Creature in the Woods

April 2021’s short story of the month (late but finally done)

He had hunted and hiked and led backpacking trips through these woods for twenty years, and he had never seen an animal track like that. At first glance, it resembled a bird. But it was too big. Way too big. He estimated its length to be close to eighteen inches from toe to heel. Did ostrich feet even get that big? And why would there be an ostrich in the woods? They didn’t even live on this continent. He took a picture of the track with his hand placed beside it for comparison. He would share it online. Someone would know.

After his daily hike checking to make sure the trail markers were still visible for others, he uploaded the photo online with the caption “What bird could this be?”. He asked anyone to comment.

He waited five minutes but nothing.

The next morning before school, he checked his post; no one had commented yet.

“Settle down everyone!” he said to his unruly fifth period students.

Most of them slumped into their desk chairs and stopped talking, but they still shifted their belongings around loudly. He waited while they tested his patience. It was always this way in fifth period; he suspected it was because they had just finished lunch and were hyped up on sugar.

“Ok, now that I have your attention. Let’s continue our discussion on our local flora and fauna.” This was his favorite unit to teach each year. The students actually seemed more enthused with things they could personally relate to.

The next forty-five minutes went by quickly as he showed them slides of the various trees found in the local forests. Class was coming to a close, and he wanted to keep them excited until the next meeting.

“Over the weekend, consider taking a hike on the marked trails. You never know what you’ll see in these woods.” He clicked the mouse, and the photo he’d taken yesterday appeared on the board.

Most of the students chuckled thinking it was his attempt at teacher humor.

“Nice one, Mr. Smith. What did you do, track Big Bird?” asked a student. His fellow classmates laughed along with him.

He let them laugh, and as he looked around at their smiling faces, he noticed one student wasn’t smiling. In fact, she had a look of terror on her face. She was noticeably pale, and her mouth hung slightly open.

He knew better than to call on her. Daisy was new this year, and she was painfully shy. But she was having a very strange reaction to the photo.

The rest of the school day was uneventful. As he was packing up his things, he couldn’t help but think back to the reaction Daisy had when she saw that photo. Maybe it was just shock. He knew she’d been home schooled; she just wasn’t as jaded as the rest of his students. They’d assumed it had been a fake, a product of photoshop or something.

He left the school and went to the trails. He usually enjoyed his afternoon hikes; the clean clear forest air melted the stress of being a high school teacher away. Today though, he kept searching the ground around him hoping to see another track like yesterday. By the end of his hike, he had a knot in his neck and shoulder muscles from looking down so much. When he got back to the car, he rode home feeling worse than when he’d left school.

Eating a microwave dinner while he booted up his computer was not helping his mood. He almost dropped the plastic tray when his email popped up. He had hundreds of emails relating to his post.

People from all over the world were contacting him. Some wanted to know how he’d faked such a realistic footprint. Others gave him suggestions for what it might be, none of which made any sense for where he lived. The discussion was rife with debate. He ignored all the comments except for one.

The poster’s name was DaisyChainIRL. She wrote, “Looks like a harpy track to me. LOL. Weird post dude?! Totally faked!”

He sat back in his chair and scratched his head. It couldn’t be Daisy from his class. But, if it was, and she had gone out of her way to find his picture online and comment on it…

He didn’t know what to think. He read her comment over and over again. He stopped reading the whole thing and just read her first sentence. Could that be why she had looked surprised in class? Did she think it was a harpy track?

This was crazy. Harpies weren’t real. But, who would have gone out of their way to fake a giant bird track on a trail that almost no one hiked but him? Either way it was crazy. It was fake or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t then it was a track of something living.

His mind was racing and racing and going places that made little sense. He stopped letting his wheels spin and researched harpies on the internet.

Most of what he found was written for fantasy novels and roleplaying tabletop games. He even found some very elaborate cosplayers in harpy costumes.

He tried searching for “real sightings of harpies” and it mostly brought up results for Loch Ness and Bigfoot sightings. That’s apparently the reality he was now looking at. Was he actually suggesting that a harpy was real? And not only that but there was one living in the woods near town?

And then something else occurred to him. If it was real, and it was a real harpy track, how had Daisy known that?

Something bigger was going on here than he could understand at this point. He needed to ask Daisy, but he didn’t want to message her. That was severely inappropriate for a teacher. He could ask her after class tomorrow, but he had a feeling she would claim she was just being a teen or something equally flippant. He knew she knew something, but how could he find out more?

Maybe he didn’t need to.

He’d lived in this town his whole life. He basically maintained the trails on his own, just like his parents had before retirement. He knew everything about these woods. He could find a harpy.

If it was out there somewhere, he would find it.

Magic Doesn’t Fix Everything

March 2021’s short story of the month (super-duper late)

“Maybe the doctor was wrong,” Annie said, though her voice cracked revealing her disappointment.

I ran my hands through my hair, trying to calm myself. “He wasn’t wrong.” I didn’t want to have this argument again. I tried to steady my nerves, but it wasn’t working. My hands were shaking, and I was dripping sweat. Lately my anger was getting the better of me, and I needed to find a way to not let that anger out at home. It was just too much at once.

