Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 29

    Bracing for a battle is difficult to do well. The natural tendency for most people is to stiffen up, physically and mentally. Watch an experienced fighter before they step into the ring though. They don’t go in clenched and rigid. To weather both physical and psychological blows it’s much better to stay loose. Part of the reason is because being able to roll with a punch can take away a lot of its force. Even more than that though is the fact that when we freeze up we’re directing our energy against ourselves. The strength we use to hold ourselves rigid is wasted and turned against us when we take a hit.

    I reminded myself of all that and breathed out slowly to force myself to relax.

    “What do you mean Guy McIntyre never existed?” I asked Kari.

    “I went over my original notes and then did some checking. ‘Guy McIntyre’ has set up dozens of redevelopment deals like this. He’s a great philanthropist too. ‘He’ always works through his secretaries and lawyers though. No one’s ever met the man.” she said.

    “Why is that surprising?” Way asked. “We knew he was reclusive.”

    “When I say ‘no one has met him’, that includes the teachers at the school he is listed as graduating from, the doctor of the small town he was supposedly born in, and Steven McIntyre, his supposedly older brother.” Kari said.

    “How did you find all that out?” I asked.

    “It wasn’t easy. The records on him are mostly hidden. I had to use ‘verbal hypnosis’ to get people to talk. Plus I’m pretty sure I tripped a lot of alarms just looking into it.” she said. I knew her ‘verbal hypnosis’ was probably backed with a fair amount of dream magic and almost certainly strained the heck out of Earth Glass’ tolerance for ‘magic-like’ effects. If it got us information we needed though I wasn’t going to complain.

    “What do you mean?” Way asked.

    “I think someone setup fake records in order to ‘create him’. They needed a proxy they could act through who wouldn’t attract attention. The records were there in case anyone started snooping too hard. It was something for a detective to find that would buy McIntyre’s inventor time to get away.”

    “What kind of ‘alarms’ were there?” I asked.

    “Social ones. The people who worked at the places the records were kept all used the same phrase: ‘Do you need the records on Guy or Greg McIntyre?’ Once or twice could have been coincidence, but this was over a dozen sites.” she said.

    I had a flash of purely natural insight.

    “The Scribes!” I said.

    “Who?” Way asked.

    “When I was captured by the Brotherhood, Cranston Smythe kept me alive so he could interrogate me about the ‘Scribes’. As best I can guess, they’re another secret society, probably dedicated to stamping out people like the Brotherhood.” I said.

    I saw a light bulb go one over Way’s head.

    “The Night Warder was one of the Scribes too. That’s why they captured her.” she said.

    “Yeah, I think that fits well.” I agreed.

    “The question is: what was the Night Warder doing at the apartment that was rented in Guy McIntyre’s name?” Kari asked.

    “Oh, sorry, the Night Warder is Madelaine Deckard. I saw her out of her mask when I broke into his apartment.” I said. They both frowned at me in disbelief. I shrugged. I had a head wound and a throbbing headache so forgetting to mention a few key details like that seemed like a forgivable lapse.

    “That explains things. Very well in fact.” Kari said. I could see her gaze going distant, seeking out answers somewhere beyond the world or within herself.

    “So we have two secret societies who are war with one another. Madelaine Deckard is part of one of them and was using ‘Guy McIntyre’ as a persona to do her business dealings. Why would she need to do that though?” Way asked.

    “A couple of reasons I can think of. First women have less social position and power here. People don’t take them as seriously as men. Yet. ‘Guy McIntyre’ may have been the mask she needed to be able to play in world of high finance.” I said.

    “That doesn’t make sense to me, but I’ve seen enough of things here to believe it.” Kari said. The world she hailed from was a marvel of gender equality for a number of reasons, one of which being that spellcasting didn’t care what sort of chromosomes you had. Trying to tell a mage who could level a city that she was a second class citizen because of her gender wasn’t likely to end well for the misogynist in question.

    “The other advantage would be what Kari ran into. Anyone looking to strike at ‘Guy McIntyre’s’ work would go after him and ignore his ‘secretary’. We know the Brotherhood’s not shy about using assassins. Having them waste their time searching for a non-existent target would give Deckard the chance to strike back as the Night Warder.” I said.

    “That explains the Night Warder identity too then. It wasn’t meant as a general disguise. She specifically needed to avoid the Brotherhood’s notice.” Way said.

    “Unfortunately they have her now.” I said.

    “And she’s the dreamweaver we were worried about.” Way said.

    “And the fate weaving is accelerating.” Kari said. “When I cast it, I used Guy McIntyre as one of the principal anchors for it. Without him there, it’s spinning out of control.”

    “Can you ground it out?” I asked.

    “Yes, but the events are already moving too fast. If I cut the fateweaving we won’t have any idea where things will go.” Kari said.

    “So we ride it out. What other resolutions are there?” Way asked.

    “If everyone involved, Smythe, Deckard and Stone, dies the development deal will collapse and things will settle down on their own.” Kari said.

    “I don’t like that one. What else do we have?” I asked.

    “If Fairbanks burns to the ground, the development deal will go ahead and the Brotherhood will win. That would be a stable condition as well.” Kari said.

    “That sucks too. What are the win conditions for Stone and Deckard?” I asked.

    “If we decapitate the Brotherhood – take out their leadership and expose them to the world, Stone’s companies will pick up the redevelopment business on a tide of local sentiment. That’s not a stable state, he’ll have more power than he can handle and his criminal empire will grow too big to be ignored. I don’t think he’ll come to a good end and there’ll probably be a lot of people who get hurt along with him, but the world will survive.” she said.

    “And Madelaine Deckard?” Way asked.

    “She doesn’t have a win condition. She wasn’t bound by the initial fate weaving, she’s just part of the weave that was supposed to have looped around Guy McIntyre. Without him, that side effectively forfeits.” she said.

    “So all paths points to losing her?” I asked, turning the problem over in my head.

    “I think so. She’s our dreamweaver after all. At this point I don’t know that there’s any chance she’ll stay asleep and once she wakes up…” Kari trailed off.

    Once Madelaine Deckard woke up to her powers, she was going to be a danger to the entire world. Our “nicest” option would be to fake her death, kidnap her and never allow her to return to home. The other possibilities were ones I promised myself I wouldn’t allow.

    “We need to come at this from another angle.” I said. “The Brotherhood was terrified of the files that Shurman took from them getting out. Maybe if we found those that would provide us with a clue?”

    “Here you go!” Way said and pushed the books that were in front of her towards me.

    “We found them in the coat check room at the ruins of the Chimera Club.” Kari said.

    “It was Tiny’s idea.” Way said. “We were trying to figure out where Shurman would have stashed something that he wasn’t sure was important. Since it wasn’t here, and wasn’t at his apartment, and the only other place we knew he’d been was the Club, Tiny worked out that he might have dropped it with the girl who worked there. Apparently they knew each other.”

    “Wow. And they survived the fire too? Talk about a stroke of luck.” I said, sensing Way’s subtle hand at work in arguing that series of events into existence.

    “Stone’s got friends everywhere, even the fire department. The building burned, but a lot of it survived. Almost a shame for poor Eddie. The restoration will probably cost more than knocking the building down and putting up a new one.” she said.

    A lot of people thought Way was nice. I agreed with them. I also knew that they’d never been on her bad side though. Unless I missed my guess the city’s inspectors were going to find all sort of skeletons in Stone’s burned out closets when they came by to verify the damage that had been done.

    “The problem is the books are all in code.” Kari said.

    I smiled and threw a small booklet down on the table. It bore the Brotherhood of the Dragon’s logo.

    “What is…” Way started to ask and then stopped herself as she caught sight of my grin. “It’s the codebook. You picked up the translation book for the files while the Brotherhood had you.”

    “Yep. Met one of their doctors who wasn’t going to be needing it anymore.” I said.

    “What did you do to him?” Way asked.

    “Gave him a dose of his own medicine. Literally.” I said. “He’d developed a mind control drug, so I hit him with it and, eventually, told him to turn himself in to the police.”

    Way grinned back at me and looked like she was about to say something, before she stopped herself again.

    “How fast can we translate these?” Kari asked.

    “I think I can free read them. I memorized the cipher on the way over.” I said and gave Earth Glass a swift mental kick to prevent it from complaining about the absurdity of that. This was for its own good, which, thankfully, it seemed to agree with.

    The books which Shurman had stolen from them (and I still had to wonder how he’d managed that) turned out to be what we’d expected. First there was the Brotherhood’s roster, which Smythe hadn’t been concerned with our possessing. At a guess the Scribes probably already knew the Brotherhood’s cult identities and the roster didn’t make a connection between those names and the cultists’ real identities except in the encoded passwords that were unique to each cult member.

    Once their password was encoded in the book, the cultists could access Brotherhood resources via their cult name. Should the roster happen to fall into hands like ours, the most we could do would be to attack the cult’s resources. The cultists themselves were still hidden behind a veil of anonymity. Or so they thought. It wouldn’t take much of a fate weaving to power a forensic investigation that could tear that veil to shreds. A halfway clever Federal agent in possession of this roster could probably manage it with just a little push in the right direction in fact.

    The other volumes were the usual sort of insanity cults get up to. Worldly power was all well and good, but to make people do truly crazy things, you needed to promise them more. The other books held the details of the cults rituals, past, present, and future. The rituals were keys the cult believed they held to unlimited power.

    I’d seen books like the cult’s tomes before. On some worlds they were terrifying because of they could unleash unspeakable, and unstoppable horrors. Well mostly unstoppable, lots of ‘unstoppable’ things needed to find a new description after they met Way.

    On Earth Glass though the cult’s rituals were worse than that. There was no magic on Earth Glass. The rituals, the invocations, the summons, all of the spells that the books held. There was nothing to them. They were empty words. No matter how fervently the cultists believed in them. No matter what atrocities they committed, none of it would matter at all.

    Which meant that the litany of victims whose demise the books chronicled had all died for nothing more than human stupidity and greed. Name after name. Pictures in some cases. Before and after. Across hundreds of pages and multiple decades.

    They were a part of cult’s records of their sacrifices, along with the members who were owed their dues for taking part in the rituals as though each death added something to a ledger they would be free to draw from once their imaginary gods ruled the world.

    “Are you ok?” Way asked.

    I hadn’t noticed her get up and come over to my side. She put her arm around me and I felt the black rage that had been gathering in my heart subside to a steady burn.

    “There are good people here.” I said.

    Way nodded. She knew what I was saying. What I needed to remember. Its so easy in the face of real evil to want to eradicate it and everything it’s touched, even if that means burning down the world. For most people, the worst that feeling can do is cause them to hyperfocus on what’s wrong with the world. It can lock them into seeing only the bad and losing themselves to hate.

    For me, it could be a lot worse than that. I didn’t have to rail helplessly against the evils of the world.

    I could end it if I chose.

    On a world like Earth Glass though that would be a tragedy, so I had to remember that despite the horror that people did to each other here, there were things worth preserving as well. There were good people here and they deserved a chance to make their world a better place.

    “When is the next ritual taking place?” Kari asked.

    “It was supposed to be next month, but it looks like they’ve moved it up to today.” I said.

    “It’s the fate weaving at work.” Kari said.

    “Yeah. That’s not all either. The ritual calls for thirteen victims. Each has a specific role and is killed in a specific manner. The first to go is called ‘The Enemy on High’ and is supposed to represent the forces that oppose the Brotherhood. They usually get by with a proxy of some sort.” I said.

    “This year though they’ve got Madelaine. An actual enemy to use.” Way guessed.

    “They’re going to kill her.” Kari said. Her lips formed a tight line.

    “They’re going to try. There’s no way she’s going to stay asleep through that though.” I said.

    “Where are they? Where will they perform the ritual?” Way asked.

    “It says here they perform it ‘atop the clouds, above the seas of earth, below the sea of stars’. That’s gotta mean onboard their airship.” I said.

    “Any mention of when?” Kari asked.

    “When the brightest star is at its zenith and is cast into darkness.” I translated.

    “During an eclipse?” Kari asked.

    “No. You can’t move those up. I think it’s metaphorical. They have some chamber designed where they can simulate and eclipse probably.” I said.

