Thick Cover

 
Art by:  Hugh Pindur

Art by: Hugh Pindur

 

Jakkob knocks. A trio of dull thuds. A rough voice tells him to “Enter,” the old mage pours over a massive tome lit by dozens of candles. An owl sitting on a perch turns its head, opens an eye, then returns to its nap. Overcrowded bookshelves stretch to the ceiling, books too big to fit on the shelves sit in piles. Smells of wax, dust, ink, bird, paper, smoke, tea, and wool fill the room.

“Master Grall.”

“Hello, Jakkob.” Grall spins a finger and the door closes. “Lost your little friend, eh?”

Jakkob groans. “I was careless.”

“I’ll say.”

“I wasn’t thinking, moved to quick, figured I’d picked the right…Obviously I didn’t.”

“What’d I tell you about selecting and casting spells?”

“Take time to consider the consequences—I know, I know.”

Grall looks up for the first time, sneers, “No. You don’t. And now you’re here when you should be out there”—waggles his finger, the old door rattles—“practicing your art.” He sighs, “So what’re we going to do about this, mm?”

“That’s why I’m here, sir.”

“Oh don’t “sir” me,” Grall groans. “You’ve never been one to show respect before, don’t tickle my fanny with fluffy words now that you want my help.”

“How can I get Sven back?” asks Jakkob.

“Sven? Oh, that’s the rat’s name?” Grall grins. “I’ve got to ask, what made you pick a rat?”

“A lot of reasons. They’re clean, they’re smart, they can get into places most people would never expect. People underestimate rats. I know a lot of mages prefer bird familiars, but I’ve grown quite fond of my little buddy. He has far more personality than any bird I’ve met.”

The owl’s eyes flash and clacks her beak. “Ah, ha. Be nice, Bella,” Grall chuckles. “Pray she and Sven are never in the same room together.”

“I’d put my money on Sven. Like I said, people underestimate rats.”

“Yes, fine-fine. So, how do we get him back, eh?”

Jakkob nods, “That’s why I’m here. Do you have any ideas?”

“Tell me how it happened.”

“Right. Two nights ago—”

The full moon gives a boost to magical energies, and Jakkob, after a few beers, is in a fun-loving mood. Wants to play around. Nothing wild, nothing sinister, just make people pause and scratch their heads. He’s walking down an alley, headed back to the room he rents and gets an idea. He’ll tweak the color of the bricks on this wall, put little white flowers growing between the cracks. When people come this way tomorrow, they’ll wonder if the bricks were always that shade. Were the flowers always there? At least those that notice—if anyone even does. A harmless prank.

As Jakkob flips through the pages of his spellbook he senses eyes. Sven squeaks. Ah piss, muggers. Now instead of looking for a spell that’ll tweak color and grow flowers, Jakkob searches for something that’ll allow him to get away.

One of the muggers, his words slurring says to, “Drop the spellbook.”

Jakkob casts a time dilation spell. A simple thing that changes one second into many. Now how to get away from these bastards. The moment the spell ends they’ll be on him...Unless. A half dozen possibilities come to mind, which one, which choice, what spell for this moment? Ah-ha, here we go, this’ll work. Jakkob smirks as the spell catches his eye.

Pages swirl as Jakkob weaves his magic. He pulls threads of possibility, twists chance, a snip of reality here, a bit there--minor tweaks. He takes a fragment of fate and binds it to the tangible now. He turns their boots to bricks, melds the bricks to the road. They’ll be stuck until morning, or at least until a mason hears them.

“Thought you’d get the jump on”, says Jakkob, but when he turns to look at his would-be-attackers there’s no one there.

Grall combs his beard with thin, ink-stained fingers. “Ah. You discarded the wrong spell, didn’t look twice. Classic. You removed them from the current Now.”

Jakkob nods, “Sven too.”

“Mm, and Sven, yes. Well, here’s the funny thing about that sort of spell. You can’t undo them. You’ll have to wait for a new opportunity, and try again.”