Work was becoming increasingly difficult. Being a water mage was always stressful during droughts. It was like the world was blaming all the water mages for manipulating water and droughts were our punishment.

For the record, we didn’t cause the droughts. People did, normal people, magic people, all people. Mages were not at fault for the damages to the environment, not entirely. Everyone had a share in that blame.

Despite the global calamity, right now, those problems seemed to pale in comparison to my home life. But I couldn’t deny that the stress from one wasn’t making dealing with the other more difficult. My wife and I were having a rough time.

“This is the third specialist we’ve seen. All of them have said the same thing.” I kept looking at my hands, avoiding making eye contact with her. I knew she would be tearing up, but she needed to accept the truth. “We can’t have children because you are barren.” I didn’t mean for it to sound so cruel, but she needed to hear it.

I looked up just as she was getting to her feet. She left the room slamming the door. I could hear her crying. She cried loudly and openly without trying to calm herself. I didn’t know someone could cry for that long without stopping.

I said it and I meant it, and I was right. Still, I wish I could take it back because there’s no way I can make it up to her, no way I can ever make her feel like she isn’t failing as a wife.

We’ve been trying for years to have a baby. Last year we decided to consult a doctor about it. We went through the tests to determine the problem. After the first round of tests, my wife didn’t believe it when the doctor said she had zero chance of getting pregnant.

I didn’t like the way the doctor talked to her, so I’d agreed to get a second opinion. After the second doctor said the same thing, though with a much better bed side manner, my wife still didn’t want to believe it.

We’d fought so many times after that. For months, if we were home together, we were either fighting or silent. Eventually I’d agreed to see one more doctor.

Today had been the final straw. The doctor we’d seen was not only a trusted and expensive OBGYN, but she was a mage, like us, with healing magic. She literally specialized in helping magic families create stronger magic bloodlines. I knew my wife would listen to her.

The crying finally stopped. As Annie came into the room, she said, “It’s not my fault.” Her face was splotchy, and her eyes were bloodshot.

I quickly went to her and wrapped my arms around her. “It’s not your fault.” Even though I said it to comfort her, the words felt hollow. I knew it wasn’t her fault, but I also knew my family wouldn’t accept that.

I am the oldest son of an extraordinarily strong line of water mages. I’d broken with tradition to marry Annie, a time mage. If my family found out about this, they would be furious.

As I stood there with my arms around Annie, I could feel her anger and sadness pouring like waves out of her small frame.

I was being incredibly selfish. I knew she was blaming herself and feeling like a failure, and all I could think about was how my family might react.

I needed to do better.

I pulled away from her and looked her in the eyes. “What do you want to do?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t know.” Her shoulders sagged and she turned to walk away.

I stepped in front of her. “Whatever you decide, I’m in. All in. You don’t have to figure it out today. Take your time. Think about what you want.”

She nodded and sighed deeply as she walked past me to head upstairs.

The weeks after that day became a blur for me. I was at work longer and longer hours. There were too many droughts worldwide for the number of water mages we currently employed. We were doing what we could, but it wasn’t making that much of a difference. Sometimes nature had its own plans and we just needed to accept it.

At home, things were not great. Annie barely got out of bed and she said very little. I didn’t want to push her.

I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep living in what felt like a holding pattern no matter where I went. Something needed to give.

As I came into the house, something was different. I could feel it in the air.

The smell of roast and potatoes hit me in the face as I walked through the foyer. I turned the corner and saw Annie setting the table. It was set just for the two of us. There was a centerpiece with candles and freshly made rolls. She even smiled as I took my seat.

“How was work?” she asked.

“Ummm…” I was trying to act like nothing was wrong, but this entire scene was such a stark contrast to the person I’d been living with for so long now. “It was about the same as always.” I shrugged.

“Hopefully it will get better soon,” she said as she took a dish out of the oven.

I couldn’t wait any longer. “Annie, what is going on?”

She shook her head. “Let’s eat and talk about it after dinner.”

“I think maybe we should talk about it now,” I said.

She stopped what she was doing and turned to face me. “Okay. I suppose that’s a reasonable request.” She stood up a little straighter and said, “I’ve come to a decision.”

“That’s great. What have you decided?” I asked hoping for the best, but honestly, I was prepared to fight.

“We’re going to adopt.” She continued to prepare dinner.

I sat there dumbstruck. I didn’t have a response to her decision. It was a perfectly reasonable idea. I just didn’t know how to feel about it.

Numerology

(February 2021’s short story of the month)

He wasn’t sure how he was able to do the math problems in his head like that. He just closed his eyes, and the numbers found their places, like trained dancers, or like magic. It didn’t matter what type of problem or how challenging. He could solve them all.

When he was in grade school, his teachers thought he was gifted, and this meant being placed in the highest math class available. By the time he was in middle school, he realized not everyone solved math like he did. They didn’t just see a problem and know the answer.

