Where Ages Meet

The carriage ricketed down the path, rocking from side to side not too unlike the boat Oliver left behind a few days ago. Honestly, he should’ve puked up his entire stomach by then. If not from the motion, from the anxiety, if not from those, from the excessive spellcasting and all-nighters, and if not from all of that, from the fact that everyone he met was tired of him already.

“Excuse me, yes, pardon me,” he began, possibly out of desperation for some social aspect to break up the blur of practice and half-sleep, “Hypothetical question for you,” he said through the small window to the carriage driver. Rick was his name, just a dull-eyed teen who didn’t turn or acknowledge him in any fashion.

“If you were heading toward a massive contest, or at least formerly massive, that would earn you possible worldwide renown and a great portion of your material desires for the rest of your life, even if it would put that life in certain danger of an abrupt and humiliating end– Would you still go?” He waited. A jerk of the reins brought the horses on a steady turn and the driver scratched at his stubble.

“Just wondering. Purely hypothetical.”

“…No, sir. I believe I would not.” Ah, he did speak. Truth be told, the mage wished he would speak more. There was a certain rustic eloquence in his flowing tones and raspy voice. It matched his weathered appearance, skinny though he was, draped in rough clothes and leather packs. “But I’ve little use for fame or material things.”

“Really. That is interesting.” Oliver never could tell a convincing lie. Perhaps that was the source of his societal shortcomings and those evident traits that allowed him to become a mage in the first place. “Well now. Thank you, thank you very kindly. That will be all.”

And they didn’t speak again until the sun eased its way down and the moon slid its way up. Rick originally turned the horse onto a path to the miserable village of Kendon. That was before Oliver got him to swear to turn the carriage around, drive through the night no matter the threat, and travel to Aethia, the (waning) magical capital of the world. Rick made some money off the vow.

He woke up not to Rick, like he expected, but to Aethia’s bubbling morning bustle and the accompanying distant bird calls. The ocean was off by a day or so, but the sea birds still graced the city with caws and droppings. Even that early, six or maybe seven in the morning, people moved about the streets and brought the carriage’s pace to a patient amble. Fortunately for them, there were few of the new “automobiles” about…

Still, they made it to the arena at the city’s approximate center before noon and that was all that mattered. Even if that was when the driver got the other half of his payment, Oliver was thrilled to finally arrive, to look at the vaulted stone spires and rows of pointed arch windows.

Oh, to take it all in firsthand… As Rick unloaded the mage’s two carpet bags onto the limestone path and eventually stared at the stout steamer trunk on the rear luggage rack. Oliver was so fixed on the arena, imagining his way through corridors to his assigned and truly unremarkable room (though it would impress him to no end), that it took the carriage boy speaking to get his attention.

“Sir, the trunk.”

“Oh, of course, right,” he corrected himself, joining an unimpressed Rick at the back of the carriage and pulling up his sleeves. “I’ll handle this.”

With a whispered incantation, his eyes closed, he missed Rick’s muted expression of shock and revulsion as the trunk rocked. Sticks of cedar jutted out from its side, the wood cracking in the strain even as the process left no marks in the trunk or the leather straps. Oliver kept his eyes closed, muttering the made-up language while the sticks bent as if they had an elbow, coming out further until they ended in square hands. They had no form, looking like thumbless mittens even as they closed and opened.

It got up on its rangy haunches, shook the new arms and legs as if their stiffness could be fixed that way, and clambered down the side of the carriage to pick up the waiting bags.

“Well, thank you for all your help, kind sir.” Oliver took Rick’s hand in his, shaking it and leaving a small sack of money in the driver’s palm. “I expect my gratitude will cover your homeward expenses.”

“Sure,” he said, seeming a little concerned about something. It had to be one of their mental states. But he put the sack in his pocket and returned to the carriage led by the chestnut horse with stunted ears and eerily large eyes. Riding inside the whole time, the mage didn’t notice until now just how unsettling they were.

The two turned their separate ways and that brought Oliver to the arena’s gate, guarded by security officials in navy blue uniforms with glinting silver trims almost outshone by the spotless black of their shoes and for some, the badges on their uniforms. Naturally, only two of the ten officials would talk to him.

He went through unsurprising questions without much trouble. What sort of mage are you? How long have you been practicing? Have you ever been detained or arrested by the Mages’ Council for any purpose? Passing that test, they moved on to the practical portion of the exam. Cast any spell for us, okay, that’s great, now use another to unlock this chest no wider than a tankard and get your Trialist Charm. Great, you did that, now…

“Where’s your aide?”

