All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Ina stepped on another jagged fallen branch, tearing what little remained of her stockings farther into shreds.

She had lost her shoes in the lake rescuing Mabel, and she hadn’t even realized it until she started carrying the child home. Although Mabel’s family lived very close by, Ina was starting to feel as if she had been walking forever on scratched and bruised feet. No, it had been only a few minutes, she told herself sternly, and she could manage a few more.

Staggering under the young girl’s weight, Ina flinched when a green snake passed in front of her. She couldn’t see it clearly in the long grass. Most snakes are harmless, Ina told herself as she took another step, repeating the words as if they were a calming mantra in her morning meditations. Still, she was glad when the snake slithered out of sight into a tall stand of cattails.

(Photo credit: Jason Dean)

The storm had blown through quickly, and the humid air of early June felt heavy and warm. Wild roses, thick with blooms, gave the meadow a pleasant fragrance that Ina would have appreciated much more if she hadn’t been so focused on avoiding their thorns. The hem of her sodden dress kept getting caught; she’d torn it in several places already. Just one more step now, she told herself, trudging along with her head down. And another step.

When she looked farther ahead for a moment, the little cabin where Mabel’s family lived was much closer. Perhaps Nellie, looking to see where her daughter had gotten to, would notice Ina struggling under the child’s weight and come running to help. Then she would understand Ina wasn’t evil after all, and whatever grudges she might have held would be set aside.

Having distracted herself with a fantasy in which the villagers all shed their prejudices and lived forever in neighborly peace with the witches of the Wild Forest, Ina didn’t even notice when Nellie stepped out of the cabin. It wasn’t until the woman came rushing toward her, with something held high overhead, that Ina snapped back to reality.

“What are you doing with my daughter, you horrible witch!”

Ina blinked, not quite believing what she saw. Yes, that really was a rolling pin that Nellie was brandishing. It was still white with flour from the apricot scones Mabel had mentioned.

Dropping to her knees, Ina very carefully set the little girl down in the grass. Then she backed away a few steps, taking just as much care to maintain a calm and unthreatening appearance. Once, in the forest, she had come too close to a wolf den and had been delighted to see the tiny cubs at play, until she’d realized her peril a moment later and stepped cautiously away. She’d learned not to frighten wild creatures or to get between them and their young; and sometimes people, she thought, weren’t all that much different.

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

Dragons wheeled and dove in a clear sky, their mouths open as if screaming in anger, but producing neither sound nor flame. Following the flight of the nearest, I turned my head to the left, and something crinkled under my ear. I was just lucid enough to notice it wasn’t a pillow as the dream faded. The thick fur that had been put over me wasn’t exactly a blanket, either.

I sat up, finding myself still on the bearskin (or whatever kind of animal it was) rug in the cabin where I had fallen asleep. Embers still flickered in the grate, but there wasn’t much heat or light, either from the banked fire or from the sun coming through dirty windows. On second glance, the windows were not only quite dirty, but looked as if the streaked and yellowed glass might be hundreds of years old.

When I became uncomfortably aware of bodily needs, that didn’t come as a surprise after last night’s rodent stew dinner. The cabin evidently had no plumbing, and I didn’t see anything that might be intended as a chamber pot. Presumably Ira, being a Sasquatch or caveman or whatever, didn’t mind going outdoors in any weather when nature called.

With a sigh, I reached for my shoes and started putting them on. Ira, who was sitting at the table sewing some kind of white fur garment with a bone needle, gave me an inquiring look.

“I was just looking for a toilet,” I muttered, feeling rather foolish.

After that uncreative sentence came out of my mouth, I realized that I hadn’t been speaking in English. The words rumbled in my throat like Ira’s mysterious chanting yesterday.

Putting aside his sewing, Ira obligingly opened the door, gesturing toward a line of tall conifers just past the snowy clearing. He replied calmly in the same language. “The necessary is over there, behind those trees.”

Photo of trees in winter.

