“I want to know about Alpha,” demanded the man at the door.
He was inherently terrifying, though how I couldn’t say. He dressed oddly, as if taking each piece of wardrobe from a different time, and his long dark hair swayed in a nonexistent breeze. Sharp eyes pierced me from under bushy eyebrows and the lines on his face were hard. Perhaps even cruel.
“Who are you?” I stammered.
My body blocked the door. I knew that one day someone unwelcome would arrive, despite Mirna’s assertions that the people who came to our house were meant to be there, and I was determined to keep this man away from my too trusting roommate. The fact that he was asking about Alpha was particularly upsetting. I was still trying to forget the man called Alpha, and his unsavory soldiers. Whether he was responsible for the war that destroyed Azminan, or was merely a force that rose in the city’s ashes to perpetuate more violence, I knew one thing for certain. He was a bad man.
It was Mirna, not the stranger, who answered my question.
“Daddy?” she called as she sped down the steps toward us. “Is that really you?”
I moved aside, letting her rush into the man’s arms. The lines of his face softened somewhat as he held her.
“You’ve grown again,” he said softly.
“It’s been known to happen,” she laughed, tugging him inside. “Where have you been this time?”
“Meditating with monks,” he grumbled.
I had a hard time picturing this man, the very opposite to the idea of serenity, in meditation. He carried an inherent tempest within him. You could feel it like that suspended moment before an earthquake shakes the world.
“Was it beautiful there?” she asked gaily, setting a kettle on the stove.
I delivered the pastries from the counter to the table and set up cups and saucers while Mirna eased into a seat. It had taken a while for Mirna to release any part of tea serving to me. I think it was pride. She had long past grown tired of people thinking they needed to do things for her simply because her eyes didn’t work and tea was one of her favorite rituals. She was too excited at the moment to care much for pride, though. She beamed at her father across the table, reaching out for his hands.
“I was in a deep, old forest,” he said softly, warming his hard eyes with an unpracticed smile. “The kind of forest where trees share the forgotten stories of the world; where you smell and taste life as much as see it. I thought of you often. I may take you there someday. There is an ancient network of caves with carvings leading back to the first days, and a collection of monks who preserve them. You’ll love it.”
He placed a small object in Mirna’s palm and she smiled in delight. I poured the boiling water into the teapot, turning my back to give them this moment. I’d never seen Mirna so happy, and considered the blessing that she couldn’t see how terrifying a man her father was. Then again, what should I have expected? If my understanding was correct, this man was Anuaxi, one of the three architects who constructed Azminan; the ‘City of Dreamers.’ What they had built pulled taut even a wild imagination. It also made him inconceivably old. By all accounts the Council of Azminan, the force that regulated the visits of dreamers, people like me who were from another place but visited in dreams, had been built generations before. He defied even the rules of this crazy, enchanted world. Of course he’d be terrifying.
“What art do you create?” he asked, and it took a minute before I realized the question was directed at me.
When I didn’t respond right away, Mirna answered for me. “She’s been tending the garden.”
“Yes, I um…” I said, finding my voice and delivering trembling teacups to the table, “a wild animal got into it a little while back and tore up a bunch of the flower beds. I’ve been doing what I can to sort them out.”
Anuaxi studied me with those hard, frightening eyes and I couldn’t help but shrink away. His eyes saw too much, though what that would be, I didn’t know.
“I’d like to see your work,” he said at last.
Mirna beamed. “It’s beautiful,” she praised.
By beautiful, she meant that it smelled nice. The animal had been large. How it had gotten into the garden remained a mystery to me; or out, for that matter. Deep gouges marred every bed and many uprooted plants were beyond rescue. I did what I could for those that survived, and for the rest, Mirna and I traded the shawls she knitted for pleasant smelling plants at market. The garden wasn’t the same as before, but Mirna seemed pleased with the new scent combinations we created. We spent many hours out there talking while I weeded and watered.
Anuaxi’s eyes softened again when he stood in our garden, and he nodded in satisfaction. “You’ve been busy,” he said.
Mirna led him to her favorite seat and I delivered her a basket with her knitting project in it. Anuaxi watched his daughter with unmistakable pride. I settled down in a bed and began plucking unwanted plants from the soft soil and didn’t notice Anuaxi moving around until he wandered past a few minutes later. He had his eyes closed and was navigating the paths with his palms out, as Mirna did, so he could feel the plants as he drifted by. He stopped at one of the first flower beds I had rescued and turned to me.
“Alpha,” he said.
