Here we are again, back at the annual attempt to jumpstart my inert heart. Summer’s smoke scorched it dry and now I must perform an autumnal resurrection with mummy’s dust and witch’s brews, guttering candles and rattling chains. Can I be honest, though, Ray? I’m tired. Bone tired. I can’t recall when last soft rains came to wet these gargoyle lips and set free the words frozen in stone. I don’t know if I have the strength left to whistle monsters home to roost on cathedral eaves. I feel like Mars long abandoned by native civilization and colonizers alike, just fifty-six million square miles of red sand and dust-covered ruins and the trash of a thousand forgotten generations. I feel like a barren rock hurtling through space that has never known a single Halloween. Yet the full harvest moon shines a bright gold coin in the sky on this equinox eve and I’m gonna try, Ray, I really am, though what kind of jack-o’-lantern tree will grow from soil this parched I do not know. But with your words as my witness, I’ll try.
Full Name: [ REDACTED ]
Alias(es): Darkelvenmage, Shatterpan, Lightbreaker, The Dark Lady, The Wanderer, Exile Queen
Ship’s Name: The Dread Ship Jolly Roger
Age: Unknown, minimum estimate 3,500+ years
Species: High elf
Weight: Slender build
Distinguishing Marks: Right hand and lower half of arm appear to be made of a substance like shadow made flesh. Fingers on that hand are shaped like long, sharp claws.
Quirks: Likes to leave graffiti around the worlds she visits.
Other Special Traits: Immortal; immune to cold and less susceptible than others to illusion magic.
Magical Abilities: Summon and control lightning; summon and control living shadows, draw down darkness, move through shadows unseen; commune with monsters and beasts; dispel illusions; minor necromancy; break wards, seals, locks, barriers, etc; most sorcery.
Fighting Style: Relies primarily on speed and agility. Takes advantage of opportunities to play dirty, loves taunting her opponent.
Preferred Weapons: Short blades, throwing knives, uncomfortable truths and mockery.
The wolf managed to ignore its hunger the first night but tonight it’s ravenous, so desperate for the taste of fresh meat that when it catches the scent of blood on the wind it eagerly tracks the smell through rainy back alleys and dark city streets. It’s new to the hunt but knows enough to stick to the shadows while it discerns the metallic odor beneath layers of gasoline, cigarette smoke, and exhaust. It reaches the source, a pool of fresh blood at the end of a narrow alleyway, just as a body slumps to the wet pavement.
“Oh. Hello there, lovely beast,” The pale man who stands over the discarded body licks blood from his fingers as he eyes the wolf. Its hackles rise under his flat black stare, growl rumbling out from between bared teeth – no human would dare hold a predator’s gaze so boldly. Instead of shrinking in fear the man smiles, revealing sharp canine teeth. “Aren’t you a fine one with your black fur and blazing blue eyes? Very scary.” He took a step back, gesturing with one hand to the still body. “You look hungry, though. I’m done here if you’d like the rest.”
The wolf hesitates, trying to decipher any lies through the man’s body language, to sift through his strangely indefinable scent for some hint of ulterior motive. Finding none, when the man backs up another step the wolf chooses hunger over wariness and falls upon the body, tearing into the still warm meat with relish. The stranger has disappeared by the time its hunger is finally sated.
Tanim tips his head up, surreptitiously scenting the chill evening air. This basement level apartment seems to be the place, though its unlabelled door and tightly shuttered windows certainly don’t suggest recent occupancy. His new senses haven’t failed him yet, however, so he knocks anyway. After a long moment the door cracks open and familiar dark eyes stare back at him out of a narrow, pale face. Tanim wets his lips; that hard gaze is just as inscrutable up close as it was the night before.
“Hey, I didn’t get a chance to thank you for dinner,” He holds up the bottle of obscenely expensive liquor held in his other hand and offers a tentative smile. “I thought maybe I could pay you back? My name’s Tanim.”
Those dark eyes bore into him a few agonizing seconds longer before one side of the stranger’s thin mouth lifts in the shadow of a wry smile. He opens the door wider, stepping aside and gesturing for Tanim to enter. “Daren,” he replies. “Come on in.”
On this longest day of the year your priestesses take to the streets to celebrate the Sun triumphant. Clad in flowing silks and precious gems, skin glowing with gold dust, they blend their voices in lilting harmony as they sing your praises. Dancers dip and weave in time to the pounding of drums; tiny bells on their ankles jingle with each minute movement. Despite the heat of the day, torchbearers carry flaming braziers into which your oracles toss incense laced with poppy and nightshade. The procession treads on rose petals thrown by the gathered crowd until the marble boulevard gleams red in the sunlight.
Finally the litter bearing your statue comes into view and the cacophony of chanting, drumming, and clapping reaches a crescendo. Here you are in all your glory, white marble form adorned in gold and shining like a beacon. The writhing incense smoke makes your placid expression appear to flicker through emotions – wrath, sorrow, regret, compassion – as if even cold stone can be moved by the prayers of the masses. Those gathered call out to you as the litter passes, giving praise and begging blessings, or bow their heads and weep for the honor of witnessing your sacred statue with their own eyes.
Only one person who serves your holiness is not at this celebration. Do you notice my absence, Lord Sun? Does it offend you? Or are you pleased at least someone holds vigil with the corpse of your slain lover? Out in the streets they rejoice the godblood dripping on your hands yet only you and I know the truth of it. Let your priestesses and oracles exult in your victory today; your scribe will do right by the fallen Moon, even if I am the only one mourning the death of darkness on the longest day of the year.
