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He slithered around the desert base, sending tendrils of his shadow-self underneath the cracks of rotting doors and through drafty holes of old windows. Somewhere in the back of his mind, whatever semblance of a conscience he had was whispering commands to go and see the king, to report to the king, to give the king exactly what he had wanted. He was supposed to want to see the king. That was what he had been told when he was created. The king was to be his master, and he was supposed to have a need to be by the king’s side, to be his loyal dog at all times.
Shadow wasn’t sure why then he was addicted to Alek.
He growled low under his breath when his search was futile, when none of the normal dorm rooms yielded the dark signature of Alek’s shadow. Shadow continued to move, going out of a window as his namesake, a faceless blob that clung to the stone walls to climb up to a window of the next floor. He startled a guard and paid the nameless soldier no heed as he stalked onward.
“Took you long enough,” the king said lowly, his head resting on one of his hands as he sat upon his throne.
“It’s a late hour,” Shadow said, morphing into a solid body in order to bow to the king.
“I always require reports,” the king said. “I would not sleep until I have yours.”
Shadow plunged into his report of the outskirts of the mountain range. The aspect of fire’s power wasn’t as strong as the aspect of earth’s had been, and Shadow admitted to not understanding why that was so. He garnered that it wasn’t good when the king slammed his fist upon the armrest of his seat.
“Someone else it closer to it,” the king snarled. “You were too slow!” Shadow didn’t move, allowing the king to thunder off of his throne and smack him into the wall. Shadow connected with the stone partition, not daring to release his solid form so the impact wouldn’t hurt. That would have made the king even angrier.
“I apologize,” Shadow said after he stood up from the ground. “Where is the next aspect? I shall go straight away.” It hurt more than slamming into a wall to say that. Shadow hadn’t found Alek yet.
“I don’t know,” the king said, glaring out of the window. “It’d be the aspect of water.”
“What bodies of water are around?” Shadow asked.
“There are none here,” the king said, every syllable dripping with venom. “I rule over a barren, pathetic desert! Get out of my sight. I’ll give you your orders in the morning.”
“Yes sir.” Shadow bowed out of the throne room before the king could change his mind, and immediately renewed his search for Alek. It took him another candle mark to go through the rest of the base’s rooms until he found Alek’s space.
The blond was sleeping, half of his limbs hanging off of the mattress while he drooled into his pillow, a half-opened book laying underneath his chest. Shadow felt a sense of relief at finally seeing the young man, but Shadow didn’t know why.
Alek stirred as Shadow walked closer to him, and the blond sleepily blinked awake. His mouth curled up into a smile despite the yawn that had tried to interrupt it. “Hey, Shadow… Back already?”
A smirk twitched on Shadow’s face. “I was gone for three days.”
“Hm?” Alek looked out the window, as if the moon could tell him the date. “Still, faster than I thought it would take you to get the aspect of fire.”
“I didn’t get it.” Shadow sat down at the end of the bed and Alek sat up to sit next to him. “I failed.”
“I’m sure you tried your best,” Alek said, wobbling dangerously close to falling back on the bed to sleep again.
“It wasn’t good enough.”
“We’ll get the next one,” Alek said, unperturbed by Shadow’s pessimism. “I think it’s beyond the mountains, though. There’s a lake there that may be the house of the aspect of water.” His attention turned to the stack of books on his desk and he shifted to lift the book that was on the bed with them, but Shadow tugged his arm back down.
“What happened to your face?” Shadow asked. Alek paused, his eyes widening as Shadow let a tendril of darkness trace the bruise that was blossoming on Alek’s cheek.
“You have to ask?” Alek asked dryly. “It took a little longer than expected to take a guess as to where the aspect of water is…”
“What about your healing balm?” Shadow asked. “The stuff you used to help me?”
“I don’t have anymore,” Alek said. “I need to make some.”
“I’m sorry.” Shadow removed the dark tendril from Alek’s face. “You used the rest on me.”
