This is the 12th story in a series. Click here to read all parts from the beginning.

My feet dangled like a small child’s from the oversized chair when I sat at the table to chop vegetables for Ira’s stewpot. He had given me an odd choice of knives: most were crudely made from bone or obsidian, but one looked like stainless steel, with a cracked and discolored plastic handle. I took a bone knife because it was the smallest.

Even more incongruous was the dainty floral-pattern teacup, complete with saucer, in which Ira had poured me some hot cider. Taller than a beer mug—and with a noticeable amount of alcohol in the contents—it sat on the table next to the rough wooden platter that held the veggies.

Teacup and saucer with a blue floral pattern.

I didn’t mind helping to get dinner started, especially since Ira had given himself the much nastier rat-butchering chore. He was sitting on the front steps—out of my sight, thankfully—and whistling like it didn’t bother him at all.

Another swig of the cider gave me enough courage, or perhaps foolishness, to start questioning him about what the heck was going on here.

“So, Ira,” I began, as cheerfully as I could manage under the circumstances, “how did you learn to be a sorcerer?”

The whistling stopped, and something landed in Ira’s bucket with an icky splat.

“My mother taught me to read the ancient runes. But we have no more sorcerers; they left our world long ago. My spellbook has simple household charms, such as for preserving flowers and vegetables.”

Just my luck, I thought, as I picked up another lumpy vegetable that did indeed seem to be unnaturally well preserved. I could’ve used a powerful sorcerer to send me home, but it looked like what I got instead was a Sasquatch script kiddie.

“Magically teaching me your language in my sleep was more than just ordinary household stuff,” I observed, not quite ready to give up on the possibility. “Does your book have any spells for traveling to other worlds?”

“No. Most of the spells are simple and practical, as I said. There are a few—such as the language spell, and the friendship charm that I spoke over yesterday’s dinner—that once were useful but now have little value. They came from a time when my people lived in great cities, speaking different languages and often going to war. Now, because of the curse, we are few, and the old languages have mostly been forgotten. I never had occasion to use the language spell before last night.”

I chewed on that answer for about a minute (along with a thick glob of fruit peel in the cider) and came to the conclusion I was lucky I hadn’t been turned into a frog by accident. Or an operatic winged rodent. Another of them had just started singing, not far from the door. I was glad Ira didn’t go for his slingshot this time.

“Okay. Can you tell me about the curse?”

“Very long ago, the cities were vast.” Ira’s voice deepened into a storytelling cadence. “The people fought over land and food. Their machines befouled the air and water. Their great boats stripped the seas bare of fish. Left hungry, the dragons destroyed fishing boats, snatched livestock from farms, and set forests ablaze. The people fought back with powerful weapons, but the Last War had no victors. The world was left in ruins, and the sorcerers created portals to escape it. Before they left, the sorcerers cursed us to diminish until we learned how people and dragons both could live in the world.”

Ira carried his bucket inside and dumped the contents into the stewpot, together with my chopped vegetables, some mushrooms, and a pailful of water. He hung the pot over the fireplace and went back outside for wood.

“But I don’t know what the sorcerers might have meant by that,” Ira continued, once he had a good blaze crackling. “The Last War ended long ago. People and dragons have left each other alone for many generations, yet we have not ceased to diminish. The cities still lie in ruins. We scavenge in the rubble like insects. When my mother settled here, she believed that there might be another spellbook hidden in the tunnel under the mountain and that she could learn from it how to break the curse—but she never found it.”

Scowling, Ira stirred the stew with his huge ladle before he turned toward me and spoke again.

“I think it doesn’t exist, and the sorcerers just left us here to die.”

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