Horns of Elfland
After the talk with Rena and David, Erik considered dropping his venture into qi. In the end, his curiosity, pride, and obsessive nature got the better of him, so he harassed David for lessons.
“How do you do your telekinesis trick?” Erik asked while Rena grumbled: “Stubborn, thy middle name is Erik.”
“You need to focus on one thing,” David said.
“I did, since the beginning,” Erik protested. “It didn’t work.”
“Did you think ‘move’?”
David shook his head. “That’s not specific enough. I mean, move in what way? Drop? Float? Rollover? You have to specify what, where and when until it becomes as natural as breathing.”
Erik nodded, his brain click-clacking away to store these facts into the mental map he was building for all things qi.
“So if I looked at an avocado and thought ‘float now’…”
“It might float. But most likely not. Moving things with qi without physical contact takes practice.”
Erik nodded again.
“Distance and weight matter, even with qi,” David intoned. “Start with something small, and be as close to your target as you can without touching it. I recommend a coin.”
Erik did as advised. He managed to float a quarter an inch away from his hands the same day after thirty-nine tries.
“It’s scary how quickly you’re getting it,” David remarked. “It took me six months to levitate a penny.”
From there, it was a matter of increasing distance, weight and time. Before long, Erik didn’t have to spell out what, where, and when. Objects responded to his thoughts instantly. May work like muscle memory, he noted in the encrypted and password-protected spreadsheet he’d created to keep track of his progress.
Erik added more variety to his repertoire. He made his Olympic barbell do cartwheels in the air. He read The Screwtape Letters using qi to turn the pages and keep the book at eye-level. He crawled up walls, hung upside-down on ceilings, and folded origami without touching. Once, just to see if he could, Erik made his dishes wash themselves. As he directed the soapy sponge to scrub his plates, he wondered if qi was programmable. For washing dishes and sweeping floors, he’d rather automate things.
Then Erik hit a plateau. Try as he might, he couldn’t lift, roll or nudge objects heavier than 5,000 pounds (he could shove an unloaded class three truck, but not a loaded one). He also needed to see objects to move them. He could use qi to manipulate objects up to fifty-five minutes, but no longer (he suspected this was a reflection of his ability to concentrate). Interestingly, the time limit didn’t apply when he used qi to hover in the air, which was promising as far as his ambition to fly like a bird was concerned. (One day—one day!—he was going to.)
Erik asked David about his limits and how to push past them after failing to fly for the nth time. It was early in the evening, and Erik and his brother-in-law were making dinner. Rena, who avoided all food preparation activities since the Cake Incident of ’01, watched her children in the living room.
“No doubt you can improve,” David said, while scrubbing a plastic chopping board by hand. “But you’ll need a good coach, and it won’t be me.”
“I figured,” Erik said, as he prepared the mirepoix without touching or tools, just qi. “What about the limits themselves?”
“Let me put it this way. In qi terms, you’re likely taller, faster and stronger than the average guy.”
Erik felt himself preening. “Really.”
“Yes, really,” David smirked. “You know, if you’d noticed qi early in life, your physical body would’ve matched your qi body. Sucks to be you.”
Erik threw a sliced carrot at David, who dodged it with ease. That moment, Rena barged inside the kitchen.
“How many hours do you spend on training?” she demanded, sounding seven different kinds of suspicious.
“I don’t know. Whenever I have time,” Erik lied. He knew for a fact he averaged two hours a day, four hours max.
Rena narrowed her eyes. “When was the last time you talked to Sam or Susan?”
Erik tried to remember.
“Not fast enough,” Rena said when Erik opened his mouth. “Do you actually work at work? Do you daydream about qi? When was the last time you ran? Are you still running?”
“I am,” Erik said, perhaps a beat too fast. But he was. Even when his qi training was at their most absorbing, he still punched the clock on time and ran his daily twenty miles. Well, more like twenty-five. Qi made him faster. As for work, he might have stopped doing his daily database health checkups and only engaged when the error messages made his heart stop.