“You needed it more than I do for a bruise,” Alek said, waving his hand in dismissal. “Don’t worry about it. It won’t take long to make more.”
Silence hung in the air and Shadow watched as Alek looked down at his bare feet, swinging them in no particular rhythm as the pair sat together. Alek eventually looked back up at Shadow, jerking away in surprise at noticing Shadow staring at him, but a small smile was on the blond’s face just the same.
“Go back to sleep,” Shadow said, standing up. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t,” Alek said.
“I did.” Shadow extended his arm, allowing it to stretch until it was large enough to gently push Alek back down on the mattress and simultaneously taking the open book to place it with the others on Alek’s desk. Alek only resisted until he realized that Shadow would not lose the page on the book, and settled down. He glanced at Shadow with a sleepy smile and murmured a good night.
“Glad you’re back safe and sound,” the blond said before drifting back off to sleep.
Shadow paused by the door, wondering again about his addiction and finding that seeing Alek again had done nothing to curb it.
Ever have those books that you can’t describe? One of those stories that just swallows you up, heart and soul, but for the life of you, you just cannot describe it properly enough to give it justice?
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is that book for me.
The book has already been out for a little over three years, but it still seems brand new. I had thought the premise was interesting when it had first been published, if only because the author had written it due to NaNoWriMo. It was exciting to know a fellow NaNoer had broken into the publishing industry and, although I don’t know her personally, I was proud of her success. After the book was published (like, months after, maybe a year later), one of my old friends had thrust her copy of the novel into my hands, demanding that I read it.
Come to think of it, she couldn’t really give me a good, proper description of it either.
I devoured the book. I could not – did not want – to put the novel down. I had other borrowed books, most of them from Rachel’s old boyfriend (who was very confused as to why it took me years to read his borrowed books, but mere days to read The Night Circus, and all Rachel could say was that, while his books were good, they were not as soul-sucking as The Night Circus was for me), but they were abandoned in favor the Morgenstern’s masterpiece.
Alas, I eventually had to return the book, and I had no idea what to do with my time for a while after finishing the story. Eventually, despite feeling as if I had lost a very dear friend, I had moved on with my life for the next two years. Until this past Christmas season, that is.
About half of my Christmas wish list consisted of books, and one of the latest additions to the list was The Night Circus. I don’t know what prompted me to think of the story again, but it wasn’t a thought I pondered about for long. It was a welcome present and, despite the other dozen or so books that I have unread on my bookshelf, The Night Circus was the first book I began to read after the holidays wound down.
My mother asked me recently what The Night Circus was about, and I was stumped. “Magic,” was the first word that popped into my head, then came the not-so-brilliant, “It’s about a circus that’s only opened at night.” Seriously, duh. I started to ramble. “There’s a love story beneath it all, it’s really about a competition between these two magicians, but they didn’t enter the competition themselves, and they use all sorts of magic to help create and maintain this circus. The circus isn’t a typical three-ring affair with lion tamers and acrobats, but filled with many sorts of tents, like one created entirely of ice and a pool where you throw stones to get rid of those weights of the world on your shoulder…”
That’s really all I remember. My mom began to just give me a smile, one of those amusing kinds of smiles that said she was humoring me and enjoying the fact that I loved the book so much.
The Night Circus is one of those stories where you have to read it several times. The first time you plow through the pages and chapters, eagerly getting to the end just to see what happens because you’ll die if you don’t find out right. Now. The second (and the third and the forth and so on) time you read it, you taste it slowly, relishing the small bites, the intricate details you missed on your first flight through the words. It’s an amazing bookshelf addition for everyone who enjoys a world with magic, a bit of romance, and just the fantastical blending beautifully with people.
I hope everyone out there has a book that they cannot properly describe.
On her first evening shift, Diana was greeted with a woman that had dark horns curving out of the top of her head and a thin tail that swished behind her like an aggravated cat.
“What’s wrong, newbie?” the woman asked when Diana stared at the horns a second too long. “Ever see a hybrid before?”
