The Butterfly Dragon: With Two Hands

This content is produced artists indicated on the site, and by me, Brian Joseph Johns. 

I, under no circumstance will trade, barter or otherwise swap my own identity for that of another person and I protect the same right for those who've contributed their artwork to the various projects under my management at Shhhh! Digital Media, my own company. These rights are protected by law under the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms under section 7.

    Updates (April 5, 2023 2:30 PM EST)

    1. In The Cards chapter started and finished.

    2. On The Couch chapter started and finished.

    3. Black Jack chapter started and finished.

    4. Towards Creative Ends chapter started and finished.

    5. Epilogue chapter started and finished.

    6. First draft of the story completed, though more finishing touches will be sure to follow over the next week.

    Updates (April 4, 2023 6:15 PM EST)

    1. The Party chapter (finished).

    2. Within The Pit chapter (finished)

    Updates (April 3, 2023 2:30 PM EST)

    1. City Of Cusmant chapter added.

    2. The Party chapter started (unfinished).

    Updates (April 2, 2023 11:30 AM EST)

    1. Various artwork added to chapter Once Upon A Stage.

    Updates (April 1, 2023 9:30 AM EST)

    1. Additions and edits to chapter Once Upon A Stage.

    2. Realm Of Shards chapter added.

    3. Artwork added to the The Creative Sleep chapter (1:22 PM EST).

    Updates (March 31, 2023 10:00 PM EST):

    1. Once Upon A Stage chapter added.

    2. The Creative Sleep chapter added.

    Here's a new tale to keep you company for the time being. I can't say much, but that it should be enjoyable. What I can say is that this is the story that will start the bridge where we left off with the Two Dragons, that will lead into what's to come next in that story line and as I said in my video update, the storyline encompassing the climax of The Butterfly Dragon III: The Two Dragons aka The Two Butterflies.

    If you think that I'm getting a little bit too Yin for you, don't worry. There will be plenty of Yang in the near future, though Butterfly Dragon will always have a strong Yin aspect. The Yang however is coming soon.

    Once Upon A Stage

    The night sky of summer stared in at the event, which was just winding down as the last of the models did their walk along the multi-branched stage of the West Meet East Fashion Studio.

    The music of Grimes (who was also in the audience taking notes), blared as Suzy graced the stage in an elegant evening dress. She stopped at the center stage and quickly removed the transparent dress and chemise portion of the outfit, revealing the built in night gown, for which most of the audience applauded.

    Suzy turned and strutted her body, showing off the low profile gown that barely covered it, though being a professional, she knew it wasn't about her. It was about the outfit, though most in the audience truly appreciated both in a business where presentation and substance were everything. She possessed both.


    The audience applauded for her, and the gown when she entered view, as she had been absent for the entire show until that point.

    Her smile shone through her ruby red lips, nearly eclipsing the evening gown she was wearing as she walked slowly and deliberately onto the main stage first, then strategically taking her strut to each of the two sides of the 晚上的天空 (sky at night) stage, whose shape resembled the Chinese symbol:  天 when viewed from above.

    Wendy quickly pinched Bryce's leg playfully after he spoke:

    "This girl. I got this feeling that she's going to go places, and quickly too. Definitely close to c," he smiled, clapping for Monique, referring to the constant quantity defined as capacity, aka the speed of light.

    "You like that one Steven?" asked Zheng.

    "I could see you in that," Steven replied, truthfully, trying to constrain his enthusiasm at the thought.

    Zheng put a check on her program as Monique continued her strut onto the center stage portion of the night sky and heaven of Heylyn's stage design.


    Somewhere between Zheng and Wendy sat Linda Delmore and her date, her legs crossed and upon which her program sat, where she too took notes.

    "You know what's interesting about this, is that one of our divisions at MindSpice is developing AI based tools for use in the fashion industry," Gabe told Linda as he watched the show with a distant and somewhat clinical interest.