He started to guard his secret. He was afraid it meant something was wrong with him. When he was 8, he’d told the cashier that a total calculated by a computer was off by a few cents because of a sale sign. His parents had looked embarrassed that he argued with a grown up. And then another time, he’d told his dad that he’d calculated a tip wrong and had underpaid a waiter. His father told him very promptly that he was only 10.

Not long after that and a few other incidents involving grown ups giving him dirty looks because he knew the answer that was so clearly right in front of them, he started to protect his “math magic.”

That’s what he started to call it, but only to himself. He never said it out loud. He was afraid that if he even whispered the word magic, that it would be taken away from him.

He learned to hide his secret by writing out most, but not usually all, of the steps to solve a problem. He didn’t need to do it, but sometimes when he wanted to show off, he would just blurt out an answer in class. His teacher always glared at him. One time his teacher asked if he was cheating somehow. He was being questioned even though he’d written out his work. The teacher had never seen a student not miss a single problem the entire school year, even the problems that were bonus questions using math they hadn’t been taught yet. He just mumbled through the meeting and said, “I’m just good at math. Math makes sense to me.” He shrugged, and the teacher didn’t bring it up again.

The next year in school, he had the same teacher, and he knew he should be careful, but there was a new girl. He couldn’t help himself; he kept showing off by solving the problems fast in front of the class without writing out any steps. The teacher sat at her desk with her arms folded across her chest tapping her foot. She clearly thought he was cheating somehow.

Number Magic

He did everything to try and get Daisy’s attention, but she never looked up at him when he stood proudly at the front of the class. He always glanced to see if she was looking, but normally, she was just writing out the problems herself.

Walking home from school after another day of showing off in math class, he was surprised to see Daisy sitting on a fence on the route he walked. She usually walked home in the opposite direction. He looked around as he drew nearer to her to see if maybe she was waiting for someone walking behind him.

The only students behind him were not even in their grade. He hefted his backpack higher and tried to stand taller as he walked past her, but he didn’t say anything.

“Hey, Sean,” Daisy said hoping off the fence.

She knew his name. And she was saying it out loud. She was waiting for him. He tried to appear nonchalant about the whole encounter but inside his stomach was filled with butterflies and there was a voice in his head yelling, while he imagined himself running a victory lap, while simultaneously fist bumping himself.

“Hey. You’re…” he said trailing off, “Daisy, right?”

“That’s right. I was wondering if you were out of your mind?” She was glaring at him, and if looks could kill, she was repeatedly shooting him with laser beams.

“I… I… wait. What?” he stammered. He couldn’t look at her when she was staring at him like that. She was intimidating and powerful. Why did he think that? He wasn’t sure, but he knew it was true.

“I asked if you were crazy.” She was tapping her foot and waiting for him to respond.

“I’m honestly not sure what you are talking about?”

She took a step closer to him and looked around to make sure no one was within hearing range. “You can’t use your magic like that right in front of normal people. Didn’t your parents teach you better?” She was whisper-yelling.

“I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” He took a step away from her.

“Your magic.” She rolled her eyes and took a half step back. And then she was whisper-yelling again, “You know… that thing you do in math class. That magic. Whatever it is, you need to stop doing it in front of everyone. You’ll get reported to the council.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He was staring at her now. She was clearly crazy. Did she think magic was real? What was this council she was talking about?

Daisy stared at him without blinking for what felt like forever but was in reality only a matter of seconds. “You really don’t know?” She peered at him now, squinting her eyes and leaning closer to ascertain the truth.

He leaned away. He liked the attention, but she was being really weird. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Magic isn’t real. Is this some kind of prank?”

“Would you like to come to my house for dinner?” she asked.

That was unexpected. “Sure. I’ll text my parents, so they won’t worry.” He smiled at her.

This was going better than he thought. As they turned and walked the opposite way of his house, he asked, “What was that all about? Were you trying to freak me out or something?”

“It’s nothing,” said Daisy. “We should do our math homework at my house while we wait for dinner. My mom is really good at math.” She kept walking.

Battlemage for Life

July 2020’s short story of the month

It felt uncanny, but oddly good, to hear kids running through the house again. I wondered if I could handle being a father, or at least a father figure, after all these years.

I thought about the times when my wife and I fought. It was always about the same thing – she hated my job. When we were young, she’d been attracted to how brave I was. At least, she said she was, but it didn’t take long for her mood to sour.

Being the wife of a battlemage was not what she wanted from life. At some point after the girls were born, she asked me to walk away and find something safer to do, but mostly something that kept me closer to home. She said she was tired of being a single parent.

I got it on some level, but being the dad to three girls was not what I’d expected either. I felt useless when I was at home, like I was in the way. They were so used to me being gone that their routine didn’t include me, and when I tried to “help,” I just ended up messing it up.

If I’m being honest though, it wasn’t just that being home made me feel inadequate. I was addicted to the fight. I tried not to dwell on those times because my wife said she could always tell when I was thinking about my glory days.

