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by Eden Arthur
Description: "Ages of Mages" Althea has waited a thousand years to gain revenge on the mage who stole her powers. Clues from her past may help, but sooner or later she knows the mage will return to gloat. Althea will be ready. "Masquerade" Chloe hasn't been herself for some time and she's determined to find the person responsible for changing her life. She'll use the masquerade ball to uncover the culprit and exact her revenge, but not all is as it seems. "The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of" Marian's taken time from work to see if she has what it takes to become an artist in her own right. With a country setting for inspiration, her paintings capture the essence of a man who lived a century earlier. A voice in her dreams gives her direction, but also keeps hidden one very important little fact.
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: August 2009
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [142 KB]
Reading time: 90-127 min.
"Twilight Hearts is a collection of three short stories by Eden Arthur that are united under a common theme. Each of the tales presented by Eden Arthur follow a few common themes, which is a crucial factor inning able to put all three stories under one title. Each story follows a young female protagonist with obviously similar characteristics. Moreover, each story has a very strong sense of mystery that really made me wonder what would happen next. The most satisfying motif, though, was that outcome of each story was very romantic and heavily focused on the power of love. There were, however, some very minor flaws in craft that could be improved upon. I also felt that there were sometimes events in the stories that seemed irrelevant to their respective plots. On the whole, the stories in Twilight Hearts were very imaginative and entertaining." Bitten By Books Reviews
"No ... no ... definitely not you ... no." Althea perched on the highest lintel of the stone circle and scanned the faces of each visitor approaching its perimeter. The tourist guide came nearer, reciting by rote his list of historical facts concerning this circle. Althea wondered if the words meant anything to him. She made a wry face and shouted down to him. "Maybe you wouldn't be so boring if you changed your speech once in a while." He went on with his usual long-winded lecture as always, oblivious to her presence. Althea again searched the faces in the crowd for the long awaited one.
"Can't we go to the center of this one?" one of the tourists asked, disappointed when the guide called them to a halt at the outer edge of the standing stones.
"No. I'm sorry," the guide replied. "This one's unsafe. Sometimes you can feel a ghostly presence surrounding the stones. Unfortunately, they seem to be rather quiet today. They can put on quite the show when it suits them. The professors say there's some sort of vortex within the circle where perceptions are altered. The last time someone managed to enter it he had a nervous breakdown. Rather than take chances, we no longer allow anyone inside, at least until we understand what causes it." He didn't mention the violent shock others had received when they attempted to step within.
The ground shook, leaving the tourists struggling for balance. Just as quickly, the shaking subsided, and they looked back to their guide for assurance. He shrugged. "Not an earthquake, or any kind of seismic tremor, but it happens often and the stones tremble at times. Another reason we'd rather not risk one of you being hurt within the circle. We ask that you remain well on the outside to take your pictures." Several people mumbled their disappointment, but quickly settled down and resumed listening to the guide's narrative. Here and there words about ghosts made their way into whispered conversations. Other tourists took a few steps backward, putting a small distance between themselves and the unstable site.
"Vortex, huh? Is that what they call it now?" Althea looked down with disgust on the group. She shouted down at them. "I am bloody well trapped in here! Is it a wonder strange things happen?" She raised her hands as if in supplication, then lowered them to her lap. "Why am I shouting? You have no idea I am here." Her words carried the weariness of age. Althea blew out a sigh. She was well aware of her ghostly guard, set as a final line of defense if she should manage to get beyond the outer stones. The criminal, she'd heard over time, always returns to the scene of the crime. She waited for one such criminal to return, then...
After a thousand years, only two capstones still remained balanced atop their vertical supports. Althea sat on the larger horizontal stone and announced to the group, "Do you know how boring this place can be? Sitting here day after day after century until a millennium has passed? Yes, a millennium. A thousand years. I have to find something to entertain myself until I find the one for whom I wait." She sighed again and hugged one knee, her other leg swinging slowly back and forth over the edge of the stone.
