Interesting travels and mysterious encounters

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Photo via Visual hunt

Corinne tossed her backpack into the corner and flopped onto the bed. Her feet and back hurt, but she was very satisfied with her day’s hike. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and rolled onto her stomach. She checked and saw that she actually had a signal. She dialed her best friend’s number and waited.

“Cor? Where are you this time?” Seth asked, amusement in his voice. “You freaked out your sister again, by the way.”

Corinne laughed. “She should be used to this by now. I’ve been doing it for how long? And I’m in Scotland.”

“Ah, someplace neutral then,” Seth said.

“Neutral my ass,” Corinne said. “Do you have any idea how much power runs through this country?”

“Is it as much as Egypt?” Seth asked.

“More in some places and less in others,” Corinne said.

“Did you find anything interesting?” Seth asked.

“Yes,” Corinne said. “I’m at a really tiny inn in a small village right now. When I get to Glasgow tomorrow and into an area with wi-fi I’ll send you the details. I think I’m on to something here.”

“You said that when you were in Turkey. And again in Kazakhstan. And in Greece,” Seth said.

“I know,” Corinne said. “But wait until you get the pictures and my notes. I think this time you’re going to want to bring the team here.”

“Cor, you know we can’t just drop everything every time you make some random discovery,” Seth said. “The rest of us have day jobs we can’t abandon.”

“S, trust me. You’re going to want to see this,” Corinne said. Her phone crackled. “I’m losing signal. I’ll call you when I get to Glasgow.”

“All right. I’ll talk to you then,” Seth said. The line went silent.

Corinne rolled off the bed and went over to her laptop case. She pulled out the slim machine that went everywhere with her. She grabbed her camera out of her backpack and attached it with the USB cable. She turned on her computer and logged in. She uploaded all the pictures she’d taken before shutting everything down again and putting it all away.

She stretched and decided to take a shower. Using a bit of her personal store of energy, she warded her room and sealed everything. She jumped in the shower, wishing the water would get hotter than a few degrees above lukewarm. She got out, toweled off, and changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She exchanged her hiking boots for her knee high leather ones, tucking knives into the backs of each. She also shoved her runes in her pocket, just in case.

She went to the pub and grabbed some food before going back to her room. As she approached the door, she could feel something odd. Someone was attempting to break her wards. Corinne reached down and slipped one of her knives out of her boot. She moved forward quietly.

A wizened old woman stood outside her door, hands outstretched and eyes closed. “Is there something I can help you with?” Corinne asked, keeping the knife out of sight.

The woman jumped and the feeling of opposing magic ended abruptly. She turned and glared at Corinne. “Ye shouldna be diggin’ in matters that don’ concern ye,” she said, her brogue thick and full of anger.

“Neither should you,” Corinne said coldly.

“Yer presence does matter tae me,” the woman said. “Yer messin’ wi’ things that do better tae be left alone.”

“Why?” Corinne asked. “It’s a source of power that can be harnessed to make the world better.”

The woman spat. “Ye young mages. Ye have no respect fer the old magic. Ye’ll rue the day ye got involved wi’ it. Yer in over yer head and ye don’t even know it.” She stalked off. Corinne sighed, sheathing her knife. This wasn’t her first encounter with antagonistic locals and she doubted it would be her last. She’d just have to add a note to her report warning the others about it. They’d need to be prepared. She went into her room and locked the door behind her. She opened her laptop and got back to work.

 

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Things aren’t always what they seem

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Dr. Darya Allen stepped away from the microscope and rubbed her temples. No matter how often she looked at the two hair samples, she still couldn’t make sense of them. “Do you concede defeat, Dr. Allen?”

She turned and looked into the smug face of one of the more sexist of her colleagues. “It seems I must, Dr. Aleshire. Why don’t you take a look? I’m curious as to what you think they might be,” Darya said, moving to the side.

He cast a significant glance at the other forensic scientists in the room, who all scowled at him. They knew what Darya was working on. They’d each consulted on the same thing – a murder case spanning the last five decades. Each victim had four things in common: they were female, they were ripped apart as if by wild animals though they’d been shot first, their uteruses were torn out though all of the rest of their internal organs were found, and these hair samples were on every body.

Dr. Edwin Aleshire pushed her even farther out of the way as he approached the microscope. He peered inside, changing the focus several times. His smile faded and was replaced by a frown. “These must be contaminated,” he began.

“They aren’t,” Dr. Amir Casale – Darya’s mentor and the one who’d pulled her into the investigation when she would have been overlooked by those senior to her – said flatly. “These were preserved perfectly by the crime scene investigators. They’re also the freshest, pulled from the latest victim only three days ago.”

