A land unknown


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Jordan guided the drone over the valley. He marveled at the images the camera was sending back. “This is amazing,” he said, glancing over at his business partner.

Braedon just grunted. “How is this going to make us money?”

Jordan rolled his eyes. “Virtual tourism is the new big thing, Braedon. You know travel is just too damned expensive these days.”

“It wouldn’t be if there wasn’t the ban on fossil fuels,” Braedon said.

“Airlines and ships can still use them,” Jordan said. “You know that.”

“Yes, and they get to set their own prices,” Braedon said. “The cost for them is astronomical so that gets passed along to customers.”

“True, but you notice that doesn’t stop people from traveling. Why do you think the new infrastructure projects have been put on high priority? The president is determined to make life in America better for all of us,” Jordan said.

Braedon grunted again. Jordan shook his head. President Samantha Harrison was an amazing woman. She was one of those rare politicians who made moderate promises and managed to keep most of them. Jordan was a realist. He knew there were things she wouldn’t be able to do because of circumstances beyond her control, but still she was doing a very good job.

Braedon jabbed the screen. “What’s that?”

Jordan frowned. “I’m not sure.” He guided the drone down closer to the treeline as another flash of red and gold too large to be an animal moved into view.

A young woman dressed in a bizarre costume stepped into the light. She was followed by several other young men and women. Jordan was astonished by how tall they all seemed to be as he compared them to the trees behind them. They moved with the grace of dancers. “Who are they? I thought this place was supposed to be undiscovered,” Braedon said.

“It is, and I have no idea,” Jordan said. He moved the drone a little closer.

He was now able to see more details of their appearance. Jordan couldn’t help but stare. They were the most attractive people he’d ever encountered. They were slender, with the build of the dancers they moved like. Their faces were perfect ovals. They had almond shaped eyes that were the deepest blue he had ever seen. Long hair was pulled back and he could swear they had pointed ears.

“Bloody cosplayers,” Braedon groaned. “They think they’re elves.”

“I don’t know that they aren’t,” Jordan said. Unlike his partner, Jordan still believed in magic. He’d always held out hope he would see a faerie, an elf, or a dragon. Braedon was far more down to earth than he was, which was why they made good business partners, but his lack of imagination sometimes dragged them down.

“You’re insane,” Braedon said. “Elves don’t exist.”

“Braedon, look at their hands,” Jordan said.

They watched as something sparked around their fingers. They went to the pool beneath the massive waterfall and knelt beside it. The elves – Jordan couldn’t think of them as anything else now – dipped their hands into the water. Light erupted from the pool, spreading up the waterfall and into the ground surrounding them.

The waterfall split and a gate opened. A beautiful land filled with wonders Jordan couldn’t identify appeared. The elves lifted their hands from the water. The light remained. They walked across the water as if it was a hard surface and one by one filed through the opening. The first woman to enter the valley paused and looked back. She fixed her gaze on the drone. She frowned and made a gesture. There was a burst of static and then the words “no signal” appeared on the screen.

“What the hell was that?” Braedon asked, his voice full of confusion.

“That, Braedon, was an alternate dimension,” Jordan said. “Those were elves. And that woman destroyed our drone with magic.” He turned to face his partner. “I think we’ll leave this valley as undiscovered.”

“I agree,” Braedon said. “Not because I think those were elves, but because there is definitely something dangerous there.”

“I’ll go set up the next drone,” Jordan said. He stood and walked off into his garage where the spare drones were sitting on a shelf, his mind still on the elves.

A broken past


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Issana walked slowly through the field, her oxygen mask secure over her face. The radiation suit creaked and hissed as she moved, the mutated plants brushing against the reinforced fibers. She constantly checked her scanner. “Sani, anything?” The voice over the communicator in her ear was her partner Noran.

“No, Noran. There’s nothing yet. Just like five minutes ago. Will you please stop pestering me and wait for me to check in on my own?” Issana asked, her tone carrying her exasperation.

“You don’t check in regularly so I have to make you,” Noran said with his usual logic.

“I report every thirty minutes, as is required by regulations. Just because you get impatient is no reason for you to claim I don’t follow orders,” Issana said.

Noran sighed. “Sani, the radiation levels are really high today. That last storm really did a number on the atmosphere. The projection is it’ll take a month before it’s back to normal levels. We’re all worried about you so I’m going to check in with you as often as I feel is necessary.”

