Archive for: July, 2011

Power by Margaret Karmazin

Jul 31 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

His gut tight, Jamie Ramjattan trudged down the steps from his family’s apartment and onto the street. His small, almost pretty face was a study in dread.  Another day, another attack.  The last two weeks, he’d had one school day without the misery and that was because he’d hitched a ride with Karen, the senior who lived upstairs.  Occasionally she looked down upon him and showed kindness.  Not often though and he was too embarrassed to tell her about Bryan and Terrell Glover.

He couldn’t guess what other kids knew about his torment. When anyone looked his way, he blushed and ducked his head. The only person he felt comfortable with was Tony, but Tony who suffered from inadequately controlled epilepsy was frequently unavailable.  Jamie’s father had returned to Ethiopia two years ago, supposedly to visit relatives. They had not heard from him since. The last thing his mother Nina, needed to worry about was Jamie’s social problems.  It was all she could do to hold their small family together. His sister was only three.

There were two main ways to walk to school and one of them took an extra ten minutes.  In addition, it crossed into Keane territory, which covered an area of four square blocks. While the Keanes and their cousins the Lynches were older and mainly concerned with running crime, occasionally their kids beat the crap out of anyone young and male who wandered by.  So while it was usually safer to go that way, there were occasional exceptions and a workover by the Keanes and Lynches was more likely to put a person in hospital than one by the Glover twins.

“Are you asleep?” asked Kisha Hannis sarcastically as she bobbed past with her friend Marlene.

Marlene was new to the school, having moved from Delaware a couple of weeks earlier.  She was hot. Not just regular hot, but over the edge. Her caramel skin and salmon cheeks glowed and her large, uptilted eyes knocked his breath out. So far, she was quiet and stayed in the background, but Jamie knew that with looks like that, give it time, she’d be unable to talk down the street unhounded. Occasionally, he let himself enjoy fantasies in which he protected her from this. Which was hilarious considering how he himself was far from safe on the street.

Kisha was another matter.  Not bad looking, but all the time nasty. As if she had wasps in her underwear.

“Yeah,” he said back, “I’m sleeping standing up.”  He wished the girls would ask him to walk with them, a pipe dream if there ever was one.

“Sounds like something you’d do,” shot back Kisha.

He said nothing, but did catch Marlene sneaking him a shy, appraising glance. Forget it, he said to himself.

He thought about walking close behind them, but decided that Bryan and Terrell would get even more pleasure out of kicking his ass with the girls as witnesses.  Then Marlene would hold the memory forever of seeing him on the ground all twisted up, his backpack emptied all over the street and snot or blood running out of his nose.  Maybe this time he’d piss his pants to add to the effect. He waited till the girls were out of sight, though that meant he might be late to school.

At the end of the block, the Glovers stepped out of the shadows right on schedule.  Terrell twisted Jamie’s ear, yanking his head halfway to the ground, while Bryan bent his left ring finger until he yelped with pain.

“Hey, moron,” Bryan said, “see, I’m leaving your important finger untouched.”  He spoke with a north Jersey accent like Tony Soprano though they were nowhere near north Jersey.

Terrell let go of his ear and kicked him hard in the butt, which propelled him face forward onto the pavement.  To finish off, they emptied his book bag onto the street, kicking the books and notebooks as far as they could. This would explain Jamie’s almost daily habit of handing in torn and dirty homework. It was difficult to explain this to a teacher without bringing upon himself even more trouble.

The monsters spit in his direction, not bothering to hit him, then darted off down the street. He would see them again in study hall, though fortunately his assigned seat was on the other side of the auditorium.

When he stood up, he saw that his jeans were torn on one knee. The knee was bleeding and one of his teeth seemed to be loose. He knew this mother definitely did not have money to pay a dentist and would freak out over the jeans.  This whole situation was becoming unbearable.  He was in tenth grade – one more year of this to go, but possibly two since the twins might be too stupid to pass. They were a year older and  already held back once.

A woman walked past, stepped daintily over his spilled belongings and gave him a pitying look.  She seemed a kind person and for an insane moment, Jamie wanted her to hold and comfort him like a baby. I’m losing it, he thought.  Maybe they’d punched him in the head one too many times.

Jamie wished he had an older brother or some male to help him learn how to defend himself. If he had, though it might go against his nature to fight, he would at least have had some backing.

In third period, he watched Mr. Bell.  The English teacher was a confident man.  In his early forties, tall, broad shouldered and built like an Olympic swimmer, he did not seem the type to dissect Macbeth or Lord of the Flies. Yet, he did, and with enthusiasm.

“So what do you think, class?  If the lot of you were marooned on an island, would you all degenerate into savages?  Would some poor sucker become Piggy while others turn into  murderous brutes and the rest of you into sheeple?  Think, my friends, who would be Ralph and who would become Jack?  Do any of you have a secret side that could turn into the murderous Roger?”

There was silence before Susan Dern threw her hand up. Jamie studied her while experiencing his usual revulsion. Why?  She wasn’t bad looking, but there was something about her that repulsed him. Simultaneously, he felt guilty about feeling that way.  How did he know others didn’t feel the same about him?  Was that why some people picked on him?

Jamie knew that should his world suddenly turn into Lord of the Flies, he would be Piggy. He was already Piggy.  And Terrell and Bryan were Jack.  Evil, horrible Jack.

How he missed having Tony to talk to.  Apparently his epilepsy was acting up again.  No sign of him all day.

After school, he hid in the hall near the art room until most people had left the building.  The teachers were at a meeting.  Possibly, he reasoned, by the time he got back to his neighborhood, the twins would have lost interest. But one block from home, they darted from behind a parked van. To make matters worse, Jamie thought he saw Kisha and Marlene between two of the houses across the street. They’d get an eyeful now.

“Hey, Faggot!” yelled Terrell, the worst of the two.  He and Bryan were not identical, but fraternal twins. Jamie had always suspected that left to himself, Bryan would not engage in such activities.  He was the quieter twin and went along with his dominant brother.

“Leave me alone,” Jamie muttered, but Terrell had his arms twisted behind his back faster than he could blink, then tilted them up so that Jamie crunched forward in pain.

Terrell went on. “Why does garbage like you even exist?  Huh?  Huh?”  He let go of Jamie’s arms to push him forward. Jamie crashed against a garbage can, then smacked his face on the curb. It bled profusely.

Across the street he heard girl voices, then nothing.  He was mortified.  What had Marlene seen?

Bryan gave Jamie a halfhearted kick, then ran after his brother who was yelling as he galloped away. “Next time we’re gonna kill you!”

Indeed, they might, thought Jamie as he staggered to his feet. The street seemed to be reeling. He had to grab hold of a parked car to steady himself.

Since they’d taken off down the street, he decided to cut through a nearby alley, something he normally avoided since it was an excellent place for the twins to ambush him.  It looked empty now, though a dumpster stood halfway down and anything could be hiding behind that.

His footsteps echoed as he walked.  High up was a narrow rectangle of sky. His heart pounded as he neared the dumpster.  At this point though, he felt that his spirit was almost broken.  What did it matter if someone was behind it?

Something rustled as he reached it. Expecting the twins or someone like them to spring out, Jamie stopped cold. The noise continued.  Was it an animal?

“Boy?” said a raspy male voice. Jamie jumped.

“Come round here!”

As if being led to slaughter, Jamie moved around the dumpster.  At first he saw nothing.  Then a pile of filthy rags and cardboard moved, a foot appeared, an arm and finally a head. A head as dirt encrusted as the rest of the pile.

“Having a bad time, are we?” said this person. Jamie couldn’t tell how old he was.  Anywhere from forty to seventy.

“What do you mean?” Jamie said, though he knew perfectly well. But how would this…this person know anything about that?

“You know what I mean. Those boys that bother you.”  The man struggled to sit up and looked as if he was growing out of the cardboard pile, like a mushroom out of leaves.

“This been going on quite a while now, eh?  How long you think you can stand it?  After a while, you might get seriously hurt. Your head smashed into something, lights out. Know what I mean?”

Jamie nodded, at a loss for words.

“Brain damage or your teeth knocked out. Maybe a stick in your eye.”

Jamie’s expression showed the horror of that thought.

The man stood up, brushing chunks of debris from his person. Erect, he was relatively short, though he had a big head.

“You see, son, I’ve come along at just the right time. I’m going to make you an offer.”

Jamie backed up.

“I’m not a pervert, not a serial killer, nor even a sociopath.  You can’t imagine what I am.  But back to the offer. You don’t deserve to have to endure this crap. So, I’m going to give you a choice. Whichever one you take, you’ll keep for three days.  After that, you’ll return to your regular self.”

Jamie sighed. Obviously a nut case, one of the types his mother warned him about. He tried to edge past, hoping to make a run for it, but a claw shot out and seized his arm.

“You’re being offered a gift! Don’t you see, ungrateful wretch!  If I were you, I’d take it before I change my mind!”

“Yes, sir,” mumbled Jamie. The man let go, but where he had gripped the arm still burned.

“Aren’t you curious about what I’m offering?”

“Yes, sir,” said Jamie, though all he really wanted was to escape this weirdo.  There was something not right about the man’s eyes.

“Sit down.”  He gestured toward the pile, then as Jamie hesitated, said, “There aren’t any rats in it if that’s what you’re thinking. I can’t guarantee about bugs.”

Jamie sat.

“Kid, there’re two ways of going about things in this world and I’m going to give you a choice of which of those two you want to use for the next three days.”

Jamie was wondering if he was going to end up dead in that dumpster. His heart still pounded.
The man held up one long finger. “One. You can fill those little bastards with terror.  A touch of your finger anywhere on their body and whammo, they’re scared out of their little pea brains!  You’ll have them groveling at your feet. Believe me, that’ll be the last time any of ‘em come near you, unless it’s to beg for their lives or lick your shoes.  Get it?”

“Yeah,” said Jamie tentatively, interested in spite of himself. Though he was wondering why, if the guy had power like that to give away, what was he doing sleeping behind a dumpster in an alley?

“You like that idea, huh?” said the man.  “Just thinking about it gives you a hard-on.”  He laughed, showing perfect white teeth that didn’t match the rest of him.

“Got your little fantasies going?  Not only would the boys all respect you, but the girls might be hanging around too, right?  Or so you think?”

