisive strike,” he said. “But I am a gray wizard, so it’s more a matter of maintaining the balance of power than trying to shift it in my favor.”

“Imagine if all wizards feel that way?” Mari asked. “What if none among you truly desires the struggle with the others? What if you each act against each other out of fear of what the others would do, unchecked?”

“It is a thought that has crossed my mind,” he said. “But if it is true, what of it? The situation is unaltered. Hold, here we must stop… the abyss is real, just ahead of us, but our destination is at hand.”

He turned and touched his hand to a section of the wall, and it swung inwards on a hinge.

“A door that looks like a wall,” Mari said.

“And not a drop of magic about it,” he said. “As hard to see with a wizard’s eyes as with anyone else’s.”

Just inside the door was a room of scant furnishings and modest proportions. There was a writing table with a chair, and a shelf with some books on it. Two doors of a more ordinary sort led out of it.

“My chambers are perhaps less impressive than you might have expected, but my needs are simple.”

“You live alone?”

“I have no need for servants,” he said. He leaned his walking stick in a corner. “Malevole the Red prefers to lead the life of a lord in fact, where I value my privacy too much to give it up for a little convenience.”

“I have noticed,” Mari said. “But have you no apprentice?”

“Not at the present time,” he said. “I have yet to find a candidate with the suitable qualities.”

“What qualities are those?”

“Among them are a keen mind and an inquisitive nature,” he said. “An uncommon reservoir of willpower, and the most elusive trait, at least in conjunction with the others: a certain amount of deference. Magic actually requires arrogance to work, but learning magic requires humility.”

“My lord, forgive what may be a lack of deference, but I find myself quite without prospects at the moment, and I believe myself to be somewhat keen and quite inquisitive,” Mari said.

“To be a wizard’s apprentice is a serious commitment,” he said.

“I have nowhere else to be,” she said. “I should like to get in touch with my uncle, but if it isn’t safe for me to be about the City of Stars without a wizard’s protection… well, this seems to answer a need, does it not?”

“A need for you, but what of me?”

“Do you not have better things you could be doing every time the red wizard’s pawn goes to market?”

“You do have a certain sharpness of wit,” Bensalon said. “And you may be quite bright… but no wizard has ever had a female apprentice.”

“Oh? You know what your brethren do in their towers?”

“Magic is about appearances,” Bensalon said. “And a girl for an apprentice… well, it wouldn’t look right, would it?”

“Is this what you think, or what you imagine they all think?”

“It comes to the same thing, mostly,” he said. “But… there is nothing in the nature of a woman that is necessarily incompatible with the practice of magic. There are seers and healers in every village and town across the southlands, after all. Perhaps a small test is in order, and depending upon what it reveals, there may be some things I can teach you.”

“My lord is generous,” Mari said.

“I am not agreeing to a full apprenticeship, you must understand,” he said. “Just some means by which you may better protect yourself against unwanted attention in the future.”

“Of course,” she said.

“Take up my walking stick.”

She went over to where he had left it. It was wood, though inlaid with silver and capped with a gray pearl the size of a cow’s eye. She touched it gingerly, then grasped it firmly and lifted it.

“Good,” he said. “Now, hold it level in front of you, outward from your body.”

She raised it slowly and pointed it out in front of her in no particular direction… but then turned sharply on her heel to aim it at Bensalon, a triumphant look on her face. That look vanished as the gray wizard did, too, and the stick in her hand turned into a snake, its fanged mouth quite near her hand.

She shrieked it and dropped it, jumping back… and bumping into the robed wizard, who clapped his hand on her shoulder.

“So this is what you really look like, ‘Winslas’,” he said. He spun her around. His stick was in his other hand.

“You were right, I’m afraid,” she said. “My Lord Malevole thought a female apprentice wouldn’t look right, though he agreed to take me on all the same.”

“I suppose that was the scullery maid that I chased off, then.”

“A stablehand,” she said. “His face was his own, by the way… the model for the one I wear when out in public, altered only to be somewhat more pleasingly symmetrical. So if you had stripped off his glamour, it would have revealed nothing. When did you know?”

