Jordan has a date, and it’s not going so well. Help him explore downtown Norman, learn about the arts scene, and maybe make it out alive. The Walker Arts District Branching Narrative Extravaganza is an interactive short film where audience members scan QR codes to watch the consequences of their decision.
I’m excited to partner with the Norman Arts Council to create this unique experience. In addition to the movie, people can find bonus content featuring exciting facts and stories about Norman, Oklahoma.
The Walker Arts District Branching Narrative Extravaganza premieres on Friday, April 14, 2023, for the 2nd Friday Norman Art Walk. Stay tuned for more details!
This experience is connected to the 16th Phoenix Universe as the time-traveling tricksters, Loki and Raven, are responsible for Jordan and Avery’s troubles. Be sure to read some of their stories for more about these characters.
In related news, the official launch of The Show Starts Now TV is drawing near! I’m wrapping up editing the first seasons of Take A Bite with Phi, Leadership Board, and Archiving Contemporary Art.
People from various worlds wake up on a train where they have to solve who is reviving people from the dead in this reverse murder mystery game show.
Elle snuggled tight on her comforter while forcing her eyes to stay close so she could continue to soak in her luxurious sleepy state. Her bed felt unnaturally comfortable like she was staying at a premium resort. Then a voice in her head asked, “Is this even your bed?”
Elle opened her eyes.
The bed was not hers. For starters, Elle’s room did not resemble a royal suite on a train. Waking up in unknown places was not something that happened to her unless one counted all the times she fell asleep in the car during a road trip. However, this was not a road trip, and she wasn’t on vacation either. She vividly recalled going to bed at her apartment, dressed in different clothes. Nothing was out of the ordinary about that night.
Elle spun around and looked at the window behind her. The vastness of endless galaxies shimmered outside. Her heart began to race as she looked up and down through the window.
“I’m in space, but there’s gravity,” she whispered. “This doesn’t make sense.”
As she settled back into the bed, the flatscreen TV across the wall turned on with two siblings standing next to each other in a bright white room.
“Good morning, Elle,” the man in the pinkish suit said with a sly smile and the high energy of a game show host.
“We hope you slept well,” the woman in the red dress said like a scientist conducting a study as she made a note on her tablet device. “I’m Raven, and this is Loki.”
“Where am I?” Elle asked, unsure if they could hear her.
“You’re on the Oriental Express,” Raven said. “That we put in space with some modifications.”
Loki spun in a circle. “And we have you here for a game. It’s like a murder mystery, but in reverse, as everyone tries to solve who is bringing people back from the dead.”
All Elle could blurt out in response was, “What?”
“The door to your suite will unlock in 10 minutes, giving you time to use the bathroom and enjoy the breakfast we’ve prepared.” Raven pointed below where a feta cheese and egg white spinach wrap raised from a compartment on the dresser. “Figure out who among you is raising the dead, and you get to go back home.”
“However.” Loki waved his finger. “If they revive all seven people first, you will be stuck here forever.”
The image of the siblings transitioned away to a logo of a magnifying glass over a dead body. Elle sat there for a moment, processing everything. She was positive this was not a dream. With no other options, Elle followed their suggestion to eat and freshen up. She didn’t find another set of clothes, but she woke up in attire she would’ve worn to a bunch with friends.
When 10 minutes passed, the doors on each side of the train car automatically opened. Elle looked in the mirror and said to herself, “You are going to embrace the weirdness.”
Elle picked the exit closest to her. A row of yellow fluorescent lights flickered on above as she stepped into a room that felt like one where police would watch an interrogation. File cabinets that seemed to be over a hundred years old lined the dark green concrete walls. Elle scratched her nose at the faint smell of cigarettes.
“Is someone there?”
Elle turned her attention to the room on the other side of the one-way mirror, where a tall man in a black suit with purple pinstripes paced around the room. His skin color was burgundy, while his hair consisted of a blue flame, making Elle think of Hades from the Disney movie Hercules. With a grumble, the strange man adjusted his red tie as he sat down on the steal chair.
The man spoke to the camera like somebody making comments on a reality show. “Which one of you is behind this?”
The man paused, waiting for a response. None came. Elle didn’t dare respond herself. The stranger leaned forward, keeping eye contact with the camera. “What would my wife suggest I do? She would play along.”
The man cleared his throat and sat up straight. He put on a smile. “My name is Hades, a.k.a the God of the Underworlds, and I’m excited to be here to play this game.”
A green light above the door in his room turned on. “Huh. That worked.”
Hades left the room, entering the one with Elle. She took a step back as he looked down at her.
“Hello, there,” Hades said as he studied Elle like a bargain bin book. “I presume you’re stuck here too, mortal. Do you know what’s going on?”
Elle thought for a moment about how to explain. “Well…I woke up in this train car where these two people on the TV said I was on a game show. There is someone on this train bringing people back to life, and we have to solve the mystery of who’s doing it if we want to get back home. We’ll be stuck here if they resurrect all seven dead people.”
