The First-ever ArgoForg Story

by (take a wild stab) ArgoForg

Author’s Notes and Assorted Ramblings: I have taken a smidgen of creative liberty in my descriptions and dialogue of the people contained herein. I’ve tried to keep them as close to their normal behavior as I could and still have them fit into the story, but I have only a third-person viewpoint to gauge them. So if these are a little bit off-base from the actual descriptions or personalities of the personae who regularly appear in #asfr, I apologize, and you can feel free to write my characters wrong in one of your stories, if it makes you feel better. And lest I forget, a huge truckload o’ thanks goes to the people who crafted the characters you’ll be reading about besides my own. It’s imaginations like yours that make me remember that my generation hasn’t completely sold off the power of creative thought to Micro$oft… at least, not yet.

Also, there is quite a bit of mythology in here that contradicts, or at least is way off base from, known myth and legend. I didn’t have time to bone up completely on every culture’s idea of the Feyfolk before beginning this, and for that matter, very few cultures say what the Feyfolk call themselves. Consider it artistic license.

One last thing... I have purposefully written this in 10 point type to hold it at about twelve pages rather than forty when I print it out to make edits.  I apologize if this makes it a bit hard to read, but then again, for the benefit those of you who can compose HTML via Micro$oft Front Page or Netscape Gold/Composer, you can do a simple Select All, then change your font size to 12.  That should make it pretty readable.  And I'll try to curb my talkativeness in the future.