"Ask how the circle was built," she mocked, and laughed when one of the tourists actually asked the same question of their guide. Althea rolled her eyes when the guide replied with his usual answer. He was about as knowledgeable of the circle's creation as she was of modern technology. She didn't care about things people had now, but he should have some understanding and respect for the past. Challenging him was the high point of her day. When he finished, she leaned over the edge of her precarious seat and shouted down to him again. "If you asked me nicely, I just might tell you the real story. I know exactly how it was built and who built it."
The group of tourists gathered closer to the outer stones, and one woman rubbed her arms as if brushing off a sudden chill. She barely shook her head and glanced about. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she turned back, listening intently to their guide, but Althea shook her head. How wrong could they be? Oh, yes, she had the answers, but she wasn't about to give them up without exacting a price. There was one question she, herself, longed to have answered. The problem was, the only one with the answer was not here.
A few moments later the group wandered away from the site. They stopped just long enough to snap the "required" photographs to show friends when they returned home. A while ago she had seen some tourists exchanging pictures. By using some new magic the little boxes made lovely little paintings of the things they saw, but she could never figure out how the one word spell worked. Cheese? It sounded utterly ridiculous. One or two of these visitors turned back to take a distance shot before rejoining their companions and continuing their tour.
Althea watched their four-wheeled chariot swallow them up, then roll off into the distance, sputtering, groaning and growling horribly. She had learned a little about modern things by watching. A body did not sit on cold stone several feet above the ground for ages, and not learn anything. She covered her ears and winced when the metal monster wheezed along, slowly picking up speed. A terrible belching sound followed. She supposed the monsters did no harm to the people, or they would never be so willing to step into the maws of such a creature. Several people looked back out of transparent holes in the beast's sides, some staring directly at her, but they never saw her. By now she had decided the thing was made of metal and enchanted in some way to make it carry people where they wished to go.
She sat above the ground and stared at the departing vehicle. Althea had watched people come and go for a long time. Her frustration grew through the years. No one had the answer she sought--not that they would understand the question--but one day she would recognize what she awaited, when it appeared.
Althea looked down and watched a timid hare approach the circle. It stopped beside one of the columns and its nose twitched, testing the air for danger. Finding none, it moved further into the center, closer to the small patch of clover near the altar stone. Downwind, a red fox watched its prey, anticipating a late supper. It stealthily moved forward, closing the gap between them.
Althea watched them for a moment or two, and, when it seemed the fox was ready to pounce, she waved her hand. The hare grew rapidly into a large brown furred creature. Its muzzle elongated and when it roared, its sharp teeth became prominent. It stood on its hind legs and roared again. The fox stopped in its tracks at the sight of the bear, then turned and yipped in fear as it raced to safer ground. Althea laughed, and with a wave of her hand made the bear disappear, leaving the hare to wonder what had just happened to it.
The day faded and clouds of magenta and purple obscured the setting sun, yet still allowed glints of molten gold to peep through the gathering dusk. Althea watched the show of Nature's magic with the same awe as when she was a child sitting on the hillside beside her mother, before they came and took her to the training place. She had not wanted to go. Her mother smiled through tears and told her what a great honor it was, how soon she would be welcomed back to their village as a revered wise one. She never saw her mother again.
"Would you like to hear a tale of magic?" she cried out, wishing the people who had just left--at least one of them--could have heard her plea and turned back to hear her story. If they did, they might provide the help she needed, but it wasn't to be, and tonight the loneliness was especially cruel.
Althea leaped to the ground, landing gracefully despite the height of the drop. She walked the length of the altar stone in the center of the site, letting her slender fingers skim the surface of the smooth, cool granite. Something in the stone called out to her of past rituals in the form of an ancient song that awakened a distant memory. If only her mind could grasp the words--perhaps they would lead her to the answers.
