Authors: Terry Kroenung
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy
I dropped the sword at my feet and ran toward the hole where I’d fallen into the chamber. No unseen hand clung to mine to prevent it. Jasper’s voice didn’t invade my head to try to talk me out of leaving. Strange mystical forces didn’t take over my soul and imprison me. My downfall was much simpler than that. I fell on my face.
To this day Jasper won’t admit it, but I know he tripped me. I swear I felt an armored foot stub my toe. Crashing hard onto the tiles, I broke my fall with outstretched hands. The russet stones scuffed up my hands and I winced. Not because of the pain, but because of what I felt in the palm of my right hand.
Blood. The wound was not so deep as a well…
but ‘tis enough. ‘Twill serve.
A hot wind swirled around me, peeling the letters from the wall and making the cavern look like it was filled with angry fireflies. Far-off voices chanted in a harsh language I’d never heard. I smelled a strange perfume. Brimstone. Brimstone and lily filled my nose. Swallowing, I tasted something hot and coppery. The sparking letters fluttered around my head like innumerable little bats, then flew straight into Jasper’s wall, which sucked them up into blackness. While that happened I spasmed with what felt like an electric jolt, then fell panting onto the floor.
Total silence. Total darkness. Total despair.
Had I just made a deal with the Devil? Or with something else?
Oh, I felt more alone at that moment than I ever had before or have since. With the sword out of my hand I couldn’t see or hear anything. It was just me lying in the gloom with the feeling that the happy life I’d had up to that point was about to end. I still hoped that the whole experience was my hallucinating while unconscious from the fall. But that wish began to feel like a scared kid’s vain delusion. Curled up in a ball like a wood louse (feeling like one, too), I cried till my throat hurt and I choked on the tears.
They say that having a good cry makes you feel better. Maybe, but that night all it did was make me mad. If this wasn’t a dream then it was a nasty joke to play on a little girl and this little girl wasn’t laughing. Aching from the fall into the chamber, the scuffing tumble onto the tiles, the magical jolt, and the bawling, I felt around for that miserable sword. When I finally found it I grabbed the hilt in both quivering hands and cursed at the blade for what seemed like three solid minutes, using every awful term I’d ever heard a soldier or sailor use. When I had run out of breath and swear words I stopped, panting.
Nothing. No Jasper. No chatty wiseacre talking sword.
Is this really a dream after all?
Growling, I stomped over to the hole in the basement floor where I’d fallen through. I squinted up at it. The opening seemed too high for me to jump up to and the walls were too smooth to climb. My ‘sword senses’ let me see that the chamber sat as empty as a banker’s heart. There was nothing at all that I could stand on to get up there. I blew frustrated air through my lips and considered what to do. Far above, the distant sound of the rehearsal reached me loud and clear. One of the murderers of Banquo explained that he lay in a ditch with ‘twenty trenched gashes in his head.’
“Ain’t that a lovely thing to hear while you’re stuck in a dark hole?” I muttered.
Should I yell for help again?
Jasper had said that it was a bad idea, that there were harmful folks up there. But what did he know? Those were my friends, or at least friends of friends. Nobody dangerous.
Stupid sword. Prob’ly just a figment of my imagination anyway.
And even if he wasn’t, did I plan to let a talking sword that sounded like a bratty twelve year-old tell me what to do?
If I’m the contracted savior of humanity then I need to start makin’ my own decisions.
Jaw set, I opened my mouth to scream so all of Washington City could hear me, if that’s what it took.
Before any sound could come out I went blind and deaf again.
But I’m still holdin’ the sword. What happened to my cat’s eyes?
It was hot and stuffy. My breathing echoed in my ears as if I was in an ironclad’s turret.
What the---?Did somebody drop a bathtub on my head?
With my left hand I reached up to touch my face. I couldn’t. Metal stood in the way.
Turned out I really was in a turret, in a manner of speaking. Somebody had slipped a medieval helmet from
onto my shoulders. And they’d done it in the blink of an eye without my knowing it. Now who did I know who could have done that?
“Jasper!” I snapped, wincing as the sound deafened me. I lowered my volume. “Jasper!” Yanking on the helmet got me nowhere. I stamped my foot. “Jasper! Get this thing off me. I can’t breathe.”
“I don’t know,” the boyish voice said, sounding pouty. “You called me a lot of horrible names just now. Fairly rude, if you ask me. Were you brought up in a barn?”