I.     A Chance Meeting
    The room was lit, not menacingly so, but brightly enough that the young man entering it had to squint for a few moments to gather his bearings. The forests were nothing like this, he thought wryly. There you grew used to the darkness; it was a friend, an ally, a means of escape from that which was inescapable. Under the bright lights cast by the glass globes and tubes far above, the man felt exposed and vulnerable. He hefted his knapsack over one shoulder, grunting quietly under its weight.
    He took a few tentative steps into the room, looking around himself in awe. The room was larger than it had looked on the outside; in fact, now that he could see the far wall and gauge it, he would have sworn it stretched out in front of him for a mile or more. He blinked and knuckled his eyes, thinking it a trick of the mind, or at least an optical illusion, but no, when he looked up, there it was. He shook his head and quit trying to formulate where the far wall was, and instead focused on making it to the nearest one. The decor he saw there was strange, to say the least: an eccentric mix of the classical Romanesque style of marble and columns, fitted right next to glass display cases, patches of silvery metal and exposed wires. Tables and chairs sat at various places in the room, their styles as vastly different as the decor of the walls. A large wooden seat that could have easily been called a throne sat next to an intricately carved stone table. A long, cushioned divan rested next to a glass-topped end table.
    He shivered, not from the blasts of cool air from the grates in the ceiling, but from a genuine feeling of… of something, something he couldn’t quite place his finger on. This place just didn’t feel… what was it? His brow furrowed. It just didn’t feel right. He couldn’t explain it more explicitly than that. He had the feeling of a stag in a bedroom, completely out of place, not sure why in fact he was here, but unsure whether he should leave or stay.
    He chalked his unease to the dials and metal and wiring on the walls. In the Feylands, even in Avalon itself, such things were never seen. Granted, his knowledge of what the Humanae called technology was, at best, limited, but to be bluntly honest, if the panels and buttons and knobs he saw on the walls were any indication, his mother’s stories of how frighteningly different that technology could be were understated.
    For that matter, how his father— he winced at the very thought of the man— could come to have fond memories of such a cold, sterile place was quite beyond him. There was a dead feeling to the place, as far as he was concerned; it was horribly unlike the tranquil beauty of the forest, where everything around you for miles lived and breathed, so that the whole area felt infused with the magick of life to those who could feel it.
    Magick. That was what felt so odd about this place.  He sniffed the air, let his aura feel out the area around him, probing, searching…
    Nothing. Or at least, compared to Faerie, there was nothing here.  Feeling for ambient magick in the air in the Humanae realm was like searching for a grain of sand among the grasses in the Fields of Elroth.
    He sighed audibly. That would actually explain quite a lot of his unease. While in the realm of Faerie, or for that matter, on the edges of Faerie, he was a more than competent magus. He could transform living and unliving matter at a thought, could conjure creatures from his imagination...  he actually had very few limits. If he could envision it, he could cause it to happen. Possibility magick, his father had once called it. If the possibility could be considered, it could be enacted. At least magick was one thing he had the courage to stick with through everything.  The young man allowed himself a wry smile at that thought, a smile that just as quickly faded.
    Here he was, in a land of frightening technology and strange customs, filled with the Humanae and their odd customs, and bereft of his most powerful magicks— even with the tome contained snugly in his pack. He sagged at the thought, feeling even more defenseless than he had just a few seconds ago.  Father, if ever I find you, I will kill you for even mentioning this place to me.
    "Argo! How nice to see you again!"
    The young man whirled, a defensive spell at the forefront of his mind and his fingers curling into arcane gestures before he even remembered the futility of the pose. In the end, it was unlikely he would have even gotten a spell off; his tongue seemed to disconnect itself from his mind as he looked at the stunning piece of technology that smiled back at him.
    She— he could only assume it was a she based on a guess— was clad, head to toe, in a highly polished silvery metal. She had hair, but it was silver and metallic looking as well, as if it was covered, or contained within, that same silver sheath. She stood easily half a head taller than him, and despite the pleasant look on her face, there was a feeling of nondescript power about her that made him unconsciously stumble backward a step. She was beautiful, but in a way that was completely foreign to him and therefore frightened him all the more. She appeared to be a Humanae, but he wouldn’t have laid odds on it.
    "What’s the matter, Argo?" She asked, a hint of confusion coming to her pupil-less eyes. "You look as though you’ve seen a ghost!"
    He backed up another half step, dropped his knapsack. He reminded himself he was a magus, that he had seen wonders no man could ever claim to, that he had nothing to fear. He then called upon his entire force of will to respond.
    The silver-woman looked across the room. "Someone help me here. I think something’s wrong with Argo."
    Recognition finally dawned as to what she called him. It was like an uppercut to follow the jab of her appearance. His jaw dropped. She thinks I’m— I’m him? Of course, there was bound to be some family resemblance, but even so…
    "I— I’m sorry, madam," he finally managed, eyeing her carefully, "but I believe you have me confused with someone else."
    "What? Argo, do you always kid like…" Her eyes slowly focused on him, searching. "Wait, you’re not Argo… but you bear a striking resemblance to him. Are you a different model?"
    "A different model?" He tried to get the context of the wording; it must have been some Humanae phrase. He remembered his father using that word in respect to a person who was fairly handsome, but that was mostly in reference to females, and usually was followed by how much he wished to turn them to stone. "Thank you, but no. Who are you?"
    "Sorry," she said, raising herself to full height. "I am Vengeance, a former human female who was chosen to become a nanitical polymorphic chromelike metallic android."
    He blinked at her, completely lost. The name evoked a couple dim memories, things that his father told him at one time or another, but he couldn’t place them. "A what?"
    "That’s just Venge. Think of her that way and it’s a lot easier."
    He finally managed to pull his gaze from the silvery female and to the speaker. He was almost sorry he did. Standing off to his left was a silver-haired, snickering demoness— replete with reddish skin, bat wings and a barbed tail— whose skintight clothes barely stretched over the taboo sections of her body. He wasn’t entirely sure, from looking at her, whether he should run or merely blush. But she smiled at him, extended a hand in what appeared to be a gesture of friendship. Again he was struck by a feeling that she was very beautiful, but in a way that he couldn’t quite begin to understand and could not quite relate to. A sort of standoffish beauty, for lack of a better word; Beauty unattainable by mere mortals.
    "I’m Silvera. A succubus. Hmmm… with the exception of the eyes, you do look a lot like Argo."
    He took the proffered hand, mentally preparing a spell of banishment in case the need should arise. He had no idea if he could banish a demon from this realm; in fact, he quite doubted he could— such a spell was fairly complex, even in Faerie. But he had a feeling that these beings wouldn’t harm him, and again, the name the succubus used sounded vaguely familiar.
    "I’m, uhm… sure there’s a reason for that," he hedged.
    She dropped one hand down to a hip, a look that was playful and sensual and at the same time hinted at a dominating nature. "And that would be?"