     "You mean AI generated fashion? Like those AI generated art images I've been hearing about in the news lately?" confirmed Linda.

    "No, not really. The way we're doing it is more like turning AI into another kind of paintbrush for the designer. It allows them use it to suggest shape alterations when working on designs or when moving their initial design to patterns. Very interesting stuff. It will really give artists the next level of tools," Gabe remarked.

    "But won't that kill the art form? I mean if anyone can just click a button and produce a complete fashion design or download one from the internet and then print it out on their fabric printer, won't that just kill the fashion design and clothing industry?" Linda asked somewhat cautiously.

    "That's always been a fear of humanity since we developed the first ploughs to turn up the soil. When a new more advanced tool comes along, the artisans who relied on the previous ways of doing things either oppose it, or adapt to it. The ones who adapt often create entirely new artforms in their embrace of new tools and artisanship. Every new tool creates opportunity to further the artform. Did mp3s kill the music industry? No. They changed it, and even grew it substantially, but it didn't kill it. Did DVDs and downloadable films kill the movie industry? No. Over the last few decades the film industry has seen a record level of growth, however the way we consume music and movies has changed substantially because of the tools and there's always an economic hiccup when that transition happens. AI generated artwork will simply be another tool in the real artist's toolbelt, and won't take anything away from art itself. People who still use wet paint and a canvas to render their art by hand will continue to do so to their heart's content and likely have a market that appreciates their art. Insofar as digital artists go, AI will just change the way they produce their art," Gabe responded confidently.

    "How will AI affect territory sales?" asked Linda, who worked in the field.

    "Do you have a smart phone?" asked Gabe.

    "Yes, but not smarter than me," Linda responded, drawing a hearty laughter from Gabe.

    "Wouldn't you say that device has changed everything about territory sales? I mean your company must use integration software tools to keep you in sync with their database, don't they?" Gabe asked her.

    "True. My phone is loaded up with the company app that keeps me in sync with our Baltimore headquarters. Comes in handy, especially since my sales territory covers Ontario and Quebec in this country, hence why I was able to go on this interesting date with you," she responded with a friendly  yet professional smile.

    "Thank you! Well that takes a load off. I was under the impression that you came all this way just for me," Gabe smiled back gratefully, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

    Behind them, Katya sat in her finest gown. A silk dress that had been handed down through three generations of her family, eventually ending up in her possession. When she'd received the invite, she'd taken it to a master tailor, who'd restored most of the dress to its original glory and in it, she'd drawn much attention while nowhere near stealing the show.

    Beside, Victor wore the same tuxedo he'd worn to their wedding, as they'd both agreed that it was quite an honour to be formally invited to the show by Heylyn herself, in her own hand writing, as she had done for all her close friends.

    "I'm seeing so many faces I've seen in the news. Especially... how you say? The online entertainment weeklies? It is good to see a place where so many different people can enjoy their time together without turmoil," Katya told her husband.

    "The turmoil is always there. Some people are better equipped to deal with it than others, and its their responsibility to bear, for having that gift. That is, where it isn't purposely and intentionally made theirs in the first place," Victor replied thoughtfully.

    "The only turmoil there is to be tonight is the turmoil we cause on the dance floor during the party tonight," Katya smiled, leaning in to kiss the face of her husband.

    On the far end of the same row in the aisle seats, sat Alicia and Norler. Alicia's stomach had grown a bit since the last time she'd seen Heylyn, Monique and Valerie, not to mention her appetite had grown considerably considering that she was eating for two.

    "Still thinking about your new job honey?" asked Alicia of her fiancé.

    "Its a big change, going from being the CEO of one of the biggest investment firms in the world, to running a medical supplies startup, several billionths of the size of Tynan And Associates in terms of capital," Norler responded.

    "But you've also got a game changer technology on your side. Gregory's Handheld MRI/FDI device," Alicia reminded him.

