Cats, Curiosity and an Interrupted Stakeout

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI,VII, IIX and IX. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


“Hi! This is Boris Granger, CEO of the ‘Cats and Curiosity Group’. I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave a message after the tone and I will be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.” Beeep.

Vahri hangs up the phone. Yes, she actually, literally hangs it up. She’s standing inside a phone booth by the side of the road, surrounded by a barren sandscape and not another car as far as her eyes can see. Cats and Curiosity Group. Huh. She has never heard the name before, but it’s beginning to seem like this B.G character is a higher animal than what she had first anticipated.

She’s been on the road for several hours, almost ever since she was sure that Chino is safe and that he has gotten the help he needed from Seth Pascal. She drove past his apartment the last thing she did, putting up a magical ward around his building just to be sure. Even if the ritualists can’t scry him magically anymore, that’s still no guarantee that they won’t make a physical hit against him at any time. Neither Vahri nor Chino can afford to be careless right now, and since the djinn-boy doesn’t seem to be the careful type, Vahri will have to compensate doubly.

Because she will not be able to look after Chino personally for a couple of days. The reason for this is that she is on her way to Las Vegas in her red, stolen car. And the reason, in turn, for that is that this is where a certain man called Boris Granger keeps his quarters. Vahri has traced the phone number she found in Mikes hotel room, and knows exactly where to find him.

She leaves the secluded phone booth and steps out into the breaking dawn, yawning and stretching her arms up in the air to get the circulation going. She has been driving the entire night, and is now tired as hell. Her stopping by the road to use the old pay phone was due to equal amounts curiosity and a desperate need to find an excuse for taking a break. She didn’t expect him to pick up – did not want him to, in fact. She just needed to hear what he sounded like on his answering machine in order to get an edge on him magically when once she arrives at her destination.

Every sensory detail you have about a person makes it easier to cast magic on them from a distance. Now she knows what Boris Granger sounds like, in case she’ll be forced to make a move against him later on. The need for using a pay phone instead of her own cell should be self-explanatory – she wants to minimize the amount of information they have on her. Including, but not limited to, her phone number.

She gets back in the car just as the first rays of the sleepy sun make themselves known at the horizon to the east. Hopefully she’ll be able to get a few hours of sleep when she gets to her destination. Otherwise, the huge stash of energy drinks packed on the floor of the car’s small back seat will probably do the trick almost as well. The engine purrs to a start and she pulls back onto the empty desert road again.

***

Chino wakes up and immediately wishes that he hadn’t. His head is hurting, his stomach lurches and the entire world is spinning like mad. He’s lying on the couch, an empty Jäger bottle cramped in his right hand and another lying cramped between his neck and the armrest of the couch. He’s still only wearing the towel he wrapped himself in after the long, hot shower that still has his hair in a wet disarray.

The apartment is dark, and it is only after several minutes of lying painfully and passively awake that Chino realizes that this is because all the curtains in the apartment are drawn. The clock on his cell phone tells him that it’s well past noon and that he has been sleeping for more than five hours since Seth Pascal left.

While looking at the screen of his phone he also realizes another thing: that he has not woken by his own accord. The phone is buzzing and vibrating, and on its screen flashes his foster father’s name. Chino hastily runs through all the mental notes in his head, trying to remember if he is supposed to be doing something important today, or if there is something else he should remember when talking to his dad. He cannot think of anything in his hungover daze, and thus he answers the phone.

“Yeah”, he says and tries his best to sound like a sober person who´s already been up for ours, doing mature stuff and earning his existence.

“Caesar, it’s me”, Ernesto says, as if they were still living in an age when technology didn’t give the caller’s identity away well before the recipient chose to pick up the phone.

“I know”, Chino says and wishes like so many times before that his father would stop calling him by his silly given name. But he doesn’t really wish it, for by now obvious reasons. “How are you?”, he adds and almost-wishes that this could be a polite, rhetorical question like it used to be before. But it isn’t, and the slight pause before his father answers is enough to tell Chino that whatever reply is to come, it is going to be a lie.

“I’m fine, Caesar. I’m feeling really good today, actually.”

Chino wants to break something, to throw something at the wall and yell at Ernesto that he’s not fine, that he is just lying to protect his son and that he really shouldn’t because it is Ernesto who needs help and protection, and not Chino. But he doesn’t do any of this. “That’s… good”, he says instead, like so many times before. Because he, too, is trapped within this charade, in this make believe that everything is going to be alright. That Ernesto isn’t going to die because his family can’t afford a transplant. Because his one son is a useless good-for-nothing failure that can’t even keep his own shit together – much less be of any use to anyone else.

He could wish Ernesto’s condition away, and knowing this is almost the worst part of it. He could do that, but the consequences would probably be terrible. Ivers – in one of his rare fits of actual usefulness – explained this part to him as one of the first lessons Chino received after becoming a djinn. He had explained that there has to be balance, and that every granted wish causes misfortune for someone else.

Chino knows that if he uses his magic to save his father’s life, someone else is going to die. And this someone might turn out to be someone he cares about as well. It’s a terrible choice, and also one he doesn’t think he has the stomach to make. He is still too human to take a life. At least he wants to think so. But the situation is growing more and more desperate, and he’s not sure that this will be his standpoint the day that Ernesto is really at his deathbed. I won’t let it come to that, Chino’s thinking as a lump of panic grows within. I have to get that money.

“And how about you, Caesar? What are you up to today?” That strained cheerful tone again. Almost unbearable.

“Nothing much. I… have been working a night shift, so right now I’m just at home, eh… cooking.” Lies. So many lies.

“Oh, I hope I’m not interrupting in the middle of something then. There’s just this one thing I´ve wanted to bring up with you. About… You remember that I told you about your brother?”

How could I forget? “Yeah, I remember something about that, yes.”

“Yes, right. Of course. Well, I was thinking that maybe… Maybe you should go visit him? I know that he might seem… I mean, I know that you might not feel like it, but at least he is family and I think that it would do you good to at least know who he is.”

Chino sighs heavily. He knows what this is. This is Ernesto making preparations for his own death. He wants Chino to latch onto someone, for example an older, wiser brother, before Ernesto himself leaves him. Chino isn’t sure if this makes him angry or unbelievably sad. Either way, he feels the tears coming and is glad this conversation is not taking place in person. “Do you even know him?”, he says.

Ernesto laughs nervously. “Well, no. I only just met him once, and that was when… When I went to take you home. He was only a boy back then, maybe seven or eight, I don’t know. He should be almost thirty by now. But I googled his name, and it seems like he has a company and that things are going pretty well for him. So I thought…”

Chino doesn’t want to hear anymore. He doesn’t want to listen to his foster father, the only father he has ever known, belittling himself and his resources in comparison to this brother-person that Chino doesn’t remember ever seeing or knowing. He just can’t take it. “Okay, I’ll go see him”, he blurts out just to interrupt Ernesto in the melancholy self-bashing that he knows is to come next. “Just give me an address and I’ll go there as soon as I’ve got the time.”

Ernesto pauses and remains silent for a moment. When he speaks again, Chino can hear the genuine and relieved smile in his voice. “That’s wonderful, Caesar! I’ll text you his address. His name is Ian Salimi. Thank you, Caesar. You cannot know how much this means to me.”

But Chino has reached the limit for how much coping he’s equipped to do right now. He loves his father, but he can’t handle the current, tragic situation for more than a few minutes at a time. “Yeah. Great, dad. Hey, say hello to mum for me, okay? I must go now. The… water is boiling over.”

And this is not even a complete lie, at least not in a metaphorical sense. Before Ernesto has time to say much more, Chino hurriedly ends the call.

So he is going to go see his estranged brother. Wonderful, just what he needs right now. But first, in order to prepare himself to do so, he needs something else entirely.

He wishes so badly for there to be more Jägermeister in the freezer – actually wishes it, this time. He then stumbles to his feet to go and get it, while somewhere in the vicinity an old lady trips on her little dog and drops her wallet down a drain.

***

The day is waning, the sky turning a warmer shade of blue that bodes hours of darkness soon to come. Lights are successively going on inside the many apartment windows on the street, and soon the lamps behind these particular curtains are turned on as well.

Mike Preston remains in his car, engine and lights turned off. He’s been sitting here almost the entire day, ever since he noticed – to his great frustration – that his seals on the djinn and his apartment have been broken somehow. That he can no longer neither see nor track the target from afar. He reckons that it must have been a quite skilled ritualist indeed who has broken them, because up until now he has never had this problem before. Ever.

And it is not the wizard girl, he is sure about that. She has put up some kind of magical ward since the seals were broken, but that’s another thing entirely and he’s seen that kind of work before. It’s the fact that another ritualist has outsmarted him that is the news here. The sudden change makes him both provoked and intrigued. He will have to track this mystery adversary down later.

Right now, however, he has other prey in sight – literally. Because suddenly the door to the apartment building he’s watching opens and a person emerges, immediately to start walking down the street in the increasing twilight. Mike doesn’t have to acknowledge the worn skateboard under his arm to know that this is the djinn – he can see it on his aura even without the broken seals.

He waits for his clueless prey to get a little further down the street before turning the ignition and slowly starting to follow at a safe distance. The silencing runes drawn in charcoal across the entire dashboard of the nondescript car should certainly help his pursuit to remain unnoticed.

At first it seems like the djinn is heading down town, but then he takes a turn and starts walking uphill, toward areas where Mike would not have put him, judging by his style of dress and seeming income. He cruises behind the djinn at a distance while outside the car the buildings and parked vehicles little by little grow more expensive and well cared for. This is a fancy part of the city, and Mike cannot imagine what kind of business the djinn can possibly have here.

Yet the target suddenly stops in front of the entrance to a tall, classy building with huge reflecting windows mirroring the rest of the equally classy street. At first Mike thinks that it must be some kind of company that the djinn is visiting, but then he realizes that this building houses apartments. He quickly finds an empty parking lot and then watches closely as his mark opens the door and disappears into the stairwell.