“Hm?” Oliver looked up at the stern woman’s face, finally over the scar at her left jaw line and not staring at it instead of her eyes anymore. His new fixation had been on the opalesque gem in the center of the stone charm. He was in the middle of wondering if everything at the arena was made of stone when she interrupted him. “Excuse me?”

“Your aide. Where are they?” Aide. Aide. Why hadn’t he heard of this before? Oh no, not good… They were starting to question his hesitation.

“Oh, my aide, you meant them. Well, they’re off looking after the horse. Chestnut, a real dear. Well, no, she’s a horse, but…” He trailed off and sensed that they had lost their patience. “I’ll go and get him, she’ll be alright.”

He didn’t even ask if he could join without an aide since he already had the Trialist Charm and all. He just left the trunk behind to wait, running past the landscaped woods towards central Aethia. If he could find Rick at the stables, if any remained, offer him yet more money, which he was running out of, and convince him to be his aide, learn some magic… Well, that shouldn’t be hard. Wasn’t that everyone’s dream?

Panting, Oliver stopped in the first motel he came across and began the search. He wouldn’t leave the city that day because he hadn’t slept the night before, which left that night and the next morning to find him. “Excuse me, pardon, if it’s not too much trouble,” he paused for a gasp of air, “Did a young man come in here named Rick? To stay the night?”

They said no in that place and demanded to know who was asking in the second one, assuring that he wasn’t there mostly because Oliver didn’t want to argue. So the hunt went until the fourth place of lodging, where the staunch doorman told him what he so wanted to hear. If the horse and carriage outside weren’t obvious clues. “Yeah, a few hours ago. A real lanky thing he was. Looked like he hadn’t slept in a day.”

“Oh, that’s him,” Oliver sighed, daring to smile now that he had the news he wanted. “Which room is he in?”

He got a leery look, a once-over to see if maybe he looked the sort who would kill someone in their rented room and cause a huge mess for the owner. Another few coins lost, but the room’s location gained, he went upstairs to the third door on the left and banged an open hand on the door.

“Rick, open up,” he called, staring down at the knob and forcing himself to not go in anyway. “I have another favor that needs doing. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with it, of course, so I came to give you the first chance. Extra money, Rick, I can promise you that if you’ll help out with this one favor.”

Oliver jumped at the thump inside the room, maybe something slamming against the wall or onto the floor. He waited, biting his lip and biding his time. “Rick,” he ventured after a few seconds without another sound. “How is everything in there? Are you alright?” Soft rhythmic creaks got louder and then the door opened just a crack. Rick looked worse now than before, a lot worse.

“What is it.” Eyes half shut and the look on his face just begging Oliver to give him a reason to punch the mage, Rick wasn’t in any mood for politeness and Oliver wasn’t crazy enough to demand it.

“Can I come in and talk?”

“No.”

Well then. Alright, Oliver could work with that. Running both hands through his hair, taking a deep breath, he started up with his explanation.

“Remember that probably massive contest?” And his future aide’s eyes shut even more. He lost some ground there, granted, but it would be won back as soon as he got to tell the story. “Well, to be in it for real, I need an aide.”

“I’m not it.”

“Hey, hear me out,” he bargained, stopping the door with his hand only because Rick didn’t slam his hand in it. If he really wanted to, he could. Being a carriage driver made him a lot stronger. “There’s a lot in it for you, Rick, I promise. I’ll pay you twice what you made as a driver,” Oliver said, counting the benefits on one hand and watching the driver’s interest pique as his eyes almost nearly opened.

“I thought magic was dying off,” he answered, but he was swaying, Oliver could just feel it. Or perhaps that was the numb, light feeling of lacking oxygen.

“And isn’t carriage driving? Look, I’ll teach you magic, and that in itself is an experience to behold. Plus, you can stay at the arena with me and a ton of other mages and their aides, and the Council will take care everyone completely free of charge! What do you say?”

And then there was the wait. He kind of hated looking at Rick leaning against the doorframe, thinking, wondering if this was worth it. When that smirk finally came, it brought a flood of relief with it and Oliver smiled back. Wasn’t often that both of them felt happy for the same reason.

“Alright, Mr. Oliver,” he agreed and held out his hand that wasn’t on the doorknob of his side of the door. “You’ve got a deal.”


© 2017 Jam Blute, All Rights Reserved.