“Next to one, if you must know. On our farm. Come on, let me out of this miserable brain-bucket. It’s hot.”
“Are you gonna scream? Can’t have that. Alert the nasties.”
He took on an elevated hurt tone. “I won’t talk to you if you’re gonna take a hostile attitude.”
“I’m not hostile! I’m way past bein’---!” I caught myself, took a gulp of air, counted to five. “Jasper,” I went on as if sitting in a library, clipping my words between my teeth, “won’t you please be a dear and kindly remove this exquisite example of a twelfth century great helm from my poor little face?”
“Delighted, my beloved Verity.” Fresh air—as fresh as could be had down in the sub-basement—cooled my nose. That awful helmet vanished. It wasn’t removed or lifted from my shoulders, it just ceased to exist.
This magick thing will take some gettin’ used to.
Now I could see through the gloom once more. The helmet melted away into Jasper’s blade, like water running back down a drain. My sword took on its normal shape again and the headgear was just a bad memory.
Gonna have a lot more of those, at this rate.
“Thanks,” I said, rolling my shoulders to unkink them.
“Not at all.”
There was a long silence in the underground room. Sighing at last, I said, “I don’t think I can do this.”
Jasper’s voice was gentler than it had been before. “No one ever does, kid.”
“That’s just it. I’m a kid. Twelve years old!”
“So you keep sayin’. How old do you think I was when they put me in here?”
“Yep. Say hi to a fellow youngun. Three weeks shy of my thirteenth birthday.”
Funny how shared misery really does make you feel a little bit better. “How’d that happen?”
I heard a sad laugh inside my head. “Someday I’ll tell you. No time now. You just have a few minutes to learn the ground rules, I expect. You can bet the Stone has tingled every Merchantry agent for ten miles.”
That made me frown. “Ground rules?”
“The fine print in the contract. You didn’t exactly read it careful-like, I noticed. Magick has limitations and responsibilities, just like everything else.”
“Is this gonna be like those stories where the genie grants wishes but there’s always a horrible catch? Will I turn into a giraffe later on?”
Jasper chuckled. “No.”
“That’s good. ‘Cause if I turn into a giraffe and start bumpin’ my head on doorways, you’re in big trouble, mister.”
The blade reared up like a horse. There was a strange pause, as if my sword sniffed the air. “We’re already in big trouble.”
“Really? What?” I had hoped that those ground rules would’ve been explained before I had to start saving the world from whatever might be wrecking it. This magick stuff was fun but so far it’d been awful vague on the why’s and wherefore’s.
Jasper’s voice interrupted my thoughts. It now sounded ancient and weary. “The Bullies have found you. And Venoma is with them.”
5/ Venoma’s Threat
The Evil Ones talk like Shakespeare? This gets weirder and weirder.
We had bullies at school, but I felt dead sure that Jasper talked about something I couldn’t just wrestle down and Dutch-rub. And it went without saying that anyone going by ‘Venoma’ had to be bad news. “Sounds like you mean trouble with a capital T, huh?”
“’Fraid so. Time to get outta this hole.”
I almost whooped for joy. “Now you’re talkin’! You got a magick carpet?”
Jasper sniffed. “I’m not a dginn. I have to do things my way. First ground rule: you’re my Mistress and have to command me. I’m not allowed to act on my own except to save your life in a dire emergency.”
I thought about that a minute. “That’s why you could slap that nasty helmet on my head, to shut me up so I wouldn’t bring them down on us?”
“Right. Your command can be just a glimmer of a thought. That’s all I need. You may not even know it’s a command. That’s okay. I will. We magick swords are smart that way.”
“Whoa! ‘We magick swords’? There are more of you?”
“You bet. Sorry to say, they ain’t all as charmin’ as me. The Honourable Merchantry has some that are downright rude.”
“Yeah.” My sword began stretching toward the ceiling until it became a fireman’s pole that reached all the way up through the opening. “A jagged edge that spits Black Death into the wound? I’d say that’s mighty rude. Come on. Climb up.”
I shinnied up the pole quick as a squirrel. Climbing things has always been easy for me. Of course, sometimes I fall down after the climb. That’s how Eddie once had to carry me and my busted ankle home for two miles. At the top I looked around, but the basement still lay empty, except for Ernie. The plump gray mouse stood on his hind legs, looked at me for a second, then bowed. I swear to you, he bowed like I was royalty. My jaw bounced off of the dusty floor.
