|Piņatas From Space!: Crazy Games With Cards And Dice|
by Jeromy Henry
|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
by Jeromy Henry
|The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales|
by Jeromy Henry
Beyond the Rift
"Three spoons?" The voice sounded like water gurgling at the bottom of a rusty drain.
Jed took a pull at the brown neck of his beer and sucked out some of its foamy, cold blood. As he savored the taste of choice hops, he glanced at the man down the bar.
The flickering light from a pair of oil lamps overhead did little to reveal the speaker. He wore a tan hat with the brim pulled low. A brown wool cloak filled with holes wrapped around a body lean as a scarecrow. The gentleman held a single spoon in front of his face with shaking fingers.
He'll wake up in an alley with his purse gone and maybe an extra smile across his throat, thought Jed.
"Is it albonorum venedrum iridium? Or iridium albonorum venedrum?" the man asked himself. He laughed like a dog's squeaky toy and pounded the bar top with a skeletal hand. A pewter mug fell over and rolled with a dull clank.
Stools scraped. A girl gasped. The door slammed, and Jed felt the pounding of footsteps and the groan of old boards as customers behind him ran for the exit.
He jumped up and slapped a couple of copper pennies in a puddle of beer foam. But before he could turn towards the exit, a meaty hand clapped his shoulder and pressed down.
"Just a two-bit talent. No need to run, Jed," said a voice that smelled and sounded like the depths of an old whiskey barrel. "He ain't gonna blow anything up."
Jed relaxed and turned to the barkeep. "How's things, Joe?"
The solid mountain of flesh shrugged. A few chins jiggled, and his white apron snapped like a canvas under a nor'easter. One hand rubbed a face flatter than a frying pan, and watery blue eyes blinked.
"Better if idiots wouldn't try to cast spells in my bar. Shoulda known something was up when he ordered a thirteenth drink."
Jed sighed. "You can understand why they try. If anyone could control magic, he could have anything. Anything." Crimson hair, green eyes, and a measure from a waltz twirled through his mind, opened a dusty mental door, and closed it with a creak. The music stopped. He could bring back Lorelei.
The figure at the bar waved a thin wand. "Albonorum Venedrum Albanium Zinc!" A cloud of purple smoke obscured the scarecrow, and in his place sat a giant rutabaga.
"Two-bit talent," rumbled Joe. "See? Why doncha help me drag that trash to the back to feed to the pigs. Give you a beer."
As Jed grabbed the rubbery leaves and helped Joe drag it, he thought of an old book with scraped parchment leaves and a cracked leather binding, sitting in the bottom drawer of his desk. He remembered tracing a finger over the old, faded lines of ink within. He'd never seen a more complete book of spells. Had he read the ritual right? It offered a way to cast not just one enchantment, but to connect to the source of magic itself and gain unlimited wishes...
The back door squeaked and interrupted his thoughts. He and Joe swung the giant vegetable back and forth a couple of times and let it fly. He heard a pig grunt and begin to chew. A quick glance upwards saw the two moons staring at him like faded violet eyes of an old and tired lady of the evening. Double-full. A good night for magic.
"You're thinking of trying it, aren't you?" asked Joe.
"Don't be a damn fool. I can feel the potential in you, boy. If you fail, this whole city could blow. You've got too many dreams in your skull," said Joe. He turned his head and spat in the dust.
"How do you know?" asked Jed.
Joe shrugged, creating an effect rather like a snow-capped mountain undergoing an eruption. He belched, as if to complete the picture.
"Dunno. I've seen a lot of would-be wizards. Tended bar for forty years. You just get a sense for which ones to run from after a bit. Can't say as I can explain it."
Jed breathed in the cool night air, scented with dead fish from the river, piss from the alley, pig shit, and stale beer from the open doorway of the Cross-eyed Dog behind him. He'd gotten used to Almedra City's aroma, though he remembered coming in from the country the first time and nearly retching at the gate guard's shiny black boots. He'd been what, fifteen? Hard to believe he'd ever been so young.
"Have you ever gone to the canyon, Joe?"
The mountain shrugged. "Once or twice. Hard to avoid it." His face scrunched up, as if unsure why Jed had asked.
