There is nothing hellish about the world of the Sh’ree demons. If humans could get past their understandable aversion to seven-foot tall, blue-skinned, yellow-eyed demons, the Sh’ree homeland might easily bypass Hawaii in tourism. The summers are hot, but no hotter than Phoenix, Arizona. With its mild winter, and a spring and fall best described as idyllic, the Sh’ree plane has the added potential to attract retirees in droves.
Of course, most humans have no idea such a place exists, and the Sh’ree aren’t about to start passing out travel brochures.
Humans are banned from the Sh’ree plane.
Given that I owed half my existence to a human mother, I should have been honored by my admittance to the Sh’ree world and the finest magic school in all the known planes—the Sh’ree College of the Arcane. I should have been on-my-knees-grateful, because what I really deserved was the type of institution whose name included the words “School for Incorrigible Girls.”
I was not honored and, in fact, was rather peeved by what I felt was an egregious miscarriage of justice. This particular day, I was four hours into an adolescent snit.
I couldn’t have picked a nicer day to be miserable.
The sun and breeze had reached that perfect state of balance, each politely deferring to the other, neither taking the lead. The result was the kind of day that drives everyone out into the fresh air.
I had the picnic table to myself, a consequence of the ambiance created by an abundance of sulky energy. Little angry doodles—stick figures with either pointed ears or sharp fangs—covered the piece of parchment before me. As soon as I finished a figure, I would obliterate it with a dense weaving of sharp, crosshatched lines.
I was completing another drawing, the toothy variety, when a long shadow fell across my work. I dipped the pen in an inkwell and started to annihilate the stick-figure vampire. The shadow shrank as its caster sat down across from me.
After a minute, Talis, the shadow’s owner, spoke. “The elves, I understand.” He pointed at one of the stick elves. “But vampires? Why are you so angry with vampires?”
I looked up at the brave soul who had dared the displeasure of my company. Imagine the stereotypical elf, tall, blond and blue-eyed, and then stuff that image into a toaster with the setting on “dark.”What pops out would look a lot like Talis. He had skin the color of a Hershey bar. His straight black hair was short, scruffy and uneven, bangs falling over canted pale blue eyes.
Talis, like myself, wasn’t a native of the Sh’ree plane. He hailed from the Fey plane, a place where you are nothing if you are not an elf, and less than nothing if you are a dark elf. Talis didn’t venture home too often.
In lieu of an explanation, I drew another elf, this one with its skinny arm held straight out to the side. The next figure had no fangs or ears, and I drew it lying at the elf’s feet. I added a handful of drops that fell from the elf’s arm and down to the human stick figure’s mouth.
“There was an elf.” I pointed at the drawing. “This elf came across a dying human. The elf thought he might save the human by giving him Blood Gift.” I turned the human’s eyes into little Xs. “But it didn’t work. The human died and his soul went…wherever souls go when they escape their earthly bonds.” I sketched a vampire. “Except, with all that magical elf blood in his system, the human didn’t take dying lying down.” I drew an arrow from the dead human to the vampire. “He became a vampire.”
Talis, who knew the story already, listened with indulgent patience.
I drew a second vampire. “And, the first vampire created another vampire.” I drew the new vampire’s mouth so that he appeared to be smirking.
“If it weren’t for that elf and the vampire he created, I’d have never met this vampire.” I jabbed the pen in the approximate location of the vampire’s heart.
“Ah,” said Talis. “So it’s not all elves or vampires. Just those three.” He pointed at Vampire Two. “So what did he do?” Talis leaned over the table. “It is a ‘he’, right? You didn’t draw any anatomical details.”
“Talis!” My voice cracked with embarrassment. “Yes. He.”
The version of the story I told Talis was accurate but somewhat abridged.
Four years before, I had been a happy-go-lucky drain on my father’s resources—eating, sleeping, and dodging schooling when possible. Up until that point, I had largely escaped Dad’s attention.
Playing tonsil hockey with one of Dad’s business associates, a.k.a. the smirking vampire from my drawing, got me noticed—fast. Dad came to the logical conclusion that his daughter suffered from a lack of constructive activities and the time had come for her to join the family business. I was packed off to the Brethren’s Paris headquarters for four years of strategy and combat training. The study of all things magical was the current leg in my career journey.
What I didn’t tell Talis was that that vampire had the notable distinction of being, to date, the first and only person I had ever kissed. At the time of the fateful kiss, I had been sixteen; currently, I was twenty going on twelve. Any semblance of maturity was a good century away.
“And on account of that one kiss, I got banished to a demon plane,” I said, reaching for the tones of a Shakespearean actress, and falling far short.
“Wow,” said Talis, “Does this fellow have a name? Or should we just call him ‘Wonder Lips’?”
I covered my face with my hands to hide the blush that simmered up to the surface. “Nobody,” I answered, peeking between my fingers.
“Nobody?” He set his bony elbows on the table and propped his thin face in his palms. “Oh, yeah. ‘Nobody.’ I know him.”
I tried not to laugh and failed. Talis laughed too, humor warming his ice blue eyes.
“On account of Nobody, I’m here.” I thumbed though the book in front of me.
“This isn’t that bad.” Talis gestured around the park with one loose-jointed elegant hand. “It’s kinda…” he paused, searching for the word, “picturesque.”