Issana sighed. “Fine. But if you startle me and I get hurt please realize it’ll be your fault.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Noran fell silent.

Issana continued forward, sweeping her scanner in front of her. A loud beep made her stop and orient the device on the reading. “The scanner picked something up ten meters to the east of my current position. The terrain is flat so I’m going to go check it out.”

“Copy that,” Noran said.

Issana headed cautiously forward, watching the ground for hidden dangers. The sound from her scanner got louder. When it became one solid tone she cleared the readout and stopped. She frowned. “I’m sending you a holo. I have no clue what this is supposed to be. It looks like some kind of barrier though.” She snapped a picture and sent it back to the base.

While she waited for Noran’s response, she examined the metal thing in front of her. It was a long metal pipe set on a pile of eroded stones. There were smaller metal pipes set at angles to help brace the thing. She didn’t touch it, fearing to either contaminate her suit further or tear it on the jagged, rusting surface. She took a few more holos, though she kept those on her camera rather than sending them back.

“You’re right. The Director says it’s a barrier. You’re probably standing on some kind of ancient road. That was used to prevent people from going beyond a certain point, possibly because that was some kind of animal refuge or large private property,” Noran said. She heard a faint conversation. “Sani, you need to get back here. Meteorology just reported another storm coming through. You’ve got forty five minutes, so hurry your ass up.”

“Got it. I’m on my way,” Issana said. She turned off her equipment and started back towards the base. Radiation storms were deadly, even with the suits, and she had no desire to be another casualty of this particular human stupidity. There were other, more interesting and less painful, ways to die.

Esprit du matin


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Neal and Eugenie watched the waves as the sky turned pink with the first light of the sun. “I’m glad you talked me into this, babe,” Neal said.

Eugenie smiled. “I’m glad you came with me. This is one of my favorite zen moments. It can help set the mood for the rest of the day.”

Neal wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He rested his cheek against the top of her head. His pretty little French fiancee was forever bringing joy into his life. They’d known each other for seven years. She’d finally accepted his marriage proposal after two years of intermittent asking the previous spring. Their wedding date was the next year, on the second anniversary of the date she’d said yes.

“Hey babe, what’s that?” Neal said, frowning as he saw a flickering white light.

Eugenie gasped. “It is the esprit du matin. I see it sometimes. I have no idea where it comes from, or what it truly is. But it is here and then it is gone. I have found no one else who sees it.”

Esprit du matin – morning spirit. Whatever it was, the name fit it as well as any. He watched as the tiny spot of light drew closer. It danced and spiraled through the air. It drew nearer to the couple.

As it got closer, Neal swore he could hear music. “Babe? Do you hear that?”

Eugenie nodded. “Every time I hear it. It’s beautiful.”

Neal agreed. They stood transfixed as the light sang and danced. It circled them several times before suddenly changing course to speed into Eugenie. She gasped and curled in on herself.

“Babe, you okay?” Neal asked, grabbing hold of her.

Eugenie gasped for breath for a moment, but soon her breathing settled. “Yes. It was very warm, and for a minute I felt as if there was another mind inside of mine.”

“Weird.” Neal looked around. “I don’t see it anymore.”

“Me either,” Eugenie said, casting her gaze over her shoulder. She rubbed her temples. “I have a headache all of a sudden. Can we go home?”

“Sure thing.” Neal put his arm around her shoulders. He frowned. Something had just happened, but suddenly he couldn’t remember what it was. “Hey babe, what just happened?”

“What do you mean?” Eugenie asked.

“There was something,” Neal said. “I think we saw something. Do you know what it was?”

“I think you’re imagining things,” Eugenie said. “We’ve just been watching the sun rise. I must have stared too long at the sun for this headache to come on all of a sudden.”

Neal felt uneasy but shrugged it off as being concerned about his wife-to-be. “Come on, Shorty. Let’s get you home. A hot cup of green tea and some incense should help you feel better.” Eugenie punched him in the side as they walked back towards the car.

A dark wedding day


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She scattered flowers into the warm pool. Behind her she heard the soft music as musicians relaxed the princess before her ordeal. Hui breathed in the scent of fresh flowers mingling with the spice the princess preferred in her bathwater.

