Response to the prompt: in honor of the holiday, lets go with: cards. That's right. Gift cards, greeting cards, playing cards, tarot cards, any type of cards! Make it relate to your story somehow!
Rated for moderate language and murderous unicorns.
fin. Oct. 12th, 2k11
Score spent approximately two days tolerating being bored before he started messing about the castle.
After they’d all had a chance to rest, he’d spent the day exploring it with the other two, who’d vacillated somewhere between mild curiosity and disdain. “The castles in Ordin were far larger,” Helaine had reported, sniffing at the moldy curtains surrounding the bathing area on the second floor. “And far better equipped. Even the lowest ranking lords would never allow their castles to fall into such squalid disrepair.”
Pixel had been a little more diplomatic but no less dismissive. “I used to have to design houses as part of the online art and architecture curriculum. This castle is built on a marshland – it probably loses about a half inch in height every year. That and the walls of the keep are only about twelve or thirteen feet thick – you could easily take that down with a direct hit from a trebuchet. All in all, the place isn’t very defensible, but I don’t think Garonath cared.”
Score, who’d lived in a hole and then on the streets and then on the run from evil wizards bent on killing him, wasn’t nearly so picky. He explored the thing from the top to bottom. He poked his hand through the arrowslits and took a swim in the grimy, weed-choked moat and lifted and lowered the drawbridge and crawled up the craggy sides of the barbican. He slogged through the muddy straw and petrified horse poop in the horse stables, then climbed to the highest turret and leaned out far enough that it felt like he was only holding on with his toes.
Helaine, who made a religion of moving herself between her bedroom and sword-practice in the overgrown courtyard and little else, was less than impressed with his antics. “You are going to break your neck,” she said.
“From that high up, my neck is the least of my worries,” he said. “Do me a favor and make sure wolves don’t eat me after I fall, okay? Bury me someplace where my spirit can look up some skirts. Like under a roller rink or something.”
The more he explored, though, the more he realized that the place was kind of dank. And huge, and dark. Score wasn’t much for interior decorating, but powerful boredom and an inability to sit in a dump when he had the power to make it not a dump got him into gear.
He started small, just in case. He changed the color of the carpets from purple to scarlet, first in one hallway and then in the other, before changing them all. Many of the inside walls of the castle were lavishly lined with obsidian, presumably added by Garonath to block incoming enemy spells. Summoning his will, Score squeezed the emerald in his hand until it hurt and focused, and seconds later all the obsidian in the castle was white marble and he was on the floor, not really sure how he’d gotten there. “You’re an idiot,” Pixel said from somewhere above him. “I felt that from all the way outside.”
“It looks awesome,” he said groggily. Red and white and the place was brighter, and didn’t remind him so much of his apartment in New York. Light colors, more space. Pixel said nothing, but did help him to his room, and the next day Score was changing various stones into plexiglass, allowing light into the darkest parts of the castle. Next he changed the pitted wood of the dining room table into cherry, morphed the stone floor of the kitchen into white tile, and the day after that changed the fire pit into a brick oven.
He was busy throwing up over a working toilet and not a glorified chamber pot, because chamber pots were fucking stupid and who the hell knew changing an assortment of pipes into a passable plumbing system would take that much energy, when Pixel said, “You know, maybe you should find a hobby that doesn’t take so much out of you.”
“Shut up,” Score said, spitting into the water his chrysolite had made and oh shit he was tired. “The place looks boss.”
“This isn’t Earth,” Pixel said. “And we’re not running anymore. We have time. You can slow down.”
“I’m done.” Maybe. What the place really needed was a few tasteful posters of nude models and a CD player with gigantic speakers. He wasn’t quite sure his powers could stretch to electricity, seeing as he didn’t know anything about it save that flipping the switch upwards meant light, but eventually. Eventually. “Seriously. it’s cool.”
“Besides,” Pixel said, smiling in a way that had become rare these last few weeks. “You should be saving your energy for greater things. Like a milkshake bar.”