"I tried everything to get out. Steel spikes break on the rock. No one can climb the slick sides. I shot a grappling hook over it with a ballista. The hook exploded and the rope end came back burned. The canyon circles the entire country, a mile wide trench. Magic is the only explanation for it."
"Don't take a genius to figure that out. So?" prompted Joe.
"No one has managed to control a spell, not that anyone's ever heard, though there are always legends of Oruin times. An artifact from the old days turns up now and then. We know it's real. You can buy a book or scroll in any secondhand shop. What I want to know is why? Why are we cut off? Are there enemies out there that the canyon protects us from, or did someone shut us in for some reason? What's out there?"
Joe shrugged. "You think too much, lad. Have a beer and you'll forget all about it."
"And then there's Lorelei," continued Jed. He waved off the bottle Joe handed him. The barkeep shrugged and drained it himself, wiping off his face with the back of a hand as hairy as a gorilla's.
"Ah, so that's the real reason. There are other women, lad."
"I can't live without her, Joe. I've tried every kind of damn thing to forget. All those years her father kept her cooped up and refused to let me marry her, just because I didn't have enough money. Then the stubborn old goat died in the feud with his neighbors, and she died too. I've spent all these years getting rich. And it doesn't matter. If I had succeeded sooner, I could have taken her away with me. I could have saved her, Joe."
"No sense goin' over might have beens, lad," Joe interrupted.
Jed ignored him. "I'd rather go out with a bang than slide away and turn into that derelict we just tossed to the pigs." His fingernails dug into his palms. He wondered if his friend would kosh him and bury him in a shallow grave now, or help him out.
"I'll lend you my cart. Drive out of the city. Even if it don't work, I heard some people as tried it survived," said Joe. "They may have been crazy, but they survived. I'll put in a good word for you at the asylum."
Jed felt his eyes turn wet. "Thanks. Half an hour beyond the East Gate. I picked out a place and buried a silver circle in the ground. I've planned it for a long time."
A giant hand clapped him on the shoulder. "Good luck. You ever think magic is why they died out? The Oruin?"
"Maybe. Maybe I'll bring them back and ask one."
"You do that. Let me hitch up ol' Wendy and give you bottle of Kirin's Breath. If yer gonna blow yerself up, might as well go out in style."
Ten minutes later, Jed cracked the reins. The white horse flicked an ear and her feet clopped on the dirt road. Wheels creaked. Jed glanced over his shoulder and saw Joe waving from the half-open gate. He didn't miss the crossbow half-hidden behind the behemoth's back. Insurance if Jed didn't drive out of town after all.
As he jounced up and down, the spells talked softly in his head, and the moons' eyes watched the bare dirt path in front of him. A million leafy hands, softly rustling, tried to grab the sparkling gems made of violet light.
"Will I be the first since the Oruin to cast a spell? And control it?" he thought. He lifted the bottle of Kirin's. The slug of liquor burned down to his belly like a lit coal.
Jed woke up and groaned. He may have groaned because his head felt like the end of a dwarf's hammer after a long day of mining, or because his throat felt like a well that ran dry a hundred years past. He pried open gummy eyelids and surveyed the clearing. Despite the pain of the sun's rays slamming into his eyeballs like lightning bolts, he pieced together the scene.
A cow wearing an orange ball gown cropped grass a few yards away. It flicked its tail at a swarm of purple flies the size of apples. The tangled limbs of three lovers spilled out from beneath a hyacinth bush. Empty brown bottles from beer, and square, clear bottles that once trapped stronger demons, lay sprawled all over the grass like ninepins. His silver circle, twisted and melted, undulated next to a snoring man adorned with the rough grey homespun of a peasant and sporting a beard the color and consistency of steel wool. Why he wore a bishop's miter was anyone's guess.
But most surprising of all, a nine foot tall creature with translucent white skin leaned over him and grinned, revealing the flat teeth of a herbivore. Liquid eyes as big as his fist blinked, rippling with the gold and rich brown of a tiger's eye gem. The thing wore a robe of silver that shone like metal. An Oruin!
Jed yelped and scuttled backwards, barely feeling the dew soaking his britches. Spots swam before his eyes as his swollen head protested the move. His belly roiled like a ship in a storm and he nearly retched.