As I walked outside to the yard, I took a moment on the deck and breathed in the fresh clean air. There was no smell of sulfur or smoke from fire spells. There was no lingering tang of electricity from magical attacks. It was just fresh plant life and the clean smell of dirt. I could hear children laughing and the murmur of voices in the distance.

As I rounded the corner of the house, I spied my family sitting around a set of tables covered in dishes, food, and party favors. It was all in my honor and I was momentarily overwhelmed by it all. I hesitated.

In battle, I never hesitated. I was always sure and ready for the next attack. Battlemages didn’t usually serve very long at the front, but there were a handful of us old timers who kept coming back for more. I shook my head and tried once again to keep my mind from wandering.

As I joined my wife, our three daughters and their husbands, and my many grandchildren at the table, they all got quiet. After I took my seat in the place of honor, they all rose and started clapping. I shook my head.

This was my retirement party. I was done being a battlemage. I would stay home and be a husband, father, and grandfather full time. I should have been happy and relieved. Instead, I was anxious. I didn’t know how to fit into home life with all of these people who kept looking at me expectantly.

********

There were forty pairs of eyes staring at me expectantly. This was my moment. After the last battle, I’d been promoted to commander. I was now in charge of my own tactical unit of casters. I had a full arsenal of fire mages, weather casters, healers, and energy sappers. This was the moment every battlemage worth his mettle longed for – this was my chance for greatness.

I squared my shoulders and stood as tall as I could. “This is it. You all know your roles. Follow your unit leaders and don’t hesitate. Use your instincts. If you need to refuel, make sure you switch out quickly.” I paused looking around into each pair of eyes. I wanted them all to feel the connection, the bond that only battle can instill.

“Make me proud,” I stated as way of dismissal.

They all squared up and walked away neatly into units. The weather casters began to rise off the ground to protect and fight from above.

*********

Their eyes were hopeful and full of pride. They reminded me so much of the young men and women I’d fought alongside for so many years. There was something else though when I looked at my wife and daughter’s eyes, something that I’d never seen in the eyes of my soldiers. I didn’t know what it was.

Perhaps learning to understand these people who love me would be enough in my retirement. I didn’t know what they wanted from me, not exactly.

I cleared my throat and got to my feet.

“Thank you all for coming today.” I glanced at my wife sitting on my left. She looked relieved, as if a huge weight was lifted. I knew why she was feeling that way. I didn’t want to take that feeling away from her by discussing my fears here in front of the whole family. Instead, I said, “I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with all of you. Especially you little ones.” I raised my glass. “To my grandkids.”

“Here! Here!” Everyone said in unison. They all raised their glasses, even the littles, and drank to family.

********

After a long night of fighting, we trudged into the mess tent. As we sat around the table, no one was eating, most were just pushing their food around the plates.

We’d taken heavy loses. We were no longer a full tactical unit. We’d lost so many that we would be pulled from the front until our numbers could be replenished with new troops.

I looked around at those who remained and not one pair of eyes looked up at me. They were either staring at their food, not really seeing it, or doing their best to hide their tears from their fellow soldiers.

I raised my glass. “To those who died.”

There was a long pause, and I kept my arm raised until everyone was looking at me.

Further away, another voice said, “To those we’ve lost.”

And then another, “To our fallen brethren.”

The chants went up one after another. Before long, the entire mess tent, not just our little band, was raising their glass to the fallen.

Love Letters

June 2020’s short story of the month

After the funeral, I spent the next few days in the attic, reading the letters my mother had written him in the years before they were married. He had never been the sentimental type, so I was surprised to find a whole box of them, carefully bundled. Holding on to something that served no practical purpose was completely out of character for my father.

Even more surprising was how many times my mother wrote to my father about not wanting to go through with their marriage. At first, I felt like I shouldn’t be reading them. They were very personal and not written to me. My curiosity got the better of me though. They were from a time before I was alive, before I was even a thought. They were proof that my parents, with their seemingly perfect life, had personal struggles just like the rest of us. The letters made me see them both in a new light.

The bundles only contained the letters from my mother so I had no idea what he’d written in return, but he must have said something convincing because they’d been married for over 50 years when my mother had passed last year.

I read them slowly and got lost in trying to piece together what must have been going through both their minds back then. By the time I gathered the letters and took them and a few other items out to my car, I was struggling with my mother’s reaction to her arrange married.

Even in this day and age, magic users are paired up and their families arrange their marriage. The idea is to keep the magic genetics strong. One of my own daughters was challenging the traditional way we did things and refusing to get married. She’d already declined three arrangements. Our family was from a long line of powerful users, and when my daughters were finally ready to wed, they’d had multiple offers. We allowed our daughters to meet and choose from the offers, which was fairly progressive of us, but it wasn’t enough for my oldest.

I put the small box of things in my trunk and paused before I got into the car. I gazed at my parent’s house. My two sisters would go through the house later in the week and then we could put it on the market. Soon it would belong to someone else, hopefully another family would thrive in it’s walls. It felt strange to be parentless, even though I was already a grandmother myself. One of my daughters had a baby a few months ago, and the youngest was pregnant, though she hasn’t “announced” it yet.