He shuts down the engine and leans back. He is going to wait here, and when the djinn re-emerges he is going to take him out. Drag him into the car and drive him somewhere for questioning about this Walter Isher. And this time he won’t make any stupid mistakes. If the wizard girl shows up again he shall gladly take her on as well. He owes her that after her break-in into his hotel room the other night – and for the items that she has stolen from him. When he gets his hands on her, returning his gun and his computer will be the least of her worries. And Mr. Granger will certainly not protest getting two bonus wares instead of one, apart from this mysterious Walter.

And just as Mike thinks about his employer, his phone rings. The letters B.G flash across the screen. Shit. He’s not really in the mood for talking to Boris right now, and he really does not have the time for it, either. But Boris has a great gig going, and Mike would hate to endanger his own part in it. So he answers the phone while simultaneously staring intently at the entrance to the building so as not to miss out on his opportunity.

“Yeah?”, he says and tries to keep the worst of the impatience out of his voice.

“Mike, we seem to have a situation”, Boris Granger says and it’s evident from the background noise that he is in the middle of traffic.

“Is that so? And what kind of situation is that?” He’s tired of ‘situations’. Why can’t people ever get to the point without encasing it in polished bull-crap first?

“The customer’s man called. It seems like one of their own agents have picked up on something that might interfere with our services for them. He said that we should probably look into it, before it looks into us.”

Mike cannot help but let out a reflexive laugh. “Whoa, are they threatening us now, or what is that supposed to mean?”

Boris Granger sighs. “I don’t know, Mike. I honestly don’t. Look, he said that their agent is prepared to meet with us and tell us what it’s all about. Tonight. In L.A.”

Now it’s Mike’s time to sigh. “So I’m guessing us means me this time as well?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m still in Vegas, so it will have to be you.”

“Right. And when?”

“Right away. I’ll text you the location.”

“Boris, you realize, I hope, that I’m not sitting idly here? I’m this close to catching the mini djinn right now. Why don’t you send Pete instead?” But he already knows the answer.

“Because Pete is useless, Mike. He’s just an ordinary man with guns and muscles. You, on the other hand – you know things. You can do things, see things. Start driving down town now, and let Pete take care of the djinn catching. I’m sure he’s way more fit for that task than for meeting with agents of the Club.”

“Sure”, Mike mutters and pulls out from the curb. “As you wish, Mr. Granger.”

He then ends the call and quickly sends Pete the mark’s coordinates, together with the message: “Watch the building. Grab him as he exits. For fuck sake don’t screw this up now”.

Just as he has sent the text his phone beeps. It’s the location for the meeting. The street lights go on one by one in his wake as he leaves the classy street behind, thinking that he’ll kill Pete – and Boris – with his bare hands if it turns out that he has been sitting in this car all day for nothing.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-10


		
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Unexpectedly Getting Naked With a Freelance Priest

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI and VII. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


It’s late. He should be sleeping, but he isn’t. Instead he is doing his best to clean up the chaos left behind in his apartment when he was abducted by crazy cultists the other night.

How did things come to this? Chino remembers a time, not so long ago actually, when things had been simple. Or rather, compared to this mess they had certainly been. Back then he would probably have laughed right in the face of anyone who dared to suggest he was leading an easy life.

Always short on money, a deathly sick foster-father and a crashed relationship with the woman he had been so sure he would spend the rest of his life with, but who turned out to have been cheating on him and consequently broke his heart. Then recently he also found out that he has a brother. A real, biological brother who even lives in the same city, but who has never felt inclined to make himself known to Chino. So much for blood ties.

All those things had been hard to cope with, but then everything had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Much worse.

He picks up a fallen chair and tries to put it back on its legs – only to discover that one of the legs has been broken. He sighs and adds it to the pile of other broken items that is already growing by the wall.

Things had started to go downhill when he messed up at work a couple of weeks ago. He had been introduced to a new guy at the delivery service where he was working. A guy called Kamran, who was to accompany Chino on one of his delivery runs to learn the drill. But the night had ended with a package missing, and the new guy was never heard from again. Presumably it was he who had stolen the missing box, but the deficit was still cut from Chino’s own, already substandard, salary.

Thinking about what happened next, Chino has to open the window and light a cigarette in order to collect himself. He sucks his lungs full of polluted smoke and stares into the night as he remembers. Already the day after the botched delivery there had been a knock on his door. When he had opened it he had been surprised to stand eye to eye with his reclusive and slightly intimidating  next door neighbour – the old man Chino and his friends jokingly referred to as “The Hitman”, but on whose door was written the name W. Isher.

“Hello Caesar”, Mr. Isher had said.

“Ehm, hi?”, had been Chino’s perplexed response.

“I’m sorry to bother you, I know we have not spoken before”, the neighbour said and continued: “But there is a favour I need to ask of you. I know you’re the right person for the task, since I can tell you are a responsible young man. And of course I will pay you for your troubles.”

And with that Mr. Isher had produced from his pocket a bulging envelope. “This here contains two thousand dollars. I’m sure you can find some use for them.”

And Chino could, of course he could. His foster-father was suffering from kidney failure and he desperately needed the money for his surgery. That he had been robbed of his salary the night before had not helped the situation, and then and there Mr. Isher’s envelope had been almost impossible to resist. Well, at closer thought: cut the “almost”.

“What is it you need me to do?”, Chino had said.

And at that Mr. W. Isher had smiled a little too widely and said: “I need you to watch my cat for me.”

Turned out Mr. Isher was planning to go away for a couple of days, and needed someone to feed his cat Ivers and “take care of his other household chores” while he was gone. When Chino had asked what those “chores” consisted of, the neighbour had waved the question off with a vague innuendo that it was all about watering plants and sorting through his mail. A typical case of house watching, as it were.

Of course Chino had accepted the offer. What’s not to like about getting paid two thousand dollars to feed a cat for a few days, after all? When Mr. Isher had been very particular about them shaking hands on the deal, and on Chino word for word repeating the promise of the undertaking back to him as they did so, Chino had only thought of it as a final piece of evidence that the neighbour was senile or insane. Now he knows better.

The next day the irises of his eyes had turned red. Yes, an actual sharp, scarlet red. He had also discovered, to his great horror of course, that his left foot was now a right foot. Apart from this being a highly compromising factor when skateboarding, it was of course also utterly and entirely fucked up and frightening. Suffice to say, Chino had panicked.

He had gone over to the next door apartment, more in shock and irrational trance than anything else. And there he had met Ivers, the cat that would turn out not to be a cat at all. As soon as Chino had entered the apartment, the fluffy, sour looking thing had spoken to him.

“Oh, I see that Walter has fooled you as well. Wonderful. Just don’t forget to clean out my litter box. It’s bad enough I have to do it in sand, I don’t need it to be filthy as well. It’s below me.” And with that the cat had walked into the living room and curled up on top the couch backrest.
Chino had walked after it. Him. Whatever. “Wait a moment. You’re a cat, and you… speak?”

“How perceptive of you. Makes me wonder why you haven’t noticed yet how stupid that haircut makes you look. But no, and yes. I’m not a cat, but I do talk. How does that make you feel?”

And Chino had only stood there in the door to the living room and wondered if he was, in fact, finally going crazy from all the stress heaped upon him over the last few days. The cat must have seen the look on his face, because his sarcastic voice spoke up again.

“Oh, come now. Don’t cry. I guess there are a few things I should explain to you.”

And that is just what he had done.

That afternoon Chino was let in on so many messed up secrets about a reality he had grown pretty accustomed to thinking he probably knew the most about, that when dusk fell outside he was both dizzy and terrified.

The neighbour called W. Isher was no hitman at all, neither a senile pensioner. He was a djinn in hiding, who had been living in this apartment for countless years in order to melt in with the humans of the city. The cat Ivers was a djinn as well, but one who had been tricked by Walter into taking feline form and then never managed to break the spell. From his story Chino suspected that the catformation had had something to do with Ivers not respecting the rules and laws of the djinn society – even though Ivers himself passionately denied this.

Now, anyways, Mr. Isher – or Walter Isher, which was the name he went by – had gotten tired of the djinn-life and had decided to take a vacation. Where he had gone away to even Ivers didn’t know, but what he did know was that Walter had needed someone to take care of his djinnly duties while he was away. The choice had fallen upon Chino, who had subsequently been tricked into accepting the role as a substitute djinn – taking care of the “household chores”, so to speak.

Even now, as he stands in the window smoking his do-it-yourself cigarette, Chino can feel the frustration, anger and fear that had gripped him when he had realized that he had walked into some kind of perverted fairy tale trap. And the frightened confusion he is still feeling about all the new powers – powers to grant the wishes of both others and himself – that have been bestowed upon him after making the deal with Walter.

Chino can hear other people’s inner wishes now, if only he listens carefully enough. And he can choose to make those wishes come true with some kind of magic. The problem is, every time he does something equally bad happens to somebody else. “There has to be balance”, Ivers had said. A good thing cannot happen to one person without something bad happening to another.

To make matters even worse, Ivers had tricked him as well. He had fooled Chino into helping him escape his feline form and re-emerge as an insolently good-looking man with an obnoxious attitude and an aptitude for causing trouble. And this guy had been the only person Chino could possibly talk to about his new… anatomical abnormalities. It’s easy to see how this new turn of events had not helped Chino’s already strained life situation in the least.

And then – Chino doesn’t even want to think about it – the hunters had come after him. He had awoken two nights ago with a gun against his face and a stranger broken into his apartment. They had fought – hence the chaotic mess in the apartment – but in the end the invader had forced Chino out the door at gunpoint. The armed man and his friend had demanded Chino tell them where Walter is, but he doesn’t know anything about that. He suspects they would probably have killed him if Vahri – the wizard girl he had spoken to only briefly at the club that same night – had not somehow showed up and saved him at the last-minute. Turns out she’d had some kind of vision of what had happened to him, and rushed to the rescue. How convenient.

He knows that she told him to leave the apartment for a while, to only pack the most necessary things and lie low somewhere else until things have blown over. And he actually did that – for a night. He slept in a hotel the night after the abduction, all curtains drawn and a heavy chair in front of the door. But hotel rooms are expensive and Chino needs to save what money he can for his father’s surgery, so after that first night he had decided to go back home and hold the fort as far as possible. He knows the thought is probably stupid and dangerous, but he really can’t afford to live anywhere else when he can barely afford to pay his rent.

