Edible Arrangements of Arsenic

Edible Arrangements of Arsenic

I always suspected that Destiny’s Seers would all but conscript me into the Martell Tower for Good and Evil—I’d fancied myself a Charming Prince-in-the-making since I was a child.

Imagine my surprise when I learned my Destiny was actually to become one of Evil’s Lieutenants.

Destiny, you see, can be a tricky business. It’s full of self-fulfilling prophecies, perilous quests and no small amount of slaying—full of nasty, messy things. Most don’t want to touch it.

Many of us came with ideas of some form of grandeur that Destiny chose for us. Some of us wanted to be Warlocks or Charming Princes or Maidens. Instead, you’ve found that Destiny has chosen you to be an Evil Advisor, or Wicked Witch. But at least we’re keeping the world safe, right? Destiny must flow, as the saying goes.

Frankly, I’ve never minded getting the short end of the stick, because that short end can impale pretty nicely.

#

Sybil Kahn was always a good friend in those days. She was the kind of person that kept you alert. The same way a brick wall in the middle of a racetrack could keep you alert.

You could really warm up to her after you got used to the way she smiled like she was constantly thinking about holding a spider over a candle.

She saw me scowling, one day during a feast in the Great Hall. “Are you still upset Destiny chose you for this path?” She raised her goblet to her lips. “It’s been a few years, Elias.”

“A few bad years.”

She rolled her eyes. “This one will be different.”

“How would you know?”

“Because I know.”

“Is it magic?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes. “For the last time,” she said, “I’m an Evil-Queen-in-training, not a Wicked Witch.”

I mouthed an ahhh. “That’s right,” and touched a finger to one nostril. “I always forget—you haven’t got the nose.”

She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, trying to decide whether or not she’d been insulted.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Not at all,” she said, grinning. “Not at all.”

I should have been clued off by the emotion draining from her eyes, that something was about to happen. Unfortunately, I’d never been the brightest in the tower.

She slipped a dirk out from under her dress and slammed it down between my fingers. “What did you mean by that?” She spoke through her teeth.

“I—I—”

“I haven’t got the right nose? What does that mean? What the fuck does that mean?”

“I don’t know—I—”

“You don’t know? You were the one who said it. I want to know what you mean, Elias.” Her voice went psychotically calm. “I’m trying to work with you, if you’d just help me understand.”

That was going to be difficult, since even I didn’t understand how I got into this mess. “It’s just a nose, Sybil. You know?”

“No, Elias, I don’t know! You’re the one who said it? What does that mean ‘you haven’t got the right nose.’?”

My eyes flicked from her dagger to her eyes and back again. “What are you trying to pull, here, Sybil?”

“You’re asking me?” Sybil held back a shriek. “You’re the one who started this. And you still haven’t told me what you mean!”

“I—I just—you know…”

“I promise I don’t.”

All I could say was, “Uhhhhh…”

“I’d like an answer, Elias. Sometime today, please. What did you mean when you said that? If I haven’t got the right nose, then something’s wrong with it, right?”

“Right?” I said, unsure. “No—wait, it’s wrong. Fuck! It’s left.”

She wrenched the dagger out of the table and hovered it close to my throat. “Make up your mind. What would you prefer? Do you want it to grow when I start telling lies? Is it too thin? Too wide? Too short? Too long? I’d very much like to understand you, if you’d just explain.”

I made a noise like a beam of wood before it snaps. I looked into her eyes that may as well have been lifeless. Her hand trembled on the dagger she held so very close to my throat.

Then I saw her smiling, which was odd. And then I was smiling without meaning to. “You piece of shit,” I laughed.

She pulled back, giggling, and slipped her dagger back in its sheath. “You believed it,” she laughed, “I actually got you. What did you think I was going to do?”

“Best guess?”

“Give it to me.”

“Skin me alive and wear me as a cloak.”

She grinned. “I might like to try that one day…” I’m almost sure she was joking.

#

We shared a double-room in the west wing of the tower, creatively named the Dormitory of Evil (though in their defense, they weren’t wrong…).

I awoke one day to hear Sybil shrieking and flailing and throwing on the first clothes she could find. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” She shouted.

“Sybil, what’s wrong?”

I won’t! I promise!

Sybil!

She seemed to deflate then, and she saw me for the first time. “How much of that were you awake for?” she asked.

“All of it.”

“Fuck me!” she collapsed onto the end of her bed and buried her face in his hands.

“Madame Tallow?” I asked.

She nodded and gave me a muffled, “She was shouting at me. In my head!

“I know.”

“In my head, Elias!”

“Why would you sign up for her class?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you heard she’s a professional Wicked Witch—?” I jested.

“YOU DON’T FUCKING SAY!”

