Into the Mystic

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Poland has a rich cultural heritage, replete with noteworthy accomplishments in literature, science, and the arts. The unfortunate proliferation of so-called Polish Jokes can be traced back to the Renaissance, where Italian wits initiated the tradition of mocking Poles based solely on a difference in cartographic philosophy. Polish mapmakers, unique among Europeans, decided to put East at the top of their maps rather than subscribe to the somewhat nonsensical convention of putting North there. After all, the sun rises in the East, thus providing a built in referent that didn’t rely on a knowledge of astronomy and a clear night sky. What does north have to offer besides a lot of ice? Nevertheless, the Italians – eager to maximize their market share in a world where every week saw the discovery of some heretofore unexploited real-estate – seized on this as a basis for calling their Polish brethren backwards, and thus mentally inferior. Centuries of jokes like "How do you sink a Polish battleship? Put it in water." have only served to reinforce this deplorable stereotypification.

Pope John Paul II, born Karol Jozef Wojtyla, was Archbishop of Krakow before being elevated to Cardinal in 1967 and thence to the papacy eleven years later. Copernicus, born Nikals Kopenik, generally credited for debunking the myth that the Earth was the center of the universe, was a Polish monk… and doctor… and lawyer, judge, vicar-general of canonic law, military governor, and tax collector, too, but nobody's perfect. Tadeusz Kosciusko (born Tadeusz Kosciusko), a brilliant military strategist, aided the fledgling American colonial army in its struggle against vastly superior British forces and was responsible for building the United States Military Academy at West Point. Wladimir B. Krzyzanowski was the first Governor of Alaska, and Zbigniew Brzezinski served as National Security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Noted Polish filmmakers include Jan Kadar, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Academy-Award winner Roman Polanski. Jerzy Kosinski wrote the celebrated novels Being There and The Painted Bird, among others and music would not be the same without the contributions of Jan Paderewski, Leopold Stokowski, and Frederic Chopin (not to mention Bobby Vinton). If "rocket scientist" is synonymous with brainpower, note that man could not have landed on the moon without the lunar module designed by Mieczyslaw G. Bekker. The list of Polish luminaries goes on and on.

Buzz Kochanski however, despite coming from such a proud heritage, was just an asshole. He was, in every way, unfit to carry on the tradition of such illustrious forebears, which was good, because Gloria Robinette intended to rip his gonads off and feed them to him through a straw. To that end, she lunged at him, trying to climb over the bar, only to be stopped when Ashley grabbed her by the waistband of her jeans, yanking her backwards. Gloria lost her balance, landing unceremoniously on her rump, where upon the other woman made to kick her in the ribs. Just managing to intercept the blonde's foot before it made contact, Gloria gave the ankle a sharp twist, and before the bimbo knew it she was on the floor, howling in pain and rage. Recovering quickly, she clawed at Gloria's eyes with her be-glittered talons.

Gloria managed, just barely to grab hold of both of Ashley's wrists, protecting herself from the thrashing harpy until, amid hoots and cheers from the crowd, anonymous hands lifted the girl off her. Gloria was able to scramble to her feet with the kind assistance of Carlo Antonelli, a Gilda's regular, who then easily held her back as she started towards Ashley.

"Hey, Miz Robinette, calm down!" he remonstrated. "She ain't worth it."

Buzz, whose act of wanton vandalism had precipitated the whole she-bang, was laughing right up until the moment Michael St. John got him in a thumb-lock, twisted his arm behind his back, and slammed his head against the surface of the bar. His shades went flying right past the nose of one of the customers restraining Ashley. Said customer flinched, loosening his grip just a little, but that was enough. Ashley got one arm free and scratched at of her other captor's hand. He too let go, stumbling backwards, setting off a chain reaction of falling onlookers, the last of whom collided with a waitress and her tray loaded with six open bottles of Amstel and Harp, a pitcher of Miller draft, four mugs and a frozen cherry margarita, all of which went flying. Seconds later, crashes and cries were heard from the struck and splashed.

Zoot rushed to tackle the now-free Ashley, but Billy Thurber tripped her up before she could get there. She stumbled, caught herself, and whirled to face the grinning oaf.