My oldest daughter, the strongest user in the family, she would probably never have children — or get married. It was such a waste. She’d definitely inherited her father’s power more than the other girls. To think it might end with her was weighing heavily on me lately.

As I drove home in the afternoon light with the wind blowing through the windows, I couldn’t help but think of my mother’s letters again.

My daughter could never see them. It would only further strengthen her campaign to prove that marriage wasn’t necessary. I needed to destroy them. They may have been precious to my father, but they would only lead to more drama if she discovered them.

I waited until my husband fell asleep in his recliner reading a dusty old book. I gathered the bundled letters and made my way to the kitchen. Throughout the evening as I’d absentmindedly cooked dinner and tidied things, I came to a decision about the letters.

I wasn’t just going to destroy them. I was going to use them in a spell.

In the pantry, I gathered the ingredients I would need – rose petals, lavender, and something to bind them… something strong… dark molasses.

My daughter would be furious with me if she knew what I was about to do. I’d raised my daughters to never use magic when they could do something for themselves. And I taught them to never, under any circumstances, try to raise the dead or make people fall in love. Both magics never worked out the way people wanted them to.

I boiled the rose petals, lavender, and honey in water from a mineral spring. I let it boil down some and then placed the letters in the pot so they were submerged in the liquid.

I took a deep breath and cast my spell. I wanted my daughter to fall in love and the love would be unbreakable, no matter what trials came their way.

When I was finished, I opened my eyes and there was a flash of magenta flames from the pot. I watched as the spell rose up and was caught by a breeze coming in the open window.

It was done. I looked into the pot and all that remained were ashes. I tidied up so that there was no evidence that I’d been working a spell. As I was putting the pot back in the cabinet, I was startled by someone clearing their throat in the kitchen.

I stood up and my husband was standing there smiling at me.

“I think it’s time for bed, my love,” he looked around the kitchen thoughtfully. I could have sworn I heard him breath in deeply as he walked out.

I wondered if he suspected something. I didn’t often cast spells with out discussing it with him. He was a much stronger caster than I, but mostly we were just used to discussing everything with one another. After a lifetime of marriage, there wasn’t much we didn’t know about each other. That’s what I wanted for my daughter.

As I closed the window, I looked out at the night sky and hoped that the spell would work. I should have known better though. The truth about love spells is that they are often cast out of desperation and that fear and anxiety get mixed with the hope and longing causing the spell to twist and distort.

BOOK RELEASE!!!

My book is available for purchase on Amazon. The print edition is out now, and the kindle edition is available for pre-order now. (Will release on Christmas Eve).

This link will take you to the print edition.

Thank you to everyone who has already purchased a copy!!!!

If you aren’t a big reader of fantasy, please share with someone who is. My book is appropriate for middle school and up.

If you read it and like it, please leave me a review on Amazon or on goodreads.

Happy reading and writing this month!!!

Kindle edition

Hidden in the Ice

September’s Short Story of the Month

The lake was as still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining the feeling of soaring over the cool lake and feeling the crisp new winter air slide across his skin.

“Jack! Jack! Where is that boy?” he could hear his mother yelling in the distance.

He snapped out of his daydream and let out a deep sigh. As he looked once more at the lake that would soon freeze and become a place of fun and joviality, he let the cold air fill his lungs to the point that it hurt to breathe.

As he walked up the stone path leading to his house, his mother stuck her head out the door and began to yell again.

“Jack! Jack!” Before she could say it a third time, she spotted him. “There you are. What have you been doing? The groceries aren’t going to pick themselves up. Take my car.”

“Sorry, Mother.” I was just walking to clear my head because winter is coming, and I can feel the old longing in my bones. The longing to use the powers of ice and wind to create a winter wonderland – to feel everything hibernate and slumber for a season. Jack thought this part but didn’t say it to his mother. She and father didn’t like it when he talked of magic.

It didn’t matter anyway; he didn’t have any powers. But for some reason, he remembered having them, which didn’t make sense. He was only 17. How could he remember bringing winter to the world? He’d never even left his hometown.

As he drove away, his mother stared at the car leaving the driveway. She pursed her lips and failed to hear her husband walk up behind her.

“What’s troubling you, dear?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said at first. Then she shook her head and tried to shake the nagging feeling that was always at the back of her mind lately.

“Actually…” she began, but then she hesitated and didn’t finish her thought.

“What is it?” her husband asked.

“I think he’s remembering again.” She looked at her husband, conveying a knowing idea that neither really wanted to say aloud for fear of giving it life.

Her husband paled at that look. “What should we do” he asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll keep him busy. Like always.”

“What if that’s not good enough anymore,” he asked tentatively.

“It has to be.” She was staring out the window as she said this, but whatever was troubling her, she let pass. She turned to her husband. “You know the consequences if he remembers who he really is. And they won’t be happy with us if his powers reawaken.”