Jamie didn’t say anything.  He had been fantasizing a little.

“Well, you chew on that while I take a little swig.”  The man fished out a paper bag from somewhere and chugged from the bottle inside, his Adam’s apple bouncing.

“Okay,” he said. “Now for the other option. Ready?”

Jamie nodded.

“Instead of that touch of your finger instilling fear, it inspires love.”

“What?” said Jamie. He was scared now.  Was the guy going to try something perverted?  He’d run like hell.

But the man did not move. “I see love scares you,” he said.  “Let me explain this. You touch the person and this person is filled with love for you.”

Jamie tried to subtly edge sideways.

The man laughed. “I’m not referring to sex, boy, perverted or normal.  Nor am I speaking of romantic blither. Romance is not love, it’s pheromones, hormones, a chemical reaction that perpetuates the species. Love, my friend, is another matter. Your mother loves you, possibly even your father. A person may love his spouse, his dog, his pet snake; some people are capable of loving all beings – those types who live in the jungle doctoring the sick, others who’ll risk their lives for the whales. Someone tending her garden, an artist working her craft. That is all love. What love does is soften creatures up. Think about it. You don’t want to hurt someone or something that you love.”

Jamie was quiet, his gaze gone hazy.

“So which is it, son?  Which power do you want?  Either way, things’ll change.”

What was happening here? Was this lunatic making a joke?  But what if it wasn’t a joke, although how could it not be?

His mother had read him fairy stories when he was little and what was happening now sounded just like one. If it was, though how could that be, the right thing was to choose the “love” power. But he let himself imagine the other.

What a rush it would be to have the Puke Brothers grab him, then go rigid with terror!  Imagine them backing off, eyes bugging out of their pointy heads, tripping and falling as they tried to escape. That’d be worth a million bucks. No, a billion. And probably once would be enough; he wouldn’t even need the three days of power.  Maybe then, even if no one liked him except for Tony, at least people would respect him. A few of the kids would want to hang out with him, like being around the mob boss.

But he caught himself and laughed.  Like he was actually falling for this crap.  So, just to humor the guy and get the whole thing over with, he said, “I’ll take the love thing.”

The man smiled, shot out his finger and lightly touched Jamie’s sleeve. “You got it, kid,” he said. Then, without another word, he sank back down into his dirty pile and appeared to fall asleep.

Jamie mumbled a soft “thanks” and ran like hell.

Outside the alley, the street was sunny.  March had come in like a lamb. All Jamie wanted, after that weird encounter, was to get home, chow down on some leftovers and veg out in front of the TV. There was no one on the street as he let himself in.  A minor reprieve from the sadistic gods who apparently ran the world.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Nina when she got home.

His little sister crawled onto his lap. When Jamie pushed her down, not relishing her usual kicking and squirming, something bizarre happened. The little girl stopped still and stared into his eyes. The longer she looked, the more her expression changed to one of adoration.

Nina, busy and tired, had disappeared into the kitchen.

When Jamie stood up to help his mother set the table, his sister followed as if mesmerized. Jamie pretended not to realize what had happened. It seemed as frightening as it was pleasing.  If he admitted it to himself, then he’d have to admit much more.

Next morning, he opened his eyes with a great mix of emotion.  His sleep had been fitful and his stomach now too full of butterflies to digest the cereal his mother had poured.                                    The Glovers were waiting for him at one of their usual spots, behind a van belonging to a plumber. “Lookie what we have here!” Terrell yelled to his brother.  “A Neanderthal escaped from the museum!”

He grabbed Jamie by the back of his collar, yanking it so hard it almost strangled him. Bryan ripped Jamie’s backpack off and flung it onto the street where it slid under an SUV.

It took all of Jamie’s concentration to bring up his hand and take hold of Terrell’s arm.  When he did, the arm abruptly let go. For a moment, nothing happened, then he heard Bryan’s quizzical voice. “Ter?  What’s the matter?”

Jamie swung around. Terrell was standing still, staring at Jamie with an almost pained expression.

“Ter?” repeated Bryan.  He poked his brother in the shoulder. “You okay?”

“Jamie,” said Terrell in a tone of voice Jamie had never heard before, all soft and dreamy.  “Hey bro, you wanna sit with us at lunch?”

“What the-”  Bryan grabbed his brother and tried to yank him away. “Did you hit your head?”  He seemed to have forgotten all about torturing Jamie.

Jamie’s finger shot out and touched Bryan on the back. The boy jerked around, his mouth hanging open.  “Hey, yeah, Jamie,” he said. “You wanna sit with us?”

Time seemed to stop while Jamie considered this offer.  Should he pretend that all the horrible stuff had never happened?  Should he overlook the fact that these miserable bastards might be treating other kids the same way they did him?  Part of him wanted to see them dead, their heads smashed like pumpkins on the street. But another detached and curious part enjoyed the amazing paradox of turning bullies into followers.

A smile slowly spread over his face. “Why not?” he said, imagining the looks on everyone’s face when he plunked his tray down next to these two idiots. If Tony was at school, he would be speechless.

Yet, he had doubts. What had just happened had to be a daydream.  Maybe Terrell had suffered a stroke or something – his family would find out later and by tomorrow he’d be in the hospital or maybe even dead.  Jamie’s uncle had a stroke and he’d gotten all funny too. Even if this power thing was real, would it just wear off and the Glovers would be beating the crap out of him three days from now?  Did that weird guy mean its effects would last three days or the power itself?  Jamie couldn’t remember.

But Terrell and a very quiet Bryan were waiting for him in the cafeteria and Terrell even apologized for the nasty treatment, over and over. Tony wondered aloud what had happened, but good-naturedly accepted the change.

Not only that, but anyone Jamie touched, on purpose or by accident, was now so nice that he wondered if maybe he was the one who’d had a stroke.

Mr. Landrini, the biology teacher who usually was smirky whenever he called on him, as if whatever Jamie was planning to say was the epitome of idiocy, was now pleasant and even chatty.  Mrs. Dudash, the home skills teacher, usually acted as if Jamie was invisible, but now had him licking icing pans and taking home leftover treats for “when he got hungry later.”  And Marly Sinclair, the social queen of the school and a senior, had, after bumping into Jamie in the hall, taken him under her wing and was encouraging him to run for junior class president.  She had even hinted at his possibly dating her younger sister in ninth grade.

This last thing was tempting, but the only girl who interested him was Kisha’s friend, Marlene.  Marlene whom he usually only saw once a day after fifth period when they passed in the hall.  Occasionally, she said hello, but more often didn’t notice him.

He was in the third day of the power with only the rest of the afternoon and evening left, when it occurred to him that his only chance to win the affection of Marlene was coming up after fifth period. Once the bell rang, he’d have two minutes to decide and if he opted for yes, then he’d need to touch her somehow as they passed each other.

Social Studies crawled on as slooowww as molasses, as his grandma used to say.  Parts of him started to itch, his loose tooth twinged, he thought a bug was crawling in his hair. The teacher droned on and on about passing bills in Congress, a subject as boring as counting blades of grass. Would he touch Marlene or not?  If he did, and if the effects lasted beyond that day, he would have himself the girlfriend he wanted, or at least a good friend, and if she turned out to be only that, he could still watch her big, sexy eyes any time he felt like it, enjoy looking at her smooth skin and thick brown hair any time he wanted.  She would be his, one way or the other.

But something nagged at him from another part of his mind.  It wouldn’t be kosher to use magic on Marlene. The voice reminded him of their neighbor’s, Mrs. Katz, who’d once explained to him what “kosher” meant.

Why would it then be kosher to use the magic on anyone at all?  Why was Marlene special?

Jamie didn’t know the answer to that, but he did feel there was something different about Marlene.

“Okay, class, finish the chapter for homework, then answer the questions at the end. And watch the news tonight!”

The bell rang and Jamie endured a terrible stab of fear. This was it.

Tony was beside him as he squeezed out the door. “Hey, you wanna play Dragon Age after school?”

“Um, yeah, okay,” Jamie said, trying to get away from him. Normally, he’d be glad to be with Tony, but not now. He had 2 minutes to think, this was it. “Listen, I gotta go talk to someone,” he told him and rushed off.

He needed to slow down to his normal pace, not walk too fast or he might miss her somehow; he wasn’t sure which room she was coming out of.  His heart thudded and his throat closed up; he sweated like he’d been running from the Glovers. Then, there she was, heading right toward him and it was now or never.

The man in the alley flashed into his mind, his finger held up as if in warning, and he suddenly remembered a TV show he’d seen in which a husband locked his wife in the house. He felt as if heaven and earth were rising up to tell him no.  And so, he kept his hands to himself as the girl passed by, not seeing him, not knowing what had almost happened.

He suffered a moment of despair, as if since he’d passed up this chance, no female would ever come his way on her own.  But then it all lifted and he was free. He was light and strong and knew that he’d done the right thing. The point, he understood, was to trust things. The right things would come along on their own, the right girl when she should, the right friends, the right opportunities. It hit him that the man in the alley – he had come along at exactly the right moment.

After school, he met Tony for the walk home and allowed Terrell and Bryan to tag along. By midnight, just as in a fairy tale, his power would be gone. Would the twins be waiting to smack his head in the next morning?  Unlikely.

“You guys want to play Dragon Age at my house?” he asked.

Naturally, they all did.

*

Margaret Karmazin – http://margaretkarmazin.blogspot.com/ – My credits include over one hundred stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, Confrontation, Absent Willow Review, Allegory, Pennsylvania Review and Wild Violet. My stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Words of Wisdom were nominated for Pushcart awards and Piper’s Ash, Ltd. published a chapbook of my sci-fi, COSMIC WOMEN. I helped write the introduction for and have a story included in STILL GOING STRONG, stories in TEN TWISTED TALES, MOTA 9, ZERO GRAVITY and CIRCLING URANUS, and a novel, REPLACING FIONA, published by etreasurespublishing.com.

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The Lost Legacies of Seymour the Mapmaker and Miriam, His Sister by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Jul 24 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

Seymour loved to finger the icosahedron on his desk. As a child, decades before the Great Voltage Failure, he had created maps by transferring flat images to the triangular components of such polyhedrons. During that decade, too, he had placed Oceania at the top of all of his sketches; he had been determined to remake the world in a manner that seemed friendly to him. Cartography had been to Seymour what penning speculative fiction had been to his twin, Miriam; those arts had been means for those siblings to forewarning other innocents against certain bad routes away from childhood tribulations. Stressors related to his military duties had left Seymour and Miriam’s father, Albert, as fond of the bottle as he had been of the strap.