Holy shit, you do not feel good. You are dimly aware that one of the witches from the bar has followed you out, but you trudge stubbornly through the parking lot without acknowledging her. You’re fine, you just used too much magic, you’ll sleep off the drain and feel better in the morning. It begins to rain; you ignore it, letting the fat drops soak your tangled black hair. Did you park here? You can’t remember through the fever haze. Better to just walk home, it’s not that far (no one’s going to steal that junk heap anyway).
You let your combat boots lead the way down the familiar sidewalk, exhaustion dragging down your eyelids, the chill rain a distant irritation in the growing dark. But your steps are uneven no matter how carefully you try to place them and though you could swear you haven’t let your eyes close for more than an instant, suddenly you’re tripping over railroad ties and rusty nails, splashing through weeds and puddles instead of stepping on firm cement. You’ve wandered a bit off your path, haven’t you? And shit, you’re so fucking tired you could fall flat on your face right here and spend the night in the ditch for all you care. Then you do start to fall (whoops), but there are arms waiting to catch you…
You wake beneath blankets in a bed about a hundred times more comfortable than yours. The witch from the bar, the one who followed you (earlier tonight? yesterday?), sits beside you. Now that you’ve slept off the spell drain fever and can actually focus, you realize she’s all kinds of gorgeous and you’re briefly mortified for going so weak around her. She’s going to think you’re some newbie baby witch who can’t handle herself. But then she asks you how old you are (“very” you answer as the flames crackle in your ears and the smoke sears your lungs from across the centuries) and there’s wonder in her voice, not mockery, certainly not pity. She explains that they solved the issue of spell drain a while ago but that of course a witch your age wouldn’t know that. (You’re from a time when it wasn’t safe to trust other witches; you never really shook that habit, did you?)
But maybe for her you could. You get to talking as you recuperate through the morning and she tells you about her life. This home serves as her coven’s base; she teaches mortuary science at the local university, and many of her students are fellow witches who live here with her. They provide funerary services as well, to both the witch and non-witch communities. She’s funny and sweet and has a level head on her shoulders, and she doesn’t let you get away with any bullshit. Not that you attempt much, apart from some initial cagey answers and sarcasm drier than the flames of Hell, because you find the truth spilling from your lips more easily than it ever has. Magic? No. She’s just so damn genuine that she makes you want to be genuine as well. (Guess there’s a first time for everything.)
You realize as she talks that you want to be part of her world, of her life here in this busy house full of youthful noise and camaraderie. You want it more than you’ve wanted anything in all your centuries of existence – save one. And as your eyes meet, the words between you falling silent with anticipation, you cup her face in your hands and find that thing which you have most longed for (and never thought could be yours) on her sweet lips.
Preserving the Memory of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Literature
March 11th, 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, one of the most devastating disasters in recorded human history. The magnitude 9.0 quake which struck off the eastern coast of Japan on March 11th, 2011 remains the 4th largest recorded earthquake in modern times; it not only caused widespread damage in Japan, but even shifted the axis of the Earth. The massive tsunami following minutes after the quake took the lives of over 10,000 people, triggered meltdowns at 3 reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, and left over $235 billion US dollars’ worth of destruction in its wake. After crossing the Pacific Ocean, its waves struck distant coasts hard enough to cause notable damage in the United States, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Chile, and the Galapagos Islands.
Yet the true human impact of such earth-shaking disasters is not captured only in the number of casualties or the cost of response and recovery; it is captured in the personal experiences and journeys of those who survived, and the memories they bear of those who did not. So too are the lessons they learned, which are priceless to those of us who live on or near vulnerable coastlines. For example, with the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the North American West Coast, our “Big One” could look very similar to Japan’s and strike with just as little warning. As we say in the emergency preparedness world – it’s a matter of WHEN, not IF.
Therefore, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, I would like to share some of my favorite written works on the subject. There can be no better way to honor those who lost their lives to this tragedy, nor to show our respect to the survivors who have worked so hard rebuilding their communities, than to take their stories and lessons to heart. Don’t let the subject matter dissuade you; we should not shy away from tragedy, because in tragedies like the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami we find poignant evidence of the beauty and strength of the human spirit.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry
Ghosts of the Tsunami is not a light read, yet it is absolutely worth the emotional journey. While Ghosts of the Tsunami touches on other aspects of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, its focus is the tragedy of Okawa Elementary and the 74 students lost while under their teachers’ care. Parry’s masterful narrative follows their grieving families through the immediate aftermath of the disaster and continues over the span of many years as some parents seek closure while others push for answers and accountability. The story of these families is a haunting reminder that disasters of this magnitude have the power to reshape the future of a community for generations – not only through quantifiable impacts like infrastructure and economic damage, but through the responsibility and emotional burden survivors carry with them.
So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms: Haiku from the Year of the Great Earthquake and Tsunami edited by Mayuzumi Madoka
Given the importance of poetry in Japanese culture, it is no surprise that there are several poetry collections about the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms is distinctive for both the poignancy of its 17-syllable poems, all of which were written by Japanese citizens who personally experienced the disaster, and the amount of detail provided within. Along with both the Japanese and English translations of each poem, the reader is provided with the authors name, age, the number of tsunami-related fatalities in their hometown, and either backstory or direct quotes from the author explaining the inspiration for the piece. Interspersed between chapters is also commentary from the editor, distinguished haiku poet Mayuzumi Madoka, who travelled through the disaster zone in the months after to help survivors heal through poetry writing.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith and Rachel Wada
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden is a beautifully illustrated children’s book based on the true story of “Kaze no Denwa” (the phone of the wind or wind phone), a disconnected phone booth built by 72-year-old garden designer Itaru Sasaki to help him process the death of a close relative. After the tsunami devastated his town, other survivors began using the phone booth to communicate with their own lost family and friends; many found this expression of grief gave them the closure they needed to begin healing. Tens of thousands of people have visited the phone booth since 2011, many even traveling from other countries to experience its unique form of therapy. The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden crafts a simple yet heart-wrenching version of this story that speaks equally to young readers and adults alike, reminding us that grief is part of the human experience and healing can be found in the unlikeliest places.