Thus he’s now cleaning his apartment in the middle of the night, trying to remove all the traces of the break in and the traumatic events that have since followed. He’s convinced Vahri will not be happy about it, but what can he do?

And just as the thought of Vahri crosses his mind, his phone rings. It’s her.

Shit. “Eh, hello?”

“Chino, listen.” She’s obviously calling from the car, judging by the sounds of engine and traffic in the background. There’s a stressed tone in her voice, but also something else. Fear?

“Vahri, there’s a thing that–”

“Not now. I’ve just found out that the ritualists are tracking you, and –”

“But didn’t we know that already?” She’s really confusing him.

“Well, yeah. But not that they’re really tracking you. Like, have put some kind of ritualistic bullshit on you so they can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors and shit. That we didn’t know.”

“Wait, what, you’re saying that they can see me in mirrors?”

She sighs impatiently. “Mirrors, silver plates, chromed bumpers, does it matter? Thing is, they probably know where you are right now and can follow everything you do. They’ve probably put some shit on your apartment as well. I’m sending someone there right now to cleanse it, and then they’ll come and do the same to you. I need to know where you are. Now.”

He swallows, realizes how big a mistake he’s actually made by coming home again. “I’m… home”, he says and closes his eyes in preparation for the scolding that’s probably to come. But it doesn´t.

Instead he hears her draw a long breath. “Okay”, she says at last. “I’ve already sent the exorcist to your place, should be there any moment now. I guess we can kill two birds with one rock. Don’t go anywhere and do exactly as the exorcist instructs you. I’ll be in touch.” And with that she hangs up the phone.

Chino just stands there, silent phone in hand, and tries his best to process what he has just been told.  “They can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors…” When the thought finally sinks in he quickly slams the window shut and backs away from it. For the first time in years he wishes that he actually had real curtains to draw. Not that it would help, probably – but it would certainly make him feel a lot better.

He is standing in the middle of his living room, irresolutely staring this way and that for somewhere to get away from all the blank surfaces lining the room. Picture frames, table tops, cupboard doors – all share one trait and that is being more or less reflective. A dozens versions of Chino’s own face stare back at him from those surfaces, and he realizes that if the ritualists are able to watch him through those, he’s literally screwed. Vahri has called an exorcist, whatever that means, but–

And then the doorbell rings.

Chino freezes and stares at the door. When the signal doesn’t come again he slowly edges closer, hoping against hope that whoever is on the other side of the door will go away if he doesn’t answer it. The little hall in front of the entrance lies in darkness, and Chino hopes that he’ll get away with looking out through the peephole without his shadow revealing that he is there. He hesitates for a second, but then the not knowing becomes unbearable. He leans closer to the door and chances it.

There’s a person standing out there, and Chino flinches. It’s no one he has ever seen before. He’s sure of that, because he knows he would not be able to forget it if he had. The stranger outside the door is dressed in an assortment of clothes in layers upon layers, with a hood pulled up and several amulets in long chains and leather bands dangling from around their neck. Their, because Chino can’t for the life of him tell if this person is a man or a woman.

Then the stranger raises their head and looks straight into Chino’s eyes, right through the obscuring lens of the peephole and all. Their eyes lock for a heartbeat and Chino suddenly feels like he’s been hit in the brain with an eternity. She was singing when they found her… He doesn’t know where the words come from, but what he does know is that this is no man or woman. It might not even be a person.

“Open the door”, the stranger says. And out of sheer shock and confusion, and completely against all logic and reason, that’s just what Chino does.

As he edges the door open, the stranger tilts their head to one side and watches him closely.

“I’ve never met a djinn before”, they say matter-of-factly and then step past him into the apartment.

“Uh, okay. Or, I mean, who are you? Did Vahri send you? And how did you know that I–”

“Your eyes”, the stranger says tonelessly while soberly taking a self-invited tour of Chino’s living room and kitchen space.

The words confuse Chino for a moment, before he realizes that he’s taken off his sunglasses. Of course, my eyes are red. Fuck. “Eh, right”, he replies while cursing his own carelessness in opening the door without the concealing glasses on – especially with murderous ritualists on his trail.

He slowly and warily follow the stranger into the living room. “But you didn’t answer my other questions”, he says, trying to get the stranger’s attention. “Who are you?”

Chino’s unknown visitor has just taken a photo frame down from the wall and has started studying its backside, but now finally looks at Chino again. The eyes are all pitch dark and make him think briefly of the untamed and unnamed spaces between and beyond stars. “I’m Seth”, the stranger says. “Seth Pascal. I was sent by Vahri, yes. And you’re Chino. Nice to meet you.” And with that, they continue taking photos and posters down from the walls, studying them and then putting them down on the floor.

“Yeah, well, I guess… But hey, what are you doing?”

Seth Pascal now seems to be finished with the wall decorations and has moved on to examining the underside of Chino´s furniture. “I’m looking for signs”, they say in a muffled voice from under the low couch table.

“Ah, right… Signs of what?”

Seth sits up straight and looks strangely at him. “No, not signs of something. Just signs. Runes. Symbols. Don’t you djinns know anything?”

Chino indignantly scratches his chin. “Other djinns might, but I don’t. And I’m actually not really a djinn, either. I’m… just a substitute.”

“Okay, whatever”, Seth says. They get to their feet and brushes off some dust from their loose pants. “Vahri tells me you need some help in getting rid of all the ritualistic surveillance enchantments cast upon your home and your person. Is that correct?”

“Oh, so you are the exorcist?”

“No, I’m a freelancing priest. I can do exorcisms, yes. Both Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Taoist. But that’s not what you’re in need of here. Not mainly, at least. I’ll perform a cleansing of your apartment, and then of you. This place will be protected from all except those who you choose to invite in, and you’ll no longer be a glowing beacon to the one who put the magick on you. If that’s what you want, of course.”

“I definitely want that”, Chino says without hesitating even for a moment.

“Good”, Seth says. “I’ll need a bowl of boiling water, three drops of your blood and the strongest alcoholic substance you have at home.”

And as Chino still stands there processing the unusual request, Seth gets to work carefully placing and lighting small, coloured and scented candles all over his apartment.

***

“So… where are you from?” Chino is standing behind Seth as the latter is sitting crouched on the floor, carefully drawing strange patterns on the floorboards with a scarlet crayon. Just a minute ago Chino had watched as the freelance priest walked around the apartment with a cup of burning incense, spreading a heavy, sweet smoke in its every nook and cranny while chanting words in a strange language.

The requested water is heating up on the stove and he has retrieved a fresh bottle of Jägermeister from the freezer. It now stands on the kitchen sink, awaiting whatever arcane practices the freelancing priest is going to put it to use in.

“New Orleans”, Seth says without looking up.

“That sounds… nice”, Chino says, quickly adding: “I’ve never been there, but I’d love to someday. I mean, as a vacation. Or something.” Shit, I really suck at making small talk, he thinks to himself.

“You shouldn’t”, Seth replies, still working on the symbols on the floor. “It wouldn’t be good for you.

Chino frowns in indignant surprise. “What, why?”

“Because I can see it wouldn’t. You’d be hurt somehow.”

“Why, is this some kind of fortune telling you’re doing here?” Chino laughs nervously, hoping Seth will laugh as well.

But Seth doesn’t laugh. “I guess you could call it that. I won’t charge extra for it, though. I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret later, that’s all.”

Chino contemplates this for a moment, not certain that asking any more questions would get him anywhere. Instead he sighs. “I don’t know if staying here would do me any more good either, though”, he says and sits down on the floor with his back against the side of the couch.

“And why is that?” Seth’s voice is absent and preoccupied.

Chino suddenly feels like that obnoxious apartment owner who just won’t leave the contracted plumber alone to do their work on his bathroom. “You know what, never mind”, he says.

“You do as you wish, but I’m actually interested in hearing your story. As I said, it’s the first time I meet a djinn… or a substitute djinn, if that makes you feel better.” Seth still doesn’t look up from their work and the voice is still as toneless as it was before.

Yet something still tells Chino that there is genuine interest and not sarcasm behind those words. And, surprising himself even, he starts talking. He tells Seth Pascal about his unfortunate deal with Walter and the discovery that he wasn’t really human anymore. About the wishes and voices he hears in his head every time he looks at a person for too long, and about the irritating cat-turned-man, Ivers, who seems to be doing his best to turn Chino’s life into a living circus. When he gets to the part where he is abducted by the ritualists he hastily skips over the parts that are hardest to tell; those that still make him nauseous even to think about.

Seth hears him without comment, and even though they fail to even try following the conversational contract of nods and micro responses, Chino somehow still feels that he is being listened to. So much so, in fact, that he finds himself telling this stranger about his foster father’s life threatening illness, his own broken heart and the thing that happened the other night when one of the boxes was stolen from his nightly delivery round.

When he is finally done telling the short version of his life’s story, Seth Pascal has stopped drawing symbols on the floor. They are looking deeply, intently at Chino with those void dark eyes.

“Thank you”, they say. There is real sincerity in the voice this time. “Thank you for telling me your thoughts and hardships. It honours me.”

Chino starts feeling a bit embarrassed in the line of those intense eyes, but before he can stammer something in reply Seth continues speaking.

“People often tell me things, but not more than what I need to know in order to help them with their plights. You have told me much more than so, and you have given me trust. I appreciate that.”

“Eh”, Chino begins, fumbling after words. “Nothing to worry about. I guess. I’m just glad you wanted to listen. Maybe I just needed to talk to someone about these things, I don’t know.”

Seth nods slowly, as if Chino had just said something really wise and profound. Had he? Chino doesn’t really know anymore. There’s something about talking to this Seth Pascal that makes him think about whispering secrets to the stars outside his window as a child. And he had done that often, he remembers now.

“I know what it’s like to be more and less than what people see”, Seth says, waking Chino from his musings. He is feeling drunk, but not in a drunken way – if that makes any sense at all. He guesses it doesn’t. Seth continues: “And I know what it’s like to see more and less than what people do. I can feel you, Caesar Lino Salinas. I really do.”

“How did you–”

“Because I can see it, just like I told you. Just like so many other things.”