“That you were his apprentice? When you tried to use my wand against me,” he said. “I suspected it before, as impossible as it seemed… but Malevole has tried more desperate tricks in his war against me, so I had to be certain. What you would do when you thought you held my wand was the test. If you had not tried to use it, I would still have assumed you were a spy or even an assassin, but I would have been on guard for hidden daggers rather than spells.”

“I could still become your apprentice.”

“Why would you betray your master, and how could I ever trust you if you did?”

“Because if you took me as your apprentice, as I am in truth, then I would be loyal to you in truth,” she said. “I’m loyal to Malevole because he has done for me what no other wizard would, but it is not what I want. I told you that I’m a young woman who wants a life of her own. My life, not the life I feign to suit him.”

“He could never let the insult go.”

“He could never acknowledge it,” Mari said. “If he were to accuse you of stealing his apprentice, he’d have to reveal that his had been a woman all along… and he couldn’t say a word about you having a woman for your apprentice, because he would know that you knew the truth about his.”

“That may be, but what you want can never be,” he said. “If you agreed to this desperate plan of your master’s in the hope of entering my service, then you have thrown your life away for nothing.”

“In truth, I did not have much hope that it would work,” she said. “Malevole was not the first wizard I approached, and you are not so different from the rest as you might like to imagine. I thought it was worth trying, that there was no harm in asking… but it would simply have been something of an unexpected bonus if you had agreed. Otherwise, I was prepared to fulfill the original plan I contrived for my master.”

“Foolish girl,” Bensalon said. “If that was your intention, you should have asked before you made the attempt because now you’ll never have another chance. I know you came in with neither staff nor wand… I would have seen either upon you quite plainly… and you’ll never wrest mine from my grip.”

“I don’t intend to,” she said.

Whatever reply the wizard would have made to this was lost as he stiffened and grimaced, then looked down. Mari’s fist was clenched around a handle that protruded from his vest.

“You should have kept guarding against knives, my lord,” she said. She twisted the knife. The stick clattered to the floor as he clutched at the wound. “So much of wizardry is, after all, a matter of appearances.”

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Note that this story along with two others in my patron preview line-up may also be found in The Lands of Passing Through, a short story collection available as a DRM-free ebook on Amazon Kindle, Nook, and as a multi-format bundle directly from the author.

I Do Not Fight Monsters (Short Story)

Hi, all! I’m Alexandra Erin, author, humorist, blogger, and poet. Like most people you know, I need food, shelter, and other products and services to live. Traditional publishing for authors is such a crapshoot when it comes to actually making a living that even most big name successful authors give advice like “have a second job” or “marry someone rich” when asked the best way to do it. I recognized this years ago, and so resolved to forge my own path.

I was not just crowdfunding before it was cool, I was crowdfunding before there was a name for it, or convenient tools that automate the model. I’ve had a number of successes over the years doing things my own way. Now I’m focusing my efforts on Patreon in a big way, and I’m asking you to join me.

As blessed as I have been, the authors who do best in crowdfunding are usually those who have the exposure that comes from a successful career in traditional publishing. They have a following. They have a reputation for quality. They have a large fanbase ready to leap at the ability to pay them directly for their work instead of filtering their gratitude through a large and somewhat inefficient machine.

I’ve already made a name for myself as a social media commentator, blogger, and satirist. Starting today, I’m going to be making a name for myself as an author. Here, on my blog, I’m going to be sharing one previously published short story a day, every day, until the end of the month. If you support me on Patreon, you will get to read a brand new story like these each month, most months (allowing for the vicissitudes of life). The money you pay will support me in being able to continue writing the fiction, satire, and commentary that you enjoy.

Today’s selection is the first full-length story I ever submitted for publication, to a zine called The Edge of Propinquity, which published it in April 2007. This now-defunct zine was the original home of Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road, a variation on the phantom hitchhiker story. If you enjoy it, please consider showing your gratitude either by pledging support for further writing, chucking something in the tip jar, or even just spreading the word. Share the link, tell people you enjoyed the story, review it on your blog.

I Do Not Fight Monsters

By Alexandra Erin

My name is Gemma Saunders, and tonight, I’m putting a vampire to rest.

To be clear, I’m not a hero. I don’t have special powers. I don’t fight the monsters. I’m just a grief counselor. My training is in helping people say good-bye when the ones they love are gone.