I raised my hands in mock-surrender. “All I’m saying is that you saw firsthand what happened to me last year.”

She looked like she was choking back sobs and seemed vaguely in shock. I couldn’t blame her. I knew what that was like. “She teaches a required course, Elias.”

“What’s it called?”

“All of the Fun Ways to Kill and Be Killed.”

“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” I sat down next to her. “Are you going to go?”

“That depends. If she screams at you not to be late again, does that mean you’re okay to skip class for the day?”

“In my experience, she usually think’s that’s suffering enough. Is there anything else you have to suffer through?”

“I forgot until now. Wait here, I’ll tell you in a moment.” She jumped out of his bed and hefted a beast of an axe that he left by his bedside and hauled it into the bathroom.

“Sybil? What are you doing?” No answer. “…Sybil?”

I was not prepared for how loud the crash would be—and when it came it was my turn to flail out of bed.

I was on the floor and looking at her upside down when she reentered our room with her axe leaning on her shoulder. “You should probably fetch a Housekeeping Warlock when you get a chance. Our toilet seems to be broken.

“Why would you do that?” I moaned at him.

“Because,” she said. “I’ve just remembered I signed up for Lumberjacking—and most of students will be Huntsmen.”

“That’s fair. I’ll get a Housekeeping Warlock as soon as I’m motivated to get off the floor.”

Sybil responding by hefting his axe off her shoulder, which provided ample motivation. I stood up so fast I was dizzy. “All right,” I said, “Off I go! Good luck with your class.”

“And good luck with yours!” she called, “Whatever they are.”

#

We had the same class halfway through the day called Oh, The Ways That You’ll Go. It was like All the Fun Ways to Kill and Be Killed, but thankfully there were a few slight differences. This class was taught by Master Ash, who had more of a focus on scheming.

I shared the class with Sybil and a man called Mandelstam—who, I am told, was the same age as us.

I had my doubts. Mandelstam was a brutish man from Greyfell way up in the frozen north. Mandelstam towered over everyone else in the class, and he was so hairy I would catch myself wondering if he’d grown himself fur to keep warm way up in the north. I never learned what Destiny chose him for, but I have my suspicion that he’s out there somewhere, taking up management under a bridge.

Mandelstam rarely talked, at least not in the common tongue. He was fluent in some near-dead ancient language. It took Sybil and me two years to realize he could talk, and another six months before realizing he could understand us.

I spent the next six months apologizing for two and a half years’ worth of transgressions.

Our introductory class was short, with Master Ash going over what we were expected to accomplish during our time in his class. At the end of the semester, those who were “Good” would have to sabotage a mock-wedding before a princess (or prince) was forced to marry someone they didn’t love.

Those who were “Evil” had to sabotage a mock-wedding in an entirely different way. An objectively bloodier way, at that.

Our assigned reading was from a book called Edible Arrangements of Arsenic. Sybil, Mandelstam and I left the class, and I was already turning over some ideas for musicians with crossbows at the mock-reception.

As we made our way through the hall Mandelstam nudged me a little too hard and I sort of stumbled sideways into the wall. He held out his hand. “Book?”

“Um,” was all I could think to say.

He turned to Sybil. He held out his other hand. “Book?”

“What do you want with them, Mandelstam?” Sybil asked.

“Book?” He flexed his fingers. “Hold me?”

What did you say?” I hissed out the question in an attempt to keep my voice down.

Mandelstam’s eyebrows cut into a V shape; like two caterpillars crawling down his head. “No, no,” he muttered to himself.  He held out his hand and said, “Book?” This time it was more forceful. Frustrated, even.

“Do—do you want to hold it?”

His grin was a crescent and he nodded, so I gave him my copy. Then he turned to Sybil and said, “Book!” This time it sounded less like a question.

She was more hesitant, but handed it over. “Why do you want to hold it?”

“We do the group project,” he said, almost parroting Master Ash. “Together, yes?”

“That’s right.” I reached up to give him a pat on the back.

“Others…others haven’t,” he lowered his head. “Years two and three. Others haven’t do project together. Others leave. Others do not know me…” He stopped and stared off into space, trying to find the right word. “Do not know me…know me…”

“Understand?” Sybil suggested.

He pointed at her. “Understand! Others do not understand, before. Others leave. They do not want to understand me, before.”

“So others just left you on your own because you’re still learning the common tongue?”

Mandelstam nodded.

“You know we won’t do that, right?” I said.

Sybil put her hand on his arm to show her support.

“I know,” he said. “I know. But having books—” he cut himself off again, lost in thought. “It helps, it helps.”

“By all means, keep them,” I said. “I’d love to see the look on the man’s face who catches you with three copies of Edible Arrangements of Arsenic.