In high school, Seymour specialized in cartograms, in those thematic depictions of selected variables. The popular girls plied him with requests to sketch their social networks. The jocks coerced Seymour into making two dimensional representations of the extent of their soccer team’s wins. On rare occasions, an English teacher or a lecturer in European history also asked him to depict mundanities such as: word usage within a text, points of view within an anthology, relative population densities, or net budget expenditures. Meanwhile, Miriam began her string of vicarious affairs with gelatinous spacers and demented capybaras.

In college, Seymour majored in mathematics and took a minor in philosophy, with a focus on logic. He enjoyed Calculus in Three Dimensions, Discrete Mathematics, Algebraic Structures and Model Theory and received special permission to enroll in a graduate seminar in matroids. He earned his room and board, and part of his tuition, from commissions on fantasy maps used by his peers for role-playing games and for enactments. In his free time, Seymour continued to draw dymaxion maps.  Miriam, meanwhile, wrote entire scripts for cosplay, submitted tales about nefarious dolphins to fantasy magazines and otherwise earned a little pocket money by writing “love letters,” on behalf of clients of any gender. She majored in sociology and took a minor in psychology. She was especially interested in abnormal psych.

Both an art professor and a attractive sorority girl encouraged Seymour to work toward a BSA, a Bachelor of Science and Art, rather than strictly to pursue a mathematics degree, but Seymour kept to his personal compass. He had sold a pictorial map to the better business bureau of a midsized Midwestern city and had placed a few thematic maps with a publisher of popular secondary education texts. Before he graduated, some of his choropleth maps appeared in Social Sciences for Seventh Graders.

As for Miriam, she took a semester off to tramp around New York City with her former roommate, a woman who had been enrolled in their university’s set design portion of its theatre program. Miriam spent that year writing SEO-savvy content for a hardware website, working to rid herself of scabies, and otherwise compiling a list of the best places, within the metropolis, to order cocktails made with absinthe.

After breaking up with that attractive sorority girl, who he thought would become his attractive wife, Seymour made a last minute application to a graduate program. He proposed that he be accepted to study topology along with logic and to take courses in the Linguistics and Philosophy Department. His application was accepted. In fact, Seymour was offered a full fellowship. Miriam, for the meantime, returned to school and graduated with honors. She began to build a portfolio of short fiction and of poetry. She hoped to be accepted to a prestigious Midwestern M.F.A program. She also hoped to distance herself from her newfound love of chocolate.

Following his acclimation to his graduate school, Seymour successfully transferred to that university’s Computational Design Department. In the process, he lost his funding, but found a new darling in his study of computational geometry, of mathematical methods of nanophotonics, and of molecular modeling. During that span, Seymour paid his expenses by remotely working for a major auto manufacturer. He helped that corporation develop software for its geographic information system. That organization was so pleased with his efforts that it offered Seymour a hefty salary, significant stock options, and even membership in a frequent flyers program, if only he would, upon graduation, work for that company full-time.

Miriam was accepted into the important writing program. That same year, a small pres published her first chapbook, entitled Martians Just Might Get the Gist. She failed to complete her degree, though, for she left Iowa to travel around Europe with a Spaniard and fellow workshop resident. They remained committed for seven and one half years, after which time, he left her for a Dutch girl, who was still a minor. Miriam’s consequent cathartic writing resulted in the anthology Time Enough for Tulips, but not for Daisies. One of the stories in that collection, “Pushing up Petunias,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Upon receiving his doctorate, Seymour did not immediately accept the offered position in industry. Instead, he spent a year pursuing research in atomistic computer modeling, specifically in DNA mapping, via post doctorate funding from his university’s chemistry department. When, at last, he was ready to accept the car manufacturer’s contract, he received a proposal from the federal agency, possessed of many supercomputers, which, allegedly, researched the compounds involved in and the antidotes for chemical warfare. He applied for clearance and went to work for the government.

It was at that time that Seymour began to rummage around the Internet for special antiques. He meant to acquire a marine chronometer in order to emulate the work of Gerardus Mercator. He also intended to build a collection of Portolan charts. Later, Miriam would describe her brother as prophetic.

Recovered from her ill-fated union, Miriam reaped lots of pay from a marketing communications agency. Her boss considered her texts to be whimsical. Her colleagues regarded her as scary. It was not the gothic makeup and nail polish that garnered their attention, but the stories she had begun to write once more. In most of her tales, someone, somewhere, was sucking up some type of viscera.

Eight years later after entering the government’s payroll, Seymour, the pretty biochemist with the higher classification grade, and their two preschoolers, one of whom looked like him, and one of whom looked liked his wife, became, with the assistance of a large mortgage, homeowners in Chevy Chase, Maryland. A nanny helped them through the early years and a series of afterschool clubs in, respectively, ballet, astronomy, kickboxing, and archeology, helped them through the children’s preadolescence. When the children became teens, however, Seymour’s regression bloomed. Only Miriam understood why the raging hormones of Seymour and Marybeth’s children, in turn, spurred on the flight, taken from reality, by Seymour. Miriam was in no position to illuminate the situation, though, as she was sequestered on Crete, having received monies from an Australian eccentric who wanted to have his life immortalized in a book of historical fiction.

Regardless, sometime during his sophomore year of high school, Bobbie, Marybeth and Seymour’s younger, but smarter, child, found his father deep in ink and in turkey feather quills. Whereas today such a sight would be unremarkable, at the time, utilities such functioned. For a few minutes, as Seymour tells it, Bobbie stood transfixed. It was not so much that Bobbie was interested in nibs, in pigments or in anything, really, to do with styluses as it was the case that Bobbie wanted some cash so that he could rent the DVD of Horror among the Hedgehogs. Bobbie had promised his friends Julian and Seth that he would get Seymour to pay for the rental. Yet, Bobbie was afraid that if he interrupted his father, at what Bobbie deemed was complicated work, he wouldn’t get the money.

Eventually, though, Bobbie spied something on Seymour’s desk that made him forget his pals, his promise, and his own desire to watch vampiric rodents. Bobbie had seen Seymour’s orthophotomap of Atlantis. Rather than deny the nature of the chart spread before him, its legend prominently penned in Greek, Seymour motioned to Bobbie to come closer. He was determined to disclose to his teens the intergenerational goings on of him family. “I’m not mainland,” the mapmaker began.

“You’re an islander?” asked his skeptical scion.

“In a manner of speaking,” Seymour smiled.

Over the next four hours, broken up only by occasional breaks for carbonated, caffeinated drinks and for pretzels, Seymour introduced his boy to a portion of his cartography collection (Seymour chose to share only those maps which he had designed with the intent of fulfilling his greater purpose). To wit, Bobbie viewed floor plans of Seymour and Miriam’s childhood home, planforms of  the Spitfire Bobbie’s grandfather had piloted in the war, and a contour map of the Happy Valley neighborhood in which his father and his aunt had grown up.

Bobbie also was given access to some of Seymour’s vividly colored estate maps and nautical charts. When, at last, Bobbie squeaked out his question as to whether or not Atlantis was real, the parade of images stored on paper and in computer files abruptly stopped. In answer, Seymour looked directly into Bobbie’s eyes, frowned, weakly smiled and then said, “No more so than happy childhoods.” Shortly thereafter, Seymour escorted Bobbie out of his office. When he resurfaced in the common reality, Bobbie realized that he had gleaned neither the money for the DVD or an actual response to his question.

By bedtime, Bobbie disclosed all he had learned to his sister, Jenny. In reply, she smiled wisely at him. Their Aunt Miriam had spoken to her, during the visit preceding her relocation to Crete, about similar things. It seemed that Aunt Miriam meant to champion the next generation by churning out all manners of speculative fiction. Although Miriam had not carried her entire portfolio of work with her, not even in the form of aperture devices, she had made hard copies, for Jenny, of her poems about weight loss and about alternative universes, her essays concerning war and concerning talking armadillos, and her fiction focused on wizened rabbits and on troubled octogenarians. It’s those works which currently sit in the vault of the commonwealth. No magnetically recorded literature survived The Great Crash.

Jenny had greeted Miriam’s offerings with her theretofore unarticulated questions about Miriam’s then popular children’s series of novellas featuring headless monsters and space-faring chinchilla rats. She asked their father’s sister, as well, about the frequency with which Miriam used “good” and “bad” as broadly socially understood terms, rather than as constructs referring to relative axiological merit, and about why all of the heroes in Miriam’s similarly well-received dungeons and damsels stories were killed off before attaining their full maturity. Jenny also raised the point that Miriam’s most published poetry resonated with images of hiding places and of bullies.

Miriam had neither stalled nor fled from her niece’s questions. In addition to hard copies of her own select works, Miriam had packed, for Jenny, a rare, first edition of Gustav Fechner’s Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode and a more ordinary print of Mary Whiton Calkins’s The Good Man and The Good. Those books, too, are stored among our national treasures. During most of the remaining days of her visit she connected the dots between her own writing and the thoughts of those immortal psychologists.

Undaunted by those disclosures, during a cigarette break, Jenny asked their aunt to autograph Jenny’s copy of Miriam’s A Space Princess Wars with Tree Demons. Jenny’s best friend, Tamara, who was also their class’ homecoming queen as well as was their school’s student government president, vowed to get Jenny a date with Stan Morris if Jenny would get her a collector-worthy edition of Miriam’s book. That tome, too, sits in our national archives. When all the lights went out, permanently, Tamara suffered an early demise upon tripping over one of her small, screechy dogs.

Bobbie and Jenny conferred together about their extended family a few days after they pooled their piggy bank funds to pay for Horror among the Hedgehogs. Bobbie even let Jenny join him, Julian and Seth in screening the movie. In return, Jenny informed Bobbie about all of the cruel and unusual tricks Stan Morris and his associates were planning to play on Bobbie’s coterie after the next trigonometry quiz.

Between those formative teen years and the demise of the power grid, Jenny married and divorced young and become a bonafide member of Narcotics Anonymous. As for Bobbie, he witnessed, at a fraternity party, on the campus of his father’s alma mater, the gang rape of Tamara. Thereafter, he struggled both with his sexual identity and his banishment from all classes involving incinerary devices.