How did I come to be standing in a graveyard at sundown, about to confront the undead with a priest and a sheriff for backup? It sounds like something out of an action movie, or at least someone else’s life. The answer’s surprisingly mundane. That doesn’t stop me from asking myself the question, though. This doesn’t seem like a job for someone like me.

It started in the second year of my practice, when I first became aware that the world is not entirely as advertised. One of my clients, Mr. Applethwaite, seemed to be having an extremely difficult time letting go of his departed wife, to the point where he wasn’t sure that she was entirely departed. I agreed to meet him at his house, thinking I could show him how his imagination was running away from him. But if it was, then it was running away from me, too.

So, it turned out there really was such a thing as ghosts. Who knew?

After a relatively brief and dignified period of screaming, I realized I could still help. What was a ghost, after all, but somebody who had unresolved issues with death, problems letting go? So, I helped the late Mrs. Applethwaite through her grieving process and poof!

Gone with the wind.

Every ghost wants something. Sometimes they want attention. Sometimes they just want someone to listen. Sometimes they need somebody to tell them that everything’s going to be fine and they should just head for the light.

I never feel comfortable telling somebody that. How do I know it’s true?

But I do have the numbers of a few very understanding priests in my Rolodex. They have no problem saying so.

I don’t do enough “spooky business” that I can quit my regular practice. How do you let potential clients find you without the rest of the world thinking you’re nuts? The internet’s been a real blessing in that department. I’ve found that if you don’t intentionally list your website anywhere, and don’t take out any advertising, then the only people who find you are the people who think to look for you.

Most of the people who find my site are looking for an exorcist, but I provide a more humane alternative. I’ve learned it is possible to force a spirit out or even “dissolve it” (whatever that means) through rituals and strength of faith or what could only be called magic. But that seems like a harsh way of dealing with somebody’s wife or mother, doesn’t it? It’s hell on the survivors, too.

Also, I charge less than a professional exorcist. More than my usual hourly rate, of course. But it’s specialized work.

So, how did this unorthodox but effective ghost busting business lead me to be standing in a rural cemetery at sunset, accompanied by a cop, a priest, and a wailing middle-aged woman? Well, after learning that ghosts are real, it should have come as no great surprise that certain other “things that go bump in the night” have a verifiable physical presence in our world, too.

Yeah. It should have, but it didn’t. My first demon caught me by surprise. So did my first vampire. Turns out, it’s easier to mistake those things for ghosts than you might think.

If a body is interred in holy ground, it cannot rise as a vampire. For a mythological being, that’s pretty simple mytho-logic.

But that doesn’t mean the dead body won’t become a vampire. Just that it can’t rise.

Instead, it spends the day trapped in unimaginable agony, and at night, its spirit (or whatever vampires have that make them a vampire) rises up out of the ground all mist-like as a specter.

The specter is bound to the vicinity of its grave, though as it kills and feeds, it gains strength. And range. And eventually it’ll either be able to enthrall some poor sap and get its grave dug up, or it’ll grow strong enough to break out of the ground itself. That’s especially likely if the land’s not particularly consecrated in the first place.

Municipal graveyards are the worst in this respect. Private family plots and Catholic cemeteries tend to be the best. The Catholics love them some ritual.

I don’t know all this from personal experience, by the way. As I said, I don’t fight the monsters and my usual plan for dealing with vampires is to avoid them. But once I first dipped my toe in to the occult, I started noticing other things, and weird people with even more hidden knowledge kept coming my way. Kind of like how when you learn a word for the first time, and then it seems like you see it everywhere.

Anyway, I plan to avoid the issue of graves entirely by having my body cremated. I think it would be mandatory, except then the people in charge would have to tell everybody else what they know.

So, the upshot is that a specter isn’t quite as dangerous as a full-fledged vampire, especially if it’s never managed to lure somebody close enough to feed. At that point, the thing’s almost literally stuck with “one foot in the grave”. As far as I knew, the specter of Mrs. Annabelle Murray hadn’t gotten to anybody, but I was playing it safe. We showed up before the sun set and Father Mike, my bona fide priest, immediately made a circle of consecrated host around the grave and then set his stuff up a good fifteen yards back from that. Just close enough that we could be sure the specter would manifest. The rest of us were behind him.