Seth then rises, startling Chino out of his dreamy state. “It’s finished”, they say.

“What… what’s finished?” Chino unsteadily climbs to his feet.

“The cleansing of the apartment. I’ve drawn the counter signs and said the proper words. You’ll be safe here now, as long as you don’t invite your enemies inside.”

“So… they can’t see me anymore? Or find me?”

For the first time, Seth now shows something that resembles a normal, human reaction or emotion. Embarrassment. “Well, no. Or, there is one more thing that needs to be done first.”

“Okay… And what is that?”

Seth looks at everything except him now. “Uhm, we’ll have to get you cleansed as well.”

Chino frowns. “Alright then. And… what’s the problem with that?”

Seth sighs. “Not a problem maybe, but…”

“But?”

“You’ll have to get naked for that.”

“…really?”

“Yup.” Seth hastily walks past him and into the kitchen alcove, taking the boiling water off the stove and putting it on top of the sink next to the frosty bottle of whiskey. Chino is handed a small, simple knife. “Here, I’m going to need your blood in here”, Seth says and gestures toward the steaming kettle.

Chino doesn’t like where this is going, but has a hard time concentrating on any thought right now except for the memory of those words. You’ll have to get naked. Before he knows it, he has cut a thin line across his palm and started dropping blood into the hot water.
“That’s enough”, Seth says and takes the knife back. Before Chino’s eyes it vanishes quickly into one of the many folds in Seth’s layered clothing. In its stead Seth just as quickly produces a small bottle from a pocket and skilfully unseals it. They then proceed to slowly pour the bottle’s content into the steaming water-and-blood mix, all the while stirring the liquid with a spoon found in the dish rack.

Chino stares in fascination as the water in the kettle turns first pink, then red, then a deep, blood coloured nuance. Then it starts to thicken, and finally transforms into something that resembles a distasteful, lumpy jelly more than anything else. He really hopes he will not be forced to eat that.

“It’s done”, Seth says, picks up the kettle and starts walking towards the bathroom.

“But… wait. Why the bathroom? And what about the whiskey?”

“We’d better do it in here because it can get messy. And the whiskey is for me. Bring it.”

***

“Please raise your arm.”

This is by far the most humiliating and awkward moment in Chino’s life so far. He’s standing stark naked in his own bathroom together with a really strange stranger who is inch by inch covering his body in a transparent, reddish goo while muttering weird incantations and now and then taking a sip from the bottle of Jäger.

Chino is staring straight ahead and raises his left arm. Seth smears his armpit with the decoction. Chino almost wishes he could sink through the floor, but catches himself at the last moment. Making figurative wishes as a djinn could turn into a dangerous affair. Chino had learned this the hard way.

Seth’s chanting grows more intense, and Chino is beginning to feel the substance on his skin getting warmer. He almost panics as it starts to burn in places as the air in the room begins to vibrate with something other than the ever-present humming of the fluorescent lamp in the ceiling. And suddenly he feels them – as if whatever Seth Pascal is doing is uncloaking them and revealing them to him. Hundreds and hundreds of eyes upon him, watching, studying, knowing.

How did I not feel or see this before?

And he knows without a doubt now that Vahri and Seth were right – someone is watching him. And those eyes are everywhere now, unblinking gazes fixed upon him, mercilessly piercing his soul and integrity. Eyes upon eyes upon eyes, until Chino can’t see anything else around him. Wild panic finally grips him, and he screams.

***

When he comes to, he is lying on the bathroom floor, wrapped in a towel and hurting all over.

“I’m sorry for that”, Seth says. “I should have warned you that you might see them.”

Chino is trembling as he sits up. “What… what the hell was that?”

Seth sighs and dries their hands on another, smaller towel. “It was the eyes the ritualist had bound to you. But they’re gone now.”

Then Seth actually blushes, and looks away from him. “You might want to get a shower.”

And Chino’s relief at being rid of the ritual eyes is suddenly interrupted when he realizes that he is still naked under the towel, and that he is still covered in the red goo – even the parts of him that he’d rather keep very, very private. “Eh, yeah”, he stammers and feels himself blushing as well. “I guess I… should.”

“I’ll show myself out”, says Seth and starts leaving the room.

“Wait”, Chino says and arduously climbs to his feet. Seth pauses on the threshold and turns around. Chino’s head hurts and he realizes that he must have fainted and fallen to the floor earlier. He steadies himself against the wash basin and makes sure to hold the towel firmly around his waist. He tries his best to collect himself and gather his thoughts.

Chino clears his throat. “Well, so… Where are you going now? What are you going to do?”

Seth hesitates. “I’ll go back to New Orleans”, they say finally. “There’s a plane that leaves in an hour. I’ll probably be able to catch it.”

Chino nods, not sure of what to say next. What do you say to someone who has just smeared you all over with bloody jelly and then watched you faint on the floor?

“Thank you”, he simply says finally. “I don’t really know what you did, but I felt it working. I saw those eyes, but I think they’re gone now.”

Seth nods. “They are. And you’re welcome, Caesar Lino Salinas.”

And with that Seth Pascal leaves him standing there in the bathroom, surrounded by a sticky mess and with very strange mixed feelings inside.

Chino looks at his own red-eyed reflection in the mirror, shakes his head and takes a deep draught from the now half empty whiskey bottle left behind on the wash basin.

And then his morning alarm sounds. It’s morning.

How the fuck did his life come to this?

Chris Smedbakken 2017-11-03


You can find the next part here.

The (not so) Graceful Act of Robbing a Ritualist

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI. It is also the start of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


Magic, madness, heaven, sin…

She is sitting in her car, the stereo blaring Taylor Swift at its loudest and outside the windshield night has brought with it a heavy downpour. The rain is beating furiously against the roof of the car and though the radio is maxed up she can barely hear the music.

In her hands she holds a gun.

It’s not any gun, mind you. It’s the one she took from the ritualist called Mike on the night she rescued Chino from him and his less intelligently endowed friend Pete. The same night, incidentally, as she first found out that maybe, just maybe, the notorious Enjoyment Club is not just midwife’s tales at all – but terrible reality. And after her recent talk with Devin Murdock she’s finally beginning to understand just how terrible, and just how real.

The gun is heavy and big, and it glows like silver in the sparse light allowed through the windshield’s cascading water from the streetlamps above. She turns it over, just as she has done so many times already. The signs and symbols engraved upon its smooth surface are many and delicately executed; a true master must have etched them there. The thought doesn’t calm her in the least, as the meaning of these symbols – at least the ones she is able to decipher – do not bode well for the enemies of the gunman in question. He doesn’t have the gun anymore, sure, but it is she who has stolen it from him, and she is quite convinced that this in itself adds her to his list of prioritized enemies.

She knows that Mike, the gun’s owner, works for the Club – maybe as a hired bounty hunter. They were taking Chino to them before Vahri intervened, and she harbours no illusions that they wouldn’t throw her into the bargain as well if they ever got the chance. Therefore what she is about to do next might seem like a really stupid thing – she’s well aware of that. But right now it’s the only option she has if she’s going to stay one step ahead and hopefully alive as well.

She’s going to use the gun to find this Mike.

Oh, she’s not going to kill him, mind you. Not just because it’s really not her style – she’s just only killed one person previously and didn’t particularly enjoy it – but also because he is only the most immediate incarnation of the threat that is the Club. If he is removed, they will simply send others, she’s sure of that. He might be a dangerously skilled ritualist, but he’s not unique. She’ll definitely have more use for him as a source of information than as an unpleasantly smelling corpse and a blotch on her conscience.

She closes her eyes and concentrates, all the while tracing the gun’s intricate patterns with her fingers. The weapon carries a deep, spiritual imprint of the person called Mike. She can feel traces of his essence just by touching it. Using her inherited magical ability of scrying with the gun as a sympathetic anchor it doesn’t take her very long to locate him.

She can feel the warding rituals he has cast upon himself as another might perceive a mesh across the eyes. They don’t stop her from seeing him, but still pose a slight, annoying hindrance. She can definitely see how his wards would pose a real obstacle for a less skilled magician – but he obviously hasn’t counted on being scried by someone of her aptitude.

He’s walking back and forth in an anonymous hotel room, gesturing with his free hand as he talks to someone on the phone. She’s not able to hear him through her mind’s window, but he is clearly upset about something. Suits you well, honey, she thinks to herself as she watches him aggressively stuff an assortment of items into a bag, phone still firmly pressed against his ear.

Then he throws the heavy bag over his shoulder, opens the door and leaves the room without turning off the lights. She knows that she can follow him outside, see where he goes, but she chooses not to. Because she has seen something else. Right before Mike left the room an object fell out of his overstuffed shoulder bag and onto the distastefully carpeted floor. It is a book, and she needs to know what’s inside it before Mike returns to the room.

Vahri opens her eyes, suddenly back inside the rain drenched Ferrari with the decorated gun in her hands. She has not just been able to see Mike inside his room; she also knows exactly where to find it.

She starts the car and turns back onto the road. Hopefully she will be able to find out parts of his secrets without even having to meet him tonight.

***

The hotel is not fancy. Not in the least, actually. If this says something about the ritualist called Mike it is either that he’s the kind of guy who goes out of his way to stay incognito, or that ritualists simply do not make that much money. Either way the low standard of the place makes it easy for Vahri to slip past the reception and up the stairs. The institution does not even come with an elevator.

She reaches the fifth floor without running into a single soul on the way up. Or, well, not counting the unremarkable apparition of a previous suicide victim hovering solemnly on the third landing, that is. It stubbornly ignores Vahri as she passes by, and she willingly returns the favour.

Getting into the room turns out to be a bit more tricky, but nothing she cannot handle. Apart from the mundane hotel door lock (which she picks easily enough using a couple of just as mundane tools) the ritualist has also cast some kind of arcane mumbo jumbo upon it. It takes Vahri a while to figure it out, but finally the door swings open before her. As she rises to her feet again she can’t help but feeling a spell of vain pride come over her. This ritualist might be dangerous, but his wards at least are no match to her.

