The Fifth Age

by D'Artagnon

Chapter 5

Power Chords

Time is a curious thing. We humans measure its passage in many ways. We use mechanical devices that mimic our heartbeats to mark time, define it so we can order the events of our daily lives. In recent years, we use molecular vibrations of particular elements to measure the duration of a second, precisely. We break up days, lunar and solar cycles. We assign names and numbers, arcs and angles, both of the clock and of diurnal rotations, using that perceived sidereal movement of our planet around our sun to define degrees of movement.

And we fudge that sometimes, too, because the math gets messy. We kind of cut out the five and a quarter days off the end of the year because trying to break a circle up into 365 parts is screwy compared with the more elegant 360 for degrees. The Roman's even called the five days that don't work for the "degrees equal to days" situation by making them a holiday, calling them the "five evil days" and making it into a festival called Saturnalia, which Christianity more or less coopted into the Christmas and New Years day thing. Especially since Saturn, you know, Jupiter's dad, is the god of time, much like his Greek counterpart, Kronos, father of Zeus. Which translates in our modern culture as the image of Father Time handing off to Baby New Year.

Yeah, we got some screwed up ideas about time. But these very difficult to understand, difficult to measure, difficult to quantify qualities of what we think of as time define so much of our math, science, technology and engineering. So much of what our culture has built and accomplished is based in our understanding of the measured passage of time.

Biological time is a different matter. It felt like I was days at Meryl's place. Practicing magic. Going over the floor plan of the museum. Learning to recognize tangled patterns and lines of magical energy. Going over and over and over basic defenses, counter weaving of magic, and recognizing what Spheres were being deployed against me on my mission to steal Meryl's stone.

I started measuring time inside Meryl's castle by counting meals and when I woke up after studying and practicing. So as far as I was concerned, six days had passed, and at lunch on that sixth day, I was so sick of pizza, sports drinks and popcorn. I was beginning to feel like I was stuck in an unfunny, depressing, yet fatally ironic Rick and Morty episode.

"I need a break."

"No, you need to work harder. Your aim is still horrible with Matter and Forces combinations. That last burst of fire attack against the Rimbor kobold was way off target." He continued to play his video game, cycling characters in to continue the boss fight. Looking at the little demon, twisting his body around as if it would alter the controller response, you would only see him as a petulant pre teen, not the most storied mage in history.

"I need a break, Meryl. My head is throbbing from all this intense training. We still don't know what this thing on my wrist is."

"It's a gift."

"But we don't know what it does."

"You should have asked her."

"I kinda didn't have time since I passed out and the unicorn vanished."

"Not my fault if you can't stay awake in the presence of greatness." He said that last bit with a flourish, showing off his vocal command and such. "I wonder sometimes how you maintain your meager, feeble wit just talking to me sometimes."

I felt such outright rage at his smug, self-assured arrogance. So I decided to make my displeasure felt. I closed my eyes, tapped into my Forces Sphere and stopped all electrical energy in the walls of the room from flowing. Which shut off his local wireless, the giant tv screen, and his game console. All light in the room faded to darkness, leaving just a shaft of light from the kitchen area flooding the entry to the living room.

"What the ever luvin' fuck, Marc?!" he shouted, standing up on the couch and hurling his controller to the ground. "I was right in the middle of that boss fight. You dumb fuck!"

"I need a break. I've been working for days while you sit on your ass and quiz me, sneak around and zorch me from behind, and stuff your face while you whack off. I haven't seen my family in days. And I can't believe I'm saying this, I actually miss eating vegetables and like actual home cooked meals, not just cheesy puffs, pizza and stale bread peanut butter sandwiches."

"Oh, is that right?" he said, coldly, his hand curling into an open claw, held out from his hip like a gunslinger in some old west movie. "Got your big boy pants on now, do you? Boy?" he said, with challenge in his voice.

"Yeah, you little twerp! I've had it up to here with you!" I said, raising my flat hand about level with my nipples, then noticeably lowering it to about belly button height, mocking his childlike lack of stature.

His eyes turned cold.

"I'll give you points for being clever with your insults, you arrogant immature snot. But you don't want to tempt me. You don't want to poke this bear."

"More like a little raccoon than a bear. Garbage gut!"

"Okay, you've had this coming a long time now," he said and while a glow began in his clawed hand, it was the other hand that lifted in my direction, and he snapped his fingers.

The floor beneath me ruptured, stone parting in big chunks, allowing two hands made of rough-hewn rock to rise up through the split to grasp my feet. They were about the size of my chest and held fast to my legs from just above the knee to just above the ankle, effectively holding me in place.

Fuck! I thought. Why'd I challenge him like this?

"Second thoughts, Colonist?"

"Hardly!" I shouted back and used an Entropy and Matter twist to break the pattern of the stone hands, causing them to dissipate into sand, releasing me.

"Clever, but ill timed. You should always counter-attack before you free yourself, dumb ass. Force your opponent to deal with something other than your escape." And he raised that clawed hand in my direction and the bright white glow there flared, popping a bolt of Prime in my direction. He wasn't holding back. Raw, unfiltered, un-patterned magic energy flew at me. I had no time to dodge, just had to try and absorb the energy before it hit me and incinerated my skin like a curl of newspaper thrown into a bonfire.

Which made me think. He wasn't happy with my use of fire. Fine. I'll try something different. I raised my hand to channel the incoming bolt and rapidly put it to use, fueling it into a Matter and Forces pattern, spraying ice chunks at Meryl. He was ready for it, though and stepped behind the couch, using a simple Mind manipulation to flip the couch up on its side, giving him cover from my ice cube barrage. I even tweaked the spell so the ice, instead of coming in amorphous chunks or even traditional cubes, was crystal clear, shaped like a fist giving the middle finger. Hundreds of them flew at him like a ski slope snow gun.

"Not bad, novice!" Meryl shouted back, pitching one of my "one finger salutes" out over the couch, despite the continuing rain of icy hands delivering a pointed message. That was a lot of quintessence in that Prime blast, it really gave that ice pattern some powerful fuel. In fact, it gave me enough left-over energy that I spun up a quick Time delay effect coupled with Forces, using my voice.

"I need," I said, letting my voice expand and echo like the inside of concert hall, "a BREAK!" and that last word I amped up like a heavy metal guitar, distorting and fuzzing up that single word, making it shake the room a bit.