That night Score lay back on the bed with the comforter that looked suspiciously like the one that had belonged to his mom, staring up onto the glow-in-the-dark constellations he’d transmuted from pebbles he’d found outside. He considered missing Earth a little less, seeing as it had never been all that good to him, but nobody was calling him out on it, so it was probably okay. Helaine was from Ordin and Pixel was from Calomir and if this place was going to end up somewhere between all three of those, that was okay too.
He didn’t usually remember his dreams, but the ones after Zarathon had been pretty bad. Creepy settings—fog and fields of skeletons and eerie lights. Screams. Pixel’s frantic mental pleas for help. The tears in Helaine’s eyes that she’d been too proud to let fall, even at the sight of her mangled home.
He was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one affected, but it never seemed like a good time to bring it up to the others. The truth was, he’d gotten off easy. Pixel had spent so much magic at Zarathon he’d been nearly comatose for days. Helaine had taken the brunt of the battle damage, which itself was nothing new, but that combined with the mental stress of not being able to sleep had knocked her out of commission for almost as long. All in all it felt kind of stupid to mention it to them when it didn’t take a genius to look at Pixel and know he was still messed up over Destiny, and look at Helaine and see her frustration over her slow recovery.
It was only after weeks went by and they continued to co-exist in the castle, picking their way around each other, that Score finally realized I’m going to be living with these people. Probably for a long time. Possibly for as long as they lived, though who knew how long that would be. In the meantime Pixel was sulking and Helaine was still practicing, and Score was pretty sure that heroes of the Diadem should probably be having more fun than this. Or at least talking.
He eventually hunted down Pixel and found him in the library. Pixel was perched on a stool, intently reading something with a title on the binding that looked like it had been scratched on by a drunk cat. “We should get Helaine out of the courtyard,” Score said, by way of introduction. “She’s glued to that sword. I’m pretty sure her arm is going to fall off.”
“It’s the only thing that makes her feel better,” Pixel said, but he didn’t look at him. “If there was something else that would do the trick, I’d suggest it, but it seems cruel to give her trouble about it now.”
“She’s probably just bored and doesn’t know what else to do. She won’t think of it herself, so we have to help her.”
Pixel didn’t respond for a minute. He shut the book and placed it reverently back on the shelf. “What do you want me to do?”
“I dunno,” Score said. “Think of something.”
“Thanks,” Pixel said wryly. “I’ll get right on that.”
Good. Figuring striking the match was enough, Score wandered outside and randomly wondered if he could transmute one living thing into another. A dog would be nice in a place this big. Horses would be awesome – they had plenty of pasture space. This entire planet was basically a giant pasture, randomly broken up by splotches of arctic territory and monster-choked marshes. It’d be nice to have a horse.
Helaine practiced in the courtyard long after the sun set.
“What I can’t figure out,” Score said, twisting a blade of grass under his thumb and forefinger until it popped up into his hand, “is what I’m supposed to do. I mean, pretty much, we’ve already triumphed over evil, right? The perp’s been caught. The jury’s gone home. Here we are, a bunch of bad-ass crime fighters, but there’s no crime anymore. Even Gotham’s been cleaned up. Everyone else is just kind of hanging around looking for scraps. What do you do with that?”
*From what I can discern from your usual slew of irritating gibberish,* Thunder said, *this has little to do with me. Not that I had any doubt of that from the start.*
“It’s like the sequel nobody wants. But the first movie made a lot of money, so some producer went, hey, we should make a sequel, because people’ll come and see that, right? Except they couldn’t get any of the big names back in the contract and now all they have left are the extras and that one guy that looks like Billy Bob Thornton.”
*As is demonstrated by your continued slew of irritating gibberish,* Thunder said, *you don’t require my assistance in this matter.*
“Helaine’s crazy, Pixel doesn’t do anything but skulk around and read poetry, and the castle.” Score traced a vague castle-shape with his hands. “You have no clue.”
*No one is forcing you to live there, human. In fact, many would be pleased if you left. I can think of a number who would gladly help you move.*
“It occurs to me that you’re not real happy about something,” Score said. “Care to clue me in?”