She stands at the threshold and looks into the room. It is just as anonymous as she registered while scrying it, and the carpet is just as distastefully pink. And there lies the book, just as she knew it would. A part of her knows very well that this might definitely be an elaborate trap to lure her in – that the lock might have been easy on purpose and that the ritualist’s wards against scrying and finding might have been meant to fail all along. But as necessity knows no law, and as being careful is not really her game anyways, Vahri still steps into the room, picks up the book and quickly closes the door behind her.

It turns out to be a notebook bound in leather, the covers much more nondescript than what she would have expected from a guy whose everyday handgun looks like something drawn by a bored gothic monk on speed. But opening the book to its first pages she finds something else entirely.

Page after page is packed with scrawled notes, verses and illustrations, all done by hand in black and scarlet ink. The lets her eyes wander over the lines of the first few pages, but realizes almost at once that she will have to study the book more carefully and in peace before she’ll be able to make anything useful of it. She’s not a ritualist, after all, and many of the things that this Mike might find commonplace and self-evident she will have to decipher to understand.

She puts the notebook in her bag and starts investigating the room. The clean and impersonal state of it definitely lends credibility to the idea of a person who wants to stay under the radar, able to move on at the blink of an eye without leaving any trace. He has not left the room indefinitely just yet, however. She finds a laptop on the low table in front of the 90’s television set, and a small trunk of clothes and personal items next to the worn couch.

She opens up the lid of the computer and is surprised to see the screen immediately come to life. The computer has not been turned off by its owner before he left the room, but still requires a password to be unlocked. Not daring to sit down on the couch in fear of leaving traces of her visit, Vahri crouches beside the table and opens the screen all the way up. A yellow sticky note detaches from the slick surface where it has been sitting and falls onto the floor. Vahri quickly picks it up.

Boris Granger, the note says – and then a Nevada coded phone number.

She shrugs and puts the note inside the book in her bag, eager to get to work on the computer. The login screen has the picture of a dog in the background. Not your average stock photo, but what looks like a personal photography in slightly bad resolution. The dog is sitting on a porch and seems to be waiting for the photographer to throw it something. So Mike is a dog person, huh? Wouldn’t have guessed. She searchingly tries a couple of dog related passwords, but to no avail. This, however, comes as no surprise. This guy is not stupid. It will take more than that.

Instead she summons up the arcane forces to help her. She has done similar things before, magically “hacking” into Facebook accounts of high school enemies and internet haters, but she realizes at once that the ritualist has used more than secure passwords to protect his digital content. Just like the door, the computer is surrounded by some kind of magical ward that she cannot simply dispel using her own kind of magic. The powers practiced by ritualists are something else entirely from the forces used by mages, just as the powers of a Djinn are essentially different from those of a vampire. She’s going to need time to crack this protective spell – either that, or an exorcist.

Then, suddenly, she hears keys in the door. Someone is coming, be it Mike or somebody else. Either way it would be disaster for her to be found here. She flies onto her feet, reflexively grabbing the computer as she does. The door handle is pressed down halfway, then stops. Vahri doesn’t wait around to find out why. Instead she darts toward the window while thrusting the stolen laptop into her bag, together with the just as stolen notebook.

She pulls at the window handle, but it’s stuck. Vahri panics and forgets entirely about carefulness and magical principles stealth. She reflexively calls the magic to her fingertips as she bends the window to her will and forces it to yield. Just then she hears the door behind her start to creak open, and pulls at the window once more. This time, subdued by arcane forces, it swings up easily enough. She jumps out onto the rain coated metal landing of the emergency stairs and starts running downward.

The metal stairs rattle and shake at every step and the rain makes the stairs slippery. She hits her knee on a sharp edge but continues without pause. High above her she can hear a voice calling, but does not turn around. When she reaches the ground she continues running with unabated speed, the heavy bag thumping impractically against the back of her left leg all the while.

She does not know if anyone follows her, doesn’t dare to turn around and look. She also doesn’t dare steer directly towards her car, in case anyone actually does. Instead she takes a long and laborious detour, passing through several blocks before finally doubling back and returning to the obscured alley where she parked earlier.

Once she has thrown herself into the car and locked all the doors she hurriedly uses her magic to set up an obscuring shield around it. Anyone passing by the alley now will see nothing but crates and dumpster, and definitely not a burning red Ferrari with a terrified magician inside.

Shit, shit, shit.

She’s breathing heavily and her pulse just won’t slow down. Just thinking about what could have happened if the ritualist had caught her in his hotel room makes her want to throw up. Out on the field where she had beaten them and saved Chino, Mike and his companion had been on neutral ground. She had also had the element of surprise to her advantage there. She dares not think of the assortment of traps and advantages that could have been prepared in advance on their own home ground. Images from Devin’s horrible tale flashes before her, images of people like her being tortured, raped and eaten alive by the ritualist’s taskmasters. Images of those same things happening to her. She feels sick and has to sit there in the car for several minutes before the acute felling subsides.

She then starts the car and drives far away from the hotel. She doesn’t stop until she reaches a quiet suburb where she parks behind a closed down pizza restaurant. Not until now does she open up her bag to look at the items she’s retrieved from the hotel room.

She knows that all of the objects, but especially the computer, might be traced – if not by mundane means, then with the help of the arcane. Therefore the first thing she does is to secure and isolate them using the same magic techniques as those she has previously used on the stolen gun. The forces weave themselves around the items, one by one, and effectively shields them from scrying and tracking. Vahri hopes that this will prove to be enough.

Knowing that she will probably not be able to crack the computer tonight, she then picks up the notebook. The sticky note falls out, and she sticks it to the panel of the car for the time being. She’ll have a closer look at it later.

The notebook is, as she has already concluded, full of hand written notes, verses and messages – all to do, of course, with strange and complicated rituals. Vahri recognizes some of them, knows at least a couple of them to be warding and binding rites to be used upon the undead. On vampires, for example. She herself would not be able to use these rituals – not without long and extensive training, at least. Just like a fiddler will not be able to simply switch over to playing the cello – at least not Vahri, and she actually tried once – a magician, however talented, cannot just switch over to conducting the rituals of mortals. It just doesn’t work like that. Thus she is beginning to think that she won’t have much use for this notebook after all.

Well, I guess I could sell it back to him and earn some well needed cash, she mused sarcastically.

But then, turning through the pages at random, the suddenly comes upon a name she recognizes. Walter. There is a page in the notebook seemingly entirely dedicated to notes about someone who goes by that name – or Walter Isher, to be more precise. Stuck to the page with a paperclip is a black and white photo of a middle aged man dressed in coat and hat. It must be an old photo, she thinks. And when she turns it over she actually finds the numbers “1923” written in a faded, elaborate hand.

There is also a list on this page where every row is a piece of information about this man. “Grey hair, 7ft 20 tall, sharp nose, red eyes…”  Wait a second. Red eyes? Vahri realizes suddenly that this Walter must be a djinn, just like Chino. And she remembers now exactly where she has heard the name before, as well. The ritualist was pressing Chino for information about this man right before Vahri had rescued him. It must be the same guy.

So these people are really after an even bigger and badder djinn, and Chino and I just came in the way?

She relaxes slightly, daring for a moment to hope that this shitstorm just might pass above their heads if they’re really lucky. If the bounty hunters are after someone else, maybe they’ll leave once they find him. A disloyal thought, sure, but the Club really scares the shit out of her.

Beneath the list there is a short note, written hastily with another pen. “As soon as we have anything to report on this man, or if we manage to locate him, call B.G.” Then a drawing of a symbol that Vahri knows all too well by now – the symbol of the Club. Vahri’s eyes instantly go to the sticky note on the car’s panel. B.G. Boris Granger. So Boris works for the Club – or might he even be a member? Anyway he definitely seems to be the one who has hired these ritualist bounty hunters and sent them here.

An opening, finally. She has a name and a number to a person who is probably part of the Club in some capacity. This might be her way forward in her quest to find out more about this organization and hopefully outwit them before anyone she cares about comes to harm.

As she puts the book down in her lap and lets go of it to look at the sticky note, the pages fall open upon what seems to be the last entry up until now. Vahri reflexively looks down, and instantly freezes.

The entry is dated earlier this very day, and details a ritual with text and illustrations. But not just any ritual.

“We used the hair found in the djinn’s apartment. We mixed it with the blood of an early bird and murky waters from a restless sea. Then we said the secret words and drew the hidden symbols and uttered the djinn’s True name: Caesar Lino Salinas. It has been done. I will now be able to see and find him wherever he hides.”

Vahri starts trembling and the book falls back into her lap. The ritualist called Mike has performed a ritual directed at Chino in order to spy on him – not unlike the magic she used earlier to locate Mike himself. This is bad, really bad. Chino might lead the hunters to his friend Ivers, who will certainly in turn lead them to Neferthali and then straight back to Vahri herself. And her family. And in any case it’s just a question of time before Chino himself is attacked again. And this time the hunters will be prepared.

I have to do something. The ritual must be undone. Now.

And Vahri realizes that the only person she knows who might be versed enough in ritualist magic to actually undo it is in fact not that far away right now.

Gods bless you, Devin Murdock and your fucking ghosts, Vanessa thinks to herself as for the second time that day she dials the number to Seth Pascal.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-01


You can find the next part here.

50.000 and running

Aaaand there I crossed the finish line!

28 days of stress and despair and severe self criticism and now I’ve finally reached the golden fifty thousand words. And still I’m not finished. far from it.

I still have to drag my characters through an enormous amount of additional trouble before I can allow myself even to think about post editing. I don’t know how many words I have yet to write before I have it all down on proverbial paper, and I don’t know how long it will take.

But even so, I’m terribly proud of myself for finishing this year’s NaNoWriMo challenge. I never thought that I would, and circumstances far outside the influence of my secluded desktop island have really done their best to prevent me from succeeding. And yet, here I am.

I have no idea what I will name my novel once it’s done, and I already know that I have a ton of editing to do before I’ll even dare to show it to anyone that’s not close family. But I have the plot ready in my mind, and I know several things that I will add in the editing phase.

I’d like especially to thank prclarke88, Carrie Zylka, tabletopthane and my sister Johanna for spurring me on. Without your motivation, chances are I would not even have made it halfway through the month. 

