On Wicked Ground: Fairies: Fact or Fiction? By Beth Noland

As the day quietly melts into dusk, John Hyatt’s camera makes one last exasperated burst. A short time later, he peers at the fuzzy photographs in shocked silence. The tiny forms of winged fairies dot the film. Or do they?

From fairies to mermaids, aliens to vampires, hoaxes are something that permeate popular culture. So how can we possibly distinguish between reality and artifice? John Hyatt’s fairies are only one of many situations where we find ourselves asking, “Could it be?” Hyatt himself said he doubted what he had captured on film, but it’s hard not to question his intentions when he named his photographs “The Rossendale Fairies,” perhaps in reference to a well-known hoax, the Cottingley Fairies. But can we know for sure? Many have already been quick to point out that Hyatt set the scene or that the “fairies” were just insects, but the whimsy and wonder that you feel while looking at the photographs almost makes you feel guilty for questioning it. Regardless, I will leave you to draw your own conclusions, though, you will have to admit, the picture will indeed leave you smiling and contemplating whether or not you believe in fairies too.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2596119/Away-fairies-University-lecturer-claims-photographed-real-life-tiny-tinkerbells-flying-air-British-countryside.html

Perhaps the most notable fairy “discovery” was made back in 1917 when two young girls by the names of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths of Cottingley, England documented their fairy discovery in a series of five photographs. Catching the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he published the pictures in The Strand Magazine in 1920. Although the photos garnered mixed reviews, Doyle himself felt that the pictures were authentic documentation of the existence of fairies. It was only decades later that the girls finally admitted that the “fairies” in their pictures were indeed cardboard cut-outs, though Frances always maintained that the fifth and final photo of the series was genuine.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottingley_Fairies#mediaviewer/File:Cottingley-sunbath.jpg

Fairies have been around for a while, so long, in fact that they were gracing the pages of the Iliad and Odyssey, making appearances amid works of Chaucer, and giving Shakespeare a run for his money in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From early on, fairies were something of a cheeky bunch. Known for drumming up disaster, and cheering on our failure as a species, Tinkerbell, the Disney character, is a distant relation to the true troublemakers found in early literature. Fairies are mysterious, equally troublesome and complex creatures that span the oral tradition of storytelling from cultures across the globe. Delve deep enough and it is more likely than not that stories of fairies or creatures that share their characteristics can be found in any culture’s mythology. Early fairies were often quite tall, almost angelic beings, but were soulless and enjoyed manipulating and toying with humans. Celtic cultures however, depicted fairies as something that resembled more of a troll than something heavenly (known in Gaelic as faery). Whatever it’s physical description, the fairy has always been seen as being closely tied to nature, with an alluring propensity for mischief. It is no wonder why we find them in literature, and even real life.

There are many who believe that fairies do indeed exist, and a quick search on the internet will produce numerous sites such as Fairytastic and Real Fairies dedicated to proving their existence through sightings, accounts and photographs. These groups share the belief that the fairies’ existence is rooted in reality, though a commonly held belief throughout the community is that fairy sightings have decreased. The downward slide is mainly attributed to a move away from nature, the destruction of fairy habitat, and just plain wonder running out. There are many beliefs and religions that operate on the grounds that just because you can’t see it, does not mean it doesn’t exist, so why should fairies be any different? Bundle that up with a few pictures for documentation, and I’m not surprised why some do believe.

Fairies give us a sense of wonder. They are one with their surroundings, pure in their existence with nature, yet have a lust for life and taste for adventure that leave many of us contemplating if we are missing something in our own lives. The thought that fairies do exist can offer something amazing, something magical, and it can leave us wondering, “if Neverland did exist, would we want to come home?”

Half-Resurrection Blues: A Bone Street Rumba Novel, by Daniel José Older. Reviewed by Cat Rambo

Half-Resurrection Blues: A Bone Street Rumba Novel
Half-Resurrection Blues: A Bone Street Rumba Novel, by Daniel José Older. Reviewed by Cat Rambo. Roc Books, January 2015 – 336 pages.

Daniel José Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues is a smooth launch into what promises to be a highly enjoyable series. While it doesn’t change much about urban fantasy, it’s a good example of how satisfying the genre can be.

Much of the genre’s appeal lies in the worlds created within the books, and Older’s is no exception as it draws on and creates mythologies outside the standard vampire/werewolf paradigm. When viewed through his idiosyncratic and inventive lens, our world acquires a supernatural landscape that allows Older to fill the book with what are sometimes called “eyeball kicks. Here’s a slice of Half-Resurrection Blues’ landscape:

The rain doesn’t land on my not-flesh, it sears right through it and leaves a tingling trail of sensation in its wake. I’m still marveling at the lightness, the dizzying freshness of being only spirit. . . ,

We’re moving fast, blazing through the darkness, like plastic bags blown by the wind. I get the hang of it pretty quick: thought controls movement. You want to go somewhere, you point yourself that direction and propel forward on the engine of your own desire to arrive. Our long, translucent legs lunge with graceful steps just above the pavement. We brush past some nightwalkers, a few crackheads, and a security guard on his cigarette break, and they each shudder and look around as we slither on by.

It’s also got a tough but flawed hero, Carlos, who knows nothing of his past other than he’s died and been revived. As a result, he’s now poised between life and death, working for the New York Coalition for the Dead. “Because I’m an inbetweener, and the only one anyone knows of at that, the dead turn to me when something is askew between them and the living,” he observes early on as we see him in action, trying to correct an imbalance.

Carlos doesn’t know who he was, and this, coupled with the lack of others like him, makes his life doubly isolated. When he runs into a brother and sister who are also inbetweeners, he’s pushed to find out the answer to the mystery of their shared origin, although he’s distracted from that hunt by a swarm of monsters led by an ancient sorcerer. Carlos is driven, courageous, and hard to put down, relating Half-Resurrection Blues in an engaging, first-person narrative. If I had to draw comparisons, I’d make them to Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds, Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series, and Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. The prose is smooth and sometimes lyrical, and overall this is a solid, satisfying read.

So Suffer the Heartbroken Wingless by J. J. Roth

It starts with the phone call every mother dreads, the call that splinters the Mother into shards. The call that steals the Mother’s heart from her body and abandons it in a gutter littered with sticks, sprinkler run-off, and errant Penny Saver pages disintegrating into filthy mush.

With that dreadful phone call, the Mother’s reality tips sideways until it topples into an unfamiliar, bizarre plane–where only a thin, invisible Barrier separates one world from another.

“Something’s happened,” the Neighbor says. “I can’t find Xavier.”

What does this mean, can’t find him? He’s not so small he can be lost in sofa cushions, like car keys. He’s tall for his age. Surely, she must mean some other kid, one who doesn’t have bright yellow curls like solar prominences, like coronal loops. Some other kid, less easy to spot. One who doesn’t have his mother’s mouth and his father’s nose, who never loses his hoodies, has terrible handwriting, never gets his spelling words right, and never mumbles “under the hamster” or “can’t find the air” in his sleep. That would make much more sense.

“Are you sure you mean Xavier?” the Mother asks. Maybe it’s all some elaborate joke. Perhaps the Neighbor’s on some new reality TV show or helping out with a Candid Camera remake.

The Mother checks the calendar on her iPhone to make sure it isn’t April Fool’s Day. The calendar says August 15, Friday of the week between camp ending and school starting. She had given X permission to swim at Jamie’s house so she could cloister herself in her home office and take conference calls in peace. She’d called him back for a hug as he trudged off in his baggy swimsuit with the hibiscus blossom motif, press-on tattoos lining his arm, towel slung over his shoulder, looking like a thirty-year-old eight-year-old.

“Yes,” the Neighbor says in a breathy squeak. “He was playing in the pool with Jamie and now he’s gone.”

X is a terrific swimmer. He’s one hundred percent water safe. He’s been able to swim all four strokes used in Olympic competition for a year now. So what does gone mean? Gone is good, the Mother thinks. Gone isn’t drowned. She could have said drowned.

“He’s not in the pool?” the Mother asks, to be sure.

“No,” the Neighbor says. “Hold on. Jamie is telling me something.”

The Mother slips on some sandals and leaves through the front door, the iPhone still to her ear. She strides up the hill, past the neat lawns and rock gardens, the parked Volvos and Priuses.

She is halfway to the Neighbor’s house when she notices her feet are more numb than the rest of her body. What idiot cuts sandals so that the left foot has to go in the left sandal? Those jokester shoe companies! Don’t they know people are in a hurry? She stops in the middle of the street and puts the sandals on the correct feet, just as the Neighbor comes back on the phone.

“Jamie is saying Xavier went through the Barrier,” the Neighbor says.

The Mother doesn’t reply because she’s already at the Neighbor’s door. The knocker–big, iron, in an upside-down stirrup shape–makes a deep, sharp sound like a hammer striking an anvil.

The Mother has been to the Neighbor’s house several times before, but she doesn’t remember this knocker. How well does anyone really know their neighbors these days, in neighborhoods like this? These people could have guns lying around. Bongs and coke spoons. Vibrators with seventeen different attachments. They’re parents: they should know better than to have a Barrier where a child of impressionable years can get to it. (What in the name of all that is holy does the Neighbor mean, “went through the Barrier?”)