"You are in so much trouble," she told him.

"Pshyeah, right!" he snorted, reaching for her. She evaded his mitts with ease and drove the heel of her right hand into his solar plexus. With a grunt, he doubled over. Whether hardened by years of football or merely unwilling to be beaten by a girl half his size, Billy threw off the pain and charged. "I'm gunna mess you up, dyke," he screamed.

"Not on your best day," she replied coolly, using the force of his clumsy charge to execute a seoye-nage shoulder-throw. Billy went airborne, but his two-hundred-and-twelve pound bulk, having approximately the same aerodynamic qualities as a walrus, landed practically at once, flattening a nearby table. Billy moaned, but did not move.

"By the way, numbnuts," Zoot informed him, "I like boys too… just not you."

Ashley had used her freedom to best advantage. Grabbing a pool cue she swung it directly at her perceived rival's face. Gloria ducked. Carlo didn't. The butt end of the cue caught him square in the nose and since Carlo tipped the scales (or would have if he owned a set) at 325, he went down like an anchor. He lay sprawled on the floor, blood streaming from his crushed septum.

Snatching a tray off the bar, Gloria made to slam it against the back of Ashley's head, but then she noticed Officers Lough and Linovitz entering the tavern. Deftly slipping the tray under her arm, she let the scene speak for itself.

The Groton police officers had been dispatched from their station, a scant two minute walk away, in response to no less than six 911 calls, all from the same location. Officer Lough, seeing a blonde girl holding half a pool cue standing over a man with a blood-streaked face, acted swiftly. Within seconds, Ashley was face down on the floor, cuffed and whimpering, but definitely read her rights.

The two officers were joined in short order by a supervisor who took statements from witnesses and participants. When the police departed at midnight, they took three prisoners. Billy, who hadn't hurt anyone but himself, was charged with Breach of the Peace. Ashley and Buzz didn't get off so lightly. Ashley was charged with Assault One, having caused manifest injury to Carlo Antonelli, who had been taken to the emergency room in an ambulance. Buzz might have gotten off with B of the P as well, but a routine frisk for weapons had revealed him to be in possession of what appeared to be a vial of crystal meth. The three screamed that Gloria, Zoot, and Michael had started the fight, but witnesses vehemently testified that the bar's personnel had merely been defending themselves.

Most of the rest of the staff left shortly after the police. Only Michael and Zoot remained to help Gloria with the last of the literal mopping up. They were done at 1:30, and would have stayed longer if Gloria had not insisted they go home. She would, she assured them, be just fine.

By 2:00, Gloria was more than ready to call it a day. The next-to-last thing she did before locking up was to take her mother's portrait off the wall and stow it in her office. The last thing she did was to break down in tears. Bar fights were an occupational hazard but she could not shake the feeling that this one, at its core, had been her fault. If only she had resisted Buzz's easy hand with the Cuervo 1800. If only she had not been so concerned about his finding another job in a downturn economy that she had kept him on long after any rational employer would have sent him packing. If only she had kept her temper and calmly ordered him out instead of giving Ashley a chance to bushwhack her. If only her Dad hadn't up and died and left her with responsibilities that she was utterly failing to shoulder. If only, if only, if only.

Drying her eyes on a napkin, Gloria donned her jacket and helmet, and began the ritual of turning off the lights. Soon the bar was dark except for the light by the door to the service alley behind the building. Parked just to the side was her 1936 Indian Upside-Down Four, which she had bought at auction and spent the better part of a year restoring. The motorcycle was a real museum piece. She'd attached a Strieb two-seater sidecar, enabling her to take her siblings for rides. Usually, the very sight of it lifted her spirits. It conjured sensations of wind in her face and freedom in her heart. Tonight, however, it was just a means of getting her weary bones home after a day that… well, the best she could say for it was that it was over.

Gloria straddled the seat and turned on the ignition. The Indian's engine roared briefly, burped, then settled into a contented purr. She rode out of the alley and was just about to exit onto Water street when – all at once – the lot blazed with a strange amber-gray light, accompanied by a blast of ozone-laced wind.