“Interesting,” Hades said as he crossed his arms. “I didn’t get that introduction. What did these two look like?”
“One wore this pinkish suit, and the girl had this red dress.”
Hades groaned. “Loki and Raven.”
The way Hades spoke their names made Elle think that that’s how Commissioner Gordon felt when hearing the news that yet another villain was running amok in Gotham. Elle was even more intrigued about these two individuals. “Yeah, that’s who they said they were. Who are they?”
“They are a pain. That’s who they are.”
“Is this Loki like the Norse god?”
“No. Far from it. They are end-timers, eternal beings that can travel throughout time. Only the universe itself is above them.”
Elle’s jaw hung in confusion. “But you’re like a god, right?”
“Yes, but they can go back into time and erase me from existence.”
“That’s one word for it, kid.” Hades started walking to the next train car. “Come on, let’s solve this mystery.”
“You seem…different from what I’ve read,” Elle said as she followed.
“People wrote those accounts of us over 2,000 years ago, so they’re missing a ton of character development and not to mention all the inaccuracies.”
“Oh. That’s a good point.” Elle held out her hand for a shake. “I’m Elle, by the way.”
Hades shook her hand like a professional. “Hades, which I assume you knew from watching me.”
Elle rubbed the side of her arm as her eyes drifted to her white sneakers. “Yeah.”
The show’s hosts decorated the following room in a vintage royalty style similar to Elle’s car, but as a dining room with several square tables with a chair on each side. Elle rushed to the dead body of a human male lying in the middle of the floor while Hades looked out the window into the space.
“That explains why I’m so weak,” Hades said as he stared outside. He turned to Elle and asked, “Is he one of the dead?”
Elle checked for a pulse on the neck. “Yeah, he’s dead. Wait a second. How do I know you’re not the one who can resurrect people?”
Hades waved his hand and rolled his eyes. “Please. I manage the dead. I don’t bring them back to life. Also, deities receive some powers from those that believe in them, and no one is around.”
“Oh,” Elle said as she stood up. “I guess we should try to find the others.”
“Agreed. Let’s check out the next room.”
Ildikó awoke to a golden retriever licking her face. While some people would’ve found being licked by a dog in the morning funny or cute, Ildikó was terrified. Nilnorians did not have dogs on their planet. She shoved the animal and stood up against the wall. The room was like a forest, covered in grass and plants, but with windows to outer space.
“What are you?” Ildikó asked as she searched her tactical vest for a knife, only to find none equipped. “Where are my weapons?”
The dog wagged his tail and ran off. Ildikó recalled a tree branch hitting her across her head. She thought she had died, but her attacker must’ve rendered her unconscious instead and brought her here. She was thankful she wasn’t chained but confused about why not. As she surveyed her foreign surroundings, a TV mounted to a tree switched to a broadcast of Loki and Raven.
“Hello, Ildikó,” Raven greeted warmly. “Are you ready to join the game?”
“Who are you?” Ildikó demand. Loki and Raven looked similar to her, but they had beige skin and black hair, while Ildikó’s was purple, prompting her to ask, “What are you?”
“None of that matters,” Loki said, waving her off. “What matters is that six people on this train are dead, and someone among you is bringing them back to life. To get home, you must solve the mystery of who’s resurrecting everyone.”
Ildikó clenched her fists. “You dare challenge me.”
Loki and Raven cracked half a smile together before the screen transitioned to the logo of a magnifying glass over a dead body.
Ildikó faced the friendly voice, ready to fight.
“You must be another player,” said the dry, scaly blue skin person in a white robe. “I’m Tate and this Gnarl.”
The red furry beast on two legs with a body of a bull wearing jeans, a black t-shirt with an illustration of a cinnamon roll, and an apron bowed. “Greetings.”
Ildikó relaxed. “My name is Ildikó. I have never seen any people like you on my planet. How are we able to understand each other?”
Tate shrugged. “We figured it has to be something to do with this place.”
Gnarl took a step forward. “We are trying to account for everyone on this train, both alive and dead. We found two of the seven dead.”
“Seven dead?” Ildikó repeated. “I was told there were six.”
Tate and Gnarl exchanged glances.
“The person must already be reviving people,” Tate said.
Gnarl nodded. “We should make haste.”
Elle’s eyes lit up like a child visiting a theme park as she and Hades entered a room filled with colorful plastic balls in a pool. Elle immediately jumped in upon the sight of the ball pit. When she emerged, the balls were up to her chest. With caution, Hades stepped in. He picked up a ball for inspection as Elle swam around.
“There might be a dead body here,” Hades said as he tossed the ball back down.
Elle stopped. Her heart sank. “Right. That’s a good point.”
From the opposite end of the pool, the golden retriever barked.
“There’s a dog!” Elle shouted with joy.