*My inability to write leaves me incapable of creating a list of reasons for you,* Thunder said. *The world is not black or white, human. There are varying shades in between, and all of them hold meaning.*
“Can unicorns see in color? Are you guys like horses that way? I’ve always wondered that.”
*Enough to tell you the color of your blood should you ask me again.*
Score figured that was pretty unnecessary. “I’m kind of lost in the dark here, in case you haven’t noticed.”
*My advice is this,* Thunder said. *Not that you intend to take it. You are valuable, human. You have grown as part of a herd, so you have learned the skills necessary to make up for whatever skills the rest of your herd lacks. Already you have shown great adaptability in times of need.*
“Thanks, I guess,” Score said, “but I don’t get what—”
*You are asking me what you are to do now that there is no war. You may use my herd as an example. Because we all possess unique gifts, we all perform a unique function in the herd. It is true that it takes a unified show of force to win a war, but it takes a diversified herd, with a wide array of talents, to thrive in peacetime.*
“Huh.” Not that his vocabulary was that great, being thirteen and not all that smart, but he was getting the gist. “So you’re saying that because we’re different, we get along better than if we all felt the same way about things?”
*More or less.*
“Huh.” Score snuggled his head down in closer and thought about that for a while.
A couple of minutes later, Thunder spoke again. *Human.*
*You have protected my lands, my herd, and my family,* Thunder said. *You saved the Diadem from wickedness and decay and evil overlords bent on destruction, all against impossible odds.*
“Geez, dude, what’s with all the praise today? You eat a good-mood fruit or something?”
*It is a courtesy I am extending to you before my horn goes into your skull,* Thunder said. *As it will if you do not get up by the count of five. When the count reaches five, I will turn my head, aim, and ram my horn straight into one ear and out the other.*
*In addition,* Thunder said, *if you ever inform anyone that you fell asleep on me, and that I permitted you to, and that I then permitted you to stay once you awoke, I will take the herd to the foot of the castle, combine our magics, and blast the entire building apart with you inside.*
“That sounds like it’ll hurt,” Score said, a little worried about that.
Thunder twisted his head. *One.*
“Just so you know, that advice kind of sucked,” Score said. “You didn’t even get to the part where you tell me how to get chesty broads out of the deal. What superhero doesn’t get a chesty broad as a consolation prize?”
“Okay, okay,” Score said, and grunted as he heaved himself off Thunder’s warm flank. The grass squeaked merrily under his sneakers.
Pixel’s bright idea ended up being ‘culture exploration’, which Score was pretty sure was ancient Calomirian for ‘pain in the ass’. “Yeah,” Score said. “Not what I meant.”
“No, really.” Pixel looked enthused. It was an improvement over brooding, so Score let him talk. “Eventually we’ll probably visit our worlds again. You’ve already gotten a look at Helaine’s. In the meantime, there are hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of cultures in the Diadem, and we are each representatives from three of those cultures. We could learn from each other.”
“I know how to run a couple of street scams,” Score said. “Which do you want to learn? The pedigree dog? ‘You broke my glasses’? ‘I need help to pay for my daughter’s funeral’? The pigeon drop?”
“I was thinking more along the line of things that are important to us. That mean something.”
“The pigeon drop did mean something,” Score said. “It had a ninety percent success rate. That or three card monte. Both have a special place in my heart.”
“You know what, fine,” Pixel said, giving up. “But I still think it’s a good idea. Don’t you? It’s something academic, at least. To challenge us. And it’ll be fun.”
Score let it go. As the week wore on, however, the idea did start to become more appealing. Helaine was getting kind of insane and nothing was happening with the unicorns, and Score was still too burned over the toilet incident to try anything other than slight adjustments on the castle.
At the end of the week he gave in, because Thunder was generally right about these sorts of things. He led a unicorn herd and Score had seen firsthand how tough it was to do that. That, and the unicorn herd was made up of every color from black to eye-piercing, so Thunder probably knew what he was talking about when it came to diversity.