    He sighed, met her gaze evenly. "Because the Humanae I imagine you’re talking about is my father."
    He never noticed the third member of the trio until she placed a slender hand on his shoulder and turned him to face her. "Your what?" She demanded.
    "I said, ‘I’m—’"
    His breath caught in his throat. A Humanae woman stood before him, a mane of reddish-orange hair cascading down past her waist, arms folded across her breasts as if to ensure he looked into her violet eyes. She needn’t have bothered; if he knew he was going to die, he would have asked for those eyes to be the last thing he ever saw. Her skin was tanned, smooth, flawless. She wore a red and white formfitting outfit that reflected the light from above and— although it was as strange to him than Vengeance’s silvery form— mesmerized him like a golden medallion. She was beautiful as well, but unlike the other two, this beauty he could relate to, at least by sight. This was human perfection, given form.
    "— your eternal servant," he finished fervently, or at least he would have sounded fervent if he could have raised his voice a step above a croak. His mouth seemed to have suddenly lost any moisture whatsoever; his tongue suddenly felt large and sluggish, unable even to say words in the rough and unmelodic Humanae language.
    She blinked at him, and slowly shook her head, a motion that caused her orange bangs to fall over one eye. "Time for that later. Did you say you were Argo’s son? Argo is your father?"
    The name boiled through his daydream-like haze, and he turned from her gaze, shrugged his arm away from her touch. His voice chilled noticeably as he responded. "Yes, to the small extent that he ever followed through with anything, he sired me. Don’t give it airs and make it sound as if we have a perfect family unity."
    She nodded, allowed it to sink in, then offered her slender hand to him. "I understand. What is your name?"
    He took it gratefully, his anger evaporating at the very idea of touching her. "Paris."
    She cocked her head cutely, smiled. "Paris Forgeuzev?"
    "No. Surnames are a Humanae invention. Among the Faerie, we only have one name."
    "Very well. My name is Nova-Phoenix, but you can call me Nova."
    "No…" he breathed. Nova? Oh, no, no, gods of Faerie and Earth, no! Paris blanched, squeezed his eyes shut. Damn you, father, are you fated to always find a way to intrude upon my life?
    "Paris?" Nova stared at him, her violet eyes wide with concern. "Are you all right?"
    "Fine," he lied. I’ve just found the woman of my dreams, and she happens to be the very same woman who my father told me he cared so much about? And an… android… at that? Wonderful. Quite possibly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, completely made of metal… and me, a Faerie-kin who can be killed by the touch of cold iron. What sort of cruel joke is this? "I’ve… uhm, heard of you, that’s all. My father used to tell me about you."
    "About you all, actually," he amended, looking at Silvera and Vengeance, who were watching the conversation with interest. But his eyes strayed back to the flame-haired android. "That’s one reason I came here when I was sent out of Faerie. It seemed like a place I could belong, considering what he and I have in common."
    "That’s the second time you’ve mentioned Faerie," Silvera said as the three ushered him over toward a nearby divan. He sat down, not realizing how tired he was. "So is that where Argo is now?"
    "I really don’t know. Nor do I care," Paris grated.
    "But," Vengeance interrupted, taken aback for a moment as his glare swung to her. "I mean, he’s your father, isn’t he?"
    "He’s a Humanae who came into the Faerie realm and supposedly fell in love with my mother. He stayed with her for a time and then left with no word where he was going. I’ll never forgive him for that."
    Nova gave a small gasp, and as Paris looked at her, her eyes shimmered, liquid-like. Her voice sounded as though she was speaking from a great distance. "He… he fell in love? He just left us, and never came back here."
    Memories of the stories Argo had told him began to come back in waves, he tried to sift through and remember the ones he mentioned about Nova. There was always the unspoken insinuation that the two of them might have been lovers, and his stories about her always made Paris’ mother ill at ease, but through it all Paris had figured her just a good friend to him and vice-versa. Now, he could see there must have been something else there, and the very idea made his heart sink.
    "Are you all right, Nova?" He asked her, thinking perhaps he should just as soon ask himself.
    "I suppose." She didn’t sound altogether sure of it. "I should be used to it. Everyone I care about leaves me."
    He left her. Like he left Mother. Dear gods, she cares for him still? The thought was a momentary one, and for that moment, a small part of him was insanely jealous.
    "I won’t," he responded instantly, and he meant it. But immediately upon saying it, he realized how foolish it must have sounded, and colored fiercely.
    She smiled; her violet eyes softened with gratitude. Paris felt his color deepen further, if such a thing was possible. He already felt sure he was as red as ripe autumn apples.
    "So he left here, and ended up in Faerie?" A voice behind him asked thoughtfully.
    It took Paris a moment to kick his mind into motion, realize a question had even been raised. He blinked, realized his eyes hadn’t left Nova’s for some time.
    "What?" He asked, turning to Silvera, who voiced the question.
    "When he left here," Silvera commented, "he must have ended up in Faerie. Strange, he had been there before…"
    Vengeance nodded succinctly. "When he first tried to use that book."
    Paris opened his knapsack, pulled out the heavy leather tome he always carried with him, his only birthright. "The Tempora Arcanum," he said. "That’s right. It’s the same book he gave to me."
    Silvera looked at the leather-bound book, interested. "I remember that. He came back and was possessed by Auberon for a bit, too."
    Nova shook her head, clearly confused. "This makes no sense to me. Argo went to the land of Faerie and was possessed by Auberon? When did this happen?"
    Vengeance’s eyes flickered momentarily. "It was a while back, and everything happened in a relatively short time, Nova. I believe you were in your sanctuary, shut off."
    She accepted this as true, and turned back to Paris. "So what happened to him? I mean, when he went back to Faerie? Can you tell us?"
    "I… could, I suppose. But keep in mind that these are mostly second- and third-hand accounts, and with the time-differential in Faerie, we’re talking about over a couple hundred years of stories."
    "Just skip to the highlights," Silvera suggested.
    "The what?" Paris looked at her, an eyebrow raised.
    "The points of most significance," Vengeance offered helpfully.
    "Oh." Paris looked at Nova, who was regarding him intently. Ereselimon and E’li, but she is beautiful, came an unbidden thought, one he mentally chastised himself for even thinking. He reminded himself that she was only really interested in what happened to his father.
    He knew that he should in no way have felt envious of his father, but somehow that didn’t stop the feeling from surfacing. Paris had seen this sort of thing happen with his mother once Argo had left: the denial that he was truly gone, the grief that he wasn’t returning, the constant questions of where he could have gone. And then, rather than anger at his abrupt and ignoble departure, eventually she too had resigned herself to happy memories, just like Nova was apparently content to do. Paris felt himself get hot at the very idea that Argo could somehow twist people’s perceptions of him and think him a hero when he did nothing more than walk out on people and leave them with an absence where he had once been. And one, and most probably two, of them had been in love with him.
    He shook it off, looked down at the faded cover of the Tempora Arcanum, the one thing besides a void that Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev had ever left him. "Well, the story’s kind of muddled, because I’ve heard both sides of it, but this is how it started…"