Taking that to mean an outhouse, I stepped onto the porch, shivering a little in the wintery chill. It wasn’t nearly as cold as last night, though. The wind had died down, and the snow was already starting to melt in the midmorning sun. Slush splattered over my shoes.

Had I really slept that long, or were the nights here shorter than on Earth? A warbling melody interrupted my thoughts, and I saw what might have been a flutter of wings behind the nearest tree. No birds were in sight, however, when I found the narrow path into the woods.

Unfortunately, there was nothing as civilized as an outhouse. There was only a shallow trench, half filled in. A heap of dry leaves, some loose dirt, and a rusty shovel provided the bare minimum for sanitation. Not having any better alternatives, I did my business and shoveled some dirt over it. With a little luck, the makeshift T.P. wouldn’t turn out to be the local equivalent of poison ivy.

Turning back toward the cabin, I considered what I was going to say to Ira, now that he had contrived for me to speak his language. If Ira had anything to do with the sorcery that had literally snatched me out of my world, then it was high time he started explaining himself.

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

While Ira washed the dishes, I took off my shoes and folded my dragon-protective suit into a neat rectangle. It made a reasonably comfortable pillow on the rug in front of the fireplace. I stretched, yawned, and listened to the cozy sound of the flames crackling as I watched Ira put the dishes away.

My self-preservation instincts nagged me again that I’d better stay on my guard. After all, this cabin wasn’t a vacation resort; it was an oddly oversized building on a strange planet, currently occupied by my Sasquatch host and whatever small creatures were squeaking in the rafters. For all I knew, they might be vampire bats, just waiting for me to doze off before they pounced.

I couldn’t muster enough energy to do more than turn my head, following Ira with my gaze as he opened another box. He carefully removed a book that looked ancient, with discolored pages. On top of the book, a bright pink flower had a weirdly lifelike appearance, as if it had just been picked.

Image of an old book with a pink flower on top.

(Image credit: The Graphics Fairy)

Setting the flower back down in the box, Ira carried the book toward the firelight. He thumbed slowly through the pages, holding the book wide enough that I could see it wasn’t in any alphabet I recognized. Neat vertical columns filled the pages.

When he found his place, Ira began reciting the words in a slow, measured tone, moving a thick finger beside the letters as if he wasn’t much in the habit of reading. His voice felt soothing to me, although I couldn’t understand the words. After a minute or so, though, I started to pick up a few flickers of meaning. One word that he repeated three times sounded as if it meant “stranger,” and I understood another word as meaning “magic.”

At that point, the warnings at the back of my mind turned into clanging alarm bells. I had come to this world through what I’d been told was a sorcerers’ portal, which meant it was a reasonable assumption that there were sorcerers in the vicinity. And, of course, sorcerers had spellbooks. Ergo, Ira was casting a spell on me.

Before I could collect my muddled wits enough to decide what to do about it, the spell took effect, and I fell soundly asleep by the fireplace.

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

I hadn’t been walking much more than ten minutes before I saw a cabin through the trees, but by then it was nearly full dark. The two moons, which had taken on a greenish hue after sunset, had risen enough that they no longer seemed perilously close. Their light helped me to stay on the path when Ira, with his much longer stride, got well ahead of me with his lantern. Snow had started falling and already coated the frozen ground near the cabin, where the trees were sparse.

Photo of a snowy cabin at night with a greenish sky.

(Photo credit: US Bureau of Land Management)

The word “cabin” seemed to suit Ira’s house because it was a simple wooden building with the dimensions and general appearance of a hunter’s cabin, although sized for giants. The doorknob, which was barely within my reach with raised arms, came to shoulder height on Ira’s sturdy Sasquatch-like body, leaving me to wonder what sort of people might have lived here originally.

Inside, the cabin felt wonderfully warm after my sojourn in the frigid woods. A fire burned brightly in the large stone hearth across from the door, and a stewpot hanging above it gave off an enticing aroma. I hadn’t eaten since grabbing a quick breakfast at the Bucharest airport in what seemed like another lifetime, and I sternly reminded myself that I’d better keep my focus on looking for potential dangers.