He stood from behind the couch, holding his hands over his ears. The reverb effect seemed to redouble, and I realized I was still shouting the "BREAK" and it was starting to hurt. I could see him in agony and then dropping to his knees. He swung his fist around and slammed it into the ground. The sound seemed to twist, like going down into a funnel, actually making the air woosh around in the room. And then.

Absolute silence. The air stopped spinning, the echoes weren't there, the whole of the universe seemed to have just… paused.

Then he looked up, from his martial artist's impersonation crouch, his fist still resting on the floor. He looked across at me with an expression of wonder and anger, and something else. Something I never thought I'd see from the great wizard, aimed at me.

Fear. Fear of me, of what I had done.

"You crazy, ignorant fool," he breathed out. "Don't speak! Let me see if that amplifier pattern is still attached to your flesh before you bring the walls in on us." He approached slowly, his hand reaching behind him. A wand swooped through the air and landed in his tiny paw, a strange wand with a loop at the end, and some kind of cross bar behind the loop. Took me a moment to realize it was an Ankh, made of silver. He waved it around my throat a few times and then, with an expansive gesture, flung a Tapestry into the empty space overhead.

Now, Tapestry in this sense is not like the ratty old historical weavings found in moldy old castles across Europe. It's a magic thing, where you actually can see the pattern of a spell, the way the magic morphs and flows to create different effects. Tapestry can be used to figure out where a given spell went wrong, or to figure out how another Mage did what he did. It can be a useful tool. It can also be used to walk enemy Magi into traps, letting them think one thing when in fact a pattern is designed to deceive.

But that's another story.

"What have we got here?" Meryl said, looking at the holographic layout of the Tapestry. He pointed to one area, bright and glowing almost pure white. "That is the Quintessesnce left over from the Prime I fired at you. After your ice effect there should only have been a quarter of this energy left unused."

I went to speak but he put his hand over my mouth. "Not yet. Let us examine this before we test fire that weapon in your throat again. Use Prime, do a scan on your body while I figure this out."

Now Prime deals with raw energy. Literally all magic, energy, quantum mechanics, whatever you want to call it is found within Prime. It is the stuff that all reality is formed of, powered by or created from. I know, previous times I've said that Forces is energy, but the difference is that Forces deals with the more mechanical side of it. The physics, if you will. Prime itself is the raw power, waiting to be used. It's the most dangerous of the nine Spheres and the least understood. So any place that has an unusual concentration of Prime is worth treating carefully.

Like, oh you know, the voice box of an emotional fifteen-year-old novice wizard, perhaps. Especially when you happen to be that fifteen-year-old.

And yeah, I was a little concerned when I found a build-up of Quintessence in my throat. Normally, Mages carry around more of the stuff than more normal folks do. When you work with it all the time, your body just gets used to storing it for if you need it later on. But the amount residing in my throat at that moment was about ten times the amount my body normally generates or stores.

"Did you study this pattern before you used it today?" Meryl asked, getting my attention back to what he was looking at. I shook my head to the negative. "Just went on instinct?" I nodded, hoping all this extra energy in my neck wasn't ready to explode. Self-cranial amputation is not high on my to-do list.

"Well, on the one hand, congratulations, you've figured out how to do a Jericho rote without making it a ritual. See, right here? Clearly you've moved the Prime into Forces and Life, feeding back into each other," his wand move through the bright spot and moved into a Green and Red swirl of orbiting energy comets, which seemed to focus the brightness, adding their own tones. "Then you have caused a push through that build up with Entropy," which presented visually as a cloud of pulsing brown and gray particles, bouncing against the spinning colors from behind, "and contained it all with a Time dilation effect," as the beam passed through a darker green lens, "keeping the energy rebounding and localized."

The look on his face was like a man discovering the glorious colors in a New England forest fall sunset after being blind his whole life.

"This is monumental, Marcus," he said, his voice taking on more of a British Isles accent. "The original Jericho rote took hours to perform, using dozens of Hebrew priests and thousands of soldiers committing their voices and trumpets and ritual marching to gather the energy to fuel it all. You compressed sound energy into destructive waves, and focused them, many many times more powerful than any person your age and experience should be able to, and you did it alone." His hand waved the wand through the Tapestry, step by step, and I could distinguish the various parts of the spell I'd crafted.

"And Marc, you did it all by yourself! Manipulating five Spheres, at more than novice level, at once! FIVE!"

The enormity of that suddenly struck me. Most rote spells are only three Spheres stacked and formed together. Usually you don't need too much more effort than that. I've tried to do four, but it just gets complicated, hard to maintain. But apparently I set up a Jericho, ritual level effect, unaided. And without knowing how to assemble the effect. Or understanding how powerful it could be. Looking around Meryl's playroom, I realized he wasn't kidding about bringing the walls in on us. If he hadn't neutralized my effect, you might not be reading this story right now.

I tapped my throat rapidly, which seemed to get his attention, but not his understanding. I tapped my throat again and then gestured up to the spinning, swirling Tapestry above us, showing the pattern, and then gestured like my head was about to explode.

"Oh, right. Dig in your pockets for something you don't mind losing."

A quick search in my left pocket found me clutching about 42 cents in loose coins. I grabbed up the two pennies and held them out. He closed my hand around the coins and then brought my other hand to my neck. And Meryl then directed me how to make my first magical item.

"Transfer the energy there, let the coins absorb the Quintessence. Stay focused on moving the energy into the coins. This is how you make Dross. Once the energy is away, we'll unhook this pattern from your neck, but I think we'll leave it hanging, in case you need something this powerful again."

It doesn't take long to make Dross coins. Mages have done so since the ideas of coins as money first came about. In my mind's eye, the coins had a special glow now, that extra luster of Quintessence. Meryl used his wand to unhook the Prime fueling of the pattern and informed me I could speak again without threatening to sunder the foundations.

"How did I do that?" I asked, my own voice low in case I accidentally charged up that Jericho effect.

"I honestly don't know, Marcus," he said, sitting down heavily. He suddenly looked like an old man trapped in a pre-teen's body. Like a smooth, unwrinkled yet very world-weary version of Yoda, minus the enormous ears and green skin. "I didn't want to tell you this, because I didn't want you to get a swelled head."