The Neighbor answers the door. She’s wearing a T-shirt, frayed at the collar, with peeling gold letters that say “Cal Berkeley” across the front. The house smells like baking tollhouse cookies and Windex. Must be nice, spending your days baking and cleaning, the Mother thinks with a pang of working mother’s guilt. She knows her face is a twisted, wiry cat corpse of fear.

The Neighbor’s son, Jamie, stands in the hallway behind his mother, dripping a puddle on the maple hardwood. A Sponge Bob beach towel is draped around his shoulders. He’s all knobby knees and twiggy legs.

“I’m dialing 911,” the Neighbor says, shaking in the ninety-degree heat. “Come in.”

The Neighbor leads the Mother into the back yard. The pool is rectangular with a round, detached hot tub at one end–an exclamation mark. Swim! Relax! Go through the Barrier! Everything is an imperative with these pools.

The Neighbor makes sounds into the phone, hangs up, and says, “They’re coming. But since it’s Friday and they’re on furlough–budget cuts, I guess–they’re sending the Sheriff and the Fire Department.” She shrugs. “California. What can you do?”

The Mother, inanely, feels better about the situation knowing the authorities are coming. Criminals usually don’t call the cops. Although a Friday when the police are on furlough would be a great time to stage a kidnapping in this neighborhood. They might as well have hung signs: “Rob and pillage here. No worries. It’s Friday.”

She kneels next to the pool. There’s a standard-issue drain in the bottom and a few dead oak leaves clustered against the side. “What’s the Barrier? Where is it?”

The Neighbor fidgets. “This is embarrassing, but there’s a corner of the pool we haven’t been able to go into for a while. We’ve been meaning to get it checked. It’s that corner, there.” She points to an area next to a redwood gazebo. “I’m so sorry. We never thought it was dangerous. You know, since we couldn’t get into it and all. Or I would never have let them swim in there.” The Neighbor, still fidgeting, pulls at the crumbling letters on her T-shirt. Little plastic flakes fall to the cool-crete like synthetic dandruff.

Let this be a lesson as to why you should never defer maintenance on your house, the Mother thinks. Someone could get hurt, and then what? Insurance companies, lawyers, there’ll be no end to it, until, maybe, bankruptcy. She sees no child in the area with the invisible Barrier, no X trapped inside, bumping up against the transparent wall like a fish against the curve of a fishbowl. She isn’t sure whether to be relieved or more terrified.

“Jamie,” the Mother says. “Tell me what happened.”

Jamie jumps into the pool and swims to the corner. “We were right here,” Jamie says. “And we were trying to scare each other with stories. You know, how the Barrier might go to another world or dishenmun or something.”

“Dimension,” the Mother says. “Another dimension.”

“Yeah,” Jamie says. “Dishenmun. X said he saw something swimming in the water. Something shiny. I saw it, too. It swam right through the Barrier. X said, ‘Hey, look!’ and he dove down after it and stuck his arm through. I tried to stick my arm through but I couldn’t.”

The Mother nods with a Zen calm, as though Jamie is describing something that makes perfect sense to her. It is all she can do to keep from tearing her fingernails out and screaming.

“He put his head through. And his whole body. He just disappeared. I tried to follow him but–”

“You couldn’t get through.” The Mother lies down at the side of the pool and hangs her head over the corner. She reaches out expecting to touch water. Her fingers graze the surface, but when she raises them, they’re dry. She pushes on the Barrier. It has give to it, like a balloon or a membrane. She pushes harder. Her fingertip slips into something that, blessedly, does not feel gelatinous. All she feels is pressure, as though the air on the other side has a different barometric reading.

The Mother phones the Father, her ex-husband, at work. “It’s an emergency,” she says. “I know you were supposed to pick X up at six, but you better come now.”

She hasn’t forgiven the Father for forgetting to pick up X last visitation weekend and for being late the two times before that. She especially hasn’t forgiven him for standing X up for the Giant’s game. The kid had looked forward to that for weeks. He’d fallen asleep on the sofa waiting for the Father, his baseball glove still on his hand.

Still, even after two years, the Mother’s more broken up than she cares to admit about the affair and the now live-in girlfriend who looks a lot like the Mother did in her twenties. Hearing the Father say he’s on his way is a comfort, like getting a negative result on a Pap smear–one less thing to worry about.

She slides into the pool in her shorts and T-shirt. When she opens her eyes, she sees nothing but water. Jamie is under water, too, beside her. He points to the corner and pushes, but when he tries to swim through, he bounces backward. When the Mother tries, her arm goes straight through.

They both come up for air, just as the Sheriff’s deputy arrives. He only has silver at the temples but looks as if he’s past retirement age.

“I’m going through,” the Mother says. “My son’s in there.”

“I can’t let you do that, Ma’am,” the Deputy says. “I’ll have to go first myself. Make sure it’s safe.”

The Mother utters all the protests she can muster as the Deputy strips to his undershirt and boxers. Jamie’s almond-shaped eyes expand to dinner plates and he giggles. The Deputy wades in. Two Firefighters arrive as the Deputy swims to where the Mother and Jamie are treading water. The Mother, finally, begins to cry.

“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” the Deputy says, a gentle, paternal quality hitching a ride on his gravelly voice. “If he’s in there, we’ll get him back.”

The Deputy shoves his entire length against the Barrier, but none of him passes through. One of the Firefighters is in the water beside them now, in a slicker and boots, an ax that looks ancient enough to be an antique slung over his shoulder. He’s young, no more than thirty. “Hey, Matt,” the Firefighter says to the Deputy. “Been a while. How’s the wife and kids?”

“Fine, Declan,” the Deputy says, hurling himself against the Barrier a fourth time. “Doing really well. Sorry about your loss.”

The Firefighter submerges, breaks the surface and says, “Thanks. We’re trying again. Meg, our youngest, really wants a little sister.”

The Deputy gets out of the pool. His boxers, white background dotted with maroon fleur-de-lis, have gone transparent. A dark, hairy shadow shows at the crotch.

Jamie spits out a mouthful of pool, squeals, “I see his wiener,” and points at the Deputy’s undershorts.

Unfazed, the Deputy takes a pool net that’s propped against the gazebo and jabs the Barrier with the pole end.

The treading Firefighter is panting, his waterlogged boots and the ax dragging him down. His cheeks turn rosy on a field of pallor under orange hair the texture of golf course grass. His exploring hand reaches the Barrier and keeps going. “Whoa,” he says. “Hey Matt, I’m in.”

“I can’t wait anymore,” the Mother says, shoving her tears into some mental compartment she didn’t know she had. “I’m going through.”

As she slides through the Barrier, dimly aware the Deputy is shouting at the Firefighter to go with her, she says in case X can hear, “I’m coming, baby. Wherever you’ve gone, I’ll follow. I can’t stay here alone, nothing but pebbles and sand inside. Wait for me. I’m coming, too.”

#

Whatever the Mother was expecting, what she finds wasn’t it. If she expected oblivion, she found a place; if she expected water full of hostile Sea-Monkey creatures with three-pointed crown-like growths on their heads, brandishing , she found land. She sees no Yellow Brick Roads, no rabbits with pocket watches, no Turkish-delight-toting Snow Queens.

What she does see is forested hills shrouded in moonlit mist.

It could be worse, she thinks. She’s always been partial to forests; to their silence broken only by small animals skittering, falling twigs cracking, insects buzzing. The loamy scent of decaying leaves and bark, the green smell of sap and moss, has always struck some primal, timeless chord with her.

She fills her lungs with the forest air. X is here somewhere. She can feel it.

In the distance, tiny yellow points flicker, as though some unseen garden party host has strung all the trees with fairy lights, like the white birches wrapped with lights year-round along University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto.

The Firefighter sidles up to the Mother, puffing. He’s still got the ax with him. He puts it down, pulls off a boot, dumps a gush of water out and stumps his foot back into the boot. “What now?” he says.

That’s when she sees them, moving among the trees.

Holy fuck, the Mother thinks. As far as she can remember, she only dropped acid once, years ago. Certainly there must be a statute of limitations on flashbacks? She closes her eyes and shakes her head but when she opens them, she’s still here, and they’re still there.

The fairies walk, or fly, about their business. They’re about the same size as the Mother, and they aren’t all beautiful Tinker Bell-types either. One of them looks frighteningly like Danny DeVito; he mashes a stogie between his molars.

“O-M-G,” says the Firefighter. “I wish my dead Irish Nana could see this!” He’s beaming like he’s been given an unexpected present.

The Mother and the Firefighter have become a curiosity. Several fairies approach speaking a language the Mother doesn’t recognize. Usually, when she can’t identify a language it turns out to be Greek. But that’s not what this is.

A stout, black-skinned female fairy with curly, white hair, dressed in a dark-green muumuu, sizes them up and cycles through a few Indo-European tongues until she gets to English.

“Welcome, heartbroken Wingless,” she says. “We are so glad you found your way to one of our loss emotion-portals. We thank you for bringing us your suffering. Will you come share?”

Another, a tall, dark male with gaunt cheeks and violet eyes, claps his hands together and smiles. “More pain of loss! What a treat! Come, follow us and share.”