“Then Dr. Allen must have done something to them,” Edwin said, turning to glare at the petite dark skinned woman.

“She didn’t do anything.” This was one of the others, a man Darya barely knew. His name eluded her for the moment. “None of us have. Dr. Casale mounted the slides this morning and none of the rest of us have done anything other than to adjust the magnification.”

“Then what are these?” Edwin demanded.

“Darya? You’re the only one who hasn’t voiced an opinion, other than Dr. Aleshire, as to what they are,” Amir said. “What do you think?”

Darya took her time in answering. “They belong to some type of animal,” she said. “From the shape of the hair and the core of the shaft I’d say something in the canine family. However, the follicles also carry human characteristics. If I actually thought it was possible, I’d say someone has used genetic engineering to create a human-canine  hybrid and was using it to destroy the bodies in the hopes of removing evidence.”

“You mean like a werewolf?” Edwin scoffed.

“Perhaps,” Darya said. “Though I do agree that is a silly concept as werewolves in the sense of mythology and folklore are just that – stories. Most likely made up to scare uneducated peasants that eventually became matters of interest to the general public as they gained in popularity due to popular media.”

“Focus, you two,” Amir said sharply. “I agree with Darya’s assessment and with Edwin’s. The hairs are unique, and do bear the characteristics she describes. But there are no such things as werewolves.” He glanced at the clock. “It’s almost midnight and we’ve been at this since eight this morning. Go home. Get some sleep. Come back refreshed and we’ll start again tomorrow.” Everyone filed out.

Darya and Edwin were the last two to leave, as they made sure all the evidence of every crime being worked on was properly secured. The two of them walked out at the same time. The parking lot was deserted, and most of the lights were out. “What the hell is with the lights?” Edwin asked.

“Didn’t you pay attention to your email? There’s been a short somewhere in the security system. The lights are out and the cameras out here don’t work,” Darya said.

“That’s unfortunate,” Edwin said. He turned towards her. “Perhaps you and I should have a private little chat about your attitude in the lab.”

Darya smiled. “I think that’s a brilliant idea.” She pulled a gun out of her pocket. “I’m going to have to change my pattern now, which does pose a problem for me. However, I’ll make do with what I have.”

“What are you talking about?” Edwin asked, backing up a little.

Darya’s body began to shift as she stalked towards him. “Werewolves do exist, Dr. Aleshire. I think it’s time you met one.” No one was there to hear the gunshot…or the screams.

Cookies and vengeance

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Artur could smell them as soon as he walked into the house. They almost masked the scent of decay he was growing used to. “Mom, did you bake cookies?” Tamara Harper shambled out of the kitchen, her gray skin showing her bones in even more places. She smiled, unable to speak since her jaw had long ago locked into place. “They smell wonderful.”

She pointed one rotting hand to the plate. Artur went over, dreading what he’d see. The chocolate chip delicacies were surprisingly free of flesh, muscle, hair, and bone. He turned to look at her. She pointed again, this time to a pair of long gloves, an apron, and a shower cap.

“Good thinking,” Artur said. He picked up one of the cookies and took a bite. “You definitely haven’t lost your touch.” He paused. “Where’s dad?”

Tamara looked sad as she pointed out the back door. Artur shook his head. Would the man never learn? Artur finished his cookie before heading out to the backyard.

Gil Harper was digging a grave under the apple tree. He looked up from his work and scowled at his son. “You ever going to let us go?” His words were slurred. His tongue was half rotted and his lower jaw was beginning to fall off.

“Why should I?” Artur asked. “After what you all did to me?”

The bitterness was still there. Tamara, Gil, and Artur’s younger sister Cassie had turned on him when he came out as both gay and desirous of a college education. Gil had already picked out the trade school he was supposed to go to so Artur could become an electrician like his father, just as Gil had become one like his father.

His family were also devout Christians who believed Artur was an abomination before the sight of God. They took them to their pastor, who tried to “pray the gay away.” When that didn’t work, they locked him in the basement and tortured him for months until Artur’s then-boyfriend Dario and a few others had broken into the house and rescued him.

Tamara, Gil, and Cassie had died in a car accident a year before, and Artur took his revenge. He and his now-husband Dario were skilled necromancers and had raised them from the dead as sentient zombies. Tamara accepted her fate first. Gil still struggled. Cassie went mad and was currently locked in her room, fed raw ground beef and chicken by Dario every few days so she wouldn’t starve. They could release her, of course, but Artur wanted her to suffer a little longer.