#

“Why am I called a Lieutenant of Evil?” I asked Raymond one day while we waited in our dorm. “Does Evil have a corporeal form I’m not aware of?”

Raymond was busy scribbling some notes about the trajectory of blood-splatter. Without looking up, he said, “I can see it now: a small village accidentally awakens the Great and Powerful Evil. The whole town is dwarfed in shadow as Evil descends groggily towards the village to wake him from his nap. Oh no—what’s this? Evil has stubbed his toe and is now very angry!

I fell back in a fit of hysterical laughter that would make any Wicked Witch look away in embarrassment. Through my cackling I managed to sputter in a fake-deep voice: “E-Elias! Take charge of the vanguard! And ye gods make sure Evil doesn’t step on any sharp pebbles!”

And that was how Sybil Kahn and Mandelstam entered our dorm one day to see Raymond and I crying, red faced with hysterical laughter.

“Um.” Sybil looked from Raymond to me. “Are you two okay?”

“I’m fine,” I giggled. “I’m fine. My chest hurts, but I’m fine. Are you ready?”

Sybil rolled her eyes. “No, I came to your room but I still need put on my makeup.”

Raymond spoke up: “Has Mandelstam ever been to the Chasm of Doom?”

“No,” Mandelstam said, to which Raymond winced. He had a penchant for forgetting he could understand us. “Where is it?”

“It’s in the courtyard behind the tower,” Raymond said.

“Isn’t it sealed off?” Sybil asked. “I thought it was under renovations.”

“It is,” I said, “But I nobody bothers to report intruders as long as they aren’t breaking any rules.”

“Besides that one,” Raymond broke in.

“Obviously,” I snapped.

“Why is it being fixed?” Mandlestam asked.

“Because a few months ago,” Raymond said, “The Seers put a dragon at the bottom of the Chasm. That turned out to be a bad investment on their part.”

Sybil’s eyes lit up and seemed almost to glow with enthusiasm. “What are we waiting for?”

#

Looking back, it probably should have been obvious that it was never a good idea to go to the Chasm of Doom.

The Heroes had come first, led by none other than Henry himself, the Charming Prince who was all dashing smiles and shining armor.

My heart was trying to thud through my chest. I flexed my hand on the short sword at my side in a futile attempt to calm my nerves. Raymond and I exchanged a look.

“Did they know we were coming here?” Sybil asked. Her expression was caught between a glare and a grin, like she couldn’t decide to choose one so just twitched back and forth between both.

“I have no idea,” Raymond said. “But we still have a chance to leave. I don’t think they’ve seen us, yet—”

Peter Pendragon and the Zoo of Death

zoo-magic

When going to the zoo, you really don’t expect to be attacked by a creature that looks like it stepped out of a Picasso painting.

The fact that that’s exactly what happened to me is surprisingly unsurprising.

#

“I’m glad you agreed to this, Peter,” Dad said. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to stave off the silence. He was taking me to the zoo. The zoo! Did he forget how to act around kids after I turned five?

“We haven’t had much time to see each other lately,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“So which animal do you want to see first?”

“Anything but lizards,” I said. “The last thing I want is to run into a dragon.”

Dad’s laugh was just a little too forced. “How many dragons have you killed? Three? Is that why you brought Excalibur?”

“I haven’t killed any.” I said, “Where’d you get a number like that?”

Dad shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “All these creatures—it’s pretty easy to lose track of what you have and haven’t fought.” He chewed on his lip. “So if you haven’t fought a dragon, why’d you bring Excalibur?”

“I mean, you never know.” I shouldered my backpack—Arthur’s old scabbard, enchanted into a new form. “It helps to be prepared.”

After twenty more minutes battling the silence teetering on the edge of our conversation, we arrived at the zoo. Dad half-dragged me in. The first thing past the gates was a petting zoo.

“That’s kid stuff,” Dad told me, “You don’t want to go there.”

Okay, I thought. Sure, don’t ask me. I’m just along for the ride. Dad decided to lead me to a section of the zoo filled with gorillas. A few of them were doing some obscene things behind walls of thick glass.

Two males roared at each other from across the exhibit, pounding their chests.

“What do you think?” Dad asked.

“Well, I’m wondering why those two monkeys are fighting.”

“Do you see that one way back there?” Dad extended a finger towards a gorilla watching the other two have temper tantrums.

“Yeah.”

“That one’s female, and the other two want to, um…let’s just say they want to have her.”

“They want to bang?”

I’d never seen anyone choke on air before that moment. “If that’s the way you want to put it.”

“But why would they do that?”

Dad glanced back at the gorillas. “I don’t know. Basic instinct, I guess.”