Nothing looked ominous when I surveyed the one-room cabin. The furniture, all made of wood, consisted only of a table, two chairs, and a footstool. Boxes of various sizes were scattered along the walls. A rug covering the floorboards by the fireplace was the pelt of a large animal I might have taken for a brown bear, except that its paws were absurdly oversized and had seven toes. In a corner, another rug on a raised platform apparently served as Ira’s bed. It all looked spartan in the extreme. I heard squeaks and flapping wings from somewhere far above in the darkness of the rafters, but otherwise there seemed to be nothing of concern. Walking across the room, I held out my hands to the fire’s cheery blaze, trying to get some warmth back into my icy fingers.

Ira picked up one of the smaller boxes and the footstool, setting them down next to me and gesturing for me to sit on the box. When I did so, the footstool came to a reasonable height for a small table. Rustling around in the other boxes, Ira took out two chipped ceramic bowls with mismatched patterns, two dented metal spoons, and a ladle that I thought at first might be a shovel. I brushed some dried mud off my makeshift table while Ira ladled stew into the bowls.

When he put a bowl in front of me, steam rose from the bubbling stew in the firelight. Mushrooms were recognizable, and there were chunks of a red root vegetable that looked like beets, along with the mystery meat. No, rodent meat, I corrected myself, noticing part of a tail. Doing my best to look on the bright side, that at least meant Ira probably wasn’t a cannibal.

I hadn’t quite gotten up enough gumption to start eating my big helping of alien rodent stew when Ira, now seated at the table, spoke. Although he was looking directly at me, his voice had the cadence of a ritual chant. Guessing that he might be saying grace, I stayed still, politely waiting for him to finish. Not having grown up in a religious family, I then mumbled awkwardly, “God is good, bless this food, amen.” I picked up my spoon and silently added a more fervent prayer that it wouldn’t kill me.

Ira’s chant had left me feeling calmer, though, as if his words—even though I couldn’t understand them—had somehow brought peace to the cabin. I managed to relax enough to eat the stew like it was an ordinary meal. It didn’t taste half bad, honestly. I wasn’t adventurous enough to eat the tail, however, and left it at the bottom of the bowl. So that Ira wouldn’t feel insulted, I rubbed my belly and let out a loud belch to make clear that my skinny little body had been very well fed.

Chuckling, Ira gathered up the remains of the meal, took a pail of hot water from the hearth, and poured some water into a basin to wash the dishes. The familiarity of that simple chore left me, for just a moment, nearly forgetting that he wasn’t human.

All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

The lake wasn’t very deep where Mabel had fallen from the tree. Ina could stand up easily; the water didn’t quite reach her shoulders. It was murky enough that she couldn’t see the bottom, however, and rain had started to fall. She looked for bubbles or other disturbances, but none were apparent.

Photo of rain falling on a lake.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Mabel couldn’t be far away, but Ina’s foot touched nothing when she swept it in a broad circle. Taking a deep breath, Ina plunged under the water, reaching more widely around herself. Still nothing, and below the surface it was literally too dark to see her hand in front of her face.

With burning lungs, Ina came up for air. She blinked the muddy water out of her eyes and looked again, feeling increasingly frantic; still, there were no bubbles nearby. Was Mabel dead already? Had Ina failed, yet again, incapable of something as simple as finding a little girl who surely had to be right here

A voice spoke in her thoughts—Mother Ocean, from a lesson months ago.

“Ina, close your eyes. What do you see?”

Forcing herself to shove away the rising panic and take a calming breath, setting an intention on the breath out—let Mabel be safe and well—Ina obediently shut her eyes.

There, just to her left, a tiny pinpoint of life energy. So faint, so terrifyingly faint—but she could feel it. Ina reached down again and touched the soft fabric of Mabel’s dress almost at once. She got her arms around the child’s torso, heaved Mabel over her shoulder, and waded up out of the lake.

The rain was coming down in earnest now, huge sheets of it. Ina set the motionless girl down in the sodden grass. Her hands moved almost on their own, as if they knew what to do without need for guidance from her half-panicked mind. Compressing Mabel’s chest, she forced out a big gush of lake water. Had the child started breathing now, or was that only Ina’s imagination? Her skin was so cold, so pale. It was hard to believe she could still be alive.