"Tell me what?"

"That you are probably the most powerful and talented young Mage I've seen in centuries. Definitely more powerful than most I've trained, especially for your tender years."

"Stronger than even your own flesh and blood, your grandson?" Almost as soon as I said it, I regretted it. His eyes flashed with anger at first, then with a sadness I don't think I could ever comprehend.

"His magic… his magic lays upon a different path than yours and mine, Marc Basillier. And for the moment, his and my paths are separate as well, for both of our protection."

"You've never met him, then," I guessed getting a sad nod. "And he doesn't know you?"

"Over the years, I've bumped into him. Living in a small town like this, was bound to happen by blind chance alone. I sat fifteen feet away from him, and my daughter and her husband, a man I truly admired for his kindness and foresight. I was on the hill, facing the river, up by the Buttonwoods school. His family were slightly below where my adopted parents had spread out our blanket. It was a cooling July evening, and the fireworks broke out, sparkling over the river. His eyes were sparkling as well, and in that moment, I looked into his soul, and saw that he was not yet awakened, and more importantly, that he was not a Mage, but something other. Something older, powerful in its own right. And I knew I could not influence his development with my own wishes, lest I ruin whatever magic was within him."

"You said something older, powerful. I would have thought you're the oldest magic user ever."

"Oh no," he chuckled. "I may have lived backwards through time, cheated death a few times, directly. But I am far from the oldest beings to wield magic on this small world. I'm among the strongest to ever come FROM here, but there are powers and races throughout the cosmos who live much longer than even I have."

"Like the Unicorns?"

"Indeed, much like the…. Say, are you still wearing that girly trinket that one horned mare slapped onto your wrist?"

"Yeah, I can't take it off," I said holding it up. It lay snug against my left wrist, cool and light. He looked from the bracelet of impossible fibers to the Tapestry fragment on display above our heads. Then he cursed in some other language.

"I see it now. I understand. Marc, the unicorn gave you a very precious gift. That thing focuses and channels energy. Magnifies it, even."

"You mean, it makes it easier for me to fuel patterns?"

"I think so, yes. Once this whole thing is over, we need to test it more. But you were already powerful, this seems to take steps out of the way. I know you didn't build this, but it is something every Mage has always wanted. A short cut to power."

"Uh… can we take it off?" I asked, then felt the cords of opalescent glass seem to tighten around my wrist.

"I don't think she intended you to ever be without it."

"But, what if I accidentally set off another Jericho, or something worse?" I was beginning to panic. What if I had a bad dream and this energy amplifier at the end of my arm unleashed something in my home. I had a sudden image of my little brother mashed into a puddle of bones and blood, the horrified screams of my sisters down the hallway. Mom and Dad, brutalized, all by some unknown horror cut loose from my imagination, given form and purpose and power.

"Hey, snap out of it!" Meryl commanded, smacking my face really hard. "This is why I push you so hard. I need you focused. Disciplined. None of this silly crap that modern Mages do and call magic. None of this 'life of illusions' garbage or made for TV street magic. But…" he sat back, looking into my eyes, and I could tell he was using Spirt and Mind to look at me in that moment. "But I can see you need a break. Go home, be with your family. Return tomorrow, before you have to go to work, we'll do some practical things to prepare for Boston."

"I don't know if I'm ready for Boston yet"

"We are running out of time. I am running out of time."

"You told that werewolf guy, Yoseph, you told him that you were out of time, that they'd found you. Who?"

"I guess I may as well tell you now. Among Mages there are several groups. Those of us who fall into traditional types of magic, even though you and I are going about things a bit differently, are referred to as the Traditions. You might meet some of them soon enough. I wanted to keep your training away from their philosophies for the moment."

"I think you mentioned them to me before."

"Probably. Then there are those that have no respect for magic and nature other than the power it gives them. Those who care not what simply draining power for its own sake may unleash. They seek, they drain, they destroy. Not so much as a group, or with any organization, but one powerful Mage of that kind can cultivate followers. They can be very destructive. We call them Maurauders. They rise and fall, often turning on each other in their lust for power and control, which then never seem to keep."

"They sound dangerous."

"They believe that they can outrace paradox by causing chaos. For the record, that sort of thinking topples empires and brings ruin to all, it's not a path to power, just a way to loose things best left in tight chains."

"Like with Arthur?"

"That's a story for another time," he smiled sadly. "The ones I was referring to when talking to Yoseph, are a third category of Mages. These type have made pacts with powerful beings from other worlds. Gods, you might say. Pacts of duty and power, exchanging service for knowledge and abilities that are not for the like of those born here."


"Have you ever wondered why every culture has them in their mythology? It's because they are real, but I wouldn't say that they are all the same. Just like insects in the forest, there are literally an endless variety of different beings you might call demonic in our universe. Remember your little encounter the other day. Remember Madeline?"

"Madeline's a demon?"

"No, but where she comes from originally, the demons that live there utilize her kind as a sort of mount and as war beasts."

"I don't want to know what rides them, do I?"

"That lesson is pretty far down the road, I hope. But, these Mages that make these pacts are referred to as Nephandi. They often have unusual powers, often some sort of very powerful magical artifact or weapon that grants them great advantages over other spell casters and supernatural beings."

"Okay, I can see where that goes. So one of them is your great enemy, and that enemy has found you?"

"More than one. The Nephandi are the more cosmically dangerous because their abilities are less predictable. The Mauraders are just chaotic enough that their motives and actions aren't easily understood."

"Do they want the stone as well?" I asked, beginning to see a pattern, but there was something else he wasn't telling me about these other types of Mages. Something key to my understanding of the situation.

"Well, some may claim preexisting ownership. Something we'll have to contend with another time. But no, I don't think those ones know where the stone is. What we have to deal with is a more home grown problem."

"Oh, wait. There's more." I said, voice neutral.

"Indeed," he replied, bouncing on his toes like a professor before a full class room. "There's a fourth group and most of who run the MFA fall into this category."

"I'm not gonna like this, am I?:

"Think for a moment about all the wonderful gadgets and gizmos in your modern life. The internet. Instant satellite communications, digital watches, electronics in every kitchen appliance, even the warning lights and safety alerts in cars and schools and homes now. All of that is stuff you take for granted yes?"

"Except for digital watches. I mean, welcome back to the nineties, there."