Elle wadded through the balls, carefully feeling each step for fear of stepping on someone. Hades followed with the same reserve. The dog waved his tail as they approached the other side to greet him.
“Hey, there,” Elle said in a playful voice devoted to speaking to dogs. “What’s your name?”
The dog barked.
Hades groaned. “He said his name is Zeus. But don’t get him confused with my brother. This dog is not my brother.”
Elle began to pet Zeus as Gnarl, Ildikó, and Tate entered.
“Greetings,” Gnarl bowed. “I am Gnarl and this is Tate and Ildikó.”
“Hi, I’m Elle, and that’s Hades, and this good boy is Zeus.”
Ildikó scoffed. “Didn’t realize that yellow beast had a name.”
“We have quite the ensemble here,” Hades said, summarizing. “Were you all informed that we must find out who is bringing the seven dead people back to life?”
“We’re at six now, according to the latest broadcast Ildikó saw,” Tate kindly corrected. “Gnarl and I did find two dead individuals on our end.”
“We’ve only found one dead body so far in the previous room,” Elle added. “Though, there might be some in this ball pit. Did you all reach the end on your side?”
“Yes, I came from the end,” Gnarl said. “How about you?”
“The room I woke up in had two exits,” Elle said. “Perhaps we should head that way? Maybe this person is on the opposite end.”
Tate kneed down by the ball pit. “Is this substance you’re swimming in safe?”
Elle held up a ball in her hand. “It’s just plastic balls. They’re safe.”
Gnarl, Ildikó, and Tate slowly lowered themselves like people easing into a cold pool. Once inside, they began to shuffle through to the other side.
Elle looked back and saw the dog sitting by the edge, waiting. “Hold up! We should take Zeus with us.”
“Very well,” Hades said as he doubled back. He scooped up the golden retriever. The dog licked his face. “My dogs will be so jealous when I get home.”
About halfway through the pool, Gnarl fell into the balls. Everyone paused. Gnarl emerged a moment later. “Found another body. Looks to be the same species as you, Tate.”
Tate dived under to see for himself.
“No one I know,” he said when he resurfaced. “Let’s move along.”
Everyone continued, being a bit more cautious with their steps, but they didn’t trip on any more bodies. Hades sat Zeus down, and the dog bolted into the next room, wagging his tail. Everyone climbed out, helping each other out as needed. A crackle followed by a hum filled the room.
“Five people are remaining,” Raven announced over the intercom system.
There was another crackle and then silence.
Ildikó stormed into the next room. “We need to hurry.”
Everyone followed after her. The dining room was as Hades and Elle last saw, but with the dead person now alive, petting the dog.
“That person was dead when we were here,” Hades explained to the rest of the group.
“Then our healer must be near,” Ildikó as she ran to the next room.
Everyone rushed to the next room while Elle joined Zeus in greeting the previously dead guy.
Elle sat on the ground next to the guy, pleased to see another fellow human. “Hey, I’m Elle.”
“I’m Nathan. So I’m on a game show, huh? Weird cast of characters.”
Elle laughed. “Yeah. You wouldn’t by any chance remember seeing anyone when you woke up?”
Nathan shook his head. “No, just this dog licking me awake.”
A funny thought popped into Elle’s head. She scratched the dog under his chin. “I bet Zeus here brought you back to life, huh?”
The train car blacked out.
Elle woke up in her bed, dressed in an oversized tank top and underwear. She leaped out of bed, touching everything to ensure this was real. Satisfied, Elle plopped back down on her bed. She looked at her phone. The time was only 6 am.
“That was a weird dream,” Elle said.
Three knocks tapped on her front door. Confused, she tossed on her fluffy white robe to see who was there. On her front porch was a golden retriever who resembled the one in her dream. Elle kneed down, giving the dog scratches as she read the note attached to the collar.
“Dear, Elle,” she read aloud. “As a bonus for being the first person to guess correctly, you get to keep Zeus. Don’t worry. We took away his power to revive the dead. Congratulations!”
This short story was written for a challenge on Vocal. The prompt was: “Write a story about someone who wakes up on a train. They have no ticket and no memory of how they got there. Oh, and one more thing: the train shows no signs of slowing down.”
A writer is gifted with a mysterious card that will inspire them if they toss the card in a fire while sharing a scary story.
“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.” I stepped back from the campfire, falling deeper into the shadows and waving my hands for dramatic flair. Plus, I was already hot, no thanks to the Oklahoma heat wave.
I placed a hand on my heart to check if the strange card I was gifted was still in my overalls. Good. I still have it. Let’s do this.
High school students from all over the state will arrive tomorrow at the Quartz Mountain resort for the intensive two-week residential school for professional training in the visual, literary, and performing arts. As an alumnus of the creative writing class, this place meant so much to me. I made new friends during a time in my life when that was a struggle. Being around other writers my age motivated me like nothing else, especially since I was the only one in my English classes who enjoyed writing stories. I’ve heard many others make this statement, but there was something magical about being surrounded by mountains, far from civilization, and high-speed Internet.