“You can’t escape me that way, Dad,” Artur said, putting the scorn he felt into the last word. “You bury yourself, Dario and I will just force you back to the surface. You almost killed me. In fact, I think that was your intention. So now you can rot in this house. When I’m done with you, I’ll release you and burn your rotting corpses with the house. I think that’s a fitting punishment for these scars.” He gestured to the remnants of the third degree burns on his arms and face.

“You are a demon,” Gil said.

“I am what you made me,” Artur said. “You are responsible for all of this.” He turned and walked away, leaving his father spluttering behind him. Dario was standing in the doorway, smiling, a cookie in his hand.

Blue eyes

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Analiese sighed as she flopped onto her battered couch. She looked around her grungy apartment. Splitting her time between her two jobs – one as a fast food worker for a well known chain and one as a gas station attendant – barely gave her enough money to live on and this was all she could afford if she wanted to achieve her dreams.

She heard a soft purr and smiled as her cat Bourbon jumped up on the couch beside her, his intense blue eyes so like her father’s. She lifted him onto her lap. He snuggled against her and submitted himself quite willingly to her attention. “You love this, don’t you, furball?” she asked, her voice sounding tired even to her ears. She glanced at the alarm clock she kept on the desk she’d had since elementary school. “Don’t get too comfortable. I have to leave soon and I want a shower. I smell like gas.”

Bourbon reared up and gave one of his patented “I’ll make you feel better” hugs and nipped her lightly on the nose before jumping off and returning to the cat bed she’d made him out of some of her old clothes and the fluff from pillows far past their usefulness. She got in the shower and changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Grabbing her backpack and her laptop – the one real valuable thing in the apartment – she headed out.

Analiese scowled as she passed by broken streetlight after broken streetlight. Night school was the only way she was going to get her degree. She’d wanted to be a nurse for as long as she could remember, ever since she’d watched her mother die of cancer. Her father had encouraged this dream and had tried to put some money aside for her schooling. But a heart attack laid him low and all of his savings had gone for the medical bills. In the end, he’d died and left Analiese with nothing. He’d passed the day after her eighteenth birthday.

Now, at twenty seven, she was a semester away from becoming a nurse. She was worn out but excited. Once she started making enough money, she’d move into a new apartment in a better part of town. She could save some for her retirement. She would give Bourbon a decent bed, a cat tower, and the good cat food. She smiled as she drove down the familiar streets. Bourbon was far more dependable than any boyfriend, loved her unconditionally, and never tried to cheat her out of anything. He was the perfect partner.

Flashing lights ahead of her caused her to slam on her brakes. Two ambulances, three police cars, and a firetruck blocked the only street that would get her to school. She could see several vehicles piled into each other. She swore under her breath and started looking for a way to turn around. Another car had pulled up behind her and the driver was leaning on their horn, as if they couldn’t see the wreck in front of them. Analiese ignored the rudeness as a cop came over. He walked past her car and to the person behind her. The honking stopped.

The officer returned to her. She rolled down her window. “I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ll have to find an alternate route to your destination tonight. As you can see, there’s been a horrible accident,” he said.

“This is the only way to where I’m going,” Analiese said. “I’ll just turn around and go home. Missing class for one night won’t cause me too much trouble, and I’d rather not create more problems for you guys.”

“I’ll have the driver behind you move so you can back up then,” the officer said. He went back to speak to the person behind her once more.

As Analiese watched, the driver behind her pulled a gun and shot the police officer six times. She screamed as he fell. Several other officers ran past her, firing their guns at the driver.

Three people spilled out of the car, all wielding guns. They shot back, wounding several. Analiese unbuckled her seatbelt And laid as flat as she could to avoid stray bullets. She started crying, wishing that her father was there. He’d been a powerful man that could scare anyone into stopping whatever they were doing that he considered to be against what he believed was right.

A flash of blue caught her attention. Bourbon’s eyes stared up at her from the floor of the passenger side of the car. He jumped up over the seat and climbed on top of her. He leapt out the window. Analiese sat up, not caring if she died. She couldn’t lose her beloved pet.

As she watched, her blue eyed cat walked towards the gunmen. The first one glanced down at him, almost as if he were compelled to look at the black and white feline coming his way. His hands started shaking and the gun fell from  his hands. He dropped to his knees, hands covering his head.

Bourbon turned his attention to the second gunman. He shared the same fate as the first. The third saw Bourbon coming. “Fuck you, devil cat.” He shot Bourbon. Bourbon staggered but continued walking forward. Blood poured from the wound in his side.

The third gunman tried to shoot him again, but his weapon jammed. He took a step back, and then another, and then another. Bourbon never took his eyes off him. A bullet from a cop’s weapon took the gunman down. Bourbon flopped to the ground.