I sighed and leaned back. “I met Alpha in Azminan,” I said. “I was attacked by wolves and he… fought them off.” Fought wasn’t the best word. It was more like he controlled them. Still, ‘fought them off’ sounded far more sane than ‘thought them off.’ “He was building some kind of army in the ruins of Azminan, and he had me translating the rim of the old council’s platform…”
The rest of what I had been about to say disappeared at the sight of Anuaxi’s face. He was nothing short of terrifying. The air around him felt like it ought to crackle and blaze. I scrambled away as the man lunged toward me. Beside us, Mirna dropped her knitting in surprise.
“Daddy? What’s happening? What’s wrong?”
But neither of us made a sound. Anuaxi loomed over me, and I was fairly certain the air was buzzing. He leaned down and touched the plant that had just been in my hands. He closed his eyes, and the moment before his head drooped down I glimpsed grief.
“Daddy?” Mirna was on her feet, alarm stretching her voice.
“I would tell you that everything is fine if I could, sweetheart,” Anuaxi said softly, “but it is not.”
He rose to his feet and extended a hand to me. Fighting every impulse to shrink away from him, I took it and let him help me to my feet. His hand was surprisingly warm, and for some reason, I felt safe the moment I touched it. Not just safe, but soothed. Calm. He helped me to the seat beside Mirna and brushed reassuring fingers across his daughter’s cheek. She settled down next to me and clutched my arm.
“Daddy, what’s happened?” she asked.
“You should have called me when you learned that Azminan was destroyed,” he said, pacing the garden paths. “There are only two alive who could have accomplished such a thing, and both of them should have been away, as I have been, rebalancing.” He turned to me. “Alpha’s name is Axbelis. He was my student. They both were. What I don’t know is whether he destroyed the Council of Azminan, or Exasia did, or both. Or why. It could be that the army he’s building is to protect the world from Exasia. Or, Axbelis is making a play for domination thinking Exasia and I safely out of the picture for the next thousand years. I don’t know.”
“Thousand years?” I murmured. I didn’t intend it to be a question. The words came of their own volition.
“You and I interact with time differently,” he said, still pacing. “I was warned never to teach the arts I learned.” This he said mainly to himself.
“Daddy, you couldn’t have known,” scolded Mirna. “You can’t blame yourself.”
“I can and do,” he muttered. “I have the ability to shape worlds, sweetheart, as do my students. With that comes the power to destroy them.”
Mirna’s breath caught. “By destroy, you mean…”
Anuaxi strode to us and took both of our hands. Again I was flooded with a sense of calm, though this time I could feel movement behind it, like a swift moving current under deceptively still waters.
“Worlds can die,” he said softly. “I haven’t finished rebalancing after building the Council of Azminan. Whoever is behind this knows that and has used the timing to their advantage. But I promise you I will fight to my last breath to save this world.” His eyes strayed to me. “And if I fail, I’ll make sure you have what you need to get home and save yours.”
“What?” I gasped.
“The world you come from is one of many,” he said, “and they’re all connected. The destruction of one is rarely contained.”
Anuaxi said little after that. He secluded himself in the workshop at the back of the garden and our best attempts at accessing doors or windows failed. For three days and nights we heard undefined noises and from time to time felt odd vibrations emanating from the small structure. We tried to move through our daily routines, to pass the time while fears and questions nagged at us, but it was hollow ritual. When we woke on the fourth day, we could both feel that Anuaxi was gone. The house was too still; the garden too quiet. I held Mirna while she cried.
“I shouldn’t be sad,” she laughed through her tears. “He never says goodbye. And this time he has a terrible reason to go so abruptly. Still…”
I didn’t spot it until that evening when I retired for bed. It had been left on my nightstand; a silver necklace upon a folded letter.
“Wear this collar at all times. It will help to hide you from Axbelis (Alpha). You did not tell him the translation he needs and he won’t cease to hunt you until he gets it. You and Mirna are safe in your home for the time being but not against Axbelis or Exasia. If they get close, take Mirna with you when you run. The friends you have in this world can help to protect you. Seek them out when the time comes
I have learned that my mistake was not in teaching world-shaping, though where I failed is too lengthy a confession for paper. There is one more student in my future, and I must go to prepare. You must remain strong for Mirna.
You may notice in the days to come a great weight upon you as you touch the people whose world could rip apart should you fail to stay hidden. You cannot draw attention to yourself and you will no doubt wonder how you can continue to live with this great burden. Consider this your first lesson.”
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!