Ghosting

– Erika Wolfe –

He twisted her expensive scarf, jamming it between his teeth just after he’d had a mouthful of her husband’s best whiskey. Among streamlined Verner Panton furniture and an Angelo Mangiarotti chandelier, Marcus Hunt sat and dripped blood from his upper arm onto the floor. On the first night she met him, he had a callous handshake and demeanor.

He was a tall brute, dark and wildly hairy. He gripped the gleaming silverware with a closed fist and shoveled buttered gnocchi and smoked eggplant from the imported European plates into his trough of a mouth. Tonight was no exception to his usual behavior.

She still hated Marcus, would never like him, but seeing the wound as he rolled up his sleeve… The hole at the top curve of his bicep was no bigger than a nickel, streaking blood down his arm like accent lines. His arm swelled, raised like an anthill where the redness gathered in the muscle of his arm.

Tulle crinkled beneath her satin skirt as she knelt beside him. She wanted to demand what he was thinking when he came to her house, not a hospital, like any normal person would have. But she knew all along Marcus was not an honest man. If he went to the hospital, he’d leave in handcuffs.

Still, three private schools and a college degree in fashion design didn’t prepare her for gunshot wounds. The only reason she recognized it at all was because her father brought home a dead deer when she was just eight. He’d been trying to drag it from his truck by two-horned antlers; a bullet hole nested in its dark auburn chest and dried blood caking the fur together. Erika locked herself in her room for six hours.

She could think of only one thing to say. “Alright,” she began, leveling her gaze at him and resting her hands on her knees. “What can I do to help you?”

“Pliers,” he grumbled around the eighty-dollar accessory, the dainty silver bangles jingling at both ends. And she had just washed it. “Tweezers, something.”

Even now, with an unsavory man bleeding in her living room, she felt vindicated—Her husband had the worst taste in friends. Perhaps if Jonathan didn’t choose his friends from the city subway, they wouldn’t come over with a bullet in their arm and blood trailing on the Ethan Allen carpets.

“Are you,” Erika paused. No rational person would consider this an option. Why else would he be doing it? “Going to pull the bullet out?”

“Yeah,” he grunted with another jingle. “Gonna need another scarf.” He held out a bloodstained hand to her and she pulled her hands back.

“Absolutely not.” She drew the line, getting to her feet. “I’m calling the hospital.” Her wine red Valentino shoes clicked against tile as she crossed the sitting room to the kitchen for the phone.

“No,” he grunted and tore the scarf out of his mouth, leaving it damp in his lap. “Wait.” The receiver to her ear, she glared at him. Rarely did she have to do more than that to get her way. With it, she made her father rethink divorce and convinced her former boss to hand over high profile projects.

Both were men in designer suits with mugs made of recycled materials on their desks, which they filled with imported coffees. Marcus wasn’t either of them. “It’s not that simple, Erika.”

“Mrs. Wolfe.”

“Fine, Mrs. Wolfe. It’s still not simple.” He could sound stern all he wanted, his face only got paler. Honestly, men. Over so many years with three brothers and her father, Jonathan alone listened to reason. Marcus leaned on the cream rose loveseat beside him, his uninjured arm against it. “You can’t just call and tell them a man’s been shot. They’ll want to know why.”

“Well, then.” She rested the phone back onto the base. “Why were you?”

His dry exhalation hardly counted as a laugh.

“Then allow me to make a suggestion,” she said, seating herself at a stool and crossing her legs. “You were out geo-caching when it happened.” He squinted at her, and it said enough. “Think of it as urban scavenger hunting,” she clarified. Marcus blinked.

Her husband’s whiskey sat on the Lexington glass coffee table, the broad copper-toned cap on its side next the sloped bottle. She could set out two crystal glasses, pour a little in each. An entirely innocent occasion for anyone who didn’t pry. “And let’s say you had something to drink beforehand, so you weren’t in a sound state of mind.”

His dull eyes tried to focus on her logic. A task no easier for the hole in his arm, but that was another reason to hurry. If not for him, then for the cleaning staff. “I’ll make it simple, Marcus. You don’t remember who shot you and I didn’t even hear it.” She paused, but his distant stare persisted.

“I’ll make the call,” she resolved, picking up the phone and dialing the hospital.

– – – – – –

It was a nice neighborhood, real upscale. Pink blossoming trees bent in early dusk shadows, hunching over the ambulance as they passed. Mailboxes sat nested in sculpted stone pillars and elaborate gardens poked over dark wood fences. Some of the driveways had digitally locked gates with speakers like the ones in movies. Hardly any emergency calls came from here, he figured.