    I got up and rocked my shoulders. My whole body hurt like I was dipped in pain. This was not going to fun.

    “Where are we going?” Kari asked.

    “You said there was no win condition for Madelaine Deckard?” I asked.

    “Yeah.” Kari agreed.

    “Then we’re going to go make one for her.”

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 28

    It’s difficult to see the good in people sometimes. We open ourselves to the chance of getting hurt badly when we chose to believe in someone. The truth though is that despite their immense capacity to harm us or let us down, other people are rarely as simple as “good” or “bad”.

    As the kidnapped day workers and I drove away from the Brotherhood’s HQ in a stolen truck, I tried to remind myself of that for one important reason. We still had the doctor with us. He’d been essential in sneaking our way out of the facility since he’d be able to convince the guards that the men had all received their “treatments” and that they didn’t have to check the truck (and thereby find me hiding in the back too).

    The doctor wasn’t a nice guy. He’d been involved in brainwashing hundreds of men and sending them off to murder thousands. There was a fairly easy argument to make that the world would be better off without him. The catch was, I’d made him a victim of his own formula. One dose from one of his own syringes had sent him into a drugged stupor that gave me close to total control over him.

    At the time it had been necessary, but as we drove safely away the question arose of what we were going to do with him? I knew the guys from Fairbanks island would have been fine with pitching him off a cliff into the ocean. That would have been the simplest answer and the safest. The dose of the mind control drug would wear off in less than a day, according to what the doctor had said when I questioned him on it. Giving a second dose to extend the duration was possible, but introduced the risk of inducing a stroke. The longer the dose was maintained the greater the risk of a stroke occurring.

    That meant that it would be kinder to throw him off a cliff and let the ocean take him than it would be to keep him under my control. Neither option was acceptable though. That’s why when we reached the street with Detective Shurman’s office, I had the doctor get out with me.

    “We’ve got forty five minutes before things start to burn.” I told the day workers.

    “Don’t worry. We’ll get our folks out.” one of the guys said.

    “Get everybody out. We don’t know who the Brotherhood kidnapped and drugged, but we know there’s a lot more of them than there are of you!” I said.

    “Don’t worry. We’ll pass the word.” the driver said. He cranked the truck back into gear and with a nod, peeled rubber in the direction of Fairbank Island and their homes.

    I watched them leave for a moment, still pondering what to do about the doctor, before I looked up and saw that the lights were on in Shurman’s office. In theory anyone could be in there, but a little butterfly of hope brightened my heart. I wanted to run into the building right away but first I knew I had to take a leap of faith.

    “I need you to do one more thing for me. Go to the police station. Admit what you’ve done and provide them with the details they’ll need to believe you.” I told the doctor. The suggestibility period of the mind control drug was fading rapidly. Whether my command stuck depended on a lot of things, with the biggest factor being his will to resist it. If he was truly unrepentant for what he had done, if he really couldn’t see the impact that his actions had on the people he come into contact with, then he might be able to fight off the compulsion to turn himself in that I’d planted. On the other hand, if he knew that what he had done was wrong, and if any part of him wished for forgiveness, he’d march right into the police station and get them onboard like I would never be able to.

    I watched him hesitate. He rocked back and forth on his heels for a moment before nodding slowly and turning to walk away. I looked for any sign that he was faking or that he was going to break the suggestion and run in the other direction. I couldn’t see them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. If he was planning to run and escape from the consequences of his actions though, he would at least do so knowing that someone had given him the chance to live, rather than making the easy choice with a defeated enemy.

    I watched him for one more breath, then gathered myself together and headed up to Shurman’s office.

    I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Maybe just to see Way, or maybe Kari waiting for us. Instead what I got was Way, Kari, Eddie Stone and Tiny Royals all looking over a large leather bound ledger that was on the center of Shurman’s desk.

    “It’s not gibberish, it’s a code.” Way said as I walked in the open door.

    “I’m seeing a ghost!” Tiny tapped her on the shoulder and pointed at me.

    Way looked up at me and smiled as soon as she recognized who I was. I smiled back, warm happiness washing my aches and pains away for a moment. Then she noticed my general state of being and frowned. I winced and shrugged, promising in the gesture that I’d explain it all later. She narrowed her eyes, requesting that later being sometime very close to the present. Even without dream speech we could communicate a lot it seemed.

    “Not a ghost, despite the Brotherhood’s best efforts.” I told the assembled crowd.

    “I thought you said she got shot?” Stone said.

    “She was. Right in the head.” Tiny replied.

    “He’s right.” I said, waving at my bandages. “But I’m tougher than I look.”

    Technically that was the truth. “The Amazing Jin” was lot more fit and a lot healthier than most eighteen year old girls could claim to be. It wasn’t why I’d survived being shot in the head. That was almost entirely due to magic, supplemented by the Brotherhood’s medical care as they tried to get me patched up enough to survive their interrogation formula.

    “Where have you been then?” Stone asked. I could see Way’s frown turn into a smirk as the gangster voiced the questions she wanted answers to as well.

    “I was enjoying a little visit with the people who burned down your club.” I told him. “Does the name Cranston Smythe ring a bell for you?”

    “The architect? That son of a…” Stone started to say.

    “Yeah, he’s the head of the local chapter of a bunch of whackos who call themselves the Brotherhood of the Dragon. He was the one who brought you into the deal wasn’t he?” I asked.

    “What deal?” Stone asked. He did a good enough job feigning ignorance that I couldn’t be sure he hadn’t actually forgotten what he was supposed to be involved in.

    “The redevelopment deal for Fairbanks Island.” I said.

    “Oh, yeah, that thing. What of it?” he asked.

    “It’s not particularly important now but that’s why he was planning to kill you.” I said.

    “Not important?” Stone asked.

    “Yeah, he’s got a lot of other reasons to want to kill you at this point. Starting with the fact that the Night Warder rescued you.” I said. I looked around the room and noticed her conspicuous absence. “Wait, where is she?”

    “The Brotherhood got her.” Way said.

    “Yeah, we got down to the ground floor of the building she’d brought us to and there were a bunch of guys waiting there. The boss was still out so she tucked us into a closet and went to lead them away. She didn’t get too far from what I heard though.” Tiny said.

    “They killed her?” I asked. Her death would be terrible news, but the alternative was possibly worse.

    “No, I smelled that knockout gas from before. I think they captured her.” Tiny said.

    “I found them a little while after that I believe.” Way said.

    “What happened with the task you were working on?” I asked.

    “The assassin was ahead of me. I managed to stop him from killing off the driver, but he got away. I headed over to join up with you after that, except you weren’t there. Then I found these two who informed me that you’d been killed.” she said.

    That would have been when she woke up on my world on went to look for me there. I was already off rescuing Peri at that point though so instead she’d talked with my Mom.

    For some reason the thought of that sent shivers down my spine.

    “Reports of my death were reasonable mistakes on the part of those who made them. If the bullet had hit just a hair’s breadth closer to center I’d have more than just a scratch on the side of my head and a killer headache.” I told them. Way and Kari knew what that really meant.

    Freak strokes of luck can and did happen on Earth Glass, but when they happened to one of us it’s because we demanded that they occur. There were limits on that sort of thing though. The shot that had “scratched” me, really had come close to missing. If it had been a dead center hit, I probably couldn’t have convinced the world to let the Amazing Jin survive it.

    “Where you get the bandages?” Stone asked.

    “The Brotherhood patched me up. They wanted to question me.” I said.

    “And then they let you go?” Stone asked.

    “Oh please, they tried to keep me tied up. Does that seem like even a vaguely wise idea with a professional magician?” I said.

    “So they’re going to be coming from you then?” Stone said. He looked like the shark that had scented prey swimming towards it when he asked the question.

    “Yeah. We have bigger problems though.” I said.

    “They’ve already burned down my club, what are they going to do next?” Stone asked.

    “Burn down Fairbanks.” I told him.

    “What? That’s impossible.” he said.

    “They’ve spent all last night, and maybe longer, making an army to do it. I saw the facility and I saw the drugs they were using. These guys may be evil and crazy, but you’ve seen that their damn effective too right?” I said.

    “What are we going to do?” Kari asked. I could see the fear rising up in her eyes. She’d been the one to put the fateweaving together that was driving this. If Fairbanks wound up burning she’d feel like she was responsible for the lives that were lost even if she was working to prevent that as hard as she could.

    “There’s over two hundred drugged up guys ready to burn the place down in a little over half an hour. That’s too many for the cops to handle.” I said. “But there’s someone who’s got an army big enough to take the Brotherhood’s zombies on.”

    I looked over at Stone and met his gaze directly.

    “Are you kidding me? What’s in this for me?” he asked.

    “A lot of things Eddie. You could say it’s about revenge. You could say its about showing people who’s the real boss of this town. Or you could make a lie you’ve been selling for years into the truth.” I said.

    “Lie? What are you talking about.” he said.

    “You’ve been selling ‘protection’ to the people in Fairbanks for years now Eddie. This is a chance for you to make that real. You can step up here and really be a protector. Make the world better for some people.” I said.

    “Pff, ain’t nobody does that for free.” Stone said.

    “So go with revenge, or go with showing ‘em who’s boss then. Either one of those should work fine right? But when you do, pay attention to how the people look at you when you save them. See how that makes you feel.” I said.

    “Its gonna make me feel like a chump.” he said, but from how he broke eye contact with me and turned away I could see I’d planted a seed there.

    “If we’re gonna do this, we need to leave right now boss.” Tiny said.

    “Think we can get the boys together in time?” Stone asked.

    “Yeah, just gotta make some calls.” Tiny said.

    “Then we’re outta here.” Stone said. He grabbed a hat off the desk, gave a nod to the three of us who were staying behind and marched out the door, with Tiny trailing behind him.

    “Are they going to be able to stop the arsons?” Kari asked.

    “I think so. I think that’s why they are still stuck in the fate weaving.” I told her. “The big question is whether we’ll be able to find Guy McIntyre to end the fate weaving and rescue Madelaine Deckard before she wakes up and breaks the world like an eggshell.”

    “Well, I think we can focus on the rescuing part of that.” Kari said.

    “Why’s that? Without McIntyre, the fate weaving will continue and things will just keep getting more dangerous.” I said.

    “That’s the problem. We can’t find Guy McIntyre because he never existed.”

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 27

    It’s easy to feel powerless in life. To feel like there are no options left to us. Often that’s not entirely true though. Sometimes that feeling of powerlessness springs from nothing more than fear of options we’d rather not take.

    Lying strapped to the operating table in the Brotherhood’s lair was a situation that was conducive to that sort of fear. For someone without “The Amazing Jin’s” training, it might have been an impossible scenario to escape from. Knowing what I did about slipping free from locks and restraints however meant that I knew escape was quite possible. I hesitated for a moment though because I also knew how much it was going to hurt.

    Under the best of circumstances, it can be taxing and painful to slip out of a full body restraint like the one I was tied down with. Add to that, the fact that I had not one but two bullet wounds and it was a borderline miracle that I didn’t pass out before I managed to get my good hand free.

    I managed not to scream either, though more than a few whimpers escaped my lips before I escaped the straps that held my good arm down.  Fortunately no one was close enough to hear them and once I had one hand free undoing the rest of the straps was a piece of cake.

    That left me free but dangerously lightheaded. I needed to rest and catch my breath, but I knew Smythe wasn’t going to be gone long. I pushed myself to my feet and started looking for inspiration for my next magic trick.

    “I need to make a girl disappear.” I mused to myself. As a magician, I’d be kicked out of the clubhouse if I couldn’t manage that, though I could perhaps file an appeal due to the lack of material to work with. All I had were bloody clothes, bandages and various surgical implements.

    “I can work with that.” I said as inspiration dawned on me.

    I took a serious and deadly looking pair of scissor-like things from a nearby counter and chopped open the straps I’d escaped from. I then left the scissor-things prominently visible on the table I’d been lying on. That was step one: make it so no one felt the need to question how I’d gotten out of my restraints.