With two more days to go, we’ll see how much further I’ll get into the plot before December comes knocking on the door. I hope that the writings of all of you guys are going great as well. Let’s make these last two days count!

Over and out! 🙂

It’s past midnight, making it the last of Writober!

Oh. My. God. I’m on the final day of my Writober-challenge. Wowzers.

I won’t be going in for the kill (i.e. the final Writober text) until I have slept and eaten some breakfast, but I already know what it is going to be. If you have been following my writings this month, you might have noticed that my “On Blood And Dreams”-triplet hasn’t been concluded yet. The last day of my October Writing Challenge will see the final installment of that story as well. Hopefully.

Anyways, this has been a challenging and inspiring month. Sure, I have uploaded some older stories as well, but for the most part I have written a new text every day. I have used writing prompts from Reddit, dug up old ideas and let myself be inspired by music, life and not least other writers. I’d like to namedrop some of them here:

http://theaeolianharp.com/ is full of well written stories with interesting and inspiring concepts. The very name of the blog is magical, for heaven’s sake. You should pay it a visit.

http://wwocz.net/ is where I was first inspired to write about space, through one of several awesome stories found there. The blog’s author is also into archery and metal (my own drugs of choice), and has managed to talk me into giving NaNoWriMo another try this year.

https://songofion.wordpress.com/ is the blog of one of my IRL-friends who writes in Swedish and does so very well. If you know the language you should totally check it out. Its author has provided me with tons of encouragement and inspirational feedback throughout this month, and the short stories on the page are atmospheric, well written and engaging – especially if you’re into the Gothic and the dark paranormal.

During this month I have learned to be more effective and economic with words, to get to the point of a story without wasting the time of my readers and also to find ideas for stories in my everyday life. Another thing I have had to develop is a sense for planning ahead and using my time well – otherwise I would never have managed to combine working two jobs and doing two separate college courses with this creative writing challenge.

Thanks for all the feedback and support during this month, you have all been awesome!

But, as we say here in Sweden: “Don’t yell ‘hi!’ until you’re over the creek”. I still have one text left to write before I’m done with Writober. And then remains NaNoWriMo. Am I mad?

Anyways, stay tuned for On Blood And Dreams III!

Wintercome

I have to settle for uploading another old text today, since I am in Budapest over the weekend and would feel sorry for my company if I were to sit down and write for hours right now. This text was written as part of my NaNoWriMo-challenge back in 2007. I finished the text, but not the challenge. We´ll see if this year will see my revenge. Feel free to leave a comment!


Stories are told on cold nights when the moon is high in the sky and nightmares and the fantastic unknown stalk close by the windows of human dwellings, careful not to step into the light cast by fires and candles. Stories grant peace and occupation to frightened minds and give everyone something to think about apart from the fear of shadows and glaring, haunting eyes in the sunforsaken hours between twilight and chilly dawn.

This particular tale is a very old one – so old that in our day I would be surprised if anyone human could remember it enough to retell it fully. In fact I am very much strengthened in this assumption by the fact that I, in my striving to put this story to paper truthfully, had to consult someone very dear to me but who could in no reasonable way be called even something close to “human”. With his help this writing down of the story that could maybe be considered the most beautiful of them all was at last possible, and I want to thank him deeply for all the help and time he offered me in this. You will notice that this tale carries some differences in relation to some of the others in this collection. The reason, I guess, is that it has been told and retold so many times that it has acquired the character of a fairy tale, whence the others are merely documentations of more or less fantastic events.

In the time and era of this tale, as you are about to see, the borders between realities were not yet firmly secured and no one really doubted the fact that humans were not alone in dreaming and thinking and shaping the world. By this I do not mean that anyone was not surprised when this long suspected fact was sometimes direly proven before their very eyes – they were, I can knowingly assure you – but they accepted it as part of their view of life and seldom tried to deny it. That is why something like this cannot happen anymore; people are too afraid to open their eyes in front of the unknown to be able to see what really lies beyond the edge of their knowledge. Everything has a fixed explanation nowadays, and questing for answers with danger of losing everything is no longer in question. But the destination of this particular journey is in fact very real.

I will not tell you where to find it, lest I accomplish no more than adding to the already swelling pile of “common knowledge” that is so effectively dulling the curiosity of human dreamers worldwide even as I scratch pen against paper, writing this for you to read. No, I will not. But I will go as far as telling you that where I am sitting right now, candle burning in a room otherwise wrapped in winter darkness, is a place very, very close to the sacred spot where the subject of this story finally finds his answers. This I tell you only to convince you further not to doubt my word when I sacrifice my time to open your eyes to some of the mysteries of your world – and I hope sincerely that my efforts will not have been in vain. Now to my story.

The summer was long advanced in this particular village by the start of the chain of events that would at length mark the beginning of an adventure. A young couple was about to get married and everyone was eagerly preparing for the festivities – and not least for the ceremony itself.

A tradition was upheld in this village, that the shift of seasons at the end of summer and winter was always marked by the uniting of a man and a woman in loving marriage; this symbolizing the coming together of Queen Summer and King Winter twice a year when time was right for the one to pass the sceptre of season domination to the other. When the first leaf of autumn fell to the ground, and not until then, was the ceremony to start and the bridegroom to step up to the Autumn Bride by the forest altar to be with her united for the rest of their remaining lives. This both for their shared happiness and for the luck and well being of the village, which relied on the ceremony to grant them the favours of the Greater Unknown in securing their harvest and protecting their families.

It was not common for couples to be married at any other time of the year in this village, since no one wanted to miss the honour and blessing of being Autumn wed or Spring wed, and thus it was a great privilege for a couple to be at last admitted to the altar, perhaps after several years of waiting. This young pair had been chosen to be Autumn wed this year not only because of their obvious and limitless love for each other, but also because of their curious resemblance to the Queen and King of the Seasons themselves; the young bride-to-be wore her sunny, blossomy red hair long and often entwined with colourful flowers and she was never far from heartily laughter that reminded the villagers of a dancing brook in high summer’s swirl, while her future husband had hair like silvery ice on the mountain peaks, reflecting the sun’s light like half frozen crystal water in a wintry lake. His eyes were like the cold blue sky on a frosty day and though he was often quiet and thoughtful, there was a passion and a strength burning in those eyes that sometimes broke through his silent surface and swept him up like a winter storm – and those moments had grew even more common since he met her. They were meant for each other, no one doubted that.

The preparations for the ceremony were in high progress and the whole village was doing their best to make this year’s festivities something really special – like they did every year, but always, in some way, seemed capable of succeeding with in the end. The bride had been working for days on her wedding dress, in which time she had seen no one except her closest family. The bridegroom had been finished with his own ceremonial garments for some time, as tradition prescribed, and was now taking long walks through the wilds every day, searching for the perfect wedding gift to give to his bride in the name of the sacred bond they were about to tie.

In the likeness of the Winter King’s courting of the Summer Queen when they come together at the close of each year, at which occasion he brings her wonderful gifts in the form of turning the leaves golden for her and summoning glistering ice rain down over the two of them and the rest of the world, the Autumn bridegroom must bring the bride a gift of autumn – something worthy that must represent the love he felt for her. This he could do first when the turning of seasons had just begun, since no autumn gifts could reasonably be found before that time. And when he had found his sign of autumn and love, the ceremony would take place the very following day – like the gifts of the Winter King, the returning of the bridegroom with the ceremonial gift marked the beginning of the period between Summer’s End and Wintercome.

I suspect that my source for this story knew the name of this young man – yes, I think he remembered it very well indeed – but for reasons I can only guess he refused to tell it to me and that I will respect and thereby leave it at that.

Anyway, the young man wandered for days and days around the borders of the village, searching for the first sign of autumn, but without luck. His future bride was soon to be finished with her preparations, and the festivities had all but begun. Autumn had been late in coming before and at first no one worried about it too much, but when the weeks went by and the weather showed no signs of changing from the sunny state of high summer and not even the early mornings saw the smallest suggestion of ice on the surface of the villagers’ water buckets, people begun to get anxious. Why did not Summer’s End begin? What caused this strange delay in the turning of seasons?

The future bridegroom became more and more certain that something was not in order, and begun to fear that the marriage would never come to pass. What if the first leaf never fell? He would never have his beloved bride if he could not find a proper autumn gift to seal their bond; anything less than such a gift would be unworthy and would certainly bring dishonour to her name. Her family would never ever permit her to step up to the altar as anything less than a proper Autumn bride, and in case he could not find his ceremonial gift they would consider it a sign from the higher forces that he did not have their blessing in becoming part of the Autumn couple.

One night, draped in desperation, he went to consult the village elder. He was told that nothing in the likeness of this had happened since the beginning of known time, and that the elder suspected that something was terribly amiss with the greater scheme of things.

If you want your bride”, the old man said, “seek then the place where Summer and Winter meet – the sacred spot where spring and autumn begin.” He looked him deep in the eye and then handed him his beautifully carved walking stick. “Take this and everyone will know that you have my blessing.”

The young man met his future bride at sunfall by the large oaken tree in the hilltop clearing on which the forest altar stood. She was wearing the wonderful dress in which she hoped to one day stand bride, and her hair danced freely in the warm, late summer breeze. He told her of the journey he must make and held her tight when she cried wide eyed at this terrible revelation. He told her never to fear for him and not to be sad, and under no circumstances doubt his promise that he would soon return to her.

Even with tears in her eyes she was more beautiful to him than anything else he had ever laid eyes upon, and he swore to himself that for her he would do anything. He told her that, and he told her that he loved her. And with those words, and after holding her close one last time, he started to untangle himself from her embrace to begin his journey. Before he managed to force himself to say goodbye, though, she took hold of his shoulders and looked deep into his eyes in a way that only she in the whole world could do. She smiled sadly and forced back the tears momentarily.

Remember this”, she said, fighting to keep her voice steady, “I love you and will not have anyone other than you. You are my reason to keep on breathing.” She stroked the side of his face with a tear wet hand, lovingly. She seemed to summon her last vestige of willpower and continued: “I do not care whether you find the most fantastic autumn gift in the world, or if you come back with only a moth eaten leaf or even empty handed. Just to see you back alive will make me the happiest person in the world, and whatever gift you bring back with you will be worth more to me than the sun in the sky or all the diamonds on the surface of the sea at night. This because I love you. Nothing matters apart from that. Nothing. Because love makes all other things seem small and simple. Remember that, and return to me safely and soon. I will wait for you. I will wait for you here, right on this hilltop.”