The pouring rain hadn’t washed away all of the blood on Mabel’s dress where a sharp branch had pierced her leg. Most of the branch had broken off when Mabel sank into the water, but some was still in there. Ina took hold of the splintered end and tugged it out, feeling a gush of blood over her hands.

That means Mabel is alive, Ina told herself, grasping for a tiny shred of reason. Dead bodies don’t bleed; they don’t have a beating heart to push blood out. Fumbling in her pocket for the cloth sacks she’d been carrying, Ina wrapped one of them around Mabel’s wound, and then another. The blood kept seeping around her fingers, however tightly she held the makeshift bandage in place. Maybe it had slowed, just a little…

“This won’t be enough.”

The voice in Ina’s mind was her own this time, but it held the same certainty as the earlier fragment of memory. Of course, a bandage wouldn’t be enough. Even if the bleeding stopped soon, Mabel was chilled through and half drowned, and her unnaturally pale skin showed that she already had lost a dangerous amount of blood. What she needed was a skilled healer, along with shelter, dry clothing, and warm blankets.

None of which Ina could provide right now. Although Rowan had tried to teach her the ways of healing, she hadn’t made much progress. Healing magic felt beyond her reach—unlike fire magic, which Ina always pictured as dancing joyfully, eager to play. If she could call upon healing magic in the same way, it would leap from her fingertips and dance along the child’s injured leg, sparkling with heat and life.

The bandage took on a sudden warmth under Ina’s hands, though she hadn’t consciously invoked magic. Dissolving into a glowing cloud, it first had the deep red hue of blood, shading almost at once into orange and yellow like a leaping fire. Ina felt the heat going into Mabel’s wound, bringing the torn flesh together and mending the damage. It faded into a pinkish mark like a healing scar, and then the glow moved up Mabel’s body to settle in her chest for a moment before fading away entirely.

Moving her head just a little, the child breathed more deeply and normally, as if asleep. She hadn’t regained consciousness, but her cheeks now held a trace of color. Now, she needed to be gotten out of the rain, without delay. Ina tried to control the storm and make it stop raining, but she couldn’t muster up more than a tiny flicker of magic after so much of her energy had been drawn into the healing work.

Ina still had the normal strength of her body, though, and the cabin where Mabel’s family lived was just across the lake. Carrying the child that distance would be manageable. What to do about her mother, Nellie, who hated witches “more than anything,” might prove more difficult.

One problem at a time, Ina told herself, picking Mabel up again to carry her home.

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

As the lantern came closer through the forest, I couldn’t quite make out who—or what—held it. The shadowy figure loomed above the height of any human; but even so, my best choice seemed to be asking for hospitality, if at all possible. I had no cold-weather gear, and the already-frigid temperature was dropping fast as the sun sank toward the horizon.

Light coming through a forest in the evening.

(Photo credit: Stephen Bowler)

When he came clearly into view—”he” was my best guess as to gender, due to a long and bushy beard—I couldn’t decide whether he looked more like a Sasquatch or a caveman. He wasn’t as much of a giant as the huge door in the tunnel might have led me to expect. Eight feet tall, maybe, and hairy all over like a Sasquatch with caveman-style clothes roughly made from animal pelts.

I figured I’d better hurry up and say something friendly when he held the lantern higher, tilting his head one way and then another, looking baffled to find a scrawny little alien like me suddenly appearing. To give him a better look, I took off my hood, trying—without much success—not to shiver when the wind hit my face.

“Hey there, Sasquatch. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Lovely planet you’ve got.”

Well, maybe it could be called lovely if one were inclined to overlook such minor details as dragons, trolls, and sea serpents. On the plus side, nothing had tried to eat me (yet) in this forest.

I plastered a big smile on my face and then said, “I’m Chris,” pointing toward myself and speaking slowly and distinctly. “Chris.”