 II.     Realms Apart
    The world shattered into a portal of sheer white light, blinding even through his eyelids, the sound of it rushing past him was like a thousand waves crashing all at once in his ears, overlapping almost to the point of becoming nothing more than white noise.
    Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev screamed his lungs out.
    Not quite surprisingly, he couldn’t even hear his own voice over the tumult, nor could he control his flight. If there was one thing Argo had learned while using magick, it was that more often than not, he tended not to be in control. That was the case now, as he spiraled out of control along a hallway made completely of eldritch energy, careening toward the far end, where a doorway of multicolored light awaited, looming larger and larger, until…
    Colors exploded before his eyes as he crashed through the rainbow-hued doorway and landed face-first in cold water. The breath left his lungs in a whoosh, and he inhaled a noseful of water before he could push himself up to find himself in the middle of a clear stream. He flopped around for a moment, thrashing at the water, and finally found a foothold to allow him to stand up, coughing and sputtering. Luckily, the water was barely three feet deep and even in the heavy, sopping robes that he wore, he could still walk.
    "Well, that was unexpected," Argo murmured when he could finally talk. Looking around at the water, he came to the realization that the stream was nearly twenty feet wide, walled by thick trees on either side. He waded toward the shore and dragged himself onto the bank, then shook his head as he looked at his bedraggled clothes. Hooded woolen robes might have been nice for a magus’ appearance, he reflected as he wrung the water out of his own, but in water they were as much of a detriment as trying to swim while carrying a bowling ball. He was glad his knapsack— with his book of spells tucked inside— was safely waterproofed.
    Of course, he’d had no intention of winding up in the middle of a creek, either. How the devil had that happened, anyway? The last time he’d used the Tempora Arcanum to transport himself to Faerie, the spell had dropped him right into the palace in Avalon. Perhaps he had misread one of the sigils? That didn’t seem right. After all, from what the elven magi had taught him, a single misspoken syllable or misplaced accent would disrupt the spell, rendering it inert. No, if he had misread the spell, he would have more than likely still been standing in his room, poring over the Tempora again to figure out why he was still in his room.
    He pulled off the cassock and hood, and then his robe, and set them all in a neat pile at the roots of a great oak, sitting down next to them in his underclothes.
    He looked upwards, trying to find the sun, without success. Argo wasn’t particularly surprised. Ever since the accident in the ASFR room, which had fused the glass from a pair of aptly named "Medusa Shades" to his eyes, he had a hard time gauging light sources accurately. That was one of the few drawbacks of his onyx-colored eyes. He could see fine in remarkably bright light, and true to their name, the Medusa Shades had conferred the ability for him to will anyone who met his gaze to turn to stone. A body could have asked for worse fates, he figured. Of course, the last time he was in Faerie his eyes hadn’t much helped him. After being fairly unceremoniously dropped into the middle of Auberon’s Great Hall, his enhanced eyes had turned a number of courtiers into garden statuary, including two of Auberon’s daughters. Needless to say, the Faerie King had not been pleased, and after making sure that Argo had returned everyone to their normal state, he had forced the young man to remain in Faerie to receive strict tutoring for his magickal powers as a sort of punishment.
    Argo scowled. Judging by the amount of sunlight he could determine was making its way through the dense dome of leaves and branches above, however, he figured his clothes might dry out in about a week. At least by themselves. But then again, he was in Faerie, wasn’t he? He didn’t need to wait a week.
    He whispered an enchantment into the air, like blowing a soap bubble, to warm and dry himself and his clothes. The warm rush of magick coursed through his body, seeming to tingle every nerve as he felt its power wash over him. He’d forgotten how wonderful it was to cast magicks in Faerie; even for a simple spell like this one, the ecstasy he felt during the spellcrafting was unreal, almost like a heightened sense of sexual bliss. He felt as though every cell in his body was aglow with energy, like he could feel every hair on his body bristle with life. He saw through half-lidded eyes as a yellowish glow spread over his clothes, and instinctively knew the same glow was covering to his body as well. But it was over far too quickly. The magick slowly crept away from him, leaving him hollow, spent, and he sagged with release.
    He shook it off without much effort. Post-magickal lethargy was nothing new to him, since he’d been casting spells longer than many humans had been around. Plus, he was too excited to feel despondent for long. He was back in Faerie. He could feel it. As much as any place he had ever been, he felt as though he was home. There was a contentment there almost akin to what he had felt upon first finding the ASFR room. A feeling of belonging.
    He quirked a wan smile and picked up his robes. They were warm to the touch. Just like out of the dryer, he mused. He knew he would grow to miss amenities like washers and dryers, computers, and CD players while he was here, but what he gained from his time here— training in his magick, the beauty of undisturbed nature— was more than worth it.
    Argo’s ears perked at a sound in the distance. Splashing, further up the stream. He pulled his robes on quickly, shrugging the sound aside. He wondered if he should abandon good sense and venture in that direction; after all, if the splashing was indeed one of the Feyfolk, perhaps he could find out exactly where he was. He had a long-standing invitation to return to Avalon for further training in the magickal arts, but he wasn’t sure that invitation held true to everywhere in the realm of Faerie. Even in the Feylands, Auberon’s reach was only so long.
    Suddenly, from where the splashing had come from, a shriek pierced the air. Argo looked in that direction, found his vision cut off by the screen of trees, and cursed. It had been a shriek, almost definitely a feminine one, quite possibly an elven one. Argo was not in the habit of passing by a woman, human or elven, in danger.
    But in Faerie, especially if one didn’t know whether he was near Avalon or on the fringes of the Feylands, rushing out to save a supposed damsel in distress could very easily be fatal. There were creatures out there— drakes, wyrms, faernae, and other creatures most humans would deem ‘mythological’— which could laugh off the magicks of even the most powerful magus. Faerie was most definitely not a place for the timid of heart.
    But something— Argo would have liked to believe an innate sense of chivalry— wouldn’t let him just ignore that sound. He made his way along the bank of the stream, following along the trees. He felt the ground soften beneath his feet as he hurried along, and noticed that the trees were becoming more sparse, replaced in growth by tall reeds along the bank. The splashing was much nearer now, yet there had been no other screams. A few steps more. Even closer, perhaps behind the curtain of reeds.
    He parted the reeds and gazed upon the source of the splashing. His heart stopped beating.
    Three elven maidens were wading in the clear, thigh-deep water. Two smiled and frolicked, their lithe bodies blissfully nude, their light golden hair streaming behind them as they splashed the third. The third, whose damp hair was bound into a neat ponytail and was a little darker than the others’ golden curls— her hair was almost the color of honey— looked from her drenched frock dress to them with an expression that was less than appreciative.
    Sestrey’llania, they were called in their tongue— most others called them the High Elves, a phrase most often used sarcastically. Anyone who believed that the Feyfolk were basically the same all around had never been to Faerie. And anyone in Faerie who said something to that effect was either a first-time visitor, ignorant, or a half-wit. Humans, by and large, would take great offense to being told that there was no difference between nations, creeds, beliefs, or races, but wouldn’t think twice about calling all fey beings ‘elves’. Argo himself found this to be a bit strange, considering the obvious differences between the elven races as compared to human races, which were mostly differentiated by cultural distinctions and skin color. Compared to humans, fey beings were much more diverse. The Sestrey’llania, for instance, were almost humanlike in appearance, reputed to be the elves from which the line of Auberon himself came. By contrast, the Tatuni, or Little Wings, were smaller fey folk who looked like tiny humans with butterfly wings, who gave rise to human folk tales about spriggans and sprites. And that wasn’t counting all manner of Fey in between, from what the Humanae had come to know as dryads to sylphs to annis hags to brownies.
    Argo’s jaw nearly dropped to the water as the two golden-haired ones strayed nearer to the reeds. Their every move was graceful, even impeded by the water, and although they were doing little more than splashing the third, they moved like dancers. Watching their lithe, nude bodies, their exotically bare pubis, Argo felt himself get excited even as he blushed.
    The third chastised the other two in the Sestrey’llania tongue. "Sisters! You two are in so much trouble."
    "Did you see her squeal, Failina?" One of the golden haired ones asked the other, apparently ignoring the third.
    Failina laughed in response. "And how she did! Like a frightened fox! Auerenelle, if you could have seen yourself jump!"
    "We are supposed to draw water for your father," the one named Auerenelle remarked, looking askance at a discarded bucket on the opposite bank, where two dresses not too dissimilar from Auerenelle’s also lay. "But you and Kaylia seem to think this is some sort of cause for tomfoolery, and then dump water all over me."
    That was it then, he realized hazily. The sisters had dumped water on the one named Auerenelle and she had shrieked. He decided he should probably slink back into the woods and find someone else to tell him where he was. But he couldn’t. He was transfixed, staring at the three elf-women with wide, unblinking eyes. If he’d had pen and paper, he could have written volumes about the way the sunlight played off Failina’s bared shoulders, or the way Auerenelle’s wet dress clung to her slender hips. He could have spent the rest of his life describing the way Kaylia’s golden hair cascaded down her back, or the poetic grace with which the two sisters moved in the water.
    Humans tend to speak blithely of beauty as it relates to them, without really understanding that for the most part, beauty is subjective. There was no subjectivity in the beauty Argo saw before him, however. Faerie beauty is an empyreal thing; it is innocence and sensuality, youthfulness and timelessness, undeniable allure in form and unattainable grace in movement. In short, it is human perfection in a non-human cast. And that was why Argo could not force himself to move or even to look away. No music could match the harmony he heard when he heard their voices, no picture could hope to compete with the visual perfection he saw.
    "Come on, sister. The day is warm, and father surely wouldn’t mind us enjoying the water while we’re here. You worry too much." Kaylia looked at Auerenelle, laughed brightly. Her voice was melodic.
    "So true," Failina said, making her way around the sisters and grinning at Auerenelle. "It’s a wonder your face doesn’t crack; you’re always so serious."