Analiese, heedless of the guns still drawn around her, jumped out of her car and ran over to her cat. One of the police officers went to grab her and stopped. “Is that your cat, ma’am?” he asked.

“Yes,” Analiese said, sobbing.

“There’s an emergency vet over on 27th. Get him there now. He might be able to save him,” the officer said, helping Analiese to her feet and escorting her back to her car. He got her car pointed in the right direction.

Analiese got back in the driver’s seat and sped off down the road. “Hang on, Bourbon. We’ll get there soon. You’ll be okay.” She took her eyes off the road for a moment to glance at her cat. He was still breathing and his blue eyes sparkled as he gazed up at her. Something in her relaxed. He would be okay, and they’d have that ideal life she pictured. She continued speeding down the road, reassured that the vet could save him.

A father’s love

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Elena grinned as she danced around the living room, the silk dress moving against her skin. “Dad, you are awesome,” she said.

Peter Wilkins smiled at his eighteen year old daughter. People often wondered why a man like him had adopted sweet blind child back when she was only five years old. Especially when he himself was blind and had to be helped by his wife Angela. But both Angela and Peter fell in love with Elena and wouldn’t let anyone tell them that they’d made a mistake.

Angela had died when Elena was thirteen and everyone was sure Peter would send Elena back into the foster care system. He refused. Peter hired someone to cook and clean for them, and continued to live in the small house with his brilliant, musically inclined, little girl.

“When is your date supposed to be here?” Peter asked.

“At seven,” Elena said. Both of them listened as their antique grandfather clock chimed the hour.

“Any minute then,” Peter said with a laugh.

Elena stopped moving. “I’d look out the window, but I don’t think it would do me any good.”

“Probably not, faerie child,” Peter said. “I doubt you’d see much, given how dark it is.” Both of them snickered. Their blindness was a constant source of amusement to them.

Someone knocked on the door. Peter heard the Southern drawl of their housekeeper, a fiery tempered woman named Greta, as she spoke to whoever it was. He heard two sets of footsteps. “Pete, this string bean says he’s Elena’s date to prom,” she said as she led someone into the room.

“Hi Jake,” Elena said breathlessly.

“Hi Elena.”

Pete frowned. There was something in the boy’s voice he didn’t like. Something cold. Elena must have heard it too. “Is something wrong, Jake?”

“You didn’t tell me your dad was a black man,” Jake said.

“I didn’t know he was,” Elena said.

“Come on, Elena. You expect me to believe that you didn’t know you were living with a nigger?” Jake asked, his voice full of disgust.

“Jake, I’m blind. No one ever told me, so how am I supposed to know?” Elena asked.

“Our date is off, Elena. I won’t go out with a girl who’s father is dirty like that.” Jake stormed out of the room. A few seconds later the others heard the door slam.

“Greta, is my dad black?” Elena asked.

“Yeah,” Greta drawled. “He is. You’re white. I’m somewhere in between. It don’t matter. You two love each other. That Jake’s the filth, not you and not your dad.”

Peter heard the rustling of the dress and the thwump as his daughter landed on their couch. He knew she was crying. Peter maneuvered his way through the furniture and sat down beside her.

“Listen faerie child, as much as it hurts, there are a lot of people like Jake in this world. There’s a lot of hate. We’ve been blessed with not experiencing much of it. But it’s out there, and as you go out on your own, you’re going to have to deal with more of it,” Peter said.

Elena sniffed. “I wish mama was here.”

Peter reached his arm out and wrapped it around his daughter. “So do I, faerie child. So do I.” He held her until she finished crying.

“Come on, Elena,” Greta said. “I’ll help you get out of that.”

“Thanks Greta,” Elena said. Peter heard the two women leave the room.

“Ah Angela, you’d have skinned that boy alive for breaking Elena’s heart without even touching him,” Peter muttered. “They’d never have found the body either. I do miss that magic of yours.” He held out his hand and tried to summon the energy that had once coursed through him, hoping to bring up enough of it to send a curse after the bastard who’d broken his daughter’s heart.

As usual, he felt a faint tingle in his fingers, but that was it. A spike of pain in his right temple forced him to stop. He sighed and let his hand fall to his lap. Elena’s blindness was a birth defect. His was the result of a spell gone wrong, and the physical pain that came from it would last him a lifetime.

Not all ancient gods are gone

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Colette grabbed her mother’s hand. The thick straps of her camera slapped against her chest. She pulled them back away from the orange blouse her grandmother insisted she wear that morning. It matched the peculiar pattern of the skirt her mother forced her into before they left the hotel, in spite of what their plans were.

Colette pulled and tried to hurry the older woman. “Mom, we’re going to miss the best view,” she said.