What the hell? she thought, stopping the bike and turning round in her seat to see what was going on. She stared open-mouthed at a thirteen-foot tall circle of coruscating light that had just punched its way into her little corner of the world, not to mention the alley behind her bar. She parked the bike and got off. Cautiously, she approached as far as she could, the wind pouring from the phenomenon was intense and laden with leaves, twigs, and clumps of sod. The light hurt Gloria's eyes, not because of brightness, but because she could not focus on it. The colors were wrong in ways that hurt the mind to think about. Yet, the mysterious circle held her transfixed.

Without warning, a man shot from the circle. He flew through the air and collided so loudly with the dumpster that Gloria winced in sympathetic pain. The man, dressed incongruously in clothes straight out of a renaissance faire, rebounded a good five feet, landing on his butt.

"Are you all right?" she asked, running over, dimly aware that the dumpster had a huge dent in it that she was sure had not been there before. The man, apparently unhurt, started to get to his feet. She took one of his arms to help him. "Maybe you shouldn't be moving just yet," she added uncertainly. "You might have internal injuries."

The stranger smiled weakly and shook his head. He was tall, towering a good half foot over her five foot seven inch frame. His build was slender but not skinny, and his dark hair hung in a loose ponytail halfway down his back. He wore a pair of slacks that ballooned a little before they were gathered into mid-calf boots. His shirt had puffy sleeves, was open almost to the navel, and held together by laces rather than buttons. He also wore a short vest of some kind of stippled leather. Slung across his back was a stringed musical instrument, and he had a large leather purse at his side. For all that, his garb was not the strangest aspect of the man. His ears had no lobes and the tops tapered to points. The rest of his facial features were unremarkable and at the same time quite remarkable. Gloria thought that he was the most impossibly handsome man she had ever seen, even if his clothes were a touch ridiculous, and she felt a strange flush come to her cheeks.

"Stop that," she chided herself sotto voce. The man looked at her quizzically, opened his mouth as if to speak, then thought better of it. Instead, he pulled the instrument over his head, plucked at the strings as if testing them, and nodded in satisfaction. To Gloria, it looked like a cross between a small guitar and a mandolin, but it sounded like neither. It had aspects of harp and sitar and violin played pizzicato. The body was inlaid with gleaming crystals, and it shone in the moonlight.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "What is that thing? Where did you come from? What's going on?"

Before he could answer any of those highly reasonable questions, the wind picked up again. The man glanced at the pulsing circle and dragged her out of its path. Before she could protest being manhandled however, an uprooted tree hurtled out of the disk, which promptly vanished as suddenly and inexplicably as it had appeared. The tree also collided with the dumpster, only with a much louder clang, further denting it and slamming it into the wall. Then the tree did the last thing she would have expected a tree to do: It turned to face her, its knotholes looking like strange twisted eyes. The tree-thing moved towards them, letting out a bellow that split the night air. It did not look happy. One of its branches had snapped and now hung by splinters and much of its bark had been stripped away. Her mind flashed briefly to annual showings of The Wizard of Oz and she fought competing urges to scream and giggle.

"Get away from here!" the man shouted at her, speaking at last, handing her the strange instrument. He spoke with an unplaceable accent, yet this was scarcely the time to worry about his nationality. This struck her more as a time for fleeing for their lives. Yet the man seemed determined to fight this grotesque thing, and while Gloria did indeed feel like fleeing, something inside held her in place.

With the creature still a fair distance away, the man did something incomprehensible: he stood there, pointing the index and middle fingers of his right hand at the approaching monster. Before she could ask what he was doing, he'd done it. A beam of white light lanced from his fingers towards his adversary, striking just below the thing's mouth. Bark went flying and the wood underneath discolored. Judging by the way the tree-thing howled, the blow must have hurt, but it only hesitated for a second before advancing. The man repeated the trick, but his aim was off, and all the second beam accomplished was to sever completely the already dangling limb.

"This is not going at all well," Gloria heard him say, and she was compelled to agree.