    Failina brushed up against the reeds within a step of Argo, and he could only gape at her in awe and longing. Sestrey’llania, like most Faerie-kin, had an undeniable aura of seductiveness, and their power over humans was well known. Argo knew it; he had spent quite some time in Avalon among the Sestrey’llania when he had first come to Faerie. There he had quickly learned the power that the exotic beauty of the Sestrey’llania had over mere mortals, learned how to steel himself against it. But even as he reminded himself of that, even as he knew he needed to at least make it less obvious he was watching them, he couldn’t bring himself to tear his eyes away from the trio.
    That turned out to be his downfall. Kaylia, who had been watching Failina, suddenly noticed the movement of the reeds to her side and the onyx eyes peering out. She shrieked, pointed.
    Failina turned and gasped, backing up a step as Kaylia’s scream finally registered to Argo. He stumbled to his feet, holding out a palm to Failina. "Wait… I mean, I…"
    "A Humanae!" Auerenelle breathed. "What right have you to be here?"
    "I…" Argo stammered, unable to take his eyes from Failina, a few feet away from him. She blushed, attempted to cover both her breasts and pubis in some semblance of modesty, and watched him with wide, luminous blue eyes. Her pose only further fanned his desire and the thought came unbidden to him: How beautiful she is… I would pay good money to see her—
    He stopped as he felt a reaction stir in his groin at the very thought. It was then he realized there was another reaction occurring at that thought, one that was no less embarrassing, but even more unexpected. A tingling started in his eyes, like a pins-and-needles feeling, and grew in intensity. He gasped inwardly, thought, What the hell? He was afraid he knew what was happening, and yet even then he still couldn’t pull his eyes away from her.
    His worst fears— and most ardent desires— were confirmed as her exotically shaped eyes widened further. The look on her face was a mixture of fear and incomprehension. Argo could see her attempt to budge her feet, even turn and flee, to no avail.
    "What…" She said, obviously making great effort even to speak, "what are you… doing to… me?"
    That last word stretched out as her voice raised in pitch to that of a scream, and they died away suddenly. Her lips froze in that surprised and horrified curl, draining of color even as the last echoes of her voice faded. Her slim body made one last reflexive quiver and locked into place, hands still clasped over her stark form in ladylike mortification, legs suspended in a last aborted half-step away from him. Her skin was already paling from its creamy tone to a still whiter color, and her golden locks were fading to the same hue.
    "Failina!" Auerenelle screamed, but it was too late. Failina turned chalky white, her hair hardened into a solid alabaster-like mass. Greyish streaks and off-white imperfections appeared on her flawless body; a minute crack trailed along the underside of one pert breast, another curled around one slender calf. Her pupils drained of color and became lost in the whites of her eyes. Within a few moments that seem to crawl on forever before him, Argo watched as the young elfwoman changed completely from flesh and blood to pristine white marble. The tingling left his eyes; he stared at the stony maiden, awestruck.
    She stood there, picturesque, in a pose of eternal beauty and eternal tragedy, and if the situation wasn’t so utterly unexpected, Argo would have found himself hard-pressed not to fall to his knees and just worship her sculptured form. As it was, other things were on his mind.
    "I— I didn’t mean—" he gasped, finding himself caught between being appalled and intensely aroused by the turn of events.
    He looked to where the other two elven women stood in the water. The one called Auerenelle stood protectively in front of Kaylia, who peeked from behind her sister’s dress, gazing at the her sister’s statue in disbelief. Auerenelle was speaking to him, her head bowed slightly, honey-colored hair dipping down in front of her eyes. She was speaking softly; he couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t understand the language. He stepped forward into the water, making his way past the statue of Failina, toward the other two.
    "It was a mistake," he explained, cursing himself for not remembering better how to speak the Sestrey’llania language. His tongue felt large and cumbersome. "My eyes have this strange power and somehow—"
    He stopped as Auerenelle’s melodic voice resonated, the words a stream of gibberish. She raised a hand before her face; he saw it begin to arc with blue-white sparks. Her eyes glowed with the same sort of eldritch power. Arcane power, he realized with a start, just as she pointed at him and spoke the final words of the spell. Her finger glowed dazzlingly white and a bolt of blue-white energy erupted forth, careening through the air as though bouncing through an invisible tunnel as it plowed headlong for him.
    "Christ!" He swore, then called forth a spell of his own. He had barely finished when the arcing blast of energy struck, flashing as it hit the magickal shield he had just called into existence around himself before it forked sharply off and exploded. The very force of the impact still threw him back a step, however, and he slipped and fell backwards, cracking his head on Failina’s unmoving and very solid marble derrière. He floundered in the water before he could find his feet again.
    "Shitshitshitshitshitshit." Argo raised his head from the water and grimaced as rubbed at the knot. It was Avalon all over again; only this time he had the feeling he’d angered someone with a lot less self-control than Auberon. "Someday I’m gonna have to learn to quit doing that."
    He looked up muzzily at the elfwomen just in time to see Auerenelle chanting and gesturing again. Tongues of magickal flame danced across the water toward him at her behest, licked at him as they surrounded him. The shield around him sparked and sputtered, beginning to crack. He could feel the heat through his wet robes.
    Argo fought to maintain control, both of the shield and of the mental calmness necessary to cast his magicks. The spell of shielding had been a reflexive action, something he’d learned to do with almost no preparation only after years of studying magick. But his head was throbbing, and it had been years since he fought any sort of magickal duel— let alone one where he was not intending to harm his adversary. Spells and arcane formulae tugged at the corners of his memory, but they stubbornly slipped out of his grasp as he tried to call them to the forefront of his mind.
    "Damn it, I don’t want to fight you!" He yelled, feeling the shield crumble under her magick. She showed no signs of relenting, or even hearing. He cursed, closed his eyes. Find the center of calm, let the possibilities enact themselves, he told himself. He was one of the few he’d ever known who could use one of the most unexplored and potentially powerful of magicks, the magick of possibility. If he could force himself to envision a possibility and then force his will to enact it, he could bend reality to suit the possibility he’d envisioned. But accessing such powerful magick was not at all easy, even under normal circumstances, and this surely didn’t qualify as normal.
    He closed his mind to the outside world and forced himself to forget the pain in his head, the fire, the statue of Failina, the elfwomen and his buckling shield. He sought the blackness below his surface thoughts and focused on expanding that blackness until it was all encompassing. Possiblities began to unfold before his mind’s eye, each one involving a minute change in reality. He searched for a fairly simple one. There was a possibility there in the blackness; he could see it— a possibility that the flames were no longer there. Without hesitation, he grasped at it.
    He opened his eyes slowly. The fire surrounding him extinguished itself as if it were never there.
    Auerenelle gasped, blinking as if she couldn’t believe such a thing was possible. Argo himself was stunned at the relative ease of the casting, but he recovered faster and rushed to close the distance between him and the elfwoman.
    Behind her, Kaylia screamed, shaking her from her astonishment. Auerenelle began to cast again, stretching her arms out before her and splaying her fingers in another arcane gesture. She rapidly chanted off the final few syllables, her voice rising and falling on the appropriate syllables, and recited her way through the coda while Argo was still a couple short steps away.
    Argo saw the telltale glow emanate from one of the elfwoman’s outstretched hands and did the only thing he could think to do. He leapt to her and, in one swift movement, grasped her wrist and pushed it upward.
    She gasped as her spell discharged; bolts of lightning crackled from her fingertips and veered harmlessly skyward, far away from her intended target. Her eyes narrowed at him, he could tell she was seething. Her lips thinned.
    "Do you have the same thing planned for us, monster?" She asked through clenched teeth, her tone one of cold contempt.
    Argo looked at her for a moment in bewilderment, then slowly shook his head. "If you would listen to me for a moment, I’m sure I won’t. What happened there was a mistake. I heard your scream and came here, thinking there was something wrong. When your sister made eye contact with me, well… my eyes have magickal properties that I sometimes forget about. Now, if I can have your word you won’t try to cast a spell on me, I’ll let your hand go and I’ll change her back, no problem. Then we can both be on our merry way and forget this ever happened, all right?"
    The light in her blue-green eyes flickered, almost imperceptibly. Her hand twitched in his grasp, testing his hold on her. He held her fast as she glared at him, tried to forget the warmth of her skin and her natural, woodsy smell.
    "All right. I agree," she grated.
    He gauged the fire in her eyes, shook his head again. "Not yet. Give me the Oath of the Worldtree that you won’t seek to harm me."
    The heavy lashes flew up, he heard her sharp intake of breath. Probably thought he was just another stupid Humanae. Not many humans knew of the Sestrey’llania’s most sacred oath.
    "Very well," she said, sounding stunned. "I swear by the Worldtree, by the very connection between Faerie and Earth, that I shall not harm you as you restore my sister. May the Worldtree steal my life back into its branches if I am lying."
    Argo nodded and turned back toward the marble statue that was Failina. She pressed. "How do you know about the oath of the Worldtree?"
    "I’ve spent eighty years in Faerie," he said matter-of-factly. "Hard to stay here that long and not learn something."
    "Eighty—?" She stopped, stared, then touched a slender finger to her lips, considering. "Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev?"
    He nodded, placed his hands on Failina’s shoulders and closed his eyes. "I take it not many humans stay around Faerie for eighty years?"
    "And have eyes blacker than midnight, capable of turning most of Auberon’s court to stone. Forgive me, in the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten about the tales… But you have been gone for so long, I’d thought them merely fanciful stories."
    He shrugged. "I went back to the Humanae realm. The Earth realm. Time goes along a different speed, follows a different master, there. What is a year here is… is about the span of a breath there. A year there may be a lifetime here, even for the fey-children. I returned only moments before I found you."
    She paused, digesting that, and he began to find the center of calm, prepared to cast his magick. Then she interjected again. "One last thing. That was no counterspell… How did you disrupt my fire magick?"
    Argo opened his eyes and smirked at Auerenelle, somewhat surprised— and, truthfully, a bit embarrassed— to find his smile returned.
    "Quantum Physics," he quipped.