    "If Tynan And Associates takes us on, and tries to take the patent from Gregory, there's a good chance they might win. They have the resources. The only thing that they don't have on their side is truth," Norler replied.

    "Do you remember our ski trip to Whistler?" asked Alicia.

    "I certainly do. That was one of the best experiences I've had skiing, despite the fact that it still terrifies me," Norler responded.

    "You remember what the instructor said, right?" asked Alicia.

    "Yes. He said keep both skis parallel when you want to move forward, and cross them when you're moving slow enough but want to stop," Norler replied.

    "No. I wasn't talking about that. He said something else. He said: don't aim for the trees. Aim for the path through them," Alicia reminded him.

    Aikiko Tanaka sat alone on the same row, one aisle over from her new friends. She watched the fashion show, with some reservations about the women on stage. About their level of fitness or the merit through which they'd earned the right to flaunt themselves. Her mind was a constant struggle between the woman she once was, a long time ago, and the woman she'd become. Like a soft and delicate core surrounded by sharpened serrated edges, ready to protect her fragile ego. She was often skeptical, yet within her, the heart of a delicate and courageous woman was making its way to the surface. The woman she'd once been and unbeknownst to her, the woman she longed to be.

    Beside her, a man had taken up observation of her shapely legs, both of which were clad in sheer pantyhose through which her tattoos could clearly be seen. Even amidst a room full of glowing women, she still stood out as the forbidden fruit. While she focused on the show, trying to understand why it was so popular, the man beside her had finally worked up the courage and lust to speak.

    "Those are incredible tattoos. Absolutely remarkable artwork. Much like you, I'd say," he delivered his pickup line to her with what he thought was confidence and finesse.

    She caught him eyeing her legs, and responded.

    "My tattoos are sacred, even mystical, and yet they don't bite. However, I must warn you that I do," Aikiko responded with an intensity beyond that of which most people were capable.

    For a moment, the man felt the eyes of every dragon on her body looking at him. Through him, to the core of his soul.

    Backstage, Heylyn had finally relaxed from her earlier frantic effort to ensure the best show. She'd spent most of her time checking that every model was outfitted correctly before they stepped out onto the stage. She'd given them each a quick examination, moving or adding parts to their outfit on the fly from the optional accessories she'd also designed and had her team produce previously.

    Now her earlier stress was replaced by the calm of a nearing completion. A sense of collective accomplishment on the part of her team, who for all intense purposes were just as on the ball about the success of the show as the woman who ran the show itself.

    "Good choice, to have Monique as the show finisher," Kori remarked to Heylyn, having just arrived from an errand to the dressing room.

    "She's certainly helped us to grow, not to mention her face adorns nearly every one of our ads. She's come a long way from all those years ago," Heylyn recalled how during her trip to buy her morning latte, she'd discovered Monique seated in a café, down and out.

    Now she was the center attraction in nearly every one of West Meet East's fashion shows, and yet she'd retained her intensity and down to earth nature. She was the mentor for many of the younger models, protectively guiding them, each and every one.

    Monique continued her strut on the stage, stopping in the center, pulling a portion of the shall that had rested on her shoulder, tugging it up to cover her face in a reddish-pink semi-transparent material, her eyes peering out from above it. The audience applauded once again as she turned several times, displaying the impromptu alteration in her outfit.

    She then put her hand on her leg, and found a slit in the skirt, running her hand up from the knee to her upper thigh to show that the gown actually had several such slits, through which she revealed her shapely legs. The audience stood this time, as she slowly removed the shall from her face and slinked seductively to the backstage.

    The applause continued for her show closer, as she rushed to the crowded backstage dressing room.

    There within, several women were in the midst of their outfit change, this time changing into their wear for the party that was to follow. When the applause had subsided, the theatre lights were slightly increased beckoning everyone to return to the theatre foyer.

    "Heylyn. Thank you sooo much for doing the credits at the beginning of the show rather than the end," Monique said as she slowly removed her gown down to her bra and underwear.