When, at last, The Great Voltage Failure, that incomprehensible destruction of all things powered by juice, including the Internet, wiped out much of contemporary culture, Bobbie had already been posted to the highlands of Chile, as a peace keeper, and Jenny had already been permanently disabled by a fairly serious auto accident, for which she was entirely culpable. Given his location on the slopes of the Andean volcanoes, and given her reliance on a respirator, the two were never able to confer, about their family again. It is said, that nonetheless, Seymour continued to make replicas both of the Kangnido world map and of the Cantino planisphere throughout the remainder of his dotage. Miriam, who finally fulfilled her contract to the rich eccentric and escaped to Rankin Inlet of Canada’s Nunavut Territory, where she practiced vegetarianism and made a living selling hashish, was reported to have lived out her days composing sonnets about aboriginal people’s reactions to belching and writing westerns about Canadian nickel and copper mines. In the Great North, though, she only produced four new books as her materials were limited to hide and to walnut ink.

*

KJ Hannah Greenberg and her hibernaculum of imaginary hedgehogs roam the verbal hinterlands. Sylvan creatures to a one, they fashion narrative from leaves, shiny bugs and marshmallow fluff. Some of the homes for their writing have included: AlienSkin Magazine, AntipodeanSF, Bards and Sages, Big Pulp, Morpheus Tales, Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and The New Absurdist. When not disciplining her imaginary friends, Hannah serves as an associate editor for Bewildering Stories.

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Sedona by Jeffery Scott Sims

Jul 17 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

Sedona, city of possible dreams

Calls out to vibrant imagination

Offering to life regeneration

The stuff of which the sensitive mind teems.

This is the land where the dusk-red rocks grow

Towers of stony crimson rising high

Framed against the backdrop of bright blue sky

Sweet nature’s ultimate artistic show.

There at the foot of the gorge of Oak Creek

Sedona resides, a jewel man-made

Where beauty marches in endless parade

Before those who come, knowingly, to seek.

Enter these gates, O dreamer, and dream well

At the focus of hope celestial.

 

Above, below, and beyond, Mind awakens like the blinding crack of the red sun at the infinite moment of dawn.  Something, every place and no place, stirs.  From very near by, and from the outer chambers of the universe, that which is, was, and will be grumbles, blinks, and frowns querulously.  As it does so, stars explode, planets crumble, forgotten galaxies reel.  It knows nothing of these happenings, nor does It care.  It is interested only in the source of the disturbance, where ever that may lie in the cosmos, which has troubled Its eternal reverie.  Tentatively, randomly, It reaches out in all directions, feeling Its way, questing, seeking.  It senses that something is out there, something calling attention to itself, which may require the forces to be set in motion.  This way and that It turns, sluggishly at first, then with greater surety, focusing all Its powers on the source, like a searchlight piercing utter darkness.  Where is it, then, this annoying gnat of consciousness, this furtive itch flaring up within creation?  It will be found, it must be found; once the inquisitive process begins, there is no stopping it.  Something is out there… and there it is, a tiny, dwindling, meaningless spark of life.  The situation may provide amusing possibilities, for there is no telling what may happen when Mind meets mind.

 

Sedona the fabulous lies ahead

It looks everything I knew it would be

O, that such gorgeousness these eyes should see

In this realm to which destiny has led.

At long last the wish gives way to the deed

For years Sedona has beckoned to me

Promising not just mere reality

But the fulfillment of my inner need.

This is the chance for which I’ve oft yearned

To inhabit a land of true meaning

Where my soul shall undergo pure cleaning

Where I’ll attain the higher state I’ve earned.

Never more life’s crass material bain

Here the cosmic energies I shall gain.

 

It closes in, but not all at once, not as the result of plan, for this is the first, final, and ultimate Mind without thought, the Purpose without determination, the Creator without goal.  It sees all, and knows nothing; It is all, and is nothing.  Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, yet It contains within Itself only chaos.  The light which can not illuminate, yet reveals all things, blazes from the farthest corners of time and space where the quasars erupt, incinerating galaxies and their myriad exotic denizens.  Untraceable waves of force sweep across the universe, passing eventually through the minute speck of material substance we know and call all there is.  Here there are stars and worlds which actually appear in our telescopes, an expanse covering billions of years and light years, a meaningless fragment of the totality.  Out of all this, one enormous, insignificant stellar cluster bends the waves unto itself, a trivial eddy within the penetrating vibrations, but it is enough.  As the power concentrates, it builds, feeds upon itself, grows into a whirlpool, swells to a raging torrent.  Inexorably the force intensifies, narrowing into a tight beam as it does so.  It probes now within this single cluster, searching for the source of the disturbance which has, unknowingly, shaken the cosmos.

 

I’m exactly the type who fits in here

One who’s intellectually daring

Yet considerate and deeply caring

Expressing myself freely without fear.

I cherish politically correct views

I’m a nonconformist like all the rest

I stand for all that is socially best

I reject opinions that might confuse.

I’ve always sensed that life offered much more

Than the daily rat race I’m escaping

Forget the fools whose ways I’ve been aping

I’ve arrived to find my personal door.

Gentle Sedona is my chosen place

Wherein the world of the spirit I’ll face.

 

Somewhere within this mass of matter, this conglomeration of cold particles and warm radiation, lies the source.  The eternal gaze knifes through all, penetrating to the depths of every object in its path.  How could it not?  To that sightless eye, the densest matter is largely a vacuum, an emptiness held together by tenuous nuclear forces.  And yet, if anything, the all-seeing Blind One sees too much, and therefore often sees nothing.  Perhaps it is good that it be so; otherwise It might be driven to intervene on all occasions, and the mad illusion of cosmic order would finally and forever disintegrate.  These rare moments come, however.  Somehow the right mind, at the right geographical point, calls down the powers.  Even now It has located the planet.  It peers closely.  There are many minds down there, but just at this instant– for no humanly understandable reason whatsoever– only one of them counts.  Even to the Eternal One, no reason is necessary.  It continues with the search.  There are only a finite number of locations on the surface which serve to channel its vision, and the goal should lie– such is the intensity of the signal– in close proximity to one of them.  It examines each, spiraling invisibly over the seas and the lands, as relentless as the wind, patiently weaving It’s web.

 

Sedona’s a seat of cosmic power

Which unlocks the mysteries of the soul

Here I shall find myself and be made whole

Atop a majestic red rock tower.

Well equipped I come to this special land

I’ve brought my crystals and my gemstone beads

Which focus energy, acting as seeds

For the spiritual blossoming I’ve planned.

I didn’t forget my paperback books

Collected in many a half-priced store

Volumes of vital esoteric lore

Purchased despite the sellers’ sneering looks.

Books written by thinkers so in the know

That they’re invited by every talk show.

 

One cusp of transmission attracts particularly strongly now.  The Supreme Mind has identified the sole spot of current interest on all of this dark, whirling orb.  The critical point lies on or near the surface.  That is good.  Connection, if it be deemed amusing, will be easy.  Such points can hang high in the skies over the planet, where living material seldom rises, and only wispy, vaporous forms routinely dwell; or they may be buried deep within the mass of insentient matter, approachable only by the fluidic, squirming denizens of the lightless inner regions.  Not so this time.  The cusp is so positioned that it can be reached by virtually any animate form, including those which possess mental ability, however barely detectable.  It knows that one such organism is on the way to this location.  It could, without difficulty, track down this being, but there is no need.  Already Mind senses, with absolute certainty, that the chosen one will come of its own accord.  Not one erg of effort is required to bring it forth.  Sometimes, the meeting develops this way.  Perhaps one may envision the false image of the Great One relaxing, sitting back comfortably while He waits.  Misleading, even childish, this is, for during this moment of quietus unbounded energies are pouring into the focal destination.

 

My dog-eared, well-thumbed volumes tell the tale

Of a vortex found on the Hill of Stars

From which truth peeps through reality’s bars

And through which the enchanted soul may sail.

The house of the Wilsons still stands up there

I gather those folk have long gone away

What became of them my sources don’t say

But the gate stands open for those who care.

Initiates yearly flock to the site

To commune with nature under the moon

Evening falls quickly, I’ll venture forth soon

The crescent moon rises this starlit night.

Loaded with all the gear I can carry

I’m ready, and in no mood to tarry.

 

The Ultimate knows, without knowing or caring, that It has impressed It’s being upon this special place before.  At some time in the limitless sweep of eternity, whether it be yesterday, at the dawn of creation, or far in the future at the end of all things, it has trodden here with the semblance of purpose.  There had been another calling– several others– the most recent concerning the first of these trivial creatures to actually establish a habitat on the site.  None had previously dared to do that.  All the others had suspected or deduced something of the power which funneled through the spot and, while drawn to it, had normally chosen to stay away.  It seems that there were four of them.  They had no interest in, nor any knowledge of, the gate.  Until the end they were unaware of its existence.  It was merely their continued, sentient presence at the location which caused them to be noticed, and which led to action being taken.  They hadn’t understood what was happening to them, nor why– not that they ever really do– but it had happened, as it must.  Since then no one had ever remained long, and relatively few ever came near.  None of these details, of course, however relevant they might be to the planetary dwellers, are of the slightest interest whatsoever to It which waits.

 

To the north the lights of Sedona burn

As I cross Oak Creek over the foot bridge

And commence the climb of the rocky ridge

Where the outline of a house I discern.

The Hill of Stars and the Wilson abode

I tread at last upon this sacred ground

I gain the summit with a hearty bound

Somewhere close by is the magical node.

The Wilson structure appears but a shell

This ruin isn’t what I expected

It’s wreckage seems in no way connected

To the heaven I seek, rather with hell.

Whatever the cause, it’s nothing to me

It’s the Stones of Power I’ve come to see.