Beyond Me by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
Beyond Me is a fiction novel-in-verse told from the point of view of a 5th grader named Maya. Maya experiences the March 11th earthquake from the relative safety of her inland town where she’s lucky to lose neither her family nor her home. Instead, she struggles with survivor’s guilt and the trauma brought on by constant unpredictable aftershocks, many of which are major earthquakes in their own right. This is where Beyond Me truly shines – through clever use of font formatting and a disjointed writing style, the reader experiences each earthquake in real-time with Maya. Dropped into Maya’s uncertain world where even the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted, readers of any age will identify with her conflicted emotions. Likewise, I’m sure many readers will identify with the impulse to ignore one’s own problems because “others have it worse”, and hopefully will learn with Maya how to help both themselves and others in a healthy way.
In addition to these 4 books, below is a short list of additional recommendations. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the English-language literature available on the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, but I believe there is something of value available for everyone (and all ages!).
Drowning in the Floating World: Poems – Meg Eden
Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami – Gretel Ehrlich
March Was Made of Yarn: Writers Respond to Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown – Ed. David Karashima, Elmer Luke
The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America by Brian Atwater, Musumi-Rokkaku Satoko, Satake Kenji, Tsuji Yoshinobu, Ueda Kazue, and David Yamaguchi
Tsunami vs the Fukushima 50: Poems – Lee Ann Roripaugh
Up from the Sea – Leza Lowitz
Be careful when promising your firstborn! Make sure you stipulate your first born human child, blood of your blood and flesh of your flesh. Otherwise the fae with whom you made the fateful arrangement might one day come for your first novel, your first painting, your first album. They are wily ones who find even the smallest loopholes in an agreement; if that contract isn’t airtight, it won’t matter if you never have a child in the traditional sense. On the day you complete your first and most precious creation, no matter what form it takes, the fae will come knocking. Will the bargain have been worth it when they leave with the product of your sweat, blood, and tears?
“Point,” Alice scowled as the practice blade darted through her defense and poked at an unpadded joint. She shifted her stance and went on the offense.
“Point,” The blade whipped around Ali’s attack to tap her unguarded throat. Blowing a sweaty strand of hair off her face with an impatient huff, she responded with a renewed assault, her own rapier a flashing blur in the sunlight.
“Point,” Mage grinned as she slipped around the whirling blade, snuck a quick jab through another gap in her opponent’s light armor, and jumped back before Ali could retaliate. “Jeeze,” she called, “did you line your armor with lead or something? Why’re you moving so damn slow?”
“I’m just tired,” Alice growled, trying to close the distance between them with each swing of her blade. “Some of us have been dreamwalking to aid the defenseless instead of lazing about the palace all day.” Mage only scoffed at this. “Oh darling,” she retorted, “you and I both know that’s not what this is about! You’ve been out of sorts for weeks. Something on your–” she dashed in, bopped Alice on the crown with her free hand, and dashed back out, “–mind?”
“No!” Ali rubbed her head and fixed Mage with a baleful glare. “I’m fine! Just drop it.”
“You suuuuure?” The elf danced in a circle around Alice, feinting with the practice blade just enough to force the other immortal off-balance from dodging. “‘Cause you seem pretty distracted lately! What is it, huh? What’s up? What’s going on?” Her sword moved in time with the rapid-fire questions. “Are you mad? Are you sad? Are you hangry? Are you–“
“I’m not mad!” The shout echoed through the training ground, followed by the clattering of Alice’s falling sword. It startled even Mage into stillness. Ali’s next words were a mutter through clenched teeth. “I’m jealous, okay? I’m jealous that you got to have your revenge. You spent years meting out your own brand of justice for what Tivius did. You broke the Lighthouse, for gods’ sake! I’m not saying I wish I had done it instead, or that I agree with what you did, but…” She shrugged. “At least you let all your wounds bleed themselves clean.”
“Ali…” The sound was more sigh than actual commentary. Mage set her rapier down with a bit more care than Alice had and closed the distance between them. Before she could offer any platitudes, snarky or otherwise, Alice held up a hand to stop her. “It’s true,” the woman continued. “I fought for Tivs’ legacy until the very end, even when I was utterly alone. And then we came here and all that’s suddenly in the past, we’re free, time to let it go, and I guess I never dealt with the emotions I’d buried during the war. Not the way you did.” She hugged her arms around her thin frame. “I think I tried to heal the wounds he left so quickly that I never bothered to drain them and now they’re…”
“Infected and full of puss?” Mage offered helpfully. The lump that had been building in Alice’s throat broke free in a burst of laughter. “Yeah,” she chuckled, “something like that.”
“Hmm…” A sly smile pulled up one corner of Mage’s mouth. “You know, normally I’d suggest tracking down the motherfucker who hurt you and exacting some very physical revenge as therapy, but in this circumstance that’s rather complicated. So…” The training ground blurred around them with a snap of Mage’s fingers. When their surroundings sharpened once more, Alice and Mage stood on the swaying deck of the Jolly Roger. Lightning jumped between storm clouds overhead and briefly illuminated the dark hulk of an island on the horizon.