 III.    An Offer
    "Careful, now," Argo said, steadying Falina as the transformation reversed itself, and her skin began to flush with color. Her lips lost the stony white tint, the miniscule cracks along her cheek reformed, healed and became flawless white skin again. She gasped, first as breath returned to her, then again as she realized he had a hold of her bare shoulders. And the recollection that her shoulders weren’t the only spot on her body that was bare.
    "You—" she began, blushing. It was a remarkable contrast to the alabaster she had been just a moment before.
    "Me." He released her shoulders immediately and forced himself to look away. Merely seeing an elfmaiden at such close quarters was intoxicating; touching her nearly made his heart forget how to beat. "I apologize for that. You know how we humans can’t keep our base thoughts to ourselves. Are you all right?"
    "I... I think so," she said, quite unsure from the sound of her voice. "What happened?"
    "I’m sure your sisters can fill you in. I should be going." Before I do anything else I would be sorry for.
    He turned away, allowing the two sisters decency as they splashed to the other bank of the creek to retrieve their clothes. He saw his own backpack on the nearer shore, past the reeds, and started for it.
    "Wait. Please." The silken voice stopped him. He felt a hand on his shoulder, turned to find Auerenelle staring at him with those exotically-shaped, wide, blue-green eyes. A curl of honey-colored hair dropped in front of her eyes, she brushed it away gracefully, and again Argo could not help but marvel at her beauty. He blinked and quickly dropped his gaze his shoetops before he could start the whole petrifying scenario again.
    "This may well be forward of me, Master Forgeuzev," she continued in the cultured Sestrey’llania tongue, "but I wonder if I might prevail upon you for a favor."
    "A… favor." He rolled the word of his tongue smoothly, but it was a human sort of smoothness, doubtlessly he still sounded clumsy and barbaric to the Sestrey’llania. "What sort of favor do you have in mind?"
    Auerenelle suddenly seemed to fight to phrase words; she bit her lower lip like an eighth grade girl with a crush. "You… have just returned to Faerie… have you yet made arrangements to stay in the Hall of the Magi? Does Auberon know of your coming?"
    Argo shrugged again. "I had an open invitation, is all. I was told that I could return and continue my studies whenever I found time. I hadn’t really made arrangements for where to stay or anything like that."
    "That being the case, then… may I propose an offer to you?" She looked very vulnerable at that point. It seemed her bashfulness was increasing from the moment he shrugged. "I have a home of my own… not far from here, a small place… As you’ve seen, I myself know… quite a bit, actually… about the art of magick in Faerie. I would be honored to help you continue your studies."
    Argo stopped, floored, and raised an eyebrow at her. "Say what?"
    She flushed, and could not meet his gaze. She began toying with her hands, as if she couldn’t figure out exactly where to keep them. "I would be willing to offer what I do know... if you would teach me a little about this... ‘quantum physics.’ If you haven’t any prior plans, I mean."
    Argo cleared his throat "I... uhm... no I haven’t planned anything priorly... er, made any prior plans... but... jeez... that would be compromising to you. I really appreciate the offer, but—"
    She shook her head emphatically, interrupting. "No, really, it’s not compromising. Not at all."
    "But wouldn’t it be a bit... ah... disconcerting to have a Humanae staying in your very house?"
    "You are Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev; you’ve stayed in the Halls of Auberon. If he is good enough to have a Humanae within the walls of his home, I suppose I can... demean myself." She smiled; the words were spoken with a playful tone that made it impossible for him to take offense.
    Argo considered. The thought was actually intriguing. If she was half the magus she claimed to be, she could easily teach him how to better himself in casting the longer, more formulaic Faerie magicks. And although he really wasn’t quite advanced enough to be considered a qualified teacher of possibility magick, the basics of it were simple enough for most people to grasp. Then, too, the idea of learning from an attractive elfwoman in the natural surroundings of the fields and trees was infinitely more desirable than sitting in a large hall surrounded by musty books and lorded over by a didactic elder magus who was probably just waiting for the stupid Humanae to make his first blunder. Looking at it that way, there really wasn’t a whole lot of choice to the matter, not as far as Argo was concerned.
    He rubbed at his goatee, relaxed into a smile. "M’lady, you have yourself a deal."