"But you know what I mean."

"Maybe a smart watch, like a Fitbit or an Apple watch."

"Marc, you're rambling. Shut it a minute and listen. What I am about to explain to you is going to likely save your life."

I shut my trap. He had an uncanny track record of being dead on balls right when he spoke that way. Despite my hard head, I was learning to hear when he got serious.

"So do you remember us talking about how magic and technology are the same, just one goes about accomplishing the wonders in a different fashion?"

"Yes. And I get it. It's a well-known trope in science fiction that any sufficiently advanced technology would appear to be magic to a more primitive culture. Like how Native American tribes and the Aztecs could not deal with the Europeans' metal technology and guns."

"Okay, full marks for your understanding of history and literature. But what I'm getting at is something dangerously real. What if I told you there was a growing group of Mages who were seeking to keep magic in their control, in full view, in front of everyone, yet fooling everyone that sees it, believing they see one thing when they are actually seeing another."

"Is this your pet peeve about that street magic show on late night cable. They're just illusionists, like that Chris Angel guy, or David Copperfield, the stage magician, not the book."

"Oh, trust me, they pull off far better tricks than those cheap carney hucksters could ever mount. They are convinced that they will soon control all magic because they make everyone believe that they can do magical things through technology alone."

"Right, they mimic magical effects with technology."

"Oh, you don't get it yet. Marc, these guys believe they can control magical effects by machine, through machine, not because of machine. They literally build devices to take the place of the Patterns that you and I can hook together with our bare brains."

"You mean…. They do actual magic by machine?"

"Yes, and by doing so they believe they can get more precise, energy efficient, repeatable results, every single time, without having to train for decades like most Tradition Mages must. It is another short cut to power, but sadly, it's taken hold. Think of all the special effects in movies now. Lightning crawling up inside glass tubes and mutli color explosions, battles in outer space, underwater fight sequences in diving suits…. All of these things are commonplace in media now. Generations have grown up with the perception that magical things can be made to happen through science and engineering. And while that's come a long way, the truth of the matter is this. The Technocracy is at a point now where they can show up, operate some super high tech looking thing, and claim any result they want was intended, even though they are using magic to alter how people's usual perception of reality should be."

"By them using machines?"

"Yes, I think you've almost got it. People will suspend disbelief in the unreal if they think there is a logical, reasonable explanation, even if they don't understand it. People want to believe that gravity pulls you down, the sun goes around the world, and rain will fall. But if someone shows them a device that can alter any of that, they are now primed to be willing to accept that alteration of the norm, simply because a machine is involved."

"Whether that machine actually does that or not??

"Exactly." He poked a pinky in his ear as if still clearing the ringing from my Jericho rote. "Go on."

"And this Technocracy, they run the MFA?"

"Among other things, yes. They got their tentacles deep into world governments about the time this country discovered steam locomotion, and the hideous wars that came about shortly thereafter."


"We can go into their recent history later. Let's just say for now that the cosmology of the universe took several very hard left turns on this little world. The mix of magical creatures, mystic traditions, accidents of fate and power…. It's a jumbled mess. If you listen to the werewolves a sex fiend, a spider and a worm started it all. If you listen to the vampires, they claim they started sucking blood when Caine did in Able in the Bible. The Egyptians and the Demi Gods that walk have their own history, as do the aliens like the Fae and others. Suffice it to say this, at this point in Earthly culture and history, the Technocracy is ascending. And while they aren't completely in control over all magic yet, the fact that the general run of humanity is siding with their view of reality sort of undercuts ours. Which wrecks it for us, because while they are getting many things spot on right, they've gotten a lot of the ancient knowledge totally wrong."

"Like misidentifying your stone as an Egyptian artifact?"

"When in fact it's far older than Egypt, and not even from there. Or more accurately, not even from here."

"See, this is why I need a break. It's too much. It's all this stuff, the history, the magic, the creatures, the you walking around with underwear that might as well just be off. All of this… I just need a chance to process."

He stared at me for what seemed like whole minutes. Again, time being relative to the situation. But then he placed both his hands behind his back, like some general on a stage, looked me square in the eyes and said, "Yup, you need to get laid."

"Well, yeah, but not on your schedule."

"Oh, no. I understand. Arthur was the same way before big battles. Three of my sons and all of my daughters were the same. Getting a little nookie aside from just your hand is usually the ticket to destressing. Cleans the tubes out, I always say."

"Meryl, I just want to get away from here and have something normal for a bit. You know I'll come back. Not like I can hide from you anyways."

"Eh, true, true. Okay, so I'll give you three days in your world. We will still have plenty of time when you return. At least give some thought to either a foci or a magical item you want to build. Not all of your time should be spent polishing your meat wand."

"You're one to talk. Unfortunately, I now know how many freckles you have on your scrotum."

"More than you have," he boasted. I realized he was speaking from truth. It should have shocked me, but it didn't.

"You look at me naked, don't you?"

"I have hormones going on in this tiny body that ruin my entire life's work of self-control and restraint. Far too horny and curious for my own good. Yet another reason I need to get my stone back." He turned back to the wreck I'd made in his living room, casually waving a hand over his shoulder. "Go. Take your time, get your rest. Have fun with the family and maybe get you some nookie to settle your nerves for the certain death and likely dismemberment to come."

And like that, he'd dismissed me like it was a half day off from school. I went upstairs, dressed, grabbed my backpack and headed for home.

Still haven't figured out how I'm going to explain the sparkly, unicorn-gifted bracelet around my wrist yet, but something would come to me. After all, I am the worlds' greatest teenage mage, right?

Outside it was still a sunny afternoon. I had to briefly tap into Time sphere to understand the amount of time that had passed outside Meryl's castle compared to the much longer time that went on within. Barely hours had gone by, the sunlight shifting from one side of the boulder I'd hurled at the kobold what felt like days ago. Which meant my little brother would be home from day camp soon. And I would be expected to take care of him until Mom figured out what dinner was going to be and whose turn it was to cook.

As I walked through the woods, I kept my focus on everything around me. I had serious threats to keep an eye out for now. Kobolds and murgals and such. Oh my! I had this feeling like I was almost living in a JP Rowling novel, with magic and mystery around every corner, just hidden beneath the skin of the normal world.