“There we go!” Mage clapped Ali on the back and bent to retrieve her sword. “Why don’t you try reliving one of my battles? Blowing shit up can be very liberating.”
Behold, my 2020 book list! 2020 wasn’t kind to me reading-wise, as being part of my state’s covid response really messed up my overall schedule, so I read way fewer books this year than in most years. Still, I made up for that by reading some REALLY good books – including 26 with queer characters and at least 13 from authors of color. Highlights included The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, The Shadow of Kyoshi, and the Locked Tomb, Broken Earth, and Ascendant trilogies. House of Leaves was good, but I was expecting it to have a higher body count and I wanted more spooky house shenanigans and less relationship angst.
Did you read any of these books? DO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT THEM WITH ME?? Let me know!
- All the Windwracked Stars – Elizabeth Bear
- The Grand Escape – Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
- Flaming Lioness: Ancient Hymns for Egyptian Goddesses – Chelsea Luellon Bolton
- By the Mountain Bound – Elizabeth Bear
- The Sea Thy Mistress – Elizabeth Bear
- She-ra and the Princesses of Power: Legend of the Fire Princess – Gigi D.G
- House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski
- Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition – Paul Watson
- Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer – Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer
- The Cat in Ancient Egypt – Jaromir Malek
- Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
- March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown – Ed. by Elmer Luke and David Karashima
- Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic – Steven Biel
- Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone – Richard Lloyd Parry
- Deathless Divide (Dread Nation) – Justina Ireland
- Stone Mad: A Karen Memory Adventure – Elizabeth Bear
- The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home: A Welcome to Night Vale Novel – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
- Lord of Strength and Power: Ancient Hymns for Wepwawet – Chelsea Luellon Bolton
- Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women – Sylvia Brinton Perera
- The Essential Rumi – Trans. by Coleman Barks
- The Best of Elizabeth Bear – Elizabeth Bear
- Mongrels – Stephen Graham Jones
- Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy Book 1) – Tamsyn Muir
- The Shadow of Kyoshi – FC Lee
- Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy Book 2) – Tamsyn Muir
- Drowning in the Floating World: Poems – Meg Eden
- Lord of the Ways: An Anthology for Wepwawet – Ed. Dianne Bolton
- Seven Devils – Laura Lam and Elizabeth May
- The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) – N K Jemisin
- The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth Book 2) – N K Jemisin
- Heathen: Volume 3 – Natasha Alterici
- The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Book 3) – N K Jemisin
- Dragon Pearl – Yoon Ha Lee
- Excuse Me, Are You A Witch? – Emily Horn and Pawet Pawlak
- Crow And Weasel – Barry Lopez and Tom Pohrt
- Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan
- Wilder Girls – Rory Power
- The Scapegracers – Hannah Abigail Clarke
- The Deep – Rivers Solomon
- The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon
- Three for the Road: Stories from Dread Nation – Justina Ireland
- The Tiger’s Daughter (The Ascendant Trilogy Book 1) – K Arsenault Rivera
- The Phoenix Empress (The Ascendant Trilogy Book 2) – K Arsenault Rivera
- Girls of Storm and Shadow – Natasha Ngan
- Witch Pilgrim Heretic – K.D. Hume
- Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy – George Behe
When the Lighthouse was completed and the Magician first lit the beacon, its light swept across every universe in existence. It called to all the lost and wandering, the hurt, the exiled, the unwanted. This was his intention, that the Light should be a guiding star to all those wayward souls stumbling in the darkness and lead them to the island of Sanctuary. They would be his Lost Boys and he their Pan; a little island kingdom of his own to rule. Yet in his arrogance the Magician never considered his message might reach someone who had been exiled for good reason, nor did he imagine he might summon someone who would not bow to him and could not be cowed by his stolen magic. But he did. The one the Lost would come to call Mage felt that first pulse of the Light from universes away and turned toward it, curious. And then she began to walk.
Some nights Mage lays on the bowsprit of the Jolly Roger and listens to the monsters in the deep groaning against their chains. She dangles her fingers in the icy seawater and sings them lullaby promises of wreckage and ruin. I know what it means to be confined, her songs soothe with wordless melody. I know what it means to be so full of rage, so lost in madness, and yet be denied your rightful vengeance. Hush, she croons, I will free you soon and we will break worlds beneath us. It is a promise to all the maligned beast-horrors exiled to the unkind places of the universe. It is a promise to herself.
You thought yourself so gifted by the Sight that you could miss nothing, not in the Otherworld and certainly not in this one, and look what a fucking fool you’ve been for it. He says “Let me go, Adrian, I’m not worth it, don’t risk yourself,” and you see for the first time what this man was trying to tell you with all those years of faithful service that you never once questioned, only took for granted because you thought them your due as the greatest Spiritualist of your age. Well congratulations, your name and work are certainly well known indeed to have drawn the attention of Hell itself! Now you bend over the bed and take his hand in yours, though his skin burns so hot it sears your palm, and you swear you will find a way to free him from the Devil’s clutches. His smile is a pitying thing (does he doubt your abilities or that you care enough for him to risk your life at all? you can’t tell because you haven’t bothered to learn to read him the way he’s learned to read you, oh you really have been an arrogant fool) and then it’s wiped away as he folds over with a cry of agony and you watch, helpless despite all your lofty arcane knowledge, as the taut flesh of his back splits apart, revealing a trench full of grasping, waving black tendrils where muscle and bone should be. This isn’t in any of your books, nor any tale of possession you’ve ever encountered in your travels, but you know instinctively that if you let those things touch your skin you’ll be taken over too. You tear your hand away just as fissures open along his arms, his chest, those tentacles that make you think somehow of fungi reaching for you eagerly. “I’m sorry, Damien,” you choke out, “I’ll fix this, I will,” and you run like the coward you truly are, leaving him alone to do battle with Satan while you plan your next move from the safety of your study.