 

The subject has arrived.  Now the Infinite Mind can see it clearly.  The Absolute Entity glances casually, observes, as if with a shrug, and knows all.  It has always known.  Organic, carbon, compounds of chemicals in semi-liquid suspension, superficial sensory apparatus; It reads the physical characteristics of the creature as if It were flipping through the pages of a book.  The thing is similar to the others that have come before.  The Mind also sees into and through the nerve impulses and electrical currents which serve, for this lowly form, as a rudimentary identity.  What It finds there is scarcely interesting, much less edifying.  It possesses an extremely low grade intelligence– nothing worthy of the term– although in that it is unremarkable for this world. The tiny sparks of crude energy which course through its mammalian brain create muddled thought patterns which very much resemble those of previous visitors to this site.  There may be some greater openness to outside influences in this case.  The possibility exists that the animal mentality encompasses a cryptic word.  Perhaps that, and that alone, is what has set the forces in motion.  Then again, perhaps not.  The Mind  doesn’t ponder the question, nor does It even decide not to ponder.  Knowing all as It does, there is neither requirement nor necessity for thought.

 

There the stones loom like sentinels on guard

The ancient trio marking the lost gate

The path to unimaginable fate

Mystic red signposts, eternal and hard.

‘Twas the Indians who erected them here

In strange ages before Atlantis dived

And the red man who from weird myths derived

The knowledge of He whom they love and fear.

The Great Old One, the Ultimate Being

The master of all, the friend of the wise

He who I’ll gaze upon with my own eyes

This night, all the beauty that’s worth seeing.

It only remains to unlock the door

To speak with the god they call Xenophor.

 

It is done.  Contact has been made.  The opening word has been spoken.  Everything is falling into place now.  The Great Old One– the Creator, the Destroyer, He who dominates and embodies the cosmos– Xenophor the Mighty has heard.  His substance uncoils, expands to fill the gate, this vortex through which the dimensions plunge.  He doesn’t pass through the door; during one instantaneous flash of space/time He becomes the door.  At that moment He has always become the door.  The fabric of the universe– of every universe– shudders as vast waves of power sweep across the patchwork of reality.  A billion light-years away, on a forgotten planet in a dead galaxy, a curious statue, standing before a shattered temple long abandoned by dark things, topples to the ground; in another mysterious quadrant, oceans boil on a green world; in still another, the lovely city of a writhing race of savants bursts into nuclear fire.  Xenophor is the cause– the Cause– yet He notices not.  The great and the small He sees, and right now He blindly sees, with full intensity, one of the smallest.  The chosen one comes, hopefully, joyously,  foolishly, it comes with mind wide open, defenseless.  Its fate, ordained since creation, is at hand.  This is an incredible, inexplicable marvel; yet Xenophor marvels not.

 

I intone the words, I call out the name

From which peace, true life, and happiness flow

With sure strides between the red stones I go

To be kissed by He whose love is His fame.

Xenophor, come to me, your acolyte

Teach me the ways You deem holy and just

Grant me the wisdom to live as I must

Bathe my poor soul in Your exalting light.

I beseech, let my pilgrimage begin

Accept my soul, Xenophor, as Your own

Hold my hand within the trio of stone

That I may enter Your plane without sin.

I come to You humbly, not defiant

Think of me as Your noblest suppliant.

 

Xenophor does not do; He perceives, and it is done.  The power concentrates, soars to infinity, and enters the designated host.  Had the mind of this pathetic thing grasped the situation, it might have understood, and the outcome could have been different.  That occurs, occasionally, and can lead to fleeting episodes of interest.  Here there is no understanding, no defense.  The invasion permeates the creature, overwhelming and illuminating every last bit of its substance.  Its corporeal form, that lump of flabby matter, is rendered into its component molecules.  The molecules break down to atoms, the atoms to subatomic particles, the particles… on and on the process continues, throughout the forever of a moment, endlessly.  The subject acts and responds, after a fashion, but that is of no concern, nor even a distraction.  Awareness, identity, linger fitfully, although in time they, too, may be erased.  Certain aspects of its being are immediately lost.  Others may be thrown to the Favored Ones, who crouch hungrily beyond the rim of outer darkness.  There remains the possibility that Great Xenophor may reserve certain portions to Himself, for His amusement.  Some of the more conscious fragments can be employed as trinkets or playthings.  The Ultimate One, in His own way, is a collector of toys.

 

Horrors beyond belief I now behold

Torment lies in wait between the three stones

Limitless power crushes flesh and bones

Surging from that Evil, heartless and cold.

There’s only chaos, confusion, and pain

The energies destroy as they reveal

Upon my doomed soul is graven His seal

My life, my shattered thoughts, are on the wane.

To Sedona I trekked for happiness

But learned of a universe I abhor

In seeking the source of the golden door

I’ve found the truth, in blackest bitterness.

I came to greet the King of the New Age

Instead I confront His eternal rage.

*

Jeffery Scott Sims -  I am a degreed anthropologist with a penchant for fantastic literature, living in Arizona, which forms the background for many of my tales.  My recent sales include “The Shack On Escudilla Mountain”, “The Old Camera”, “The Crags of the Schwartzenburg”, “A Curious Incident At the Office”, “The Love of Jacob Bleek”, “A Detour to Skull Valley”, “The God In the Machine”, “The Mystery of the Inner Basin Lodge”, “The House On Anderson Mesa”, and “Captain Ironfang’s Island”.

 

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Which Witch by James Hartley

Jul 10 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

My friend Peggy, who lives down the street, is a witch. Well, sort of. She’s not supposed to be a witch, she’s only nine just like me. She shouldn’t be a witch until she’s older, maybe twelve or thirteen, I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with what the kids in school call “getting her development.” Peggy’s mother Mrs. Haledon is a witch, and Peggy’s older sister Susan who’s sixteen is a witch, and I don’t think they even realized that Peggy could do witch stuff. If they had known they might have been more careful to keep their tools and books and like that locked away. They didn’t, and Peggy kept borrowing them.

She borrowed the tools, she used them, but she really, really didn’t know what she was doing. She got away with a lot of stuff because it was small spells, magic that wasn’t very noticeable. She would duplicate nickels and dimes until we had enough money to buy from the ice cream truck. By the end of the day the magic coins would have disappeared, but the driver would have no idea why he was short. Same thing when we’d go over to the Mini-Mart. A couple of times she did stuff that was more obvious, but she was lucky and got away with it. Even when it was totally gross, like Mrs. Perkins’ dead cat.

Mrs. Perkins is an old lady who lives across the street from me, and she has a bunch of cats. She was getting a little, well, forgetful. I don’t think she really knew how many she had, or which were really hers and which were strays that showed up for food. But one day she found a dead cat under the chair on her screen porch. She did like she always does for a problem, she called my mother for help, and Mom sent Dad over. I tagged along, and so did Peggy who was over at my house at the time.

Well, that cat looked like it had been dead several days. I caught a whiff of it and it really stank, I almost upchucked it was so bad. Dad got a couple of shovels and scooped it up and put it in a box, then he took it around to Mrs. Perkins’ back yard and buried it while Peggy and I watched. When he finished I started to follow him home. I expected Peggy to come back over to our house, but she said to me, “Kendra, I just remembered something I gotta do, I’ll see you later,” and headed down the street toward her house. I had a funny feeling she was going to try something.

The next morning Peggy showed up carrying two boxes. One of them had dirt clinging to the sides. I was pretty sure it was the box the cat had been buried in. “Hey, Kendra, let’s go over to the woods, I got something I want to show you.” After a little hesitation I went with her.

The woods was a couple of blocks away, just over the town line. Most of the kids around spent time playing in the woods. There was a nice clearing a little way in, Peggy used it for a lot of her witch stuff. When we got there, I saw that the one box did indeed have the dead cat, while the other box had some of her “borrowed” magic tools. She quickly set up her stuff and went to work. I don’t think I was supposed to see the magic or hear the spells or whatever, but Peggy never worried about it. I kinda liked to watch her do magic. Sometimes I got a sort of tingly feeling from it, tingly but pleasant.

After about ten minutes of work, she said “viviarimatius!” and the cat stood up. It tried to meow, I think, but the noise it made was kind of funny. Peggy packed up her tools in one box and gave it to me to carry, she put the cat back in the box it had been buried in and she carried that. We went over to Mrs. Perkins’ yard and dumped the cat near the food dishes. It went over to the food, it acted like it was hungry, but it seemed to have trouble eating. We watched for a couple of minutes, then went to Peggy’s house to sneak the magic stuff back.

I told you Peggy didn’t really know what she was doing? Well, a couple days later I saw that cat and most of its fur was gone. A week later, really, really gross, the cat was falling apart. One leg was nothing but bones, all the flesh was gone. Mrs. Perkins had poor eyesight, but I’m surprised nobody else around the neighborhood saw it. I told Peggy, and I guess she did something, reversed the spell or whatever, because I never saw the cat again, and nobody ever found out.

Nobody ever connected the homeless guy with Peggy, either. We found a frog in the woods one day, and she said she was going to turn it into a prince, and she kissed it, but nothing happened. I never thought that was for real, just a fairy tale, but maybe for a witch it’s different. Peggy was disappointed, but then she put the frog in a box and went and got a wand and some other stuff. After some hocus-pocus she kissed the frog again, and darned if it didn’t turn into a man!

Of course in all the fairy tales you get a handsome prince in a fancy suit. That’s not what really happened. Look, the frog wasn’t wearing clothes, and so the guy wasn’t either. He also still looked a lot like a frog, and had about the brains of one, too. When Peggy found herself kissing an ugly guy with no clothes, she screamed and he got scared and ran off. The cops caught him running around with no clothes on, but they just figured he was another feeble-minded homeless dude, so there was no fuss at all.

There were a few other foulups like this, but finally Peggy pulled one that couldn’t be ignored. We had a guy in school named Franky, and he was a real horse’s butt. He was in our grade at school, but he was at least three years older than the rest of us. He’d been left back several times. He was a real bully, always picking on the other kids, taking someone’s lunch money, beating kids up after school just for the fun of it. Franky was a nickname, his real name was Francis, but heaven help anyone who’d use it–it was too much like the girl’s name Frances and he hated it.

Most bullies, male bullies anyway, concentrated on torturing boys, but Franky wasn’t so fussy, he worked over some of us girls too. I was lucky, I never got more than an arm punch or two. Franky got away with it until he made the terrible mistake of taking Peggy’s lunch money … three days in a row! I was watching the third day, and as he was walking away I saw her make some kind of witchy gesture. A dirty handkerchief came snaking out of his pocket, and she grabbed it and stuffed it in her pack.

“What was that, Peggy?” I asked after he was out of earshot.