My newfound companion beamed delightedly and echoed, in a booming voice, “Cree-iss!” Then he poked me in the chest with a thick, stubby finger—hard enough that I had to brace myself not to stumble backward—and pointed toward his own chest while saying something that sounded like, “Irawaddagummygolly.”

“Glad to meet you, Ira.” I made myself smile even more broadly.

I was pretty sure he hadn’t understood a word I’d said, but he seemed willing to offer hospitality anyway when he turned back the way he’d come, gesturing for me to follow. By then, it had gotten dark enough that I had to focus on making my way carefully through the trees as I trailed along behind him. That was just as well because it distracted me from thinking about other possibilities, such as that Ira might be a cannibal with plans to roast me for his dinner.

I shivered again and told myself, firmly, that it was just from the cold.

All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

“Witch!”

Ina had tensed to run before she consciously knew it. The voice had come from somewhere on her right, high and excited. Had a mob gathered to attack her already, in just the few moments she had been standing here in open view?

Turning, she saw only the high grass and bright wildflowers of the meadow. Bees buzzed placidly among the tall blossoms of purple clover. The lake spread out beyond, its muddy surface rippling in a steady southwest wind. Sycamores along the shore reached spidery branches over the water.

Photo of sycamore branches reaching into an overcast sky.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The branches swayed in the wind, in harmony with the lake’s ripples—but no, farther up in the canopy, a limb shook more vigorously. A small head came into view, framed by rustling branches.

“Hello, witch!” The little girl gave a cheerful wave, leaning out precariously along a quivering branch. Ina recognized her at once; this was Nellie’s daughter, Mabel. The child had been the first person Ina had met, right here in this meadow, almost a year ago when…

“Mama is baking apricot scones. My favorite!” Mabel announced, distracting Ina from a memory that teased at the ragged edges of thought. “We have enough to share. Come and visit with us!”

Ina fumbled for words, pondering how she might give a kind refusal without telling this innocent child her mama would more likely try to kill a witch than offer hospitality.

Without waiting for a reply, Mabel dropped quickly from one branch to another, the pace of her descent quite alarming. The wind gusted, shaking the tree even more; it wouldn’t be long at all before the approaching storm arrived.

“Be careful,” Ina started to say—just as Mabel lost her grip and fell.

The sycamore overhung the lake there, on a slight rise. Mabel had climbed down enough that she wasn’t far above the water. Ina expected to hear a splash as the child fell below the level of the bank, just out of her view. Instead, she heard a thud, followed by a scream of equal parts terror and pain.

The scream continued as Ina ran toward the lake. Just beyond the bank, a large dead tree limb, with several smaller branches attached to it, jutted out of the water. Mabel had fallen directly onto it, impaling her right leg on a spiky branch. A frightening amount of blood had soaked through the little girl’s skirt in just the short time it had taken Ina to run across the meadow.

Then, with a sharp crack, the branch broke, throwing Mabel into the lake. The scream stopped abruptly as the child sank beneath the rippling surface. A moment later, nothing but a few bubbles could be seen.

Ina, keeping her eyes fixed on the spot, flung herself into the water.

All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Birdsong, the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle, and a cool breeze came through the spacious windows of the infirmary. The hazy morning light and humid air spoke of an approaching storm. Ina tried to clear her mind, focusing only on the rhythm of her breath and the healing energy that was supposed to be coursing through her hands, but was nowhere to be found. Her gaze drifted up to the window again.

Photo of honeysuckle in bloom.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Ina sat in a wooden chair beside a cot where Phoenix rested in a comfortable nest of pillows and blankets, with the broken left leg neatly splinted. Rowan bustled about at a nearby table, assembling ingredients for herbal medicines. Bright flashes of red from the healer’s long dress danced at the edge of Ina’s vision, and the hem swished softly over the stone floor.

Breathe, Ina told herself again, closing her eyes and trying to block out all thoughts of how Phoenix had been injured two days ago, chased by a mob of ignorant, murderous villagers. Phoenix had done nothing to deserve such hate; she was a gentle soul, whose fragmented memories of long-ago abuse made the villagers’ cruelty even more unforgivable. No, stop thinking about it, and just breathe.