Because of my experience, I returned as an adult to work as a counselor as this was something I could do to give back. I would love to eventually become an instructor, lifting others how I was inspired. But first, I would have to be a successful writer, which required me to stop hitting blank pages.
With tonight being the last student-free night, I had no trouble gathering a few people under the pretense of sharing scary stories in the courtyard. I first sought after my friend, Hannah. We attended the summer program together in high school as cabin roommates while she took the film and video course. This year, she was part of the public relations team as a documentary videographer. She got her boss, Wren, to join us. Wren was down for a good scary story. Then a couple of guys, Danny and Nathan, who happened to be hanging out in the lodge lobby when I met up with Hannah and Wren, accepted my invitation to join. I squealed with glee, with an audience eager to hear my story.
The line about the abandoned cabin was fictional as this happened where my kids would be staying. I took some creative liberties with the beginning, fabricating details about finding dead bugs, unfamiliar howling in the distance, and the moonless night, but the rest of the story I was about to tell them wouldn’t veer from the truth of what happened a few hours ago.
I closed my eyes, centering myself as I continued the story. “My gut told me something was amiss, and I knew I had to investigate.”
“Well, you’re still here, so we know it wasn’t a serial killer,” Danny said.
Wren, the public relations manager, threw a marshmallow at her fellow staff member. “Let Burnie finish their story.”
“Yeah, maybe Burnie died and was replaced by a doppelgänger,” Hannah said, teasing me, too.
“Or maybe we are the ones that died,” Nathan added with some spooky hollering at the end.
I cleared my throat. “So, I walk up to the cabin. As I pulled open the door, I was hit with this aroma, like I was about to enter–” I paused to build suspense, “a coffee shop.”
The staff exchanged confused looks and giggles.
I carried on with my story. “With my phone flashlight on, I scanned the room. There was no one there. As I treaded deeper inside, the cabin door slammed shut.” I smashed my hands together to represent the noise. “The candle blew out, and my phone – with a full battery, mind you – died. My heart began to race as I tried to open the door. Then suddenly, I saw this light illuminating behind me. I turned around, and there was this spotlight on a woman beside a golden freestanding door. She wore this purple maxi dress fashioned for a greek goddess, and her luxurious silver hair danced in the windless cabin. I asked this woman who she was, but she only responded with the question, ‘Do you seek inspiration?’ I told her yes. I’ve been at an impasse on a new horror story.”
I whipped out the card like a salesperson who was an expert at handing out business cards. “The mysterious muse gave me this card. She told me that if I shared this tale, and then I tossed this card into a fire, we would experience a real horror story.”
I held up the card, showing the group. The dark purple card depicted a golden skull that shimmered in the fire’s light. The audience humored me with a few “oohs” and “ahhs.” Wren clasped her hands on her face in awe.
“Shall I toss it in the fire?” I asked.
“Do it!” Danny taunted. “Do it! Toss that bad boy in the fire.”
“That card looks too pretty to burn,” Hannah said. “But I don’t want your story to end, so go for it.”
Nathan and Wren gave approving nods. With everyone’s consent, I tossed the card in the fire. The stranger never revealed what would happen other than I would be inspired to write. After I took the card from her, she opened her golden door, which led to a coffee shop. The door disappeared like she was never there, but the card was my proof. When the card hit the fire, the fire turned bright purple like a firework, soliciting wows from the entire group.
The flames collapsed in on themselves and burst to life a five-foot giant scorpion, like the striped bark kind found around the area. The scorpion stung Danny, knocking him out of his chair. Hannah jumped out of her seat, utilizing the chair as a shield. Thankfully, there was no one else around in the courtyard. Nathan and Wren ran together to the hotel guestrooms while I stood frozen in shock.
“What the fuck is going on, Burnie?” Hannah said as she used the chair like a lion tamer in a circus act.
“I-I don’t know,” I cried. “I didn’t expect this to happen!”
The scorpion’s stinger pierced through the chair, missing Hannah and getting the chair stuck on the tail in the process.
Hannah retreated to my side. “Got any ideas on how to kill it?”
A spotlight beamed down on the impossible monster I brought to life. We looked at a firetruck flying like a drone or alien spaceship. The firetruck hovered in the starry sky, silent as a ghost. How long has that ship been there? Is it part of the card or something else? The scorpion smashed the chair against the ground, freeing the creature as two more emerged from the fire pit.
I couldn’t make out the details, but a person with dark skin–definitely human–aimed a white sci-fi-looking rifle at the scorpions. The sniper opened fire, emitting a low-frequency screech. One by one, the monsters collapsed as we took refuge under the artistic metal gazebos designed to mirror the Twin Peaks mountains seen from the courtyard.