    Step two was to take one of the bags of blood from the small refrigerator in the room and poke a hole in it. My exertions to escape the restraints had hurt like hell but I’d avoided tearing my wounds open enough to provide a theatrical amount of blood to work with. A few dozen drops from the bag though and I had plenty to leave a false trail of “footprints” out of the room. I made sure that the trail was visible outside the door into the hallway beyond but allowed the footprints to grow lighter over a dozen or so steps. The end result was even better than an arrow with the words “she went that way”.

    The last step was a very simple one. I put on my shoes and left the door open.

    I could have simply run for it, but, since I didn’t know where I was, the odds of running into more members of the Brotherhood seemed extremely high if I set off at random. Also, I knew I had only a minute or less to work with, which wasn’t much of a headstart on an escape, but plenty to work some misdirection.

    Smythe came back just as I was stepping behind the door. I froze, breathless and waited to see if the illusion held.

    “, this is impossible.” he said, inches away on the other side of the open door. I heard him start to move and braced myself for a fight. With one arm and a moment of surprise I might have been able to take him, but probably not before he screamed for help. Fortunately that didn’t prove to be necessary.

    “She’s escaped!” he screamed out and then turned in place. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could picture it easily enough. The first thing that had caught his attention was the open door. That had sent him into denial. He’d rushed to the room certain I’d still be on the table, but sick with fear that I wouldn’t be. From the doorway his fears had been confirmed and then the questions started. How had I gotten out? Obviously the scissor-things. They were right there and the straps were cut. Where was I? That had taken a moment longer but then he’d noticed the bloody footprints leading out of the room. I’d been hurt, so bloody footprints passed the plausibility check. They had to be mine, who else could they belong to? And they lead out into the hall, so no reason to search the room. I was clearly gone!

    Presto. One disappearing girl.

    Smythe left, screaming for people to stop me from reaching stairs that lead up to the exit. That he thought I was trying to escape by going up told me a number of things. First we were underground most likely. Second, the facility was big enough that he thought there was a chance I wasn’t already upstairs. Lastly, despite it being the path to the exit, “up” was the last direction I could move in for the time being.

    Instead, I waited a moment, then crept out of operating room and headed down the hallway in the opposite direction that Smythe had gone.

   The decor of the hallway and the rooms that I passed told me they’d brought me to a hospital, though apparently one that was not in use. In fact, it didn’t look like the hospital in been in use in a long time. Even my scant knowledge of the city was enough to turn up a likely candidate for where I was. Cutter’s Point Memorial.

    It had been designed as a sprawling facility on a cliff outside of the city overlooking the ocean. Then people had figured out that in a state known for its earthquakes, building things on cliffs wasn’t all that bright of an idea. Parts of the hospital had collapsed in the first quake after it was built and the whole structure had been deemed unfit. The owners had gone bankrupt after that and with the land so precarious, no one else had stepped forward to take the facility off the city’s hands. At least not officially. The Brotherhood of the Dragon didn’t seem to mind the precarious position of it’s HQ.

    At the end of the hallway, I found a doorway to stairs that led further down. Since the stairs seemed to be headed in the opposite direction of the exit, I took them reasoning that wherever they led would be the last place Smythe would think to look.

    The hospital stairs ended on a landing with a door marked “boiler room”. A new set of stairs descended further down from there though. I kept descending and was surprised to see the last set of stairs open on a large, cavernous area.

    The cavern was full of vehicles and machinery as well as dividers and holding pens. At the end near me, a tunnel wide enough for cars to drive through lead out of the cave. At the far end, there was a mouth which opened out over the ocean. The mouth was huge and looking at the rigging that lay in front of it I had a guess as to why.

    In front of the cave’s mouth there was an elaborate structure that looked like it was built to wrap around a long balloon. Unless I missed my guess, that was it’s exact purpose too.

    When we’d been shot at in Guy McIntyre’s apartment, our attackers had shown a steady spotlight in to illuminate us. McIntyre’s apartment was on the tallest building in the city though, so only a flying platform would have allowed them to get a spotlight that high and only a dirigible would be large enough and steady enough to support the spotlight and the three snipers.

    While that was enlightening and answered some of my earlier questions, it didn’t do much to provide me with a means to escape. The presence of several dozen men in the cavern didn’t help either.

    About a dozen of the men were sitting in the back of a truck that was being prepared to leave. Each of them were staring ahead blankly. A small number of other men were huddled in a cage about twenty feet away from me. Both of those groups of men were dressed in the kind of shabby clothes someone from the slums of Fairbanks Island wore. The rest of the men, the ones who were free and were roaming around performing various tasks were uniformed in black with various patches and insignia on them.

    “Hey, you can’t do this!” one of the caged guys yelled out.

    I did a double take. The voice was oddly familiar.

    “Yeah, Boss Stone finds out about this he’s gonna kill everybody you ever met.” another one said.

    I blinked in recognition. It was the guys from outside the diner that Way and I had stopped at!

    The uniformed Brotherhood members were ignoring the men in the cage. The men who were in the truck were ignoring everything.

    “Bring me the next subject!” a man in a doctor’s coat directed two of the armed members of the Brotherhood. Despite their earlier words, the men in the cage fell back in the face of the guards’ machine guns. Boss Stone might indeed get revenge for them but he was far away and the business end of the guard’s automatic weapons were much too close to argue with.

    The guards extracted the guy who’d first called out from the cage and led him over to a small, sealed room.

    “The Amazing Jin” had never had formal ninja training, but sneakiness mostly boils down to knowing how to read where people’s attention is and staying out of it. As a magician I had plenty of skill at that in this world, so sneaking up onto the roof of the makeshift “room” didn’t take me long. It wasn’t the most comfortable of perches, since the “roof” was nothing more than a few beams that ran over the four walls. On the upside, it did let me see what was going on easily enough.

    “What are you gonna do to me?” the man from the diner’s parking lot said.

    “Merely give you a small dose of medicine.” the doctor said as he picked up one several dozen syringes from the table beside him. It was filled with a disturbing, green fluid.

    “I ain’t feeling sick.” the man said.

    “This isn’t for physical illness.” the doctor said as he administered the injection into the man’s bicep.

    “Ow.” the main said. “What’s it for then?”

    “It’s for your mind. You sick, disorganized mind. Don’t worry it acts quickly. In fact you will feel it kicking in just about now.”

    “Kicking in…wha…?” the man slurred the last word as the drug took control of him.

    “Just like that.” the doctor said. “Now receive your instructions. Then next time you hear a noon bell ring, you will return to your home and burn it and all of the buildings around it to the ground. Am I clear?”

    “Yes. Why?” the man asked.

    “Because someone will come and buy your share of the land and you can move to a better place.” the doctor said. “When someone offers to buy the land from you, you will accept whatever price they offer, so long as it ends in thirteen cents. Do you understand.”

    “Yes.” the man said.

    My mind spun on what I’d heard. The Brotherhood had been trying to get control of Fairbanks Island through the development deal with Guy McIntyre.  Apparently their backup plan was to raze it and then buy the land at fire sale prices. Either option left them in control of the city’s newest center of commerce which couldn’t be anything but disastrous.

    Before the doctor could dismiss the man or call for the guard, I dropped down silently into the room behind him.

    “Ow, what was that?” the doctor asked as I jabbed another one of the syringes into him. I dropped the syringe and  wrapped my good hand around his mouth for a moment until he sagged into relaxation.

    “Where’s the counteragent?” I asked him. No secret society in the world would skip developing a counteragent to their own mind control drugs.

    “Over here.” the doctor said, his voice blurry as he pointed at a counter that contained a variety of vials on it.

    “Administer it to him.” I told the doctor, indicating his former “patient”.

    I watched him pick up a vial of blue liquid and and carefully fill a syringe with it. I looked at where he’d taken the vial from. Unfortunately it was the only one of its kind.

    The counteragent did its work as fast as the original formula, thankfully.

    “What happened?” the man from the diner said as the counteragent took effect.

    “You were drugged.” I told him.

    “Wait, you’re the magician girl? What are you doing here?” he asked.

    “Long story. What happened to you and your friends?” I asked.

    “Guys came by with some day labor, bunch of us jumped at it and then they brought us here. I don’t know nothing about nothing else.” he said

    “We’ve got get you out of here.” I told him.

    “And the boys too.” he said.

    “Yeah, everyone.” I said, just as the truck outside started up and pulled away.

    “Can you call them back?” I asked the doctor.

    “No.” he said without inflection.

    “Have any other trucks gone out?” I asked.

    “Yes.” the doctor said.

    “How many?”

    “Twenty two.” the doctor said.

    “Men?” I asked astounded.

    “No. Trucks.” he answered.

    At a dozen men in each truck, that meant a small army of arsonists were descending on Fairbanks Island.

    Even if I got word to them, there was no chance the police would be able to stop that many hypnotized pyromaniacs. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was just before 11:00 a.m. I had less than an hour to figure out how to stop the Brotherhood or thousands of people were going to burn.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 26

    In general, our bodies like sleep. It’s a chance to repair the damage we inflict on them, both major and minor. That’s part of the reason they make us feel so miserable when we try to wake up too early.

    “Ugh, what hit me?” I grumbled as I forced myself awake on Earth Glass. The world wasn’t happy about that but I’d badgered it long enough that it didn’t feel the need to shatter at the thought of me being conscious so soon after a head wound.

    Where the world was willing to let things slide though, my body had some very different ideas about the notion of me being awake. Or moving in the slightest. For as bad as it was though, I noticed that the pain was less than it should have been. The ‘Amazing Jin’ was tough but what I was feeling had to indicate that someone had given me some kind of drugs. Probably to get me to wake up sooner than later given the results.

    “A high caliber sniper round. Though only barely it seems.” a man said, answering my question in a faintly accented voice.

    I opened my eyes, blinking against the harsh light that was shining down from above me. I was in a tiled room with various tables and trays containing medical instruments. I was laying on a table in the center of the room, which was a good sign. It confirmed my suspicion that someone had been working to keep me alive. I was also strapped down to the table. That was a less positive sign.

    I began testing the straps and was immediately reminded that I’d been shot in the shoulder as well as the head and neither injury was anywhere near healed yet. Both injuries seemed to have been patched up to some degree though. The head wound was just a nasty scrape and a ridiculously painful headache but the shoulder had taken real damage and was bandaged up considerably.

    “Where am I?” I asked, though I had a pretty good guess based on the enemies I’d been making a few hours ago. I had to be in the hands of an enemy too. If Way or Kari had rescued me, they wouldn’t have tied me down.

    “In a medical lab, Miss…?” the man asked, prompting me to supply my name. He was standing at the top of the table so I tried to twist my head to try to see him. I didn’t have any luck there though. They’d strapped my head down to the table too.

    “You can call me Jin.” I said and continued lightly testing the straps that were holding me down.

    “Ah yes, ‘The Amazing Jin’ isn’t it? I saw your tryout at the Chimera Club last night.” the man said.

    “You missed the best parts of the act then.” I told him.

    “So I can imagine. Tell me though, why would a talented performer such as yourself be involved with the Scribes.” the man asked. There was an edge in his voice when he said ‘Scribes’ that told me it was the name of a particular group and that they were his enemy in some fashion.

    “And the Scribes would be?” I asked, having never heard of them.

    “Claiming ignorance? After you were shot in the company of one? That is not a wise move at this juncture.” he said. That meant the Scribes were either related to “Boss” Stone, or to the Night Warder and of the two, the mystery woman with the secret identity seemed like the safer bet. “Scribe” just didn’t seem to be a description you’d use for an organization a gangster was in.

    “I’ve been shot twice tonight. What part of that would lead you to believe that I’m wise?” I asked.

    “The part where two such injuries should incline you towards avoiding a third.” he answered. The irritation in his voice was at least partially due to sleep deprivation if I guessed right. That put a smile on my face. It was nice to see the bad guys were having as tough a night as I was.

    “If you were going to shoot me, I’d be laying dead in a gutter somewhere and you’d have a far worse problem on your hands.” I said. A far worse problem in the form of Way and Kari, but he didn’t need to be aware of that just yet.