The Firefighter’s eyes are hula-hoops and his tongue is doing three-sixties around the O of his lips. The Mother can’t believe she’s the one who has it more together–she, whose son has gone missing in… oh shit, she can’t even go there. Where is the justice?

“Let’s go,” she says, and tugs the mighty first responder’s slicker. If the fairies greeted X like this, she reasons, following them is their best chance of finding him.

Before they follow, the Mother turns to the Barrier’s soft, membranous mass, which hangs between two alders, and pokes it just enough so that most of her finger stays in Fairyland. “Remember where this is,” she whispers, because that’s the sort of thing they say in adventure movies. “We have to get back here once we find X.”

The Firefighter nods and scuffs an X in the dirt with his boot heel, as though that will help.

#

They weave through the trees on narrow paths, always toward the lights, which are now the size of small Coleman lanterns.

Other fairies join them, chattering in their guttural language and clutching their fairy breasts in melodramatic sorrow whenever they catch the Mother or the Firefighter’s eye. A pouting teenage fairy extends her translucent hand as if to pet the Firefighter, but when he stumbles on a root and his ax shifts toward her, she recoils and takes to the air.

“My Nana used to tell me stories from the old country,” the Firefighter says in a low voice as they follow the fairies past ancient barrows. “She said the fey folk are drawn to strong human emotions. They envy us–they can only feel as deeply as humans do through us.”

Far in the distance, a shadowy outline hovers, suggestive of a castle.

“They brought X, and us, here so they could experience our psychic pain?”

“That’s my guess.”

“But X isn’t heartbroken,” the Mother says. “I’m not either. I mean, I won’t be if I find him safe. Are you sure?” Is the Firefighter right? Is her son consumed with loss? What sort of mother is she, if he is and she doesn’t know?

Soft light glints on the toe of the Firefighter’s boots each time he takes a step. Fairies dance next to them and flit above them. He lowers his voice further.

“Why could I get through, but Matt–you know, the Deputy–couldn’t?” he says. “Here’s what I think. My wife, Maura, and I, we have two great kids, and were expecting another, a baby girl, a year ago last June. We were going to call her Alice. That May, we found out Alice’s heartbeat had stopped.” He sighs, his breath catching and escaping in little gusts. “Maura had to carry Alice, dead in the womb, for three whole days after we found out, until they could induce labor. I couldn’t even get out of bed, let alone go to work for two weeks after. Even now, it’s hard. Matt, he’s never lost anyone. Not even his parents. They’re both ninety-five and living in Scottsdale.”

The Mother doesn’t know whether Jamie’s family has lost loved ones, but she knows no divorce stigmata perforate her Neighbor’s Toll House-cookie-batter-scented palms. The Firefighter could be right, she allows. Perhaps X feels the Father’s absence more deeply than he’s let on. Perhaps, she realizes with a knot in her gut, she does, too.

The lights that were flickers, then Coleman lanterns, are now golden sconces with elegant twining vine motifs situated on oaks that circle a wide clearing. They give off a remarkable amount of brightness for sources made of some delicate, frosted substance not of the Mother’s world.

In the clearing, fairies, divided into what appear to be teams, face off on the cropped turf with curved wooden implements that look to the Mother like club-footed hockey sticks. “It’s a hurling match,” the Firefighter says.

The fairies laugh and toss their sticks high in the air. The sticks vanish in purple flashes, and baseball bats pop out of the ether into the fairies’ hands. “No, wait,” the Firefighter says, but the Mother, who has no idea what hurling is, has seen the bats and caught up.

X is at the sidelines with the Father, cheering, as several fairies fly about the field outlining a baseball diamond on the turf with sparkling dust that solidifies into common white chalk. X looks happier than he’s been in months.

“Thank God,” the Mother says.

But how did the Father get here so quickly? If he came through the Barrier, he must be heartbroken, too? Perhaps he still loves them deep down, and he’s re-thinking the live-in girlfriend. Perhaps the girlfriend’s just a band-aid that can no longer cover the scar left when the family split asunder. Hope rises in the Mother.

The Mother breaks from behind the fairies guiding them and tries to run to X and the Father. The stout fairy and the tall one bar her path.

“But that’s my husband,” she misspeaks. “That’s my son.”

The tall fairy shakes his head. “Ah, poor Wingless. That is not your ex-husband.” He emphasizes the ex in a way that makes the Mother’s heart sink. “That is Gorsonip, one of our number, wearing the glamour of your ex-husband.”

The stately female smiles and adds, “Fear not. Your son is safe. Our kind adores little boys with golden curls.”

“But,” begins the Mother, not at all comforted by the golden curl remark. She shared the Father’s bed for fifteen years. You’d think she’d know him in a crowd. She squints at Gorsonip, wondering how she could be wrong. “But if Xavier is happy, how did he get here?”

The female fairy beats her wings and hovers above the path, bringing her eye-to-eye with the Mother. “When the young Wingless arrived, he was most distraught,” she says. “He brought so much sorrow with him that we transformed all but two of our thousands of loss emotion-portals to your world into fear emotion-portals. He’s happy now because we are granting his greatest wish as payment for the service he did us, bringing us so much terrific sadness.”

Fairies dressed in black and orange jerseys take the field, their pointed ears sticking up along the sides of their billed caps. A sweet aroma, a cross between popcorn and cherry syrup, permeates the air. The Mother can hear X clapping and shouting, “Let’s go Giants, let’s go!” His little shining face smiles up at Gorsonip, the stand-in Father.

That’s the one thing the Mother can’t give him or herself: the Father’s love. The Mother’s face crumples as her heart falls through her feet.

Fairies of all colors, sizes, and ethnicities, even her two escorts and the Danny DeVito one, rush to her, surround her, and place their weightless hands on her whispering, “Share, share.” Her own devastation is mirrored in their faces as they take in her emotional wreckage. Her ears fill with their heart-rending sobs.

Why would any sentient being want to feel what she’s feeling now? Being human at times like these is a steaming pile of pure suck. The Mother would do anything not to have to bear this pain, this pain the fairies are lining up to feel. Fairies–they’re nutcases! Who knew?

One by one, the fairies turn a shimmery blue and lift their hands from the Mother saying, “Shared, ahhhhh, shared, ahhhhh.” It sounds like a New Age Kumbaya-fest in a doctor’s office full of tongue-depressed patients. But either sharing doesn’t take away sorrow or the Mother has an infinite supply. She’s pulled herself together, but she still feels like crap. She longs to run to X, but he’s having such a good time. She’ll wait until the game is over. Until his wish is done.

The fairies turn out to be talented baseball players, though this is hardly surprising given their magical abilities. “Who’re the Giants playing?” she asks the Firefighter.

“Looks like the Yankees,” he says, assessing the striped uniforms.

Bat cracks against ball and the crowd roars. The Giants’s center fielder snags what could have been an inside-the-park homer. “Do the Giants even play the Yankees in our world?” the Mother says. “I didn’t think they did.”

“Well, now there’s interleague play, and of course, the World Series,” the Firefighter says. “But I’d say it’s uncommon.”

In the bottom of the fifth, the Giants leading by four, the Firefighter grabs the Mother’s arm and waves his ax at the two escorts who part just enough to let him drag the Mother toward Gorsonip and X. “We have to get to your son, right now,” he says. “We can’t let him eat that.”

Gorsonip is handing X a gargantuan, rainbow-hued lollipop that spins like a pinwheel and gives off sparks, now gold, now silver.

That’s odd, the Mother thinks. If X’s dearest wish was a Giants game with his dad, why couldn’t it have been a hot dog? Sparkle and pinwheel if you must, but don’t mess with the National Pastime, even in Fairyland. Roll over, Bowie Kuhn.

“My Nana said never to eat fairy food.” The Firefighter plows forward, trailing the Mother after him. “Or you become a slave and can never leave Fairyland.”

They push through the crowd until they stand in front of Gorsonip and X. The Mother, who has longed for nothing but holding her son for what seems like an eternity, now cannot wrest her eyes from Gorsonip’s face. It’s just like looking into the Father’s eyes after the affair started. He’s the image of the Father, without the man she knew underneath. She shivers.

“Mommy?” X asks, puzzled.

The Mother turns her back on Gorsonip and his disturbing resemblance to her ex-husband. “Sweetie,” she says, holding her hand out to X. “You know you’re not supposed to take candy from strangers.”

“He’s not a stranger, he’s Daddy,” X says. But there’s doubt under those words.

She shakes her head and smiles sadly. “No, Xavier, he’s not.”

The joy drains from X’s face, like a deflating balloon, and takes the Mother’s heart right with it. The fairies rustle behind her, jockeying for position so they can reach X, and her, when they to sorrow.

“Hey, buddy.” The Firefighter comes to the rescue with a cheerful, authoritative dad-voice. “Listen to your mom, now. Give us the sucker.”

“No!” X shouts. “It’s mine!” He opens his mouth wide.

The Mother lunges for the lollipop and knocks it from X’s hand. It falls to the ground, sputters like a guttering sparkler, and disappears.

Everything goes still and silent–a silence pregnant with tension, like the eye of a hurricane. The fairies surrounding them no longer wear friendly faces. “Uh oh,” the Firefighter says. “We must have insulted them.”

