Carmen and the Storm

Carmen lifted the hourglass hanging from her waist, clear cut crystal in a housing of orichalcum. Varihued sands ran up and down through the neck as she watched, a riot of color until they settled into layered arrangements in the top and bottom bulbs. Years of training translated the dozens of colors instantly: a time the locals called 1974, August 30, 10:02am, located at 17°55'42.3"N 66°09'34.9"W. She smiled.

She stood on a spit of sandy rock in the midst of a wild sea. To the south and east, the sky was as dark as it had been four hours earlier. Clouds hanging low above her churned so fast Carmen could almost believe they were human-made, sheets of undyed wool whipped into a frenzy by mischievous youths.

Craning her neck until it cracked, Carmen unlimbered a bow of silvery wood, testing the pull. She unsheathed two long, curved knives in turn and checked their edges with her thumb. Satisfied, she rearranged the sheathes on the front of her chest for easy access.

She stood at her full five-foot-two height and stared into the storm, already pummeling her with fifty mile-per-hour winds, and drew her first arrow.

A Morality Tale

To begin with, you are a prince, or a farmer's third son, or a young woman. You will come upon the test: a fairy pretending to need somebody's last bit of bread, or a challenge to do something impossible. You display your virtue, usually clever perpendicular thinking but possibly generosity, hard work, mercy, or piety, and earn the prize: a princess, kingdom, treasure, wish, or a combination of the above.

Here's the catch: you're flawed. The most important bit is when you overcome your flaw. You have to learn your lesson from it before it's too late. Did you fail the test but learn a valuable moral lesson? Then the lesson was the test, and overcoming your flaw was your virtue. Move ahead, collect your prize.

Maybe you discover your flaw later. You've passed the test and you're ready to collect your prize. Here is where your flaw rears its ugly head: pride, or greed, or ambition maybe. Despite passing the test, your prize recedes from your grasp. Only overcoming your flaw at this late stage—when it again becomes your real test—will get you what you seek.

But what if the story's over without finding your flaw? You've quested, tested, bested, and want to be rested. But without a flaw, then the story's not over... or yours is a morality tale, and it's about to make an example of you.

Embedded in the Stone

Veretta hopped off the cart first. The other fifteen year olds jockeyed for position behind her, but no one contested her right to be first. They hadn't moved until she stood, though she'd delayed in the hope that someone else would take the lead. So it had always been. Tall, dark of hair, a natural leader, her peers deferred to her almost by reflex. And after that, she couldn't let them down.

Youths from dozens of other carts hopped off and jostled into a semblance of order before a helmed and halberded guard. Behind him stood a courtyard and castle. In the center of the courtyard, a stone. And embedded in the stone, a sword. The sword.

Veretta tried to stay near the back, but the companions from her long cart ride pushed her to the front with them, chanting her name. The guard invited her forward. With a trembling lip, she stepped forward and took the hilt in both hands.

When the sword shifted, she froze. Had anyone seen? Their hushed silence told her no. Heart in her throat, she strained, body trembling with effort, but against only her own muscles, never the stone's grip on the blade. It felt like an hour before the guard told her she had to let go. He didn't notice the sword slide a millimeter back into place as she released it.

With a humble grin and shrug, Veretta slid back into place in the crowd, and quietly left while everyone else failed.

Here There Were Dragons

Samuel answered the phone at the reference desk. A very, very deep voice said, "Please come outside. I need some help using the library." "Ohhhh-kay. Hey Val, someone outside wants help, watch my desk?" Then he walked outside. He was about to go back inside when a reptilian head the size of a Subaru came down to his level from the roof.

"Would you bring me your maps?" Its voice was echoes of stones grinding in the depths of a cave.

"Maps?"

"Yes. I'd rather not destroy your library by coming in for them."

"Uh... sure." When he returned with the current atlas, the dragon asked him to turn the pages. Giant claws, it explained, are rarely safe for thin paper.

"Don't worry, Sam," Val called from inside. "I'll cover your desk!"

"Thanks," Samuel muttered. He helped the dragon look through the atlas. It looked at every page, though it only spent a second or two on each before asking for the next. When Samuel closed the back cover, a gallon of steaming saltwater hit the ground. The dragon was crying.

"What's wrong, uh, dragon?"

"Maps used to tell me where other dragons were. None of them mention dragons anymore."

A Map from 1706

"Where are we going?" They'd been at sea for a week now and Danny was ready to spend some of their vacation in London instead of in salt spray. "Here, take a look." Jen tossed Danny a square of paper that he caught against his face.