    "Exactly! That was brilliant and well executed!" Suzy added.

    "Great job girls and boys. Lets get you changed so you can relax. And party. I think this show was a great success, and I've already received a lot of great feedback from the audience, and I only have you and the audience to thank for that. We did it!" Heylyn announced.

    "Heylyn, I'm going to sit it out for a bit. In the creative room and maybe take a nap on the sofa," Monique responded to Heylyn, pulling her aside for a moment.

    "What's a matter Monique? Are you alright?" she asked her star model.

    "I'm just a little exhausted, between the rehearsals over the last two weeks and the impromptu photoshoot with Troy yesterday, I need a quick break," Monique replied as she pulled on her cleverly disguised Eclipse costume.

    "You aren't planning on going out later tonight, are you?" Heylyn asked her, leaning in a bit closer.

    "No. I'm really beat boss. I'm tired. These last two weeks really took a lot out of me," Monique responded, quickly pulling a blouse on over her costume.

    "Alright. I'll keep the party at bay for you until you feel better. You're one of my star players and it wouldn't be a party without you," Heylyn replied as Kori arrived behind the two of them.

    "Braden says he needs you out in the foyer. The questions are starting and he's like: I'll ask Heylyn, but I'm only the shipping/receiving guy," Kori told her.

    "You tell him that there is no only in his or any job at West Meet East, and all paths here lead to greater things. Right Ebtissam?" Heylyn asked her head seamstress as she stepped into the dressing room which had cleared out significantly.

    "Right. Except I have one question. What am I saying right to?" Ebtissam asked, looking slightly perplexed.

    "Where did you start here at West Meet East, Ebtissam?" asked Heylyn.

    "I started in the receiving department, so I could get to know the fabrics we were working with. Imperative for any patterned or automated sewing, which of course is imperative to the fashion industry," Ebtissam replied.

    "Would you have described your job as only being a receiver?" asked Heylyn of Ebtissam.

    "No. Definitely not. There's no only here. It led to the job I'd applied for as a seamstress and automated sewing operator, and then to my current position," Ebtissam agreed.

    "Get the picture Kori?" asked Heylyn.

    "Alright. I'll try and steer him right, but he's still learning the ropes in the big time. By the way, are you going to need me to baby sit Warai tomorrow night?" Kori asked, looking like gold in the dress Heylyn had designed for her.

    "My mother's got Warai tonight, and she said that she could stay another day, if she doesn't tire Warai out that is. Must be the bedtime stories. My mother's got a lot of energy and a great imagination for them. Not to mention, she's got a lot of stories to tell. She's just like her mother," Heylyn smiled.

    "Oh, and one last thing. I've had like ten people ask me if you are Filipino. Of course, I know you're not. You're Chinese. How should I deal that?" asked Kori.

    "Yes, I'm Chinese, and proudly so. Deal with them politely. Just correct them and if they're a nuisance about it or denying anyone else of their own identity or being rude in general, then ask them if they've found the exit yet, and have security politely direct them to it. If it goes beyond them, then I'll deal with it personally," Heylyn suggested.

    "Alright. I'm back out there as Braden's wing girl. See ya!" Kori's sparky presence quickly disappeared out through the dressing room door as Ebtissam followed.

    "I'll keep everyone away from the creative room," Heylyn assured Monique.


    "Alright. I'm gone. I'll be snoozing for about an hour or so. I'll see you when I'm done. Keep the party warm for me, will you?" Monique asked.

    "I certainly will. Who else can keep pace with Alicia and Valerie but you and I?" Heylyn smiled and left the dressing room as Monique left in the other direction towards the creative room.

    The Creative Sleep

    Monique slipped her shoes of and walked down the carpeted hall in her bare feet, her shoes in hand. When she got to the creative room, she opened the door and flipped the first light switch of three. A dimly lit room greeted her, the pool table with the last portions of someone's game still on the table.