Part of me was also worried. What if magic ran in families? What if my little brother or my sisters had the talent and were unaware? Was some kobold waiting out there to snap Ethan's neck after a grueling day of whatever he did at his summer youth "Jedi" class at the YMCA?

I got home about the time that he got off the bus from the Y, his backpack slung over his shoulder, his shirt streaked with sweat stains. He was at the age where his sweat at worst smelled salty, yet clean. Like water at an aquarium where they trained dolphins to jump through hoops. Part of me wondered if I used Life Sphere to speak with those dolphins what horror stories they might tell me. It's weird how my thoughts shift so easily when in the mundane world, looking at even my own weird analogies through Mage's eyes.

Anyways, I got him in the house, started making us both a snack, feeling a bit run down after the whole magician's battle with Meryl. Ethan went into a grand story of how he used his "Jedi skills" to trounce a bigger kid in his class. Seemed that the fencing master's kid was a whiz at stick fighting as well, and taught my wooden headed little brother a few advanced techniques. I guess when you know the right way, you can show anyone, with a little patience.

So we ate PB&J, munched on some not-yet stale Fritos and I listened to his war stories, punctuated by him using two pencils to show me how it went, dueling over his napkin, which he stretched out to form whatever boundaries they used in this class to keep the kids from just going pirate movie crazy all over the gym floor. He was so animated and into it that I didn't have the heart to stop him. He had finally found something that stoked his imagination. I was happy that he was happy. And who knows, if some kobold did come calling, maybe this skill he was developing might come in handy. Perhaps this was his own special, magical talent?

Now, I know what you might be thinking. I've been days at Meryl's castle in my time, but barely missed a few hours of their time. But just in that moment of reconnecting with Ethan, I found more rest than I had in all that altered time I spent behind Meryl's dilation effect. It was like I had found something comforting. Like, magic was elemental to me now, my calling, but the reason I was learning all this, in my own mind, was to protect my family. From me, more than likely. Oh sure, Meryl had a mission for us, but I was training for life beyond just getting his stone back, no matter how earth shatteringly powerful and important he felt it was. You don't fight for super high ideals and force yourself to be brave because of some moral justice thing that needs righting. You fight for what's important to your life, for the others who fight with you.

If only more people in my country would remember that, and stop being such selfish, blinded, easily led sheep. Then again, there's a lot of that going around, not just in my homeland. But that's another story.

Mom and the girls came home next, Dad soon after. Dinner is planned and the controlled chaos of cooking, setting the table, and cleaning up begins. In biggish families like mine, it's a way to touch base, talk about what happened during your day, make wry comments during other people's stories. Kind of difficult for me to jump in with my own experiences since I'd last seen them. "Oh yeah, so this creepy little kid who's actually a uber powerful time traveling Mage that likes to take my clothes off while I'm unconscious had me move his alien war beast around from his kitchen, got into a magic battle with me over a video game and he wants me to rob a museum of a magical artifact in a couple of days. Pass the mashed potatoes?"

Yeah, I don't really see that happening.

"Do you have work tonight, Marc?" Mom asked me. I just shrugged my shoulders, humming around a mouthful of broccoli with cheddar. "You do or you don't, or you don' know?" she deadpanned ironically. Dad made a less than subtle "Ahem!" while cutting into his pork chop, a signal to me to be more social.

I got the message. "Rachael asked me to cover a shift for Suzie Frasier tonight. Another closing shift."

"Wow. They really trust you there," Mom said, smiling in approval. "Why did Suzie need the time off."

"Idunno, something about a date." I reached for my glass and took a deep drink of water. So naturally my sister Cory had to put her two cents in.

"Too bad. She's kinda pretty, Marc. Why aren't you dating her?" I literally had to keep my cup up to keep from spraying the table. Ethan had to slap me on the back when my coughing started after that almost spit take.

"Cory, leave your brother alone. He'll date when he wants to."

"It's so weird, though," Rene, the other half of my twin sisters spoke up, gesturing with her one hand, flipping through the air, while her other hand toyed with her hair. For the record, they look nothing alike. Cory has brown eyes and dark hair, Rene has green eyes and dirty blonde hair. I guess I never described them either. Ethan looks like a younger version of me, with the light brown hair and hazel eyes.

"Rene," Mom warned with an elevating tone.

"It is so tots weird, Mom. My cute brother has all these girls drooling over him up at Barnie's and like he doesn't even notice it."

"Too busy with his nose in a book," Cory practically spat out. "Three of my friends practically threw themselves and their younger sisters at him and he didn't even blink their way."

Wait, what?! And since when am I cute? I recovered my breath and looked at the two of them, eyes flicking back and forth

"You did what?!" I exclaimed, barely croaking it out. Ethan rubbed my back sympathetically, but clearly he was amused by all this dinner table drama. For a moment I was worried that I might accidentally pop another Jerico, so I focused on my breathing and relaxed, kept my mental focus away from the Spheres.

"Amanda Parker, Rebecca Berube, Justine Giancomo and her sister Bianca, Amy Lopez," Cory listed, ticking the names off on her fingers.

"Okay, Bianca is in 8 th grade," I protested, gesturing over my plate. Next to me, Ethan's head went back and forth, watching the growing argument.

Rene was not staying silent, either. "Oh, but she's a very mature 8 th grader. What about Jessie Van Horn?"

"She a total head case," I said, matching eyes with Mom across the table. "She wears only black clothes, black make up, even her toenails are painted black. She has all black gym clothes. It's like she's a goth poster child. Supposedly she keeps a list of people she wants to kill inside her locker. Like serious serial killer material." Dad simply folded his arms over his chest and sat back in the chair, clearly not pleased with the tone of this conversation.

"We even tried to get the Smith twins to date you." Cory insisted.

"They never leave each other's side," I complained. "They finish each other's sentences. It's creepy." And it was weird how those girls were always in every class together. They even took bathroom breaks together. If Jessie Van Horn was the Wednesday Addams of the group, the Smith twins, Tammy and Cammy, were other members of that storied clan. Positively ookie.

"Taylor Johansen," Rene reminded, getting a nod from Cory.

"Wait, you sent Taylor Johansen after me? She's dated the entire basketball team! In numerical order!"