"A map?" He unfolded it as he spoke. "I don't know how to read a sextant or whatever, how is this supposed to help?" He peered at the open map. "And especially how's a map from 1706 supposed to help?"

"Look at it. We're west of England by about two hundred miles, plus maybe thirty south. See anything?"

"'Heer be drachens.' What? Really?" Danny threw the open map back at Jen. "You know there weren't really dragons there, right?"

"Look!" Danny followed her outstretched hand to a tiny spit of land, barely more than a cabin-sized pile of rocks on a tennis court of pebbled ground.

They pulled ashore. "Seriously, Jen. What's the point?"

"This, jackass." She stood up from a cleft in the rocks holding a cracked, hollow rock the size of a watermelon. "The next piece of the puzzle." Danny's jaw slacked as he recognized the rock for the eggshell it was.

To Bag a Boggle

"The boggles, for sure. This way." Malia pointed into the dark forest with her sword. "How do you know?" Kiera adjusted her armor for the tenth time. She only walked into the woods when it became clear Malia wasn't waiting.

Malia snapped a twig off a passing tree and dipped it in a dab of something next to the tracks they followed. "Smell this."

Kiera leaned in close then pushed it away fast. "Uck! Smells like the stuff we use to whiten wool after the shearing."

"Yeah, boggle blood. Nasty smell, but easy to track." Malia walked on, pushing small branches out of her way. Kiera learned to catch them before they sprang back at her.

"Shouldn't we... get more soldiers?" Kiera gripped her spear tight.

"No time. We're all spread out looking for the princess. They'd never—shh!" Malia crouched behind a fallen tree, pulling Kiera with her. "They've made camp."

Crawling forward with brush as cover, they peered into a part of the forest where some old growth had fallen, taking other trees with it to form a small clearing ringed with trunks and debris. The murmur of low voices drifted to them, and peering through a gap in an uprooted tangle they looked on the pale, lumpy skin of the boggles. Several built up a fire, another group raised temporary shelters, and one sat in the middle of it all with the princess. With the princess on his lap, kissing him deeply. Passionately, even. As they watched, the boggle whispered something in the princess's ear, and she giggled and placed her head on his in the way intimates do.

"C'mon." Malia tugged Kiera until she followed her away from the clearing. "We've got to keep searching if we want to sound convincing when we report not finding her."

In the Hall of Wept Gold

Hugo stepped into the Hall of Wept Gold. Legend held that it bore the name because when the miners had first cut through the rock here, near-pure gold lined the walls, looking like tear-streaks from above. He wished he could've seen that. Now, maybe a century after the tunnel had been first mined, the dull stone walls were stained with soot from countless fires and oil from countless hands. Some of them watched him now.

The ten minutes felt like an hour, but his tentative steps brought him to a closed door. In Hugo's neighborhood, it would lead to a storeroom with local necessities. Here, a balding man with a cudgel leaned against the wall next to it. Hugo approached slowly, each step smaller than the last until he feared he'd never get there. When he stopped, looking up at the scowling guard, it took all his will to say, "I'd like to see Mr Stern."

The tough didn't say anything, just unfolded one arm enough to pound on the door between him at a measured tempo. The door opened and a small woman beckoned him in. The room was cut to the same measurements as the storerooms back home, but instead of supplies it had been turned into some kind of open office. A couple dozen people spread out across a number of chairs, desks, and lounges. The space quietly hummed with people at work. At the center of it all, a woman sat and watched him. Hugo's guide brought him to her.

"Uh... Mr Stern?"

She looked bored. "Speak."

"Uh, right. My wife. She, um, see, she got caught up in the protests last month and, um—"

"She's been exiled."

"Yes."

"Want to find out if she's still alive? The old tunnels are dangerous, most exiles don't last long. If she's alive—or if you're optimistic—we can get her a letter, or a care package. Most exiles appreciate food."

"Um, I was told you could also get things into the city."

"No."

Hugo's voice wavered and tears sprung to his eyes. "I brought all my money—"

"It's never worth it. Someone finds her, she gets kicked out again, the council starts a headhunt for the smugglers and we have to suspend operations. Too expensive." She shooed him away with a gesture and the small woman began solicitously tugging him to the door by his sleeve.

Hugo took two numbed steps before pulling away from her. Five of the people who had appeared to have their attention elsewhere stood, focus on him. He raised his hands to placate them. "I'd like to send something to her, then."

Now Mr Stern smiled. "Fine. I'm sure there's a lot she'd like to have up there. Torches for light, food, water, clothes... weapons, of course. We have a price list around here somewhere." She waved a hand at someone who went looking.

"I'll take all of those." Zar looked her square in the eye. "And I want you to send me with it."