"No need to worry, Wizard. You brought us back to life," said the creature. It smiled wider and held out both hands. "For which we thank you." Its tones sounded like silver as well, high and clear and pure.
Jed noticed a few other Oruin standing around the clearing. Two of them tapped pewter mugs together and quaffed the foam from the top of their libations. Their long legs dangled ridiculously off two plain oak chairs sized for humans. Another Oruin bent its knees and leaned forward, engaged in a staring contest with Wendy, the horse. Still others lay sleeping, rolled in their odd silvery garments.
"You speak Arendish," Jed blurted.
"So we do," said the Oruin. "Call me Eman, by the way. When you recalled us from the grave, you made a few changes."
"Magic can do anything," Eman said.
Now that Eman mentioned it, Jed felt as if some immense presence stood right behind him. His shoulder blades itched. He turned around wildly, but saw nothing. In his mind, he pictured a giant creature the color and shape of a storm cloud, peering at him with great orange eyes. Mentally, he sensed interest and happiness, the feelings of a favorite hound when he greets you at the door. He could almost feel a great, shaggy paw pressing down on his shoulder and feel hot breath on his neck. He shuddered.
"Water," croaked Jed. He sank down cross-legged on the grass, trying not to black out. "I wish I didn't feel so lousy," he muttered.
Suddenly, Jed felt better than he had ever felt in his life. His head cleared. He patted his stomach and found his beer bulge gone, replaced by flat muscle. He held a glass of water in his hand, full to the brim, with rare ice chips slowly melting on the top.
"Be careful," said Eman. "Like I said, magic can do anything. You'll have to learn to control what you think. It turned rather wild around here when you dreamed last night."
"If I think it, it happens? What if I want to destroy the world?"
"Then hope you can ask magic to put it back together. You'd be surprised how many times it's happened. Every wizard gets pissed off and destroys the world at least once. Or twice." The Oruin shrugged and smiled as if it were no big deal.
Jed dropped the glass from suddenly numb fingers. It cracked on the grass and spilled all over his boot.
The ground began to shake.
I do not want to destroy the world, Jed thought desperately, I do not want to destroy the world! It made him feel for a moment as if he sat back in Father Herrin's class, hunched over a desk and scratching "I will not talk in class" on a scroll with his quill. He squeezed his eyes shut. The invisible beast panted on the back of his neck. And the shaking slowly stopped.
When he turned, he saw her. Lorelei.
He felt numb. His thoughts floated far above his head like a grey cloud, threatening rain. Her arm looped through his. He could smell the fresh washed scent of her hair, almost feel the crackling static of the red strands as they floated beside him. He could feel the radiance of her smile giving him a light sunburn.
The real Lorelei would have hit him with a frying pan by now after the incident with the vanishing clothes. And then teleporting them into the middle of the town square. And... he felt the creature grow interested and lean over his shoulder, as if trying to peer in his head.
"I don't want any of that!" he thought. The creature retreated.
Something was wrong, he thought. She was just so... nice. Not that Lorelei hadn't been pleasant, but this mannequin who walked beside him... she looked at the world through empty eyes. Had he truly brought back his love, or just a shell of a woman who wore her face?
"You're too nice," he blurted, then winced at how the complaint sounded.
"Is that bad?" Lorelei asked. She turned green eyes on him. The emerald wells almost sucked him in again, looming as large as the ocean. He could almost hear the crashing of surf...
"Stop that!" he thought furiously at the creature. "It's a metaphor, dammit!" The salt water retreated. A warm heat permeated his lower legs and dried the water off his breeches and boots. He kicked aside a starfish.
"Um, I mean you're different than when I knew you... before..." he started.
"Before I died? I suppose I am. I remember being a lot more angry, especially at you. I don't feel that way anymore," she said.
"Make her personality back the way it was, before I brought her back," he thought at the magic.
Lorelei slapped him. The move took him completely by surprise and he dropped to the ground.
"How dare you mess around with magic to drag me back from beyond the grave! You nearly destroyed the world THREE TIMES IN THE LAST HOUR, you idiot. And you showed me off naked to half of Almedra, and..."
Several thoughts flashed through his head. Lorelei's rant abruptly cut off. He turned to find an empty dress.
"No!" he cried. The ground shook. Jed sank to his knees as a fissure raced towards him.