“I thought you just said I can’t—”

“Undo is not the same as redo. This fate is set, but if you pay attention and take your time—as I’m continually telling you to—then maybe you’ll get Sven back. Not what you were hoping to hear, I know. But when the opportunity arises, be ready. It’ll happen. Keep your eyes open. Learn from your mistakes.”

 

Season of Growth

“Some of the townsfolk have been whispering about seeing things in the woods, do you know anything about this?” asks the constable. He pours water from the earthen pitcher into a worn mug. Looks his guest in the eyes, gives the pitcher a little shake.

The woodsman nods, “Thank you,” scoots his cup to the table’s center. “It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try.”

The constable fills the woodsman’s cup, “Take your time.”

The woodsman grunts, “Time…I’m not sure we have much.”

“Go on.” The constable sips his water. “What’d you see?”

“I’ve been chopping trees and clearing the paths for years, ever since I was old enough to swing an axe, my pops was taking me with him. Every day I go and fell a tree or work on splitting one from a previous day.” The woodsman runs a hand over the bottom half of his face, sighs. “It’s hard to say for sure when I started noticing it.”

The constable’s eyes narrow. “It?”

“Mm, this—Serra bless me—is going to sound crazy, but I think the forest knows what I do. I think it always has, but it’s different now.”

“What do you mean? More water?”

“Have anything stronger?” asks the woodsman.

“I do, yes. What do you mean about it being different now?” the constable gets up and opens a cupboard, pulls a bottle out. The cork comes out with a squeak and a pop.

“When I think back to when I was a boy, I recall this feeling of the woods knowing my father and I were there. Watching us…Watching over us. I don’t think it’s happy we’re cutting its trees to burn, but I always got this feeling that they understood.” The constable pours two fingers of the brown into the woodsman’s mug, the woodsman nods in thanks. “Not happy about it, but knew we needed the wood to survive. Like we’d come to some unspoken agreement. Allow us to take a tree to fuel our fires and in return we won’t be greedy and take too much.”

“It’s not the same?” asks constable and takes his seat. “When did it change?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it was sometime after that young lord built his summer estate on the other side of the river.”

“And this feeling you get—what is it now?”

The woodsman shakes his head. “The forest isn’t happy. And to be honest I can’t blame it. The lord’s men are cutting down a half dozen trees every couple of days and burning them for no better reason than to have bonfire parties.”

“Mm,” constable nods, “yes, those are hard to miss. The air constantly smells of smoke now.”

“I think the forest is going to do something soon.”

“Do? Do what? How?”

“Like I said, it’s hard to describe, but I would swear I’ve seen people in the trees.”

“People? You mean the lord’s men?”

“No, no,” the woodsman shakes his head. “No. I mean the trees are the people.”

“How does…I don’t…” the constable, scratches his head, sips his drink. “What?”

“I think the forest is coming alive in a way we never thought possible.”

“Why?”

The woodsman sighs. “I think we’ll find out sooner than we’d like.”

 

Come In Soon

 
Art by:  Colie Wertz

Art by: Colie Wertz

 

Her mother, seeing through her daughter eyes, asks, “What do you like about them so much, Anna?”

“It’s not them I like. It’s the air, how fresh it tastes after they clean it.” Anna changes her vision to her mother’s view, sees dinner being made. One kitchen-bot chops onions, another stirs a steaming pot. “What is that?” she asks.

“Spaghetti.”

“Oh.” Anna switches back to her own feed. Swings her feet, pulls on the cords, sways back and forth. The fleet of air-fleas hums as they move through this sector. They pass through once a week to scrub the air.

“Before you were born, people said your generation would never reach five. They thought we’d be dead by now. Said the air was so bad our lungs would calcify or liquefy. Maybe turn to ash or tear open and we’d drown to death in blood.”

“All at the same time,” Anna chuckles.

“Probably someone thought that too. Funny how it’s the naysayers, the doom-criers, that sound the loudest. You rarely hear the optimists. I wonder why that is,” says mom.