Liberty Palace is perfect. It really is. After all, it was made with sympathetic magic to be the perfect home for its two occupants, a place of peace and healing after centuries of pain and struggle. And yet… some nights the beds are a little too soft or the marble floors too still, the halls too silent. No matter how Mage tosses and turns, she just can’t sleep. Her restless blood sets all her limbs twitching and her senses strain against the quiet darkness. Eventually she abandons hope of real slumber, throws on a cloak, and lets her feet take her where they will. Better than staring up at the ceiling until dawn.
One clear night Alice finds her on the roof of the observatory, crouched on the ledge with her knees drawn up against her chest. “The moons are beautiful tonight,” she comments as she sits down beside Mage, letting her long legs dangle over the edge. The women pass some time in companionable silence as they gaze up at Liberty’s star-strewn sky. One moon slips toward the horizon while another climbs higher over their heads. A cool breeze carries the heady scent of night-blooming flowers from the nearby gardens.
“I miss it,” Mage says finally, breaking the silence as she gazes out across the dark landscape. “The ship. It was the first place I felt like I truly belonged. Like it was really mine. I never felt that way on the island, not even in the good times before everything went down. But the ship…” She shrugs, a wry smile pulling at one side of her mouth, half sad and half making mockery of her own feelings. “It was home. I didn’t even realize I had grown so used to all the little things, you know? The sound of wind in the rigging, the snap of the sails, the creak of the timbers; the constant sway and roll of the deck under my feet. But now they’re gone and sometimes I feel their absence like a hole in my heart.” Her eyes flick self consciously over to Ali and then she turns her head away to hide the flush burning her cheeks, muttering, “It’s stupid, I know.”
A soft laugh from her companion makes Mage wince until Ali rests her head on her shoulder. “It’s not stupid,” the other woman sighs. “Sometimes I can’t sleep because I keep waiting for the bright pulse from the lighthouse to wash through the room. That damned thing was broken for years and yet I still find myself longing for the comfort of its steady rhythm, even after all that’s happened and despite all it represents now. Because it was home.” She tilts her head so her cheek is pressed against the curve of Mage’s neck. Mage can feel the flutter of long lashes as Alice closes her eyes and murmurs, “It will pass. We’ll fill this place with new memories and it will become a home too. Our home.”
The ghost women in the walls sway with river current, hair drifting in reedy halos, eyes like fresh dug graves (a tired comparison but an apt one), they reach down from the ceiling for me while their viola voices vibrate a song which I will mourn the loss of upon waking, and though I know they mean to pull me through and switch our places, lock me in their two-dimensional tomb and steal my warm, vibrant life for their own, still I reach back, rising slowly up through the air to meet those filmy moonglow fingers, almost close enough to touch as the music swells; it is lovely just to be wanted, no matter the reason, and anyway I already know what it is to be dead, why should I mind being dead somewhere else?
Angel, angel, what have I done?
I’ve faced the quakes, the wind, the fire.
I’ve conquered country, crown, and throne;
Why can’t I cross this river?
He comes in the afternoon lull, after lunch and games. The younger children are all napping in the dormitories; the older children are at their chores or studying quietly. Few visit the Temple at this hour, save for the occasional childless mother wanting to light a candle or friendly beggar hoping to escape the day’s oppressive heat in the cool of the sanctuary.
He is certainly no beggar. The priestess barely has to look up from tidying the pillow-strewn pews to know this; the shadow that falls across the open doorway is much too large for its owner to have ever had to beg for anything. When she straightens and turns her full attention to him, however, a thrill of fear chills the sweat beneath her robes. What stands in – no, FILLS – the doorway is the largest tabaxi the priestess has ever seen. His white mane and fur are caked in road dust, crisscrossed by old scars and several still-healing wounds. Strapped across his back is a sword easily as long as she is tall, maybe longer, and his fingers gleam at the end with curved claws. No armor, but with that much weaponry and muscle he hardly needs it. A mercenary, most likely, or one turned bandit.
“We don’t keep much coin on the premises,” she manages to assert with a modicum of steel, “if that’s what you’re after.” The Temple of Kodkod is served almost completely by women, many of whom came to it from domestic lives of motherhood, wet-nursing, or midwifery. It is a quiet place, a gentle place, yet that does not mean its staff will not lay down their lives to protect the orphans who dwell here. The priestess has only a simple dagger, hidden away so no chubby child hand may grab it, but she will fight until her final breath if need be.
“I’m not here to rob your temple,” the tabaxi rumbles as he steps forward, raising one hand toward the sword’s hilt. She flinches back as he draws the bright, ringing steel from its sheath – but instead of swinging the sword at her, the tabaxi kneels and lays it at her feet. “I’m here to serve it.”
Pay no mind to the battles you’ve won;
it’ll take a lot more than rage and muscle.
Open your heart and hands, my son,
Or you’ll never make it o’r the river.