"Stop it," he thought. The crack stopped growing. It split the earth from within a yard of his boots all the way to the horizon. Slowly, lava began to seep up in places, like blood from a wound.
Jed breathed raggedly. His hands trembled as he stared at the empty dress, at the lava. Heat washed over him, and smoke began to billow from the ground. He sank to his knees and pressed his hands to his temples.
"I want her back. I do not want to destroy the earth. Put it back the way it was. Please," he thought. He felt the big presence circle around him, sniffing like a hound. The shaking stopped, and the smell of smoke and the heat vanished. A hand touched him lightly on the shoulder.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Lorelei, anything I think happens. I can't seem to control it. I could kill you with a thought or break the earth open like an egg. Please, just... just help me sort it out. I know you're angry when things happen, but I can't help it."
"We need to see Eman," she said. The hand left his shoulder, and a yank brought him to his feet. "I think he has some explaining to do. And I'll try not to yell at you. Even if you deserve it!"
Lorelei smiled at him. Instead of the placid, doll-like face she'd worn before, he could see the sparkle of life in her eyes. He gripped her hand, and they walked back to the clearing. He tried to keep his mind blank. He counted the steps.
"107... 108... 109... 110..."
He could almost hear the low whine and feel the breath of the creature behind him. It wanted him to do something. Anything. It prodded him with its nose.
"Uh, go make the crops grow or something," thought Jed.
The creature bounded off. It radiated happiness.
They found the Oruin back in the glade, studying Jed's book of magic. Jed shivered. He hoped the Oruin didn't try any spells.
"Eman," said Lorelei. "How did the Oruin control the magic? Jed's had too many close calls!"
The Oruin tapped the side of his cranium with a long finger and blinked. Jed had no idea what that body gesture meant.
"We trained for years. Only those with the best self-discipline read the sacred books. Some were allowed to cast individual spells. Only the most trusted ones tried the ritual in this book." Oruin tapped it with his finger.
"Think of how hard it is to be in control when not in control at all - that conundrum is the essence of magic. You must have a very disciplined mind, for a human anyway, to manage the ritual at all," he continued.
"Even with training, some of our mages destroyed the world and had to restore it. The problem is that you never learned their skills, despite your natural aptitude. I imagine your apelike minds are different from ours, so how much our techniques would benefit you remains to be seen."
"So there's nothing you can teach me?" asked Jed.
Eman shrugged. "I could try. It might take years of effort. We Oruin could cast some spells. Perhaps the magic might be less... eager... if it had more mages to serve."
"We don't have years," said Lorelei. "As soon as Jed falls asleep tonight, who knows what will happen?"
Eman spread his hands. "Not that I am ungrateful, but might I suggest the simplest solution? Kill yourself, and the world will be safe."
Jed stood rooted in shock. Lorelei's face grew as red as her hair. From her clenched fists, Jed could tell she just barely restrained herself from decking the Oruin.
"Why didn't you just let the magic be if it was so dangerous?" Jed said. A sick feeling roiled his stomach. Was the only answer really to throw himself off a cliff or take poison?
A tree behind him exploded, sending splinters fountaining in to the air. The cow in the ball gown mooed and ran off, followed by Wendy. Several people hid behind bushes. Only the Oruin stood in place.
"How could we ignore magic? Our mages could build a palace or a road with a thought. They could make the harvest grow and gather it with almost no effort. They could spin the planet like a top and change the weather. We lived like kings."
Eman leaned forward. "Jed, you are the emperor of this world. Enjoy it, revel in it. I don't seriously suggest you should do away with yourself. I only brought it up because it would surely occur to you on your own. Calm down. Let us train you. If disasters happen, magic can fix anything."
"I'll... consider it," said Jed. He thought hard. "The rift around this land, the one protected by magic. What is it? Who made it, and why?"
Eman sighed. "The last great Oruin wizard that I remember, he had strange ideas. He created the rift. He claimed we Oruin were dangerous and the outside world should be protected from us. He may have even raised your race and given it intelligence, though I can't say for sure. You odd little apes did not exist when I last lived. I do not know how we all died, though I suspect he destroyed his own race." The Oruin shook his head.