“Huh…” I muttered, “Weird.”

From there, Dad tried to take me to an exhibit on birds—but not before a few chimps thought it would be funny to bang on their cages as I passed by. We left them behind, their pounding growing quiet like an untalented drummer coming to a realization.

We never reached the birds. Before we could, we came to an exhibit where the air thickened. Lions and tigers stalked on either side of me. I locked eyes with a lion from behind the protective glass and felt a sudden dread that the barrier separating us was not as strong as it appeared to be.

We continued like that for some time. Dad had given up on trying to talk to me. At this point he’d probably decided to enjoy the sights.

That is, until we came to a place where the air was noticeably moist. My heartbeat pounded in my neck and my breaths went shallow.

Dad saw my face and wrinkled his forehead. “Peter, are you okay?”

I tried to say yes, but words were not a thing for me at that moment. Instead, I scampered over to look into a pit of rocks and water. I tried to point to him—to show him what I was afraid of.

A crocodile dipped underwater. I could’ve sworn it was a log a moment ago. It surfaced and slapped across the rocks towards another one—wait, wasn’t that one a log, too? How was I not noticing these things?

It turned its beady eyes on me, and I paled. My heart tried to sledgehammer its way out of my chest. “Dad,” I croaked, “Can—can we go somewhere else?”

Dad nodded, “Don’t worry, Peter,” he said, he rubbed my back in a way I will never admit to being comforting. “You’re safe.”

“I know, I just—”

“You just what?”

“I can’t stop wondering, you know? What if it’s enchanted? Like, what if it turned into a dragon after it saw me? I don’t think I can fight a dragon, Dad. I don’t think I can do it—”

Dad kneeled down to be at eye level with me. He put a finger to my lips. “Peter, I want you to stay calm. There’s nothing here that will hurt you. And even if there was, you have me here to protect you. Let’s move on, okay?”

A chill shook my lower back. My hands were all clammy and my face was wet with the moist air.

“Okay,” I said, “Let’s move on.”

We skipped a section on snakes entirely, but not before I saw a water snake gliding through a pool and forgot to breathe for a few seconds.

“Peter?” Dad said.

“What?”

“Are you stressed?”

“A little bit.”

“Do you want to leave?”

“Um…I actually—”

And that’s when I saw Dawn Cross. She was wearing khakis and a green shirt with the zoo’s logo on it. She brushed her unfairly beautiful hair out of her unfairly beautiful face and said “Hey, Peter.”

I said something to the effect of “Ummmmmm…”

“What’s in your bag?” she asked, shouldering her own.

Oh, y’know, just the legendary sword Excalibur. “Nothing important.”

Dad frowned at us like he knew something we didn’t. “Do you want me to leave you boys alone?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Dawn said.

“Yes,” I said.

Dad laughed. “Meet me back here at the entrance by five, Peter.” He slapped my back and went off toward the lion’s den.

“Not a boy,” Dawn hissed under her breath. “Not a boy, not a boy…”

Dawn and I wandered the zoo in this kind of silence that I didn’t want. But every time I tried to speak words dried up in my mouth. Anything I said was guaranteed to worsen the situation.

Dawn broke said silence with the worst question to ever be asked in the history of forever. “So what was that business with Excalibur yesterday?”

My first reaction was to make a how the heck do you know that? face. The next was shock. I’d said two words to her since I knew her! Finally, I berated myself into saying, “What—what do you mean?” And then I hated myself for saying it.

Dawn looked at me as if I’d asked which type of dragon she’d prefer to be barbecued by. “You—you don’t know?”

“Know what?”             

Dawn rolled her eyes. She let her bag hit the ground with a metallic clang! Then she unzipped it opened it to show me the lance inside, dangling into the black space of the bottomless bag. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with a Sheath for my weapon.

“You’re a Descendant,” I said, then wondered why I felt the need to say it aloud.

“I thought the ring would be a good enough clue,” she said, “It was a gift from the Lady of the Lake, way back when. It protects against magic.” She took it off and handed it to me to inspect.

“I thought that was why you never talked to me,” she said. “You know, with the, uh, history between familial lines. I mean, is the lance not a big enough clue?”

Sometimes it takes a painfully obvious realization to understand how big an idiot you are. “Sooo…Lancelot? But how would that make us distant?”

“I mean it was either that or…uhm, this.” She waved a hand in front of her crotch. “And I really didn’t want to consider that option.” Her voice went strangled, “Please tell me I’m wrong. Like, actually tell me. Because I don’t like that option.”

“Of course I don’t want to be distant from you. Can I—can I not be?”

She smiled, “Please don’t be.” She hefted her lance, “Okay, so let’s not talk about this again ever.”

