The Hopeful Wanderer 25 – Hungering Mountain

Perched upon a porous boulder at the toes of a fiery mountain, I regarded a distant but nearing lava flow. No flames breathed from the peak above, but smoke billowed moodily into the evening sky. The ground vibrated with constant rumbling and heat soaked my hair with sweat. This was no place for people, yet many had waited here before me, judging by an ash-dusted stack of stones nearby.

It was not until after nightfall that the approaching lava flowed close enough for a vapor spirit to step from the fiery goo. The smokey creature billowed forth, eyes and mouth mere burning pits. Behind it, the lava strip glittered like a golden ribbon.

“My master has accepted your request for audience.” The spirit’s voice hissed like escaping gas. “You may ascend.”

I nodded my thanks, holding my breath against its toxic vapors behind a cloth mask.

Upon the mountaintop, I found bubbling magma simmering within a massive crater. Extreme heat snatched at my eyebrows.

“What would you ask of me?” the mountain growled. “A bountiful crop? Love? I cannot grant those wishes.”

Keeping my distance from the rim’s edge, I held up a carved jade figurine – a stylized bear, all wide eyes and snarling maw. “An offering. For safe passage.” With a grunt, I hurled the figurine far into the center; it burned up before even touching the surface.

The entire mountain hummed. “Delicious,” it rumbled. “You will pass in safety.”

I glanced out at the huge lava field blocking my way forward. Before my eyes, distant glowing stripes of melted rock and pockets of fire blinked out as the magma cooled and solidified. When I passed by the stone pile below, I set another on top, for solidarity with those who’d told me the secret of what to offer.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 24 – Cat Curiosity

Upon a stone fence along a country road, a cat rested in the warm sunshine. It was doing that thing cats do where they stare into space at something invisible, perhaps at a lingering spirit, perhaps at a mere dust mote. This cat’s eyes moved back and forth, like the perpetual swinging of a clock’s pendulum. Curious and lulled with the heady scent of lavender and honeysuckle, I paused next to it. Squinting in the direction of its gaze, I expected to perhaps find that the passing of a distant train or something had its attention.

After a moment, the cat said to me, “What do you see?”

Excitement surged through me; at last I could ask a cat why cats did this. I said, “Nothing that I expected.” Certainly, no train or anything else of interest appeared in this direction. “What about you?”

“I see the passage of time,” the cat replied. “Streaming and streaming and streaming by.”

I blinked, at once uneasy. “And… how does time appear?”

“Like a road of stars leading into eternity. But the ones which have passed glow brighter than those still to come.” Now the cat looked at me. I saw its pupils had become ticking hour and minute hands, spinning around the clock faces of its eyes. “Your time is running out, Wanderer.”

The afternoon closed in, the musty scent of rot rising with the wind. I took a cautious step backward. Though my heart tapped against my collarbone at this brush with the future, I kept my voice calm. “Time runs out for all eventually.”

The cat returned its gaze to the horizon. “Small comfort, that. But if you must.”

I hurried on down the path, prickling with the sense that as the cat watched time, it also watched me.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 23 – Concerned Cloud

At the top of the world, I approached a cloud that had come to rest on the tallest mountain peak. Though a rocky path indicated this as a thoroughfare, the cloud had remained for days and days, obscuring passage and worrying the locals, who asked me to climb up and negotiate.

“The people need to pass this way,” I told the cloud. Wind eased around my clothes and tugged chill fingers through my hair. “Please return to the sky.”

Foggy particles of moisture thickened, blocking my vision until I could no longer even see my feet. I had the cloud’s attention.

“If I go, they will come with me.” Its voice was muffled, like someone speaking from beneath a blanket. It sounded big and old. “Whisked away to the clouds yet too heavy to float upon air.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Follow their calls.”

I heard nothing but my own breathing. But then, distantly, thinly, a sound reached me; a damp cry of distress. Following it, I found I had to leave the guiding safety of the path and plunge into the blank depths of the fog.

“Can you not release them?” I asked, hesitating.

“They are enthralled,” the cloud replied, “following wherever I move. You must lead them out.”

I stepped off the path, making scuff marks in the mud as I went, to follow back. Down the mountainside, huddled beneath a bank of rocks, I found people, shivering and miserable. The slack in their bags showed they had used up their supplies.

A hollow-eyed man gazed pleadingly at me. “Help. We’ve been here so long.”