A team of three people jumped off the firetruck, landing on the ground like superheroes without getting hurt. They wore bright white and orange uniforms, making them easy to spot. Why are they wearing such bold outfits?
“Get this human healed,” ordered the short black woman. “Then find everyone here and wipe their memories of tonight.”
Their commander answered my question. No need for secrecy when you could erase the unnatural like the event never happened. I cursed under my breath, but Hannah heard.
“You should run and hide,” she told me. “I’ll distract them.”
“Wait,” I whispered, but she gave me no choice as she ran toward them, flaying her arms in the sky. “Hannah…”
With the strangers distracted, I bolted for the nearby cave. I figured they wouldn’t expect anyone to be out on any of the trails, hiding in the cave.
I took the route behind the hotel guestrooms, hoping the building would shield me from the action in the courtyard and the lake to my right would keep me anonymous. As I passed the classroom pavilions, I prayed to the universe that the beams of flashlights scanning the area would miss me. I hoped the trees on the cave trail would cover me as more flying firetrucks flew overhead, landing in the parking lot on the other side. I begged my ankles not to give and my heart not to jump out of my throat.
I arrived in the cave alone and unharmed. Some force of the universe must’ve heard my wishes. Thank you. Then my brain warned me of possible snakes and normal-sized scorpions in the cave. With my phone still dead and no source of light on me, I decided to take my chance. I did my best to steady my breath to listen to any slithering or scurrying of desert creatures. I heard nothing. Perhaps my presence scared them. I did make a bunch of noise getting up the hill. The inside of the cave was about the size of my apartment, leaving little room to hide. Feeling a bit safe, I took a seat.
I woke up as the sunlight stretched into the cave, poking my face with sizzling kisses. I have no idea how, but my body collapsed into a deep slumber. I thought I would stay awake all night, but waiting around while nothing happened and being in darkness must’ve put my body to rest. Strange how the body works.
I didn’t know the time, so I returned to the courtyard. I brushed myself off to not appear as I slept in the woods–not that anyone would judge. To my relief–I think that’s the correct word–I saw some staff and faculty members walking out of their rooms and across the courtyard to the main lodge for breakfast as if today were a regular morning. I did notice one less chair around the fire pit where I tossed the card.
Hannah came jogging up to me. “Where were you last night?” I could tell by her scrunched face she was a bit annoyed.
“What do you mean?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“You told me you wanted to share a ghost story by the fire, but you never came.”
“Hold on. Do you not remember the giant scorpions?” Hannah shook her no. There was nothing on her facial expression to indicate she was messing with me. “Do you remember the flying firetrucks?”
Hannah shook her head. “Was this part of your story?”
“No, this is what happened last night. Wait! Where is Danny? Is he okay?”
“Oh, he’s fine.” Hannah pulled out her phone and showed me a photo of a normal-sized scorpion. “He had a bad reaction to this scorpion in his room. He should be back tomorrow.”
I sighed like a person freed from a boulder. The strangers cleaned up well, but I had so many questions. Who was the woman with the golden door? What was this organization that saved the day? Was someone watching out for me? The truth of what happened would be left for my creative imagination to determine, just as the mysterious muse planned.
A new short story to kick off summer! This was written for a horror story contest to use this line as the first sentence: “The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.” Since I was at Quartz Mountain for the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, I got some friends there to pose and slightly base the characters on them. The mysterious muse was the end-timer, Brigit, who was featured in The Winged Letter and A Question for the Writers.
When a herd of dragons visits the small town of Valley, the mayor decides it’s his civic duty to greet them only to get caught in a mystery.
There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Mayor Axepen was dead set on giving the unfamiliar herd of dragons a friendly welcome as part of his civic duty. In his 42 years of living on the Black Planet, Brutüs occasionally saw dragons fly throughout the skies, wait in line at the drive-through of a coffee shop, or deliver kegs of beer from a local brewery. Seeing over two dozen together was a rare sight.
Upon hearing of the arrival of dragons, Brutüs skimmed through Hugging Dragons: A Cultural Etiquette Guide to Befriending Flying Serpentines by Peigi MacLeòir. After all, Brutüs won the democratic mayoral race based on his platform of owning and reading the most books in the Valley. During his campaign, he also decorated his horns to appear less threatening, invited constituents to tea parties to listen to their concerns, and held ice cream soirées at the library while reading children’s stories. He successfully proved to the citizens of the Valley that he wasn’t some dumb, mean, brawny minotaur but a well-educated, compassionate, brawny minotaur.
Brutüs minded his steps up the hill of rainbow-colored flowers to not ruin the plants. He made a mental note to discuss adding gravel trails to the hill at the next town planning meeting as he thought all should enjoy the calming scents, colorful sights, and overall relaxing walk.