There was no one to listen, but she allowed the memories to wash over her just the same. She corrected that thought. There were spirits just outside the stone circle. The invisible barrier that kept her in, kept them out, but she knew they were there. Sometimes she saw them, watching, and wondered if they ever felt sorry for her. That idea made her angry. They should feel sorry for themselves, not her. She had a way out to freedom. They didn't. It just took the right person to arrive.
Memories kept her focused when the terrible ache of loneliness brought her tears. In the growing darkness she huddled against one of the standing stones, hugging her knees and rocking to the melody she hummed, a song she remembered from so long ago. Perhaps she could spend just a bit of her magic and look back, all the way to the beginning. She stood in the cool evening air and let the breeze caress her fair skin. Her silken robes fluttered like butterfly wings as she moved. The space of the trilith shimmered. Ever so slowly it formed a picture, hazy at first, but then clear.
Althea began her story, and her eyes welled up with tears, blurring the vision of her home, of playing with the other children in the small village where she was born. Althea wished she could step into that picture of memory, but not even the greatest magician could do such a thing...
* * * *
This young girl watched her father return from the fields with her brothers, her mother smiling and gathering each in her arms in greeting. The girl busied herself, setting wooden bowls and spoons on the crude table, lighting the rushlights and waiting for her father's rough hug to tell her she'd done well...
One day the old wise woman led her away from her home, on the long journey to the misty island where she began her training. The girls there welcomed her and became friends, though they often teased her. All the other novices stood tall and willowy. Their long, golden hair fell in braids to their waists and their blue eyes sparkled with mischief. They called her "Changeling," the petite, dark fairy child among them.
Althea studied hard and did her chores through her two years as a novice. Little changed from day to day except when the great Mage visited each year to celebrate the rites of Spring.
After all that had happened, Althea couldn't keep her heart from leaping inside her when she beheld his image once again. Marcus, they called him. No one knew his true age, for he had all the beauty of youth combined with a majesty born of maturity. Like the powerful invaders who ages before had come from the north, he had piercing black eyes set in a narrow face with high cheekbones. His slightly prominent nose kept him from being too beautiful, too effeminate, and his full red lips held a perpetual smile--even when he was displeased. He wore his beard neatly trimmed to define a strong jawline, with a dark mustache joining the beard below the corners of his mouth. His long, dark hair hung like a silken curtain to his shoulders.
Whenever he came near, the maidens clustered about with downcast eyes and sneaked furtive glances when they thought he didn't see. Although the girls vied for his attention, they seldom got it unless they displeased him in some way. He carried his tall figure in the manner of a warrior king and demanded the courtesies and privileges that status required. None dared touch him unless he permitted it. Rumors had it that most of the teachers would forsake their positions for the chance to accompany him as a "special" pupil.
Only the oldest and wisest priestess avoided him. She shook her head in displeasure and Althea heard her mutter, "Thinks he is something, he does. No good comes of it. We wise ones work with nature, within her laws, but the wizards try to force nature to their own selfish will. Mark you, child, evil oft wears a pretty face."
Usually Marcus stayed a day or two, looking over the school and the students. The teachers put on their best behavior, vying for his approval. When it was time for him to leave he would choose one of the promising students to accompany him. It was said these girls received his special attention and training. The teachers told the girls that those chosen would learn much of his great magic before he sent them on their way to serve where they were most needed. None of them ever returned to the school.
Althea remembered every moment, watching the picture of the Spring festival the year she came of age and entered the sacred circle. Marcus could not enter with the women, but stood outside the ring and studied each girl as if he were looking for some special sign. Julia, a pretty and flirty blonde girl with sparkling blue eyes, flushed with a pink glow under his steady gaze. Althea felt the pangs of jealousy. Why did she have to be different? Marcus would never choose a changeling like her.
"You will attend me this year," he declared as he touched Julia's soft skin. Everyone was sure where his attentions to Julia lay, but no one dared say a word.
The teachers and other students envied Julia, and yet were a bit fearful at the same time. They knew they would never see her again, but they would pretend to know of her success.