IV.    An Ending, A Beginning...
    The wine glass was just about empty.
    Paris smiled wanly as he set the crystal goblet down on the nearby foot-table. That story was one his father had told him often, and even if he didn’t much care for his father, the story was one Paris was sure he’d never tire of telling.
   Nova’s violet eyes softened, crinkling around the edges. Her smile was bright, warm. "You’re right, Paris. That was so..."
    "Contrived?" Silvera ventured.
    Vengeance giggled, her silvery curves reflecting macabre images of Paris’ angular face back at him. He flushed.
    Nova saw Paris redden, reached out a hand to touch his. "No, I was going to say, that was so... so much like him. Going into a situation half-cocked, unaware of what he might have been walking into..."
    "...usually causing more trouble once he actually got into the situation..." Vengeance supplied helpfully.
    Nova nodded morosely, withdrawing her hand back to her lap.
    The four fell quiet, lost to introspection for a few moments. Paris let his gaze fall on the wine glass, watched the light refract and reflect from the sheer surface. He closed his eyes, slowly felt the warmth fade from his hand where she had touched him. He shook his head, wishing to forget the feeling of her touch but at the same time longing to feel it again.
    Vengeance broke the silence. "Well, as much as I’d like to stay, I have other things I must attend to. Nice to meet you, Paris. See you all later."
    With that, she leaned over and kissed each of them in turn, starting with Paris. He felt an almost electric sensation jolt through his body as her lips touched his, a surge of pleasure that made every hair on his body stand on end. He could only gasp and nod as she made her way to the other two, kissing them as well. She then waved her hand demonstratively and seemingly called a portal of bright white light into being. The vortex before her swirled and flowed and crackled around the edges, like a distraught stormcloud, and then, as she stepped inside, it vanished. Just like that, she was gone.
    "Venge has the right idea, I think," Silvera commented, and then, at Paris’ wide-eyed glance, "Don’t worry, Paris. I don’t give electric kisses."
    He exhaled noticeably.
    "I bite necks," she smirked.
    It wasn’t until Nova began to giggle that he realized she was just kidding him. He joined, uncomfortably, in the laughter.
    "I’m off to bed. Goodnight, Nova, Paris. See you soon."
    She waved to them, and then, in a puff of smoke that smelled vaguely of brimstone, she too disappeared.
    Paris inclined his head toward Nova, surprised to find himself fighting back a yawn himself. He covered it by picking up the goblet and holding it to his lips. "And you?"
    She brushed a strand of flame-red hair from her eyes. "I hardly ever need to ‘power myself down,’ so to speak, in the manner people do when they sleep. I do recharge every so often, but I am not in need of it at this time."
    He nodded, drank the last swallow of wine in the glass.
    She blinked once, looked back at him. "Or are you just trying to get me into bed?"
    Paris sputtered, coughed. Droplets of the burgundy trickled from his nose like a theatrical nosebleed. "What? " He finally croaked when he could finally talk.
    She watched his reaction with interest, frowned prettily. "I believe your reaction would indicate I have told another joke badly. Perhaps I misinterpreted the correct inflection."
    Paris stared.
    "Or are you just trying to get me into bed?"
    "Uhm... Nova?"
    "Or are you just trying to get me into bed?"
    "...No, I mean—"
    "Or are you just trying to get me into bed?"
    "—the inflection was fine, just—"
    "Or are you just trying to get me into bed?"
    Paris leaned over and clapped a hand over her mouth, watched her eyes go wide. "Really, it’s fine. I was just unprepared, that’s all."
    He uncovered her mouth. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
    "The human ideal of humor is obviously a concept I need to study in much more detail."
    "I wouldn’t argue that," he remarked.
    "And please don’t do that again. If I hadn’t overridden my default programming, I very likely would have broken your hand in twelve places."
    Paris carefully pulled his hands away from her, set them on his lap and crossed them. "I... understand. I’m sorry."
    "It’s all right, this once. So, you cast magicks, like Argo?"
    "Hmm?" He followed her change of topics slowly, and was embarrassed to find himself fight back another yawn.
    "Never mind," she smiled. "You’ve had a long trip, haven’t you?"
    "Kind of long," he conceded, nodding tiredly.
    "Here. Rest yourself," she said, scooting next to him on the couch and beginning to massage his shoulders.
    At first, Paris nearly resisted; the last thing he wanted was her touch, setting his skin on fire and making him long to touch her in return. But in the end, he was too slow and far too fatigued to do much to stop her.
    But now her touch was not incendiary, only soothing. Her hands were delicate yet firm, and tension that Paris hadn’t even realized he’d had began to ebb from him as she kneaded. The tiredness from casting the spell which brought him across dimensions to here began to take hold of him and stubbornly refused to let go. That combined with the post-adrenal lethargy after first meeting some of the occupants of this ASFR room and the ministrating touch of the flame-haired android sapped his will to resist. His head almost immediately began to loll.
    "D’nwanna… fall’sleep," he murmured, shaking his head weakly. "Needafyna… placet’stay."
    "Shhh," Nova whispered. "You can stay here for the night. A lot of people do."
    She gently pulled him toward her, rested his head in her lap. He didn’t resist her at all. She sat there quietly, softly humming an unfamiliar— yet soothing— tune, and running a gentle finger along the sleeve of his tunic.
    Paris peeked one eye open and looked up at her, awash in wonder as his conscious mind began to stray toward rest. She smiled at him, perfect white teeth beneath slender upturned lips. Strands of fiery red hair dropping down to mask her soft violet eyes. Skin so flawless it might have been elven. He made a mental portait from the vision, closed his eyes.
    And then Paris drifted off to sleep. And somewhere, in his dreams, she was there as well, running through the fields of Faerie in billowing white linen, calling him along, red-orange hair streaming behind her.
    Nova looked down at the young elf-man and saw he had fallen asleep. She let the hand drop from his shoulder, and touched his cheek lightly. There were a lot of similarities there, between him and his father. She could see Argo’s jawline, the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled. She could almost envision Paris with the same mustache and goatee Argo wore, even though if what she heard about faerie-kin was true, he would never be able to grow one.
    She sighed, inwardly. A lot of this felt familiar. She had been here when Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev first walked into the ASFR room, finding a strange agglomeration of robot and statue lovers, a place far different from anywhere he had ever been. She had helped him become more comfortable with everyone, tried to make him feel like he had a home here. And now, here she was with his son, in the very same position. She wondered if this would be what humans would consider a ‘sign.’
    But she shrugged the thought off, and decided to power herself down into standby mode. Her face slackened as she shunted the proper command through to her neural pathways, and waited a few nanoseconds as the command was processed and carried out. Her eyes lost their focus and stared blankly ahead, and her motions stopped completely. She remained there the rest of the night, waiting for input from an outside source to return her from the standby state. And on her lap, Paris rested his head, fast asleep, his lips curling into the barest of smiles.