“I needed something personal, preferably with some body fluids on it. Snot’ll do as well as anything. I’m gonna get even with that jerk.” She paused, then added, “Tomorrow’s Saturday, Kendra. Meet me at the clearing around ten tomorrow morning, we’ll do it then.”

When I got there she had everything set up — five candles in a pentagram, the handkerchief on top of a miniature altar in the middle, and chalk pentagrams on two flat rocks. She stood in one and motioned me to stand in the other. “What’s this for?” I asked.

“Protection, Kendra. This is the most powerful spell I’ve ever done, it involves summoning a demon, we need to be inside those pentagrams.” Well, I knew how flaky her magic could be, and I was tempted to get the heck out of there, but I really wanted to see this so I climbed on the rock and stood in the pentagram.

She lit the candles and started the spell. She was chanting, I couldn’t really make out the words. She was waving a wand, occasionally she would throw a pinch of some powder into the flame of the nearest candle. Finally she yelled “Ashmedai!” and something appeared inside the ring of candles. The tingly feeling I usually got from Peggy’s magic was really really strong at this point, stronger than I had ever felt it before. The something in the ring of candles was kind of blurry, I couldn’t see it very clearly. I shivered a little. I didn’t think I really wanted to see it any more clearly, in fact I didn’t think I really wanted to see it at all!

The demon–I suppose it was a demon, what else could it have been?–mumbled something, and Peggy replied, “transmogrificatius!” The demon mumbled again, and Peggy said, “francis! frances! minimalixus!” Usually both forms of the name sound alike, but she said it, like, Franz-ih-s the first time, and Franz-eh-s the second time, so you could hear a difference. The demon mumbled one more time, and Peggy said “So mote it be!

It was a clear sunny day, but all of a sudden the sky was dark with clouds, and I saw a flash of lightning over near our houses. A few seconds later there was a deafening thunderclap. Then the sky cleared, and the demon vanished in a burst of air that blew out the candles.

I looked over at Peggy. She smiled and said, “That will take care of Franky! OK, you can step out of the pentagram now.” She stepped down and started to gather up her stuff. I found out later that she had actually changed Franky from Francis, a boy, to Frances, a girl, and she also shrunk Franky so that even though he, er, she was three years older, she was about the size of the rest of the girls in our class, about the size of a typical nine year old girl.

It had apparently not occurred to Peggy that this bit of magic was far more obvious, far harder to miss, than things like the dead cat or the frog prince. The lightning and thunder were kind of obvious, too.

As Peggy was packing her stuff into a box, there was a shimmer in the air behind her where I could see it but she couldn’t. Suddenly Peggy’s mother Mrs. Haledon and her sister Susan were standing there. “Peggy,” said Mrs. Haledon, “what have you done? And how did you do it? You’re not supposed to be old enough to do things like this.”

Peggy spun around in surprise. “Oh, Mom, I just took care of our class bully. How did I do it, I don’t know, I guess I just got my witch powers a little earlier. I’ve been doing stuff for a while. I, well, I, er, kind of borrowed some of your tools … and Susan’s.”

About then I noticed that Susan was pointing at me and saying, “Shouldn’t I do something about the witness?” The mother nodded, and Susan made some sort of gesture at me. I felt numb all over and collapsed to the ground. Susan said, “There, at least she won’t be able to tell anyone about this.” She must have thought I was unconscious, but I could still see and hear everything.

Mrs. Haledon said, “Peggy, tell me exactly what you did, what demon you invoked, what spells you used, everything. Right now!”

Peggy went through all she had done, all the details. Finally when she had finished her mother said, “Oh darn! Ashmedai is irreversible, there’s no way to change this Franky back. About the best we can do …” She turned to Susan and said, “See if you can come up with some sort of memory erasure spell, make all the locals forget that Franky was ever a boy. People out of range will remember, but maybe we can catch them if they come visiting. And throw in amnesia about ever seeing Peggy, or us, practicing magic, while you’re at it.” Susan nodded, then began to take things out of a bag she was carrying and set them up.

“As for you, Peggy,” Mrs. Haledon continued, “I guess we should have watched more carefully, it wasn’t really your fault you developed powers early. But I am going to have to bind your powers for a few years until you reach a responsible age.” Peggy began to cry. “It won’t hurt, darling, you just won’t be able to do magic for a few years, until you’re twelve or thirteen.” She spoke a spell and gestured at Peggy, who was briefly surrounded by a green glow which quickly faded.

By this time Susan had finished her amnesia spell, but for some reason I could remember everything that had happened, both today and all the other times I had watched Peggy. Susan gestured at me and the numbness vanished. I sat up. Peggy’s mother came over to me and said, “Are you OK, Kendra? Peggy said you two were walking here when you got dizzy and fell down, so she came and got us. But when we got here you seemed to be waking up.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I did feel a little dizzy, but I’m OK now. I guess maybe I should go on home and lie down and rest a little, though, just in case.” I very carefully did not say anything about Franky, or Ashmedai, or how Mrs. Haledon and Susan popped up magically. I didn’t want her to try a stronger amnesia spell, one that might work.

Later I caught Peggy trying–unsuccessfully–to do magic, and I told her that I remembered, that Susan’s amnesia spell hadn’t worked on me.

My mother has a book about our family–I’m not supposed to read it, but I did. There were several female ancestors who were tried–in and around Salem–for some unspecified offense, and executed. I guess I have some witch blood, and had latent powers. Latent powers that were stirred up by Peggy’s magic, all that tingling I felt. And that were fully awakened by the incredibly strong magic emanations from Ashmedai.

I’m gonna wait a week or two until things settle down, then I’ll tell Peggy. Using my powers we should be able to go back to “borrowing” stuff, and I’ll bet I can track down the binding spell Mrs. Haledon used on Peggy. Track down and reverse the binding spell so Peggy gets her powers back.

Then just think of all the fun stuff Peggy and I can do together.

*

James Hartley is a former computer programmer. Originally from northern New Jersey, he now lives in sunny central Florida. He has published two fantasy novels, “The Ghost of Grover’s Ridge” and “Magic Is Faster Than Light” and has two more, “Teen Angel” and “Cop With a Wand,” due out soon. He has had stories published in the “Desolate Places”, “Strange Mysteries 1,2,&3″, “Book of Exodi,” “Christmas in Outer Space,” and “Free Range Fairy Tales” anthologies, and in various e-zines and print magazines. He is currently working on a new novel, “Princess on a Quest.” He is a member of IWOFA and the Dark Fiction Guild. His website is http://teenangel.netfirms.com.

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Battle in the Iron Castle by Billy Wong

Jul 03 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

Liu Xiaoming paced back and forth, deliberately heavy footfalls shaking the cabin floor.  The stocky youth kept his range of movement short, to remain seen by the larger warrior seated before him.  “Why are you so reluctant to help me?” he demanded in a frustrated tone.  “You of all people should know how painful it is to lose a loved one.  Please help me save my fiancee!”

Not looking up, Shanfu sighed.  “I wish I could help you, I really do.  But I’m dead to the world, remember?  And I need to stay that way, lest my own family be put in harm’s way again.”

“You needn’t necessarily expose your identity to help me, do you?  Even without using your powers, the aid of your sword and martial arts would be greatly appreciated.”Shanfu frowned.

“Do you really think I can just decide not to use my powers, and easily hold to that in battle?  It could come down to using them or dying, as before.  Besides, even without revealing them, I might still be recognized.”

“We could just kill anyone who knew you, couldn’t we?”

“The world doesn’t always let you do what you intend to.  I’ve already lost my wife for the sake of helping you.  Must I risk the lives of my son and little sister, too?”

Xiaoming stopped walking.  “They’re not in immediate danger, Shanfu!” he said desperately.  “My Ling is!”

Shanfu remembered back to the battle with the evil Po Tianba, who had sought to kill Xiaoming for romancing his granddaughter Ling.  “And when my Mei was in ‘immediate danger’, brother, where were you then?”

“I was getting the youngsters away,” he replied, his voice softening.  “As Mei told me to.”

Shanfu bowed a head heavy with the weight of grief.  “She was one brave woman, wasn’t she?”

Xiaoming placed a hand on his shoulder.  “I know you miss her.  I do too.  She was my best friend.”

“As if you had many to chose from, you troublemaker.  You were fairly close.  But she was my soulmate.”

“Yes… and you know how painful it is to have that taken away from you.  Now that my love’s on the line, can you really just stand by and do nothing?”

Shanfu looked into his brother’s eyes, the tears he saw there moving him against his will.  “I suppose it might be possible to hide who I am, though we’d have to be extra careful.”

Xiaoming’s face lit up with hope.  “You mean you’ll help me?”

“Against my better judgement.  But you have to promise me one thing if I do.”

“What?”

“From now on, you’ll at least try to stay out of trouble.”

Xiaoming gave him an innocent look.  “What are you saying?  I don’t even know who these Iron Castle thugs are.”

Shanfu responded with his coldest stare.  “Xiaoming…”

“Alright, alright, fine!  I’ll try to get in less trouble.”

#

“So these people just kidnapped your fiancee and left a note telling you to come to the Iron Castle?” Shanfu asked as they headed over low hills and fertile basins towards said fortress.  He hoped the wig and fake beard he wore would suffice to conceal his identity.  “Did they leave any other clues to their nature?”

“No, not that I noticed.  Well, except that they broke down the door.  I guess they must be pretty rude.”

“Didn’t you at least check how many of them came to take her?”

“How would I do that?  I wasn’t there when they came.”

Shanfu’s expression darkened to match the clouding heavens.  “By looking at their tracks, maybe?  I distinctly recall our master teaching us that together.”

“Yeah, but I forgot it already.  How am I supposed to remember something I never use?”

“Maybe you would have used it more,” he said with a grunt, “if you didn’t ask me to do it every time you needed to.  Can you think, then, if you have any enemies who might want to harm you?”

“I’m not sure.  I’ve angered some… all right, a lot of people in the past, but I don’t know who would go this far.”

They walked on, Shanfu amazed that Xiaoming too had trained under the legendary Golden Mountain Master as he continued to question him.  How had he failed to learn some more sense?  More baffling yet, his fighting skills were not bad at all.