She kissed him passionately and let him go. He looked at her and felt how tears started to fill his own eyes. But before she could see this, he turned and started down the hill, back turned to the village that was his home.

The Autumn bride watched him leave, tears finally running down her face and falling to the ever green grass at her feet. She stood there still when the sun disappeared behind the larger hills at the horizon, and when the full moon rose it was to see her sitting by the large oak tree, gazing in the direction in which he had disappeared. The leaves of the oak were deep green like the soft grass beneath her, and the air was warm. No sign of Summer’s End she could see, and no sign of her beloved. She promised quietly to wait for him there, beneath the rustling branches of the oak on the hill. She promised to rise first when it was to step up to the altar in front of her and be united with her love at his return. When the first leaf fell from the tree by which she was sitting, she would know that he had found what he was seeking and was on his way back to her.

Nowhere he came did he see the slightest sign of autumn, even though he wandered for days. Dressed for rough weather and prepared for almost anything, he visited village after village asking for the way to the place where autumn begins. He was treated with respect due to his being sent by the elder of his own village, but nobody seemed to know anything about how to find the place he was looking for. Everyone he met, though, was also worried by the fact that no winter seemed to be approaching this year.

This way he wandered aimlessly for many days and nights, sometimes finding shelter under a roof by evening and sometimes not. He kept always the picture in his mind of his beloved one standing on the hilltop, gazing longingly after him. He wanted so much to return to her but knew that if he could find no sign of autumn to present to her and the villagers for the ceremony, he would never be allowed to be with her. If the higher forces had judged him unworthy of this honour, he would have to find out why and if there was something he could do to change their minds.

He met with many different people during his journey, all very helpful but none who could tell him anything truly useful. He had begun to mistrust when finally he came to a place where a tall forest loomed over a small collection of houses. He was exhausted from his wanderings and was just about to ask for a place to rest when an old, bearded man stepped up to him and told him he recognized the staff he was carrying. The young man told him that he had been given the staff by his village elder and also revealed his mission.

The old man eyed him for a long moment, much like the village elder had done, and said finally that he knew the place that he was searching for. He told him that the way there was long and a bit dangerous, but that the place was real and fully possible to reach if one dared to seek it out. He pointed in the direction of the high mountain peaks beyond the forest.

I have not seen the place with my own eyes, but I believe the old stories about it being hidden among those cliffs, because every spring and fall I see the proof of it clearly.” He gave the young man a serious look. “It is down those slopes over there that the changes come charging before they are visible anywhere else. It is from up there that the season of Summer’s End should have poured down upon us a long time ago now.”

So without staying in the little village to rest even for the night, the young man bid the older one farewell and entered the dark forest, walking steadily towards the mountains far, far away. He had a new hope in his heart now that he knew where he was going, and worried little about how he was going to climb those slopes once he got there. Again he recalled the face of his bride-to-be, and smiled happily when he thought about how he soon again would hold her in his arms.

Back in the village, the one he was longing for was sitting still under that oak, refusing to talk to anyone and always searching the distant forest edge for any sign of him coming back up the slope towards her. Sometimes her gaze strayed upwards to the branches that sang and danced between her and the summer skies, but no red leaf could be seen and no chilly wind ever played in the greenery around her. Her heart sank but stayed always true to the promise she had made, though every day that went by saw her face even more hardened, as though the frost that refused to present itself to the grass and the water had anyway reached out and honoured at least the silent Autumn bride with its icy touch.

It took him several days of hard travelling to reach the slopes of the mountains. He paused here for a day to rest and to contemplate where to go from here. How was he going to find out which mountain trail to follow to reach the point among the cliffs that some called “the place where spring and autumn begin”? He thought about it for many hours, and decided at last that if he wanted to find the source of autumn and spring, he should look out for spots where the flowers and weeds grew the thickest; in the places that spring reached first the vegetation should have had the longest time to grow and spread, whence in all other places it should be more, but maybe not obviously, sparse.

He started up the trail and searched eagerly for any sign of change in the undergrowth. He thought after a while that he had found what he was searching for, as some patches of green were stained with colour due to collections of small, blue flowers, and followed heartily every sign that he found. These signs led him higher and higher up among the rocky slopes and heights, and when he at length turned and looked back, he could see the whole world stretch itself out far, far below him. All was green as far as he could see.

He imagined for a second that he could see the hilltop outside his own village home, and thought that he could see the shape of his beloved standing there, looking at him from afar. Of course this was just a dream, but when he again turned to his task of climbing this the highest of mountains the thought crossed his mind for the first time that the peaks might kill him – that there was a risk that he would not return alive to see her smile again or to feel her loving embrace. The thought chilled him terribly, but when he again looked down at the blue flowers that guided his path he pushed it aside with force. Of course he would return safely. Of course he would.

There was a strange sensation in the air that grew the higher he climbed. Some kind of tension that he did not like, but which was not really frightening either. He continued his climb, which was getting harder for every step he took due to the sparse foothold and the thorny vegetation that sometimes blocked his path. The blue flowers grew thicker here, and he knew he was getting very close to his goal. The peaks above him no longer seemed as distant as before, at the same time as the landscape below him had grown frighteningly small and far away. A fall from this point would certainly prove fatal, and he tightened his grip on the branches of the small trees that grew on the steep trail.

At last he reached the top of a rocky cliff and drew in a breath of relief. He had been fighting the heights for several days with little or no rest in the intervals between climbing, and was tired in both body and soul from the struggle. One day a careful but intense rain had fallen, soaking the steep mountainside and turning the trail to slippery mud. He had been forced to seek shelter within a shallow cave between some gray rocks to avoid the risk of falling all the way down to earth, and every hour that went by with the rain showing no sign of ceasing, his mood and mind darkened at the thought of how much time he was losing. At length the downpour stopped, but still he had to wait in that cave until the next morning when the trail was once again solid and safe.

Another day, or another night to be more precise, he had stood in hiding against a wall of stone to avoid the attention of a stalking something that he could hear faintly in his closeness, but which he could see nothing of except for its cunning, yellow eyes. The beast – or beasts, he could not be certain of the number – either missed him or decided against attacking for some other, unknowable reason, and although he got no sleep that night at least the morrow found him alive and unharmed, and he could continue his climbing wandering, stumbling like a sleep walker. When now he dragged himself up onto the high plateau that had been his unreachable goal ever since he left solid ground, he was half delirious and half afraid of what might face him on the other side.

He lay still on the flat surface for a long time, breathing heavily and quickly until his heart slowed down and he felt more like himself again. Then he rose to a sitting position, took a deep breath and crawled to the far edge to see what lay beyond the plateau on the other side. The sight that met him caused him to let out a sigh of relief – then his repressed exhaustion got the better of him and he collapsed on the stone surface, unconscious before his head hit the ground.

What he had seen stretching before him was not more cliffs only, but a panorama of bright colours and mist clad peaks. He had reached the top of the mountain that was said to hold the meeting place of seasons, and only a small drop separated his vantage point from endless voids of long forgotten wilds. A stream sang quietly close by, just below the cliff on which he lay, and the ground below was covered in bluish moss and rough, short grass that seemed to have gotten its colour from moonlight. Much of the landscape consisted of rock undressed in either of these, and the trees that grew sparsely but none the less existed here and there in this place were small and strangely shaped, as though their struggle to survive this far above the world had forced them to twist painfully around themselves to find shelter from the fierce winds that haunted this borderland between earth and sky and played the eerily mist draped peaks of nearby looming mountains like unworldly phantom flutes. This was a place of forgotten magic, but its cold and otherworldly spirit made it also a place of nightmare, and it was in such haunted dreams the young man twisted for long hours before he was awakened at dawn by the unmistakable howling of a wolf somewhere in the distance.

After lying still a while after waking, listening terror struck for signs of beastly pursuit, he rose on shaky legs to once again take in the beauty and endlessness of this place towards which he had been striving for so many days. The brook sang still beneath him, and in the distance the wind had begun its ghostly playing of mountain flutes, as if to greet him welcome to this the end of sane, merciful reality.

A terrible thirst came over him, and suddenly the sound of dancing water seemed almost irresistible to his tired ears – and so he begun to climb down from the high place on which he stood, taking care not to fall even though the distance was no more than a couple of meters, letting himself drop the last few inches down to solid ground. The moss was crisp under his feet and the prints he left, making his way over the frozen plain, remained there for many years, even after he had forgotten the music of the place; this place above world never forget anything or any man’s visit.

The wind was strong here, in the shelter of no tree or cliff, but he was well dressed and did not suffer much from the cold – at first. It was day when he first trod this strange land, even though the sun did little to warm or comfort these high places. Its light played beautifully in the dance of the lively brook, but the water’s swirl made it impossible for his reflection to fasten itself on the silvery surface. This, though, did not hinder him from quenching his thirst with handfuls from this burningly freezing source, and soon he felt refreshed and suddenly more as one with his surroundings.

With new opened eyes he started his wandering anew, not knowing for what he was looking but hoping that when it presented itself to him he would be aware of its importance to his purpose. The ground sloped slightly upwards, and soon the music of the brook was left far behind and below. Even the plateau on which he had rested was soon below him, and even though the air grew colder still with every step, he saw no sigh of snow as far as his gaze could reach. The little blue flowers grew everywhere here, no thicker or sparser in any one place which caused him to think that as least he had found the right place. But what was he supposed to learn here?

Soon the cold began to get the better of his thick winter garb, and he felt chill creep into his bones. He struggled on, more and more depending on his staff to keep him standing upright. His gaze fixed upon one of the high peaks that lined the open space that he was fighting, and it was towards this peak that he unconsciously set his path when it was all he could do to remain putting on foot in front of the other.

He did not realize it at first, but the reason the peak had first caught his attention was that it stood out against everything else because of its colour; whilst all else was shrouded in pale green and blue, the top of this particular height was shiningly white. It was covered in snow. The insight took the breath out of him, and for a while he stopped and just stood there, looking up at the whiteness with a thousand thoughts running through his head. Why was the snow resting silently on that one peak, when it was nowhere else to be found in the whole world?