Holy water would have worked just as well, and with less protestation from the padre, but I like a line that everybody could clearly see. A line I could point to and say, “Do not cross.” It wasn’t my idea to have anybody here but me and the priest. Well, I would have preferred it was just him, but I was collecting for the job so I had to make sure it was done right.

The situation was this: a vampire had run amok in the small town of Fabersville a short time ago, and while somebody had eventually dealt with it, one of its first victims had gone unnoticed and was buried without any of the prescribed “treatments”. Because the experience left the whole town a little wary of graveyards, nobody immediately noticed the specter of a 73-year-old grandmother. It was her daughter, Mrs. Anne Murray Schneider, who made the discovery.

Rather than having her saintly mother’s body dug up, decapitated, and burnt. And sparking a panic in the process, she sought out an alternative solution, and found me. I had a cleaner, friendlier solution: have a priest repeat the funeral mass in the specter’s presence. The mystic types believe that it’s some spiritual component of the prayers that forces the unholy presence out. Maybe it’s my professional bias, but I believe this just reminds the human component that it’s supposed to be dead and so it lays down quietly. Either way, it seems to work, especially when the subject was known to be devout in life, as Mrs. Murray was.

The only wrinkle was that Mrs. Schneider insisted on being there. She was the one signing my paycheck, so I couldn’t refuse her. I wasn’t too thrilled when she showed up with Sheriff Henry Hascomb at her side, either.

“It only seemed right to let the authorities know,” had been her explanation. Me, I had a hard time thinking of a county sheriff as the authorities. The authorities were grim, efficient men with matching suits, sunglasses, and personalities. If a supernatural problem was bad enough that they had to intervene, they’d come in and clean the situation up, and next year Rand-McNally would be selling a map with one less dot on it and nobody would ask why.

But the sheriff had been the one responsible for dealing with the vampire that caused the present situation, so I wasn’t entirely against his presence. I wasn’t entirely for it. Father Mike I could trust not to do anything fatally stupid. The daughter of the person whose face the specter was using, though? I have to admit, I was a little less sure about her. The sheriff’s simply an x-factor to me. Who knew how he’d react if things took an unexpected turn?

And that brings us up to the here and now.

“You sure this’ll work?” the sheriff asks me dubiously. The sun is fast sinking from sight.

“The ceremony or the circle?” I ask.


“The circle, definitely. If the ceremony doesn’t, nothing will stop you from coming back in the morning and doing the usual thing,” I say. I don’t elaborate, but Mrs. Schneider wails louder, anyway. “It won’t be able to cross the ring of hosts, and as long as nobody gets within arm’s length of that line we’ll all be safe as houses.”

“So it can reach across?” he asks me.

“I’m not sure,” I admit.

“Seems like it would be a good thing to know.”

“I’ve never been curious enough to find out,” I tell him.

Father Mike is watching the skyline. “Should I begin?” he asks when the last sliver of the red disk disappears.

“Let’s wait until our guest of honor makes her presence known,” I say. If it doesn’t work, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering if it’s because the specter showed up halfway through the prayers. I don’t say that out loud, of course.

We don’t have long to wait. The cemetery is on a hill, and the fog which settled on the surrounding land starts to creep upwards, settling around us. It’s eerie as hell, but it’s just set-dressing.

The real show begins when fog of a thicker sort begins rising from the bare, hard earth in front of Mrs. Murray’s tombstone. The grass doesn’t always wither and die over a vampire’s grave, by the way, but it’s still a decent warning sign. I’ve seen exactly four specters before. One of them made its entrance with a fully formed ghostly hand rising up out of the earth followed by an arm and the rest of it. Very theatrical. The other three rose vaporously and then coalesced into a human-like form. Mrs. Murray’s specter did that, as well.

I watch her rise, but I try not to look too closely at the image that forms. She looks, appropriately enough, like somebody’s grandmother.

It, I mean. Not she. The specter is not a person.

I signal to Father Mike, who lights his censer and then begins reading. We’d talked about this before and decided it was best to just plow through it. The more time Mrs. Schneider had to spend in the presence of the specter, the worse it was likely to be for her. And the more dangerous for the rest of us. She could grieve later.