Rena turned grim. “It is official: you’re obsessed. Okay, that’s it, no more qi for you for the next thirty-six hours. I also suggest you go talk to the two unrelated humans who enjoy your company for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom.”
“By the by,” David said later over dinner, which Erik deigned to join because he made it. “Has anyone tried to contact you about qi, yet?”
“Really?” David looked surprised. “That’s weird. Talent like yours, someone would’ve tried to break down your door a week ago. Do you feel like someone is watching you, at least?”
Erik shook his head. That made Rena steeple her hands like a supervillain who was contemplating ways to torture her hapless victim. Not a good sign, as Erik wasn’t ready for an interrogation.
The thing was, Erik wasn’t sure if someone had him under surveillance because the way he perceived the world changed since he and qi got acquainted. He couldn’t exactly describe the difference, but if pressed, he would’ve said it felt like he was being embraced and pushed away at the same time. And he would’ve been honest.
Just not fully. Greater honesty would’ve made him say it was like plants had mouths and rocks had voices. That at times it felt like, if he walked through that archway or entered those ring of trees, he would step into a world that was wholly other. That he could hear, if he listened closely, ‘the horns of Elfland faintly blowing’, to borrow the words of Tennyson.
The first time he heard the Horns of Elfland, he was visiting Moe and the Bullions at the Moe’s eldest daughter’s house to read The Hobbit to the kids. The long drawn bellow, so faint and yet so clear, nudged him gently and made him look up. He’d blurted: “Hey, do you hear that?” But no one, not even the youngest and most naïve child, knew what he was talking about. So Erik resumed reading and didn’t bring it up again. He didn’t want David or Rena to know about the horns, for he feared they’d tell him he was just hearing things.
Erik held his breath as Rena picked up her spoon again. “Interesting,” was her verdict, and she said nothing else about wizard recruiters that evening.
Erik carried out Rena’s spoken (and unspoken) orders the next day. At work, he resumed his daily database health check-ups, and as a result, noticed one of the production disks was about to run out of data space. Thus he saved the application from grinding to a halt in the nick of time. He also visited Café Delta as soon as he could flee the office.
“Well look who’s swaggering into my shop after being a stranger for weeks,” Sam drawled when Erik stepped inside.
Erik waved. “Good to see you, too, Sam.”
“Yeah, long time no see. So what have you been up to? You don’t go MIA unless you’re working on something.”
Erik felt a crossroad yawn open before him as he considered his answer. He loathed being less than honest with Sam. He owed Sam and Susan much for putting up with his myriad of foibles and eccentricities out of good will. And it was good will—no amount of gratitude for introducing them to each other could explain the way the Tates went out of their way to keep him in their lives. But two things were holding him back. The first was the lifelong conviction no one would want to have anything to do with the likes of him if they knew his true self. A ridiculous thing to get hung over, considering Sam and Susan had a good idea what he was really like. The second was the genuine fear something horrible might happen to his friends if they learned about qi.
“I’ve been working on my bad habit of blacking out when I read history,” Erik said at last.
Sam’s thick eyebrows went up. “What brought this about?”
“Rachel wanted me to read a story that’s based on true events from the late eighteen hundreds.”
Sam winced. “Didn’t turn out well, huh?”
“Lost it after the second chapter. When I woke up, I decided I had enough of this nonsense.”
Sam nodded as he patted Erik’s bicep. “I see. Go at it, man. Just let a brother know, okay?”
“Okay, and I’m sorry,” said Erik, sincerely enough. “I’m going try reading the book. Now remember: don’t panic if I keel over. Just prod me and I’ll wake right back up.”
Sam grinned and pointed finger-guns at Erik, who assumed the gesture meant Sam was going to sic Susan to kick his unconscious carcass awake when the time came.