Sound Shore Medical had a reputation for affordable care, so these richer types didn’t need them. But that wasn’t his to worry about. Arthur Phillips was just an EMT with that fresh-from-med-school smell.

He kept quiet and helped prepare the patient for travel. The patient was broad shouldered with a mess of brown hair, that Marcus Hunt guy he sometimes saw at Fireside Pub. The place was cheap, a complete dive, and so it worked well for Philips and the recovering addicts who went there. He never knew until now that Hunt had a tattoo of a hawk on his back.

Philips could only see the wingtip from under the rolled up right sleeve, but he recognized it as an accipiter, possibly a Cooper’s hawk, from the rounded wing. He loved ornithology growing up, and everything he learned about birds in elementary and middle school never quite left him.

All in all, he’d seen people who looked worse. But not many who looked better than the tearful Mrs. Wolfe speaking with his boss. He asked her for Hunt’s name, address, medications, all the routine information. But she dressed like she was at a ball, every curl of silken fabric highlighting the bell shape of her body.

When she nodded, another tear fell and a dark blonde curl at her temple bobbed. From the expensive clothes to the neat bun wound tight on the back of her head, she looked like a princess.

To imagine her sitting down to a drink with this guy only made sense when you knew Mr. Hunt was a friend of her husband’s. And her husband was a damn lucky man. Pictures of the couple dotted the walls, the mantle, and sat in custom stone coasters on glass end tables.

They never smiled at the camera, only at each other and the red-yellow flowers blooming around them, fireworks sparking among thick snowflakes, or barn owls squatting on their gloved forearms.

Arthur looked down to the red spot on the bandage and wrapped it one more time. His education said he should try to put the patient at ease, but… Hunt sat stiff on the stretcher, his breathing and circulation becoming less stable as he bled out his arm. This was his first bullet wound outside of pictures in a textbook, but he was sure the bullet should’ve gone through.

That would have left a mess of an exit wound, and he couldn’t have missed that. It was something to ask the doctor he worked under when they got back and Hunt was stabilized.

In the meantime, the patient looked ready to sleep off the injury or strangle someone. Hunt’s thick brown eyebrows creased at the middle, and his left hand clenched at his side as blood dried onto his sleeve. He took occasional deep breaths, almost seeming not to breathe between them.

His right arm was over his head to prevent more bleeding and the bandage was tight to keep pressure on. By the books, this was an emergency, and they’d leave for the hospital as soon as he told his coworkers to move the stretcher to the ambulance.

“What did you say happened again, Mr. Hunt?”

“I was geo-caching,” Hunt repeated in a dry tone. He didn’t make eye contact with Arthur often, and when he did, it wasn’t with any gratefulness. Closer to how one would look at road kill, he thought. “And then I got shot.”

“That’s all?” They’d been through this twice already, but he couldn’t think of anything Hunt would want to discuss. “You sure you didn’t see anything, Mr. Hunt?”

“Yes, Phillips. I’m sure.”

– Jonathan Wolfe –

“Why hello, there, Mrs. Wolfe.” John came in at midnight, his tie loose and first button undone. He liked coming home as a charming, well-dressed mess, greeting her like it was a decent hour. It brought him back to their college days where he could show up at her dorm at two in the morning with lilies and he wouldn’t leave until the sun was up. Then again, those days never really ended.

There she was, his saving grace in a silk nightgown with a laugh on her lips. He liked her best like this. Wavy dark golden hair twisting out of her bun, no makeup, little pearl drop earrings even though she was going to bed— Their upcoming anniversary only made her sweeter.

He swung his arm around her, the briefcase still in hand as he leaned down to kiss her through their smiles.

“We’re not newlyweds anymore, John,” she teased, slipping out of his hug and moving towards the winding redwood stairs. The second floor held the study, the guest room… Their bedroom.

Sliding his briefcase next to the navy blue armchair by the door, he followed. “Don’t know about you, but I’m still feeling the bliss,” he answered, smiling. Only when he undid his tie the rest of the way did he see the stain on the living room floor.

“What is that?” He let the tie hang like a misshapen scarf and moved toward the stain. Erika met him halfway, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder. She threaded the tie through her fingers slowly, glancing up at him. It was cruel of her; he was still learning how to say no to that face.

“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart,” she comforted him, bringing her other hand up to his cheek. He could smell the spring blossom perfume on her hands. When she tilted her head for another kiss, all he could do was lean into it. “We’ll have it cleaned up in the morning.”