    She approached the table and slid the red striped ball into the far corner pocket with her hand.

    "I am done!" she said to herself, looking towards the soft sofa upon which she'd spent many afternoons.

    She lay herself down and stretched out, finding the cool spots with her sensitive feet as she tucked a pillow under her head.

    The thumping of the speakers were barely audible, sounding more like the crashing waves of an open shore, and she remembered Treadwater Island as if it had happened yesterday. The sound of waves and the sunbrella that shielded her from the direct light of Earth's closest star. From there, she drifted off to sleep.

    Her dreams flared immediately, as the boundary between wakefulness and the land of nod were blurred beyond all recognition. They began with Derek, whom she'd met during the Treadwater Island incursion, after their having taken down Alomera Zek and his island empire.

    The she was speaking with Norler about something deep and philosophical, though she couldn't remember for the life of her what it was. Alicia had arrived in a household apron, and began cleaning the hotel room before she broke out in a long winded speech about how Quantum Biology was really related growing perfected sea sponges for cleaning.

    And then there was darkness. Complete darkness. The air around her began to swirl, even moving the billiard balls several inches, sinking one of them, though she could only hear the sounds.

    In fact, it was so dark, that she could not tell whether her eyes were opened or closed. That was when the air began moving like a torrential wind. If not for the movement of her hair, she'd have thought she was still asleep. But in fact, it was real. Very real.

    She sat up on the sofa, feeling the air in the room being sucked towards a point on the other side of the pool table, but she could not see a thing. Not until that is, a black light illuminated the room. The light surfaces became phosphorescent, reflecting like highway signs illuminated by high beams on a dark night. The room had become visible, at the behest of a vortex in the room on the other side of the pool table.

    And then suddenly, it all stopped. The air. The black light, and the dim room lights had returned, giving her the eyes to see a red headed woman with long flowing hair and a black dress that she didn't recognize.

    The two looked at each other cautiously for half a minute before Monique spoke.

    "The party's out there. I'm just catching a snooze. If you do go out there, could you close the door behind you?" she asked the red headed woman, still half asleep.

    "You're... Monique? Eclipse?" asked the red headed woman, though she was looking at notes she held in her hand.

    At that point, Monique was convinced that this was a dream and that she was merely asleep on the sofa.

    "There's a party out through that door. Just go and leave me here. I'll be there soon to join you all," she responded, hoping the apparition of her dream would follow her directions.

    "This isn't a dream, and they can't hear you. No matter what you do," the red headed woman implored to her, somewhat threateningly.

    Monique's response was instant, and in less than measurable time by any instrument of science, she was face to face with the red headed woman, her mask already on and her blouse removed, only leaving her Eclipse outfit.

    Monique challenges Shaela

    "What makes you think that you can react fast enough to stop me from going out there and warning them? Or stopping you for that matter, Dame rouge de la nuit or perhaps Chervona ledi nochi?" Monique responded.

    The red headed woman merely laughed. Not intimidatingly or in mockery. More as if she was expecting this response.

    Shaela's incursion upon Eclipse

    "You're definitely her," she replied, tucking her notes into a pocket on her black dress.

    "So care to answer me this? How is it you know so much about me and I know so little about you?" Monique asked her, keeping her chin up and her eyes glaring from behind her mask as her long black and white hair framed her shapely face.

    "I'm one of Nelony's friends, though most of her's in all honesty are usually small and furry. And often hungry for peanuts. Not to mention, she often talks to them. Even with them, though don't get me wrong. I love the woman to death. She's one of my best friends," the red headed woman informed her.

    "What? You mean she like talks to squirrels and chipmunks?" asked Monique in shock.

    "Precisely," the red headed woman confirmed.

    "...and they talk back? Like conversations?" Monique asked, now many times more confused than she'd been only moments ago.

    "Full conversations," the red headed woman just nodded affirmatively, as if in agreement of a private joke about this Nelony person.