The bell on the door tinkled, and a flurry of soldiers dressed in army fatigues marched in. The Tates’ part-time help (Jane, if Erik remembered it right) put on a professional smile for them. Sam muttered, “gotta work, see ya,” and returned to the back room where he did his coffee magic. Erik staked his claim at a small table within the line of sight of the counter. He also ordered a tall Americano and a slice of chocolate torte, thinking he may as well give himself extra incentive to stay awake.
Erik studied the other patrons while he waited. Most of them were around the bar, which stood above a long strip of electrical outlets. College ruled notebooks, pens, highlighters, and textbooks were strewn higgledy-piggledy on the table’s surface. Young patrons sat hunched over laptops and coffees and only stirred when a couple of soldiers parked themselves on empty stools. Two indeterminately middle-aged suits occupied the armchairs around the fireplace. Another suit, who had deep laughter lines around her eyes and cowboy boots on her feet, was unabashedly dozing on a tan leather couch. Behind the napping suit, by the windows, sat a tall young woman who had floppy white hair and skin like sunbaked terracotta. A flowery teacup steamed next to her elbow as she read The Once and Future King.
Erik’s eyes lingered on the last patron. He didn’t feel the urge to draw people often, but the woman reading The Once and Future King struck a chord. He couldn’t pinpoint her race; her features were akin to his, but her coloring was not. She had the build of a bantamweight MMA fighter, but her attire—blue cardigan, white collared shirt, khakis, argyle patterned socks, and tan oxfords—screamed university professor. Her sharp eyes, full eyebrows, and straight posture lent her a warrior air, but her rapt expression suggested her spirit was roaming a world inhabited by magical beasts, armored knights, legendary kings, and a wizard who lived time in reverse.
Erik gave into the urge. He rooted through his backpack and pulled out a mechanical pencil full of 2B lead, an eraser, and an unlined journal. Before long he was sketching the contours of the woman’s face, and the white hair falling over her eyes.
“Erik, tall Americano,” Jane called out.
Erik stood up to collect his order. He had a passing thought Jane must have got something in her eye when she blinked unevenly. Then he sat down and resumed sketching. Here and there sipped his coffee or ate a sliver of torte. He didn’t stop until he rendered the woman and her surroundings on paper.
Erik eyed the result critically. It was passable as is, but color and inking would definitely improve it. Then he chastised himself. What am I doing, I’m supposed to read Frost. Stop getting distracted, fool.
Erik put his journal away. Then he pulled out his copy of Frost and opened it with grim determination. He’d neglected this part of his qi education long enough. Now that he was on a self-imposed training ban, he might as well finish reading it. But first, a little review. Erik didn’t forget what he read, but his reading of Frost had been desultory. Better to put the known plot in order first lest he confused himself again.
So Erik closed his eyes, took a deep breath…
…And there. Erik was at the beginning of chapter one. In his mind, that is. The exercise was a lot like walking down Memory Lane or roaming through a Memory Palace. But then again not really. In his more pretentious moods, he called it Immersive Daydreaming.
Erik built the mental landscape according to opening paragraphs. A humid haze hung low in the city. A row street lamps, each glowing with an eerie blue light. A downpour from earlier washed off some of the soot caking the canopy of tiled rooftops. This left the gutters black around the edges and the cobblestone streets pockmarked with filthy, oily puddles. The sewers underneath the old metropolis gurgled and churned with water. Then a white sun peaked through the swirling overcast clouds, and the citizens of Alba started venturing outside.
“Lead me not into temptation, and bookstores…”
Erik metaphorically jerked his head towards the direction of the ‘voice’. Those were the first words Weaver uttered in Frost. Normally, it took Erik at least half an hour to get this immersed. In fact, he hadn’t been able to go this deep this fast since he was twelve, which was incidentally when his social isolation was at its peak. (He would’ve been bullied, too, if his parents didn’t insist he learn how to fight since he could walk.)
His mind’s eye landed on a shop that had brilliantly illuminated windows and a selection of beautiful leather-bound books on display. Standing before the shop, admiring the merchandise were two boys.