As he reached the top, he recalled MacLeòir’s advice on figuring out the leader. The book warned not to judge based on the size as sometimes the leader is the smallest one, or sometimes the leader was the largest, or the one with the most heads, or somewhere in the middle. The book said not to ask because if you happen to ask who the leader was and that was their leader, a fight would break out. Instead, the best course of action was to study the dragons to see who they watched the most. Everyone tended to keep an eye on the leader. However, with current technology, MacLeòir advised scanning the herd with a networker to find the answer.
Brutüs’ owned a networker designed to look like an ax, which he wore as a necklace. He lifted his networker and asked, “Networker would you tell me who is the leader here?”
“Scanning!” the networker replied in a cheerful tune as a holographic spinning rainbow ball projected out. “No information found. This appears to be an unregistered group. Sending out a request for more information.”
“Uhm,” Brutüs said, letting the network fall to his muscular chest. The holographic display faded off. “I’m glad I read that book first.”
Following the author’s advice, Brutüs watched the dragons, studying who they watched the most. Everyone seemed focused on a white, single-headed dragon, who was small by dragon standards but was still twice as big as himself, a 7-foot tall minotaur. He straightened his blue suit and decided to take a shot at welcoming the leader.
“Greetings,” Brutüs said with a big wave. “I am Mayor Axepen, and I welcome you to the Valley.”
The white dragon lowered her head in a bow, her spikes glistening in the morning sun. “Hello, Mayor Axepen. My name is Swift. We mean you no burden or trouble as we merely pass through to visit The Black Dragon.”
Brutüs nodded. The Black Dragon was the oldest and most influential living being on the planet. Although officially, The Black Dragon wasn’t the planet’s ruler – unofficially was a different matter. As a town leader, Brutüs was in charge of the yearly tribute in which the most talented artists competed to send their works of art to The Black Dragon. Fame often followed the winners as only the best would win. With The Black Dragon being practically immortal, the dragon would often auction or donate the works in the future for a significant profit. Brutüs viewed the tribute as a win-win and held neither a positive nor negative opinion of The Black Dragon. Although writing about The Black Dragon in his journals was a tiny bit of an inconvenience as The Black Dragon had no pronouns or titles. However, such an “inconvenience” was a nonissue matter for respecting one’s personal preferences.
“Very well,” Brutüs said, straightening his red and black striped tie. “If you are interested in obtaining coffee before your long journey, the drive-through at Gratitude Coffee can accommodate you.”
Fun fact about dragons: dragons are caffeine sensitive, and what would be a large coffee for a human would often be the perfect size for a dragon.
“Thank you, Mayor,” Swift said. “We may consider that.”
As Brutüs was about to leave, he caught sight of a tattoo of a human woman in a green dress with a green door on Swift’s arm. “If you don’t mind me asking, Swift, what is the story behind that tattoo?”
“Why do you think there’s a story?”
“I’ve never seen a tattoo of a human on a dragon before, that’s all.”
Swift brought up her arm to see the tattoo in question. “This…This was someone special to me. She saved my life. It’s a long story.”
“I do enjoy a long story if you enjoy sharing one.” Brutüs sat on a clean patch of ground. “I do have the time.”
Swift laid in a rested state. “Well, a long time ago, when I was about your size, I was an actress, and she was a director. She had a fiery spirit like the mightiest dragons – for a human. I later learned she was a time-traveler, but that’s getting ahead of myself.”
“A time-traveler?” Brutüs repeated, trying not to scoff in disbelief. In the entirety of Brutüs’ library, he only owned one book about time-travelers. In How to Survive an Encounter with a Time-Traveller by Filip Webb, the 150-page book only consisted of the word “Avoid” written on each page in different languages, font styles, and graphical representations.
“I sense your skepticism,” Swift said, “as I was a skeptic myself. To this day, she was the only time-traveler I met.”
“My apologizes,” Brutüs said. “I mean no disrespect. Please, do continue.”
Swift nodded. “This happened around when people believed rumors that a dragon’s spikes were potent aphrodisiacs. As I was leaving a solo act one night, I got mobbed by a gang. They had me chained and in a cage before I knew what was happening. They were professionals.”
A red tear ripped the clouds above Brutüs and the dragons. A ginormous spaceship–larger than the field of dragons–flew out from the portal. The sudden, looming shadow and the engine’s raging hum gave away the ship’s presence. Swift stood up, fully alert, while Brutüs sat in confusion.
“Gods,” Swift cursed. “Did you scan us by any chance?”
“I was trying to figure out who the group leader was,” Brutüs said.
Swift groaned and faced her fellow dragons. “Everyone, Evacuation Formation Beta. Rally together at point 13. Go!”
The dragons flew away, splitting into eight groups and going in separate directions. Without saying another word to the mayor, Swift left, joining up with one of the groups. Brutüs watched them leave as the ship opened fire on the dragons. He felt like someone had given him a prologue to a book while keeping the rest of the story for themselves.