“Well, no,” Diana said. “Can’t say that I have.”
“You have now,” was the brisk reply. “Name’s Anita, the assistant manager of this joint. I’m from Dimension 33, a place where horns and tails aren’t the oddest things you’d see. Heard you’ve been doing well with the register and thought it high time that you start memorizing and making the drinks. You ready?”
“Good enough answer,” Anita said. “You should be more confident, though.” She motioned for Diana to follow, and the pair went behind the cash counter and toward the drink-making area. Diana waved to Ellie by the register, but didn’t stop to say hello. Anita’s swift steps ensured that Diana had no time to pause.
“You won’t be making too many drinks by yourself tonight, if at all,” Anita said. “We do have a guarantee that, if a customer does not like his or her drink, we’ll remake it for free. Don’t give the customers an opportunity to use that.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Diana nodded.
Anita pointed to a booklet hanging on the wall over one of the sinks. “This is our recipe book. It’s all the basics. Obviously, the majority of customers customize their drinks, so learn where all the syrups and flavored shots are. Every ingredient has its own place in this area. Do not mix them up. Drinks can be made faster when you don’t have to second-guess where everything is.”
Diana nodded again, her gaze flitting over the tubes of caramel, hazelnut, and cinnamon, among others. A large tub with a pump was labeled espresso and was next to even bigger containers named coffee and decaf. There was a refrigerator under the main cabinet that, upon getting a sneak peek at from Anita, revealed canisters of whipped cream, jugs of milk, and packages of cream.
“I’ll handle the register tonight,” Anita said after the tour of the mixing area. “Ellie will make the drinks and you’ll shadow her.”
The majority of Diana’s shift was listening to Ellie ramble back and forth about the drinks she was making and about gossip regarding customers from earlier in her shift. Diana watched Ellie carefully, seeing how she moved and barely looked at the ingredients she used to make the drinks correctly. The shift was steady with customers, not too busy. In fact, Diana’s shift felt as if it was lasting much longer than the usual four hours.
“Not many people want caffeine at this time of night,” Ellie said. “You still got a few, of course, that hop in between the crossroads and their own dimension if it’s morning where they’re from.”
“I think it’s funny,” Diana said, “that, no matter what dimension one is from, the love of caffeine seems to be universal.”
Ellie laughed and glanced at the screen for the next order in the queue. “Why don’t you try making this one, Hon?”
Diana saw the order, a medium hazelnut coffee, cream, extra, extra, extra light, and three sugars. She blinked. “Why all the extras for light? Does the customer want the low-fat version?”
“If they wanted low-fat, they would have said so,” Ellie explained. “Well, most would, if they had any sense in their heads. When a customer wants it light, they generally mean the amount of milk or cream in the drink. I usually leave about half an inch per ‘extra’ that the customer orders.”
Diana got to work, getting the medium sized cup and placing it under the coffee tank. Using the few seconds it took the machine to fill the cup with a couple of inches to spare, Diana grabbed the hazelnut syrup and cream. She gave the syrup tube a quick squeeze, mimicking the way Ellie had been working throughout the shift, and dumped the sugar in the drink before adding the generous amount of cream. Under her coworker’s watchful eye, Diana put the special lid on the cup and put it in the blending machine for a couple of seconds before bringing it over to the counter.
“One medium hazelnut with cream, extra, extra, extra light, and three sugars,” Diana called out. A man with an elongated face and other features of a horse grabbed the drink with a quiet word of thanks and a wave to Anita.
“See ya later, Bill,” the manager said as he went out the door. Immediately, Anita turned her attention to the next customer in line and growled. “You are only welcomed here if you are planning on paying for an honest drink!”
Diana, startled at Anita’s aggressive tone, looked up at the customer and shrunk back when she recognized him. Luke was glowering at Anita.
“Nadine doesn’t work here anymore, and with good reason,” Anita interrupted. “She has no clout here. Frankly, she never really did. Either show me money when you order, or get out.”