Gorsonip conjures an identical lollipop. He advances, saying in a voice not at all like the Father’s, with a face not at all like the Father’s, “I claim the boy for the Winged, to raise him as my own, that he may never again know sorrow.”

The Mother snatches X up, all seventy pounds of him, like he’s a six-pound newborn. He buries his face in her shoulder and quivers against her chest the way he did as a toddler, at the doctor’s office before his vaccinations–his let’s get out of here quiver.

“Over my dead body,” she says. “He’s mine, and he’ll heal with me, the human way, like the rest of us heartbroken Wingless.”

The Firefighter steps between the Mother and Gorsonip and thrusts the antique ax toward the fairy. “Stay back,” he says. “Stay back from the cold iron.”

The fairies–hundreds, maybe even thousands, surrounding them now–laugh a tinkling melody, a sound like a Swiss song from a music box. Gorsonip’s upper lip, the Mother thinks, was rather handsome until it curled into a sneer.

“That is steel, idiot Wingless,” he says. “It has no power against us.”

The Firefighter swallows and tosses the useless ax into the fairies’ midst. “Call me idiot again,” he says. “And I’ll deploy the Jesus artillery. Now, take this!” He peels off his slicker, turns it inside out, and puts it back on. He calls to the Mother, “Turn his clothes inside out.”

Fairy fingers jab at the Mother and X, pinching their cheeks, thighs, and wingless backs. The Danny DeVito fairy tweaks a good hunk of the Mother’s butt so hard her eyes water. That’ll leave a mark, the Mother thinks, swatting the fairies with one hand, the other hand helping X replace his swim trunks with the pseudo-jockstrap-netting side out.

Gorsonip shelters his eyes with the back of his hand as though a bright light has assaulted his pupils. He backs away, the giant lollipop fading to nothingness.

The Mother strips to her bra, an unfortunate pre-divorce Victoria’s Secret model, the elastic now nearly shot. She reverses her shirt.

The remaining fairies scatter like fallen leaves in the wind.

Bruises and welts blossoming on their arms, the Mother and X follow the Firefighter’s oversized boot prints in the damp soil to the Barrier. “X marks the spot,” the Firefighter says, pointing to his goofy heel mark. He tousles X’s hair.

The Mother takes X’s hand and together they pass through.

#

A crowd has gathered at the Neighbor’s pool: other neighbors, more firefighters, a couple of teachers, the principal of X’s school, a guy from a local news station and his friend with a TV camera. The Firefighter’s wife and kids rush to him and burst into happy tears, a mass of arms competing for a place to hug. His wife whispers something the Mother cannot hear, but she knows the news from the way they kiss, the Firefighter lifting his wife off the ground.

The Father is sitting in the redwood gazebo, Brooks Brothers-suited and dry, checking email on his iPhone when the Mother walks up with X.

“Great, you’re back,” he says, as though they’ve just been to Costco in their inside-out clothing and fairy-pinched skins. “Ready, Xavier?” He puts a towel across the boy’s shoulders.

X rushes to the Mother and wraps his wet arms around her. The towel falls to the ground.

How long she had harbored the secret hope that underneath the unflappable distance, the Father might be as heartbroken as she and X. How ridiculous, how misspent that hope seems now. True, she’d been the one to file for divorce, but not before the Father had left them in all the ways that mattered. Could the Father have made it through the Barrier?

Of course not, she realizes. To make it, he’d have had to want to try.

“Change of plans,” the Mother says, reading no more depth of feeling in the Father’s face than she’d seen in Gorsonip’s. If the Father had given a lollipop, or even a hotdog, to X, she’d have felt compelled to whack it from her son’s grasp. “X needs to be with me right now. Sorry for the inconvenience. I’ll–I’ll email you.”

She takes X’s hand. They walk down the hill, past the rock gardens and Priuses, to the place they call home, there to begin the very human process of letting go.

 

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel (Shades of Magic)
A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis. Hardcover (ISBN 0765376458) Tor Books, February 24 2015 – 400 pages. Also available as an e-book.

In sharp contrast to the real-world super-villainy of her first book, V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is an exhilarating fantasy adventure that ranges across multiple worlds, all of them linked by the city of London–the single constant in every world. The result is a dazzlingly stylish and inventive fantasy, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Ellen Kushner.

Kell, the magician-hero, turns his fabulously magical coat inside-out again and again to suit each different world’s fashions as he leads the reader between dimensions, from Grey London, the magic-free Regency-era London of our world, to the Red London of his world–where magic is kept harmoniously in balance–and to the violent and magic-hungry White London, whose psychopathic rulers are eager for new territory. And then, of course, there’s the terrifying legend of Black London, the world that magic devoured.…

Kell is an Antari, one of a few people whose blood makes them capable of passing between worlds. Like the other Antari, he is used as a messenger between the royal families of three worlds, passing messages between his own foster parents (the royal king and queen of Red London) to mad King George III and the Prince Regent of Grey London, and to the vicious twins Athos and Astrid Dane, who rule White London. Athos and Astrid have tortured their own magical messenger into enslaved submission, but Kell on the other hand was taken in as a foster-son by the royal couple in his world and is treated as a beloved member of their family.

However, Kell’s past is shrouded in ominous secrets. There are hints that his royal foster-parents may have shown just as much ruthless self-interest as Athos and Astrid in the way that they acquired him from his birth family. Kell loves his foster-brother, Prince Rhy, and he genuinely cares for his foster-parents, but the frightening mysteries in his past, and the ambiguity of his relationship to his new family, have led to a lingering resentment that flowers into rebellion. Nothing but the royal letters are meant to pass between worlds but Kell has become an adept smuggler, breaking the law purely for the thrill of his secret rebellion. It is that rebellion that leads to disaster when he finds himself in possession of a forbidden relic from Black London, an object with deadly powers that Athos and Astrid would do anything to acquire, and something that is almost immediately stolen from him by a thief in Grey London who has more magic than she realizes.

Lila Bard is a street-thief who dreams of becoming a pirate queen. Bold, bright, amoral, and reckless, she leaps into the adventure with utter delight. Once she learns about the existence of other, more magical worlds, she’s determined to become Kell’s partner in the adventure as part of her own quest for a richer, more exciting life. But the streets of Grey London are already becoming infected with a toxic magic from the relic that she and Kell carry, and numerous enemies are determined to stop them from disposing of it.

As Kell’s coat shifts color again and again, Schwab continues to pull out more elegant tricks of her own. The writing sparkles, the magical world-building is rich and imaginative, and there’s a real sense of wonder to the magical incidents throughout. Several of the scenes with the relic in our non-magical Grey London are so genuinely unnerving as well as magical that, while being wholly original, they’re beautifully reminiscent of Neil Gaiman in his Neverwhere days.

If there is a weakness in the book, it’s the fact that Lila–the second most central character–is so clearly not a real nineteenth-century woman. She is a fabulous heroine, full of style, verve and ambition, along with real, painful vulnerabilities, but there is nothing in either her language or her mindset that makes her feel like she was born at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She calls things “creepy” and orders Kell to “Keep it together!” with the phrasing of a woman who’s grown up speaking English in the late twentieth century. Not only does she not share predominant nineteenth-century beliefs or a Regency-era view of the world–which would be perfectly fair, as many real people of the period didn’t–she also doesn’t react against those cultural restrictions, which makes her far less convincing. As a character from a different world, or from a substantially altered version of our own world, she would have been perfect–but as the one representative of the real nineteenth century, she’s entirely implausible.

So it’s a testament to V.E. Schwab’s writing that Lila is still such an enormously fun and sympathetic character, as is Kell. Their adventure takes them spinning between brilliantly developed magical worlds, their enemies are genuinely frightening, and their strengths and weaknesses complement each other perfectly. This book ends with enough closure to be satisfying, but it leaves open several paths for adventure in the upcoming sequel. Fans of beautiful writing and exciting fantasy adventures won’t want to miss it.

Down the Rabbit Hole with Julian Mortimer Smith

Julian Mortimer Smith is a writer, resident of Nova Scotia, and a board game enthusiast. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, AE, and Crossed Genres. Julian’s story, “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” appeared in the December 2014 issue of UFM, and I’ve since had the opportunity to chat with with him about plotting, character arcs, writing workshops, and a few other choice digressions:

LM: For those unfamiliar with the terms, “architects” are writers who completely plan out their stories before they begin to write them. “Pantsers,” on the other hand, fly by the seat of their pants, making their stories up as they go along. Where do you fall on the architect/pantser spectrum?

JMS: I do a bit of both. I usually start out pantsing, building out from a specific image or character or idea, but eventually hit a point where the story becomes unwieldy, and I have to take a step back and play the architect for the bit. Occasionally, I’ve had one of those great runs where I just sit down and bang out a complete story, carried along by a wave of inspiration — the way I used to imagine writing happened — but I find it’s only really feasible with very short stories. For longer pieces I always end up needing that scaffolding to keep things from falling apart.

LM: I’m pretty much the same, pantsing my way through the first draft and then using it as a foundation to build on. What to keep and what to kill is always a trick part. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” leaves a number of things to the reader’s imagination, such as the growler behind the curtain, the nature of the fox-like man, and the means by which the narrator extracts the final price. As a writer, how do you decide what to explain and what to obscure?