Despite his numb limbs and confused thoughts, he fought on against the dark cloudiness that now had begun to line his vision. The dizziness increased until all he saw was the top of that peak, tightly surrounded by a dark tunnel of black clouds that expanded all the time. At last the cold got him, and his benumbed legs would not support him anymore. He fell to his knees, eyes still on the distant snow, consciousness fast slipping away.

But right before he lost connection to reality, when his vision was mostly covered with a veil of blackness and the wind that shouted all around was outvoiced by the ringing in his own head, he thought for an instant that he saw a shape standing on that faraway peak, rising out of the snow as if one with it. And though the distance was great and he was inches from fainting, he knew by the aura of majesty and omniscience shrouding this appearance that he was in the presence of King Winter himself.

Awestruck and half doubting his own senses, he bowed in front of the royal incarnation of the winter he had sought for so long. Time seemed to have stopped; he knew he was still going to faint – a dangerous thing in these cold lands – but he got the feeling that he was given time to ask the one question which had driven him this far from home and safety.

Why have you not come?”, he whispered, the words barely escaping his frozen lips as he again looked up at the cold majesty standing on the peak, gazing down at him. “Why have you not come?”

The king of Winter let time pass, let his eyes take in this boy dying in the cold, before answering. Then the young man heard the wind’s roaring take the shape of words, resounding painfully in his head. Still the shape on the peak did not move, but there was no question of who was speaking.

You could not possibly understand, but since you have made this long journey not made by many in this time, I will tell you. There is one in this world, only one, whom I love. She is beautiful and breathes life itself, and everywhere she goes she makes wonderful things grow. I have always thought that I was a worthy groom to her, that when we met at fall after being separated for one whole season, I was able to present her with gifts suitable for Her divine presence. But I was wrong. What is golden leaves to one who can create flowers from dead soil? What worth is there in an intricate flake of crystal snow to one who makes the air smell of sun on the ocean, to one who invokes joy of life in every soul? To her, the music of the northern wind in a storm must seem like nothing, she who conjures the song of birds and the laughter of playing children. Thus I have settled not to disturb her life-full reign with my bothersome and contemptible attempts at declaring my love to her another time. Thus I have settled for quiet longing and grieving, for I will never be her equal and thus will never be more than a loathsome bother to her.”

The young man blinked and looked up at the King in silent and sudden surprise. He wondered for the split of a second whether the world had gone totally mad.

But”, he said, and remembered the tender words of his own beloved at his departure, “do you not know that she loves you? Just to see you back will fill her with joy, and whatever gift you bring her will be worth more to her than the sun in the sky and all the diamonds on the surface of the sea at night. Do you not know that love makes all other things seem small and simple, and that if given with love the smallest snowflake can be worth more than all the riches in the world?”

At this, the fierce northern wind became quiet, and for the split of a second the young man could see the eyes in the face of the faraway majesty widen in sudden realization. The boy’s eyes widened too, but in surprise and frightening insight.

You did not know this, did you?”

Then everything started to spin as the time and the world suddenly started again. The young man cast one last gaze up the peak, but there was nothing there – only the quiet, eternal snow resting there, sleeping, sleeping. Darkness dragged him down into silence, but he did not feel anything. All of his body was already numb from the cold, and even his mind was so clouded that he did not even reflect upon what fainting in this biting wind would mean. Then he did not think about anything at all.

They came together in the middle of the open, under the clear sky. The sun, at the sight of the two of them together, let go its focus of the world in relaxation, knowing that its full attention was needed no more for this season. At once the light that radiated from it grew slightly fainter and took on a more chilly quality, making the ground and vegetation seem even more pale and frozen.

This cold light shone down upon the barren landscape where seasons were said to start, and made ice crystals gleam like diamonds upon the trail of snow and frost that followed in the wake of the king of Winter, where he made his way down from his wintry peak. Flowers withered and died where he went by, crust-like spider webs of ice spread in his tracks every time he set down his foot.

She, the goal of his journey down from the far mountaintop, stood patiently waiting for him in the middle of this barren landscape, a silent smile on her lips. The road she had walked was marked by a trail of small, pale-blue flowers that spread out like the hem of a wide dress around her where she now stood. Red never still hair flowed down her shoulders, crowned with a wreath of eternally fresh summer flowers in warm colours and white. Her light dress billowed around her in the cold wind that he brought with him, and in her right hand she held a plain wooden staff overgrown with green ivy and decorated with flowers and feathers at the top.

He walked up to her, silvery hair flowing behind him as he went, robes the colour of winter night draping his majestic form and his head crowned with a circlet of frost covered ice. He stopped one step away from her, and there they stood, looking each other in the eye. He did not beam as she did, but a lively spark in his eyes made his otherwise stern expression melt a little, and if one looked very close, his face could be seen to soften by a faint but fond smile.

So there the seasons met – Winter standing in snow and frost a pace away from Summer who resided among a million of blue flowers. The king opened his outstretched hand, slowly, and revealed a single maple leaf, golden and gleaming in the fading sunlight. The queen looked at it for a long time and then, while lifting her gaze and looking deep into his eyes, accepted the gift with a delighted smile illuminating her whole face.

Now also the king let his face mirror his inner joy at seeing her again at last, after all this time. She took the golden leaf and held it up for the wind to catch it, still smiling. Then she reached out for him, and together they walked off from this barren plain, down the mountain and out into the world. With his right hand on her shoulder, protectively, lovingly, he led her through the world, showing her how his essence turned trees ablaze and puddles into mirrors; forests became dreamlike and silent, and everything gained a dull shell of ice inlaid with tiny, shining gems.

They would have the whole period between Summers End and Wintercome to explore and laugh together before they would have to part for another season, and they intended to make it worth the while. They took turns holding the wooden staff, sometimes holding it together, and so the weather shifted – so the seasons changed.

When he woke there was snow everywhere, but by some unknowable design the place where he lay was not shrouded in snow, but in warm little blue flowers. He struggled to his feet, regaining his grip on the staff he had dropped to the ground when he fell. Confused and dizzy he looked around. No sign of life could be seen anywhere, and the world was covered in white, ice-cold snow as if winter had come to this place while he was unconscious.

Then, right before he started walking, he looked down on the blue flowers and saw something. A golden maple leaf, stuck in the vegetation and waving frantically in the wind, lay among the flowers as if waiting for him. He picked it up and looked at it for a long time. It reminded him of something, vaguely. Something that he had seen in a dream. But he could not recall what the dream had been about, and so he put the leaf safely against his chest under his warm clothes, and got going.

Staggering he made his way back the same way that he had come – the going was harder now with all the ice and snow on the ground, and the air was unquestionably colder than before. When he had reached the plateau from where he had first gazed down on this strange world, just before he started to descend the mountainside, he cast one final gaze over his shoulder, on the distant peak where he thought himself to have seen snow when it was to be seen nowhere else. Now, though, he was not really sure which one of all the peaks that was the one he had noticed; now all the peaks were dressed in white, none distinguishable from the other. With a sigh he started down the steep path, wonderingly shaking his head.

Everywhere he came the world had changed. The mountain trail was covered in snow and wintry already, but the farther he got from the mountain the less wintry the weather got. However, there was no doubt that Winter would catch up, for even though the season itself had not reached far from the mountain yet, it was evident that Summer was over for this year. Fall had come to the world at last, with Winter in its wake. It would not be long before the season of Wintercome started, and the leaves were already turning golden and crimson – but none of them as golden as the one he kept with him.

He passed all the villages again on his way back, and all the people he met looked a bit strangely at him when he returned, but he did not understand why since he did not think about how much he looked like Winter himself, coming down from the legendary mountain with Fall in his wake. And so he did not linger anywhere too long to spend thoughts on such matters, and the journey back was swifter than it had been when he first travelled the road, in the other direction.

She had been sitting by the tree for so long that she had lost count of the days. The sun had been her only companion by day, and the moon had been the only one to watch over her at night. She never lost hope, but her spirit became heavy and she almost felt as if she was on with the tree. Then, finally one evening, so soundlessly and suddenly that she nearly did not notice, it happened. She looked up towards the green branches, and all of a sudden one of the leaves broke loose from the others and glided down to land on her knee. It was first then that she noticed that its colour was not green, but fiery yellow. She picked it up and turned it between her fingers, at first not really realizing what this meant.

Then the insight dawned on her and slowly, slowly, not really daring to in fear that she would be wrong, she looked up. At first she did not see anything, and her heart sank. But then a shape could be seen moving up the forest hill. He looked worn and tired, and his silvery hair was tangled and strewn with leaves and dirt, but when he laid eyes upon her, sitting there by the tree like the embodiment of Summer in front of him, he smiled.

When he reached inside his coat and withdrew the golden leaf, unharmed by the rough journey and still shining as brightly as before, she rose from beneath the tree and ran towards him, laughing with tears streaming from her eyes. They embraced, and then he stroked her face with his left hand, while he used the right to put the golden leaf, his gift of Autumn, in her hair.

The ceremony begun before long and did prove to outshine all previous weddings held in this particular village. The bridal couple was more beautiful and more representative to the change of seasons than any couple before them, and no couple had ever been as happy or loved each other as much as these two did. The golden leaf gleamed beautifully in her hair as they said their vows, and all thought that it was the most wonderful autumn gift ever – but she herself did not think about it much, since all her attention was on him, her beloved one who had returned to her from afar. For love makes things like golden leaves seem small and simple.

And Summers End passed over into Wintercome, with snow, cold nights and short days. Winter reigned fair as he always did, guarding the world well until his beloved Summer was once again ready to take up the sceptre, or the wooden staff which is what it really is. She watched him from afar, from a spot hidden in the mountains where blue flowers grow forever, and longed for the short time in Spring when the two of them would again be together, when she would be the one to give him gifts and show him wonderful things all over the world.

Everything was as it should be. The years went by, new generations grew up and new beliefs spread over the world, obscuring or replacing the old ways as it has always been. And never ever again did one of the seasons delay because it doubted its importance to the other.