“Why?”

“Because reasons. Don’t ask. So, what brings you here?”

“My Dad, uh, brought me here for fun.”

“Some Dad,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she meant it as a compliment or not. “I got a job here a few months ago. My grandpa wants me working early. Paying for whatever I do after High School and all that.”

“Some grandpa,” I said, trying to match her tone. “So are you on break?”

“I’ve got a few more minutes, yeah.”

“Any places here you’d care to show me?”

“Lion’s den?”

“Sure.” We started off, glancing at people as we traveled by. There was only one problem. They didn’t seem…normal. Everyone was a blur, moving too fast for me to see. A feeling washed over me like my entire body had fallen asleep.

“You feel it, too?” Dawn asked.

“I take comfort that it’s not just me,” I said. “Wait—your ring!” I had forgotten to give it back. “You need it. Put it on and figure out what’s happening.”

Dawn snatched it, but she refused to wear it. “I’m not leaving you here alone. I’m going to help you.”

“So what do we do?”

“You want my advice?”

“Yeah.”

“Check your phone.”

I did. The minutes were passing by like seconds. It was already three o’clock.

“Peter,” Dawn said, looking over my shoulder at the time.

“Yeah?”

“I think I’m late to clock in. Do you know what’s going on?”

“Best guess?”

“Give it to me.”

“Magic.”

You don’t say!

Minutes ticked by faster and faster until the hours were going by like seconds. In the space of a heartbeat it had turned six o’clock. The phone was beginning to fade as my skin started to tingle.

“Um…I’m late to check back with my Dad.” I said.

“I think that’s the least of your problems.”

The sun was going down and the crowd was thinning—no, fading. In a few seconds it ticked to nine and the tingling vanished. And the time ticked by normally.

I blinked, struggling to see my hand in front of my face.

“Dawn?”

“Yeah?”

“I think we’re in trouble.” Gradually, I began to see her through the darkness. I couldn’t make out the look at her face, and when I realized how long I’d been staring I asked, “Where are the lights?”

Dawn said something in Spanish that I think was a curse. “I don’t know. I think the power’s out.”

“Do you think we’re alone?

“Nope.”

“Me neither.”

“This isn’t good.”

“You’re telling me you didn’t imagine your trip to the zoo going this way?”

Dawn punched my arm. “Focus, Peter. This is serious.”

“I can’t have a little fun?” I teased.

“No, I’m serious. Peter—”

Dawn was interrupted by a guttural growl like a bunch of pebbles caught in Darth Vader’s breathing machine. It came from behind us. We turned around to see a lion stalk toward us. It lowered its head and stared us down. Its tongue flicked to catch the snot on its nose.

Dawn pulled her shield off her back and hefted her lance. It was only a little bit longer than a sword. “You know something?”

“What?”

“I’ve always been curious—magical weapons can’t hurt Regulars, right?”

“Right.”

“So what does it do to animals?”

I backed away. The lion’s tail swished. It fell back on its hind legs and then pounced.

Dawn raised her lance to the lion’s belly. It yelped and slumped forward on the point. The beast fell limp and hit the floor, using Dawn as a cushion. She looked at me with crazy in her eyes. “A little help would be great!

“Right,” I muttered, and heaved the lion off of her. Dawn looked at her lance and tsked. “Broken. It’s a shame. I liked that one.” She pulled a sword from her backpack that was so bright I swear I had to squint to look at it.

“Arondight,” Dawn explained, “Lancelot’s sword.”

“I love it.” I said.

The lion stirred, which took me out of the trance my admiration for Arondight put me in. We backed away as it stumbled to its feet. The lion’s belly rippled like it was made of Jell-O. It sucked up the lance and spat it out its forehead.

A unicorn-lion. Fun.

“Dawn?”

“Yeah?”

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that?”

Run!”              

We dashed past iron cage after iron cage, ducking and dodging through corners and passageways. I didn’t even bother to worry about the crocodiles as we passed.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked Dawn.

She furrowed her brow. “How could I possibly have a plan?”

“I mean you seem like the type of girl to come up with these things.”

“Peter Pendragon, I am barely passing Algebra! Plans are not my style!”

We rounded a corner to see a monkey leaping toward a pile of—of something. It had a gorilla’s body and arms, with snakes writhing across its torso, and a crocodile head on lion’s shoulders.

The monkey climbed into the thing’s back, and then melted like hot wax into the giant monster.

“The Questing Beast,” Dawn and I said together.

See, over the years various mythical beasts have gone through this evolution where they’re drawn to Descendants, because apparently we’re the only ones worth killing. And they’ve evolved to create certain means to corner us. Including but not limiting to fast forwarding time, apparently.