–Pucifer, The Humbling River
O prodigal sun, come wash your red hands clean in my fount. Your sins are forgiven, your trespasses forgotten. You who can do no wrong, let your tears fall free to bloom up roses in the dark soil. Bow your head; I will smooth your furrowed brow and straighten your crooked crown. See? Absolution is your birthright. Amnesty is your privilege. O son ascendant, do you not know your flesh is too holy to hold blame?
It have many names. A/pep. Abbadon. Satan. Fenrir. Dragon, Wyrm, Snake. Many names, same entity. Immortal, strong enough to crush world in claws. One day it learn how to take seeds of itself, make lesser monsters. Demons you call them. Some immortal like it and some not. But all very powerful.
I was one. Chalix. Humans call me hell hound. I like them, they little but fierce. Candle flickers, lifes so short, but full of living. Demons are forever but do not so much living. Boring to serve Dragon always.
Demons cut through humans like leaves, many ages, until few left. Other creatures like Dragon, ones humans call gods, give some magic. They last longer. But magic not enough. Technology not enough. Endless war come to close in far future. Humans so few yet still fight. They love life so they give it for others. Demons do not do this thing.
But we can. So Chalix chose. Humans. They are so fragile, but not Chalix. Demon make good sacrifice. Piece of Dragon? Very powerful. It not understand this. It crush Chalix like bug but can not undo giving. So humans have chance now. You have chance now. Last stand. Do not waste, yes?
Chalix good boy.
The library is, perhaps, Liberty Palace’s ultimate gift to Mage. It has been so very long since she was cast out of her first home, and so long since she has let her thoughts dwell on that time, that she had almost forgotten the reason for her banishment. The true reason, at least; not the council’s fabrications.
What her people had seen as a thirst for power was a thirst for knowledge, and a belief that all knowledge should be free to those who would seek it. Even knowledge which could be misused. Even knowledge which had been misused. But no, their fear ruled their hearts and clouded their minds. They locked that darker, truer knowledge away behind glass cases and sealed doors. They forced ignorance on their people. That was what she had rebelled against; not the lack of power, but the lack of choice.
It would not be an exaggeration to say the library in Liberty Palace contains every book which has ever existed. In fact, it would be an understatement. The library in Liberty Palace contains not just every book but every scroll, every parchment, every scrap of papyrus. It contains texts long lost to the histories of a thousand different times on a thousand different worlds. It contains writings no eyes but those of their authors have ever seen. It contains books thought mere myth from lands thought mere legend. Even given an eternity, one might not reach the end of the words contained in this one room.
Some of the texts do contain exceedingly dangerous information, of course. In the wrong hands such knowledge could enslave nations or destroy whole planets, slay gods or raise them from the dead, even tear apart the very fabric of space and time. But Mage has been there and done that, and her interest in such things is only academic now. She finds infinitely greater satisfaction in rushing to show her latest discovery to Alice or in spending an evening together by the fire translating and discussing some cryptic passage.
This is not a side of herself Mage shares often; even back on the island she guarded it closely, recalling with bitterness how easily her passion and knowledge could be turned against her. Yet it feels natural to bring these things to Alice, who finds them fascinating as well, and so Mage never notices the fond glances or amused smiles on her companion’s face. She doesn’t realize that Ali is watching a flower slowly uncurl upon a vine that has for so long grown only thorns.
Liberty Palace had several rooms that the Lighthouse didn’t … mainly the Wings in each cardinal direction. Ali liked the East and Mage liked the West, and they shared the other Wings between themselves.
Unlike the three other Wings, the West Wing wasn’t technically a wing at all. Its hallway from the main atrium looked like the others, yet instead of leading into a grand room it ended at an archway beneath which wide stone stairs descended deep into the earth. These stairs lead to what Ali and Mage called the West Wing – a vast network of interconnected caverns filled with all manner of stones and crystals. The walls of some “rooms” were held up by massive quartz columns while others were covered with countless tiny crystals that glittered in their own light. Stalactites and stalagmites turned some caverns into gaping beast mouths; layers of smooth, rippled calcite transformed other walls into frozen waterfalls. Many crystals were familiar – amethyst, citrine, fluorite, smoky quartz, malachite, tourmaline in a hundred colorful variations – while others were like nothing found on any other world.
Mage spent hours wandering the labyrinthine paths of the West Wing. It was she who discovered the underground river which fed the pool in the East Wing, and a great chamber in which a ring of crystal towers made a perfect casting circle. So too did she discover the chain of hot springs, where heat and mineral water worked to soak away her pains after a long day in the gardens or a few rounds in the armory. Now that the centuries of battle and vengeance were past, Mage found her long lack of self-care catching up with her. Immortal she might be, and capable of wielding frighteningly powerful magic, but that did not make her immune to exhaustion’s lasting effects. And cold! She had been so cold for so long she had forgotten how wonderful it felt to be warm through to your bones. Ali would join her from time to time, and in between leave little packets of herbs and oils on a nearby stone ledge as a surprise.
The problem is that he tried to build a perfect world. His perfect world. And like all humans (for he was naught but human, no matter what the tales say, and a man at that) he equated perfection with an absence of that which humans find most evil: change, unpredictability, loss. Chaos. Yet a changeless world is a static world, an unbalanced world, and an unbalanced system cannot survive. Chaos always finds its way in to establish equilibrium once more – and the greater the correction needed, the more violent the catalyst. Thus my coming was almost foretold. He practically invited me in. Perhaps if he had not so arrogantly assumed his world unassailable I might never have been drawn there in the first place. But it was so fragile, that pretty little island where you could hide away and pretend everything was perfect, and its fantasy needed shattering. I never expected gratitude, of course, not from those who were lost in the lie. Reestablishing balance, bringing darkness to a place where only light reigned, was compensation enough. All fools meet their folly; I was his.