On the way back, my scuff marks had filled with rainwater, as if the cloud wept. It vanished as we passed out of its boundaries, relieved to at last be freed from the ground.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 22 – Living Art

Beneath the tiny bristles of a street artist’s paintbrush, an alien landscape spread across what had once been a blank wall. I caught glimpses of her progress in flashes, around the bodies of people moving up and down the sidewalks between us. Some of these, like me, stopped to watch, mouths open and faces tipped upward as the painting spread, higher and farther outward, seemingly on its own. Those unimpressed jostled us on their way by, cursing our wonder. But even these dwindled as more and more of the crowd stilled, mesmerized.

Soon, no sound broke the quiet but the scrape of paint against brick. All motion had ceased, every face turned toward the mural and its creator. She ignored us, big green hat flopping around, focus zeroed in on her work. At last, the spread of paint began to slow, revealing tufty trees and floating, geometric shapes, sparkling planets, and long-limbed creatures cavorting across unimaginable worlds. Yet the artist had imagined it, and from her work, vitality resonated. People began crowding in, hands outstretched toward the spark of life within the mural.

Before anyone could get too close, the artist’s gaze snapped to the crowd, burning with molten fire deep within her irises. She held her arms out, protecting the painting with her body. “Don’t touch it,” she snarled. Those in the front halted in surprise, faces shamed. Her expression softened some. “Wait until it’s dry. Then,” she gazed up at her creation, “do what you want.”

A breath passed in which we basked in the warmth radiating from the stunning work. Then the artist gathered up her paints. She just managed to squeeze free of the roaring crowd as they surged forward to rest their cheeks against the painted wall. As she walked off, she didn’t look back.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 21 – A Way Marker

There was a light shining from beneath the sand. I spied it while walking along the seashore late on a moonless night, chilly surf chuckling around my bare toes. Just a steady glow ringing a patch of emptiness. I guess I already knew what it was when I started digging there, because this had happened a few times now. Not the sand part or the buried part, but the light. I wondered what object would contain it this time, which direction it would seek to send me.

Cold, wet sand scraped against my fingertips and packed beneath my nails as I shoveled mounds aside. Soon my fingers struck a metal handle and, tugging it, I dragged up a lantern caked in muck. When I washed it off in the nearby sea, it turned out to be new and red as blood.

The lantern was full of stardust. Bright, glittering shards, fine as powder, rolled around within the glass globe as I set it upon the sand. The light of ancient stars cast outward from the hearts of these, shining across the waves as far as the horizon and reflecting bright as day off nearby dunes. But its most intense light shot off in one direction. A beam, pointing north and just slightly west, angling away from the sea, bending maybe a little more than the last one had. I consulted the time and the constellations above to verify. Then I shrugged. Now I knew the course, I would get around to following the way marker’s direction eventually.

Gaze following the beam, I wondered where these markers were meant to lead. Yet, somehow, I felt no inclination to follow. Disquiet settled over me. Nothing like sensing danger and everything like being lost.

Who kept leaving these behind?

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The Hopeful Wanderer 20 – Catching Strays

Pure white light blazed in my eyes. A moment before, it had been the kind of vast, empty night that only farmland can offer. Corn rows marching away into the distance. Stars blazing overhead, etched sharply against the shapes of distant trees and a cluster of silos on the horizon. No artificial light for miles around, save for my own flashlight. Now I couldn’t see anything.

Throwing a hand up, I shielded my eyes, squinting against the intense glow from down the dirt road. Beyond it, I could just make out a hulk of green metal, dark rubber wheels rising higher than my head. Light reflected from cab windows above like the eyes of a wild animal. A row of long, sharp teeth glinted across the front.

A growl. Loud and rumbling, shaking the earth beneath my feet. Diesel smoke drifted to me on the still air, thick and sooty. The light grew brighter, nearer. Then those teeth started up, crashing together.

I stood right in the way, there on the road.

My boots sank into mud as I stepped off into the irrigation ditch. The combine rolled past me and I snagged a metal rung, swinging myself up the side, my mucky boots clanging mutely as I clambered toward the cab. The combine paused to examine a nearby irrigation system, ignoring me.

The cab door popped open. I plopped down into the patched driver’s seat, giving the dashboard an affectionate pat. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” I said, or rather, yelled over the engine roar. There was a reason why farm gates had to stay shut: combines would test any escape opportunity. Even worse than tractors. “Let’s get you back home.”

Catching the wheel, I angled us toward the barn, radioing the farmer to meet us there.

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Strive Against

Sadie Throckmorton has ambitions for the title of Supreme General. Unlike me, she’s about to get what she wants.