And I’m guessing two Descendants of different Knights of the Round Table in the same place is like flashing a neon sign above our heads saying Attention All Mythical Monsters: Please Do Not Eat Us.

“You know, I think I’ll take my chances with the unicorn lion,” I said.

“Good idea,” Dawn muttered. We turned to run, but the unicorn lion was stalking around the corner. It bared it teeth at us and let out a grumble from the back of its throat.

“On a scale of vegetative-state to erased-from-reality-altogether, how dead are we?” I asked.

Dawn swallowed audibly. “I’d say we’re somewhere around eaten by a lion with a lance in its head kind of dead.”

“That is an incredibly specific kind of dead.”

“You’re telling me.”

Dawn and I stood back to back. She faced the Picasso beast, as I faced the unicorn lion. “At least there’s a bright side to this,” I grumbled.

“And what’s that?”

“It could be worse.”

How?

I wrung my hands around Excalibur. “…Give me a minute. I’ll think of something.”

The lion was about to pounce when someone smacked it from behind with a piece of plywood. It yelped like a puppy in a thunderstorm and turned to face the attacker, only to discover its enemy had a nail gun, too. There were three shots. Pap! Pap! Pap! And the lion scampered off.

I then found myself face to face with my Dad, leveling a nail gun at the Picasso monster. “Stay away from my son.”

“Dad?”

Dad looked up as if he just noticed me. “I thought I told you to meet me at five.”

I turned to face the Picasso-beast, which charged us. Dawn slashed her sword upward, while I went to jab it in the side.

“Can we discuss how grounded I am after we’ve been shredded to death?

The Questing Beast took advantage of my quip and swatted me onto dirt floor with its gorilla hand.

I stood, groggily. My legs were shaking as I rushed at the beast again. I went to slash at it, but I forgot about the monkeys. Two of them reached for me while I was in mid swipe, clawing for my sword hand. I danced back.

Unfortunately, I also didn’t account for the snakes. Two of them slithered across the torso, peeling off the gorilla’s chest to lash out at me. I blocked one with Excalibur, but the other got inside my reach. I reeled back and its tongue tickled my nose. I brought my sword up in a slash at the snake’s neck. It snapped back just in time and stared me down. Unblinking.

Actually, I’m not sure if snakes can blink. I may or may not have had a staring contest with an animal that does nothing but stare.

In a momentary glance I saw Dad drag Dawn away from the beast. “Kids these days,” he muttered, releasing Dawn and pulling me forward by my shirt collar. “You have to know when to fight and when to run!”

A snake went for Dad, but I brought Excalibur down on it. That should’ve beheaded it. Instead it slipped off the beast and slithered back to its cage.

We rounded a corner, the beast lumbering after us, screeching in a thousand animal noises.

We reached the gates to find them locked.

“Any other plans, Mister Pendragon?” Dawn asked.

“A few,” Dad said, trying to put on a brave voice. “Give me your ring.”

Dawn gawked for a few seconds. “This is a family heirloom—”

“I am aware,” the urgency in Dad’s voice was apparent, “My wife has told me all about it—I’d even say she envies it. But if what my wife has told me is true, that’s the Questing Beast behind us, and we’re locked inside with it. If you want to see the sunrise tomorrow you need give me your ring.”

Dawn scowled, but handed it to him. Dad readied his nail gun as the beast lumbered towards us. Dad fired his nail gun at them, aiming for one at a time. With each impact, the monster reeled back and an animal slipped off the hulking pile and ran back to its own exhibit. Dad fired at the thing like a madman, fury etched his eyes. “Stay away from my son! Keep away from him you—”

The beast roared, drowning out those last few words.

And then Dad fired again, and there was a click.

All that was left of the monstrosity was a peacock, a rabbit and a tiger. Dawn held out her hand, “My ring, Mister Pendragon?”

Dad relinquished it. Dawn put it on, drew Arondight and charged. I went to do the same, but Dad held me back. “No,” he said, “I want to see this.”

The creature prepared to pounce just as Dawn struck it with Arondight. It took two slashes and the animals all scurried away.

“What happened? Why aren’t they hurt? Why am I not looking at a pile of mangled animal bodies?” I asked, to nobody in particular. “Also please don’t think I want to look at a pile of mangled animal bodies.”

“The nails didn’t seem to hurt those things,” Dawn said, “I think they’ll be okay. Or will be in the morning.”

“What do we do now?” I asked

Dad waved for me to follow, “Come on. We need to stay busy.” To keep our minds off of what the heck just happened, Dad, Dawn and I worked till sunrise to make sure every animal got back to its proper cage. We snuck out the gate as the Realm crumbled around us and we made our way to the parking lot.