"That doesn't mean she's a size queen!" Cory defended. It was Mom's turn to have to keep the cup in front of her mouth to keep from spraying the table. I just blushed at the implications. Did that mean my derpy older sisters have seen my junk lately and had some opinion of it? Were they trying to throw girls my way because they thought I had a small one and needed help? I mean… seriously?! So many weird thoughts flittered about in my head.

"Girls!" Dad said, slapping the table to get their attention. "I think it's time for you to keep out of your brother's love life, whatever that may be. And it's time for this discussion to be over." Which is Dad-speak for "drop it, now."

The silence in the dining room was deep, thick and had that slight smoky scent of animosity. My phone alarm went off in my pocket giving me a moment to look at it instead of at the oddness left in the room.

"I gotta be heading to work." I said, getting up from the table, dinner half eaten."

"Mom, can I go to Barnie's with Marc?" Ethan blurted out. He would sometimes hang out at the playground out back, mess around with buddies that showed up, get free ice cream out of my boss or coworkers. Sort of an unofficial shop mascot.

"Ask Marc," Mom said, recovering her wits.

"Can I?" he said, getting the puppy dog eyes. "Please?"

"Yeah," I said, glaring at my sisters and heading up to my room. Barnie's doesn't have a hugely demanding dress code, but we do have neon and pastel tee shirts with the shop's logo and name plastered across the front. We also wore lanyards with our name tags on them. I kept my store keys on the lanyard as well, so I would never lose them.

Took just a few moments to get into my shirt and grab my keys. Ethan bounced through the bathroom to my room after stopping to pee. I noticed, while poking my head through the neck hole of my minty green store tee shirt that Ethan was staring at the mirror before invading my space. He actually pushed the front cowlick of his hair to the side before invading my space.

"Oooh, that's cool. Where'd you get that?"

"Get what?"

"That thing on your wrist." He pointed right at the unicorn's gift.

"Oh. Friend gave it to me."

"A girl?"

"You could definitely say she was a girl. Wait, why do you think it was a girl that gave it to me."

"I dunno. It just looks like something a girl would pick for a boy to wear. Did Cory and Rene really try to get you hooked up with all those girls?"

I pulled on a Red Sox hat and headed towards the door. "So they say. I can't believe they sent Taylor after me. Or Jessie Van Horn." I couldn't suppress the shudder.

"Or Becca Berube," Ethan said, tilting his head and giving an eye roll.

"What's that supposed to mean?" I said, popping down the steps and out the front door, Ethan bouncing out right behind me. Then he proceeded to tell me how good Becca was at the Jedi class. Apparently, she was in the top skills class, with the instructor's kid. Something to keep in mind.

"So, she's the shit, huh?"

"Her and her brother. They're twins."

"Yeah, I know. I had them both in English in 6 th grade."

"But they aren't creepy like the Tammy and Cammy?"

"It's scary how competitive and smart they are, but they're not like copies of each other."

"Well, yeah, they're not identical… although they kinda look alike for being brother and sister. But they're cool in class."

We hiked through the woods in silence for a while, coming around the big boulder near the river where the trail turns uphill, past Watching Rocks. Usually this was the point in my playlist where the music would get more strident and heavy, but since the kobold incident, I wanted to keep more alert. Since Meryl's castle and Barnie's Burger Barn are roughly in the same direction from the river path once you pass the big boulder that all the kids called the Fishing Spot, I felt pretty confident in taking things cross country.

The kobold incident was uppermost in my mind as I took a course that would lead us through the woods more, off the well worn river side path, mostly to stay clear of where I'd left kobold based fluids all over the ground. For me, it had been almost three days since that happened, but the ground was probably still sticky and gory at the scene. I choose a more up hill vector and we picked our way through the underbrush, using the occasional boulder to help when the slope got steeper. Ethan seemed to enjoy the challenge, even though he looked around to make sure he kept me insight.

"Hey, Marc?"


"Do you think I'm cute?"

"Yeah. You're friggin' adorable," I replied with dry backspin.

"I'm serious. Mom says I look just like you did, and the girls think you're cute enough for their friends to want to bone. So would they want to bone me too?"

"Heh, bone. What brought all this on?" I asked, suddenly worried what he was angling at. I'd never thought of Ethan as cute, even though we did look a lot alike.


"C'mon, spill it."

"Okay. Our Jedi class teacher is a big guy. He got injured or else he'd be in the Olympics like, Idunno, a buncha times ago. His son is in the classes, and he's real real good at it too."

"That makes sense," I said, planting my hand on a tree to push a branch out of the way, letting Ethan pass.

He took a deep breath to speak and then looked around. "Where are we?"

"We're taking a different route. I saw a skunk run up the main path a few days ago."

"Oh, okay. How do you know where to go? Is this a new path?" he said looking around.

"I've played in these woods a long time. It's new territory, but I know roughly where we are." And it was true, I could sense through Correspondence that were were heading in the right direction. "You were talking about your Jedi teacher's son?" I prodded.

"Yeah, so he's… gay." I stopped in my tracks and stood still a few moments while Ethan took steps up the hillside, brushing aside a screen of fern before realizing I'd stopped walking. "Like, openly gay. He's pretty chill about it. His boyfriend is in the class, too."

"Your age?"

"Nah, they're like 13. In the older kids group with Becca and Bert. But like, they're not hiding it and everyone still likes them and they're like normal."


"Like, they don't act weird or put on girly clothes or like hug and kiss in front of everyone. They're just… normal," he shrugged.

"Well, gay guys are just guys. They don't grow like a third arm or pop an extra eye out of their forehead," I replied when he stopped to look back at me. "Does their being openly gay upset you?"

"No. It's kinda cool. I mean, they are really chill guys. It's just…"

"Just what?"

"They're… cute." he said, shrugging yet looking nervous. "And normal," he added quickly. "And the girls think you're cute, but you don't have dates with girls and all and…"

"And?" I felt like something big was about to change between us. Not only from his side, but mine as well. Things he was saying were resonating with me as well. Things I didn't want to deal with as being real for me, that I had just pushed to the side, were now practically flashing in my mind, demanding to be heard. There was a tension in my own chest to match the tension of the moment.

He took a deep breath before continuing, his voice quick and rambling. "And Mom think's I look like you, which means girls think I look cute, too and… and I don't like girls either. I mean, they're okay, I just don't like them. Not like how Cory and Rene think you should like girls. You know, like-like them. I think."