Based off Mage: the Awakening, a tabletop game of modern sorcery, in which player characters Awaken to their powers through resonance with one of five metaphysical towers and by writing their names on it. This is the story of my first character’s Awakening in our Storyteller’s alternate universe. (Doesn’t require any more knowledge than that to understand.)

Sadie Throckmorton has a flare for the dramatic and in that way, she and I are the same. But that’s where the similarities end. For one thing, I don’t have my parents handcuffed in front of a firing squad, but she does. I wouldn’t have chosen to stage their execution on the Naval Air Base runway, but she has. I would have waited for this spring rainstorm to pass, and would have dispensed altogether with the cameras broadcasting to the entire city, but that’s just not her style. Then again, I am not a usurping totalitarian at the height of a military coup.

But Sadie Throckmorton has ambitions for the title of Supreme General. Unlike me, she’s about to get what she wants.

“Ready!” Throckmorton’s voice rings out, punctuated by a timely rumble of thunder. She’s had a Private bring an umbrella to hold for her, keeping her tied-back blond hair and olive green coat dry. He looked terrified when he opened it up to discover he had snagged one with a bright pink and red floral print, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

The firing squad lined up next to her raises rifles.

In my arms, my younger sister, Teofila, whimpers. She has her head pressed against my chest, but I know her eyes, like mine, are glued to the figures of our parents, silhouetted alone on the tarmac, a thousand miles away on the other side of an iron line of soldiers. Despite their sodden blue coats, missing caps, and stripped medals, my mama and papa have their chins upraised and shoulders squared, proud airmen until the end. Rain courses through my hair and down my face, mingling with the tears on my cheeks. I grit my teeth, helpless with rage and frustration.

Mama’s fiery gaze is only for her executioner. “Sadie, you’re going to run this city into the ground,” she hisses. “My only regret is not getting to watch you burn with it.

Throckmorton looks distinctly unimpressed. “That’s Supreme General to you.” Mama spits at her feet.

For his part, Papa’s gaze finds us. More than anything, he looks sad, resigned. They fought so long against Throckmorton’s proposed military dictatorship and all of it amounted to nothing. To this. “Teo, Iggy. Take care of each other.”

The understanding that my parents are about to die crashes over me again and again and again. A sob catches in my chest and lodges there like a sharp blade. I nod.

“Take aim!” Throckmorton continues. Rifles rattle as safeties are flicked off. I can’t even identify those women and men commanded to execute my family; their faces seem shrouded in black. The backs of my eyes and the insides of my ears buzz.

Papa faces front again. Mama mouths “I love you” at us. Throckmorton draws breath for that final word.

“No!” For moment, I don’t recognize Teo’s scream. My arms are empty and she’s leaping between soldiers, bulling her way toward Mama and Papa, throwing herself in front of them, arms outstretched. “No!”

I’m reaching for her, but I haven’t moved. A high-pitched whine of feedback from the cameras splits the air. I squeeze my eyes shut.


An engine is roaring, volume increasing, underscored with that distinct whine of terminal velocity. Louder, louder. Then, impact as a bi-plane crashes headfirst into the runway, exploding in a fireball of fuel and metal shrapnel. So close that the ground bucks beneath my feet, sending me stumbling. Searing heat licks at my arms and my face.

I duck, shielding my head, bits of hot gravel bouncing off my hands. When I dare to look, another plane follows, bursting itself on the same crash site as the first. Then another, and more, until the air fills with the steady hum of incoming planes. They’re bombers and seaplanes, trainers and rotocraft, sleek and trim or huge and menacing, raining down and destroying themselves against the ground. They begin to stack up, the pile growing and growing until it’s as tall as a house, as an office building, as a tower, before the onslaught comes to a halt.

In the quiet that follows, rain whispers against hot metal, the deluge fusing the mass of aircraft together, rusting them before my eyes. Now they look more like the old war era craft displayed in local museums. Smoke drifts low on the breeze, coating the back of my throat. I crane my neck back, watching as skeletal pilots slump in their seats or half-fall out of busted cockpits. They wear tattered bomber jackets and grin at me, eye sockets wide and empty. I hope that none of them know me.

From above, there’s a pop and a drawn out hiss. A bright red flare burns at the height of the pile, the stick lodged in the cockpit window of the topmost plane. I recognize the craft as the one I wanted to fly as a child: a Hellcat, though its chrome and black flanks are now streaked with soot, its tale crumpled and wings shorn off. My heart aches to know it will never fly again.