Marcus continued on his tour, listening in the classrooms, observing, nodding at the headmistress's comments, and making suggestions. A young dark-haired girl hurried along the hall, not watching where she was going. Her knapsack tumbled over, spilling its contents. She was too busy shoving them back into the bag to pay attention to her way. Marcus was at first angry with her carelessness, then hissed in surprise when he took a good look at her. It wasn't that she was especially attractive. She was rather plain compared to the beautiful Julia. Still, Marcus felt, rather than saw something in her no one else had noticed before. Then and there he told the headmistress he would take the darkling child as well.
* * * *
Althea sat gingerly on a corner of the alter stone, as if she feared a bolt of lightning would loose itself from the heavens and strike her down for her daring. It didn't matter really because ages had passed since the last rituals were held in this place. She shivered and felt a strange darkness overshadow her--a premonition of sorts. She wasn't sure what it meant as she looked up to the thickening clouds. The breeze was almost gone, leaving the air still and warm. A storm was brewing somewhere, but she didn't think it was the usual sort. "Is it time?" she asked the darkening sky. A lightning bolt flashed against a dark cloud. Althea nodded. Very soon. Her wait was almost at an end.
She made herself comfortable on a small flat stone and leaned against the side of the altar stone at her back. She sighed and looked around, as if a small group of people surrounded her, listening with rapt attention to her story, but becoming impatient with her when her thoughts wandered. She continued, after giving the darkening sky one more glance. Another bolt of lightning lit the black clouds in the distance. Althea was mentally transported to another time and place while she recalled more of the tale...
* * * *
The two young acolytes were pleased and proud to have been chosen for special attention by the greatest wizard since Merlin. Marcus taught them both, but gave special attention to Julia. Frequently he worked with her late into the night and taught her how to please him. Marcus often seemed to forget he had a second student, and yet appeared to be biding his time with her, waiting, until one day ... Well, she wasn't sure what he waited for, but she knew he kept after her with her lessons, in a way he hadn't done with Julia.
By this time, Julia had grown into a beautiful young woman who could easily command the attention of any man she pleased. Her powers were limited but Marcus didn't seem to mind. Neither did it bother him that she flirted outrageously. Just the opposite, he seemed to encourage it, to take the young men into his confidence. Althea never really knew what their purpose was besides the obvious.
Althea, on the other hand, studied hard, wanting only to please Marcus. She hoped one day he would take notice of her as something more than his acolyte. Her feelings for the mage were kept well hidden throughout the years--or so she thought. This particular night she sat beside the hearth in a solitary cottage. She was tired but couldn't seem to fall asleep. Julia was asleep in her room. They had been here for sometime, with Marcus overseeing their studies as he always did, but adding a more determined element of practice. No one would venture too closely to the cottage. Marcus had made sure of that.
The mage approached his student and sat beside her. Reaching out, he touched her long black hair, rubbed it between his fingers. "So soft," he whispered. "You have a dark beauty no one can deny. I saw it that day, at the school, and realized you were special."
Althea's smile was shy, and for a moment she didn't dare look into his face. He raised her chin until she gazed into his fathomless dark eyes. The only light in them was reflected from the hearth. "Perhaps," he said, "I never showed you the attention you so deserved. I knew what you could be and did not want to feed your fantasies about me. You have been one of the most promising students I have ever come across. Soon you will prove your worth." He leaned forward and placed a light kiss on her cheek. "Past time you were asleep," he said and sent her to her room.
Althea still couldn't sleep, but felt a glow of happiness within her being. He thought she was beautiful. How she had longed to hear such words from him, and now she had them. She smiled in the darkness of her little room, and let the night wrap her in its embrace, let it show her dreams of what she wished for.
"It's time," he announced to Althea a few days later, "that you and I go on a short journey. Tomorrow, we will leave to go to a special place. Once there, you will learn your most important lesson, one you will never forget."