“Do you need a ride home?” Dad asked Dawn.

“I do, actually,” Dawn said, taking a sudden interest in the asphalt.

“Dad,” I nudged him, “We don’t know where she lives.”

“Well why don’t you ask then?”

I approached her, avoiding eye contact and rubbing the back of my neck. “So, um, I need your address.”

“It’s only a few houses down Second Street,” Dawn said, “it’s not too far.”

We rode home in a mixture of awkward silence and I’m too tired to make a sound silence.

Dad pulled up next to Dawn’s house and pressed the horn for whoever was inside. I hoped it was still dark enough to hide the red on my cheeks.

The man who exited the house looked like Santa Clause if he had quit toy making to become a biker. “Mister Pendragon,” he said, “A pleasure to finally meet you.”

“We’re just returning Dawn.”

Biker-Santa laughed and asked for Dad to come inside, but Dad waved the offer away.

“Say goodbye, you two,” Dad said, “And make it quick. Don’t want to keep your Granddad waiting.”

Dawn looked at her Grandfather, then looked at me. “How was today?”

“Life threatening. Adrenalin pumping. Dangerous. But I had fun when that wasn’t happening.”

Dawn bit back a smile. “Me too, Peter. Stay safe, all right? I’ll see you at school tomorrow.” She frowned. “No, today.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. See you at school.” She closed the car door behind her and I watched her run off to her Grandfather.

“Well,” I muttered, “Today was a mess. What was that you did back there with the nail gun?”

“A gamble,” Dad said. “The ring is supposed to protect the wearer from magic. I thought I might be able to channel the ability of the ring into the nails themselves. I think it worked.”

I settled into my seat and sighed. “Dad, that was amazing.”

“Yeah,” Dad agreed. “Don’t tell Mom.”

“Do you really think I would? She’d kill us both.”

“So how long am I grounded?”

“I won’t tell if you won’t.”

I grinned. “That’s a deal.”

“Dad?”

“What?”

“Do you know who did that—back at the zoo?”

Dad pressed his lips together. “I don’t,” he said, “but whoever did it—I’m gonna take care of them myself.”

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A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.

To Hellhounds and Back

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A quick tribute to the Hobbit

When Benjamin, being of the very respectable family of Coventree, was voted to prepare the arrangements for the Festival of Bell Time, the gossip abounded in Bailiwick.

Benjamin had once gained a brief notoriety among the citizens of Bailiwick three years ago. It was then that two Darkhounds came limping down from Belrush Mountain, which separates Bailiwick from the world, and straggled their way into his backyard.

He had disappeared during tea-time and returned three days later with two Darkhounds, big as ponies. Being the town doctor, it was not beyond reason that he could heal them up and domesticate them, but the idea of healing such vile creatures was unthinkable.

At the least, the people of Bailiwick marked it as a very odd event, for which the tale had never sat right with any of them. To the date, the people of Bailiwick had made it a habit to make Wednesdays a stay-home day, for that was when Benjamin took the two Darkhounds on walks.

Aside from his care for Darkhounds, Benjamin had returned more or less to his normal ways over the last three years. Though their confidence in the good doctor had never been fully restored, they had all made a silent agreement to look past his beasts.

And as Bell Time came closer, all eyes turned to the post office, and soon the invitations came pouring out. Upon the orders of Mister Benjamin Coventree, there could be seen postmen hauling bags of them into every province in Bailiwick. As they exchanged invitations it was soon discovered that no two letters were the same, for Benjamin had used so many polite variations of “thank you” on his signature that many believed Benjamin to be inventing gibberish, so as not to express his thanks the same way twice (which he almost certainly was).

And the day before Bell Time, the decorations began. The people of Bailiwick through up great tents and pavilions the size of the Eamon Field, which was just north of Benjamin’s house.

The day of the festival, Benjamin was waiting outside the pavilion so as to meet all his guests in person as was expected of the Bell Time arranger. He shook every man and woman’s hand with a “good tidings,” “Wonderful you could make it,” “Fantastic to see you again,” and the occasional, “Belashuthanasalus, al’grinsok!” for when he could think of no proper greeting in time for the handshake.

The guests were so numerous that soon Benjamin himself began to notice why they had elected him to organize it—for so many had been invited that he was forced to watch the others in their merrymaking revelry from the edge of Eamon Field, awaiting late arrivals as well as those who had not declined their invitation yet were not like to arrive at all.

Benjamin’s stomach grumbled as he watched the others feasts on honey-roasted chicken, roast onions dribbling with gravy and a seemingly endless supply of bread trenchers. He licked his lips as the sight and smell of some thick, sweet soup made with pumpkins and platters of ribs roasted in a crust of garlic and herbs.