He looked positively miserable, like he'd admitted to throwing a rock at a kitten and was horrified to have actually hit it. My heart just dropped seeing him in such private pain.

"And I don't know if people would be cool with me not liking girls like that," he finished, his voice going much lower.

I stepped up to him, crossing the distance quickly and raised back my right fist, doing it in a deliberate manner so he saw it coming. Ethan looked up at me, a bit shocked, and as I crossed the last bit of space between us, he kept his eyes open, his face showing a lot of fear and trepidation, but he never flinched. I began bringing the fist down and he closed his big quivering eyes.

So his eyes were closed when I took him into my arms. He stiffened, expecting a blow, but relaxed after a few heartbeats realizing that he wasn't about to get pounded.

"Don't you ever," I whispered, "ever, for the rest of your livin' days be afraid to be who you are, little brother. And if other people give you grief about it, don't ever show them any of your fear or respect. They don't deserve either if they think you are wrong for loving someone else. I love you, Ethan. Nothing will change that."

He grabbed up under my shoulders from behind with a desperate strength, his small body shivering against me. I just held him, there amid the maples and elms and birches, the long shadows of afternoon making the leaves burn with hundreds of hues of green light and amber shade. He sniffled against my chest for a long time, just holding me as I held him.

Part of me felt a bit pissed at myself, like I should have figured it out about him earlier. Part of me was wondering if he thought it was okay to sort of come out to me because of that, or perhaps he had figured out things I had not yet. I mean, was I gay, too? The evidence was sort of making itself more apparent. Whatever that case was, I needed to apply some of my recently honed keen insights inwards for a bit and figure that out too. And no matter what else, I felt a little shame and a little pride, because my little brother had more courage and faith in me than I had in myself.

When he had control of his face again, he whispered "Thank you. I love you, too."

"We will talk about this later, but right now I need to get to work. And you need ice cream."

"Triple Chocolate Chunk?" he asked, brightening, not bothering to wipe the tears away.

"If we have any," I said, grabbing him around the shoulder and starting us up the hill again, pushing through the underbrush.

"Are… are we the same?" Ethan asked when we got to the edge of the cornfield directly opposite Barnie's.

"Idunno, E. I guess we have a lot to talk about. But remember what I said. No matter what sex you like or who you love, you're still gonna be my bratty little brother. Always."

"Cool. Waffle cone?"

"Not a waffle cup?"

"Nah, I'm feeling a little more like a bigger challenge."

"Me too," I said

We strode out of the cornfield together, the middle summer heat still a presence in the angled light on our backs. The older rock and roll music was blaring from the speakers at the corners of the building. We passed a classic convertible Mustang in the parking lot, the two brothers in the car, the older one older than me, the younger one older than Ethan, were playing air guitar in the muscle car as we walked past, singing the lyrics to "Livin' on a Prayer" at the top of their lungs, all but forgetting their ice cream sundaes up on the dashboard.

But that's another story.

We got into the shop, I punched in, relieving Suzie, who gave me a quick peek on the cheek as she whipped off her apron to go clock out.

"Not a word," I warned Ethan, who smiled up at me in a knowing way and then zipped his lips shut, locked it and tossed the imaginary key over his shoulder.

Fortunately, we had plenty of Triple Chocolate Chunk in the well, fresh-made. He ate it with a big smile on his face before going out to talk with a couple of his school buddies. I smiled and let him enjoy a night away from screens and video games, chasing around the playground equipment out back with the reckless abandon I hadn't seen from him in a long time. I mean, just the hugest smile ever.

"Excuse me, what do you recommend?" I heard as I stood by the ice cream order window while still watching Ethan and a few buddies play tag amidst the fireflies. I turned, ready to answer with the standard "Welcome to Barnie's Burger Barn" spiel….

And stopped dead in my tracks looking into the bluest eyes I'd ever seen in my entire life, set into the absolutely cutest face constructed by mother nature.

"Fuck, you're gorgeous," I said, before realizing it and I felt myself blush. His face similarly turned shades of red undreamt of by artists.

"Uh, does that come in a cone or a bowl?" the other boy asked me. He was about my height, close to my scrawny build, his blue eyes framed by a drift of short brown hair that lifted in the light summer breeze. Suddenly everything around me felt too hot, too cold and way too… solid, if you take my meaning. How did I not know who this teen godling was?

"What?" was my eloquent reply.

He grinned. Fucking perfect white teeth with just the tiniest gap between the front two on top. I looked around and was certain no one was near enough to have overheard and the other three employees were busy in other parts of the shop, clearly very busy in what they were doing, Sherman, who was working the grill, was lost in the sounds of his work and shouting along with the music, a Motley Crue song shaking the speakers at that moment.

"The, uh, the 'Fuck, you're gorgeous' flavor. It must be popular. Looks like you must eat it a lot too"

"Huh? Oh that! I'm sorry, that just kind of slipped out. Uhm, my little brother is partial to the Triple Chocolate Chunk. But the Orange-Pineapple, Pistachio and the Watermelon Popsicles are top sellers as well. My favorite are the dip cones. We got chocolate, cherry, caramel and blue raspberry."

"Oh cool. Let's get a caramel dip cone."

"Sure, sure. Small, medium or large?"

"Grande!" the guy at the window replied, raising his eyebrows, suggestively. Holy crap, was he flirting with me? Was I flirting back?

"Comin' up!" I said, falling into the standard patter, hoping no one noticed me suddenly sweating and smiling so broadly. I turn to the soft serve machine and pull up one of the cones, filling the base up before applying the twist and bounce action that makes the cone look all fancy. I turned back to look at the blue-eyed boy as I set up the caramel dip.

"You work here a long time?" the boy asked as I turned the ladle in the dip liquid to make sure it was smooth and not clumpy.

"My second summer here," I replied. "The manager was, well, is a friend of my parents growing up."

"Cool. My 'rents want me to get a summer job as well, but looks like you guys are all staffed up."

"It doesn't take long to fill up the staff," I said, finishing the dip, adding a slight extra bit on the top so that it drizzled down with beads of the caramel goodness solidifying to the shell in sweet, thickened lines. "We only hire about 10 people at most."