In the end, Score approached Helaine himself. By now the weeds in between the cobblestones had been mashed down from the constant pounding of her feet. Judging by the echo of power in the area and the enormous clumps of grass and dirt over near the edge of the defunct fountain, she’d also used her sapphire to do some perfunctory weeding – probably as much menial labor as her upbringing had allowed her to do.
Score stopped at the edge of the yard. Helaine’s sleeves were tied up in a rare show of immodesty, her hair cranked back into a tail. Her sword was making low humming noises as it swept through the air, swinging into guards and parries and disengages and other stuff that made him really glad he wasn’t on the other end of it.
He only stepped forward when she lowered her sword. She looked over at him questioningly, breath misting in the air. Despite the chill, her face was shiny with sweat, her clothes soaked through. “Hi,” Score said.
“What’s wrong?” She’d never been big on pleasantries. “Has there been an attack?”
“Not for like, a month,” Score said. “Got a proposition for you.”
Helaine listened to him attentively while he went over the idea, not taking her eyes off his, nodding when he came to the end of each sentence. When he finished she said, “No.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Score said, neither bothered nor surprised by her rejection. Helaine tended to say no to everything on reflex. “You’re out there all the time swinging at air. It has to get boring.”
“We may be attacked at any time, and I am not up to my usual shape.”
“Girls shouldn’t work out all the time,” Score said, because cheerful sexism was usually the best way to get a rise out of Helaine. “You push yourself too hard and it’ll stunt your boob-growth. And then where will you be?”
“Cutting you down from your groin and feeding you your legs,” Helaine said, eyes flashing dangerously. “I have no time for tomfoolery, Score.”
“It’s no big deal. We’ll do it after dinner. It gets dark by then, anyway. Instead of ten hours of practicing, you’ll have practiced nine. Every other night. Sounds reasonable to me.”
Helaine said nothing. “A warrior needs downtime too,” Score said. And… what else was it that people said at this point? There was always that scene during sports movies where the main character would lose focus, and his old coach would come in and sit him down and they’d have a meaningful heart-to-heart, and then everything would be better. He cleared his throat and said, “A man who can catch a fly with chopsticks can accomplish anything.”
She looked at him for a long time. “You have to stand first before you can fly,” he said. “You trust the quality of what you know, not the quantity. But fighting is for defense only. If you make it your whole life, they win.”
She continued to look at him. “That was… surprisingly profound, for you,” she said at last.
“I bury my depth deep.”
“It also made very little sense.”
“No, it did.”
“In fact, it made no sense whatsoever,” Helaine said. “I was being generous. I now retract that generosity.”
“I thought it sounded pretty good.”
Helaine sighed. She looked like she desperately wished to be somewhere else. “Very well,” she said. “Tomorrow, then. But only if I’m undisturbed until then. Training comes before frivolity.”
She pointedly turned her back on him and resumed practicing.
He’d definitely been served somewhere along the line there, but he thought anyway, score.
He’d never really liked school, let alone the idea of teaching, which was the main problem with trying to plan a lesson. He’d always been in the lowest reading group and while he was okay at math, it didn’t change the fact that his education had never been his top priority. Thinking about trying to teach someone else about… anything, really, when he wasn’t exactly the brightest crayon on the box, was nearly as intimidating as facing down his evil adult clone.
He thought about pizza-making lessons, because that was pretty awesome. But first you needed ingredients and a working knowledge of making pizza, and after several failed attempts Score eventually realized that eating pizza was not the same as knowing how to make pizza. Movies were out for similar reasons. Even if he managed to get his hands on a console, he hadn’t yet found a way to install electricity in the castle.
He stayed up that night thinking about it. By the time dawn rolled around, he’d come to the conclusion that he didn’tknow a whole hell of a lot about anything. Except surviving. And street cons. And repairing clothes with a needle and thread, though he’d gladly turn back time and let Traxis take over his body and destroy the universe rather than admit that fact to anyone, ever.
But street cons. Deciding to stick with what he was best at, he ate a quick breakfast and then went over to ask Shanara. “You’ve gotten bigger,” Shanara said.