Anna feels a slight tingle climb the back of her neck—her dad joining the conversation.

“Easier to cry about a wolf than it is to kill it,” Anna’s dad says. He’s a day’s travel away. Half a mile up in a control tower, overseeing a fleet of air-fleas cleaning another sector.

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” says Anna.

“Again?” dad asks and chuckles. “Better than what we get here. You can only mix and match and find new ways to eat these MREs so many times before you just want anything else. Something that didn’t come out of a bag. The tuna casserole makes a real fun wet-plop when you dump it onto a plate.”

Anna laughs. “Can I see?” she asks, swaps her view to her father’s eyes. Sees a bank of computer displays, her father’s hands holding a tablet, he’s tapping, swiping.

“Sorry, love, already ate a couple hours ago. Gotta get back to work here, but I wanted to add my two cents to your conversation. People are negative because it’s easier. That’s what I meant about crying wolf. I’ve told you the one about—”

“Yes, you have. The boy that…He pretends there’s a wolf, but…Yeah, you have.”

“Okay, okay. I thought so. Easier to be a little snot than to learn the skills and be brave enough to actually face a wolf. Same thing happens again and again. I once read something that said “It’s best to slay dragons before they hatch” and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Trouble is you don’t always know what you’re looking at before it hatches. An egg looks nothing like a full grown dragon. Only a dragon expert would know what they were looking at.”

“Thanks for that, dear,” mom says.

“Is that sarcasm, mm?” dad asks.

“No, no, well…Maybe a little.”

“Mm-hm,” dad laughs. “I’ll see you in a couple days, be good—Love you.”

Anna feels the tingle at the back of her neck fade.

“Dinner will be done in about ten minutes, Anna. Don’t stay out too much longer.”

“Okay, I’ll be in soon.”

 

On A River of Souls

 
Art by:  Artem Demura

Art by: Artem Demura

 

The boatman guides the king along the river of souls.
They that are its water turn their faces, ashamed of their lives.
The king gave his all to honor to his people, to lift their name.
His knights watch, weary and worn, grateful for his company.

The river of lost had only turn to him, a great example.
To see what could be, to know they needed not toil in vain.
So few try, too many fail, breed contempt, share their pain.
Content to hurt together, subdued by their own resistance.
Unable to find the joy in the discomfort growth brings.

The king’s knights watch from the steps.
The few that took his message to heart.
The cavern’s walls painted with their rage turned inward.
Never able to spur the populace to heights of greatness, they smolder.

Gone now, the people who could have led the country.
Destroyed by a refusal to be better, lulled by simplicity.
The king and his knights search for sympathy and find none.
The doors to life close and boatman wades through the throne room.

The king’s final resting place, in the company of those who strived for better, and those who did not.
His fallen people, their backs forever turned, too guilt stricken to show their faces.
The king and his knights found peace in life.
The question now is if the king’s people will ever find theirs.

 

Tomik, Distinguished Advokist

 
 

“Ah, there you are,” Ral says walking onto the balcony.

Tomik continues to watch the scene below before turning. Scores of construction workers go about repairing the church. He already knows where this conversation is headed and hasn’t been looking forward to it. “I wish I could go with you.”

Ral smirks, shakes his head, “I know you do, but this is my burden.”

“At least take a guildmage with you. Let me send one of ours. The older ones can both heal and harm—”

Ral’s shaking his head. Takes three steps, closing the distance between them, “I have to do this alone.” He takes hold of Tomik’s arms.

“The recent graduates are able to lock down large…This isn’t even what’s bothering me. I know you’ll be fine. I’m projecting.”

Ral tilts his head, takes a half step back. “What do you mean?”

Tomik runs his fingers over the cloth at his wrist. “I don’t know how to do this…Lead a guild. It’s,” he sighs, “a lot. I’ve overseen entire sections of city planning, organized dozens of contractors, led projects that cost sums you wouldn’t believe, but to have the weight of the entire guild”—he touches the cloth again. “You leaving only makes it worse.”