My grip slips off slick metal and gravel rolls away from my feet as I begin to climb. The tower of planes creaks and groans with my added weight, but holds, water running down the sides threatening to dislodge me.

I’m maybe a third of the way up when one of the skeletons speaks to me. “What do you want?”

I start but manage not to lose my precarious hold. The skeleton slumps over its dashboard, peering at me through muddy glass. “I want…” What do I want? I can’t remember. Without answering, I continue upward.

Another skeleton higher up repeats the litany. “What do you want?”

Irritated, I snap. “I don’t know! That flare, maybe.” The dead pilot does not respond as I pass.

At the top, I stand upright on shaking legs. The tower sways below me and I bend my knees to get my balance. The flare hisses and spits in the rain, still glowing bright. Beyond the light, another skeleton sits in the Hellcat’s cockpit. It’s wearing my clothes. It’s looking right at me.

Those sockets are black, bottomless pits. Tears well up from within and drip down its bony cheeks. With my voice, it asks, “What do you want?”

Chest heaving from the climb, I blink rainwater from my eyes. At last, I admit it. “I want power” —I snatch the flare from the window corner, pointing it toward the sky— “to protect my family” —a twist of my wrist forms the first letters— “and to kick Sadie Throckmorton” —my voice rises until I’m shouting, screaming to the empty runway— “in the fucking teeth!”

Now my name hangs across the sky in burning red letters above the Hellcat, suspended on nothing at all. “I am Ignado Savio Alvarez and I am not helpless!

I crack the flare stick over my knee and cast the broken pieces down the tower. They bounce off plane hulls with hollow thuds. I whisper, “I want my parents back.”

At my ear, I hear Papa’s quiet voice. “Things will be okay.”

Followed by Mama’s voice at the other. “But not just yet.”

When I come to, the sky has turned orange as the storm clears out, brighter than I’ve ever seen the sky look. My cheek is pressed against the wet, rough tarmac where I’ve fallen; my gaze follows the intricacies of the tar’s physical structure for what feels like an eternity. Nothing has ever looked so beautiful. All the while the metallic scent of gun smoke hangs in the air.

Above me stands Supreme General Sadie Throckmorton. She has her arms crossed and a sour expression directed my way. “Get up,” she growls.

I try to comply, but the world tilts and I slide back down. Having none of it, Throckmorton snags my upper arm and drags me to my unsteady feet.

Gripping my chin between vice-like fingers, she turns my head to take in the scene around us. “Look what you’ve done.” Instead of anger, she practically purrs. Somehow, from her, this is worse than fury.

Around us, bodies litter the runway. Every soldier, the firing squad, all the camera crew, even the poor Private, with that flowery umbrella flipped over next to his outstretched hand. My heart jerks painfully until I find Teo, sprawled like a newborn fawn next to the corpses of our parents. She seems unhurt, but she has Mama’s head cradled in her lap and can’t stop sobbing.

“Pretty impressive,” Throckmorton observes. She hasn’t let go of my arm and I fear she will sense my shiver at the praise. “Could use a bit more control, though.”

“Wh-what are you talking about?” I manage. Hope.

Throckmorton points at Teo, who flinches at the motion. “You protected her. With magic. Or something.” There’s a nasty glint of ambition or mania in her blue eyes. “And you killed everyone else. Almost got me too, if Private Salazar hadn’t taken the hit.”

I inwardly curse Private Salazar at the same time that I feel horrified about what I did. Glancing around, I rationalize that they were all accessory to my parents’ murder and decide that I don’t feel sorry. A memory nudges my mind – of replacing life with death, of compressing space between heart chambers, stilling every single one to silence. I push this away.

“You two are coming to live with me,” Throckmorton continues, tone gleeful, like we’re children again and she’s still our favorite aunt. Like my parents are still alive. Like she didn’t just murder them. She pulls Teo up, who doesn’t manage to move Mama’s head from her lap in time. The corpse flops to the tarmac and I close my eyes, gorge rising in my throat. When I open them again, Throckmorton has placed her palm on Teo’s shoulder, looking at me meaningfully. She squeezes until Teo winces, biting her lip.

“Do you understand?”

I nod, instantly catching on. Teo and I are in more danger than I can comprehend. Her safety depends on my compliance.

“Good!” Throckmorton steers us toward a nearby jeep, yet when she tries the ignition, it won’t start. Despite this, she’s still in high spirits. “Best to get a cleanup crew out here to take care of this mess, hm?”

It’s a long walk to the Command Center from here, but we start marching.

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