“He’s back again?” Ellie whispered from behind Diana. “Hon, you may want to get back in case Anita needs my help getting rid of him.”
Diana obeyed, but asked, “What can you do to help?”
Ellie grinned. “Honey, my home dimension is good, ol’ 52, where we’re descendants and relatives of dragons. If Luke really starts pushing Anita, I’ll just show you what I inherited from my great-grandmother.”
Diana found herself wishing that Luke did something stupid enough to get Ellie angry. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on one’s opinions – Luke took the hint and backed off, being sure to slam the door on his way out.
“Aren’t there other places he can get coffee?” Diana asked when Ellie and she returned to the mixing area.
“You ever explore the Dimensional Crossroads?” Ellie asked in return, not even looking at the drink she was mixing. “There’s not too much here, Hon. With so many different creatures passing through, not many businesses survived. Too much cultural differences. We got a few places for basics, some apartments, and then the dimensional portal station.” She shrugged.
“I guess I’ll have to go and sight-see one of these days,” Diana said, handing the chocolate drizzle to Ellie.
“Only if you got some skills to protect yourself,” Ellie said. “Where are you from, anyway?”
“Dimension 21,” Diana said.
“Which one is that?” Ellie asked. “Is that the dimension where everyone is British?”
“Uh, no,” Diana said. “I don’t even have that accent.”
Ellie shrugged again. “Sorry, Hon, I’m not too up-to-date on the dimensions these days.”
“No worries,” Diana said. “Dimension 21 doesn’t seem to have anything special about it, actually. I can’t really think of anything that would make it stand out. Not like dragons or hybrids.”
“I’m sure there’s something fascinating about it,” Ellie said with a smile before going to call out the drink.
Diana hung back and shook her head to herself, disagreeing with Ellie’s words entirely. There was a reason why she wanted the job in the Dimensional Crossroads in the first place.
The next part of the Common Grounds Cafe. These things are fun to write! I hope you enjoy it!
The scent of cinnamon-sprinkled apples awakened Diana’s nose and made her feel almost at home again. She wore a lazy smile as she walked into the café, her shoes shuffling across the tiled floor in a soft hush, as she enjoyed the smells of flavored coffee.
“G’morning,” she said, and got a nod in response from Michael. As she put on her apron, Diana asked, “You always seem to open. Is that your normal shift?”
Diana blinked. Butterflies began to assault her stomach, a feeling that she hadn’t experienced in almost a week since her first few days at Common Grounds. Had she done something wrong, something that prevented Michael from talking to her?
“Michael’s a mute, Hon.” Ellie appeared from the back room, her arms balancing sleeves of plastic cups and covers to get ready for the morning rush. “You haven’t realized that yet, huh?”
“Oh.” Diana glanced over at the manager, who, upon hearing his name, had glanced up at the women and gave them a quirked smile before continuing to open the register for the day. Diana wasn’t one to discriminate, of course, but she was curious as to how Michael could effectively manage and deal with difficult customers if he could not speak to them.
“The higher-ups like having Michael on the morning shifts,” Ellie said, as if she could read Diana’s mind. With a snake’s grin, the woman added, “This is the time when most jackasses are out, but they can’t argue well with a guy who just shakes his head at them.”
Diana smiled in return, oddly eager to see a customer try to argue with Michael. She got her station ready and, in no time at all, Michael was unlocking the front doors.
When she had first joined and learned that she would primarily be working the register for the first couple of weeks, Diana had been skeptical at how quickly she would be able to learn how to operate the machine. Her bosses apparently knew how to train their new workers, considering that Diana almost knew the register’s options by heart. With the simpler orders, Diana barely needed to look at the screen anymore. Her fingers flew across the options, hitting the correct buttons by heart.
“Seven twenty-five, please. Would you like your receipt?” Diana smiled at the customers as she counted their money or swiped their credit cards, and kept the line moving along as she wished them a good day.