“I know; I know. Don’t even say that.” He left the room in a huff very troubled with their conversation.

That night as Jack tossed and turned, he could hear his parents shuffling around in the living room watching the tv low enough that he knew it was on but couldn’t make out the actual words.

He thought he finally drifted off, but he had a strange dream.

He overheard his parents talking with someone. Whoever it was, their voice hissed and cracked like a log burning in flames. That was an odd way to describe someone’s voice, but it seemed accurate.

“He cannot be allowed to discover the truth,” the voice hissed and crackled.

“We know that.” His mother sounded afraid.

His father remained silent but Jack could hear the repetitive creak of his rocking chair.

“We are doing the best we can. But every winter it gets harder.” His mother paused, but then continued, “You can see it in his eyes.”

“Perhaps, it would be a good idea to move south then. Someplace warmer. Less winter. Less temptation.” The voice was moving around the room in a pattern. The speaker must have been pacing as he was speaking.

The rocking chair stopped moving. “We can’t go further south. You know what happened the last time we tried.” His father spoke forcefully, and Jack heard the words clearly in his room.

He remembered the day his father was referring to. It’d been a little over two years ago at around the same time of year. The seasons were changing – fall giving way to winter.

His parents talked about it for weeks. They were moving south. His father had found a better paying job – at least, that’s the reason they gave to Jack when he asked why they were moving in the middle of the school year.

They were heading south on the interstate following the moving truck loaded with all of their household goods. They’d been driving for about 6 hours when Jack started to get a headache. His parents stopped and purchased some medication for him, but it wasn’t helping.

After another 4 hours in the car, Jack could barely sit up. He was waning between awake and unconsciousness. His mother wanted to go to an ER, but his dad said he was probably just car sick. They never took long car rides and Jack just wasn’t used to it.

They finally pulled over at a rest area when Jack complained that his fingers felt cold. His mother threw open the car door and pulled him out of the car. She placed his hands inside a sweater, wrapping them like they were diseased.

“Get back in the car, Jack. I need to talk with your father. And leave that sweater on your hands.”

They walked a few steps away from the car. Jack couldn’t make out what they were saying because he could barely keep upright, but his mother was furious. She kept gesturing back the way they’d come. His father kept shaking his head and pointing the other way.

In the end, they’d turned around and headed home. As they went further north, he began to feel better. The symptoms disappeared in the opposite order that they’d arrived, and by the time they pulled into a hotel in the town he’d grown up in, he was feeling 100% again.

The morning after the strange dream with the person who spoke like fire, Jack’s mom prepared him a big breakfast.

“What’s all this for?” Jack asked as he dug into homemade waffles loaded with butter and syrup.

“I just wanted you to know that we love you.” His mother looked sad when she said it.

Jack just nodded and kept shoveling food into his mouth.

That day while Jack was at school, his mother paced about the house unable to complete any task because she could feel something was off. It was happening. She never understood how she had such a strong connection to Jack; he wasn’t actually her son. She’d raised him, and she’d always been able to sense his moods.

Today was the strongest feeling yet. Jack was awakening. The real Jack. Not the Jack who left his backpack on the floor despite there being a hook just for it right inside the foyer. Not the Jack who loved to dip French fries in his slushie at the movie theater. It wouldn’t be her Jack who came home from school. She didn’t know why but she knew it was true.

Jack would come home and be the truest version of himself. A version that had to be locked away with magic and wards. A Jack who given a chance would try to destroy the world because that was his nature. He would cover the world in ice and snow and watch as every living thing froze because he wanted to see the world end.

The Bloodstone (My April Story — Very Late — Sorry)

“All you have to do is concentrate. Visualize the wick of the candle bursting into fire.”

I really was trying and concentrating, but at the same time, I was also thinking how I didn’t belong here.

“Trainee Ella, are you concentrating?” Mage Orvan was standing over me glaring.

I rolled my eyes and received a smack upside the head. Apparently it didn’t matter that I was the only female ever allowed to train with Mages. I was treated exactly like every other trainee, and I hated it.

I had been training for nearly a year and was making very little progress.

Mage Orvan seemed especially determined to aggravate me today. “Your year one review is tomorrow. At this point in your training, your level will be determined.” I already knew that, but he continued stating things I already knew, “Being the only girl in history capable of magic, one would think you would be capable of the higher levels.”

I sat there staring at the candle for another two hours and then walked back to my quarters. My “special quarters” as the other trainees called them. My quarters were in a tiny room above the kitchen. In the past it was used as an overflow pantry for when the kitchens were well stocked. I actually liked my room. It usually smelled like fresh baked bread and roasting chicken.

Most nights I found sitting in my room relaxing, but tonight I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mage Orvan had said. I often wondered why I was the only girl capable of magic. There had to be a reason. Tomorrow I would find out if I really belonged here or not. When trainees were tested, they had to be at least a level 5 Mage to train at the College. Levels 1-4 were apprenticed out to active fully trained Mages. I wanted badly to test as a level 5 or above, but I had no idea what the test even consisted of.

