Image

Deal 1002: Bears, Armed, Right.

The army was on the march again, kicking up clouds of dust as they moved. They made a flowing brown and black river across the landscape, with occasional glints of copper seen in the bright sun. And, of course, occasional flashes of tooth and claw as well. The eerie thing was that they were very nearly silent as they moved. The did not march in step, or engage in fancy pageantry. And yet, it was clear to any observer that they were highly disciplined and efficient.

Efficient killers too, when it came to that.

But no one who saw the army wanted it to come to that.

They were fully armed and armored, of course. But even if your stripped them of their armor, their natural weapons would overmatch many foes. Add to that layered copper and leather scale vests to protect their just barely more vulnerable areas, and there were few weapons in the five countries that could put a bear in danger.

Count their spear throwers, and there were few armies that would dare face them across a battlefield. Their skilled casters, standing on their hind legs for freedom of motion and using a thrower for leverage could accurately place a spear in a gourd at nearly a half mile’s distance, or with less accuracy but more terror, drop spears indiscriminately well over a mile away. A spear falling silently out of a clear blue sky doesn’t have to be aimed to cause terror, after all.

Their new trick is the work of alchemists. Some of their spears would explode beyond all reason when struck against a hard surface. Only rumors of this had been heard so far, no one outside of their secretive research clan had seen one in action. The rumors themselves could have been the work of a propaganda team, certainly. But true or not, their effect was the same.

Oddly, the Armed Bears did not seem inclined to conquer territory as they moved. And they weren’t foraging as widely as some other armies had either, so the local villagers were swift to recover from their shock and simply watch the wave after wave of bears move by. When they did camp, advance scouts arranged for the use of fallow fields and haybarns, paying in generously in copper, silver, and a little gold as warranted.

But even those who dealt with the scouts were unable to learn where the bears marched towards.

The easy assumption was that they were heading straight to their target, but beyond this land lay a vast desert, and then, or so it was said, the very edge of the world. Surely they weren’t marching off the edge. It was also said that at the far side of the desert was an endless sea, but that reaching it would involve dealing with creatures of dark magic and formidable will. The tales get more strange from there, with most claiming that the sea itself is inhabited by beautiful mermaids who lure any adventurers to their deaths, and by fish larger than any known to exist. But surely those are just stories.

The truth may not be heard until the bears reach their goal, unless their leaders choose to speak.

Image

Deal 998: Illusions

The audience quieted (aside from the inevitable heckler) as the curtains opened on a new setting. One thing they were sure of was that something amazing was going to happen. But they saw before them a fairly ordinary set familiar to just about any modern sitcom. The open plan ranch house was mostly represented in photographic drops, but the standard family sized sofa was front and center, complete with an abandoned letter jacket, some sports shoes dropped messily, and a pizza box tossed haphazardly on the coffee table.

But there were not actors to be seen, so they quieted down in anticipation.

Except for the heckler, again.

As the lights came up on this prosaic scene, they noticed that the pizza box was moving. It had started out tossed aside on the table, but turned towards the audience, then canted up a bit and the front row suddenly got nervous. It was looming at them. Then it opened and began to speak. It was using halves of an apple for eyes, and a stale pizza slice as a tongue.

It raised up further as it set out on a bit of classic oratory.

The scene was so outrageous that when discussing it later, people couldn’t agree on what the box had actually said. Everyone was sure it said something, and said it well.

As it spoke, the front row calmed. Not the heckler, though. He got louder, and revealed himself as definitely not the gentleman in the room as he taunted the box mercilessly. The box just turned and stared at him. Eventually he wound down and went silent, and finally sat back down. It was the most professional treatment of a heckler that most had seen.

Finally, some people joined the box on the stage. As they entered, the box seemed to suddenly realize it was an inanimate object, and dropped back down on the coffee table. It didn’t quite remember to pull its tongue back in though.

The couple had a fairly predictable sitcom argument about the mess in the room and junior’s grades. Then the man settled down on the couch, stretched out, and dozed off. That was the wife’s moment to exact her revenge. She pulled out a sheet, tossed it over the man’s legs. He didn’t stir. So she added the pizza box to his belly, then pulled the sheet all the way over him.

He mumbled something inarticulate, but didn’t stir.

Then the whole sheet shifted a little. Then a little more. Then we realized it was lifting up and off the couch.

It raised up to where it’s tails were just dragging on the furniture when the woman suddenly noticed it. She screamed.

The she grabbed at the sheet and just barely caught a corner as it flew up, yanking the sheet away to reveal nothing at all. No lay-about husband. No pizza box. The couch was empty. The sheet was just a sheet.

Finally she balled up the sheet and threw it at the sofa, where it lay still.

Perfectly still.

Everyone held the breath, sure that there was one more twist to come from somewhere.

She stepped back to the couch, picked up the sheet and wrapped it around herself as a cloak, flipping a corner up to hide her hair.

A sudden bright flash and cloud of smoke cleared to reveal the sheet falling to the stage and the woman gone completely.

Then the lights went out.

Image

Deal 997: Veterans

The dog was nearly as jumpy as the human it was escorting. Like peas in a pod, they were. Both going slightly grey about their muzzles, both lean and wiry.

He was clearly a veteran, and the dog may well have been too. You can’t always disguise the nervous tics of someone freshly home from combat. The strangest things would alarm both man and dog, sometimes causing them to practically levitate in surprise.

Then the moment would pass and they’d realize together that whatever the shared moment was about, it wasn’t real, wasn’t happening here and now.

So I sit here and watch people go by, and they sit over there and relive their shared pasts. I briefly consider telling them who I am and what I am doing, but then that never works out well. I can invent a better story for them from here than whatever it is that they share.

So I collect my cane, my hat, and my notes and make my way towards the parking lot to find my car, leaving them in their moment. Together.

Image

Deal 995: Eye Knows All

It always begins with a fount of knowledge. The all-seeing eye that watches and records, and the leak from it back into the mortal world.

Leaks always seem like a good idea at the time.

Some over-confident blowhard is brought down by a well-timed leak. The gods are keeping useful things like “fire” to themselves, but a gutsy mortal, acting on a leak, can steal it.

But all too often, the result of a leak is more scandal, and punishment of the source.

That is partially why Sisyphus is still pushing that boulder, after all.

And even though he has since learned to apply tools to his problem and shave years off his sentence, math tells us that his sentence is still forever. He’s also learned that magic such as levitation is considered cheating, and didn’t earn him any goodwill. Cheating was the larger part of why he was condemned to that boulder in the first place.

In fact, his only way out is to simply endure it, serve his time, and hope that he is laboring in a side timeline that will be looped back into the normal frame of things so that after his infinite service, he returns humbled and can redeem his good name.

They won’t believe the tale he’ll tell, of course.

But the eye will see and they will know.