“Trial by fire,” Ral’s eyes twinkle. “What’s it they say? From the water of need rises the beauty of creation?”

“I believe it’s “The water of need births grand design”, at least that’s how I’ve heard it.

“Sounds about right. You’ll do great.”

“Tell me something.”

“Hm?”

“You’ve been the head of the Izzet, what is it you’ve learned? Give me some advice. Don’t give me that line about figuring it out. I already have enough figuring it out on my hands.”

“Ah, hmm,” Ral heads across the balcony. Leans against the stone carved gargoyle. “Well I guess the biggest thing is to make sure you’ve got good people around you. If you try and oversee every little thing you’ll lose your mind. Delegate, but make sure you can trust those you surround yourself with. Figure out who answers to who. That’s one thing you Orzhov have better than anyone.” He rocks his head side-to-side. “Well, okay, the Boros might have it better.”

“Ral.”

“Mm?”

“What’re you talking about? I’ve told you a thousand times I can’t read your thoughts. What do we have better than anyone?”

“Oh, right. Hierarchy. A whole system of who’s-who. Who answers to whom. This cleric, this pontiff, this…whatever, I don’t know all their titles.” Ral touches first finger to thumb, pulls them apart and watches electricity dance in the space.

“I have nothing like that,” says Tomik. “Or how Kaya could pass through walls. I feel like I should if I’m going to lead them.”

Ral laughs. “This”—he turns his palm down, a small lightning bolt strikes the stone—”doesn’t help me lead the Izzet.” He spots movement at his vision’s periphery and turns just in time to see the gargoyle’s stone tail thump him in the leg. Ral jumps back, “Holy…Mother of…I totally forgot about him. Good grief.”

Tomik chuckles. “You think I climbed the stairs?”

“I did.”

“You have lightening—all the inventions of the Izzet. Kaya has her ghostwalking. I have…I have him,” he nods towards his gargoyle mount.

“And all the money in the world at your disposal. And,” Ral touches a finger to Tomik’s forehead, “this.”

Tomik grins, nods. “Thank you. Maybe that’s all I wanted to hear. A vote of confidence.”

Ral smirks. “You’ll do fine and I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

Endling

 
Art by:  Livia Prima

Art by: Livia Prima

 

This is not the end. I see myself reflected in this field. My other self. The self I need to be, when I need to be. Sometimes stronger, sometimes wiser, sometimes more frail but more lethal. I remain because I must, but why I remain has become dull. I remember my life before, yes. That’s as clear as ever. But how I became this is not.

My parents grew and sold flowers. Buyers came from the city for the beautiful bouquets. As a child, I helped pick weeds in the garden. As I learned more about the trade, I was sometimes allowed to help with the arrangements.

Still remember the first time my dad told me I was going to handle a bouquet all myself. It was a small arrangement--I think it was meant to be a birthday gift. Only three flowers, it was all the buyer could afford. I went to the garden and knew I wanted one of the three to be a sunflower. We grew the most vibrant sunflowers, the colors of burning gold so bright I had to squint. When I turned around I saw my father stumble out of the home, his throat slit.

Two weeks before a trio of men had shown up, demanding payment. My father refused. The men said they’d give him time to reconsider his foolishness. I remember that making me angry, them calling my father a fool. He was anything but. They came again a week after the first visit, asked if he changed his mind. My father crossed his arms, lifted his chin, and said he’d never give them anything. I was so proud of him. My mother had tears in her eyes when she hugged him that day.

Blood running down his chest, hands grasping at his throat, I ran to him. Held him as he died. That’s the last thing I remember before…Before this. Before I changed. The next thing I remember is seeing me—my body—holding my father, and he holding me. And yet, I was looking at these hands, these new hands--yet not new.

I found the men inside, the same three, taunting my mother. They’d cut her, were prodding her with their weapons. She didn’t make a sound, wouldn’t give them anything whatsoever.