The sword shrank upwards into my hand until it resumed its normal self again. Between that and Ernie I’d about hit my limit for grasping strangeness. I pointed at the mouse. “Did you see that? He bowed to me!”
Jasper had a smile in his voice. “Why shouldn’t he? Ernie served as a footman at Windsor Castle before the Merchantry condemned him. He knows quality when he sees it.”
“Wha---? His name really is Ernie? I’ve been callin’ him that as a joke.”
“No, you haven’t. You’ve been callin’ him that because you’ve always known it’s his name.”
“How’s that possible? I’m not a mage.”
I heard a sigh of impatience. “Everyone’s a mage, in a way. Magick’s as natural as breathin’. It’s just that most people have no idea what they’re capable of. They get overwhelmed by what they call ‘real life’ and never learn to use their gifts.”
“So you’re sayin’ understandin’ animals is my magickal gift?” I looked at Ernie, willing him to turn somersaults. Nothing happened.
“One of them, maybe. It’s a common enough one. Every horse doctor has a bit of it. Most magick isn’t throwin’ fireballs, you know. But your gifts are many, Verity. That’s why you have the Stone. And me. We make your gifts into powers. Or did you think this is happenin’ to you completely by chance?”
My eyebrows went up. “It’s not? This is some kind of destiny thing? Like King Arthur?”
“If you wanna call it that.”
Ernie sat atop a thimble and drummed on it with a tiny paw. He seemed impatient about something. I made a sour face at him and said, “What’s your problem?”
“You’re me problem, ducky,” the mouse replied in a working-class Britannic accent.
If my jaw had dropped earlier, it positively plummeted now. “You talked!”
“What? The silly sword jabbers on half the night and yer don’t bat an eye. The mouse talks and yer wanna call the bloody London
. Jasper, yer sure this is the one? Seems a bit dim to me.”
“Just gimme a chance to get my bearin’s,” I protested.
“We’ll, yer better get ‘em quick. Trouble’s comin’ our way.”
I shook my head, which started to ache from all of this. “I’m talkin’ to a rodent.”
“Your mind gave me a command,” said Jasper. “You wanted to speak to him, so I boosted your gift.”
“Just like that? No, ‘oh, mighty sword of sorcery, grant me this wish’?”
“We can do it that way, but, to be honest, it wastes a lot of time.”
“Which we don’t have,” grumped Ernie. “Me network says Venoma’s on the way. Be here in just a few minutes. Not in strikin’ range yet, miss.”
I felt I should contribute, being the Anointed One or whatever they thought I was. “How will we know when they’re that close?”
Jasper told me, “The Stone’ll let you know.”
Hmmm. I guess bein’ vague is just somethin’ that comes with magick.
I unbuckled the belt from the suit of golden armor and fastened it around my waist. Jasper fit nice and snug into the frog on my left hip. “What now?”
“We needs to get upstairs and outside without bein’ seen by any of the actors or stagehands,” Ernie said, hopping off of his thimble.
That confused me. “Why? I know ‘em. They’re okay.”
“Lovey, if you’re gonna be our mighty leader, listen to your Uncle Ernie. The so-called Honourable Merchantry has turncoats watchin’ everybody. Don’t let your trustin’ nature get us all transmogrified. Once is plenty fer this old coot.” He began climbing the stairs up to the stage, grunting all the while. Stopping three steps up, he said, “Oh. And don’t talk to the cat. He’s a bloody traitor. Works for fish scraps, that’s the shame of it. Too bad, really. Used to be a nice chap. Grocer in Ipswich when we lived there. Used to give me missus first pick o’ the brisket on Thursdays.”
“Got it,” I whispered, finger to my lips. “No cat chat.”
“You bet your arse,” the mouse said, nodding for emphasis and resuming his climb.
We arrived at the top of the stairs without making them squeak too much. I tucked the sword behind me so no one would spot it and start up a curious conversation. Didn’t want it banging against a wall, either. I needn’t have worried. Nobody looked my way. They were all too enthralled by Macbeth’s rantings about Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane. Eddie watched over Ma’s shoulder from the other side of the stage. I stopped and watched, too. Booth may have been an arrogant puffer pigeon on the street, but on stage he had something special. You couldn’t help but pay attention when he spoke.
Is that his magick, his gift?
I told myself to be careful around him. As Ernie had said, you couldn’t trust anyone.