This wasn’t an ordinary bath. It was the night before the princess’ wedding, and she must be purified before presenting herself both to her husband-to-be and the gods in the morning.

Hui glanced over her shoulder. No one was watching her. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a vial of amber colored liquid. She uncorked the vial and poured the contents into the steaming water. The water bubbled for a moment before returning to normal.

She wiped the vial with a tiny piece of black silk embroidered with strange runes before pressing it into the soft, dark soil of the flowering bush that surrounded the purification pool. It vanished beneath the dirt.

“Hui, is the bath ready?” Elna, the head servant, called.

“Yes Elna.” Hui disliked the older woman intensely, though she was careful not to show it.

“Then go help Asura prepare Her Highness’ dress for tomorrow,” Elna said.

“Yes Elna.” Hui hurried to join the other woman.

Hui heard the princess enter the water. She listened as Elna droned on about the responsibilities of the wife of a future king. The young maidservant tried not to show her disdain. Kings and queens bored her, not to mention the kind of damage they wreaked on the land.

She glanced over her shoulder. Whereas the next day she’d be clad in white, the princess was dressed in a black silk gown. Her long black hair flowed freely around her. Her arms floated beside her and she stared up into the night sky. The roof over the purification pool was open to the sky, closed by the sages only when the weather was foul.

The princess floated until just past midnight, when she was finally helped out and dressed in a satin nightgown. She was led to the bed in a tiny antechamber, alone for the last time, and tucked in. Asura and Hui finished the dress while Elna and two others drained the purification pool.

“I hope Her Highness sleeps well,” one of those helping Elna said.


“Her Highness has been drugged so her nerves don’t keep her awake,” Elna said. “This way she doesn’t embarrass herself and her parents by doing anything so crude as yawning or falling asleep at her own wedding.”

“That would be a bad omen, especially given that this is an alliance marriage,” the second woman said.

Hui found herself yawning. She’d been up since before dawn, and would have to be up at the same time to help the princess into her gown, if what she’d poured into the bathwater didn’t do its job.

“Hui, Asura, Soma, Khea, go to bed. You will be helping me with Her Highness’ preparations in the morning,” Elna said. The four chosen women headed to bed. Hui drifted off to sleep immediately.

Elna’s voice roused her. She was screaming. Hui, along with the rest of the maidservants, ran to the older woman. The princess lay on her bed, her eyes wide open. Her pupils were mere pinpricks and her lips were blue. Amber foam gathered at the corners of the princess’s mouth and an amber stain ran up her fingers and toes.

“Gods, what is this curse?” Soma asked, her voice hushed.

“Poison,” someone whispered. The word spread like wildfire. As the maidservants scattered to inform the king and queen, rouse the guards, and let the other servants in the palace know, Hui shifted form and slipped out. The job was well done. Her master would be well pleased.

A Goddess’ wrath


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Ora emerged from the cave, stretching and scratching her head. The heat was oppressive even this early in the morning. She sighed and headed down to the river to gather the soaproot that she could bathe the children once they woke up.

She went to the usual spot where it grew in abundance, but found none. She frowned. That was very odd. She poked around along the river several meters in both directions. Still nothing.

It was then that the smell reached her. She gagged as a scent reminiscent of the rotten eggs Kor brought home that one time crossed with carrion reached her nose. She turned and hurried back to the cave.

Kor and Arn were standing outside. “Ora, what is it?” Kor asked. “There is something disturbing the Wise One.”

Ora told them about the missing soaproot and the smell. “It is foul, Kor, and I have no idea what’s causing it. I didn’t wish to range too far, but with as strong as it is it has to be nearby.”

Her two mates stared at each other. “Should we send someone out to search for what’s causing this?” Arn asked.

“Who could go? The Wise One is too old, the children too young. Nur, Sen, Dak, and Lon are the only other warriors in the family. If something is coming we need them here to defend us,” Ora said.

“I could go,” Arn said.

“It’s not allowed,” Kor said, gesturing to Ora.

Ora shook her head. “There are exceptions to the laws, Kor. This is time for one of them.” She turned to her younger mate. “Arn, do not range far. We can’t help you if you go beyond our border. If you don’t see anything before you reach the cairns, return immediately. The last thing we need is feuding with any of the other families.”