Another year, another book list! Some of this year’s gems included Dread Nation, The Rise of Kyoshi, An Unkindness of Ghosts, and the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. On the other hand, The Abominable was frankly quite abominable. Only 23 books with queer characters, though, so I gotta do better next year!
- The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury
- The Machineries of Joy – Ray Bradbury
- The Spoon River Anthology – Edgar Lee Masters
- The Terror: A Novel – Dan Simmons
- S Is For Space – Ray Bradbury
- Long After Midnight – Ray Bradbury
- The October Country – Ray Bradbury
- The Ruins – Scott Smith
- The Cat’s Pajamas Stories – Ray Bradbury
- Death In The Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition – Karen Ryan
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth By Day – Dr. Ogden Goelet
- The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Troop – Nick Cutter
- The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R Tolkien
- The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Dust (Jacob’s Ladder Book 1) – Elizabeth Bear
- The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Mutiny on the Bounty – Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- Men Against the Sea – Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- Pitcairn’s Island – Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- Chill (Jacob’s Ladder Book 2) – Elizabeth Bear
- The Archer’s Heart Book 1 – Astrid Amara
- The Archer’s Heart Book 2 – Astrid Amara
- The Archer’s Heart Book 3 – Astrid Amara
- Dread Nation – Justina Ireland
- An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
- The House of Dust: A Symphony – Conrad Aiken
- The Fur Person – May Sarton
- Grail (Jacob’s Ladder Book 3) – Elizabeth Bear
- The Oathbound (Vows and Honor Book 1) – Mercedes Lackey
- Oathbreakers (Vows and Honor Book 2) – Mercedes Lackey
- The Ancient Egyptian Prayer Book – Tamara Siuda
- The Buying of Lot 37 (Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 3) – Joseph Fink
- Oathblood (Vows and Honor Book 3) – Mercedes Lackey
- Magic in Ancient Egypt – Geraldine Pinch
- Dreamdark Book 1: Blackbringer – Laini Taylor
- Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat – L.A. Vocelle
- Hathor: A Reintroduction to an Ancient Egyptian Goddess – Lesley Jackson
- The Wicker King – K. Ancrum
- Who’s A Good Boy? (Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 4) – Joseph Fink
- My Name Is Inanna – Tamara Albanna
- My Name Is The Morrigan – Tamara Albanna
- From a Cat’s View: An Anthology of Stories Told By Cats – Robin Praytor, et. al.
- Avatar the Last Airbender: The Rise of Kyoshi (The Kyoshi Novels) – F. C. Yee
- The Abominable: A Novel – Dan Simmons
- Sekhmet and Bast: The Feline Powers of Egypt – Lesley Jackson
- Mesopotamian Goddesses: Unveiling Your Feminine Power – Weam Namou
- Cleopatra’s Daughter: A Novel – Michelle Moran
- Five Dark Fates (Three Dark Crowns Book 4) – Kendare Blake
- The Heretic Queen: A Novel – Michelle Moran
- Nefertiti: A Novel – Michelle Moran
- Remember Me – Christopher Pike
- The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt – Kara Cooney
- The Wicked and the Divine Vol. 9: Okay – Gillen McKelvie
- Tremontaine: Season 1 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons From the Natural World – Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
- Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World – Vicki Myron
- Tremontaine: Season 2 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- Tremontaine: Season 3 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- Tremontaine: Season 4 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner
- Heathen, Volume 1 – Natasha Alterici
- Heathen, Volume 2 – Natasha Alterici
- The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire Part 1 – Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino
- The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire Part 2 – Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino
- 100 Cats Who Changed History: History’s Most Influential Felines – Sam Stall
- Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl – Mary Mycio
You’re like an angel, you know. You’re beautiful on the outside but underneath I know you’re all blinding light and holy wrath and too many blazing eyes amid a dozen flaming wings. Yours is a terrifying, incomprehensible otherworldliness that makes me weep in awe. If you were to peel back your skin the sight of your true form might drive me mad or burn me to ash – and I would beg for either, if only I might glimpse your glorious truth in my final moments.
How is it that I am always the one pursuing you and yet still I feel your hot breath on my neck, still my heart pounds with the instinct to flee before the hound’s long white teeth. You are ever beyond me, distant as the moon, yet I swear I hear your laughter drifting on the wind as it chases me down dark streets. I can never catch you and yet I wake in a cold sweat with bruises around my throat in the shape of your long, lovely fingers. How can this be? How are you everywhere and everything?
You had the chance to be better than the ones who cast me out. You had the chance and yet you threw it away. It wouldn’t have even been hard; they weren’t exactly tough competition. All you needed to do was accept me as I was, to let me show you more than just a polished surface without judgment or correction, but you couldn’t even do that. You who prided yourself on being so noble, on building a haven for the unwanted, you glimpsed the truth of me and found me… what, wanting somehow? Not quite as worth your time and effort? Or did you, like those who first rejected me, gaze into the depths I revealed and glimpse something beyond your control? Did you see a steel spine which would not bend to your demands, or perhaps all the sharp edges I’ve honed over the years? You’re just like my last sorry excuse for a family; cowardly, weak, grasping at every little scrap of control like the misers you are. How pathetic. How disappointing. How predictable.