“Only my ego.” He belatedly noticed dust on his shirt. Portal-space was dead space, with no adherence to timeline or any other rule of the universe; he might have just as easily taken the long way around, skimming over several centuries and a couple of dead planets before he’d arrived. “So, how about it?” he asked, brushing it off. “Can you do it?”
“It’s an interesting request,” Shanara said. “Though I do wonder why you came to me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe because you have a direct link to Earth and can materialize items from any planet. But probably not.”
“Sarcasm,” Shanara said, looking at the ceiling. “I always forget how effective that is when asking someone for a favor.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Score said. “It’s easy for you. Like reaching up and digging out a booger.”
“Only you could find a way to belittle the transference of items over light years,” Shanara sighed. “Any reason you can’t transmute them?”
“I’d rather have an authentic deck. The way I make them, they don’t bend right. The heft is off.”
She looked like she was tasting something sour. Instead of rejecting him, however, she only said, “Anything else you’d like as a result of my celestial nose-picking?”
“Pizza would be nice.”
“Sorry. Non-edible items only.”
It’d been too much to hope for anyway. “Cards’ll be fine.”
She shook her head, but stood and crossed the room. Score glanced around the workshop, trying to locate Blink, but all that met his eye was a jumble of parts – fabrics, gemstones, random circuitry, rolled up scrolls, low-hanging lanterns. Shanara moved expertly among the mess, extricating a clip from underneath a pile of blueprints, and used it to fasten her hair back. She then sat on the stool in front of her scrying pool, beaded bracelets gently clacking together on her wrist, and removed the canvas cover. The pool was a smear of color, some blues and greens and a few other shades Score couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Close your eyes,” she said.
He barely had time to obey before the room flared with color. “There,” Shanara said, when the glare died down. She twisted on her stool and held the pack out without ceremony. “Wait a good month before asking me for something again. If my magic were meant for deliveries I’d have built a mail truck, not an atelier.”
“Awesome,” he said, taking a quick look. Bicycle brand. “This is just what I needed. See ya later, I gotta run. I’ll tell the others you said hi.”
“That’s all?” Shanara said, very dry again. “I materialize items from time and space and you just… walk away?”
“I already said they were awesome, what more do you want?”
“Such terrible manners. What would your mother think?”
Had anyone else said that to him, he probably would have decked them. As it was, though, Shanara’s hair was brown today, her eyes as dark as his own, and he found himself saying instead, “Work on summoning up some pizza next time. We can have a party. I’ll bring the beer and the unicorns.”
“Your goal is admirable, by the way,” she said. “I approve. Consider that the reason I helped you in the first place.”
Score didn’t bother wondering how she knew. Shanara tended to know everything she wasn’t supposed to, and usually a little more than that besides. “It’s a nice middle ground between sitting around and being attacked.”
“And for the record,” Shanara said, “I also approve of you and Helaine. Just in case.”
Score was almost one hundred percent sure that it didn’t matter what the hell Shanara approved of as far as he and Helaine went, or as far as he and anyone went, actually, but okay. “See ya.”
“Don’t get lost between realms,” she said, and opened up a portal again with a vague twist of her wrist.
If she was laughing as it closed behind him, he ignored it.
Helaine was clueless about the cards. She was also a terrible singer, which she’d demonstrated during Pixel’s lesson on native Calomirian lullabies. Pixel himself tripped over his feet during Helaine’s lesson on the traditional dances of Ordin and had nearly split his skull open on the kitchen table. Score had yet to humiliate himself, but he wasn’t optimistic enough to pretend it wasn’t just a matter of time. “They’re like paper, but not,” Pixel said, frowning at the cards in his hands. “What are they made of?”
“I dunno,” he said. “I think it is some kind of paper, though. Maybe waxed cardboard or something. I never thought about it.”
“Well, they are useless as weapons,” Helaine decided at last, setting hers down decisively. “And too flimsy to travel well.”
“They’re tougher than you think,” he said, not sure why he felt offended. “And they’re really versatile. There are games that can be played solo, and others that you play in really big groups. You can do almost anything with them.”