JMS: One of the things I love about speculative fiction is feeling as though I’m entering a world that’s ripe for play and exploration. Sometimes, the second half of a novel or movie is a process of slow disappointment as all the fantastical elements are explained and all the mysteries resolved. Tying everything up in a nice tidy package can be clever and satisfying, but also makes the world of the story feel smaller, less rich with possibility. My favourite stories are rough-edged — the ones that leave you with more questions than answers. I find that small details, mentioned in passing, are often more compelling than even the strongest plot.

I guess I try to explain enough to give readers a kind of guided tour while leaving as many open doors and windows as possible, so they can get a glimpse of a much larger world beyond.

LM: Your story certainly provided us with a tantalizing glimpse of a world that felt ripe with mystery and narrative potential. Will you ever revisit the world of Mr. Handlesropes and The Aficionados?

JMS: I’m working on a novel set in the same world as the Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium that will climb through some of those doors and window. I have also previously published two stories set in a place called Fumblers Alley [Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy and The Mugger’s Hymn]. Are all three set in the same world? I’m not sure yet.

LM: In “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” we’re presented with a desperate narrator who, until the final scene, appears to be a violent, drug-seeking gambler. As a writer, how do you get a reader to invest in a character like Mr. Magpie?

JMS: The protagonist isn’t very fleshed out in this story. In fact, I never even specify a gender; although, I’ve found many readers assume one way or the other. But right from the start, the character wants something, and that’s an easy (lazy?) way to ensure a certain amount of investment, whatever the motivations for wanting that thing.

LM: Many writers would be loathe to discuss their protagonists in such honest terms, so kudos for that. In collegiate writing workshops, writers are often encouraged to write stories where the protagonist changes in some way. They’re also told: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” When I reread the story to prep for this interview, I remember noting that the narrator was flat (our perception of her/him changes at the end, but s/he doesn’t). It’s one of the things that I really liked about this piece: the protagonist didn’t need an arc. I was totally invested the quest for the phial, drawn in by the intensity of the narrator’s need.

Have you done any writing workshops?

JMS: Yes, I’ve taken some writing workshops. During my undergrad at McGill University I took a creative writing seminar taught by Claire Rothman. Then in the summer of 2012 (about 10 years later) I took a class on writing dark fantasy through the School of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto, taught by Eve Silver. They were very different from each other in tone and structure, but both super useful. Writing classes force you to write and let you talk to writers about writing. Great instruction is the icing on the cake.

LM: What was the best and worst advice you’ve received in a workshop?

JMS: “Write what you know” is probably the worst piece of writing advice in circulation, at least if taken at face value. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually received this advice — does anyone give it without giving careful disclaimers alongside? Maybe it’s an urban legend.) Having said that, I think there’s a kernel of good advice there. “Find out as much as possible about your subject, and don’t try to just make it all up” is good advice. The most inventive fantasy worlds often lean heavily on research (like Tolkien).

But for me, the most useful advice has often been tips about staying motivated and working hard rather than craft stuff. The idea that writing just flows out of you on a wave of inspiration is extremely attractive but extremely damaging to productivity. The most useful advice I received didn’t come from a writing class, but from an argument with a musician friend, who claimed that musical talent doesn’t exist, and that the best musicians are just the ones who work hardest at it. At the time I argued with her: “What about this prodigy?! What about that person with perfect pitch?!” Implicit in my reaction was the hope that I might have that kind of natural talent. I didn’t want to give up that possibility, and a part of me still doesn’t. But abandoning that notion has been the most useful thing for my writing.

This attitude also gives you a certain amount of distance from your work. I no longer think of my stories as an expression of my inborn talent. I think about them as things I’ve made. Like meals. If they turn out well, I’m proud of them, and enjoy sharing them with people. If they turn out badly — well, maybe I used a bad recipe, or put in too much salt, or whatever. It’s not a reflection on me. And I think that’s the best way to view advice from craft workshops — as reliable recipes to be followed or tinkered with. If you follow them too slavishly you’ll never really get a good feel for your ingredients. You can ignore them altogether, but don’t be surprised if your dinner turns out gross.

LM: You worked as a collegiate teaching assistant. Was your work related to writing, and if so, how did that experience influence your craft?

JMS: I worked for two years as a TA for a class called “Film & Society,” so it wasn’t a writing class, but it did deal a lot with narrative and form. I spent a lot of time trying to teach students to write (essays) with clarity and precision and avoid the kind of rough edges and open questions that I enjoy in fiction. I think good academic writing makes everything as explicit as possible.

LM: I think you bring up a good point about the stylistic differences between academic and creative writing. Aside from a sense of mystery, what else would you say that good storytelling needs?

JMS: I don’t know that a good story “needs” anything in particular (I’ve read a lot of great stories that violate many of the traditional rules of storytelling), but there are some ingredients that a lot of good stories share: specificity of setting, compelling characters, tension (and resolution of that tension).

What would you say good storytelling needs?

LM: For me, good storytelling requires an awareness that the reader needs a reason to keep turning the pages. Craft elements such as solid prose, creative premises, and deep characterization aren’t enough if I’m not invested. During my first week at Clarion West, instructor Elizabeth Hand talked about the way a compelling painting commands the viewer to look. As a reader/editor for several publications, I reject a fair number of well-written stories because they failed to draw me in. They didn’t command me to look.

JMS: That’s interesting. Do you think it’s more true for short stories than novels?

LM: With short stories, readers are typically looking for something they can finish in a single sitting. Novels have more breathing room; the reader expects to have an extended engagement with the narrative, so if a novel starts off slow, the reader knows that the author still has hundreds of pages to work with. If you’re two pages into a short story, and it hasn’t captured your interest yet, the next story in the publication (or a different book, or the TV, or the clickbait about the top 5 celebrity amputations) starts to compete for your attention. With novels, the reader expects to take breaks, but with short stories, if a reader stops reading voluntarily, there’s a good chance s/he won’t go back.

JMS: What about authors who are “difficult” or “hard to get into” but that you end up loving? One of my favourite fantasy authors is Mervyn Peake. The first book of his Gormenghast series, Titus Groan, famously starts with a long, dense description of the architecture of a castle. It goes on for pages and pages before introducing any of the main characters. It’s a bit of a slog. And yet that series is among my all-time favourite books. Would the book have been better if it had started out as a real page turner? I’m honestly not sure. Maybe it would have been.

LM: Some publications instruct their slush readers to reject a story as soon as it loses their interest. I think that the bottom line is this: don’t bore the reader–but that doesn’t mean that stories need to open with gunfire, mushroom clouds, or whirlwind sex. How a story keeps the reader’s interest doesn’t matter, just so long as it does. Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the narrator’s sheer audacity commands the reader’s attention as s/he wonders what Humbert will say or do next.

Since being published by UFM, another of your stories found a home at Crossed Genres. You’re on a roll! Any parting advice for aspiring urban fantasy writers?

JMS: Be patient. Magazines can take months to get back to you, and you might have to shop your story around to a dozen different markets before you hit the right editor, so selling your first story can take literally years. This can be dispiriting, but time and quantity make it easier to deal with.

Any given story sent to any given market has a very small chance of getting published, but if you submit 10 stories to 10 different markets you’ve increased your chances by an order of magnitude. And if those 10 stories get rejected, you can rotate them one market counterclockwise and send them out again.

It’s a bit like gambling, but playing the game is free, so there’s nothing to lose and your expected return is always positive. If you can think about it like this, then simply having stories out there in slush piles will start to feel like real progress.

To read Julian’s other stories set in Fumbler Alley, check out “Cabaret Obscuro,” “Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy,” and “The Mugger’s Hymn,” or visit his website julianmortimersmith.com.

LiamsquareLiam Meilleur is a submissions editor for Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He attended Clarion West in 2013, has an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he teaches for the English department and serves as an editor for Binghamton Writes and the Harpur Palate literary journal.  You can read about his adventures as a genre writer in the literary world at a Rainy Day in Eden or follow him on Twitter at @illivander.

Dave the Mighty Steel-Thewed Avenger by Laura Resnick

 

 

 

It was when a rat rose up on its hind legs and spoke to me in the middle of the street at one o’clock in the morning that I realized that this night was going to be different from all other nights.

“Hello, Dave,” it said.

“Whoa,” I said in reply. “Is that a rat talking to me?”

Okay, I should definitely not have had that second beer. I can’t hold my liquor at all, so I knew even while I was doing it that having two beers in a row was a bad idea.

And here, now, right in front of me on the dark street, was proof positive.

Excuse me?” said the creature.

“A talking rat?” I said incredulously.

There was a moment of silence as I stared slack-jawed at the rat, which stared back at me.

Was I hallucinating, I wondered? If so, did this mean that two beers were enough to give me alcohol poisoning? Should I proceed immediately to the campus medical center and check myself into the detox unit?

Or was this a practical joke? Maybe it was a set-up to covertly film me–and then immortalize me on YouTube–making a fool of myself. In which case, I was impressed with the technical skill of the perpetrators, because the rat looked completely real.

“Rat?” the creature repeated. “Rat?”

I looked around in the dark, expecting to see someone recording this scene.