He kept his promise to her. The following evening, after leaving a sulking Julia behind in the village, Marcus escorted his dark-haired student onto a deserted plain. After what seemed hours of walking, they stepped into a stone circle. He assured her she was about to learn a most important truth about her talents. Holding her hand firmly in his, they stood beside the smooth altar stone. He lifted her and laid her upon it, easing her fears with a chaste kiss on her forehead. "Have no fear. Tonight, you will dance among the stars and know the freedom of lightness few of us ever experience. You will discover a strengthening of your magic, such as you have never known before. Tomorrow you will awaken with new understanding. Close your eyes now, and rest."
"Will you not join me, Master?"
"In due time, my dear. I must first see you safely embarked on your new journey, then I will join you on your flight among the stars."
The trusting young acolyte lay still and stared up at the full moon. Something was happening to her, but she wasn't afraid. His voice became faint, as if from a distance, chanting words unfamiliar to her. She trusted him to see to her safety as he had for years. She felt a power building within her, but did nothing to impede it. It felt right. She relaxed and allowed herself to sleep and dream. Or perhaps her journey was real. She did dance among the stars that night. Her spirit soared with fleeting wisps of cloud. She reveled in the new freedom. Marcus was right. This was one lesson she would never forget, but she also intended to repeat it. Somewhere, on the edge of her senses, she heard the unfamiliar chant continue, but paid it little mind. What felt like a tether kept her from going too far astray, but allowed her to float about like a kite on the lazy breeze of a warm spring day.
With the passing of the night, soft pinks and corals touched the dawn sky and she knew it was time to return to her physical body. She wanted to fly forever, but knew instinctively it was impossible and she had to return. The silver strand gently pulling her back suddenly became lax and she found herself tumbling uncontrollably. She panicked and fought her way back to where her body lay at rest.
* * * *
Althea paused from her tale, rose from her seat on the ground and began pacing restlessly. Telling the rest of her story was difficult at best, but she had to finish it, bring it to its conclusion. She drew in a deep breath and continued...
* * * *
"Our young apprentice managed to find her way back to the stone circle, but her body was gone. The sun was on the rise, throwing off giant shadows to the west. The altar stone was in full view, in the dawn light. She floated upward again, in shock, and stopped when she struck some overhead barrier. Marcus had magically constructed an invisible bubble over and around the stone, springing the trap when she first entered it. His laughter carried to her from beyond the wall he had erected.
"You are not as bright as I had thought at first. Your innocence gave me the ability to take what you have."
"I have nothing that you do not already possess," she called out to him in fury. "Return my body, that I may leave this place!"
"And seek revenge on me? I think not!" He laughed again. "There I have put you, and there you will stay forever. In time your spirit will weaken and cease to be. With the powers you had, added to my own, I am now the most powerful mage in the world. No one will ever best me." He looked up at her, the smile on his face replaced by a look of surprise. "Did you not know?" he asked incredulously.
"Know what?" she demanded, still furious he had tricked her.
"You had talents of such magnitude, that once trained, you would have been the most powerful mage in existence, myself included. I couldn't let that happen. Had you been more alert, you could have protected your talents from me, even when you were off dancing among the stars. You should never trust your fellows." Just outside the barrier, Marcus spoke a few ancient words and the petite body vanished.
Althea moved between two of the outer stones and reached out a hand to feel the invisible wall tingling with energy. She ran from one stone to the next, looking for a means of escape...
"For over a thousand years, I have patiently waited here for him to return. Sometimes I can feel the pull of his magic, but he has never appeared." Althea paused once more and sighed. "He will return, you know, but he will expect me to have vanished long ago. He has no idea how desire for revenge can sustain a person's spirit. He will be here soon, if for no other reason but to satisfy his curiosity. Then again, the world no long believes in magic as it once did. Perhaps he no longer exists. If that is the case, I'm doomed to failure. If I must, I'll wait another thousand years until I know his greed has destroyed him, or I have the opportunity to avenge myself on him. I have a few tricks, yet, he never knew about." Althea kicked at some loose pebbles and sent them flying into the barrier, where the wall hissed and the small missiles became dust.
* * * *