 V.    Epilogue
    Somewhere else…

    Blackness surrounded him, taunted at him, tried to invade him and chill him to the very core of his being. But he fought at it, straining toward the single pinprick of light he saw off in the distance. He chanted a few words to himself, a mantra, and sped onward toward it. The light grew as he neared it, getting brighter and brighter as he flew toward it. It was now as bright as a matchstick. Now a candle. A lantern. A bonfire. The sun…
    He screamed, and as he did the light enveloped him, drawing him in like a lover. It burned his eyes away, sheared through his skin. He had a mental image of himself passing through the Hand of God, and then he hit the floor hard, sprawling. The breath exploded from his lungs, he gasped as though he’d just run forever.
    He stood up slowly, shaking the haze from his head. Where am I? A pert young woman with bleached blond hair and dark roots looked up at his arrival and made her way toward him. Next to him, a woman with auburn hair posed with her hand out seductively and didn’t move at all. He peered more intently at her and saw the telltale reflection from her skin, the sheen of light off plastic. Not a real person, then. A mannequin. And around him, racks of clothes with signs and prices nearby. He looked at the tiles on the floor. Linoleum. Memories flooded back. A store, probably a department store.
    The shock hit him shortly after the realization did. I came here? Oh, bloody fucking wonderful. Of all the places is the known and unknown universe, of all dimensions, I lead Fithnaheyin here?!? Fucking brilliant. Maybe next time I should do something really intelligent while I’m at it, like teleport myself into a nuclear reactor.
    The imitation blonde rounded a rack of finery and put on a smile almost as obviously fake as her hair color. He saw now she was dressed in a short skirt, had a business-like blouse on with a nametag pinned to the breast. She couldn’t keep the disdain from her voice as she asked, "Can I help you or something, sir?"
    He tensed, feeling the air around him. It was thick, like muggy air before a summer storm. He looked at his arms, saw the hair beginning to move. Soon they would be standing on end. And then…
    He didn’t want to even think about what would happen ‘And then’.
    He whirled on the clerk, reached out, grabbed her shoulders. The young woman gasped, looking at him as if he’d grown a third eye. He didn’t have time to discuss things rationally with her, though.
    "Yes, you can help me. You can get the hell out of here. Leave, now, get as far as you can from this place. Because… if it followed me, it’ll be here shortly, and the only safe place is out of its path. Do you understand… Renee?" He looked up from the nametag into her wide eyes.
    She nodded wordlessly, gazing at him in abject horror.
    "Go." He let her go, watched as she scrambled back toward the cash register, then rushed around it, out of sight. Moments later, her voice erupted from the loudspeaker near him, still with the timbre of someone who had been frightened out of their mind.
    "We need secirity to lingerie immediately! Security to lingerie immediately!"
    "Christ," the man said in disgust. "I don’t have time for this."
    He began to talk to himself, mumbling a stream of words beneath his breath, caressing each syllable with his lips. A soft glow began to surround him.
    "All right, you," said a middle-aged, balding man as he came within sight. The man wore a bright blue collared shirt that had a shield-shaped patch with the legend Jennings Security running across it.
    "I think you’ve done enough here. Maybe you ought to—"
    The man glared at him with eyes blacker than midnight, finished calmly. "Sheh’henauwilamen." Then, with a small crackling sound and an odor of rose petals, he disappeared.
    "—leave." The balding guard blinked, then shook his head. "Can’t believe one actually listened."


    Renee Kellerman was having a day from hell.
    It had started that morning, when she had gotten a call from her boss telling her that idiot Janie had called off again for work, and that she was needed to come in and work the midmorning shift on her day off. Then she’d found four displays hadn’t been arranged the night before and had been forced to pull out another six boxes of lingerie to replace the display items. And then, she had to call security on some deranged lunatic who grabbed her and started talking nonsense. He probably had some sort of panty fetish, too.
    She sighed. Seven-fifty an hour wasn’t worth this.
    She pulled at the front of her blouse. And now, was the AC screwed up, too? Why was it so unbearably hot in here? Renee’s eyes flitted over to where she had first seen the crazy guy earlier today and she shivered. The image of that man was still fresh in her mind, but there was something particularly unsettling about him. About his eyes. She could have sworn they had been jet black, with no pupils at all, like sunglasses.
    Probably a trick of the light, she thought. After all, it certainly was dark over that directio…
    She stared. For a moment, it looked as though the darkness was coming together, coalescing, like a cloud. But that was impossible. Patently impossible.
    It was also patently impossible that the darkness should be forming white eyes within it and gazing at her, but it was doing that, as well. Renee stared at the formless darkness, transfixed.
    You will do. The words came from nowhere and everywhere; they seemed to imprint directly into her mind.
    "I will what?" She asked silently, then called, "Who’s there?"
    The darkness began to move toward her, gaining form as it did. It reformed itself into a vaguely human shape, with no visible features other than its white eyes. The rest of its body was a translucent inky black, with constantly moving streaks and threads of darker black running through it.
    Where is he? Where is the Possibility Magus?
    Renee flinched at the force of the voice in her head. "I don’t know what you mean," she started.
    You have seen him. I can see that in your mind’s eyes. Where did he—
    The dark man stopped, sensing.
    I have him. I can taste the trail of magick, foolish Magus. How often you forget that. He looked at Renee, inasmuch as he actually turned his head to encompass her general area. I have no more use for you.
    Renee was about to ask what he meant, and suddenly stopped, stock-still. Her eyes glazed over, her limbs locked, one hand in the middle of raising to gesture. A sheen covered her entire body as her skin hardened and became glossy.
    I come for you, Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev. And this battleground shall be our last.
    With that, the darkness dissipated, following its prey into the ethers of magickal transport.


    Left behind, standing behind her counter in a pose that would never again change, was Renee Kellerman. Twenty minutes later, Renee’s co-workers found her standing there, and wondered where Renee went. They also wondered why a mannequin was situated behind the cash register instead of in the display window, and why that mannequin was wearing Renee’s clothes. Anyone who could look past what humans know as reality could have figured out what happened to her quite easily, but as it was, most humans tend to err to the side of the scientific rather than the magickal.
    It was decided Renee had stolen a set of clothes from the store and made off with them. As for the mannequin, Renee had likely found one that looked similar to her and used it to allay suspicion until she could make good her escape. It sounded like a plausible story, and everyone concerned accepted it without argument.
    Meanwhile, the only person in the store who could have told them what really happened took a new position in the display window, modeling this year’s newest one-piece swimsuit.


    Somewhere else…

    It is said there are unseen barriers separating the various planes of existence. Ordinarily, these barriers hold one plane’s reality in, keep it from leaking into the others and corrupting the natural order of each plane. But in one barrier, a minute crack began to appear, and a small dribble of reality leaked out, like a can filled with water, with a tiny pinhole in its side. The small dribble became a slow but steady drip, then a trickle. And around the trickle, possibilities began to assert themselves.

 To Be Continued...

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