“First of all,” the rat said coldly, still on its hind legs, “the word ‘rat’ is considered pejorative. The appropriate term is ‘urban rodent.'”

“A politically correct rat?”

“I am not a rat!”

“Hey!” I fell back a step when the thing bared its little fangs at me. Maybe it had rabies.

Or maybe I had rabies. I was talking to a rat, after all.

“I am an opossum!” it cried. “I do not in any way resemble an urban rodent.”

“Sorry,” I said inanely. “I don’t really know that much about –”

“I am, in fact, the opossum! The marsupial who has been foretold in song and story,” it raged, advancing on me. “How dare you mistake me for a rat!”

“Joke or no joke,” I warned as I backed away from it, “if I get bitten, I’m filing a formal complaint.”

The animal paused, made a squeaky sound, then raised a little paw. It had weird-looking pink digits. “I apologize, Vworntokthalis. I did not mean to appear aggressive. It’s just that I have looked forward to this meeting for so long and have imagined our first exchange of greetings so many times.”

“Huh?”

It brushed its whiskers with the other weird-looking pink paw. “I must admit, I feel some disappointment at how it’s going so far.”

“Yeah, well… whatever.” I turned and walked away. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait!” cried the creature, following me. “I have sought you now because, exactly as the Wizened Ones of Loremead have long feared, Grok the Valkslayer has roused the Dread Grzilbeast from its prison of enchanted sleep in the Caverns of Mimnoth.”

“Oh, well,” I said, picking up my pace. “I’m sure things will work out.”

“Can you slow down?” my furry friend asked. “This is a demanding speed for me when I’m talking.”

I reached the end of the street, turned the corner, and walked faster.

“Stop!” cried the opossum, panting a little. “You must listen to me! This is the dark night described in the Prophecies of Joralion! The doom that was foretold in the Codex of the Ninth-Born has come to pass! Now is the time prognosticated in the Calendar of C’ghu’nim and secretly coded into the Long Island Railroad timetable for Oyster Bay!”

I stopped in my tracks and stared at the opossum. “So it is a joke,” I said with certainty.

“It is no jest, Vworntokthalis!” cried the animal, his little sides heaving as he came to a stop, too. “Now is the time for the Avenger of the Valk to lay rightful claim to Jasmine Truethunder, confront Grok –”

“How did you know I’m from Oyster Bay?” I challenged.

I looked around again. Yes, it was dark, but I had covered more than a block since being accosted by a talking marsupial, so by now I should have seen or heard whoever was following me with a camera.

It replied, “I know because I am Briddlecroonak the Seer, the marsupial foretold –”

” –in song and story. Yeah, I know.”

“My visions told me that Vworntokthalis the Avenger hailed from a town called Oyster Bay. So I went there.” Briddlecroonak the Seer continued, “But it turned out that you had left that hamlet as a callow youth.”

“Who told you I was callow?”

“Fortunately, though, as time passed, you became aware of your destiny to avenge the Valk by slaying Grok and mastering the Dread Grzilbeast.”

I sighed. “Can we just stop now?”

The opossum raised one paw to pat his whiskers fretfully. “Er, you did realize your true identity, didn’t you, Vworntokthalis?”

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

“That is… I mean, I had naturally assumed that you moved to this dreary little town of cheap taverns and no symphony because you recognized that your destiny lay here.”

“I moved here to attend law school,” I said morosely.

“Yes! Becoming an under-achieving student at a second-rate law school was an excellent way of eluding your enemies while you prepared for your inevitable confrontation with Grok the Valkslayer,” said the marsupial. “The last mighty steel-thewed avenger I knew couldn’t resist showing off to random maidens and passing strangers while awaiting the challenges foretold in the prophecies about him. And thus it was that he met an early grave and never fulfilled his destiny. But not you! No, you have been prudent, cunning, and wise. To immerse yourself so completely in an identity of such consistent mediocrity was brilliant!”

“Gee, thanks.”

“But I, Briddlecroonak the Seer, can sense that you have been unhappy and restless while waiting for your glorious fate to unfold.”

I wondered which one of my classmates had decided to use my anxieties as fodder for this weird joke. Maybe it was someone from my Antitrust Law class, which was the course I hated the most–and the one I was the closest to flunking.

The possum continued, “If you continue on this path, Vworntokthalis–”

“Stop calling me that.”

“–you will graduate in the bottom third of your class at this poorly-ranked law school, after which your best possible fate will be a career as an ambulance-chaser. Most likely, though, you’ll struggle to find even a moderately remunerative white-collar job and spend many years paying off massive student loans without ever even entering the legal profession for which you trained with a mixture of ambivalence, apathy, and reluctance.”

I glared at the marsupial. Everything it was saying was true. I had spent the past few weeks thinking over my situation and trying to escape exactly the conclusions this furry little fellow was now voicing. It was why I’d gone to a bar and had two beers tonight–which is about one-and-a-half beers more than I ever drink.

I’d had no idea what to do with my life after graduating from college, or how to find a job with my B.A. in philosophy. So I had applied to law school simply because I didn’t know what else to do. Now in my second year of the program at (Briddlecroonak was right) a second-rate law school, I still didn’t know.

And I was getting angry about my problems being made the butt of this elaborately weird prank. So, acting on impulse, I bent over, picked up the opossum, hoisted it into the air, and started shaking it, trying to detect or dislodge whatever audio device someone must have attached to it.

“Who are you?” I demanded.

“I told you! I am Briddlecroonak the Seer.” The opossum struggled against my grip as it added, “And I hate heights! Put me down, Vworntokthalis!”

Its warm breath brushed my face as it spoke in a shrill voice while struggling against my hold. It was definitely a real animal, and–I realized with a mixture of shock and recognition–it was really speaking. There was no audio device attached to it, and with its face so close to mine, I could tell that its voice was coming from its own mouth.

“Yikes!” I dropped Briddlecroonak and stumbled backward, staring at him in amazement.

“Oof!” He hit the pavement like a bag of wet cement and lay there motionless.

“Briddlecroonak?” I took a tentative step closer. There was no response. “Uh, are you okay?”

“I just need a moment,” was the faint reply.

I looked around. We were still alone. I had chosen a Wednesday for my drinking binge, so hardly anyone was around now, though the streets would be crowded at this late hour if it were a weekend night.

I decided to accept that there were no pranksters or video cameras involved in this strange event. Sure, I might be hallucinating under the influence of two beers. Or maybe I was cracking under the stress of realizing how much time and money I had already thrown away on studying for a profession that I didn’t really want to pursue. But if there was even a faint chance that I was not delusional… then this was certainly the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me, and I wanted to see where it would lead. Especially since Briddlecroonak’s stark description of my life was depressingly accurate.

So I said, “I’m sorry about manhandling you just now.”

“Oh… that’s all right, I guess.” The opossum started scraping himself off the street.

“I suppose I… lost my composure.”

The marsupial grunted, pulled himself together, and then sniffed his fur. He made a little noise, then looked at the pavement where he had been lying. “I think someone vomited here recently.”

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” This street ran directly between the bar district and the main campus. “Are you feeling okay? Didn’t crack your skull or anything?”

He touched his snout gingerly with one pink paw, rubbed his rump, then shook his head. “Oh, don’t worry, Vworntokthalis. I survived much worse treatment at the hands of the fanatical Plikazar sect during the Schism of the Sirikirai. Not to mention what Yurg the Destroyer did to me when I helped rescue the Scrolls of Calarnius from the Fires of –”

“Okey-dokey,” I said quickly. “If you’re feeling all right, then maybe you can walk me slowly through this whole Grok-Grizzle-Valkyrie thing.”

“Valk,” he corrected. “Just Valk. The Valkyrie are… well, they’re a whole other thing, and we don’t need to worry about them right now.”

“Who or what is a Valk?”

“By thunder, Vworntokthalis, we have no time for a history lesson! Nor can we ‘walk slowly’ through explanations!” Briddlecroonak cried. “Have I not impressed upon you the urgency of the situation? The Dread Grzilbeast is free! Grok the Valkslayer intends to bring about the doom foretold by the chroniclers and prophesied by the . . . the . . . the prophets!”

“It sounds like you’re saying this is a bad thing.”

“Only you can defeat Grok, return the Grzilbeast to its prison of enchanted slumber, and save the last of the Valk from being slain!”

“So I gather we don’t want the Valk to be slain?”

“Of course not,” said Briddlecroonak (with noticeable exasperation). “If the last of the Valk is slain, then the Incarnation of Konax can never come to pass! In which case, the Age of Ilak cannot be averted, and darkness shall smother the Five Kingdoms.”

“This is getting so complicated,” I said. “Maybe I should take notes.”

“You don’t need notes, you have a seer. The seer. Me!”

“In that case, can you ‘see’ what we’re supposed to do now?”

“Why are you making that gesture with your hands?” he demanded. “Are those supposed to be quotation marks?”

I folded my arms. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be rude.”

“I am literally a seer,” Briddlecroonak said with wounded dignity. “So, yes, of course I can see what we’re supposed to do now.”

“Then, by all means, share it with the class.”

“Huh?”

“Tell me what to do,” I said. “Because, uh, by thunder, I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Fortunately, what you must do is very simple,” said the possum. “Impossibly dangerous and probably fatal –”

“What?”