    “Tell me, do you believe a rescue is coming? That we have taken you to one of the six venues which your fellow Scribes are aware of? Perhaps you’re counting on them arriving in the nick of time to rescue you from the Dragon’s teeth?” the man asked. He’d started pacing as he was talking, distracted by his aggravation.

    Pieces continued to fall into place. The Brotherhood of the Dragon had been after Way and I since the show at the Chimera Club. They’d shot up our private investigator’s office, burned down our apartment and the Chimera Club and I was reasonably sure they were the ones who’d shot up Guy McIntyre’s penthouse suite too.

    That was a lot of mayhem in a short time, so something had to be motivating them pretty strongly. The presence of a rival secret society might go a long way towards supplying that motivation.

    They thought Way and I had stolen some files from them, or at least knew where the files were. That meant our private investigator, Detective Shurman, was probably the one who’d found the files. The chance that we would know what was important in a random set of documents seemed pretty low though, or at least not enough to justify the efforts they were making to reclaim them. If they thought we were members of a secret society they were at war with however, they would have to assume that we would know exactly how to use hidden data to hurt them badly.

    The one piece of the puzzle that eluded me was how they’d gotten wrapped up in this in the first place. Then I saw who was interrogating me.

    “To be honest, I’m really hoping no one shows up to save me, Mr Smythe. Or should I call you Cranston?” I asked. He’d walked a little too far around me, so that I was able to get a glimpse at him. The last of the “Big 3” players in the fateweaving.

    Together with Guy McIntyre and Eddie Stone, Cranston Smythe had been at the center of the redevelopment deal that Kari had picked as the focal point of her fateweaving.  The deal had been a chance for the city to revitalize itself by rebuilding the worst of its neighborhoods into a center of industry. It had also been a chance for the people involved to gain a lot of very subtle power over the city’s future.

    “You recognize me do you?” he asked, his tone a little too smooth to cover his surprise.

    “Enough to know that you don’t plan to let me out of this operating room alive.” I told him.

    “You are very perceptive, but we neither need nor wish to kill you. Covering up a dead body which people are sure to look for is too much work. If you work with us we will only need to erase your memories to ensure you are not a threat to our cause.” he explained.

    “And if I resist.” I asked.

    “You cannot resist us. The formula I have developed will weaken your will. If you try to fight the chemicals I shall administer more as needed. Eventually you will talk but if you force me to administer too much then your mind will melt under the strain once you’ve told us everything we desire to know.” Smythe said.

    “Doesn’t sound pleasant.” I admitted. “ The truth is I don’t know the answers to your question, but I get that you’re not capable of believing that yet. Unfortunately by the time you are, we’re going to be having a much different sort of conversation.”

    Due to who and what I was, my mind wasn’t tied to my body in this world. So Smythe’s threat carried less weight than it would have for anyone else in my position.  That said though if the body I was using had a scrambled brain I’d be viewing the world through a distorted lens for as long as I inhabited it.

    “You won’t be capable of conversation at all if you insist on the charade of ignorance.” Smythe informed me. I sighed. I didn’t want to have the sort of conversation that started with him trying to fry my brain with chemicals. Those kind of discussions tended to end with pieces missing from the world I was in and a few extra demerits going on my official record.

    “I could try to talk you out of this. I could even try to convert you away from the life that you’ve chosen. Do you think I should bother with that Mr Smythe?” I asked, vainly hoping for a simpler resolution to our discussion.

    “I think you should look to your own future. You have some few minutes left before my assistant is finished preparing the truth formula. If you tell me what I need to know before he arrives, I will need to administer only the smallest of doses, just enough to remove your memories of the last several days.” he said.

    “Tell me what you want to know then.” I said. Diplomacy can be a deadly weapon but it does have limitations, many of which involve an inability to talk sense into the senseless. Very talented individuals can manage that but despite four years of training, I’m still too much of a novice at it to manage that particular form of magic. Especially when I don’t have my enhanced awareness to draw on for clues as to what secrets the other party is hiding.

    “The location of the files which were stolen from us.” he said.

    “Would those be the ones with the membership roster for the Brotherhood or are you looking for the other files?” I asked. I had no idea what was in the files the Detective Shurman had purloined, but since my actual ignorance wasn’t going to get me anywhere I had to settle for playing on Smythe’s paranoia.

    “You don’t have our membership roster.” Smythe said, his tone indicating that his patience was wearing thin.

    “That’s true, at the moment I do not have your membership roster.” I said, playing for time. One of the key parts of a secret society is that it needs to stay a secret. If Smythe didn’t think we could blow the secrecy of the Brotherhood by revealing its members I was at a loss for what was driving them to recover the documents.

    “You have no idea what is in the files you stole. Don’t think your fellow Scribes will be able to decode them either. No one outside the Brotherhood knows the cipher they were written in.” he said.

    “Are you sure about that?” I asked him. “Shurman knew they were important enough to take. He knew they were important enough to die for. Do you imagine he would have been willing to do that for a bunch of random scribbles?”

    “That won’t work Ms. Jin. We reclaimed the decoding tablet from his body. We know he didn’t pass that on.” Smythe said.

    That caught my attention. There weren’t a lot of things a secret society would encrypt in an “unbreakable” cypher apart from their membership list. Bank account information and financial holdings were matters of public record. You obfuscate those by establishing them in the name of fictional companies or individuals. Blackmail requires proof, pictures, letters, or other artifacts that can support the blackmailer’s accusations. Apart from those, I only knew of one other thing that secret societies tended to value.

    “He passed on enough to us to make out the general details of the ceremony, the time, location and participants. How about I tell you where the files are after you tell me where you’re keeping the sacrifices?” I was taking an enormous gamble on little more than a guess, but it was an informed guess.

    Groups of all kinds establish bonds between their members by making them take part in shared rituals. In the case of a secret society of murders and arsonists, those rituals had to ensure that everyone in the society was on board with the actions the society took. Most people aren’t monsters inside, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be convinced otherwise. A little alcohol, a charismatic figure to respect, the offer of power. Put those together, add some peer pressure  and people can wind up believing all sorts of insane things about themselves.

    That sort of belief is short lived though. Outside of the context of the ritual, the participants can wake up the next day and remember who they are. That’s why the sacrifices are needed. A society like the Brotherhood of the Dragon needs to make sure that its members don’t try to cross back over the line they’ve stepped beyond. It needs them to stay as the monsters it wants them to be, and making them do something irrevocably wrong is the easiest path towards accomplishing that.

    Looking into Cranston Smythe’s eyes I could see the haunted panic that my wild guess sparked. The Brotherhood believed they were powerful enough to get away with their crimes, but in their heart each one knew, on some level, how vulnerable they were. It was their anonymity that protected them from the consequences of their actions, more so than any other power they wielded.

    I smiled a malicious, knowing grin at him and held his gaze. He desperately wanted to believe I was bluffing. He needed to see me flinch and reveal that I was lying about knowing what he was and what the Brotherhood was up to. Underneath all that though, he was afraid. Down at it’s darkest roots, icy veins of terror reached up to grip his heart in a deadly claw of despair.

    I wasn’t a threat to him. I was strapped to a table and wounded, but I wasn’t afraid. That meant I still had secrets. I couldn’t harm him, but I obviously knew someone who could, and based on what I said, they had the information required to do it.

    “I see it is pointless offering you mercy. We shall apply the formula at once.” Smythe snarled as he stomped out of the room and ran down the hall outside it.

    “Finally!” I breathed in relief. With my audience gone, it was at last time to start working my magic!

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 25

    “Unlikely allies” sums up most of the people I know. From my brother James, the honest-to-Greek-gods super powered hero, to Kari, the former tavern maid turned reality manipulator, to Way, the girl who managed to do the impossible in a realm where everything is possible. Together, with them and others, I’ve handled a lot of problem in the last four years. One thing that’s shown me is that assuming the people on the other side of a conflict are “the bad guys” can be a terrible mistake.

    People are complex and, while there are definitely “bad guys” out there, people who are driven by humiliating, violating or destroying others, they make up a much smaller minority than it looks like at first glance. The truth is, most conflicts come about because people are broken. Not “other people”. Not “the guys who are on the other side of the battle from us”. People, meaning all of us, myself definitely included.

    The other thing that leads to conflict is a lack of imagination. It’s so easy to look at situations as being an “either/or”. Either I win or you do. Either I’m right or you are. Often though, those are both lies. I win the game and you lose, so you stop playing and now I have no one to play with, so I lose as well. Even with something as straight forward as that, there’s a third option, one where the game is balanced so that whoever wins, both of us have enough fun playing the game that we want to come back and try again.

    People change as well and yesterday’s enemy can become tomorrow’s friend with just a small change in perspective sometimes.

    “I see they managed to escape.” RG said, as he landed on my shoulder in his black bird form.

    “From the castle at least.” I said.

    “Which they seem to have destroyed in the process.” RG noted.

    “That was me actually.” I said.

    “Didn’t want the little girl setting up house there?” he asked.

    “Or worrying about the corners of it she didn’t have a chance to explore.” I said.

    “It’s a shame, I rather liked that place.”

    “You did some nice work setting it up.” I admitted.

    “I’ve thought about your offer.” RG said.

    “Not to your liking I take it?”

    “Quite the contrary. That is if you would be amenable to a slight modification.” he said.

    I blinked and turned to look at him in surprise.

    “What modification do you have in mind?” I asked warily. By offering to bind himself to me as a vassal, RG was offering to give up a lot of his potential power. Left on his own he could be the equivalent of a god in a world of his own making. Under my rule he’d be no more than “The Queen’s Steward” effectively.

    “I’d like to make a new realm.” he said.

    “Ok, but why would you be willing to swear yourself to me for that?” I asked.

    “Because I can only make them around rifts such of the one that the little girl guarded. And I need someone inside the world to notice me and suggest a form that I can take. Otherwise any realm I create just bubbles away as soon as I take my attention away from it.” he explained.

    “So you would like me to open another rift for you to work with?” I asked.

    “Or find an existing one.” he said.

    “I’d put the same restrictions on the new realm that I’ve placed on Bedlam though.” I warned him.

    “I presumed as much.” he said.

    “Then why wouldn’t you want Bedlam back?”

    “Because I don’t want to be the Monster-under-the-bed anymore and that’s whose home Bedlam is to me.” he said.

    I paused and considered that. I knew that he’d wanted to trade a secret to me and that the secret was the reason for Bedlam’s appearance as a nightmare realm. It looked scary and creepy because Peri had believed that a rift under her bed would lead to a scary and creepy place. That had apparently also shaped the identity that RG had been required to take on.

    “If that’s what you want then I can agree to it. I’ll find you a new home if you’ll work for me there.” I said.

    “I’ll want some say over the home in question. You are, at the moment, a Wicked Queen. I’d rather not build a realm around a refuse pit for example.” RG said.

    “Yes, you’ll have full veto power.” I agreed.

    “Then I believe we have an arrangement.”

    “Excellent!” I said, and then ate him.

    It was a perfectly wicked thing to do, so it fit in well with Bedlam’s overall milieu, but it was far from as cruel as it appeared.

    In swallowing RG, I gave him a little temporary world within the cosmos of my dreams. It was his to fill as he wished and nestled in my dreams he would be safe from all external harm.

    “I hope you’ll find the accommodations comfortable.” I told him. “Feel free to wander, although I recommend staying within the confines of that dream. I keep other things in there which are a bit unpleasant.”

    ‘Waste not, want not’ was kind of my motto when it came to dealing with deadly terrors and eldritch horrors.

    I turned my attention back to Peri and noticed that she and Belle were talking to a tiny seed man who stood on Peri’s palm.

    “Really, I didn’t need that body anymore, anyways.” the seed man said. He looked like a green tear drop the size of my thumb with a pair of arms and legs. At the top of the tear drop shape were the seed man’s eyes and mouth. There was something about them that looked familiar enough that I didn’t even need meta-awareness to tell me who he was.

    “But, you’re not Mr. Stumpy anymore!” Peri said, pouting.

    “Bah, who wants to be Stumpy, when I can BLOOM AGAIN!” the little seed shouted.