The specter of Mrs. Murray shows delight at seeing us arrayed all around us, but the kindly old woman’s face twists into a mask of inarticulate rage when it encounters the barrier presented by the circle. It claws at it like it’s a physical wall, pain and want etched over its increasingly inhuman features.

Henry undoes the snap on his holster.

Father Mike begins chanting louder and faster.

Mrs. Schneider makes a weird strangled sort of cry.

“That’s not your mother,” I tell her as firmly as I can, but she doesn’t look convinced.

“You have to be strong, Anne,” Henry tells her. “Your mother would want you to be strong. We’re doing this for her.”

That’s when the whole thing goes downhill faster than urine flows down a pant leg (and I swear that metaphor came out of nowhere.) None of the specters I’ve dealt with have been able to speak. I’ve never heard of one that could before it tasted blood. Somehow, this one finds its voice.

“They’re hurting me,” it croaks in a very small and faraway voice that somehow carries all the way to us.

Everybody freezes. Wouldn’t you know it; it’s Mrs. Schneider who snaps out of it first. She darts past us, shoves Father Mike I watch him fall backwards over his little tripod censer. I see his head hit a tombstone with a meaty thwack. I watch Mrs. Schneider running towards the waiting, eager arms of the specter, crying “Mommy!” all the while.

I unfreeze.

“Shoot her!” I yell at Henry, who already has his gun in his hand. I scream it; in fact, in the embarrassing scream-yourself-hoarse-before-you-even-start-screaming voice most of never use after the time when we’re twelve and we tell our parents we hate them. “Shoot her! Shoot her!”

The stupid ass shoots the specter. The specter! He empties his clip uselessly into the swirling fog. I don’t count the shots. I don’t even know how many a gun like that would hold. I don’t fight monsters. I only know it’s empty because he keeps pulling the trigger and nothing else comes out.

As Mrs. Schneider kicks up gravel and leaves with every footfall, it’s pointless to hope she’ll somehow neatly step across the outside of the circle. No, she plows a big hole in the line of little white disks, which is all the specter needs to leave its grave and come after us. That, and a little blood.

There’s a theory I’ve heard that new vampires go after their own family members first because blood that is of their own blood gives them more power. Once again, I don’t know for sure and I’m not feeling experimental. After it has its initial taste, it’s got a choice between two victims who are already down and not going anywhere, and two that still have the potential to get away.

When Henry sees me take off running, he comes to his senses and takes off himself. He’s a little bit faster than me. Then I catch the toe of my boot on one of those stupid marble plaques that everybody uses now, and he becomes a lot faster than me.

“Wait!” I yell. “Wait!”

He stops and turns back, a sheepish look on his face. I limp-stagger-run up to him. He offers me his arm.

Survival Rule #23: When you and a friend are running from a ravenous beastie, you don’t have to outrun the beastie. You just have to outrun the friend.

Henry Hascomb isn’t even my friend.

I kick him in the groin and shove him aside, then hobble as fast as I can down the hill. He screams at me, and then, he’s just screaming, but it’s okay because I’m at my car. For one stupid moment I slap my pockets to find my keys before I realize they’re already jangling in my hand. It’s all a blur after that. I just drive.

I drive until the sun comes up, then I stop at the side of the country highway and sit there, shaking. I have no idea where I am. The gas light is on and I have no idea when I last passed a gas station or where one will be coming up. My brain can’t convince my hands to let go of the wheel. I’m going to have to call somebody, I know. I’m going to have to find somebody who can deal with the thing, now loose in the cemetery. And the bodies it will have hidden away as safely as it can; the bodies that will soon be corporeal vampires.

Did it get enough power from three victims to break out of the ground itself?

Or will it have to wait until the others rise to help it?

I don’t know. Somebody will have to find out, though.

For now, I think I’m just going to pass out.

I’m not a hero. I don’t have special powers.

I do not fight monsters.

This story along with two others in my patron preview line-up may also be found in The Lands of Passing Through, a short story collection available as a DRM-free ebook on Amazon Kindle, Nook, and as a multi-format bundle directly from the author.

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