I wrote this story for a short story contest at Vocal. The challenge was to write the first chapter of a fantasy novel with the following first sentence as a prompt: “There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.”
Thanks to Janine De Guzman for bringing the scene of Brutus and Swift meeting at the Valley.
I know this story has a total jerk ending, which I was playing to this being like a prologue. I may continue this saga if the story is well received. 😉
After her trip to the Underworld, Sally Wilkerson has a hard time convincing her friend of her experience until an opportunity presents itself to her as Hades and Persephone invite her to game night.
Best to read #TwinCities as this story picks up after its events.
Sally gazed at her unlit, fictional consultations on her black bedroom ceiling. She built the night sky herself using a combination of LED fairy lights and glow-in-the-dark plastic star stickers, while her walls consisted of trees and lakes of the Michigan landscape painted by her father. Her dad couldn’t stand plain white walls (with exceptions for inside cabinets and closets). Still, he respectfully left Sally’s bedroom white until her seventh birthday, when she was allowed to pick the design. Initially, the landscape was during the day, but when Sally turned 13, she wanted to make her night sky, so her father revamped his artwork to match.
Sally’s eyes drifted from the lion to the woman holding scales before she decided to roll to her side, facing her glossy black nightstand. “Why doesn’t he believe me?”
When Sally returned from her visit to the Underworld yesterday, Mark had already closed up the ice cream shop. So she rushed home and told her parents about her experience. They believed her before showing them the selfie with Hades. However, when she saw Mark at work today, he thought she was pranking him. She spent the first few hours of her shift trying to convince him to no avail. Then he spent the last few hours teasing her.
“How did your tea party with the Tooth Fairy go?” Mark had mocked. “Did you ask Santa if you made the nice list?”
Sally forced herself to sit up on her bed. She tapped on her phone, waking up the device to reveal the time was only 7:40 pm. She looked over her collection of a dozen board and card games scattered about on her bookshelf. The unincorporated town of Hell didn’t offer much for teens to do, so her typical Friday night involved getting together with friends to play games. However, after her spat with Mark, not even her competitive nature was in the mood. With her spirits low, she decided to seek her mother’s counsel.
“Mom should be done for the day,” she said as she stood up.
Sally went downstairs to the tarot room. They lived in the upper half of the house while her parents’ business, Charon’s Landing, took the bottom. She received an invite before Sally could peek inside to see if her mom was with a customer. “Come in, honey.”
Sally viewed her mom’s tarot reading room as the coziest room she’d ever visited. There was no square inch of a hard wall to see as fabrics shaped the room into a hexagon. Chill, LoFi beats placed those who entered at ease. If only I were allowed to take naps here, Sally thought. Though, she would curl up on the couch in the room if she had painful cramps or wasn’t feeling well. She took a seat on the plush purple pillow on the floor.
Sally’s mother, Diana, was still in her purple work robe as she shuffled her deck of tarot cards. “What’s on your mind?”
Despite her mother always being able to sense when something was off with her daughter, Diana’s comforting tone still caught her off guard. She decided to ask. “Mom, you believe me about meeting Hades, right?”
Diana pushed aside her long, curly red hair behind. “Of course, honey. I’ve always taught you there was more to this world than what we see.”
“But Mark doesn’t.” Sally slumped her shoulders, slouching more into the floor cushion. “He thinks I faked that photo with Hades.”
Diana started placing cards on the oak table. “Well, your father was quite inspired by it and has been painting up a storm. He even sold one of his paintings of Hades.”
“Yeah, he told me when I got home.”
With the cards laid out, Diana set the deck aside. “Perhaps the cards will offer some advice.”
In the Great Library of the Underworld, Hades pursued the alphabetically-organized card and board games collection. As his finger touched a game, he envisioned what group that game would be ideal for in tonight’s game night session. He had fashioned himself in his purple suit with red pinstripes for the evening.
“Mictlantecuhtli, Hel, and Osiris declined,” Persephone said as she wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist and rested her head on his shoulders.
Hades brought up her hand to his lips and kissed them. “Thank you for checking. Is anyone able to join us?”
Persephone collapsed deeper into her hug and sighed. “No one can play with us tonight.”
Hades stopped browsing the games. “Perhaps we should expand our horizons.”
Persephone released her hold, spinning around in her green dress. “Oh! Oh! How about that mortal girl from the other day? Sally Wilkerson! She seemed delightful.”
“I don’t know…A mortal?”
“You know that painting of you that I brought you today.”
“What about it?”
“I got that from the girl’s father.”
Hades raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yes,” Persephone said with a big grin. “Plus, you know the dogs did like her.”
Hades flicked his wrist. “Very well.”
Persephone burst into a happy squeal and teleported away in a tornado of flowers. Their three-headed dog, Cerberus, walked up to Hades and nuzzled his head against him. The dog had taken the appearance of a black, 12-foot tall three-headed Scottish Terrier.