Their noses were almost touching, and her deep green eyes were most of his world. She smiled, maybe thinking his quiet laugh was part of their nighttime games. “You only call me sweetheart when you lie.”

– Michelle Steele –

Marcus had never been particularly bright or good-looking. But he was exceptional at killing people, hunting them down, making them desperate. Whether he wanted to believe it or not, that talent for murder was in him like people had lungs. She let out another sigh of smoke, watching it twist in the dim light.

“I wish you’d put that out.” The doctor spoke out of turn, but in a voice that expected to be hit. Children on the streets spoke like that, but the only adult with that wounded voice was the good doctor. Rocking forward on black boots, she approached the lanky man from his right. In the near-darkness, he wouldn’t see her until she stood next to him.

She placed her hand near his on the overcrowded table. Littered with stacked telephone books and so many magazines, papers, notebooks, and pens that might not even work, it creaked against the extra weight of her hand.

“I wish you’d do your job, doctor.” She held the cigarette away from him anyway. Sometimes, when he got stressed enough, his lungs would seize up and he would cough for two, even five minutes. If it got that bad, she’d have to get him water. All of it being time wasted. “Do that favor for me and I’ll consider your request.”

Like most men, he couldn’t keep his eyes on her face. They kept flicking down to her belt where the .45 auto rested in its holster. He twitched something like a nod and she smiled for him. “Good man,” Michelle assured him coolly, taking her weight off the table with another creak. It coincided almost perfectly with the whining pitch from the computer against the far wall. Three flat screens glowed serenely in the dark, but only one had the flashing red box in its center.

“Herr Doktor?” They shared the language, but using it was just another part of her empty hospitality. They both knew she would just as soon be courteous as shoot him. Even so, he accepted her gesture and went to the screens. He tugged idly at the top button on his shirt as he quieted the machine, little displays reflecting in his dingy blue eyes.

“Someone called in for a shooting victim, but the patient is Jacob Smith,” he trailed off, poking at the keys with two or three fingers at a time.

“Look at his description, Dr. Keller.” Her silhouetted finger pointed at the report crowded into the bottom left hand corner of the monitor. Nearly seven feet tall, twenty-six years old, hazel eyes, brown hair, a B+ blood type, and a bird tattoo on his back— “How many men like that do you think are being shot tonight, doctor?”

“Not many,” he admitted quietly, wiping his hands on his khaki pants. “Not many at all.”

“Send me the address,” she ordered and turned from the room. Her cell phone was in her hand before she was through the door, texting the signal to the few allies she trusted—

o rly

And for the entire walk to the parking garage, her phone buzzed with ‘ya rly’. Except for one text from the gunman under the alias of Noah Brown.

About fucking time!

– – – – – –

A massive brick building with brown overhangs above all the main doors, Second Shore Medical enjoyed its muted tones as much as its sprawling, smoke-free campus. What little difference that made when she could walk right in with a simple change of clothes. Tight jeans and a tan canvas jacket kept suspicion at bay, especially with autumn creeping slowly into New York.

Putting a black lunch bag on the main desk, she asked for a Mr. Jacob Smith. They were friends from college, they shared a literature class. The bright-eyed woman at the desk laughed with Steele over tired jokes and signed her in— Annette Claire. Third level, the sixth door on her left, but he’d be on pain killers. It was fine, Steele said gently, he was always a little out of it.

Conveniently, he was sound asleep when she got into his room. The fake plants pressed into the corners and onto quaint wooden tables tried too hard to make the place seem comfortable. Partly open curtains allowed the early morning sunlight to slide in and rest on the breakfast tray by his bed. He looked at peace there, if only for a moment. The pain killers didn’t seem to be sparing him any.

With a practiced quiet, Steele took out a refillable plastic bottle, some sports logo plastered on the side, and moved to his bedside. The water falling into his glass made more noise. But he didn’t blink, didn’t move, for another half hour.

It bought her time to go to her safehouse, remove the disguise, and change location again before turning on the morning news.

“—Medical Center, a male patient dies through food poisoning. Meanwhile, gas prices double overnight in Florida and the scandal of Dr. Daniel Bell, an economics professor from Cornell University, causes a stir among incoming students.” It was the same line-up from every news broadcast, but this carried special meaning for Steele.

She propped her black boots up on the glass end table and indulged in the best box mix pancakes she knew— Bisquick. With strawberries, cream, and syrup, it was shaping up to be her best morning in years.

