The Hopeful Wanderer 28 – A Deceptive Drift

I was digging. Cold, dry flakes of snow bit at my bare fingertips, leaching the warmth from them. Knee deep in it, I didn’t dare move any farther forward. She had gone down right here, the snow too light to bear her weight, closing over her head with just a small impression to show where she had vanished.

Breathing hard, I shoveled armfuls of snow aside, sweat dripping into my eyes. I was up to my chest in it now, unable to feel my fingers anymore. How far had she sunk into this snow drift? She’d been tossing handfuls of flakes into the air, laughing at the way they glittered golden white in the morning sunlight. Leaping and dancing with the joy of the first snow.

I had yelled it. “Wait!” Just before she stepped off the ledge. I didn’t know this area, but I hadn’t liked the way the distant line of the rocky shelf curved around right next to her and vanished beneath the smooth plane of snow.

My fingers brushed against long hair. Then I unearthed a waving hand, and the other. Wrapping my fingers around her wrists, I leaned back and pulled hard. Only the snow packed around my knees kept me from sliding down after her. When her head came free, she gasped in a huge gulp of air, coughing up lungfuls of snow. I dragged her back a step, and another, until she rolled onto the safety of the ledge with me.

We lay there like crash-landed snow angels. When she caught her breath, she looked back at the drift that had almost claimed her, the hole fast filling with dry, slithery snow. Then she said simply, “We’ll have to warn the others about that.”

I could only nod my agreement.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 27 – An Abandoned Bonfire

Orange sparks drifted upward into the night sky. Below them, flames fed upon fragrant pine boughs, leaping high and higher. The popping hiss of logs and branches lent the dancing flames voice, like a smoker singing to the tune of the whistling wind.

I had questions for the builder of this bonfire, for those fluttering sparks contained puffs of stardust, occasionally throwing off sunshine and sparkling colors. After I found it unattended, I waited, watching, long into the night, but the maker never returned. Nor did the fire burn down. As my mind grew weary, the crackling sounded more like laughter, and the flame tips looked like twirling fingertips.

Late into the night, one blink turned longer than the ones before, and on the other side of it, I found someone bent at the waist, peering into my face. This someone was made of fire.

I sat up straight where I had dozed against a tree trunk, drawing back from the heat of the flames.

The fire spirit squinted kerosene blue eyes in the approximation of a smile. “Well met, cousin.”

“Cousin?” I echoed. Behind it, the bonfire was nothing but embers.

In a voice like burning brush, the spirit said, “You have flames in your heart.” It then executed an exhilarated spin, shedding more colorful sparks into the grass all around.

I smiled at such delight. “And you have a star in yours.” Licking my thumb, I snuffed out a smoldering thread of my coat. “Which way from here, cousin?”

“Hopeward,” the fiery creature cried, dancing back onto its bed of coals. “Duskward!”

With a whoosh, the flames sank into the earth, leaving nothing behind but a patch of black soot. The final flaming tendril was a finger, pointing me toward the west.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 26 – An Inviting Stairwell

Dug several levels into the earth, a double set of stairs twisted around and around each other in graceful spirals – spirals that put me in mind of the arms of a galaxy. Black wrought-iron railing echoed the emptiness of space. This and the marble flooring below suggested opulence and grandeur deep underground. Warm, inviting light illuminated the steps, which were somehow clean despite exposure to the open sky. From my position where raw dirt met carved step, I straightened, taking in the contrasting ruined city around me, reminded of things like illusions and trapdoor spiders.

Below, what I had mistaken for statuary centered between the staircases suddenly moved. A man swiveled his head to look up at me, his handsome face illuminated in the weak afternoon light. He grinned and his smile was all white teeth. Making an invitational gesture, he said, “Come on down here.”

With a shrug, I obliged. The handrail bit my bare palms with cold but warmed as I descended. The man kept his eyes on me, contorting his neck around when I passed behind him. Predatory, hungering. Obvious. At last, I came to a stop before him, hands in pockets, eyebrows raised as if to say, well?

A pause. Then the man lunged forward, fingers outstretched, mouth open wide, wide, wide. But he stopped short, arms windmilling when his feet did not follow. He was stuck to the floor.

“I know of you,” I said, as he collected himself. “The townspeople entrapped you here, so you could not lure their families into your lair.”

His face contorted into misery. “Please free me,” he whimpered.

I shook my head. “Ask the descendants of your victims; maybe they’ll let you out to kill again.” At his hopeful expression, I said, “Somehow, though, I doubt they will.”


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The Ghost in the Basement – A Halloween Special

Nobody believes you when you tell them there’s a ghost in the basement.

And why would they? The one time the surveillance camera caught me, I was only a quick flash of light crossing the view. “There! Right there!” you said, voice cracking with fear as you pointed me out on the footage playback. I know, because I was watching over your shoulder. Maybe it was my icy breath down the back of your neck that had you so convinced. But your co-workers just smiled, shook their heads, hand-waved. Rationalized. Laughed. Like I said, no one believed you.

So now you’re down here in my basement to prove a point.

I can guess why you crept down those creaky steps after business hours. You’d be embarrassed if one of your co-workers caught you down here, what with your obsessive behavior this week. Your boss already had a talk with you about your productivity drop and the IT department had to report you for excessive internet searches relating to “how to find a ghost.” But that research paid off, because now you’ve got a top-of-the-line (free) EMF sensor app on your phone, even though cell phones are crap at detecting electromagnetic frequencies.

The beam from the flashlight in your other hand shivers as you pass it over boxes full of junk from the ’90s. Don’t you know there’s a light switch right beside you? To my surprise, no one else comes downstairs behind you. What, like you don’t even have a friend to back you up? Wow. Irritated, I push over a stack of files. I swear you jump three feet as you swing your light around, illuminating the yellowing papers slithering across the concrete floor. But you don’t scream. That’s the impressive part. You don’t expect anyone to come help you.

You’re going to be so fun. I let a little giggle bubble from my mouth.

“Who’s there?” you whimper. I roll my eyes; you and I both know no one else is down here. Your voice echoes back at you from deep within the vast basement. “We’re closed.”

“Closing time!” I sing out, mimicking in my raspy voice that popular song retailers like to play to get customers out of the store. I don’t quite remember all the words. “Duh duh duhduduh duh but you can’t stay here!”

You whirl around, flashlight beam swinging crazily, until it lands on that creepy mannequin someone left down here ages ago. You freeze to the spot, your eyes growing huge and your mouth making an O shape when you see what I’ve written in red Sharpie on its bare, silicone chest.

GET OUT.

“We’re closed,” I whisper into your ear.

You swallow, gaze jumping to the EMF reader app. I’m right beside you, but it’s not detecting anything at all. Like I said, useless. I let the silence grow heavy. Just your flighty breaths, in and out. In, out.

Then, I scream. “WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT…!”

My chanting matches rhythm with the crash of your footsteps as you dash for the stairs. You’re making some kind of weird “aaahaaaahaaahaaa” noise as you go, but still no screaming. Of course you drop the flashlight and your phone. The bulb shatters on impact, plunging us into darkness, but the screen does not.

I let you go. This time.

After you’re gone, I retrieve your cell phone. You’ve got a pattern lock on it, but that doesn’t stop me. I take a selfie, flashing a peace sign and a smile full of sharp teeth. Then I replace your phone back on the floor, knowing you’ll come looking for it tomorrow.

But when you find my picture, all you’ll see will be a quick flash of light in the dark.


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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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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.

“Fire!”


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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