I turned and presented the cone to him and rang up the purchase in the tiny electronic point of sale register. I told him the price and watched him go through the dance of trying to get his wallet and money organized while holding on to the cone. Most people don't realize that the bottom of the cone is flat just so that it can be set down. Still, it was both funny and instructive watching him. It allowed me to get a better overall look at him.

I was wrong before about his height. I forgot that the store is set up a whole step higher than the walkway in front of the store. So he was a bit taller than me, but I'd still say he was about my age. If a razor ever touched his smooth face, it was probably once a month at most. His hair was a bit bushy, but not long, just a lot of wave about it that the evening breezes up from the river gave animation.

He managed to get out a twenty and I counted out his change like a good capitalist should. He smiled, taking a lap of the carmel coating on the soft serve ice cream with a twinkle in those haunting blue eyes. They seemed to be a shade of dark blue I'd never seen in anyone's eyes before. Just everything about him captivated me.

"Thanks for the recommendation, Marc. This is awesome."

"No problem. Wait, how do you know my name? Are we in the same grade?"

"Maybe," he said, taking a long lick off his cone. For some reason I was fascinated with how his lips moved over the ice cream. "I'm going to be in 11 th grade coming up. But I don't go to school around here."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"Dad's in the Navy. We're up here visiting my grandparents before we get shipped out. Dad got orders to the base in Rota, Spain. Will be a while before we're back stateside, so we're like doing a bunch of holidays all rolled into two weeks of summer."

"Wow. Spain. Must be beautiful there," I said, locking the cash til while no one else was in line.

"I'll know soon enough," he said, taking another lick.

"When do you leave?"

"We go back to Florida for final packing in a few days. Then, after like a billion vaccinations, we go to quarantine in Spain before we can move into our new housing. Then right into school on base."

"Wow, I've never lived anywhere but Canterbury."

"You're lucky in that. Seems we pick up and go every couple of years. This is Dad's fourth duty station since I was born. And for two of those he had to do sea duty."

"I never thought that Navy guys might have families," I said, showing my ignorance. "I thought the ships were all like Star Trek and the families just were along for the ride."

He started laughing so hard I thought he was going to lose his ice cream. And it was a beautiful laugh, starting with an open mouth, head back sort of thing and like a bend forward as the giggles started pouring out of him, his big luminous blue eyes crinkling into cute squints with his raised cheeks. I felt myself smiling bigger, even though I felt like the joke was on or about me.

"Is it that funny?" I asked with dry New English backspin.

"I'm just trying to imagine my mom and three sisters crammed into a submarine for six months. Much less my older brother. No wifi would kill him."

"Still haven't answered how you know my name," I asked, leaning on the window ledge. Holy crap, I really was flirting! With an out of town boy, no less!

"It's, uh, it's on your name tag. Marc," he said, taking another lick. "This is really good. I'm glad I chose this one. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

"Jase! C'mon, time to go, buddy," an older lady said. She looked older than my mom, but had a swarm of girls and two boys with her, one older than the boy I was chatting with and one much younger.

"That's my family. Got to go."

"Jace huh? Not Jason?"

He shrugged. "It's kind of a mash up. My name's not Jace, it's Jay Cee, stands for Jacob Charles. Named for both my grandfathers, but it's a mouthful to say the full name all the time, so it got shortened to Jay Cee and then stretched to Jace. And I like it better than Jacob."

"Got admit, it does trip off the tongue easier," I said. And I couldn't believe I'd said it. Where was all this flirty stuff coming from? "Too bad you're leaving soon."

"Why's that?"

"Well, you might never get to taste the 'Fuck, you're gorgeous' ice cream."

"God, if that was a real thing I'd feel pretty awkward about it," Jace said, chuckling. "Do you work here a lot?"

"Most days. I'm kind of a push over. If someone wants some time off, my boss knows I'm usually good for extra hours. I even wind up locking up the store sometimes."

"Good to know. My grandparents house is just a few blocks away."

"My family lives just through the woods and towards the river."

"Maybe we will meet again, then," he smiled. "Can I text you?"

'Oh fuck me running! He is flirting with me!' I remember thinking.

"Uh, yeah, sure." I picked up one of the business cards, flipped it over and wrote my cell number on the back with the simple "Marc," written in my best, not sloppy cursive handwriting signature. On a quick whim I wrote "Ice Cream Man" underneath. Before I had time to think about it, I handed him the card.

Jace read the back of the car and smiled, saluting with the card as he turned to walk to his family's mini van. My eyes stayed on his butt as he walked, but I kept hoping he'd turn around with that dazzling yet not completely perfect smile. 'Damn, he's hot,' I remember thinking. As the mini van drove out of the parking lot, I suddenly had Ethan right in my face.

"Who was that?"

"Uh, his name is Jace."

"Oh. You know him from school?"


"Why do you got a goofy look on your face?"

"What goofy look?"

"I dunno. You're like, smiling. It's weird."

"Am I?"

"Jeeze, if puberty makes you loopy like this, I don't want it," Ethan said, then he hopped up on a stool beside me. "Since you go the caramel open, can I get a dip cone, too?"

"Yeah I guess. But I don't want to hear anything about my bad eating habits," I said, messing up his hair. "Seems all the guys I know under 5 foot tall all eat like savages."

"Hey!" He protested, then grabbed my hat and plopped it onto his own head in further protest. I made him a small dip cone, using the same technique I put into Jace's large one, which made me wonder if Jace had a large… uh, one of something else.

"You must still be thinking about Jace," Ethan said, accepting the cone in exchange for my hat, which I promptly regained possession of and recapped.

"Why do you think that?"

"Cuz you still got that goofy look on your face. You must think he was hot."

"Oh, and do you think he was hot?"

"Yeees," he said with exaggerated slowness, raising his tone as he did, ending with a big bite over the top of the cone.

"And you think I'm goofy," I replied, making myself a quick caramel dip cone as well, wishing I could share one with Jace to know what his tongue tasted like.

Well, that pretty much confirmed three things for me. One, Meryl was sort of right. I'd been denying myself even self-gratification for a while, and Jace seemed to bring that need back to my mind. Two, I was very probably gay, had been for a while, and just suppressed it. But it felt so natural flirting with Jace like that. And so exciting. Both my heads agreed on that.

But thirdly, I definitely had to figure out and mix up a "Fuck, You're Gorgeous" ice cream flavor.

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