“The patient arrived at Sound Shore Medical Center last evening at 11 p.m. with a bullet wound in his right arm. His doctors initially decided to keep him overnight to prevent infection, but would he have been better off at home? In the middle of his breakfast, Mr. Jacob Smith lapsed into respiratory paralysis and died in a matter of minutes. Hospital officials say—”

Her phone buzzed on the coffee table with a text from Noah Brown.

Way to go, Steele! That’s what I call style.


© 2017 Jam Blute, All Rights Reserved.

Your Memories

OC: Balder Holt
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He had his mark. Randa Boulos. 37 years old, deceptively muscular despite a curvy frame, and well connected. A scientist in Leader’s employ for five years, Randa dropped off the radar at the same time as certain secure files. She had a safe house in Boston, where she could conceal herself in a crowd. His studio, rented under a false name, was in the building across from hers and one level higher. He smiled, however slight. Nothing was safe from Leader. Not for long.

“Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran played on the radio and a YouTube video of vacuuming played over that. He had an alarm to remind him to change the audio to a shower in 15 minutes. Balder was to maintain the illusion of a regular resident until the mole had revealed her employers, a task he’d been familiar with for years but remained easier with T class units present. Despite their militant attributes, the T class had a childlike nature that allowed them to more easily mimic standard living. Singing along, ordering out, and talking to neighbors. Being that this was a covert operation, those practices were unacceptable and Balder was assigned on his own.

The small light mounted on his scope blinked, indicating detected motion in her apartment. He leaned forward, seeing her enter with a paper bag in one arm and a bag strap over her shoulder. She was missing the laptop bag she left with, the one he’d planted a tracker in. Sitting back, he took out his phone and messaged Leader’s aide, Ms. Temple, through an encrypted connection.

‘The bait was taken.’

Seen immediately. A few seconds reading that notice that she was typing before he got his orders.

‘Get a new supplier.’

Having seen it was all he needed. Balder ended the YouTube video, and the radio had an auto shut-off feature. This place would remain in Leader’s possession for some time before his connections could be sure it wouldn’t trace back to him. They were thorough in their fields, and so was he. Nothing would remain of her.

(Skipping the fight scene for gore reasons.)

Breathing steadily and deeply, he stood from what remained of Randa. Her clothes and sunglasses sat heaped beside the messenger bag she entered with. Balder knelt to retrieve the bag, but instead found himself searching her pockets. A rumpled ticket to the train, discarded; two pennies and a dime, discarded; her wallet… And he stopped, dropping the khakis to the floor. He opened the wallet, noticing an image inside a clear pocket immediately.

“Who carries pictures, Randa?” His voice seemed distant, foreign, and raspy from disuse. A boy and a preteen girl smiled out, trophies in hand. He wore a dress shirt, vest, and bowtie, and the test tube trophy had a plaque reading Science Fair – 2nd Place. In her uniform with a sparring weapon and a badge rather than trophy, he assumed she fell in third place at her competition. “A niece and nephew?”

Randa was unmarried and single, but that meant nothing. Leader was those as well, and he had hundreds of descendents as well as two direct clones. Both dormant, but the fact remained. He removed the picture to review it again, turning it over once he was done. The back revealed nothing. Balder didn’t know her well enough to determine anything from the image other than the two in it were siblings. They loved her, and she treasured them.

“I-” He’d seen this said in the movies they were permitted to watch in their free community time. “I am sorry. May you rest in peace.” Balder stood for a final time, the bag on his shoulder and the picture in the inner chest pocket of his jacket. He walked out to the city’s nighttime streets where an unassuming taxi waited for him. It would carry him to the first stop of many on an intricate trail home. To Leader, Ms. Temple, the other class units, Yua, and the memoir box beneath his bed. The lid closed snugly after the memento from his previous assignment – a locket with a single black and white image inside.

He would need a new box before his next mark.

– – –

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© Jam Blute, 2017

School Starts Challenge: New Beginnings

This was made for the School Starts challenge on the O.C. Amino, and I hope you enjoy it! The OC is Balder Holt.

To see more content like this regularly, please support me on Patreon.

– – –

“Welcome to the Eastern Institute of Technology, Balder,” the assistant said, her smile warming in the afternoon sun filtering through arched windows. The central hallway of his dorm building, he assumed.

Rich, redwood doorframes set in regal patterned wallpaper, a stately grandfather clock, and ample seating at regular intervals. Large French doors at either end of the hallway and four rooms leading off the hallway as well. Try as he might to form an opinion on the place, he could only think of how many exits there were, and how accessible they would be.