    “He will be able to fit through the rift better like this.” Belle pointed out. She was still in her large form and Peri was still on her back. I looked around for Stumpy’s tree body and noticed that it had fallen down into the Sky Moat after Stumpy had regrown himself as the seed man.

    “Oh yeah, how are we gonna get back?” Peri asked, looking around for RG and seeing only open sky and the clouds below on one side and the collapsed castle on the other.

    “I’ll carry you.” Belle said.

    “It’s a long way though.” Peri objected.

    “Then rest on my back and I’ll go carefully.” Belle said.

    “But I’m not tired.” Belle said, and then yawned.

    Ten seconds later she was snoozing away like someone had flipped a light switch.

    “A sleep spell?” I asked Belle as I appeared beside her.

    “A little one. It is supposed to be nap time for her.” Belle said.

    “Would you like to take her back then? I left your barrier in place at the rift.” I said.

    “Certainly. What should I tell your mother?” Belle asked.

    “I’ll be along in a minute. I just want to wrap up this realm and close the rift once you’re back.” I told her.

    “I’ll see you at your home then!” Belle said and like the wind she was gone.

    I waited until I felt her bring Peri and “Seedly” through the rift back to my world and then turned to my new realm.

    I was half tempted to leave it as was, but that could lead to all manner of issues later on. For safety sake, I swallowed Bedlam too, incorporating it into the same cosmos of dreams that RG’s bubble of a world floated in. Once it was safely tucked away, I touched the rift between the Dreamlit world and my home Earth. As I’d expected, it was my fault. That meant it was also my job to stay and hold the rift closed otherwise it would continue to expand and eventually let something through that was a whole lot less pleasant than RG.

    Pulling a single hair from my head, I conjured a needle and stitched the two sides together. I had to hold the rift closed, but it only took a little bit of me to do that. In time, if it couldn’t expand, the wound in the world would heal and vanish on its own. Until then I wasn’t going to miss the strand of hair I’d left behind.

    With that problem taken care of I was free to return home and face the challenge of explaining what had gone on to my mother. Surprisingly when I stepped back into my room, the house was quiet. Not eerily quiet, just regularly quiet. I tip toed over to Peri’s room to find her fast asleep in her bed with Belle in puppy form curled up at the foot of her bed.

    I actually had Ninja training (you pick up a lot of weird skills as a Dreamlord) so sneaking out of Peri’s room without waking her was a breeze. I was almost good enough to do it without Belle noticing but before I got the door closed I noticed one little puppy dog eye open and regard me me casually before closing again to get back to nap time.

    I expected my Mom to still be working in the kitchen but when I got there the cake was cooling on the counter and she was nowhere to be seen. I poked around inside looking for her only to discover a surprise waiting for me.

    Way was sleeping on the couch in the living room.

    Part of me felt a rush of relief at seeing her. Another part of me nearly jumped out of my skin at being “caught”. Both reactions were kind of stupid, and I knew it, but like everyone else, I’m kind of stupid sometimes.

    I thought of Peri in Bedlam. I thought of the fierce courage she’d shown and how it had seen her through. She was going to be just fine now thanks to confronting her fears. As I crept out to the garden I thought how unfair it was that she’d gotten all of Mom’s courage genes.

    “Oh, you’re back!” my Mom said as I wandered towards the shed that she was planting something near. She wasn’t looking at me, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t been making much noise. On the other hand trying to sneak up on Mother Nature in her own garden was a losing bet on the best of days, so I wasn’t too surprised.

    “Yep! Peri is too, though I’m guessing you noticed that.” I said.

    “I did. She was sleeping though. Is she ok?” Mom asked.

    “Completely so. You should have seen her. I was barely able to keep up with her over there!” I said, feeling a weird pride at how tough my little sister had proven to be.

    My mother breathed a sigh of relief.

    “She looked ok, and your friend Belle said she’d made it out without getting hurt, but I remembered what you had said.” my Mom said.

    “I don’t think she’s in any danger of latching onto Bedlam. She got what she wanted out it. She’ll move on to other obsessions from here.” I smiled at the thought of Peri’s single minded focus and it’s mercurialness. She was almost like a tiny fairy in that sense.

    “Which, I gather, now includes ‘her puppy’?” Mom asked.

    “I know you and Dad didn’t want to get her one, but she really worked to ‘save’ Belle in there. And, you know,on the upside it’s not like Belle needs to be house broken or anything.” I said.

    “Is she safe?” Mom asked.

    “Not in the slightest. For anyone who tries to mess with Peri that is. As a guardian for my little sister there’s maybe a handful of people I can think of who would be stronger defenders and that list includes you, me and James.” I said.

    “She’s polite too.” Mom said.

    “Yeah. She’s actually Way’s familiar so there’s some similarity there.” I said.

    “Will Way mind if Belle is looking after Peri?”

    “I don’t think so. Belle was looking after me for a while since Way’s so well defended it was boring protecting her.” I said.

    “She’s here you know.” my Mom said.

    “Yeah, I saw her sleeping on the couch. When did she get here?” I admitted.

    “About an hour after you went looking for Peri.”

    “Was she ok?” I asked. An hour was a lot sooner than I’d expected her to come looking for me.

    “She said she was. She also said something about missing capturing an assassin though. She wanted to talk with you about it.”

    “What did you tell her?” I asked.

    “Not too much. We talked for a little bit and then she needed to get back to the other world. I’m sure she’ll tell you about it later.”

    I’d wondered sometimes where the evil wicked streak in me had come from. Seeing my mother’s intentionally mysterious smile, I no longer had any doubts.

    “She wanted to head back to her home but I offered to let her sleep here. The boys won’t be back till around 6:00, so things should be quiet till then. I’ll move her upstairs if you two aren’t awake for dinner.” Mom said.

    “Thanks. I should get back there. I think there’s been enough time that I can nudge the world into letting me wake up.” I said.

    “I’m just going to finish off this planting and I’ll be back inside.” Mom said.

    “What is it that you’re planting?” I asked.

    “Oh, just a chatty little seed your sister was carrying. He’s sleeping now while he waits to grow. It shouldn’t take too long I would think.” she said.

    I paused at that. Usually when objects (or people) from the Dreamlit world are brought into the real world, they become more real. In Stumpy’s case (or I suppose it was more correct to call him “Seedly”) I’d expected that would mean he’d become a normal seed and that his spirit would become something like a dryad, a magical creature who watched over the world on one of the nearby mystical planes.

    Instead it seemed like we were due to have a walking, talking tree in our garden at some point. One I hadn’t put any particular limits on. Shrugging, I turned and headed inside. There would no doubt be all sorts of trouble that Seedly would get into but sometimes you need to let the seeds of adventure for another day bloom in their own time.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 24

    There are all kinds of courage because there are all kinds of fear. The courage to face pain, the courage to press on in the face of loss, the courage to believe that we can make a difference. Being afraid isn’t a sign that we lack courage. None of us are fearless in all situations, there’s always something that can hurt us, at least until the day we die. We can be courageous and afraid at the same time, we just need to be able to chose what we do, rather than letting our fears chose for us.

    “The Castle of Final Peril.” RG announced as the he set down in front of the ruin of the castle’s front gate.

    “This place looks even less friendly up close.” Stumpy said. I’d tinkered with it a bit as they’d flown closer. I’d cleaned up the bodies of RG’s force, dissolving them back into the essence of the realm they’d been pulled from. For the castle though I’d left the damage that I’d done in place and augmented it with the wear of centuries. RG’s version of the castle had been a bustling center of his power. This version was the ruin of it.

    “It is.” RG replied. “This is the home of the Wicked Queen. The horrible beast who rules this land.”

    I nudged him in his ghostly ribs. Horrible beast? That wasn’t very fair. I should have qualified for at least “terrifying”.

    “The puppy is in there?” Peri asked. The ominous presence of the castle was a lot stronger up close, both due to it’s sheer size and the shadows it projected as it gobbled up the moonlight that fell on it.

    “So I have been told.” RG said, rubbing his ribs.

    “Who told you?” Peri asked.

    “The wind.” he replied, which was technically true, since I’d been in the form of a breeze when I’d spoken to him. Peri shrugged and accepted that a ghost could talk to the wind without requiring further justification.

    “Got get her!” Peri said. I’m not sure why she thought she could command a ghost. Probably it was simply because she didn’t want to go in there herself and was looking for any options she had to avoid it.

    “As you request.” RG said with a smile and a bow. It surprised me, but he seemed to be as happy playing the role of her servitor as he was playing the ruler of Bedlam. I thought about that for a moment. Either role would grant him the measure of reality that he craved, so perhaps it actually didn’t make a difference to him? It was something I’d have to ask Professor Haffrun about later. For the moment though I watched as he walked forward towards the gate and slammed into an invisible wall.

    “Oww.” he said and started feeling around the entranceway looking for an opening he could pass through. “Hmm, it looks like the castle has been protected by a Ghost Ward since I was here last.”

    “What’s that?” Peri asked.

    “The Wicked Queen doesn’t want me to come back so she’s made it so no ghosts can enter the castle. That means I have to stay out here.” RG explained. I need Peri on her own if she was going to confront her fears. That meant peeling away RG from her, especially since he’d already fulfilled the terms of the deal I’d offered him.

    “Ok. We’ll go then.” Peri said and dragged Stumpy along with her. Since neither of them were ghosts, they were able to pass through the wards around the ruined gate without a problem.

    “Were you planning to let me get back to my body or am I going to need to build another one?” RG asked once they’d passed into the castle, knowing that I could hear him.

    “I should give you a fluffy bunny body for that crack about being a horrible beast.” I said, taking my normal form again. “But you did do a good job getting here.”

    I snapped my fingers and RG’s ghostly form was replaced with his physical body.

    “You’re not leaving me frozen in the ice?” he asked, surprised at the freedom.

    “You asked for your freedom.” I said.

    “I also asked for my realm back.” he said.

    “That I can’t do for you.”

    “I’m fairly certain you can.” he objected.

    “That I can’t do for you in a manner that you would enjoy.” I elaborated.

    “Try me.” he said.

    “I’ve bound Bedlam in laws to make it safe for my world. To destroy those laws would destroy Bedlam itself. If I passed Bedlam back to you, you would be bound by those same laws. You’d basically become my vassal.” I said.

    “But I would have Bedlam to rule?” he asked.

    “Yes. To the extent that you didn’t violate my general wishes for it.” I said.

    “I will need to consider that.”

    “Feel free to roam anywhere you’d like while you do. Except through the portal to Earth. Belle’s barrier is still in place there and I don’t think it will react kindly to you if you try to cross it.”

    My offer wasn’t that generous given that no matter where he went in Bedlam, I’d be aware of what he was doing. RG accepted it graciously though, turned into a blackbird and took wing away from the Castle.

    I turned my attention back to Peri and found that she and Stumpy had arrived at the Sky Moat.

    “That’s a long way down.” Stumpy said. He was looking at the chasm that confronted them.

    The half sphere which formed the mountain’s crown was balanced on top of the spire that pierced the clouds. It was a formation that could never have occured on my world. Even if someone had built something like it, the weather would have knocked it down in short order.

    This was the Dreamlit world though. The impossible was not only probable but likely. A freestanding road of floating glass steps wound around the spire and lead to the outermost edge of the half sphere the castle stood on. Anyone brave enough to climb those steps would arrive where Peri and her crew had. Outside the outer wall. Those who managed to penetrate the outer wall were then faced with the “Sky Moat”.

    The Sky Moat had been carved completely through the mountain’s crown to serve as a bottomless pit of air. It meant that the outer rim of the mountain top wasn’t attached to anything in particular, but a floating piece of mountain was fairly tame by comparison to some of the things that lurked in Bedlam.

    That didn’t mean it was any easier for Peri and Stumpy to deal with though. If you fell into the moat you’d fall all the way down through the clouds to the slopes of the mountain several miles below. Neither Peri or Stumpy could fly and jumping the moat was similarly beyond their abilities.

    “We gotta get in there!” Peri said.

    “I might know a way.” Stumpy said.

    “What?” Peri asked.

    “I think I can reach those poles on the far side where the drawbridge is supposed to be. You could climb over me and get inside like that.” Stumpy said. I’d crushed the drawbridge during my assault and hadn’t seen a reason to repair it.