The Mages were a very secretive group and even amongst themselves there were things they didn’t often talk about. One of those things was the test at the end of year one. Even though I had no idea what the test might be, I had read enough to understand the levels.

Level 1 was a Mage capable of manipulating and controlling air; one of the essential magical elements. Level 2 was a water Mage, level 3 was an earth Mage, and level 4 was a fire Mage. A level 5 Mage could control all four of the essential elements. The levels went beyond that too, but I didn’t have any hope of reaching into those levels.Merlin

Level 6 could control light and dark. Level 7 could manipulate the structure of living things. From what I understood in my reading, a level 7 Mage could make plants grow instantaneously from seeds and things like that. A level 8 could control the will of living things. That was a sobering and terrible thought. Level 9 could control other magical beings, including other Mages. And the highest level could control time itself. Only one Mage in history had been a level 10. Merlin. Everyone, even non-Mages, knew Merlin’s story. He was the only Mage that could control all the elements, light and dark, life, and time. He truly was all-powerful. And then one day, he vanished.

I needed to clear my head and decided to go for a walk. I was minding my own business when I heard snickering behind me. Without even turning I knew it was some of my fellow first years preparing to taunt me. At that moment I would have given anything to be able to control them. I decided to just ignore them.

“Trying to decide whether you are going to be a cook or a maid after tomorrow, Ella?” I knew that question had sprung from the mouth of Trainee Jared. He loved to point out that I was a girl who clearly didn’t belong here. Although, I do recall he struggled with lighting the candle today too. I just shook my head and bee lined back toward the kitchen. I could hear their chuckles and snide comments the whole way.

The next morning I awoke when the smell of oatmeal and bacon began to waft into my quarters. I didn’t remember falling asleep last night. I was too nervous to eat, so I headed to the dining hall with just a cup of tea. The trainees, even those who heckled me last night, were noticeably quiet this morning. It seems that even bullies get serious when their fate is about to be decided.

Mage Orvan gathered us all out of the dining hall and led us to the assembly chambers. We often had lectures and courses in the hall, but today it looked a little different. We were told to line up outside the door and we would be called in individually to test.

I was the last one waiting in the hallway and I thought I was going to be sick. Every trainee but me had been in and no one had come back out, which meant they would all be watching me as I was tested.

Orvan stepped into the hall and looked at me. He opened his mouth to speak and then decided against it. Instead he gestured for me to enter the assembly.

I walked into the room and my fears were realized. All the other trainees were sitting on benches to one side and would have a front row seat to my shame.

Orvan swept past me and stood behind a small table. On the table was a stone. “Do you know what this is?” asked Orvan.

I thought I did but I’d never seen one, only read about them. I took a stab at it anyway. “It’s a bloodstone.”

“Correct,” Orvan said. “This is the test. You will pick up the stone and hold it for exactly one minute. In that time, the stone will transform and this will tell us what level of magic you possess.”

A bloodstone. That was the test? I couldn’t believe it. A bloodstone was a crystal that recognized magical energy. When a Mage picked it up, it would change from it’s normal clear resting stage to a shade of red or pink. The more powerful the Mage, the redder the stone changed. When the Mage set the stone down, the stone returned to it’s normal state. It was actually a very good use of the stone’s properties.stone

“Pick up the stone.” I could hear snickering coming from the section where the first years were seated.

I took a deep breath and picked up the stone. When people look back at their lives, they say there are moments when they felt time stand still. Well, this was one of those moments for me. I picked up the stone and whatever being watched over us, paused in her labors to look down at me. I could feel every eye looking, not at me, at the stone. In the instant I picked up the stone, it changed.

The stone was deep crimson. It certain light, it looked almost black and then the light would shine on it and you could see the red swirling within.

When I remembered to breathe again, I looked at Orvan. He looked confused and for once, he didn’t look mad at me. I also noticed that every Elder Mage that was sitting behind him was now standing. There wasn’t any snickering coming from the other trainees.

One of the Elders spoke, “It must be a trick.” And like that, time began again. I couldn’t focus on what was happening around me, but I picked up snippets.

“She’s just a girl.”

“Cheated, clearly.”

“There’s no way she’s a higher level than me.”

“Unprecedented.”

“Silence.” Orvan spoke finally. “Sit the stone down, Ella. The Elders must discuss this.”

I returned the stone to it’s cushion and took a step back. I looked down at my feet. I didn’t know what any of this meant, but somehow I knew I was not to blame for what happened.

I stood there for several moments and there was talking and whispering all around me. And then the room got quiet again. I looked up to see Orvan staring at the stone very intently.

The stone had not returned to it’s resting state. The stone should have been clear again by now, but it remained crimson.

Orvan stood up very straight and addressed the Elders. “My friends, we all know what this means.” The Elders nodded in unison.

“All trainees will return to their quarters now, someone will be along later to report your levels. You are dismissed.” As the other trainees shuffled past me I saw many emotions on their faces – curiosity, rage, jealousy, confusion, and even fear.