"I wonder if he meant to leave any humans here within the rift at all," thought Jed. "Did he mean to seal off magic forever? Protect against someone finding an Oruin book or artifact? And if so, why did he fail? Did the magic disobey him, or did he just go mad and muck it all up?"
Jed turned on his heel. He looked at the dappled forest shadows and spotted a faint trail that led from the clearing and deeper into the wood.
"No one follow me," he said.
"Wizard, what will you do?" asked Eman.
Jed did not answer. Instead, he began to run. He glanced back briefly and saw Lorelei looking after him, tears in her eyes. One hand stretched halfway out as if to catch him.
He turned resolutely away.
"I need to escape," Jed thought. He could feel himself hyperventilating. Even as the people behind him receded from sight, they still felt too close, as if warm bodies pressed all around him in a too-small room.
"I could kill them with a thought... no, don't..." he demanded of the magic desperately. "I'm a danger to everyone around me. Like an army trampling a farmer's corn."
His breath came in gasps now as his feet steadily pounded on the uneven trail. Twigs snapped and branches whipped in his face. He held out one hand to protect his eyes.
All around him, he could see helmets poke up through the dark loam, around the gnarled roots of the trees. Leaves rustled and branches moss-covered logs rolled and heaved as silvery spears pierced the earth's skin. Grinning faces came next, barely human visages twisted in rage, faces out of a nightmare.
"That's exactly what they are," thought Jed bitterly.
He stopped running and knelt, panting, on the dirt. Sweat dripped down his face, and he angrily swiped it away with a sleeve. He closed his eyes and imagined the faces sinking back down into the ground. The rustling stopped. Jed drew in a shaky breath and held it, trying to calm down and let go of his rage.
An unpleasant thought tickled the back of his mind. What if the Oruin raised their own mage? What if that wizard wanted to get rid of all the humans and take back the earth for the Oruin? The image of Eman reading Jed's book forcefully shoved to the center stage of his mind.
Jed sighed and dismissed that new worry as well. He had to think of a way out. But what?
The magic sniffed around him. He could almost see a giant tail wagging and feel a big, wet nose sniffing at his chest and back. He could sense the magic's joy.
"How can I even hate you, Spot? That's a good name for you," Jed told the empty air. "You just want to help. If only I could make you smaller..."
Like a well-oiled torch flaring under the sparks of a whetstone, an idea lit up his mind. Jed grinned and began to laugh. How intelligent is Spot, he wondered. Would his idea even work?
Jed sat cross-legged, wincing as his back popped and his knees creaked.
The other merchants always said that Jed could sell anyone anything. They complained about it often enough when he met them for cups of ale after market-close. He riffled through the arguments in his head like sheets of paper, picking some, crumpling and discarding others.
"Spot, I know you want to be helpful. Have you felt lonely all these years, with no wizards around? I thought of a way that you can never be bored or lonely ever again..."
Jed felt the house-sized bulk lean close, ears pricked. Hot breath tickled Jed's neck as he laid out his plan. His life and his sanity rode on his eloquence, Jed thought. He tried to focus his mind to a diamond hard point and relax and smile, the same way he did when persuading a doubtful customer. Would the sale of his life go through?
Hours later, a jingling of bits and bridles announced Jed's return. Lorelei and the Oruin jumped to their feet as he pushed aside a moss-covered branch and stepped into the clearing, leading two brown mares.
"Jed!" sang Lorelei.
He gathered her in his arms.
"I did it," he said quietly.
"What, wizard?" asked Eman.
"Do you feel different?" Jed grinned, staring into the bulbous eyes. "Do you, my dear?" he asked, looking at Lorelei.
"Ahh...." said Eman, his wide teeth splitting into a grin. "I have a strange companion. An invisible one. Very clever."
Lorelei sighed. "Quit talking in riddles."
Jed took her by the hand and sat on a nearby stump. He pulled her onto his lap.
"Let's call the magic Spot. He was just too big, too eager to do whatever a wizard wanted. He was lonely and just wanted to help out, or at least that's what I sensed. So I asked him to split up. Now we each have our own little Spot. No one has to perform insanely dangerous rituals while drunk to gain control of magic anymore, either! I'm not sure I understand it exactly, but now that all the magic creatures are smaller, that little communication issue vanished. All the people in this land can sense and talk to their companions now."