The first one to turn swung at me, but I didn’t feel it. Before he could draw back to stike again, his life left him. The other two…And I do not understand how it happened, but they killed me. They did, I know they did. I felt myself die, saw it happen—somehow I witnessed myself die a second time that day. But then I stood again and felt as if I’d woken from the most restful sleep. I felt stronger than ever. The men ran.

I caught up with them. I’m not sure how. Everything about what I am now doesn’t make sense in the way I used to understand things. But I was there, at their backs, my sword running them through. The garden drank their blood. The sunflowers turned their faces towards me, their golden pedals now a rusted hue. When I looked back at my home it was only a foundation, the bones of my parents long gone.

How long have I been standing here? How long will I remain? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is not the end.

 

To Forever Search

 
Art by:  Alena Aenami

Art by: Alena Aenami

 

What is it about cafés that grab our attention? Ah, well…I can’t speak for anyone but myself. I don’t know what catches yours. But mine? For some reason, no matter where I am, I see a café and I can’t help but wonder about it. How’s their coffee? Do they serve pie, is it any good? Do they have breakfast all day? How’re their eggs and bacon and pancakes? If a café can get those three right it’s probably a good one. But I can tell whether their food will be worth trying before I even sit down.

You can feel it.There’s a certain smell to the good ones. Hell, the bad ones too. They say smell is the one sense that best connects us to memories. You might think I’m chasing something stuck in the past. That I’m searching for ‘the one that got away’. In part, you’d be right. But that’s just it, you’d only have part of it. You see, where I had the best cup of coffee isn’t where I had the best buckwheat pancakes, and where I had the best fried egg (my god, those perfect golden edges) isn’t where I had the best bacon. The best slice of cherry pie I ever had was the same place that served three-day old bread for their toast—I still don’t understand it.

What I’m looking for might not exist. Having been to dozens—maybe hundreds—of cafés at this point, I’m beginning to think it very well doesn’t. That’s alright. It might be better this way. Gives me something to look for. A goal to ever try and reach. What would I do if I found the perfect café? A café where the toast is just right, where the butter is warm enough to spread but not so warm it’s a puddle, where the bacon is crispy but never burnt, the coffee fresh and hot and smooth as chocolate and honey? I suppose if I ever found such a place I’d have to quit my job as a traveling salesman and settle down right there.

It’s odd to both look for a thing, but at the same time hope you never find it.

 

Ayula, Queen Among Bears

 
 

She’s heard all the things they’ve said about her children. Born of the woods. The leaves serve as ears, the forest floor is her skin, tree knots see for her. Cedar her father and Spruce her mother. Ayula, Queen Among Bears, lifts her head and sniffs the air.

Miles away, a hunter chops wood. Movement at the edge of the forest catches his eye. He pauses, wipes sweat from his brow. His son stacking the wood asks his father what it is. The hunter points, “There, see? Just a bear.”

A trio of patrolling knights head down a worn road. Their lances held high, backs straight, armor gleaming in the morning sun. One pulls a wine skin hanging from his saddle. “Put that away,” says the captain. “Stay vigilant. Merchants have seen bears out this way.”

“Bears?” the wine knight scoffs. “Just bears?”

The scents and sounds that ride the air tell Ayula the humans have forgotten. More afraid of wolves than the forest’s first rulers. She calls and the bears come. With each new arrival they grow in strength. Soon there are dozens. They move as a tidal wave of muscle and fur, teeth and claws. An angel scouting the skies sees trees fall like grass underfoot. She tucks a wing, banks, and heads towards the disturbance.

Ayula, Queen Among Bears leads her growing tribe towards the nearest human settlement. A relatively new town, all things considered, only two generations old—a child in tree years. Ayula intends to remind them of the bear’s place. Not the laughing stock of the forest kingdom, but its rightful royalty.

The angel lands in front of the mighty queen. “Ayula. Where are you going?”

Ayula stops, sits back, stares at the angel. The first such creature she’s seen with these new eyes. “Ahead.”

“To the humans?”

Ayula bows her head in a single nod.

“I’m sworn to watch over them. I must ask, what do you intend?”