The Iron Castle came into view, a gray colossus looming atop the highest hilltop for miles.  Numerous tiny windows dotted its upper walls, too small for a man to enter but perfect for firing arrows out of.  Lower down, Shanfu saw no windows whatsoever.  Towering metal doors barred the only visible entrance.  For all its imposing presence, however, the castle seemed oddly deserted.

Or not, as a deep male voice boomed across the hills.  “At last you have come.  Welcome to the Iron Castle.”

“Where is Ling?” Xiaoming shouted, shaking his fist.  “Give her back now!”

“Take her back, if you dare.  She is waiting inside for you.  We are all waiting for you!”

Shanfu scanned the roof and windows, but could not pinpoint the origin of the voice.  “Why did you take her?” he asked.  “What do you want with my br-friend?”

“And why would we tell you?  We are in control, and you are not!”

“I’d like to feed this bastard his guts,” Xiaoming growled beneath his breath, “and ask him who’s in control then.”

“I wouldn’t mind if you did.  But let’s concentrate on reaching him first, yes?”

“I hear your dreams,” rumbled the voice merrily, “and I approve!  It is good that you have ambitions.  But enough with threats.”  The great doors groaned open then, revealing a vast blackness within.  “Enter, and let us see if you are capable of carrying them out.”

The brothers lit torches and stepped inside.  The lobby was unfurnished and stark, though not dusty as if long unused.  “I wonder which way we should go,” Shanfu said.  “He didn’t say anything about that.”

Xiaoming took on a thoughtful air.  “Let’s try up.  Don’t the villains always want a showdown atop their strongholds?”

“That’s terrible logic.”

“But he is right!” interjected the mysterious voice from somewhere above.  “Perhaps he is proving to be the hero of this tale, and not you.  Muhahahahaha!”

Shanfu rolled his eyes, trying not to be embarrassed at being on the wrong side of a disagreement with his brother, and went on.  Soon he got a sense of eyes on his back and grew more wary.  “There’s someone following us,” he whispered.

Xiaoming nodded.  “Should we do something about it?”

“No.  Can we even do anything now?  Best not to let them know we’re aware of them until we have to.”

They had gotten halfway up the granite steps at the room’s rear when a boulder came rolling down the long stairway.  Xiaoming drew his sword, charged it with his chi, and lunged.  His strike blew the rock apart, but he yelped as his rush carried him through the cloud of purple fumes unexpectedly left in its wake.  Upon landing, he gasped, then collapsed.

“Some hero he would be,” the mysterious voice guffawed, “if he cannot even escape the first test with his life.”

Shanfu knelt at Xiaoming’s side to find his face already turning blue.  He raised him into a sitting position, then pressed palms against his back and channeled chi into him.  He shook with the effort of attempting to force the poison out, as it was fierce and had already spread throughout Xiaoming’s body.  Finally Xiaoming coughed, spitting out dark blood, and Shanfu sagged forward with fatigue.

“Are you all right?” he wheezed, then resumed panting for breath.

“I-I think so.”  Xiaoming looked back with a scowl.  “What a despicable trick that was!”

“What do you expect, for everyone to play fair?  You didn’t have to fall for it so easily, you know.”

“The boulder was coming on.  What else could I have done?”

“We probably could have outrun it down the stairs,” Shanfu muttered.  “At least I would have saved some internal energy that way.”

“Was that what you were going to do, though?”

“I was thinking about it.  So next time, think!”

The brothers reached the second floor, where the stairs did not continue up.  They wandered around for a time before entering a huge chamber at the back of which waited the next staircase.  A few steps in, a heavy gate crashed shut behind them and the surface underfoot began to slide apart.  They hopped onto the structures revealed as the floor receded into the walls, leaving an array of scattered columns over a spike-filled pit.  Standing on pillars yards apart, the brothers exchanged bewildered looks.

“How long have they been planning this?” Xiaoming asked in bug-eyed awe.

Shanfu batted aside a dart fired from the wall with his sword, then spun to deflect two more from the opposite side.  Arrows growing in his sight made him duck, then he flipped up and over a wide blade flying at the back of his ankles.  He jumped to another pillar to avoid a spear spat upward from the ground between his legs, and glimpsed Xiaoming performing a similar dance with various missiles.  Then he heard a whoosh from above, and looked to see a spiked ball hurtling at Xiaoming’s head.  He leapt high and struck it with his sword, only for it to explode.

The blast threw him back through the air, plummeting towards his doom.  Xiaoming jumped after him, grabbing him in midair and bearing him to the side of a pillar.  Bladed discs followed him down, but he swung around and to the other side of the column.

“Now you can’t say I’m totally useless anymore, can you?”

Stunned and struggling to clear his ringing head, Shanfu did not reply.  A rumbling made him look down, to regard the spikes below rising towards them.  “Get us back up right now!”

A thrust of Xiaoming’s legs sent them over floor level again, where they found the ceiling too descending to crush them.  Flailing their swords to ward off the unending storm of projectiles, they looked to the stairway now an island over the pit.  “That way!” Xiaoming said.

“Wait, it might be trapped.  Check it first.”

“How?”

“Throw your sword!”

He did, and as it crossed the foot of the stairs there was a loud hiss.  Acid showered down from the ceiling and onto the sword, which dropped melting to the ground.

“My sword!” Xiaoming cried, staring in horror.

His hands full deflecting missiles alone, Shanfu grunted as a dart pierced his arm.  “Forget it,” he said, dragging Xiaoming after him towards the stairs.  “We have to go now!”

“Might it not still be trapped?”

It might, but the spikes and ceiling were closing in and there was no time to check.  They leapt their way to the steps, more projectiles striking both in their vulnerable flight.  They ran up, not stopping until through the next door.  Behind them, they heard the trapped chamber slam closed on itself.

“What kind of treachery was that?” Xiaoming screamed, his face beet red with rage.  Losing the precious sword bestowed to him by their master obviously did not sit well with him.  “Stop playing with us, you coward!  Come out and fight!”

The mysterious voice boomed into their ears, cocky as before.  “You want a fight, do you?  Then a fight you will have, though I fear you will not enjoy it as much as you expect!”

The brothers sank down against the nearest wall, sucking great gulps of air.  “I’ll kill him,” Xiaoming spat.

“Yes, we will.”  Shanfu plucked an arrow from Xiaoming’s thigh.  “But calm down first, so we can do it with clear heads.”

They caught their breath and treated their wounds before moving to explore the third floor.  Still Shanfu felt something following them.  Eventually they came into a grand hall lined with pillars, and sensed they were about to be challenged again.  Shanfu readied his weapon, a bit worried that his brother lacked his.  Then Xiaoming said, “Give me the sword.”

“What?  It’s my sword.  Why should I give to you?”

“I saved your life,” Xiaoming reminded him.

“You saved me after I saved you.  And I’m still ahead on rescues, two to one.”

“But you did tell me to throw my sword.  You’re the one who made me lose it.”

Shanfu gave him an admonishing look.  “That throw saved both our lives.  Are you faulting me for that?”

Xiaoming hung his head.  “No… but you’re better at fighting unarmed than me.  I need a sword more than you.”

His brow furrowed in thought, then he shrugged.  “I’m better with a sword than without, too.  Let’s carry on, and we’ll see how things go from there.”

They proceeded down the long hall and two figures stepped forth to meet them.  The first was a woman, over six feet tall with curly blonde hair and massive slabs of muscle over her limbs and chest.  Behind her came a man, sharing her wide face and thick lips but with shorter brown hair.  Despite her impressive size, he dwarfed her by a full head and near twice the mass.

“I am Big Man,” said the giant, “and this is my sister Little Man.”

“Our masters send us to test you,” Little Man added.  She smirked.  “And I must say, I am curious as to what your little selves can do.”

Shanfu glanced at Xiaoming.  “I’ll take the big one.”  He rushed, stabbing two-handed at Big Man’s breast.  He struck his target full on, but the point would not penetrate.  Forcefully Big Man flexed his chest, pushing Shanfu back.  “Iron Skin?”

“What would you expect from disciples of the Iron Castle?” Little Man said as she battered Xiaoming around the room, and with a haymaker sent him stumbling to all fours.  He recovered to jump-kick her in the chest and face, but before he could even land she smashed him away with a straight punch to the stomach.  Agile though he was, he resembled a brave dog fighting a bear.

“Are you disciples of the Iron Castle?” Shanfu asked as he sidestepped a running headbutt.  “I thought it was deserted for years!”

Big Man’s skull went right through the side of a thick pillar, but he seemed unfazed as he turned swiftly back around.  “Did she say we were from here?  She only noted that we fit.”

Channeling chi into his blade, Shanfu attacked again.  Repeated thrusts and slashes landed on Big Man’s body to no visible effect, then his opponent caught his sword in a great hand and swung him overhead into a wall.  Shanfu fell, groaning, and rolled just in time to avoid a kick which put a hole in the granite.  Big Man threw a huge fist as he scrambled up, and though he blocked the impact knocking him down and numbed his arms.  His sword, he saw, vibrated like a magnet in his hands.

“This isn’t working!” he shouted to Xiaoming, currently being flung this way and that by Little Man’s hand in his hair.  “Let’s switch, and you can whittle him down with your speed while I try to overpower her!”

“I would,” Xiaoming said between collisions with pillars and floor, “but I’m kind of busy now!”

Shanfu landed a flying kick directly into Little Man’s throat, which even then only staggered her.  She did, however, release Xiaoming, who crawled away as if to meet Big Man on his hands and knees.  The latter charged, steps shaking the room like an elephant’s, and Xiaoming asked, “Can I have a sword now?”

Little Man advanced as Shanfu threw the sword to him.  He ducked a punch and blasted a left hook into her kidney which seemed to do… nothing.  The elbow she threw in response, on the other hand, had him reeling as though struck with a cudgel.      “You sure you can handle her?” Xiaoming called, his cuts glancing as off steel from Big Man’s skin.

“Of course,” he said, punching her face.  Like hitting an old tree…  “How could I not manage to overwhelm a woman?”  But the way her return blow, even blocked, threw him from his feet seemed to belie his words.

On his back he heard the whine of twisting metal, and looked to see Big Man bending his sword into a coil around his forearm.  “She is not just a woman, and I not just a man!  We are strength and suffering, triumph and tragedy.  We are the mighty!”

Shanfu drove a foot into Little Man’s crotch, then flipped up to snap her head back with a kick under the jaw.  She only smiled.