Hades playfully pushed his face away from the dog’s fur. “When was the last time I had someone give you a bath?”
Sally was back in her bedroom, working on her own card game at her desk, when Persephone erupted into the room with a shower of flowers. Sally watched in awe as the bewitching redheaded Goddess of the Underworld emerged from flowers that faded away, leaving no trace.
“Hi, Sally!” Persephone greeted with an enthusiastic wave. “I’m Persephone. Hades and I would like to invite you to our game night session.”
Sally bolted up from her computer chair. “Heck, yeah!”
Persephone held out her hand for Sally to take. Sally shoved her game in her pink cropped hoodie before taking the goddess’ hand.
Persephone returned to the Underworld with Sally in a similar flowery teleportation style and proclaimed, “She said ‘Heck, yeah!’”
Sally took a moment to take in the green gothic architect of the Great Library. The room was similar to the one on her previous visit, but when she spotted Cerberus, she lost interest in the library.
“That must be Cerberus,” Sally said, jaw-dropping. “Does he like to be petted?”
“He loves the petting,” Persephone answered, gently pushing Sally toward the three-headed dog.
Sally rushed over and began scratching the dog under his center chin. Cerberus let his tail wag and tongue roll out. “So, Mr. Hades. Persephone said you need an extra player for game night. What do you have in mind?”
Hades pulled out a seat from the stone table. Sally gave Cerberus one last pet and took the chair. From inside his pinstripe suit, Hades spread out a set of cards in a fan pattern on the table.
“How about you pick out a game at random?” Hades suggested.
Sally looked over the cards and then at the expansive collection of games on the shelves. “You know, I have a game I’m working on myself. I’d be happy to teach you, and you can give me feedback.”
“A new game!” Persephone exclaimed. “Yes!”
Hades chuckled and snapped his fingers, making his cards disappear in a puff of flames. “How do we play?”
Sally pulled out a stack of index cards from her hoodie’s pocket. “The game is called The Inventors Inventions or Invention Heist. I’m still workshopping the name. Anyway, one person plays as the inventor, hiding these cards around a room while the other players, the thieves, wait outside. The thieves have 60 seconds to find as many cards or inventions as possible before time runs out. The inventor acts as the home base, and the thieves must be touching the inventor before time runs out, or they lose all of the cards they’re holding from that round. Some inventions do special attacks, like freeze a player for 10 seconds, but using them degrades the value. You play for three rounds, and the person who has gathered the most valuable inventions wins. That’s it.”
“Sounds fun!” Persephone said. “I want to be the first inventor.”
Sally handed her the deck. “Then Hades and I will be thieves.”
Persephone skimmed through the deck. “Sally, do you mind if I add a bit of upgrade to these cards?”
“Be my guest.”
Persephone shuffled the deck. As the cards shuffled, the homemade, handwritten cards transformed into a professionally crafted deck. “Done! Now, I will hide them.”
Persephone snapped her fingers, ensnaring Hades and Sally together in a dome of green vines.
“So, Sally. How about we make this interesting?” Hades asked with a smirk.
Sally crossed her arms. “What do you have in mind?”
“If I win,” Hades lowered himself to stare directly at Sally, “you have to…give Cerberus a bath.”
“Okay,” Sally said with a sly smile, “and if I win, you have to reveal yourself to my friend, Mark.”
“Do I get to scare him?”
Hades offered his hand. “Then it’s a deal.”
Sally stopped herself just before shaking his hand. “Wait. How do I know you won’t cheat?”
Hades scoffed. “I find winning fair and square to be more rewarding. Plus, we have anti-cheat systems in place for when we play with other deities.”
Sally gave Hades a firm handshake. “You got yourself a deal.”
The vines withered away. Persephone sat on a red throne chair with a golden border in the center of a different room in the library filled with statues, paintings, and other works of art.
“And go!” Persephone shouted.
Hades and Sally bolted in opposite directions in search of the cards.
Sally arrived to work for her Saturday evening shift, dressed in her witch costume. The store was empty, except for Mark, who was cleaning the glass windows of the ice cream from fingerprints.
“Hey, we missed you yesterday for game night,” Mark said. “Were you busy playing games with Hades instead?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, I was,” Sally said, putting her hands on her waist. “I even invited him here for ice cream.”
Mark laughed, but then the lights went out, and a swirl of flames burst from the ground, filling the ice cream shop with a black mist as Hades morphed his body to fill the entire space before shrinking to a regular 6-foot size. As Hades shrunk, Cerberus emerged as a three-foot-tall dog with three heads from the smoke.
“Hello, Mark,” Hades greeted. “I would like to get three cones with your vanilla ice cream for my dog here.”
As I was putting together the new Serials section, I remembered there was a storyline gap between the two stories with Sally Wilkerson. This story fills that gap between #TwinCities and Dog-Sitting Cerberus. Although, after finishing this story and going over the dog-sitting, there could be another chapter or two.