“To crush them. Remind them of the might of bears. Too long have we been laughed at. I’ve heard them all this time. Their lack of respect is,” she huffs. “No more.”

“I don’t doubt your ability to teach them a lesson. Might I suggest another way?” The angel folds her wings.

A bear as tall as a mature pine lowers his head. “This one would make a nice snack, my queen.”

“No,” says Ayula. “No eating the angel. Let’s hear what she has to say. Why shouldn’t we continue?”

“Because there are families,” says the angel. “They would suffer. Children would lose their parents, wives would become widows, men would see you rip their sons and daughters limb from limb. Is that what you desire? A queen protects her kingdom, yes. But to be provoked to action by every little taunt? No. They’re just words.”

“Every little--this has been going on for years, angel,” says Ayula. “No one respects the green anymore. The forests are ignored. Only the sickness of fire, foul magics, death, and decay triumph.”

The angel nods. “These are dark times, true. But there is good too. Change is on the horizon. Have you heard about the dragon-god?”

“Bolas. What of him?”

“He’s been imprisoned.”

A low roar rumbles in the back of Ayula’s throat, her eyes widen. Murmurs ripple through the surrounding bears. Their eyes full of anger and suspicion, begin to soften. “By who?” asks Ayula.

“Dozens of planeswalkers and the citizens of Ravnica. Many gave their lives to see his evil locked away. Now his brother serves as jailer. We’re entering a new era, Queen Ayula. All I ask is that you be a force for good, not pain and strife and bloodshed.”

Ayula doesn’t respond for a long time. Her bears sit, some lay with chin on paw, some sleep. Birds land on Ayula’s shoulders and still she does not reply. The sun sets, rises, sets, and rises again. She considers the angels’ words. Finally she says, “You’re right, what they say doesn’t matter. Only their actions do. Let us see what this new era holds. We’ll wait and watch.”

 

Time Wipe

Two seconds ago. Vapor coalesces forming shapes. Elongated and wavering—a child’s still wet painting hanging to dry. The colors run. Skeletal white, lazotap blue, metallic black. Leg meets hip, an arm and shoulder come together, a head grows from a spinal column. A dozen of Bolas’ eternals gather into clattering form. They stumble, puppet-like herky-jerky movement. As one, they turn on him. The woman lies still at their feet, blood pools at her head. Standing alone Teferi’s grin fades, his fingers part.

Now. “Not like that,” Teferi twists his wrist, snaps his fingers.

The dozen eternals shiver, their bodies deform. Armor falls free. Heads and arms fade into the wind, they vanish like steam. The girl hiding behind Teferi sees her mother blink, blood pooled around the woman’s head draws back into its home.

“Mommy!” the girl dashes past Teferi and falls onto her mother. Parent and child embrace.

A week later. Ravnica is grieving, healing, and starting to rebuild. Teferi sits in a garden, Selesnya druids guide new growth. Footsteps approach, the figure throws back his hood.

Jace nods, “I saw what you did.”

“I did a lot.”

Jace smirks, “Uh-huh. I’m talking about that girl’s mother. Didn’t think you did that—messed with life and death.”

Teferi purses his lips, “Mmm, well, you see a lot of things in war you don’t expect.” He waggles his fingers, in the distance a tree sprout grows a foot.

Jace nods. “What exactly did you do? I saw a dozen eternals there one moment, then gone the next.”

Teferi chuckles, “Yes, well…To understand would require years of study. To put it simply: they were undone.”

Jace half-turns scanning the ruin of the garden and the city beyond, “How about undoing all this, huh?” he points to the tree a foot taller than it was a minute ago. “Do that, but for the whole plane.”

Teferi shakes his head, “It doesn’t work like that, Jace.” He looks into the distance, eyes unfocused. “I tried something like that once, many years ago. Now my home is gone. I’ll never do it again.”

“Well, grow a few more trees then.”

Teferi chuckles. “Maybe I will—maybe I already have,” he bounces his brows.