He did, however, have his solace. The organizer of Bell Time was allowed the traditional post-dinner speech. And he had a dog whistle in his pocket for just this occasion.

He soon noticed that his time was coming near, and began to pay close attention, listening for some to call for a speech.

Here was Sybil Berelain, who made a show of daintily sipping her tea while a young man next to her floundered to get her attention. Sybil cast glances out of the corner of her eye at her husband Henry, who was passed out in a wicker chair, draped as lazily about it as a jacket thrown over an armrest.

Mary Garland was spilling wine with her wild gesticulations, only half pretending to listen to the Mayor’s endless droll about the idea he had for new book that he swore he would be finishing this time.

There were three young men in smoking suits handing out tea-cakes and kisses to pretty ladies who passed them by. It was those young men who began the scattered shouts of “Speech! Speech!”

The wine had dulled most of the worried the citizens of Bailiwick had for just this occasion.

Benjamin dashed forward and leapt upon a table in the center of the pavilion with a flourish of his traveling-cloak. Many thought this odd, for those in Bailiwick positively loathed travel and all that it implies. Travels were dangerous, and could lead to quite unexpected places and were as such much frowned upon.

“My dear Bailiwickians!” Benjamin began, “I would like to offer you a very, very late welcome to our annual Bell Time festival!” There were scattered cheers and shouts of drunken revelry. Benjamin smiled at this and fiddled with the dog whistle in his pocket. “I do hope you’ve enjoyed yourself this night as much as I have.”

More cheers, and some were growing hopeful. This was the last kind of speech for one such as Benjamin Coventree. It seemed short, and utterly uncontroversial.

His next statement amended such hopes.

“I know I’ve become something of a public embarrassment, of late.” There were no cheers this time. “I know you felt it necessary to keep me locked on the outskirts of our fine festival, so I shall not keep you long. But I must have my say.” A few of the townsfolk stirred at this. “I regret to announce that this is the end.” All stared in muted shock as he withdrew his whistle and blew on it, yet not a sound came out.

He pocketed it once more and clasped his hands behind his back. There came a boom like a single roll of continuous thunder, coming closer and closer. “I am leaving now. Goodbye.”

Benjamin Coventree’s table upturned by some force that was at first unseen amidst the darkness, save for a pair of dim red eyes. Yet as Benjamin fell back, he landed astride some beast that, as it moved into the lantern-light, seemed to the citizens of Bailiwick to be a gargantuan hound. Its fur was black and shining against the torchlight in the pavilion, save for the empty patches that marked where it had been scarred.

As Benjamin and the hound trampled over the pavilion and set the guests to flight, there came up behind him a second Darkhound, red eyes dim in the night.

“Have a wonderful life, my fellow Bailiwickians!” he called as his Darkhounds carried him off toward Belrush Mountain.

 

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A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.

An Exercise in Genre: From Myth to History to Fantasy

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As genre becomes more acknowledged in the wider writing sphere, it also becomes less important.

Let me explain.

Many people before me have stipulated that genre is nothing more than window dressing: that you can tell the same story you’re telling in one genre in any other genre. This is because the elements of genre are all different pieces of furniture and the reader is looking in through the window. So when you rearrange the furniture, the reader sees a different room, but you see all the same stuff that was there before.

To demonstrate this, I’ve taken a story I published a few weeks ago, The Lyre, a vignette about Achilles and his lover Patroclus, and made it into two different stories, all while it remains largely unchanged: what follows is its Crusader version, Lutes and Liars, as well as its fantasy version, also called The Lyre.

Continue reading “An Exercise in Genre: From Myth to History to Fantasy”

Ransom

The Cure (6)

The man’s armor smelled of corpses with a stench so bad that the princess of Morgad was like to choke on it.

The legend went that years ago her captor had looted armor off dead men in the wake of battle and called himself a knight.

His name was Roland, and he sold his services to kings, working with the rest of the knights and men-at-arms under their command. And when they had no further use for him they paid him and sent him on his way.

“Who hired you, Roland?” the princess asked. “Drago? Gane?”

Roland gripped his horse’s reins tighter and his vambraces dug into her chest. “Your father has refused to swear fealty to King Galehaut of Tolm,” Roland said. “He now holds retribution close to his heart. He won’t kill you, but the second in line to the throne of Morgad still fetches a high ransom. Wouldn’t you say, Gyneth?”

Gyneth’s smile was thin enough to crack marble. “I’m afraid you have been tricked, Roland. You will be hanged when we arrive at Castle Tolm—my brother Loholt is betrothed to of Vivien of Tolm.”

She could feel Roland smiling at her back. “I know.”

Two words, and her breath caught in her throat.

Continue reading “Ransom”