“My knees don’t work as well these days, Lettie. You know that,” her mother said. “And your poor Gran can barely walk at all.” Unspoken was the, what kind of selfish child are you that always followed anything Colette wanted for herself.

“Can I go on ahead then? I want to see the valley,” Colette said. “You know our guide said this was the best time to see it, with everything green and in bloom.”

Her mother sighed. “I’ll wait here with your Gran. Do not stay up any longer than the rest of the group, or we’ll leave you here for the serpents.”

“Just like we did to your brother,” her grandmother added.

Colette shivered. Two years earlier, her mother and grandmother had brought Colette’s twin brother Colin to this same spot in Belize. He’d disappeared, and both women claimed he’d been kidnapped. The locals did their best to investigate, but no one could find anything and to this day Colin remained a missing person.

“I’ll be down with everyone else,” Colette promised. She joined the rest of the tourists and climbed up to the top of the pyramid using a carefully constructed ramp and railing. She stood with the crowd as their guide, an olive skinned woman named Itzel, told them a fantastic story about how Q’uq’umatz joined the god Tepeu and created the world.

As the woman spoke, Colette remembered that she claimed from the beginning to be Mayan. “My people never died, as the Aztecs did,” Itzel said. “We endured when others fell.”

“Itzel, do people really believe all this pantheon horse shit you chuck at them?” The man who spoke had an exaggerated drawl. Colette glowered at him. He was everything people who lived in other countries despised about Americans, and he didn’t seem to care.

Itzel smiled at him, her eyes full of mystery. “Mr. Carpenter, no one is expected to believe anything. I simply tell the tales of my people. It is up to the listener to make that decision themselves.”

Mr. Carpenter snorted and opened his mouth. Three sets of hands clamped over it. His wife, son, and daughter were tired of his bullshit and, apparently by the quiet laughs and cheers, so were the other members of the tour group.

“That ought to keep the asshole quiet for a few,” someone else said, a strong Irish accent making him difficult to understand at first.

Colette giggled softly. Itzel shooed them all towards the ramp. She approached the teen. “You came up alone?” she asked, her accented voice placing peculiar intonations on those few syllables.

“My mom and grandmother couldn’t make it up the ramp,” Colette said. She glanced at the group moving past them. “I need to go down now.”

“You are a strange girl, Colette. So obedient, so willing to please, and yet so angry and defiant at the same time,” Itzel said, that mysterious smile back on her face.

Colette froze. Everything they’d signed, all the times she’d written her name, she’d been ordered to use the despised Lettie. There was no way a woman from a small town where there wasn’t any cell service or internet could know her name.

“Where did you hear that?” Colette asked, starting down the ramp.

Itzel fell in step beside her. “In your thoughts, and in your brother’s. The Feathered Serpent is very unhappy with your mother and grandmother. That is why he took Colin, and why he seeks to take you next, if you will allow it.”

“Who is this Feathered Serpent?” Colette asked, her voice shaking. She’d stopped moving and was now frozen on the ramp.

“The Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl. You heard me say what we call him a moment ago. He is Q’uq’umatz, one of the creators of our world,” Itzel said. The strange Mayan woman reached out and placed her fingertips on Colette’s chest. “How much longer do you have, dear child?”

Colette quivered but couldn’t pull away. “A year,” she whispered, tears slipping down her cheeks. “Maybe eighteen months.”

“How long did Colin have when they brought him here?” Itzel asked. Her voice was softer, more musical. “How long before the broken piece of his heart stopped working and killed him?”

“Six months. This was something the both of us wanted to see before we died,” Colette said. The heart defect that had killed her father on his twenty third birthday was set to claim her on her eighteenth, and would have taken Colin’s life before their sixteenth birthday. ”

“This was your wish? A final trip before the long pain begins?” Itzel asked.

Colette could hear her mother shouting, but somehow her words weren’t nearly as important as those of the woman in front of her. Itzel’s thin fingers still rested on Colette’s blouse covered chest.

“I had to beg,” Colette said. “Mom didn’t want to come here again. Gran swore she’d have a stroke the moment we checked in. But I pushed and pushed and pushed. I wanted to see where Colin disappeared, and to see the pyramids he told me about so excitedly the night before I went to stay with Aunt Regina for those horrible weeks.”

Itzel nodded. “Would you like to see your brother?” Her voice was now little more than a whisper, yet it sounded like a flute in Colette’s ears. “He’s alive, well, and safe. Safe from those insane harpies that murdered your father, tried to murder him, and are now set to end your life as well.”

 

“What do you mean?” Colette asked.