“I remember reading about something like this,” Pixel said. He’d excused himself earlier to set a teakettle by the fire. He now sat himself down again and regarded his own sampling of cards, studying them one by one as though they were rare and exotic specimens. “Things like these were used as a method of telling the future, I think. And for gambling. You know, in gambling dens and the like.”
“Oh.” Helaine’s voice dropped in pitch, the way it always did when she disapproved of anything. “I should have known that a planet that allows its people to walk around wearing practically nothing would have gambling dens.”
“Yeah, I got news for you,” Score said. “I’m pretty sure every planet has gambling dens.”
“Ordin has strict laws prohibiting it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Like I said. Every planet has gambling dens. You just have to know where to look.”
Helaine shook her head slowly, lips pressed together, but didn’t say anything. She looked tired.
Score gathered the cards up, then stared down at them and tried to figure out where to begin. Poker would be pushing it. Already tonight kind of seemed like a bust. Helaine was clearly impatient with the whole ordeal and Pixel looked ready to bawl from nerves, throwing anxious glances over at her whenever he thought she wasn’t looking. All in all the whole thing was kind of awkward, but at least they were talking. Somewhere along the line, that had gotten important to him.
Score mulled it over some more, slowly turning the cards over in his hands. Absently he started to shuffle – a brisk mongean shuffle to warm up his fingers, followed by a faro shuffle. If not poker, then maybe a children’s game. Old Maid would be tame enough.
He finished up with a dovetail shuffle. He lifted his head and began to speak, then saw that Pixel had frozen, his eyes wide. “What?” Score asked, taken aback.
Pixel reached out and stopped just short of the deck, fingertips a breath away from the cards. “How did you get them to do that?”
“To…” Pixel made a winging motion with his hands.
“Huh?” Score stared at him for a long time, then blinked in realization. “Wait, you mean this?”
He executed the dovetail shuffle again. The cards fanned against each other briskly in the silence.
Pixel and Helaine sent each other a glance. Then Pixel said, looking like he was trying not to look too eager, “Can you show us that again?”
Score thought, well, that was easy.
“No, wait, you’re supposed to—”
“I have it.” Helaine impatiently yanked at the card, only to send it skittering under the table.
Pixel was busy rescuing two from the hallway. “I think you’re not supposed to put your thumbs on top of the—”
“I’m well aware of where I have to put my thumbs.”
“Hold on,” Score said, and then the teakettle was screaming and cards were scattering in the air like feathers.
“Wait,” Pixel said. “I think I got it. You just bend them like this and they naturally fall into—oops.”
Score watched the top card careen towards the oven. “Pixel.”
“I mean, besides that, it’s really easy if you just follow the natural bend of the card and not fight against the flow. Kind of like a river.”
“I can see where you’d like to do this as a hobby. Especially since—”
“Pixel the card is on fire.”
They ended up just playing 52 pick-up, primarily because Helaine eventually got so frustrated that she hurled the deck across the room. They never got to Old Maid.
Score thought he might have seen a grin on Pixel’s face as he bent to rescue an ace from under the baker’s stand, but the lighting in the room was weird, so who knew for sure. Helaine was raging, color high in her cheeks, saying that she would let no children’s game best her, that she would train diligently and then they would see who was the joker here.
Score got to bed that night only after swearing an oath that he would go to Shanara’s soon, tomorrow, and pick up a spare deck for Pixel and Helaine (“for additional training,” she said). On the way upstairs Pixel commented that the scarlet carpets did look kind of nice, actually. Like those old clips of royal life in ancient times, finery and parties and lofty chandeliers and chiseled stone.
In the morning Pixel lent him some energy so he could make a dance room out of one of the bedrooms. Helaine strapped on her sword and said she was going off to visit Flame, and she’d be back in time for dinner, and I’ll give Thunder and Nova your regards. In the meantime Pixel started gathering ingredients from the shelves, because the dry food from the pantries sucked and they could probably do better for themselves, considering that between the three of them they wielded the powers of the cosmos.
It was pretty corny, all things considered, but Score let it go.