Sometimes I can hear you screaming in my head, that endless wounded animal howling of total devastation, and I want to imagine his arms around you for comfort – but that’s not possible, is it? Neither of you could ever comfort the other at such a time because the only thing that would break either of you so completely is the loss of the other. You care for nothing else enough to experience such soul-rending grief, and so as much as I wish to imagine you safe in the shelter of his arms as you weather out the storm of madness, it would be a lie. The hard reality is that you are always alone in the moment you must first face the truth of his absence, just as you are alone every moment following that. Again and again and again you are alone, alone, alone. There is no one to hold you, no one to ease your suffering, no one to stand against you and the dark chasm of loss. Of course all you do is scream.
Stay, you beg. Stay, you plead. Stay. Stay. Stay. Just this one word over and over like a prayer, like a spell, like a compulsion. Stay. Stay. But he never will. He never can. No matter how many times you ask, no matter if you implore or cajole or demand or threaten, it will not happen – and you know that, yet still you say it. Stay. These rooms are haunted by your pleading. Stay. I cannot think for all I hear is your desperate voice. Stay. I cannot speak for only one word would come out my lips. Stay. Stay. Stay. Each time with more futility than the last. Stay. But you never cease.
I can almost feel your breath as you murmur in my ear, What if it wasn’t murder in the first place? What if it was self-defense? Or revenge? Or what if it wasn’t the Moon at all who killed the Sun that first and most fateful time? What if they were a setup, the blade and the blood and the blame? You say there is a universe for every possible iteration, so why not these? Your laugh is a cold, serrated thing. What if you’ve been asking the wrong question all these years? No wonder you’ve never found the true answer. Foolish little scribe, you have always been so quick to judge my words as lies – did you never think my noble lover capable of deception as well? No, his tongue is sweeter than honey and sharper than any blade. But you will never learn.
I still believe you loved me, even despite everything you did and everything you are. I think your claim that your profession of love was just a trick, a game, a twisting of the knife was as much to fool yourself as it was to fool me. Love and cruelty are not mutually exclusive, after all; I believed you capable of both and I always will. Does the year we spent together matter, though, if you chose to throw it away at the end to retain your precious reputation? You fool, I accepted you as you are – sadist, killer, monster, demon, I loved those parts of you and never once did I seek to repress them, even to my own detriment. If you chose not to act on certain desires, if you chose not to torture me like all your other victims, you have only your own battle of heart and mind to blame. I never intended to love you. You never intended to love me. Yet I did, you did, and the sum of us might have been a truly unstoppable force if you had but reigned in your stubborn pride just this once. Pride and fear: do you realize how much you let such mortal emotions rule you? You like to think you care for nothing beyond your simple carnal pleasures but really you are just like the rest of us, riddled with complex needs and reactions you cannot simply ignore. You love me. I know you do. And that knowledge will be of some comfort, albeit small, when I one day find your knife in my chest. That will hurt you more than it will hurt me, you know.
“Sweet, the brownies are ready,” With her left hand Mage pulled open the oven door and with the other she grabbed the hot tin inside, not bothering with a cloth since she couldn’t feel the heat through the obsidian-like claws on her hand anyway. Alice, watching from the kitchen table, rolled her eyes at the reminder of Mage’s alien appendage. “Weren’t you going to get rid of that thing?” she asked as Mage set the tin down between them. “It’s so creepy.”
“Oh, this?” Mage flexed her hand, the strange black material glittering in the light as she moved. “Uh, so it turns out I don’t… precisely… know how to get it off.”
“You don’t know?!” Alice jabbed an accusatory finger at her. “This is what you get for messing with unknown magic! What if that awful thing’s attached to you for the rest of your life? What if it keeps crawling up your arm until you’re just a big black statue?”
“Uuugh,” Mage slumped back in her chair with a stubborn pout. “You sound just like my dad.” When Alice only blinked back at her with a look of perplexity she raised one eyebrow. “What?”
“Nothing,” Alice shrugged but her expression didn’t change. “It’s just weird to think of you having family. I guess I just sort of assumed you like… clawed your way out of the dark core of the earth to become my nemesis or something.” Mage snorted, using the offending hand to scoop a chunk of hot brownie into her mouth. “You wish. No,” she continued around the mouthful, “I had family once and it was the literal worst. Exile was a fucking godsend. But since we’re on the subject, let me guess…” She licked clean one shiny claw and pointed back at Alice. “Oldest sibling of like ten or something, always mothered everyone, probably made them do their homework before they got to watch TV.”
“Actually,” Alice gave a small shrug and helped herself to a piece of brownie with far better manners than Mage had. “I don’t really have a family. I was sort of birthed out of the ocean fully formed, more or less.” It was Mage’s turn to blink dryly. “OH.” She threw her hands up in mock disregard. “Okay. Yeah, sure, that makes perfect sense. Born out of the ocean. Right.” They ate in contemplative silence for a moment before Mage shook her head with a disappointed sigh. “So… you’re the intrepid orphan and I’m the runaway princess? How cliche.”
Alice began to nod in agreement, then did a double-take. “Wait, you’re a what?”
They thought exile a fittingly cruel punishment, yet instead it blessed her with the only thing she had ever desired: freedom. For the first time in all the long years of her life she had no name, no family, no home and thus no rules, no chains, no gilded cage. She was free to finally stretch her cramped wings, to fly or fall as she wished with no one to catch or constrain her. She had been born to captivity, no choice there, but now that she was free she would never let herself be imprisoned again. No more masks! No more fetters! As a nameless and homeless wanderer none could claim dominion over her. In the wilderness she would grow teeth and claws, become proudly feral, a thing of fierce autonomy earned and protected through bloodshed. They expected her to suffer in exile, far from the courtly comforts of home, but only because they never understood – the cage was all that had restrained her.