    “How are you gonna get over?” Peri asked.

    “I’ll have to wait here.” Stumpy said.

    Peri frowned and furrowed her brow. She knew that meant she’d have to go forward alone if she wanted to continue and being alone was, almost, the last thing she wanted to do.

    “It’s not too late to turn back.” Stumpy suggsted gently.

    Peri rocked side to side, fighting against things inside herself that she didn’t have a name for yet.

    “No.”  she said finally.

    “No?” Stumpy asked, unsure of what she was disagreeing with.

    “I’ll go.” she said. She was staring straight ahead at the castle’s inner gate, her hands clenched into tiny fists.

    “Ok, climb up on my shoulders then.” Stumpy said. She did and he extended his roots as far as he could and then reached outward with his branches. For a moment it looked like the two of them were going to tumble down into the Sky Moat but before they could, Stumpy caught the poles on the far side and stopped their fall.

    Peri didn’t need to be told to start climbing. She scampered up Stumpy’s outstretched branches faster than a chipmunk and fell to the ground on the far side of the Sky Moat with a cheer of joy when she got there.

    “I’ll hold on here. Don’t take too long though!” Stumpy said.

    “Ok.” Peri said, and turned to venture into the inner castle.

    “Thank you Stumpy.” I said, drifting over to him in the form of a breeze after Peri had moved out of earshot.

    “My pleasure my Queen. Will she be able to bring me back with her though?” he asked.

    “That’s going to depend on her and how she does in there. If she can’t though I’m make sure you’re suitably rewarded.” I told him.

    “That would be more appealing if you weren’t the Wicked Queen of Bedlam.” Stumpy said.

    “Don’t worry. I’m a lot more than that.” I told him and then whisked off after Peri.

    She’d made it into the entrance hallway. It was a long, dark archway that opened onto a dimly lit room beyond. Here are there shafts of silver moonlight speared through the darkness but the stones seemed to eat the light where it landed on them rather than reflecting it to illuminate the room any further.

    As Peri walked deeper into the castle, I summoned up more wind to howl around the outside of it. There was nothing in the archway or the entrance chamber except the rubble and ruin that remained from my rampage as a dragon. With the wind howling though it sounded like a chorus of ghosts were moaning from the different spots in the room where the sound snuck in.

    “You’re all aloooooone.” the ghostly voices seemed to howl.

    Peri looked around for the source of the words, but kept moving on.

    “You’re all alone in the dark.” the voices said, some retreating far away, some rushing in right past her ears.

    She jumped at that and I could see the goosebumps rising on her arms and neck. Her eyes were wide open and she was breathing quickly. Somehow though she kept moving. She wandered into the entrance hall and then into the covered garden beyond it.

    The garden’s flowers had all withered and were hanging wilted on their stems. In place of the fragrance of the many species a garden should support, the castle’s garden’s smelled only of dust and age.

    Peri looked around, but apart from the withered plants, the garden was as empty as the entrance hall had been.

    “Puppy?” she called out in a tiny voice.

    There was no answer except for the wordless ghost wailing from outside.

    “Puppy?” she whispered even more quietly as she walked through the garden.

    Still no answer.

    She reached the other end of the garden and found a pair of doors with the image of a fierce and baleful looking dragon carved into them. Carved into the doors beneath the dragon, there were smaller figures, all skeletons, that the dragon had burned up.

    “I’m not alone.” Peri said to herself.

    “Whoooo’s with you?” the ghostly voices seemed to ask.

    “Mommy and Daddy. And James. And Jin. Mommy said they’re always with me.” she whispered our names like a magic spell she wasn’t sure of, but I watched the effect they had on her. Remembering each of us seemed to strengthen her. I didn’t get that. I mean I was with her but I wasn’t exactly making her life easier. Mom, Dad, and James weren’t even that close. They were literally a world away. Saying our names should have reminded her of how alone she was, not made her feel better.

    “Doooon’t goooo in thereee.” the ghostly voices said.

    “That’s where the puppy is.” she said, wild, childhood intuition moving her forward where no plausible reasoning would.

    “Doooon’t goooo in thereee!” the ghostly voices insisted.

    Peri drew herself up to her full height, a new fire in her eyes.

    “Puppy!” she shouted and barreled at the doors. The dragon on the doors roared as she approached, or perhaps it was only the wind. It didn’t stop her in either case. She smashed through the doors and into the throne room that held the center of her fears. The dreadful monster under the bed.

    Inside the room stood the Throne of Bedlam.

    It was empty.

    The whole throne room was empty in fact.

    As Peri looked around the ghostly wailing from outside revealed itself as nothing more than the wind. Through the hole I’d smashed in the wall, moonlight streamed in, illuminating the room brightly and showed that it was just a dusty, old room.

    Peri was panting and hunched over at the end of her charge but straightened up as she looked around the empty room. I watched as she took it in. At first she was wary and tense, waiting for something terrible to appear. Then her head tipped to one side and her shoulders relaxed. There wasn’t anything terrible in the room. Even the Wicked Queen was just a picture that hung over the throne.

    “PUPPY!” she yelled, unafraid of attracting attention at last.

    A woof of doggie delight came from beyond the far end of the throne room.

    That was all it took to send Peri scurrying forward.

    Unfortunately that was also all it took for the castle to begin crumbling. Peri was past her fear of Bedlam, the next step was to make sure she didn’t set up shop there.

    Peri felt the floor giving way underneath her just as she saw Belle racing down the hallway that lead out of the far end of the throne room. Belle saw her at the same instant and morphed from puppy to her full War Beast form.

    Peri and the floor had fallen maybe ten feet by the time Belle arrived and snatched Peri up by her shirt collar. With a flick of her head, Belle tossed the little girl onto her back and bounded up, leaping off the collapsing bits of floor with a strength and speed that was completely inhuman.

    “We’re getting out of here! Hold on tight!” Belle yelled as she streaked out of the collapsing castle. At first I thought Peri was screaming in terror but listening more closely I noticed that she was squealing with delight.

    Together my sister and her puppy fled the Castle of Final Peril, laughing the whole way.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 23

    Watching someone succeed where they’re not expected to usually puts a smile on my face. It’s nice to see friends accomplishing more than they believed they could. It’s fun to watch a total stranger discover that they’re greater than they thought they were. It’s even interesting, sometimes, to see an opponent make a play no one would have dreamed they were capable of.

    The times when that’s not as welcome are when their success means additional headaches for me. A foe who lands a solid blow tells me I’ve got a good fight on my hands. One who lands a deadly blow means I have to get serious about things, which isn’t terribly fun. Similarly a four year old sister who-shall-remain-nameless, who manages to find her way through a barrier and into a nightmare world means I get to come rescue her. One who manages to take over the aforementioned nightmare world on the other hand is someone I need to handle very carefully.

    Mom had looked interested in her youngest becoming a dreamlord too, but I suspected she wouldn’t be overjoyed for me to drag home a four year old Dark Queen who radiated terror and madness. Granted there were days when I’m not sure she could have told the difference but Mom was good at noticing subtle changes. James and Dad on the other hand, probably would have needed the glowing eyes and deadly spikes Dark Lord Peri would be sure to adopt to tip them off. I don’t know why it was so often glowing eyes and deadly spikes, it was like a dress code or something for nightmare rulers. The thought of Peri done up like that was alternately silly and disturbing.

    The silly part was picturing how seriously she’d take it. The disturbing part was how she’d basically be wearing my “hand me downs” in that case, from my own brief stints as a Dark Queen.  For the time being though, she was still a semi-normal four year old, and I was bound and determined she’d get to stay that way.

    I just needed to make sure her current companions took care of her well enough.

    “RG”, the former monster-under-the-bed, had chosen to be able to “fly faster than the wind” when he’d crafted his ghost form. That’s how he’d be able to catch up with me when I’d teleported to the forest Peri was in. With RG, Peri and Stumpy flying away and me in the form of a breeze, that was a bit problematic.

    RG had been consistent enough in his decorating motifs that there was a perpetual storm cloud over Bedlam. That was convenient for me since it meant I could travel as a bolt of lightning without needing to alter anything else about the world besides myself.

    I didn’t technically need to stay near them of course. As the ruler of the realm, I could sense anything in it that I turned my attention to, but it was often more convenient to have an avatar in place near whatever it was I was observing.

    With that in mind, I flashed up to the clouds and then jumped from one to the next to catch up with Peri and her crew. As I flew forward, I left a trail of thunder crashes in my wake. They boomed and shook the skies, buffeting the makeshift flying carriage into wild turns and sudden drops.

    “The Storm Giants are waking up!” I heard Stumpy call out. I smiled a crackling, electric grin as I lurked in the heart of a thunderhead that overlooked the little party.

    The layer of clouds just below me which Peri and her party was flying through began to roil and twist, shifting into new shapes. All around them, one by one, giants of mists with lightning for eyes and thunder for breath stood up and gazed around.

    The first roars began a moment later. One of the storm giants had spied something he hated. Interlopers in their domain. Then he spotted something he hated even more. Another storm giant. I leapt down to the cloud that storm giant stood on. He turned to look at me and I hurled myself into him. Before the other storm giants could notice what I was doing I then jumped from his outstretched hand to slam into the storm giant he had noticed.

    Usually storm giants will howl and bluster for hours before getting down to business. With how fast RG was flying I needed more immediate results and blasting one of the storm giants achieved that in a big way. The sky lit up like day time with lightning flashes that were so constant it was hard to imagine they would ever stop.

    I cast my meta-awareness out to see how Peri was doing. She was huddled into the seat Stumpy had provided hanging on for dear life as RG pulled them through a barrel roll to escape the reach of one of the storm giants. Her eyes were wet but she wasn’t screaming incoherently or shutting the world out yet.

    I breathed a sigh of relief.

    RG had offered me knowledge in exchange for his freedom. The truth was, I already knew what he was going to tell me. In how what he’d answered and refused to answer the questions I’d asked him, there had been enough clues to work out what his secret was if you knew how creatures of the Unreal generally worked.

    He hadn’t needed a special reason to make a realm beyond the existence of the rift that formed under Peri’s bed. It was something that he would do naturally. Of the various denizens of the Unreal, his type wasn’t an exceptionally harmful one. He could be dangerous – Bedlam showed that – but by nature what he desired was simply a place to call home and a little bit of stability to cling to. In exchange he offered the realm he was attached to the added security of an additional barrier against the unreal. It meant that the rift could exist without the danger of unraveling what it meant to be “real”.

    In the case of a world like Earth Glass, there Dreamlit World around it was very thin. The things that could be real were sharply delineated from the things that could not be and (in Earth Glasses case) reality had a very hard time reconciling when those two got mixed up. The Dreamlit World around my Earth was much “thicker” but even so having a whole additional realm where things could be “sort of true” was an extra layer of insurance against problems forming.

    The catch was, the stability that RG desired is a difficult thing to come by, most especially in the Dreamlit world, whose nature was to be ever (and easily) changing. That meant he needed a conduit to reality, some trick that would keep my world from rejecting him. That’s where Peri came in. If she believed in him, even just in her dreams, she’d be his foothold into the real world. Through her he’d be able to become a little bit real, so that he could hold together and not be lost back into the sea of “might have beens” and “could be”s.

    So if he needed her, why did RG make Bedlam into a realm that would terrify Peri? Because he didn’t need her to like the place (or him), he needed her to believe in it. When Peri looked under her bed she saw a dark scary place. That Bedlam was dark and scary fit her preconceptions and so she could buy into it without any trouble at all.

    It would seem like the obvious answer, if I wanted to get Peri to abandon Bedlam, to turn it into a place of sweetness and light so she could forget about it. Unfortunately the obvious answer was wrong. That might have worked if I’d gotten to it before Peri had seen Bedlam (though in that case I could have ensured she never made it there in the first place). As it was, if I replaced Bedlam with Sugar Gum Drop Land, Peri would remember the scary version of Bedlam and know that it was out there somewhere, waiting for her.