Boys. Weaver didn’t even have peach fuzz, and his ill-fitting clothes did nothing to hide the fact he was all elbows and knees. Helix looked like a gangly and bespectacled high schooler who’d dressed up to play Mr. Darcy for a theater production of Pride and Prejudice. Erik couldn’t explain why he was imagining them this young, even to himself.
“I thought the two terms were synonymous to you, Lieutenant Weaver,” Helix drawled.
“One shouldn’t mistake a subset as the whole, Sebastos Helix,” Weaver returned affably. Then his blue eyes lit up. “Ah!”
Weaver scampered inside the shop. Helix followed him at a more dignified pace, as did Erik (so to speak; he was, after all, only imagining himself as following them).
Erik watched Weaver and Helix argue over the tiny pamphlet about the Snær Jötnar, which instigated their search for the white giant who saved Weaver’s life. This, in turn, led Erik to meet the other major characters, all who came with surprises.
Take Frost. She was in her twenties, and that was the only first impression that stood the test. Her appearance was as startling as lightning cutting through a stormy night sky. In interaction, she was as stern and cool and inscrutable as can be. Now something he’d only glanced at, but now seemed vitally important: After witnessing what the dynamiters and rioters were doing to the immigrants in Alba, Frost dedicated herself to protecting them. By the time she made her appearance at the police station, she ruled the immigrant district so well, its residents regarded her as their leader. Indeed, the reason why PC Blue brought her to the police station was to talk his superiors into recognizing her as Chief.
Inspector Platt. He was twenty-two years Helix and Weaver’s senior, but still needed his dictionaries to read and write his reports. Before the war, his family had been seafarers for generations. Artillery fire ruptured his eardrums, and his limited hearing made his speech strangely slurred. His disabilities ensured he was never going to rise above the rank of Inspector, no matter how dedicated and competent he was. He didn’t know how to relate to Helix, who was precocious and highborn, but wanted to be neither (he was also about the age his son would’ve been, had he survived his birth). He could no longer recall the sound of his late wife’s voice, and every night, before slumber made its claim upon him, wished to see her in his dreams, just one more time.
Detective Inspector Eareckson. She had indeed done riot control, but not as a police officer in Alba and certainly not as punishment. No, it happened when she was a young army Major stationed at a concentration camp full of Empire refugees, who were slaves in all but name. She didn’t fight back when an Aurum laborer struck her face, blinding an eye, as she hoped it would help convince the rioters she meant them no harm (it didn’t). No one thought her worth marrying since, and in her lonelier moments, wondered if it had been worth it.
Speaking of Eareckson…
Her Stolen Sailor case turned out to be critical. Platt’s seafaring relations reported sailors from the East Indies were getting shanghaied to serve on the Empire’s ships. Platt theorized the same thing may be happening to Albion sailors, thus he and Eareckson sought Frost for more information. They did not find her at Helix’s clinic, so the two officers ventured into the immigrant district. Helix and Weaver, concerned about Frost, followed after them.
Which was how Helix and Weaver got to witness Frost dispatch a team of assassins sent from the Empire.
If Frost was a film, the battle would’ve been visually spectacular and drawn out. As it was, neither the assassins nor Frost wasted their time on fancy moves. Frost blinded her assailants with a thought and then crushed their hearts with another. Those who escaped the initial attack tried to freeze Frost from a distance, but Frost used qi to shove their nasal bones into their skulls.
“Good God, Frost, why did you kill them!” Platt demanded in the aftermath.
“They were trying to kill me,” Frost replied.
“Why were they trying to kill you?” Eareckson asked.
Frost regarded the officers, Helix and Weaver for a beat.
“I did not follow my orders,” she said at last.
“What orders?” Platt asked.
Frost remained expressionless as always, but the light in her eyes dimmed like an old star, flickering and dying.
“Last year I was sentenced to death for teaching Crown Prince Reza dangerous knowledge. Because I was favored by him, I was allowed an honorable death. What do you Albion call the act of using chokmah the wrong way in order to cause much death and destruction?”