“I understand this must all feel very new to you, but I’m always here if you have any questions.” He turned to face her instead of the doors at the other end of the hall. Her graying amber-blonde braid hung over her shoulder as she tilted her head to meet his gaze behind the sunglasses.

“A map of the building,” he said, intending to ask for one.

“Oh, it’s…” She pointed to the folder in his arms, a deep green like the school flag hanging outside. “Left pocket, first page, I believe.”

“I see.” So he would make note of the ideal escape routes and combat tactics later. Better to be prepared than caught off guard. Balder adjusted his tie for the third time that hour but felt no less stifled by it. But it was the uniform, and those were the rules of the Lead– Headmistress. Headmistress. “Let’s continue.”

“Alright then,” she chimed, straightening her posture and walking up the stairs with familiar ease. Her hand slid over the railing, fair skin over dark wood and a modest gold band on her left ring finger. He wondered what her home life was like, imagining a calm, loving family. Having picnics. Planning movie nights.

And with a short, sharp breath, he re-centered on the present.

“This is your dorm building, all boys of course, and you’ll be off to the left here,” she chirped, turning on a heel toward the left hallway. “Room 214 A. Now I know you requested first floor, but this was all quite sudden, and I’m afraid this was the best we could do.” She took out the key, bronze with a circular handle and hanging from a thin metal ring, and opened the door.

“But see, it’s right next to the stairs! This is the next best thing, and we do appreciate you being so understanding.” If anything, this was better. Not so close to the door that he could be surprised by an intruder, but close enough that he could access most main areas of the building with ease.

He stood beside her and the doorway, looking into the small room. A single twin bed, another accommodation made for him. The bed was bare save for his luggage, pre-delivered as arranged with the school, and the desk sat empty. Dark blue curtains hung over the window, parted as the sun set on the campus. A piece of broad green expanse in the midst of a bustling city on the ocean.

“And you simply must love this view, don’t you? Quite lucky! Oh, here,” she offered, holding out the key. He took it gingerly, turning it over in his hand. So small, even for a key. He’d never had a locking room before.

“Now,” she began, tapping the key in his hand, “Campus Security does have a spare for emergencies, but they’ll never use it otherwise. And if you lose your key, they’ll make you a copy for $20. You can charge that to your school account, of course.”

“Confirmed,” he replied. Her eyes widened for a moment. She was afraid? …No, surprised. Her expression softened to compassion, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes smoothing out as her smile fell. He put the key into his pocket, trying to avoid her eyes. Balder cleared his throat. “Understood, ma’am.”

“Oh, just Ellen, please.” She shook her head, her smile returning. “I’ll be your case manager, so you can call me if you need anything. You do have my number, don’t you?” He nodded once, sharply, and she let out a contented breath. “Ah, there is just one more thing I need from you, Balder.”

He drew himself up, taken aback. One more thing? He wore their uniform, held their documentation in hand, and it was his understanding that assignments would be distributed after the first day of train– classes. What could he have missed?

She held out her hand, the compassion returning to her large, hazel eyes. “Your sunglasses, please.”

“My–” His breath caught, brows furrowing. He took a step back and set the folder down on the desk. “Is this an order?”

“No, Balder.” Firm, but a tenderness to her words that stuck to him like barbs. Why did her concern hurt? “But those… They are from your time as a child soldier, are they not?” His heartbeat picked up in his chest, resonating through his limbs. “Do you think it wise to keep them, knowing what they represent to you?”

He was being asked his opinion. This was his choice. Sweat lined his palms already, but a cool stillness lodged in his chest. What was this feeling? Balder reached up for the arm of the glasses, leaving his eyes closed as he slipped the sunglasses off his face.

When he did open his eyes, he stared at the glasses in his hand. “I was not designed for this, Ellen.”

She rested her hands beneath his, cupping his fingers gently. Her skin was soft, more practiced with books than with brutality. Not like his. “No one was truly designed for anything, Balder. Every step in life is a choice, a new beginning. Should you be ready to take it.”

He felt his eyes turning to her, resting on her face for what seemed like the first time. The golden sunlight catching the silvery streaks in her hair, bronzing the brown flecks in her eyes, and adding a radiance to her. The chill left his body, and the stillness remained in its place. Perhaps this was comfort.

“And there is no shame in not being ready. Take your time,” she advised, closing his hand around the glasses. “And know you always have someone to turn to, Balder.” She moved towards the hallway, pausing before she closed the door. “Your first class is in the Franklin building at 9:00 am tomorrow, don’t forget!” She gave a light, graceful wave as she left, the door clicking shut behind her.