” –but quite simple. Follow me, Vworntokthalis!”

Briddlecroonak started waddling down the street at a brisk pace.

I followed. “Hold on. How dangerous?”

“Well, not necessarily as dangerous as the time I had to help retrieve the Three Golden Arrows from the Mountain of Ghouls.” He was panting a little as he kept talking at this (for him) brisk pace. “But probably more dangerous than the time I –”

“Never mind,” I said. “Did you say fatal?”

“Well, probably fatal for Dave, the ordinary fellow you have pretended to be while awaiting this night foretold in song and story,” he said cheerfully.

“I am Dave.”

“But surely not for Vworntokthalis, the mighty steel-thewed Avenger of the Valk!”

“I should probably mention that my thews really aren’t all that steely,” I said, plodding behind the opossum. “I never go to the gym. Jogging makes me vomit, and I fainted the only time I ever tried to do a bench press, so…”

“Do not trouble yourself with such reflections, Vworntokthalis. Gymnasiums are for people who are going to be lawyers,” Briddlecroonak said dismissively. “Or for those in search of easy sexual conquests.”

“Seriously?” I’d always thought that was an urban myth.

“Your strength arises from your birthright and has lain slumbering inside you, ready to awaken when the time is ripe.”

“Well, I guess that’s some comfort…. But if you were going to calculate odds on me surviving my confrontation with the Valkyrie-slayer, what would you say my chances–”

Valkslayer. Valk,” said my companion. “And his name is Grok.”

“I’m just wondering exactly how dangerous Grok is,” I said as we arrived at the main entrance to the oldest part of campus, which conveniently abutted the bar district.

There was a big, pretentious gate, an old building with a clocktower, and a notoriously dirty fountain that surrounded a marble statue of the minor statesman who’d founded this university with the fortune he’d made by exploiting child labor.

“Here we are,” said Briddlecroonak, coming to a halt in front of the fountain.

I looked around and didn’t see anyone. Certainly no Valks, Groks, or Grzils. (I had no idea what any of those things were, but I had a feeling they’d stand out around here as much as–oh, for example–a talking marsupial.)

I looked again at the opossum. “I mean, on a scale of one to ten, would you describe Grok as a nine? A two?”

“Before you can defeat Grok in glorious combat–”

“Are we sure it has to be combat? Maybe Grok and I could just talk. You know–work things out like adults.”

“–you must first claim Jasmine Truethunder.”

Momentarily distracted, I asked, “What if she doesn’t want to be claimed? Has anyone asked her how she feels about this?”

Briddlecroonak started wheezing. I only realized it was laughter after he said, “Ah, thank you, my brave friend. That witticism helped break the tension.”

I’m still tense.”

“Now is the time! This is the place!” Briddlecroonak rose up on his hind legs and waved his little pink claws majestically. “Jasmine Truethunder has lain in wait for years beyond counting, sleeping until this moment! Claim her, Avenger of the Valk! Claim her and know your destiny!”

I looked around again and still didn’t see anyone.

“Claim her!” the opossum repeated.

“Is there a sleeping princess somewhere that I’m supposed to kiss?” I asked in confusion.

The seer’s nose twitched and his lips curled up over his fangs for a moment. Then he said, with forced patience, “Reach into the fountain.”

“What? No way. Do you have any idea how many drunken students have pissed in this fountain since the last time it was cleaned–which was probably when Ronald Reagan was president?”

Briddlecroonak got back down on all fours. “Look, if you won’t even touch a little dirty water, then this night is going to be a disaster. And the Five Kingdoms are doomed.”

I looked into in the murky water. “Oh… crap.” And considering the way it smelled, that was another substance that was probably floating in it. “All right.” I rolled up my sleeve, thinking that as soon as we were done here, I was going to the med center to have my whole arm sterilized.

As I plunged my hand and forearm into the slimy water, I acknowledged that all my behavior tonight–and particularly this moment–confirmed that it was past time for me to drop out of law school and come up with a better plan for my life. Except that I was still in law school because I didn’t have any other plan. I was every bit as aimless and unfocused as I had always–

“Whoa!”

I was so surprised I nearly fell into the fountain when a bright, iridescent light suddenly spread across the water, turning it a dozen shades of glimmering blue, violet, and turquoise. Even more surprisingly, the water was suddenly crystal clear, as if no one in the whole history of the college had ever pissed, spit, or vomited into it.

And from the depths of the crystal-clear water that shimmered and glowed with strange enchantment, there arose a gleaming, steel blade. As I reached for it, it whirled away and spun around in a dizzying circle, then floated up to the surface–up, up, up until it broke through the water and soared into the air. Still trying to grab it, I stumbled forward, and now it came into my outstretched hand as if escorted there by destiny itself.

“Wow,” I said.

“Your weapon, Jasmine Truethunder,” Briddlecroonak said triumphantly.

“Weapon? It’s, um, a penknife.” I folded the blade closed, then opened it again. “See?”

“As legend foretold, she gave herself into the hand of the true Avenger of the Valk,” the opossum said somberly. “You and no other are destined to slay Grok and master the Grzilbeast–or die trying!”

“Die?” I repeated. “Did you say–”

“Embrace your true identity, Vworntokthalis! Bond with Jasmine Truethunder, for she will not fail you.” Briddlecroonak added, “Well, probably not.”

I was very impressed by the whole event, of course, but even so… “This is a penknife.”

The seer placed a little pink claw on my ankle. “Now you are ready for deadly combat, Vworntokthalis. Now you must face Grok the Valkslayer.”

“If I’m honest, that suffix, slayer, has me a little worried,” I said. “How many Valk has he slain, for example? And in addition to having a secret identity as their avenger, do I also have a secret identity as a Valk? If so, then isn’t it likely Grok might slay me, given that–”

“You really have been in law school too long, haven’t you?” said the seer.

“But not for much longer!” said a menacing, gravelly voice behind us. “Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Moving as one man (so to speak), Briddlecroonak and I whirled around to confront the owner of that voice, and we found ourselves facing…

“Professor James?” I said in surprise, seeing my notoriously unpleasant Antitrust Law lecturer standing there in the dark, laughing maniacally. I recognized him even though his eyes, normally a dull brown, were now bright red and glowing–which I don’t mind admitting I found pretty unnerving. A split second later I saw the thing crouching next to him on all fours, and I nearly wet myself. “What the hell is that?”

“Grok!” exclaimed Briddlecroonak.

“That’s Grok?” I said in horror, staring at the thing beside Professor James. “How am I supposed to fight that?”

It was some sort of animal, roughly the size of a Saint Bernard dog, but clearly feline in nature. It looked as if someone had crossed a domestic tabby cat with a prehistoric saber-toothed tiger–and then did something to make the offspring very, very angry. The thing was growling and crouching as if preparing for attack, its hackles raised, its long fangs bared and dripping with saliva.

“Seer! So we meet again after all these years,” Professor James said in a menacing voice. Then to me, he said, “Hello, Dave.”

“That’s Grok?” I repeated. “What am I supposed to do with a penknife?”

Too scared to look away from the giant, crouching cat, I waved my implement around in Briddlecroonak’s general direction, though probably five feet above his little head.

Professor James gasped and fell back a step. “Jasmine Truethunder!”

“Hah! That’s right, Grok!” said the opossum. “I found Vworntokthalis first. You are too late to prevent the Avenger of the Valk from bonding with his fateful weapon and . . . and  . . . and avenging the Valk you have slain!”

“Jesus, kill a few lousy Valk and the Wizened Ones of Loremead send half the heroes in the Five Kingdoms after you,” grumbled Professor James. “This is getting so tedious. But, oh, well, I guess I’ll have to kill another warrior.”

You’re Grok the Valkslayer?” I said in astonishment, gazing into his glowing red eyes. James was the most burned out, snide, and unpleasant professor in the whole law school (which was saying something). He had been here for decades and seemed embittered and overdue for retirement. “I don’t believe it.”

“Frankly, I’m having a hard time believing that you’re the Avenger,” he shot back. “You have maintained an impressively convincing disguise of utterly forgettable mediocrity during your sojourn at this institution. I congratulate you, Dave.”

“Um, thanks.”

Except for the glowing eyes and the menacing creature beside him, his behavior seemed completely normal (yes, he was like this all of the time).

“You’re really Grok the Valkslayer?”

“Long have I awaited this moment, Avenger,” he intoned. “It was foretold by the ancients that you and I should meet in mortal combat, and the fate of the Valk would be decided between us.”

“I don’t suppose we could just talk about the Valk?” I said without much hope. As far as anyone knew, James had never once agreed to a student’s reasonable request.

“Heresy!” he thundered. “Even the Codex of the Ninth-Born and the secretly-coded Long Island Railroad timetable proclaim that one or the other of us must die this dark night, Avenger! Face up to your destiny!”

“You’ve had a little more time to prepare for this than I have,” I pointed out.

“Always with the excuses, Dave,” he said with disgust. “If you failed to prepare for this test, it’s your own fault.”

“Oh, now wait just a damn minute. I was walking along tonight, minding my own…” I came to my senses and shook my head. “No, never mind. Forget it. Let’s just get on with this.”