Platt’s eyes bulged and Eareckson went white as a sheet. Helix and Weaver stared at the officers, puzzled and fearful.
“Selbstopfereinsätze,” Eareckson murmured.
Frost nodded once, her face a white porcelain mask.
“I was ordered to commit that here.”
No words could adequately describe the weighted silence that followed. The shock like a thunderclap, the vomit inducing nausea, the numbing horror. But it was the only worthy reaction to this ugly web of tragedy, this evil beyond measure intended but not executed. Erik felt like he was suffocating in it, until—
“Frost,” Platt said. He sounded like someone was ripping his guts out. “I arrest you—for conspiring against the Crown and… planning the slaughter of thousands. God save the Queen.”
“Platt! You can’t!” Helix cried.
Platt didn’t look at him. “You know the law, Dr. Sigh.”
“You don’t have a warrant!”
“We don’t need one, doctor,” Eareckson said quietly. She, too, looked anguished but determined. “Not for cases of treason.”
“Since when? I’ve heard nothing about this!” Helix shouted.
The three argued. Meanwhile, Frost made a slicing gesture with her palm, and a rip appeared in the middle of thin air. She pried it open, and Erik saw a snowy field through the narrow slit. Frost stepped through the aperture and vanished. Weaver, probably not thinking about the consequences, ran after her.
Now they were on a frozen tundra, ice, and snow as far as the eyes can see. Unlike Weaver, who turned blue as icicles started to form around his eyes, nose, and mouth, Frost steamed the air around her like a hot spring.
“You should not have followed me, Weaver,” Frost said.
“Perhaps not,” Weaver admitted, teeth chattering. “But since I have, can I convince you to send me back?”
Frost let out a small huff. “Only if you can tell me how you will explain to your superiors why you followed after an enemy.”
“But you’re not!” Weaver protested.
“Am I not?” Frost challenged. “Think: either I maimed the attendants by my own hand so they may not divulge my orders, or others have done so in my stead. Either way, I am responsible for their suffering.”
Weaver shook his head. “Just because you’re ordered to do something, doesn’t mean you’re culpable. Besides, all this time you’ve put the life of others ahead of yours, even us who are your enemies.”
“Fool!” Frost thundered. “Do you not know people can be kind and generous to those whom they like, but brutal and ruthless to those they do not? Even if I am innocent of plotting to destroy your nation, I am still complicit of the cruel maiming of others! Is not that reason enough to lock me in a cage and throw away the key? You are neither judge nor jury! What say you?”
A gust of arctic wind howled in the wake of the last question. It continued to moan and sob as billows of snow swept over the lifeless and frozen landscape. Erik felt himself tearing to pieces as he waited for a response, an intervention, from someone, somewhere. Meanwhile, Frost seemed to turn into a pillar of ice. She was no longer steaming, and she was so very still.
At last, Weaver spoke:
“You’re right. I’m neither judge nor jury. But this is true for you, too, Frost. You shouldn’t condemn yourself.”
There was a hitch, a sharp intake of breath.
Frost turned. Her white face was a tumult of barely contained emotion. The distance between invalidated combat medic and condemned royal plaything halved, quartered, and then vanished. Frost wrapped her arms around Weaver, whose eyes went wide.
“Dear child,” Frost whispered as she held Weaver close. “If only I could return you to a land that never once drank the blood of innocents such as you.”
…Oh, Erik’s eyes welled up as Weaver let out a shuddering breath and went limp. This—this was…
He blinked. He was back in Café Delta, and his face was wet with tears. Sam was standing over him, looking alarmed.
“Dude, what the heck is this book?” Sam asked as he pried Frost out of Erik’s grip. “You’re crying all over it, and seeing you cry is, like, disturbing. To the extreme. Are you sure it’s for kids?”
Erik scrubbed his face. Though likely untrue, it felt as though everyone in the café was staring at him. This, Erik reminded himself in his mortification, was the reason why he’d stopped daydreaming in public.
“No. No, it’s not.”