Jed petted something invisible sitting on his shoulder. Lorelei looked at her own shoulder.
"I do feel a kind of prickling," she said. "But isn't it dangerous to give everyone magic? What about children? Criminals? Won't some people misuse it?"
Jed shrugged. "I asked Spot only to do positive things from now on. Like make plants grow, heal, create small items. No one can raise the dead or destroy the world anymore. Not that anyone would have enough magic for that, even if they tried."
"Oh! He just talked to me," said Lorelei, eyes round with wonder. In her hand a white rose appeared. She turned it over and ran a finger over the petals. She laughed and tucked it in her hair.
Eman sighed. "I suppose we shall have to learn to build houses with our own two hands and push a plow again. These little magics will help us somewhat, I suppose."
"Hard work never hurt anyone," said Jed. "I don't know what the King will make of a few thousand Oruin suddenly appearing in his realm. If he doesn't care for the idea, I built some bridges over the rift and took down the magic that isolated us from the world. I flew around and looked our neighbors over. The world is round, did you know that? I'm still trying to figure out how that's possible. Anyway, I saw cities and towns, full of humans. I saw plenty of unclaimed land, too. You can find a kingdom of your own."
Eman nodded his head. "We might just do that, wizard. I thank you for the gift of magic you gave us, however small. If we leave, will the magic follow?"
Jed nodded. "It's tied to all the people here, not the land. It will pass down through bloodlines. If people marry someone from outside, their kids will have less magic. Not that you'll have that problem. Good luck, Eman."
The Oruin nodded and left. He spoke to a group of other Oruin at the other end of the clearing in a language that sounded like a flautist practicing scales.
Lorelei leaned into him. "What now, Jed?"
"I... there's nothing tying us here. I want you to come with me. Please."
"To explore beyond the rift? Why?"
Jed sighed and tried to put his feelings into words. "I have a few friends here, but no family. You don't have any family, either. I always wondered what's out there. I saw the whole world from above while I talked to Spot, but only for a bit. I want to see it all up close."
Lorelei leaned her head against his chest. "Of course I'll come with you. But I couldn't help notice that rusty sword on your belt. A bit of misdirection? What else did you make before you broke up the magic for good?"
Jed laughed and looked down into her sparkling green eyes, crinkled at the corners in a smile. He pushed back a strand of hair over her ear and shook his head.
"It's hard to fool you, isn't it? People who look rich tend to get mugged. I did magic up two sturdy horses, some silver for traveling, a chest of gold for retirement, and a few magic items. This sword won't cut through steel the way the King's Oruin artifact will, but it will never break or need sharpening. I made a ring to warn of approaching danger and stop arrows, another to turn you invisible, a miniature tower you can throw down and turn into a real one... mmpph."
Lorelei kissed him and broke off the litany. She leaped to her feet, grabbed his hand, and leaned back to pull him to his feet.
"You can show me once we cross the rift and find a quiet spot. As long as you remembered to magic up some food as well as swords and rings."
"Of course," said Jed.
Jed jumped impossibly high and landed just right in his saddle, boosted by a small, invisible presence. Laughing, Lorelei did the same. The horses looked at each other and whickered, as if asking each other what in the heck just happened.
"Don't worry, you'll get used to us," said Lorelei, patting her mount on the neck.
"Let's head to the east bridge. I spotted a big town about three days' ride that way," said Jed.
As he drank in the sight of Lorelei's flushed face, he felt the weight of bitterness and sorrow of the last few years drop away, as if a knight let his iron suit fall to the ground and donned a minstrel's bright colors instead. With Spot a reassuring weight on his shoulder instead of a monstrous presence behind his back, the worries of madness, the worries of hurting his friends, all dropped away as well.
"This is all so strange. It seems like just yesterday my father posted guards outside my door and ordered the gatekeeper to never let you in again. I'm so glad you found a way to let us start over," said Lorelei.
"I love you," said Jed. "This time, things will work out!"
He squeezed her hand and kneed his mare into a half turn. Cantering slowly and chatting, they left the clearing side by side.
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|Piņatas From Space!: Crazy Games With Cards And Dice|
by Jeromy Henry
|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
by Jeromy Henry
|The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales|
by Jeromy Henry
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