    She might enjoy being in a sparkling fun world, but she wouldn’t forget Bedlam because we tend to hold on to our fears fears with all of our strength. It’s a survival trait, but it also limits us. We tend to believe in our fears far more than is warranted. That was the same reason that I couldn’t make the world too tame or easy for her. She’d seen the real version of Bedlam, if all the monsters in it were replaced by stuffed versions of themselves that were cuddly rather than scary she’d know she was being tricked.

    My game plan was to work things so that  Peri would believe in Bedlam enough that when she “beat it” by getting Belle back, she’d also overcome her fear of “the monster under the bed”. That was the key to getting her to leave it behind. The trick was doing it without hurting her in the process.

    Watching the tiny flying carriage careen through the skies with lightning flashing all around it and giants battling to destroy it, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that. Not perfectly at any rate. In convincing her that Bedlam was as scary as she imagined, she was probably going to get a little scuffed up. I could set boundaries on that (permanent damage and serious injuries were right out, both physical and mental), but if I prevented all of the consequences of her choices from coming home to roost she wouldn’t have anything real to feel proud of overcoming.

    “This is crazy! I’m taking us down!” RG yelled to the other two.

    “No!!” Peri yelled. “Go up! Go up!”

    She pulled back on the roots that Stumpy had wrapped around RG like they were reins and RG’s ghostly body angled upwards.

    I could see why Peri wanted to rise over the aerial battlefield – the lightning bolts the giants were throwing were falling primarily onto the ground below. RG knew the land and would have been able to find them a cave to shelter in. Peri didn’t know that though so all she could see was RG trying to lead them to the place where all the lightning was going.

    As it turned out, “up” was the right direction to pick. The storm giants, being a surly and unpleasant lot, were more than happy to keep shooting at each other rather than waste their energy on the tiny flying carriage that was soon far above them.

    On top of the clouds, even Bedlam was a lovely place. The full moon shown in brilliant silver and set the clouds below them aglow. The one piece of the tableau that stuck out was the ominous spire that throbbed with veins of purple light.

    “It’s pretty!” Peri said, looking at the clouds then the mountain caught her attention.

    “What’s that?” she asked.

    “That is the Mountain of Despair, atop of which sits the Castle of Final Peril.” RG said sounding proud of his work in creating it.

    “I don’t like it.” Peri said and curled up, tucking herself into a corner of the chair Stumpy had made for the carriage and wrapping her arms around her body defensively.

    “It does look a little unfriendly.” Stumpy said.

    “There’s still time to turn back. You don’t have to go there. You can still call this whole thing off and go right back home.” RG said.

    Peri looked at him warily.

    “I can take you back to the beginning of the forest in a flash.” RG said.

    Peri continued to stare at him. She was frowning and angry and probably more afraid than she’d ever been before.

    “No.” she said without uncurling.

    “Don’t you want to go home?” RG asked.

    “No.” she said. My heart skipped a beat at that one, worries that I’d already lost her flooding my mind.

    “You’re going to stay here?” RG asked.

    “No.” she said. “The puppy needs me. She might be scared.”

    “I’m sure she’ll be fine.” RG said.


    Arguing with a four year old tended to go like that. No lengthy explanation. No debating. Peri would take her position and then neither hell nor high water would budge her from it. RG figured that out at last and sighed.

    “Onwards to the Castle of Final Peril then.” he said and off they flew.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 22

    There are times when being alone is the most wonderful thing in the world. The stillness and quiet of solitude can help us regain our balance and declutter our minds. That benefit can be lost though when the solitude isn’t of our own choosing.

    “Puppy! Come here puppy!” Peri whispered as she crept forward, deeper into the monster-under-the-bed’s nightmare realm. The path she was on had looped over itself several times already so getting back to our world would have been challenging at best. Peri was so focused on finding Belle that she hadn’t noticed that problem yet. She had noticed she was alone though and, no matter how brave she was, a spooky forest was daunting for a four year old.

    I watched as she slunk down the broken cobblestone road that wound through the night black forest of gnarled and withered trees. Her shoulders were low, her back was hunched and her head was down. She wanted to find “her puppy” but she was tingling with fear at being in such a strange place. The part of the me that was a good big sister wanted to swoop in and pick her up before any of the creatures that inhabited Bedlam found her.

    It would have taken less than a moment. I was observing her in the form of a puff of wind that was dancing through the forest. All I needed to do was step onto the path and turn back into the sister that she knew. We’d even be able to continue her quest together.

    Instead, I flicked a finger so that a root sprang from the ground and smacked her in the back. Not hard enough to do any damage. Just enough to sting.

    “Stop That!” she said and punched the root that was hanging behind her. She’d straightened up in response to the smack and was glaring daggers at the root, daring it to try that again.

    “Hey! What’s the big idea?” the tree stump the root was attached to said. “Why’d you hit me?”

    With the casual acceptance of weirdness that only a little kid can possess, Peri turned to the tree stump and said “You hit me first!’

    “No I didn’t, you stepped on me!” Stumpy said.

    “You hit me!” Peri insisted and punched the root again.

    “This is going well.” a suave and cultured voice whispered to me. It’s a sign of what my life is like that I didn’t jump or startle but instead breathed a sigh of relief. When things go smoothly I get worried. The unexpected and creepy feels comfortable by comparison.

    I kept an eye on Peri and reached out with my meta-awareness to find a ghostly version of the monster-under-the-bed (aka Reclusive Guy) standing beside me. I cast out a little farther and confirmed that his body was indeed still entombed in ice in the ruins of the sprawling gothic castle he’d created as his center of power. .

    “Spirit casting.” he said, guessing my next question. “You only froze my body.”

    I nodded in appreciation. That was a good trick to have worked out so quickly. Since he’d figured that out, I was sure he could use a variety of other powers in his ghostly form but the realm was mine so I’d be able to block them if I wanted to.

    “Clever. But you’re aware that you’re also uniquely vulnerable in that state, right?” I asked.  I gestured to one of the trees near us as it reached down and wrapped him up in it’s branches. He was immaterial in his ghost form but the magical trees got to play by whatever rules I decided and having them able to capture ghosts seemed handy.

    It was tempting to stuff him back into his body and place him in an enchanted sleep to keep him out of my hair. Monsters are usually either helpful or malevolent. The bad ones are annoying and the helpful ones tend to odd ideas about what exactly constitutes “helping”.

    “I don’t think you want to do that.” he said, brimming with smug confidence, as the tree reached up with its roots to drag him into the earth.

    “And why would that be?” I asked, waving to the tree to stop. I’m a sucker for a chatty monster.

    “Because you don’t understand this realm” he said, showing no signs of discomfort or discontent at his predicament.

    “Don’t I? You created it to feed on fears. They’re the lowest, easiest path for connecting to a psyche. The more you drain, the more real you become, until you have a solid home in my world.” I said.

    “All true, but you don’t see why yet do you?” he asked.

    “Do you need a reason?” I asked incredulously. Most of the beasts of the Unreal did what they did for no more reason than “because”.

    “Technically no, but in this case there is one and you won’t get that little girl out of here if you don’t know what it is.” he said.

    “You know what I am? You know what I can do to you right?” I asked.

    “Yes. You demonstrated that quite sufficiently already.” he said, rattling a bit in his rooty bonds.

    “And you know that the girl is important to me.” I looked over and saw Peri and Stumpy engaged in a slap fight. I couldn’t tell which was winning but it was obvious neither was willing to back down.


    “So you’re going to try to barter her safety for something. You’re not a good position to barter though.” I said.

    “Which is why my asking price will be low.” he conceded.

    “What do you want.”

    “Let me go. Give me back my realm. Let me do my job. Do that and I’ll tell you what you need to know.” Reclusive Guy offered.

    “Your job?” I asked. Things from the Unreal didn’t have preset purposes, but they could have fragments of an identity, and those could include roles and responsibilities. Normally, because they weren’t tied to anything real, the roles and responsibilities could change and morph freely but with Reclusive Guy having gained a measure of reality when I named him, his “job” could have become more real as well.

    “Yes. We’re not so different in fact.” he said smiling in a way that was probably meant to be charming but fell short due to his overall creepy aesthetic.

    “Oh, I love this one! Tell me how we’re just the same! How the darkness within me make me so very similar to you! Bonus points if you go for the old ‘you’ve done far worse things than I’ line!” I said. I may have bounced a bit.

    “I have to say it doesn’t feel like you’re taking this very seriously.” the ghost said with a frown. I almost felt bad for stealing his lines from him.

    “Ask yourself if you really want to see me being serious? And consider that the business with your castle was me taking a bit of a break and having some fun.” I said.

    His frown deepened.

    “The little one is in peril you know?” he asked nodding in Peri’s direction.

    Several other trees where moving in to aide Stumpy, which meant Peri was moments away from being completely overwhelmed by the them.

    “You should talk quickly then.” I suggested. “You were describing your job?”

    “You’re going to do something horrible to me if the little girl is harmed aren’t you?” he asked, concern creeping into his expression.

    “I repeat: you know what I am don’t you?”

    “Right, my job then: I make borders – barrier realms between out here and in there.” he said, referring to the Unreal and my homeworld respectively.

    “Why?” I asked.

    “Because they can be the best of both worlds. A little bit real so there’s some meaning to them and a little bit unreal so they’re not so limited. They’re…comfy.” he explained.

    “And you make them nightmares because…?” I prompted him.

    “Ah, that gets to the bit of information that I intend to trade for my freedom.” he said.

    “I have a better idea.” I said. “I’ll give you until the trees reach Peri to figure out how to save her. If you can keep her safe and see her through the whole realm, we’ll talk again.”

    “I’m a ghost, how am I supposed to save her from magic trees?” he asked, looking somewhat alarmed. Given how close the trees had crept up to Peri, I didn’t blame him.

    “You’re very clever aren’t you? And with your hair on fire, I’m sure the trees won’t be eager to get near you.” I said and smiled at him.

    “My hair’s not on…” he started to say and then slumped. “Really?”

    “I’m afraid so.” I said, feeling properly wicked.

    He raised his eyes to spy on his luscious bangs and noticed I’d been telling the truth. His ghostly locks were ablaze with bright orange tongues of flame. On the positive side, the flames did scare off the roots and branches that had fastened on to him.

    “Wait, what’s happening to my real hair?” he said, aghast at the thought.

    “As goes the one so goes the other.” I told him.

    Stop, drop and roll isn’t taught in monster-under-the-bed school. Instead Reclusive Guy opted to run screaming right at Peri.

    She’d been biting one of Stumpy’s roots while two other roots tried to wrestle her off it. Seeing a flame topped ghost careening at her like a mad man, she sprang away from the tree and started screaming herself.

    That was cut short when “RG” ran past her and crashed into one of the trees that had been drawing close to Peri. It was pretty unfair that as a ghost he didn’t simply pass through it but the slapstick value was worth it. From one tree to another RG bounced like a pinball madly trying to put out the flames on his head with cries of “My hair! My gorgeous hair!”

    The flames weren’t burning him, but they were threatening to the magic trees. The magic trees in turn responded to their crazed attacker by running around in a similarly haphazard manner, bumping into each other and RG wildly as they all tried to flee.

    In the end only Peri, Stumpy and RG were left in a rather wide clearing at the edge of the woods. The whole forest had shifted around to spit them out.  RG was exhausted from his rampage and was collapsed on the ground trying to catch his ghostly breath. Peri was laughing herself silly and Stumpy was looking in confusion between the two.

    “Do you think he’s dead?” Stumpy asked, pointing at RG with a root.

    “Oh course, he’s a ghost!” Peri said.

    “Should we bury him?” Stumpy asked.

    “No, that’s for zombies.” Peri said. I’d have to ask my mother where Peri was learning about zombies, especially learning the wrong things about zombies, but this didn’t seem to be the time to correct her.

    “I don’t know. There’s lots of creepy things under the ground. Maybe ghosts go there too?” Stumpy said.

    “Thank you. I’m not the burying sort of ghost. Or a zombie.” RG said.

    “Well then what are you doing here?” Stumpy asked.

    “I’m here for her.” RG said.

    “I’m looking for my puppy!” Peri said.

    “There are no puppies here.” RG said.

    I floated close to him and whispered in his ear.