They continued to fight, gaining little advantage from the switch in opponents.  Little Man was if anything stronger than Shanfu and unbelievably durable; she would surely wear him down before the reverse could happen.  Similarly, Big Man seemed completely unaffected by Xiaoming’s blows, and while Xiaoming jumped circles around him, he reacted quickly enough to swat him down at will.  Soon the flustered brothers found themselves back to back, leaning against each other as they faced the two monsters.

“Maybe together?” Xiaoming whispered, eyeing Big Man.

“It’s worth a try.”  They rushed as one, simultaneously dropkicking Big Man’s chest.  He was knocked back a step, then rebounded with a double clothesline that might have taken off their heads.  They ducked and kicked him in the back of both knees, sending him down to one.  Little Man darted in, and got her head sandwiched between their roundhouse kicks.  They followed up with a punch apiece to the face, and she fell.

“Sister!” Big Man yelled, catching her as she collapsed.  Scooping her into his arms, he turned and dashed away.

“We beat them,” Xiaoming breathed in disbelief, sitting down heavily.

Shanfu looked after the siblings and shook his head.  “No, we didn’t.  Little Man wasn’t done.  Maybe you couldn’t see, but from where I stood she looked very alert.  She was far from out.”  He sighed.  “They probably could have beaten us, if things kept on going the way they were.  We would hardly have been able to focus on them individually forever.”

Xiaoming stared.  “Really?  Then why did they run?  Were they just testing us?  But for what?”

“I don’t know.  Notice they’ve destroyed both our swords, though.  I think they might be trying to wear us down.”

“Wear us down?  Why?  Wouldn’t it have been more logical for them to keep fighting, if they wanted to kill or capture us?”

Maybe they wanted something else, Shanfu thought.  He could not think exactly what.  But as he had still sensed another presence watching during the fight, he figured neither of them was their stalker.  “In any case, we’re alive and Ling’s still their prisoner.  We have little choice but to go on.”

Xiaoming nodded.  “Wait.  Did you find Big Man’s voice familiar?”

“Yes.  He’s the one who’s been taunting us.”

“That’s what I thought, too.  But didn’t he say they were sent by their masters?  It seems odd the servant would be the one doing the talking.”

Shanfu shrugged and started ahead.  “It is puzzling, but we won’t get any answers sitting around speculating.  Let’s go.”

They found the stairs at the end of the hall.  Their fourth floor test pitted them against an enormous blobby creature which stretched across the width of the room containing the next stair.  As its flesh flowed back together like liquid whenever disrupted, they could not seem to do any lasting damage.  The multitude of acid-dripping tendrils it flailed at them, however, threatened to melt them to nothing.

“Use your powers!” Xiaoming said.  “Otherwise we’ll never be able to kill it.”

“We don’t have to kill it,” Shanfu replied, “just get past it.  It may be blocking off the room, but look at how thinly it’s spread.  We can break through it.”

They joined hands then, and enveloped in an aura of chi powered right through the gelatinous mass.  The hole they made began instantly to seal itself, but they had already gotten clear and fled past reaching pseudopods upstairs.  Finally they made it to the roof, where they came into view of Ling tied to a flagpole at its edge.

“Ling!” Xiaoming cried, and leaped for her.  As if grabbed by the leg and pulled down, his ascent reversed and he was slammed to the floor with brutal force.  Screaming in agony, he clutched the joint of his thigh and hip.  “Ah, my leg, my leg!  I-I think it’s pulled clean out of the socket…”

The hulking form of Big Man materialized over Xiaoming, and Shanfu’s eyes narrowed.  “Of all people, you have an invisibility skill?”

“We are full of surprises, my sister and I, are we not?”

“Didn’t you say your masters sent you?  Why are you the one up here?”

“I could say that I am my own master, and my sister hers.”

“What do you want?” Xiaoming wailed, sounding close to tears.  “What in the world do you want?!”

“I want you to fight me,” Big Man said, looking at Shanfu with a grin.  “I want to see your best!”

Suddenly Xiaoming lashed out with his good leg, surprising Big Man with a kick to the gut.  “Go save Ling!  I’ll hold him off.”

Big Man stomped on his injured thigh, causing him to writhe shrieking in pain.  “Who are you going to hold off, with one leg?”

Shanfu sprinted forward, ducking past the giant’s reaching hands.  Big Man made to pursue, but Xiaoming lunged up and hugged his thick waist in a death grip.  “No,” Ling said as Shanfu reached her, “forget about me!  Save him first!”

He looked back.  “Watch out!” Xiaoming gasped, coughing blood as Big Man’s fist crashed down on the back of his neck.  “That’s not Ling!”

“What?”

“That’s not the real Li-”  Big Man’s fist pounded down again, silencing him.

Though unsure how Xiaoming could tell, and fearful he might now be dead, Shanfu decided to trust his brother’s judgement.  As he felt Ling reaching for him from behind, he slid free the long knife concealed in his sleeve and stabbed backwards.  The point should have stopped against Little Man’s Iron Skin, but perhaps that was inactive in her disguised state.  It pierced between her ribs, and blood gurgled from her mouth.

Even so, she looped an arm about Shanfu’s throat as if to strangle him.  “Hit him, brother!” she choked out, now in normal form and drooling blood onto his shoulder and neck.  “Hit him now!”

Big Man aimed a running kick at Shanfu’s head.  He twisted the blade inside Little Man’s body and wrenched out of her grasp.  Her brother’s boot wound up smashing into her skull like a battering ram, and she pitched off the roof without a sound.

“You gnat!” Big Man roared, spinning to backhand him away.  Shanfu sprawled on the ground, seconds before a kick snapped two of his ribs.  The giant lifted him by the back of his shirt, punched his stomach nearly hard enough to drive his spine out his back.  Flung him against the wall around the roof.  Barely holding onto consciousness, Shanfu considered his options.  Would he have to use his powers?  But even now, he worried over the other presence watching them.

Big Man thrust both hands out, sending forth a stream of chi.  On his knees, Shanfu threw up a shield of the same to defend himself.  As small as he needed it to be, it was densely concentrated enough to withstand the attack.  The energies canceled out, and he realized his solution.

“What?!” Big Man growled, eyes wide.  “I’m much stronger than you.  How can you resist my power?”

“You may have more energy to draw from, but the strength of each attack matters more.  If I can focus my power narrowly enough, I can match—and beat—you!”  Saying so, he shaped his chi into a needle-thin ray and fired it with a pointed finger at Big Man’s face.

Big Man leaned aside, the beam leaving a glancing cut along his cheek.  With a curious expression, he wiped blood from his face.  “You’ve defeated my Iron Skin.  Very impressive.  Sister!  It’s time for us to reunite.”

For a moment Shanfu thought he meant to die, then he gaped as Little Man climbed back onto the roof and ran to her brother’s side.  She must have hung on to the edge; even with her deep stab wound, she seemed far from dead.  The siblings linked arms, and the air trembled with their power.  A translucent wall of hazy chi barred Shanfu’s way towards them—and his brother.  Little Man looked coolly at Xiaoming.

“Your friend needs help.  Can you overcome our Double-Iron Reinforcement to save him?”

He could not, Shanfu knew, not with his own power alone.  The bolt with which he’d scratched Big Man’s face had taken all his remaining strength.  With great reluctance he closed his eyes and went deep inside himself, throwing open the conduit to a celestial power hidden within him.  When his eyes opened again they blazed white, and an outline of identically colored heavenly flame surrounded his body.  The sensation of empowerment was euphoric.  He spread his arms like mighty wings and flapped them forward, blowing a wave of staggering force at the siblings.  He would annihilate them, sweep them from existence.  Then Big Man smiled, and a figure streaked before them.

Shanfu watched the old man throw his arms wide, laughing madly.  He soon recognized Po Wudi, the brother of his old enemy.  Had all this been in the name of revenge?  No, he saw as his attack slammed into Wudi, there was more to it.  For now the man screamed, “At last, the power is mine!  I am invincible!  Peerless under heaven!  A god on earth!”

Weakening as his euphoria faded, Shanfu concluded Wudi really was sucking the otherworldly energy out of him.  He must have mastered the Vampiric Chi draining art…  Shanfu fell to his knees, his eyelids drooping.  But he noticed Wudi shaking, as though it took a great effort to control the process.  What if he was limited as to the rate of absorption he could handle?  Too weak to move, Shanfu took the only risk he could.  He gave Wudi everything he had.

His guess proved correct.  Wudi’s eyes bulged as he realized his plight, then he exploded in a blinding white flash.

Toppling to his side, Shanfu fought for breath.  Big Man and Little Man nodded at each other, then began to clap in unison.

“What are you… celebrating?” Shanfu rasped, crawling to check on Xiaoming.  Thankfully, he was still alive.  “Isn’t your master dead?”

Little Man smirked.  “Him, our master?  More like an old fool, and a pawn with whom to test you.”

“Then what was all this… about?  Are you… going to kill us now?”

“Kill you?”  Big Man laughed.  “Why would we do that?  As for whatthis was about, isn’t it obvious?  We were testing you.”

“Testing us?”

“Testing you, Liu Shanfu!”

Of course.  They knew, they had always known and had kidnapped his brother’s lover just to lure him out.  “Testing me… for what?”

“To see if you were all they said you were, of course.  You passed admirably, if you must know.”

“Is that all?”

Little Man placed hands on her hips and looked skyward.  “Of course not.  There’ll be more.  We’ll see you at the World’s Martial Tournament in six months; hopefully you’ll come on your own, and not force us to make you come.”  The siblings turned, and started away.

“Wait!” Shanfu said.  “Where is Ling?”

Big Man looked back.  “Your brother will find her at home, if he lives.  He should, as I did hold back.

“In exchange for that favor, I suggest you listen to my sister and come to our contest.  We are still looking forward to test our Double-Iron Reinforcement against your Divine Phoenix.”

They departed then, leaving Shanfu to rest beside his wounded brother.  He was furious at being manipulated as he had, and there were still very many things he did not understand.

But he would come to the tournament, and do his best to learn.

*

Billy Wong is an avid fan of heroic fantasy, with a special love for hardcore warriors of the fairer sex. His fiction has appeared in many venues including Sorcerous Signals, Big Pulp, and Robots Beyond anthology. A full list of his published works can be found here:  http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=58445

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