Several minutes passed after her short heels thumped down the stairs, and Balder remained as he was when she left. “A choice,” he breathed to himself. “I have a choice.”

He opened the shallow middle drawer of the desk, leaving the sunglasses inside. He was Balder Holt, freshman at the Eastern Institute of Technology. This was his new beginning.

– – –

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– – –

© Jam Blute, 2017

They Are Children

She often wondered… What had crossed her mind, saving these children she’d helped to create. Rather, to destroy. Tenenbaum’s life had led her many places, through many trials. Never would she have believed that she might protect these children.

Collect beds and toys, defend their sanctuary from Splicers, and build them a home. Their home to share together.

“Miss Tenenbaum,” one of the girls pleaded, reaching for her from beyond the window of her secluded office. All that she’d done to them, and what little she could manage for them in this corpse of a city… She was all they had, as they were all she had. Still, Tenenbaum struggled to handle their affection.

“Yes, child?” She had developed a softer tone for them over time. Almost maternal. Long ago, or what seemed so long ago, this change might have scared or disgusted her. Just as these girls once had.

“Will you please tell us a story?” Her sisters echoed this request in a chorus of chatter, nearly indistinguishable for their number. So many to watch and care for, and yet so few.

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Fontaine and madness held this city, and it was all she could do to protect these girls. Perhaps, someday, when Fontaine made his next move… The man was ambitious and brilliant, but proud. Too proud. The boy may not act as he anticipated. She knew his progress under Suchong, and he did not want to be the monster they were making.

…But that was not a story these girls needed to know. Tenenbaum twisted her cigarette into the ash tray on her desk, setting her papers to the side.

“Very well.” And she stood, the girls giggling and forming a half circle around the wheelchair she stole for them. “One story for you girls, but then I must work.” For her own intellectual stimulation, yes, but also for the boy.

Whether he was a man or a monster, he would be needed to truly free these girls. She helped them all become what they were, and she would save however many she could of them. But alone, she would not be enough.

She sat in the chair, rusted and creaking beneath her as the children’s eyes glowed with delight rather than genetic manipulation. Freedom would be their story next. All of these children. The dawning of their lives must come before the light dims from her own.

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“They are children, Little Sisters, and yes, they will forget. But you and I won’t… The memories of what we have done fade only with the dimming of all lights.”

– Brigid Tenenbaum


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Thank you for reading!

Flash Friday

Time was a figment in a lab. Talia stood between an office chair and the stainless steel table, files stacked in neat piles and samples in vertical racks. The clock on the wall read 23:09, but the lights above held a steady morning glow.
She ran a hand through her cropped hair and set back to work. Dr. Folante had done thorough research in expansive studies. Years passed with subjects entering, sometimes fading, all before Talia could catch up.

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[Copyrighted © February 5, 2016, Jam Blute]

Flash Friday

It’s kind of a sad story, but there’s a pet bird in it. Silver lining.
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This stretch of city, tight and dark, was home to people like Runt. He blended in with a worn sack over one shoulder and a carrier’s “uniform”. None of them were ever truly the same, but there were enough common elements to make it close enough. Dirt stains spotted his clothing, which was padded in places for a fight-or-flight situation, and Runt never went without a hidden knife or two.

Or three.

He traversed knotted alleyways with native familiarity, winding up in the peddler’s stretch. Some good wares, some hot, and it was a task to tell the difference. Mess up, and you’d disappear with the real thief.

But he knew a guy, as Runt always did, and he wove through the crowd to a covered cluster of tables and barrels. Suo had done well for herself, scraping by to finally settle in peddler’s stretch. The fog of incense floated around her stand, and Runt crossed through it on his way in.

“Suo,” he greeted as he reached the back, and a gaunt man locked his sunken eyes on him immediately. He was tall, lankly, and his shirt hung loose from his scratched up neck. He sat where Suo normally perched on her table, chittering to her bird.

“What you on about? Shop or leave.” The man’s watery eyes fixed on Runt, waiting. To his right, Suo’s bird squawked inside a cage, pecking at the bars. People came and went in this city, here more than ever. Happened dozens of times to friends and strangers alike.

He wondered what this man framed her for, or what bribe he accepted. Might be just this shop she fought so hard for, a gathering of tables and everything Suo made herself. Not anymore, obviously.

Runt nodded to the bird. “How much?”
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[Copyrighted © January 29, 2016, Jam Blute]