    “She means the beast that was tearing through your hedge maze. The one that’s at your castle now.” I told him.

    “In this forest I mean. You were looking in the wrong place.” RG amended.

    “Where is she?” Peri asked,

    RG’s face sunk.

    “She’s in the Castle of Final Peril, atop the Mountain of Despair, beyond the Eternal Hedge and across the Sea of Lost Hopes.” he said. My offer had been contingent on him seeing Peri safely through realm which meant he was going to have to deal with all of the headaches he’d devised to inflict on anyone else who entered his world if he wanted to get her there.

    “That sounds far.” Peri said. She was frowning too. In her case it was less a matter of dread at the challenges that lay before them and more that she just wasn’t that patient.

    What she lacked in patience though, she made up for in creativity.

    “Why don’t you fly me there?” she asked RG.

    “I can’t lift you up.” RG said and passed his hand through hers.

    “You can lift him.” Peri said and pointed at Stumpy. “And he can lift me.”

    I whistled (as a breeze it’s pretty easy too). I hadn’t thought of that at all. Fortunately I didn’t have to admit it to anyone. I try to be truthful in general but “outsmarted by a four year old” is a little too embarrassing even for me to own up to.

    “And why would I carry you anywhere?” Stumpy asked.

    “Uh, I could say I was sorry.” Peri said.

    “You should say you’re sorry anyways. You bit me! I’ve got kid germs on me now!” Stumpy complained.

    “I’m sorry.” Peri said with all the sincerity of a four year who wants something.

    “Good. But I still don’t want to go flying away. Flying’s not a natural thing for a tree like me!” Stumpy said.

    “I could take you home and plant you!” Peri suggested.

    “Why would I want that?” Stumpy asked.

    “Because we’ve got a nice garden, and it gets lots of sunshine and my mommy can make it rain so you’ll always have enough to drink.” Peri said.

    “You’re mother can make it rain?” Stumpy asked, his eyes wide in disbelief.

    “Yeah! She can make things grow too!” Peri said.

    “Come here child.” Stumpy said. Peri took a few nervous steps forward and Stumpy began sniffing the air around her.

    “You’re the daughter of…?” Stumpy began to say and cut himself off. “I would be delighted to carry you.”

    “This is patently absurd.” RG said as Stumpy wound a few roots around the ghost and made a carriage seat out of a few others for Peri to sit in.

    “If you would prefer to take the long path to the castle, I’m sure I can keep up.” Stumpy said.

    “No no. By all means let us be off!” RG said, shaking his head.

    “Whee! Giddy up!” Peri squealed as the three of them lifted off into the air and began flying across the realm.

    I’d followed Peri with the aim of preventing the Bedlam realm from capturing her. As I watched them fly away it occurred to me that I probably should have been worried about Peri capturing Bedlam instead. If I wasn’t careful the problem wouldn’t be getting Peri to come back it would be getting her to leave my realm in one piece when she was done with it!

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 21

    The polite thing to do when you aren’t invited to someone’s home is to knock on the front door and ask if they can spare a moment of their time for whatever you need.

    “Knock knock.” I said as I rapped on the door to the monster-under-the-bed’s house. Of course when I say “knock” I mean slammed off it’s hinges and when I say “door” I mean “castle gate” and I should probably mention that I was in the form of a black dragon roughly the size of an Apatosaurus when I made my “polite” request.

    “GRAR!” was the greeting I received from a few hundred long fanged goblins. With poisoned spears and burning swords they charged at me in unison. Apparently when a dragon shows up the castle gates, the defenders take it as a sign that break time is done and they need to get serious about doing their jobs.

    If they’d been real creatures, the goblin charge would have been quite brave. Tactically stupid, but brave. Since they were only projections of the monster under the bed’s will rather than sapients in their own right, I reduced the force that was charging at me to ash with dragon fire and shouldered through the remains of the castle’s gate to enter the courtyard.

    The monster sent more troops at me. Archers on the parapets armed with flaming arrows. Dark wizards riding flying skeletons and wielding all sorts of eldritch power. Even a flight of dragons, each as large as I, with death burning in their eyes and lightning spewing from their mouths.

    Claw, claw, bite and some more dragon fire took care of them all. I was feeling somewhat vindictive, so I made sure each of my attacks wrecked a different bit of the castle. I had a thing for knocking over castles so it felt pleasingly correct to reduce the monster’s castle to large heaps of rubble. If I hadn’t been faced with more important matters to deal with I would have been tempted to fly off and let him repair it so I could come back and wreck it again. I had business to attend to though and time was not my ally.

    “Get out here.” I commanded. I could feel the monster cowering in the most secure room of the castle. In his defense, what I was doing to his realm was breaking all sorts of rules. He’d laid down the physical laws of reality here. Everything that happened occurred because he willed it to. It wasn’t possible for someone to assault his castle like I had. No one could challenge him in the very heart of the realm that he’d created.

    Or they couldn’t have until I showed up.

    Within a real world, I was bound, to some extent, by the limits of how that reality was defined. I could push at those limits and argue with them like I did on Earth Glass or I could shift around with them as I did on my homeworld. In the worst cases I could even try to change them or just flat out break the rules of reality and accept the consequences as terrible as they might be.

    That was when I was dealing with the real. The Dreamlit world and the Unreal that lay beyond it were another matter. The only rules that existed in the Dreamlit world where the ones I chose to acknowledge.

    I could have chosen to be bound by the monster-under-the-bed’s rules. I could have left the realm under his control and left it as his problem to deal with. If he wasn’t aggressive I probably would have done that. Managing dream realms can be a little annoying. They tend to fill up with every problem imaginable and the inhabitants then whine for help dealing with this issue or that night and day. If the poor monster had been sensible enough to avoid opening a rift to the real world he could have enjoyed his little nightmare world for as long as he wanted to.

    The foolish thing had over-reached himself though. He’d craved that little bit of extra juice the unreal get from tapping into an actual world. He wanted to be more than a figment of someone’s imagination. He wanted to be real.

    As someone who straddled that line myself, I can’t say I didn’t feel for him. I loved what I was, but there were subtle and important things that I’d lost in becoming partially unreal. It would have been against the Parliament’s general rules, but if he’d proven to be friendly enough I probably would have even allowed him to keep the rift in place. It would have attracted problems but there were lots of things that created problems in the world and rifts with friendly critters beyond them held some unusual opportunities that were occasionally worth the problems they brought.

    Unfortunately for him, the silly monster had attracted the attention of my sister and that I couldn’t let stand.

    I’d taken his realm from him the moment I’d entered it. I’m a dream lord. Ruling realms is second nature to us, even if I don’t often chose to indulge in that nature.

    I hadn’t changed anything at first. Peri was here and I didn’t want her to get spooked. Not yet anyways. I’d simply given it a name, “Bedlam”. Not particularly inspired or original, but it didn’t need to be. It was a crazy realm under the bed so the name fit and was something I could call it by. If another dream lord encountered the realm, they’d probably know it as “Jin’s Bedlam” since I’d claimed it in my own name. If they were smart that would give them some pause before they decided to try messing with it.

    “You’re a pretty reclusive guy there aren’t you?” I asked as I slammed my giant dragon arm through the castle to reach into where the monster-under-the-bed was hiding. As I did I felt a connection spark in my mind. “Reclusive Guy” seemed like a fine name for a monster under the bed.

    When I dragged him out, the monster was indeed in the form of a man. Sort of a skinny, long haired, fashion model type guy. His skin would normally have been a nice mocha color like Peri’s except that his face had turned a deep purple. I thought he was angry at first (due to the whole “I was smashing holes in his castle” thing) but then noticed that I was holding him ever-so-slightly too strongly and he couldn’t actually breathe.

    “Oops!” I said and placed him back on his throne. I’d been worried about Peri but that was no reason to go completely overboard on the nightmare-creature-from-beyond-time-and-space that had lured her away to a realm of madness.

    “Stay there.” I instructed him and froze him into a block of ice that covered his entire throne.

    He struggled against the ice and then struggled against the very body that he wore. As a creature of the unreal he wasn’t bound by a particular body anymore than I was. I watched as a look of dread passed over his frozen eyes.

    He couldn’t escape.

    He had been something that had few, in any limits, before and was discovering that his dearest wish had been granted. He was real at last! Solidly, inescapably real. “Reclusive Guy” had gained a beginning and an end and, unfortunately for him, he couldn’t imagine a way to escape them.

    “We’ll talk later.” I told him. Nightmare realm aside, I wasn’t sure that he was necessarily a bad guy and even if he was there were probably better uses I could put him to than “eternal ice sculpture”.

    For the time being though I had more critical matters to attend to. Namely Peri and Belle.

    When you control a dream real, you don’t need to perform “magic”. Whatever you wish simply “is”. I liked the theatrics though and they helped me remember that I was still partially real so I summoned forth a scrying crystal in the air between my outstretched claws and cast my sight over the land. Meta-awareness gave me a sense of where they both were but seeing them was helpful too.

    With the head start she had, Belle had made it deeper into Reclusive’s realm than Peri. The puppy dog was gone and in its place, Bell was in her full beast form. I watched as she fought through an ever regrowing and reconfiguring hedge maze that led up to the castle. The laws of the world prevented anyone from flying over it or teleporting past it. They also prevented anyone from getting through the maze (which was kind of a cheat on the monster’s part). I’d broken the teleportation law as soon as I got here and it looked like Belle was bending the “no getting through the maze” rule to the point of snapping it. I’m not sure which way it would count though because I suspected when she was done there wouldn’t be a maze left anymore..

    “I need you here Belle.” I said softly. My words drifted on the wind and caught her attention as she tore through a squad of seven Hedge Monsters that were seeking to protect one of the walls from her claws.

    “Jin? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take this long.” Belle said.

    “It is kind of a fun place isn’t it?” I said, admiring the design aesthetic the monster had come up with. It drew from a lot of classic sources but the pieces fit together nicely and the whole ambiance had a touch of class to it that was missing in nightmares that were focused on grossing you out.

    I whistled and the wind spun out to carry Belle from the Hedge Maze to the castle’s ruined gate.

    “Has something come up? Is Way ok?” Belle asked as she arrived.

    I dropped the dragon form and changed to my regular “uniform” of multi-layered white robes edged in pink. I admit to having been jealous of James and the actual “heroic costume” he wore as Aegis. That might have influenced my desire to retain the royal faerie queen robes that I’d won as my own “costume”, even though technically those robes were black and purple and scary. That none of my titles quite fit my chosen white and pink regalia was fine though. These were Jin’s clothes, not the Shadow Queen, the Oblivion Queen or any of the other titles I carried.

    “Way’s fine, I ran into a little bit of trouble, but nothing to be worried about there. Peri on the other hand, decided she wanted in on the fun too. She’s here.” I said.

    “What? But I left a barrier in place!” Belle objected.

    “Yeah, that kind of worries me too.” I admitted. “The key at this point though is to convince her to leave here on her own.”

    “I could go back and lead her out.” Belle offered.

    “I thought of that. The problem is, I think she’ll stay curious about this place if she doesn’t ‘complete it’.” I said.

    “What do you mean ‘complete it’?” Belle asked.

    “She was focused on the monster-under-the-bed before you went in here. I think she needs to beat him herself in order to feel safe enough to forget about this realm. If we try to take her out before that it’ll stick in her mind that there’s a nightmare world waiting for her in the dark corners that people tell her are safe.” I said.

    “Can she beat the monster though?” Belle asked.

    “With some encouragement? I think so.” I said.

    “What do you need me to do?”

    “Nothing yet. I might be wrong. I’m going to see if some gentle persuasion will be enough to convince her to go. If she’s not really that interested in this then I may be able to ‘talk’ her into leaving on her own.”

    “And if not? If you’re right that she’s focused on this realm?” Belle asked.

    “Then I’ll have to ask you to catch her when she falls.” I said.

    “What will you be doing?”

    “Pushing her.” I said with a smile. I hadn’t had siblings until my Mom married James’ Dad. We’d been old enough to get along at that point. I’d missed out on years of tormenting a younger sibling as a result. Peri was going to have so much fun!