Conservationists as well as powerful sorcerers, Sh’ree demons took pride in their spectacular landscapes. The late afternoon sun, filtered through a permanent cloudbank in the western sky, was always a warm murky orange. Thick-trunked trees with gnarled alligator bark flanked the western edge of the campus park, blocking out most of the sun’s rays.
“I suppose. If I were here on holiday,” I replied, pushing out a sigh. I’d spent the morning feeding my angst generous spoonfuls of self-pity and wasn’t quite ready to send it away.
“This is part of your Wolfe training, right? And being a Wolfe brings prestige among your people, doesn’t it?” Talis stretched long legs under the table and nudged my feet with his.
“Perhaps,” I said with a shrug. My notion of “a people” was, and still is, a bit nebulous. I’m the improbable outcome of human and vampire hanky-panky. My irises are dark opaque green, an indication of a pinch of elf in the wacky genetic mix. I’m not immortal, but I’ll probably give Methuselah a run for his money.
The Grey Brethren, a sort of old boy’s vampire business club, financed my training. Think of the Masons, with all the ritual, and very little of the charity work. In me, the Brethren thought they’d found the perfect operative: a daywalker with girl-next-door looks, almost indistinguishable from a human, right down to my soul.
I flipped open the textbook—Techniques of Sorcery I—and started my homework. A lock of black hair, which had somehow squirmed its way loose of my braid, fell over my eyes. I shoved it behind an ear and tried to concentrate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Talis’s slender fingers close around another book. He slid the text over to his side of the table, opened it and studied the loose sheet of paper tucked within its pages.
“An interesting approach.”
I lifted my head. “What’d you mean? Math is the one subject I’m any good at.”
His angled eyebrows climbed upward. “You’re very good. The way you solved this problem. It’s clever and obvious, but I’d reckon everybody else will do it the hard way.”
“Thanks.” Most of the classes were taught in formal Elvish. I could speak passable Common Elvish, but the more sophisticated version of the language translated into meaningless pretty chatter. My inability to communicate didn’t matter in mathematically-based classes, but everything else was a sticky morass of audio confusion.
“Something the matter?” he asked.
“I’m failing…everything,” I said, surprised by my candor. “Especially, this stupid sorcery class.”
“Really? I hear you always take the top score on the practicals.”
I winced. “Practicals, yes. Written? I’ve failed every test to date.” I scowled at the homework problem before me. “I just don’t get it.” The question posed was as follows: “Provide the correct word/syllable sequence required to lift two freshly cut wooden dowels and twist them together into a spiral.”
The correct response should have been a sequence of words in any language. The language itself didn’t matter. Only that the cadence and rhythm of the words create a sympathetic vibration with the user’s innate magic and thus craft the spell form. I could hear the musical tune that would accomplish the task, but words? Even when I got the right ones, it usually didn’t work.
Early on in the class, I had asked if music was an allowable substitute for words. The instructor’s answer had been an abrupt “No.” I hid my disability, but I think the instructor knew I relied on “a tune in my head” to get through the practicals. Oddly enough, I was never marked down.
Talis grasped the edge of the sorcery book, dragging it and my homework away. He spun the text around and studied the problem. A group of passing fairy girls took advantage of his distraction to study him with tittering awe. Despite being the member of a discredited Fey race, Talis was an effective playboy, his bedpost about one notch away from crumbling structural failure.
Attention still on the problem, he plucked the pen from my hand, and twirled it through his fingers, never spilling a drop of ink. After a minute, he glanced back at my math homework and then carefully wrote something down. He pushed everything back at me.
I stared at what he had written. The correct answer, in formal Elvish, and in a pretty good approximation of my handwriting.
“A bloody, playboy, polo player is smarter than me.” I rubbed my eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t mean….”
He shrugged. “I can get you the exams…ahead of time?”
“Get” must have meant “steal.” Ironic, since I doubt he ever had to steal exams for himself. I met his eyes. Everything has a price.
“Thank you. But, I’m only given a small stipend. I can’t afford—”
“I meant, free of charge.” A wounded expression settled on his dark face.
“Oh. Sorry.” I stared at the page before me, homework problems that would take all night. At least.
“What if I get caught? My father—”
“You won’t get caught,” he said with a lazy smile and a tone that melted women’s undergarments. “Trust me.”
I drew a deep breath. In my head, a nagging little voice said, “Don’t do it, Regan. You’ll regret it.” That little voice had an incredible workload back then and was hoarse and inaudible most of the time. It was echoed by my father’s: “Make me proud.”
I couldn’t make him proud by flunking out.
“All right. Just this once. Midterms,” I said like a future dopehead buying her first hit.
Over the next five years, academic dishonesty would spread through my course work like a head cold in a preschool. I’d graduate and go to work at my awaiting job, convinced I’d gotten away with all that cheating. Even with regular challenges to my deficient job skills—bickering demons, trade wars, the fashions of the 1970s—I survived.
But Justice isn’t blind. She’s just overbooked.
More than a century later, I finally popped up on her docket.
***More? Read Chapter Two***
The Music of Chaos by P. Kirby, ISBN 978-1-936394-32-6
Text Copyright © 2011 by P. Kirby