“Large half-sweet, non-fat caramel macchiato.” A tall, thin man with a dark goatee matching his narrow eyes made his way to Diana’s register. “And it’s free.”
“Okay, that’s five thirty-eight—Excuse me?” Diana paused.
The man rolled his eyes. “It’s free. Name’s Luke. Everyone here knows me.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Diana said. “I’m new, so—“
“Just let me go and check—“
“What, you don’t believe me?” Luke glowered, and the butterflies were attacking Diana’s stomach in full-force. “You calling me a liar?”
“Of course not, but—“
“Then get me my free drink.”
“You got no free drinks!” Ellie, probably curious as to why Diana wasn’t inputting any orders in the queue, bustled over to Diana’s side. “Everyone here knows you as a cheat, Luke, including this new gal once we’re through with you. Either pay up or get out.”
Luke’s permanent scowl intensified. “Manager. Now.”
“Michael’s right over there, sir,” Diana said, pointing over toward the tables that the manager was cleaning up.
“He’s no sir!” Ellie scoffed, and returned to the drink-mixing area for the next order.
Luke marched over to Michael, and Diana took a deep breath before taking care of the next customer. She tried to ignore the customer’s increased volume with his shouts, and she felt guilty for foisting Luke onto Michael. However, when she snuck a glance at the two men while in between orders, she was impressed at how stoic her manager seemed. Michael’s arms were crossed, a cleaning rag in one hand and a spray bottle of disinfectant in the other, as he stared down Luke. Every so often, Michael would shake his head once, much to Luke’s aggravation. Eventually, Luke said something about calling corporate and getting everyone fired before stomping out of the café. Michael simply turned back around and continued to clean tables.
When there was a lull in the café, Diana’s first question to Ellie was, “What was that Luke guy’s problem? Who was he?”
Ellie huffed. “He’s a jerk that comes in once in a while, either early morning or late at night, always demanding his drink be free ever since he used to date one of the previous managers here.”
“That’s… ridiculous,” Diana said.
“People are,” Ellie said. “Let me just tell you this, Hon. If any customer claims that they are entitled to a free drink, always check with a manager. Doesn’t matter if the customer keeps arguing with you. Lie and say you don’t have the ability to make the drink free in the register or something. Just get a manager.”
“Alright,” Diana said. “I probably would have done so, anyway.”
“You got a head on your shoulders.” Ellie nodded with approval. “The last kid that was here got fired since he was so gullible.”
Diana winced in sympathy. She glanced over at Michael, seeing him through the office’s open door in the back of the café at the main computer. “Michael doesn’t mind that we sent the difficult customer to him, does he?”
“That’s his job,” Ellie said, cleaning some of the utensils and instruments used to make the drinks. “Don’t worry about it. Luke isn’t the first jerk that Michael’s faced off, and Luke won’t be the last.” Diana nodded, but wasn’t too convinced. Apparently, her skepticism showed, for Ellie added, “You’re going to meet a lot of different kinds of characters here, Hon. Working retail is crap, but it’ll give you tough skin and appreciativeness for others.”
A bubble popped from behind her, making Diana jump. She sighed and gave Colin’s smirk a crooked smile in return.
“Unless you’re Colin,” Ellie said to end her speech.
“What,” Diana said, “Colin doesn’t appreciate others?”
“It’s not that,” Colin said, tossing his belongings in the back room and giving Michael a nod, which Diana began to understand as the universal greeting between guys. “I don’t have tough skin. I’m very sensitive, you know.”
“As sensitive as a rhino’s hide,” Ellie muttered, and Diana laughed. “Your shift is done, Hon. Clock out and go home.”
“Unless you want to do my shift too,” Colin said. “You know, get the extra practice and all.”
“I think I’m good,” Diana said, taking off her apron and hanging it up. “Besides, you need to work on getting tougher skin, right?”
His smirk grew. “Not sure. After all, girls like sensitive guys, right?”
Diana shook her head. “Not if they’re lazy! See you later, everyone.”