“Your anger is blocking the flow of life energy.” Rowan’s voice came from directly behind Ina’s chair. Opening her eyes, Ina looked down at her hands, hovering uselessly above the injured leg she had been trying to heal. She felt no energy at all flowing through them. This had been a complete waste of time. She could never be an intuitive healer like Rowan.

“Let it go.” Rowan spoke softly, and Ina felt a surge of warming energy as her shoulders relaxed under Rowan’s gentle touch. She hadn’t even realized how tight they had been.

Ina let her hands fell into her lap, inert and defeated. “I really did try. Being a healer just isn’t…”

“Enough of such talk.” Rowan reached down to pick up several rough cloth sacks from a basket under the table. “Here, take these and go out gathering. We have a few hours before the storm blows in.”

Ina stood up, taking the sacks by rote as she tried to make sense of this sudden change of instructions. “What do you want me to gather? Are we short of any herbs in particular?”

Rowan smiled as Ina put the folded sacks into the deep pockets of her dress. “Let Nature be your guide today, Ina. The forest is full of abundance, as is Mother Earth herself. Your task for now is to let yourself accept the truth of it.”

Leaving the compound through a small side gate, which was starting to get overgrown with thorny shoots of wild blackberries in flower, Ina had to admit she wasn’t in an accepting mood. One of the brambles caught her sleeve, and she stepped in a pile of rabbit dung while getting herself untangled. Whatever Nature might be showing her today, Ina wasn’t finding much of use in it.

She made her way aimlessly through the familiar paths of the forest, noticing a fallen tree here and a trickle of water over mossy rocks there, but feeling no sense of direction. After a while, the path narrowed, winding through dense trees and granite boulders that Ina thought she had seen before, although she wasn’t entirely sure when she had been here. Stepping between two huge pines, she found herself in a meadow overlooking a wide lake, with a log cabin on the far shore.

Yes, she recognized this place. The cabin belonged to Nellie, one of the leaders of the mob that had chased Phoenix, screaming of hate and killing—but who also had spoken kindly to Ina, long ago. How had that happened? Sifting through memories that felt fuzzy and jumbled, Ina plucked one clear thread: she had followed Nellie’s little girl, Mabel, around the lake to the cabin, early in the morning of the summer solstice. She had told Nellie she’d lost her way in the woods, but that hadn’t been true. Even now, almost a year later, the meadow still vibrated with the echoes of strong magic.

Ina heard her own voice, clear and certain, before she realized she had spoken aloud.

“This was where it happened.”

This is Part 24; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.

Like the soft clouds over the California mountains, reflecting fragments of sunlight, the moment seemed bright with possibility. Mark knew better than to reach beyond it, though. Imagined futures, tiny and fragile, had to be held lightly in his mind’s grasp. They could fall away in sparkling drops of condensation at any moment, remaking themselves into different patterns.

A light breeze from the south carried the scents of wildflowers and meadow grass. In the corner of his gaze, wisps of blonde hair fluttered. Mark was resting comfortably on a blue fleece blanket, his head pillowed on the backpack in which he’d carried the blanket up the trail. Joanne sat next to him, talking in animated tones about her classes and her career plans. A bird twittered in a nearby stand of bottle brush, joining the conversation.

Girlfriend. The word felt fragile, impermanent—as if looking at it too closely in his thoughts might make it dissipate, burned away like the morning’s fog.

“I wonder if I’ll want to change my name when I become a TV show host?” Joanne took a sip from a pink plastic water bottle. “Although most people have no idea how to spell Dzeko, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at Mika Brzezinski—nobody can spell her name, but that only makes her more memorable. So, I don’t know. What do you think would be a good name for me if I decided to change it?”

The sun glinting from strands of her hair made it look like ropes of infinitely tiny jewels strung together by an alchemist’s hand.

“Joanne Diamond.” The imaginary white and yellow crystals in Mark’s thoughts vibrated in perfect resonance with each syllable as he spoke. “Joanne Topaz.”