“Your heart defect is genetic, but those who have it do not usually die young. Your father’s death was brought on with a massive dose of digitalis, something no one in your tiny excuse for a hometown’s hospital bothered looking for,” Itzel said. “Your brother was getting weaker, but the doctors caught on that he was being poisoned. That’s why he was brought to Belize. They needed to remove him from the US where his condition was easily treatable. In the end, that is why they brought you here as well. You won’t return to your home in the US, Colette. You can live your life with Colin, or die by their hand.”

“I want to see Colin,” Colette said, her voice nearly inaudible.

Itzel laughed, the musical sound turning into a snarl. “I will take you to him.” Screams erupted from below, though Colette only heard them faintly. She watched in wonder as the petite guide became a stocky middle aged woman who shared some aspects with a jaguar.

“Who are you?” Colette asked.

The being grinned. “I am Ixchel, one of the ancient goddesses of the Mayans. My domain is the realm of medicine. It’s how I saved Colin’s life, and how I will preserve yours.” She held out one clawed hand. “Come, or return to the two who seek to slay you.” Colette didn’t look back. She took the ancient goddess’ hand. The world blurred around them.

The strap holding her camera around her neck broke, sending the delicate mechanical creation crashing to the top of the pyramid. It shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces.

Thunderstorms bring interesting guests

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Marissa stared at the dark clouds as they rolled in. Steamrolling the blue out of the way, as her mother used to say. The fiery orange of the sun as it set was soon blocked by the black clouds. A bolt of lightning hit the ground in the empty lot across the street from her apartment.

“Holy Hannah in a hand basket,” she shrieked, once again echoing her mother.

“Mari, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Karen, her roommate, said as she came over to look at the window just in time for another lightning strike to hit the empty lot. “Fucking hell.”

“That’s two,” Marissa said.

“I’ve never seen lightning hit the same spot twice,” Karen said, her voice filled with awe.

As the two young women watched, three more bolts hit the lot before the rain started. A torrent blocked their view of anything other than the blurred images of a neighborhood drowning in the much needed precipitation.

Marissa closed the blinds and settled back into the window seat. She couldn’t shake the images she’d seen in the flashes of light. “Kari, did you see anything when the lightning hit?”

Karen frowned. “I thought maybe I saw people. It was probably the local homeless scrambling to get out of the way. That’s got to be scary as hell when you’re just trying to find a place to sleep.”

Marissa nodded, but something inside told her that the shadows she’d seen weren’t those from some of the city’s homeless population. She tried to get back into the novel she’d been reading, but the urge to open the blinds and peek out at the darkened street grew stronger.

She jumped when something scratched at their door. “What is that?” she asked, yelping.

Karen rolled her eyes. “It’s probably one of the local strays. I’m going to let it in, and to hell with the landlord. Nothing deserves to be out on a night like this.” She got up from her computer and went over to the door. She opened it a crack.

A pair of black cats, soaked to the skin, streaked inside. Karen shut and locked the door. The cats stopped, looked around, and ran for Marissa. Marissa sighed and put her book to the side. She’d always been a magnet for the animals in the area, feral or not.

Karen grabbed a couple towels and the two women dried the cats off as best as they could. “They’re gorgeous,” Marissa said.

“These two haven’t been strays long,” Karen said. “They’re just starting to lose that ‘I’m a well fed house cat’ look.”

“I wonder what bastard abandoned them?” Marissa asked. Now that they were warm and mostly dry, they’d cuddled up against her chest and were purring.

“I think the only time I hear you use a real swear word is when an animal is in distress,” Karen said with a laugh.

“Animals and children,” Marissa said. “Adults can deal with their own lives, for the most part.” Karen continued laughing as she went back to her computer.

That night, when the women went to bed, the cats positioned themselves outside their doors. Karen tried to coax the one guarding hers in with the cat treats she kept tucked in her bedside table drawer, but it completely ignored them. Marissa just petted the one who’d chosen her and shut her door as usual. She felt cold and had a headache. She took a couple aspirin and went to bed.

The next morning Karen’s scream roused her. Marissa fell out of bed and half stumbled to the door. She opened it up and let out a shriek of her own. The two black cats were sitting where they’d been the night before, but were covered in blood. In front of them were a collection of the strangest creatures Marissa had ever seen. Even as she watched, they turned to ash and sand.

“What the hell were those?” Karen asked. She looked down at the cat at her feet, now completely clean. “And what are you?”

The cat gazed up at her calmly before leaping through the wall. The one guarding Marissa rubbed up against her leg once and followed its twin. The two women stared at each other. Karen opened her mouth. “I have no idea either,” Marissa said. “Let’s just call them guardian spirits and those weird things the demons they vanquished.”