“Yes Ora.” Arn gripped his spear and headed down the path.

Mun, the eldest of Ora’s children, poked her nose out. “Mother, Asa and Hui are sick.”

Ora hurried inside. Her youngest, a pair of twin girls, who were Kor’s joys, were huddled near their sleeping mats. It was obvious that they were vomiting, as the smell lingered in the medium sized cavern. They were pale and glassy eyed.

Ora put her hands on their foreheads. “They aren’t fevered,” she muttered. She pressed on their stomachs. Neither of her daughters responded as if they were in pain. She tilted their faces up. Even when she looked deep into the brown and green depths of their eyes, they didn’t make any motion that they even saw her. She snapped her fingers in front of their noses. Nothing.

“Ora, what’s wrong with them?” Kor asked.

“I don’t know,” Ora said. “Where is the Wise One? She may know.”

“The Wise One does not answer when we try to rouse her,” Nur, Ora’s youngest sister, said. “She fell into a stupor not long after sending Kor and Arn to find you.”

Ora went to the old wise woman. She was pale, and there was the faint smell of bile near her. The younger woman touched the old one’s arm. The other woman was stiff and cold. Ora placed her ear to the Wise One’s chest. “She is in no stupor. She is dead.”

“She foresaw her death many years from now,” Dak, Arn’s cousin, said. “How is it that she has died now?”

“I don’t know,” Ora said. “There is so much this morning that is wrong.” Arn appeared, ashen faced and shaking. His spear was missing and there were burns on his legs. “Arn, what happened?”

“The Earth Goddess is furious with us,” Arn said. “Her angry breaths pierce the ground and scald flesh. The scent is her bile. It seeps up through new cracks in the stone and dirt.”

“Mother, Tai is getting dizzy,” Mun said, rubbing her forehead. “And I have a headache.”

“Everyone leave the cave. Now,” Ora said. “If the Earth Goddess is angry, she will be trying to kill us here in our home. We must go now.” The family grabbed food and clothes and ran out of the cave.

The scent of rot and bile grew stronger. The children gagged and the adults scooped them up into their arms, sheltering their faces against their fur clad shoulders. Ora took the lead and hurried her family away from the cursed lands. Burning mists erupted from the ground, scalding them.

The earth cracked, opening a wide chasm beneath their feet. Screams filled the air as the mist surged up and against their tender flesh. The ground shook and the fissure expanded. As Ora’s feet slipped out from under her into the nothingness of thin air, she wailed, begging the Earth Goddess to forgive her even as she and her family were swallowed by the flaming darkness.

Mortals are not meant to be gods


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Ardeth stood at the center of the rings with his hands raised to chest height, palms towards the setting sun. Behind him he could hear the sounds of restless men and animals, and the quiet growls from the man forcing him to cast the spell he now struggled with.

A brutal kick to his kidneys sent him sprawling, breaking his concentration. “You’re running out of time, sorcerer,” a deep voice barked. “Cast the spell.”

“If you keep interrupting me, it’s not going to happen,” Ardeth said, gasping and curling into a ball. “You have to be patient.”

“I have waited twenty five years for this moment. I refuse to let a backwater hedgewizard steal my moment,” the man snarled.

“Lord Oleon, you must give the man time to cast the spell. It takes several minutes, and the more you punish him for that the less likely you will get what you want for another twenty five years.” This was a smooth female voice. Ardeth glared at the woman in spite of his pain. She smirked down at him.

Kyra Blackfeather was a traitor to the village she’d once called home, and Ardeth hated her for it. She escaped a few steps ahead of a mob the day it was discovered the children who went missing were being used by her as blood sacrifices to a dark god as she tried to gain more power. Ardeth was the one who’d turned her in and he knew she would have vowed revenge on him. It was what he’d have done had the situation been reversed. If he’d been depraved enough to torture and murder innocents to add to his magical strength.

Oleon grabbed Ardeth and dragged him back to the center of the rings. “Cast your spell, sorcerer. Or watch your village burn.”

Ardeth struggled back to his feet. He raised shaking hands to the west and started again. He knew what Kyra wanted out of this. She needed the words to the spell. It was one of the final steps in gaining what she wanted. He wouldn’t give that much to her. He spoke the syllables silently, barely moving his lips, as he called on the Old Gods to grant Lord Oleon his wish.