The water bottle gleamed dully as Joanne set it down at the edge of the blanket. Its bubble-gum hue clashed weirdly with the bright red tufts of bottle brush waving in the breeze.

Looking at her prosthetic hand, Joanne gave a shrug that Mark couldn’t interpret. “Or maybe I could go with Joanne Cyborg.”

Mark had the impression she didn’t really want him to agree with that, but he had no idea how to respond. Had he said something wrong? Was she unhappy with him for reasons he couldn’t understand? Maybe he had somehow reminded her of long-ago bad memories without meaning to do it.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, not knowing what else would do. The bottle brush waved mockingly at the edge of his peripheral vision as he tried to keep his focus on Joanne’s face.

“You don’t need to be. When I lost my hand, I was so young that I don’t remember it. Back then, my parents were antivaxxers; they believed all those conspiracy theories about vaccines on the Internet. I caught meningitis as a toddler, and my hand had to be amputated. My parents blamed themselves and felt much worse about it than I ever did. That’s why they always give me so much now. They’re not really as rich as you might think.”

Joanne glanced away for a moment, toward the trail they’d hiked up—and beyond it, the parking lot at the base of the foothills. At that distance, her new sports car was a tiny red dot. Mark hadn’t in fact spent any time thinking about whether her parents were rich, but he did like the car. It felt powerful, capable of making its way through the world regardless of obstacles, like Joanne herself.

“I think I’ll keep my name. I like being memorable and a bit of a challenge.” Joanne smiled, bright, joyful, sparkling with life; and Mark felt as a certainty that he had been forgiven his unknown transgressions, should any forgiveness be needed.

Girlfriend. The word still shimmered at the edges, as if it might suddenly wink out of existence; but it was starting to feel just a little more solid.

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

The icy wilderness beyond the oversized door looked eerily empty. It wasn’t altogether devoid of life; a few scrawny conifers clung to the rocky slopes on either side of a frozen lake, but I saw no animals or birds. Sunlight brightened the scene but gave little warmth.

frozen lake and rocks

I didn’t see any sign of dragons, either, which was one advantage of suddenly finding myself in a bitterly cold wasteland. Dragons, like all reptiles, preferred warm climates. Still, if I froze to death here, it wouldn’t matter that nothing was trying to eat me.

Going back the way I came wasn’t in the cards, though; not with dragons and sea serpents in the way, and of course I had no clue how to reopen the portal to my own world even if I could reach it. Lacking any other choice but to go forward, I let the big door swing shut behind me, but not until after I checked to make sure the knob would turn from this side. No sense locking myself out when I had no idea what I’d find here.

I took off the hood of my fire suit to get a better view of the landscape without the visor. Looking up, I saw no flickering magical portals anywhere, which didn’t surprise me. After all, nothing was ever that easy. I did see two blood-red moons that hung near the horizon, both large enough to give the unsettling impression that they might fall out of the sky at any moment. The sun was low enough that it didn’t look like I could walk far without losing the daylight.

The cold wind in my face was strangely constant, without lulls or gusts. It smelled of ice and rock, with maybe a trace of woodsy scent from the trees, but that was more likely my imagination. Putting my hood back on so I wouldn’t lose too much body heat, I decided to start walking to my right, toward the setting sun. If I didn’t find shelter in that direction soon, then I’d have to turn around and come back here. The hard stone of the passageway inside the door wouldn’t be the most comfortable place to sleep, but it definitely beat freezing in the open air.

I picked my way carefully along the rocky shore, feeling very thankful for my sturdy shoes. A clump of conifers nearby offered a windbreak and more level ground, so I headed toward it. There were no paths, which suggested that no predators were likely to be lurking, but I kept a close watch anyway.

After a while, the trees grew more densely. Calling them a forest would still have been a stretch, but they could at least pass muster for a respectable woods, of the sort that lakeshore cabins back home in Tennessee might’ve had. The sun was just about to sink below them, which would have been my cue to turn around, when I saw the bright glow of a lantern through the trees.