“No one is going to believe us,” Karen said.

“I’m not telling anyone about it,” Marissa said.

Karen was quiet for a moment. “Yeah, I don’t think I will either. Freaky ass shit like this gets you labeled either as crazy or as a drug abuser. Or both.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’m going to take a shower.”

“I’ll go start breakfast.” Marissa closed her door and went to her closet, hands trembling. Demons, cat guardians, and a weird thunderstorm. Her mother had been right – the world was a strange, strange place.

All time runs out

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Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Kevin glared at Stephen. “Your watch is loud,” he snapped.

“I’m aware of that,” Stephen said, completely unfazed by the other man’s irritation. “It’s not as if I can’t hear it too.”

“So why do you wear it?” Kevin asked.

“I like it,” Stephen said. “It’s a classic.”

Kevin rolled his eyes. Everything with his former business partner had to be a “classic.” From his suits to his cars to his girlfriends. It was all he wanted in life. He studied philosophers, literature, and science. He had several doctorates in things Kevin had no interest in. He was considered well educated and an expert in many fields. Kevin thought he was a bore.

The younger man preferred the fast life. He drove sports cars, attended parties, and dated super models and movie actresses. He had two children he was paying child support on, but it was a drop in the bucket of what he held in offshore accounts. Of course, he kept enough in the States that the government didn’t get too suspicious of his lifestyle being beyond his means. The offshore accounts were if things went south so he could leave and still be comfortable.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Do you have any idea why we’re in Zack’s lawyer’s office?” Kevin asked.

“I haven’t heard from Zachary Richardson in ten years, so getting the summons from his attorney was as much of a shock to me as I’m sure it was to you,” Stephen said. “We must be patient and wait to see what we’re needed for.”

Before Kevin could reply, the door opened and a tall, thin man appeared. “Mr. Williamson, Mr. Nichols, thank you for coming. Please follow me.” Kevin and Stephen stood and were led into a large conference room. A petite blond all in black with red rimmed eyes was sitting there with a young boy. She glowered at the two men.  They took the seats they were pointed to and waited.

“I can’t see why they have to be here,” the woman said. “They have nothing to do with Zack.”

“Actually Mrs. Richardson, your husband specifically named them in his will,” the attorney said. “So I am required by law to have them present for the reading.” The woman scowled but fell silent.

“Will?” Kevin asked. “You mean Zack’s dead?”

“Yes Mr. Nichols,” the attorney said. “He passed away a week ago.” Kevin couldn’t say anything else and waited. The attorney cleared his throat. “I won’t read all of the legalese. It would be boring and waste everyone’s time. All of his wealth, worldly possessions, and all but two of his properties are yours, Mrs. Richardson. The two remaining properties now belong to Mr. Williamson and Mr. Nichols.”

“Which properties belong to them?” Mrs. Richardson asked.

“Mr. Williamson, your estate is in Greece,” the attorney said. “It is in the classic Greek style, something Mr. Richardson knew you liked.” Stephen smiled, though tears trickled down his cheeks.

“And mine?” Kevin asked.

“Yours, Mr. Nichols, is – a graveyard.”

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Kevin stared at him in shock. “What kind of bad joke is this?” he demanded. “Stephen gets a Greek villa and I get a graveyard? What’s so special about that?”

“It’s where you’re buried, Mr. Nichols,” the attorney said with a peculiar smile.

“It’s what?” Kevin burst into laughter. “Don’t you mean it’s where Zack’s buried? He’s the dead one.”

The attorney shook his head. “Look around the room again, Mr. Nichols.”

Kevin did as he was told. There, sitting across the table, wasn’t the petite blond woman with the young boy. Instead it was a fiery red head with a pair of equally as red haired twin girls. The woman was pale, as if she was in shock. The girls were sobbing into the sleeves on a pair of jackets he recognized as the ones he’d given to his two daughters the year before.

He turned to look at Stephen. His old business partner seemed weighed down by grief. His normally stoic expression was twisted in a kind of agony Kevin remembered from the day when his own best friend had died in a seventeen car pile up on the freeway.

“What’s going on?” Kevin demanded.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“You lived too fast a life, Mr. Nichols. It caught up with you. The mafia decided you were a threat and sent several of their people to try to force you to leave town. You argued with them and they opened fire. Your lady friend and your daughters were fine. You were hit multiple times. The doctors at JC Memorial worked heroically to save you, but three bullets to the chest and two to the head just isn’t something you wake up from,” the attorney said. He stood. “You have a choice, Mr. Nichols. You can remain in this room, watch the tormented faces of your loved ones for eternity. Or you can leave through that door and face whatever fate awaits you in the afterlife. It’s your decision.”