"Try something else," she suggested. The man turned, his face registering surprise that she was still there despite his telling her to go. The distraction was all the monster needed. It struck the man with two of its remaining branches, sending him flying across the lot. He rolled with the blow and was soon back on his feet, again gesturing with his hands. This time he held them with splayed fingers, as if holding an invisible watermelon. A sphere of pulsating amber energy grew between his palms, and when it reached maximum size he flung it at the tree-thing. The sphere, expanding as it flew, completely encased its target when it struck.

"Much better," she commented, watching the monster tree scratch futilely at the bubble around it.

"The Force Cage will not old forever," the man replied, and Gloria could see what he meant. The tree had stopped scratching and started pushing outward. The insubstantial field stretched, crackled, and began showing signs of weakening.

"What now?" she asked. "We should call the police."

"You must get to safety!" He took her by one shoulder and shook her roughly. It was oddly touching, if a tad chauvinistic. Then again, she couldn't shoot light from her fingertips, could she? Hell, she couldn't even fix the freakin' fluorescents in the ladies' room.

Just then, past the man's shoulder, she saw the cage collapse. "Gah!" she shouted, pointing.

The man turned, blanched, and then did something so amazingly stupid yet breathtakingly brave that Gloria would have kissed him then and there if he'd still been within reach. He ran straight at the monster.

"Look out for its branches!" Gloria called, and, showing great dexterity, he did manage to avoid all four. But then he was close enough for the monster to encircle him with its limbs, which it did. Ignoring the danger, Gloria moved closer to get a better look. She saw him slam his left palm against the spot where his lightbeam had left scorched wood, simultaneously pushing at the thing's face with his right. The left glowed a sickly greenish-yellow and immediately the wood it touched started to sizzle.

Whatever he was doing made the monster howl again, but in doing so its maw opened and when it closed again, the man's right hand was trapped inside. It's eating him! her mind screamed. The man's left hand glowed again, but to lesser effect. All looked lost.

She ran to his side and tried pulling away the encircling branches but they budged not the slightest.

"Get away," the man wheezed. "I wish to try something."

Gloria glanced at him uncertainly, yet there was a look in his eyes that suggested he might actually be onto something. She backed away and then there was a loud crack. Whatever his idea had been, it had worked in spectacular fashion. Everything above the monster's lower jaw had been flung backward, not unlike a hinged garbage pail lid blasted open by an M-80. The trunk shook and the limbs jerked open, releasing the man who fell to the ground. Gloria could see his chest, scraped raw and bleeding, gratefully suck in the cool night air.

She pulled him away from the dead tree-thing. "That was…" she could not find words to describe her feelings, so she shifted into medical mode. The scrapes on his chest were superficial, although the shirt was pretty much for the ragbag. "Let me see your hands." He held both out. They were, she noted, barely scratched, even the one that had been in the monster's mouth. "I thought for sure that thing had bitten this clear off," she marveled.

"No teeth," the man replied, then winced. "I fear its bark was worse than its bite."

Gloria gaped at him. Even battered and bleeding, he had the presence of mind to make a joke. A bad one, yes, but quite apropos to the circumstance. "Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked.

He looked up at her and smiled. "I could use a drink and a few weeks' sleep," he said. They both laughed at that, but the effort made him wince again. "Make that two drinks," he amended.

"I have some medical training, but you probably need a doctor," Gloria advised. "I'll call an ambulance." She reached into her jacket pocket for her cell phone, but his hand caught hers. His fingertips were callused, the fingers themselves delicate yet strong.

"I am fine," he assured her. "No doctor. Just rest."

"Do you have a place to stay?" she asked, then realized how incredibly moronic that sounded. The poor guy just popped out of a big circle of swirly light and you want to know if he has hotel reservations? she berated herself. Get real! Aloud she said, "I can offer you a place to crash tonight."

"I have done enough crashing already," he said, and she wasn't sure if that was another joke or just something being lost in translation.

"I mean sleep," she amended. "All I can offer is a couch, but…"

What a liar! she told herself. There's dad's bed, but eww. That's too creepy for words. There's certainly room enough for two in my bed – not that I've ever tested that theory – but…

"…that way lies madness," she finished, looking into his startling blue eyes. She had never seen eyes that particular shade.