I was left alone with the Elders and Orvan. The Elders gathered around a group of statues. The statues were a permanent part of the assembly room. I remembered the first time I saw them, I thought they were very life like. All of the statues were animals of various shapes and sizes. They were true to life in size.

Orvan spoke, breaking my train of thought, “Ella, these statues are your final test.” He must have seen the confusion on my face. “Pick up the bloodstone and place it at the feet of one of these statues.”

I still didn’t really understand what was going on but I realized this was part of my test. “Which one should I pick sir?”

And for the first time since I met him, Orvan smiled at me kindly. “I cannot tell you that. Pick the one that resonates with you.”

I didn’t have the foggiest idea what that meant, but I walked amongst the statues looking at each one. There was a unicorn, a house cat, a dragonling, and even a dire wolf. I walked past others and thought what on earth could all this mean? I had no idea which one to pick. Then I stopped in front of an owl.

This was the one. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I put the stone at his feet and the statue burst into flame.

I was so shocked I fell back. Smoke clouded my vision and I thought I heard flapping wings. I heard other Mages cough and felt the air swirling around me. Before I could cry out for help, something landed on my knees.

The smoke cleared and I was surrounded by the Elders, all of which we clapping or smiling. What on earth was happening? I looked at what was now perched on my lap. I was staring into the eyes of the owl. The owl who moments ago had been a statue. And then before my brain could process any of the thoughts passing through it, the owl spoke.owl

“Hello, Merlin.”

“I’m not Merlin.” I managed to stammer before I really knew what I was saying.

The owl turned its head sideways at a very disconcerting angle and said, “You are, and you aren’t. But you will be.”

Review of the Nebula Awards Showase 2013

Every year I try to read the Nebula Awards Showcase anthology. If you don’t know, the Nebula Awards are given for Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writing. I look forward to the collection every year. And last year, I started ordering the older copies from Abebooks.com. (I love that site). I almost have every year now.

Anyway, when I read, I have a tendency to compare what I’m reading to other things that I’ve read. I try to judge a book on its value alone but in this case, I can’t help it. So, as I was reading the 2013 collection, I was comparing it to the 2012 anthology.

In all honesty, I thought the 2012 collection was better. Now, to be fair though, there are still some really great stories in the 2013 set that I would highly recommend. However, the new book just didn’t wow me like last year’s did.

Before I talk about some of the stories that I did like, I wanted to add one other thing you should know about the Nebula Awards collections. They usually feature poetry. Yes, you read that right. Sci-fi or fantasy poetry. And I’m here to tell you, it can be pretty weird.

Weird poetry aside, some stories that I think are really great from this collection:nebula awards

1. “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

  • This story is truly magical. It’s about the relationship between a mother and her son. I don’t want to tell you more than that, because it’s really, really, really great.
  • It’s one of those stories that isn’t your typical sci-fi or fantasy story but I’m so glad it’s in this collection.

2. The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

  • I love this story! I couldn’t get over the complexity of the universe that this author created just for a short story. It’s about a girl and her learning about the past. It’s also about an ice owl, but I won’t tell you what happens other than that.
  • When I finished reading this, I was hoping there was more. I would love to read a novel length work set in the universe created by this author.

3. Excerpt from Among Others by Jo Walton

  • This, as you can guess from the title, was a snippet of a novel that they included.
  • The novel is now on my “To Read” list.
  • The excerpt introduces us to one of the main characters, a girl, who is about to go to boarding school. I can’t add more than that, not because I don’t want to give anything away, but because there’s not much else to go on from the snippet. I have to admit one of the reasons I say this is worth reading is because it peaked my curiosity and now I need to know what happens.

4. “Sauerkraut Station” by Ferrett Steinmetz

  • If you only had time to read one story from the collection, this would be my choice.
  • Unlike some of the other stories, this story is more typical. It has some known sci-fi devices. It is set on a space station. There is a war going on that involves two different factions with different belief systems.
  • What isn’t typical about this story. The main character is a girl who lives with her female relatives and together they run a “truck stop” in space. In particular, their station is known as “Sauerkraut Station” because they serve sauerkraut that they make themselves right on the station.
  • I can’t explain why exactly this was my favorite out of all of them, other than I just thought it was really well written. For a short story, it was very complex.

5. “Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgersen

  • This story is about our world after aliens have arrived and blocked out our sun. In order to survive, the humans that endure are forced to live deep in the ocean near vents that produce heat.
  • The story is also about the generation of children who are born down in the ocean. They want to see the sun. They form a “cult” like group that worships the sun. Eventually, the teens steal some subs and make their way to the surface because no one has been to the surface in years. Guess what they find when they get there…. I’m not telling. Read the story. It’s good.

There are many more in this collection but I felt like those five were the highlights. One of the things I love about the Nebula collections is a lot of time the stories that are featured aren’t your typical sci-fi and fantasy. There aren’t a lot of dragons or light sabers. Instead, there are a lot of characters in a vast array of settings surviving and being a part of some very unique universes.