“What is my fate going to be?” Kevin asked.

The attorney shrugged. “I don’t know. No one does until they get there. Consider this a waypoint before your final journey.” He turned and left the room. Kevin looked at his sobbing daughters and his distraught girlfriend. Tearing his gaze away from then, he looked over at the nondescript gray door the attorney had pointed out. His feet shuffled as he crossed the faded carpet. His hand touched the knob.

Tick. Tick. Ti-

A goddess’ morning

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Elaheh sat at the table, pouring over the morning paper. Beside her, Theia and Reuel argued loudly over whose turn it was to cook breakfast. “Will you two stop? I’m trying to read here,” she said testily.”

“There’s nothing interesting there, Ela,” Theia said. “It’s all gossip these days, mostly about how Zeus can’t keep it in his pants and who Hera’s cursed this time.”

Reuel snickered. “There’s nothing new about that. It’s been going on since before the dawn of the current Age.”

“It’s been going on since before time began as far as I can tell,” Theia said.

“Zeus and his siblings didn’t bother involving themselves with anyone – god or mortal – until 800 B.C.E., by the mortals’ calendar,” Elaheh said. “So unless he was diddling his sisters, then he wasn’t chasing anyone.”

The younger immortals rolled their eyes. “Ela, you’re so old-fashioned,” Theia said. “You need to get with the times.”

“You could at least get one of the tablets we have,” Reuel said.

Elaheh shook her head. “I prefer my physical manifestations, thank you very much.” She reached down to pick up her coffee and gasped. “How beautiful.”

The other two gathered around her and peered into the cup. “That’s gorgeous,” Theia said breathlessly.

Elaheh picked up her spoon and stirred it gently. The clouds spread out like steam and the golden sunlight that gleamed up from the formerly dark liquid shone through. Tiny birds flew from the cup and faded from view once they passed out of reach of the light.

“A beautiful dawn on Earth,” Reuel said.

“It’s going to be a splendid day,” Elaheh said.

Nature is magical

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Eldan stared up at the apartment tower. It stretched so high into the air that the ever present smog obscured the top. “This has to stop,” he muttered.

“Yeah, and what are you going to do about it? You’re an apprentice mage with no talent.” the sneering voice behind him came from his long time rival, a journeyman mage named Cerridwyn. She was loud, brash, and took great joy in reminding him that she’d only been a part of the Guild for two years and already outranked him while he’d been there for five and was still struggling to do something to gain the notice of the Masters.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he snapped. He fingered the tiny seeds in his pouch. He’d spent the better part of the last month hunting for them. They were rare and hard to find, and he’d gotten into trouble for using his free time on “frivolous pursuits” rather than practicing his magic on more than one occasion.

Slowly he drew them out. He held them in his cupped hands and began whispering the words of the incantation he’d created just for this moment. A breeze began to blow around him, stirring up dust and debris. The scarf over his mouth and the sunglasses that wrapped around his regular glasses kept everything out of his eyes. Behind him he heard Cerridwyn cough as she got a face full of the junk from the sidewalk.

He waited as he felt the power building. When it reached its crescendo he tossed the seeds into the air, speaking the last few words of the spell out loud. The tiny specks began to glow and adhered themselves to every floor of the apartments, carrying themselves up to the smog covered layers as well. For a moment nothing happened.

“Ha, useless as ever,” Cerridwyn said, her voice rough from all the coughing.

Eldan’s heart fell. Had he truly failed?

Then he saw  it. A glimmer of green against the pale wall. Slowly more of the same living color appeared. Plants wrapped around balconies, clung to cracks in the surface of the building, and spread out. They didn’t overgrow the areas they landed in, looking like someone had purposefully planted them rather than some random creation of nature.

He glanced up towards the top. The smog was already thinner as the ones at the top did their job and sucked in the polluted air. Eldan smiled. It was working.

“Well done, Eldan,” a gravelly voice said. He looked over his shoulder to see Master Eadric Browne standing there, along with a handful of others. “We felt the magic and came to investigate. It seems you were not wasting your time after all.”

“You said when I found my passion the magic would find me,” Eldan said. He gestured to the plants. “Nature is what I love. Seeing things grow, finding ways of fixing what mankind has done to our planet, that is what I prefer doing.”

“Then that is what we will focus on for you from now on,” Eadric said, smiling. “You have earned your journeyman status, and will now begin your more in depth training with one of the Nature mages. As soon as we can coax one into the city to claim you.” There were a few chuckles at that as Eldan was led past a spluttering Cerridwyn towards the squat warehouse looking structure that housed the Mage Guild.