Just as the last rays of the sun vanished beneath the horizon, the holy place erupted with light. Oleon and Kyra took a step back. Ardeth turned and faced the dark lord. “If you wish your reward, step to the center, Lord Oleon,” Ardeth said, his weariness evident in his voice.

“This better not be a trick, sorcerer,” Oleon said.

“Ardeth knows the cost if he should betray us, my lord,” Kyra said. She glanced over her shoulder to where Ardeth’s young and pregnant wife stood under guard, a sword tip pressed against her swollen abdomen. Kyra turned back to him, a cruel smile dancing at the edge of her lips. “Of course, if you wish your burden lifted, just ask. You can always join me.”

“You are nothing but a shell, Kyra Blackfeather,” Ardeth said. “You sold your soul for your dark powers. My wife is filled with light, something you will never have again. I refuse to allow myself to be swallowed by the same black void as you have been.”

Kyra scowled. “I should kill her for your insolence, Ardeth.”

“You swore by blood that you wouldn’t if I granted Lord Oleon his wish,” Ardeth said. “To do so would be to end your own life as well as hers. Even with her loss I win.”

Oleon shouted in agony. Both magic users turned to look. Fissures were appearing on his face and hands. His clothing smoldered. His hair sparked and turned to ash even as they watched.

“Ardeth, what treachery is this?” Kyra shrieked.

“No treachery, Kyra,” Ardeth said. “You and Oleon demanded I give him the power of a god, something only able to be granted on Midsummer every quarter century. I did as you asked. Mortal bodies are not meant to hold such power. Those who seek this, unless they are prepared, die horribly.”

“Kill the bitch,” Kyra ordered, whirling to face the soldiers. No one moved. “I said kill her.”

“They can’t hear you,” Ardeth said. “In point of fact, they can’t see you either.”

“What?” Kyra whirled on him, hands blazing red.

“Those outside the circle have no idea what happens within when the aura ignites,” Ardeth said. He drew a rune in the air in front of him. “Tell me Kyra, why did you cast your lot in with this man?”

“He swore to make me queen, once he took command of the power you were supposed to give him,” Kyra said.

“What oath did he give you that he’d do it?” Ardeth asked.

Kyra looked confused as she was forced to answer. “He swore blood oath.”

“So your blood and his have mingled,” Ardeth said, a smile slowly spreading across his face. He ignored Oleon’s screams. “You have cursed yourself, Kyra.” The rune faded. Kyra screamed as the first of the fissures appeared on her flesh. Ardeth strode out of the circle, leaving his two enemies writhe in agony for all eternity.

Blue is the color of victory


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Markoi clutched the bottle to his chest. He dragged himself up the steep mountain path. Behind him, he could hear the heavy breathing and thudding footsteps of his competitors. He didn’t bother looking over his shoulder. That just slowed him down.

He stumbled as his battered feet found a hole. There were some grunts behind him and the sounds of footsteps increased in speed. He straightened and limped on, ignoring the pain.

Markoi refused to lose again. For the past five years, he’d competed in the Festival of Smoke and had come in last every time. Today he was in the lead on the third and final day, and he intended on staying there.

He could hear a woman’s cry and a thwump. Another competitor was down. He pushed his pace even faster, trying to put more distance between him and those trying to pass him.

Markoi reached the final test in the competition. It was a free climb up to one of the higher points in the mountains. He made sure the bottle was secured in the sling across his chest and started climbing.

This was the most difficult part. His hands and feet were mostly numb from the cold and the bruising they’d already taken during the past few days. He was exhausted. Sleep wasn’t permitted so he was going on pure adrenaline. Food was limited, though they were given all the water they wished to drink so they wouldn’t get dehydrated.

His foot slipped and he barely caught himself. He took a minute to calm his heart before continuing the climb. He glanced up. Not much farther. He just had to get to the top.

It took the last of his strength to pull himself onto the ledge. He wanted to lay down and not get up, but he had one last thing to do. Markoi pulled the bottle from the sling and fumbled with the top. It popped. A cloud of blue smoke erupted from the top. He held it up above his head. Looking around, he saw no other color in the sky. A few minutes later, purple, green, yellow, and red joined his blue. Markoi laughed. He’d won. He let out a whoop of delight.