"I did not quite catch that," he said.

"Nothing," she said. "Brain fart. So... about that couch?"

"It sounds like heaven itself," he replied. "You are far too kind."

"It's the least I can do for the stranger whose first action is to keep me from being killed by the ficus from hell. What was that thing anyway?"

"Forest Troll."

"Ah. Good to know. I wonder if I can get the trash collectors to haul it out of here. It's…" she looked to see how many parking spaces the Forest Troll was occupying and let out a scream.

The top of the troll's head was slowly, but not too slowly, reattaching itself to the rest of its body. Worse, its limbs were waving about in a random but still dangerous fashion. The man slapped himself on the forehead.

"What?" Gloria asked.

"I forgot," he groaned. "Trolls regenerate."

"Of course they do," she responded, still watching the thing pull itself together.

"Rape me sideways!" the man swore. "What does it take to stop this thing?"

"Dutch Elm Disease?" Gloria offered, amazed that she too could joke at a time like this. "You wouldn't have a flame-thrower handy, would you?"

"I know no Fire Magic," he replied. "The Guild stays away from such things. Help me stand."

She did as he asked. "Can't we just, like, you know, run away?" she asked.

"It would find me," he grimaced. "Besides, the Gods only know whom it might harm as it hunts me down. This has to end here and now, but I am running out of ideas and it will recover soon. What is that contraption?" he asked.

"My motorcycle." His expression indicated that he did not understand, as unlikely as that might seem. "You, um, you ride it," she added.

"Then ride, good lady. Gather your Authority and return. Perhaps when I am dead it will be easier to handle."

"Authority?" she said, "and don't be so negative. You can beat it. I don't know why I said that but I believe it." She glanced back at the troll, now almost back to abnormal. "Just do it quickly."

He looked around and his eyes focused on the limb he'd earlier severed from the troll's body. He ran to pick it up and looked at it appraisingly. "Pardon me, my lady, but could you distract it awhile?" he asked. "This will take a little time."

Gloria wondered how hitting a big piece of wood with a smaller piece of wood could possibly be of any use, but tabled her doubts for the moment. She ran to her motorcycle, shouting, "I'll do my best." Once astride, she gunned the engine, put it in gear, and wheeled to face the now totally regenerated tree monster.

"Hey – tall, dark and deciduous!" she called. "Watch this!"

The troll started at the unfamiliar sound and turned to face the new threat. It waved its branches at her, but she cut sharply away and began to circle the creature, staying just beyond its reach.

She spared a glance at the stranger, who seemed to be doing something vaguely sexual to the branch, caressing it with one hand while holding it in the crook of his other arm. Then it happened. The branch began to change. It glowed blue and water dripped off it. Gloria wanted to keep watching, but she had to return to her distraction duties and somehow not get clobbered by flailing branches.

"Get away from it now!" he called and she was delighted to obey. As soon as she was clear, she saw him standing there, a gleaming crystal javelin held over his head in a classic Olympic pose. He said something to the troll she could not understand, but the troll must have because it rushed him. That must have been nasty, Gloria wagered, Probably something about its mother.

The man held his ground, clearly waiting until the troll came into range. When they were perhaps ten feet part, he let fly. The point of the javelin entered the trunk dead center. The troll stopped in its tracks, shuddered, and then exploded spectacularly. Bits of wood and a cloud of sawdust sprayed everywhere. When the sound died away, and the debris settled, all that was left were a few shards of spear and a chunk of green wood about the size of an emu's egg, veined with deeper green.

"And that is the name of that tune," the man said, his voice replete with grim triumph. He also looked dead on his feet.

Gloria wheeled her bike close to him and jumped off. "You did it!" she cried, overcome with a sudden rush of adrenaline-amped exhilaration. "You really did it!" Before she could stop herself, she was hugging him tightly and burying her helmeted head in his chest, heedless of his lacerations. He tapped her on the helmet and she looked up to see him smiling wanly down at her.

"You know," he said softly, "no offense meant, but you are awfully thin for a dwarf."

Then he collapsed in her arms.

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