It was my Antitrust mid-term all over again.

“Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” he laughed.

Seriously, except for the glowing red eyes and the giant snarling feline at his side, this was just like being in his classroom.

I glanced anxiously at the creature beside him. “So I guess that’s the Dread Grzilbeast that you freed from its enchanted sleep in the Caves of… of…”

“The Caverns of Mimnoth!” he snapped. “Didn’t you prepare at all, Dave?”

God, I hated this guy. I’m generally opposed to physical violence, let alone mortal combat. But I realized, standing there in the dark as Professor James, a.k.a. Grok the Valkslayer, sneered and jeered at me, that if I was ever going to kill anyone, then I really wanted it to be him. In fact, as memories of the frustrating injustices and undeserved humiliations I had suffered in his class flashed through my memory, I realized that something inside me understood, believed, and knew that I was indeed destined to kill him–or die trying.

So I said grimly, “Oh, believe me, Grok, I am prepared for this, all right. You prepared me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Avenger?” he said with a sneer.

“That’s Mister Avenger, to you,” I said with a half-decent sneer of my own.

“Oh, this is going just like the Prophecies of Joralion said it would!” Briddlecroonak clapped his paws and gave an excited little hop. “Prepare to meet thy doom, Valkslayer!”

“Hah!”

Moving with the speed and agility of a young athlete, which took me by complete surprise, Grok leaped straight at me. He was brandishing a dagger (where had that come from all of a sudden?) with three long, shiny blades–all of them aimed at my throat.

I shrieked, staggered backward, and reflexively threw my penknife at him. Hey, I was new to this whole mortal combat thing and hadn’t expected the old man to jump me so fast or fiercely. So I panicked.

Jasmine Truethunder flew straight into Grok’s forehead and hit him right between the eyes with a solid thud! Grok froze in mid-leap, hovered motionless for a moment, then keeled over and lay there on the ground, his eyes remaining wide open as the strange red glow slowly faded from them. My penknife was sticking out of his head, its blade having sunk into his skull.

Briddlecroonak squeaked and squealed with excitement, running around in little circles. “You have done it, Vworntokthalis! Hip-hip-hurrah! You have triumphed over the Valkslayer!”

“I have?” I tiptoed closer to Professor James’s prone body. “Is he… dead?”

I had barely finished asking the question when a putrid yellow mist arose from the corpse. The body began liquefying, bubbling and gurgling noisily, churning itself into the thickening yellow mist that stank of sulfur as it soared upward and away.

“Whoa!”

“Hurrah! Hurrah! The Valkslayer is slain! He has fallen to the Avenger’s mighty blow!”

I stood back and held my nose, gagging at the stench, as the body disintegrated and evaporated, roiling skyward and then dissipating on the wind.

When there was nothing left of Grok’s body except a little sticky slime and the penknife which had slain him, I bent over, picked up Jasmine Truethunder, and used my sleeve to wipe clean the blade of my bonded weapon.

Then I held Jasmine Truethunder aloft and proclaimed, “This is the true hero of this dark night.”

Briddlecroonak patted my ankle. “But you certainly helped.”

I shrugged. “And, happily, I don’t have to try to explain the corpse of my most hated professor to the law school dean.”

I heard a loud snarl, looked over my shoulder, and realized that I was about to become a corpse. The Dread Grzilbeast gave a mighty roar and then launched itself at me.

In my terror, I dropped my penknife rather than throwing it.

Fleeing for my life, I turned, ran–and immediately fell into the fountain. Now that it had surrendered Jasmine Truethunder to me, it was no longer glowing and clear, but had returned to its usual putrid condition. But since this was no time to be fastidious, I simultaneously staggered, flailed, and swam as fast I could, moving further into the murky water as I felt the Grzilbeast enter the fountain behind me, its immense claws reaching for me.

“Agh!” I made a desperate lunge to escape the big, bloodthirsty monster.

“Meow!” a pathetic little voice wailed directly behind me. “Meow!”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw… a small tabby cat dog-paddling in the filthy water, trying not to drown as it cried for help.

There was no sign of the Grzilbeast.

“What the…?”

I reached instinctively for the drowning tabby cat, which clung to me and cried pathetically. I clutched it to my chest as I looked around, dreading the renewed sight of the long-fanged beast that had been chasing me only a moment ago.

“You have returned the Dread Grzilbeast to its enchanted sleep!” cried Briddlecroonak, punching the air with a little, pink fist. “Yes!”

“I’ve done what?” I said, standing in the middle of the stinking fountain.

The seer gestured to the frightened cat that clung to my chest as I started wading to the edge of the fountain. “This is the Grzilbeast in its enchanted form.”

“Seriously?” I looked down at the sputtering cat. “It looks just like the mouser that lives in the basement of the law library.”

“Yes, that is where Grok woke it, intent on using its unleashed ferocity for his own evil purposes.”

“The library basement?”

The opossum nodded. “Also known as–”

“Let me guess,” I said. “The Caverns of Mimnoth?”

“Precisely. And we must return the sleeping Grzilbeast to the Caverns of Mimnoth–”

“Or, in local dialect, we must return Stripes to her kitty bed in the basement of the library–”

“–and flee this realm before the Minions of Grok find, torture, and dismember us.”

“Well, I was going to say, ‘Before anyone notices Stripes is missing,’ but, hey, you say tomato, I say to-mah… Wait… What did you just say?”

“That sulfuric mist rose from the body to be carried on the winds to the Cliffs of Nomhara, where the Minions of Grok will be alerted to the slaying of their revered idol.”

“That guy had minions?”

“They will want to punish the hero who slew him,” said my companion. “And believe me, you do not want to mess with minions.”

“But why did–”

“Garrgh!”

Briddlecroonak the Seer had a vision. Peering sightlessly into this dark night, he drew in a long, deep, noisy breath through his little, pink nostrils and made a humming sound. Then he said, “The mist has already reached some of the minions.”

“That was fast.” Still clutching the cat, I hauled myself out of the fountain, soaking wet and smelling incredibly rank. “What should we do now?”

“We must flee to the Valley of Sohn where we can rally with the Exiled Ones and mount a defense.”

“Okay, that’s pretty specific,” I said with a nod. “I guess you know where this valley is?”

He waggled his paw. “More or less. We might need to ask directions along the way.”

“But why are we going to rally with the Exiled Ones?” I asked as we headed rapidly in the direction of the law library, so we could return Stripes to her proper place before departing. “Shouldn’t we go find the Valk? I mean, I’m their Avenger, right? I just slew Grok the Valkslayer, and all that.”

“Oh, the Valk will shower you with gratitude and glory when next we meet them,” said Briddlecroonak, “but they’re basically a species of decorative butterfly and, as such, not very useful in a situation like this. So we’ll rally with them some other time, Vworntokthalis.”

“All right. That makes sense,” I said. “But there’s just one thing I have to say before we go off on another adventure.”

“Yes, of course.” The opossum nodded. “I know what it is.”

“Oh, right. You’re a seer.”

“You’re not sure this is the right path for you, leaving behind all that you know in order to travel to strange lands, face more deadly foes, meet with danger and constant–”

“Oh, no, that’s all fine. No problem there.”

He stopped waddling and stared at me. “No?”

“No. I’ve finally figured out what to do with my life. I’m on board. Avenging the Valk, heroic deeds, deadly enemies, mortal combat–count me in all the way. But…”

“Yes?”

“I’d really rather you just call me Dave, if you don’t mind. I can’t even pronounce Vw… Vw… the name you’ve been calling me.”

“Oh! All right. If you wish it, of course I can call you Dave.”

“Great.” I gave my furry partner a friendly little pat on the back. “Now let’s get Stripes to safety and then go rendezvous with the Exiled Ones in the Valley of whatever.”

And thus it was that I dropped out of law school and embarked on my true path in life.

Welcome to the February 2015 issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

Welcome to another issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine.

We’ve got more amazing fiction for you this month. We decided to lighten things up a little with a humorous piece from Laura Resnick, author of the Esther Diamond series. Having indulged our lighter sides, we immediately descended back into dark fantasy with a contribution from debut writer J. J. Roth called “So Suffer the Heartbroken Wingless” about a journey into fairyland gone wrong.

Quite a number of you have joined our Book Club, and we’ve created a place for you to discuss the books that you’ve been reading in our forums. Feel free to drop by, say “Hi”, and check it out! Melissa Bleier, our Book Club manager, will be there to welcome you, and we hope to have some appearances from the authors of our highlighted books as well.

This month has seen quite a few staffing changes at UFM. Emily C. Skaftun has left the magazine to focus on her writing career, and so we’ve asked Tinatsu Wallace to step into her shoes. Tinatsu has been reading for us since our launch and has picked great stories out of the slush, so we’re excited to have her aboard.

Finally, we’ve been working behind the scenes to bring you fantastic work from some of the best writers out there. If you’ve been waiting to see if this is the kind of magazine to which you’d like to subscribe, hopefully we’ve earned your trust. If you are reading this on the web, please consider hitting the subscribe button on the menu bar above this post. A yearly subscription is available for as little as $2.10 a month, and every cent of what we make goes back into buying great stories and developing this website into a community that fans of Urban Fantasy might want to call home.

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