    "Oh. Her. You mean the one that my friend Alicia and I met in Shepperton in the outskirts of London, England at that shop that Kori told us about? The one with the old Japanese man with the pug?" asked Monique.

    "One and the same," the red headed woman confirmed.

    "Oh. So you're her friend? So that means that you're not here to crash our party, right?" Monique asked, somewhat surprised.

    "Not at all, but now that you mention it, I'd love to crash it later. I've been very busy over the last little while and could use a break, but there are more important matters at hand first. Some problems. Big problems," the red headed woman responded.

    "What kind of problems are those that a red headed reject from a Vidal Sassoon commercial and a woman that talks with small furry rodents couldn't handle?" Monique responded sarcastically.

    "I'm a woman of shadows, and quite honestly, my friend who befriends all sorts of strange fauna, furry and feathered alike, told me that you're a woman of... light?" the red headed woman asked Monique.

    "And what better team is there than shadow and light?" Monique asked her.

    "If you could tell me, I'd be skeptical," the red headed woman responded.

    "So we are on the same side! So what is it you do, shadow puppets with your hands or something?" Monique responded sarcastically.

    "Hmmm. A quick sense of humour too. Yes, I do shadow puppets. Want to see?" the red headed woman asked her anticipatingly.

    Before Monique could answer, the red headed woman's hands paired to form the face of a strange bird looking creature, and then directly from the wall upon which that shadow was cast, that bird emerged fully alive. A large feathery shadow flying around the two of them, squawking as the wind from its wings moved their hair.

    "So like, do you do children's birthday parties or something?" asked Monique, still skeptical of the red headed woman.

    "You'll have to wait to see. For now, you can call me Shaela. Shaela Sheowellyn. At your service if you would be so kind to rend your assistance to a stranger like myself," Shaela introduced herself to Monique.

    "You're the one from Zheng's story about the giant...?" Monique asked in shock.

    "Yes. I rescued her from another of my kind. Mianamor Selembrosi. I'm a Wytch of the Shadows. Of The Order Of The Night Wytch, much like Mianamor, who was contracted to assassinate your friend Zheng. We haven't time to discuss this, for there are urgent matters which require our immediate attention," Shaela responded, her Welsh Londoner's accent thick but legible.

    "Where is it? I can be there in less than a second. In fact, I've been contacted by DHS Worldwide Shipping for their overnight shipping program. I had to turn them down because I'm simply too busy. I was tired, and on migraine medication," Monique responded, polishing her nails on her costume.

    "You're over your migraines I hope? Where we're going isn't upon the face of this Aerth, Eclipse. It is folded within time and space as your scientists would call it. There is no direct line of travel you could take to get there through either of those dimensions, but I can get us both there, where your abilities will truly shine," Shaela assured Monique.

    Monique considered Shaela's offer. She assumed that her intent was true, as she'd only used the name of her alter ego, Eclipse, rather than to continue using her given name of Monique.

    Another source of air pressure began to emerge in the room, and the atmosphere was sucked towards it as a shadowy opening emerged and slowly grew.

    "Quick! We've got to leave before they get here!" Shaela grabbed Monique's hand, urging her towards the portal she'd kept open for them both.

    "What's coming here that's so dangerous?! We have to warn my friends!" Monique resisted but by that time, it was already too late.

    Shaela had already pulled her over the brink of the portal and they were both being pulled by the planar currents towards the destination point, as the second portal sparked, opening in the West Meet East creative room where its denizens now had access to the party and all the people there.

    Realm Of Shards

    Monique emerged from the portal, immediately falling to the gray rock surface beneath her. She writhed on the surface as her insides churned.  She heaved several times, on the brink of vomiting.

    "It will pass in a few minutes. I'm sorry I didn't have time to warn you," Shaela told Monique.

    "You're talking to a girl who loves Canada's Wonderland and Florida's Disney Land rides, but that was just insane!" Monique grasped her abdomen as she managed to keep her lunch in her stomach.

    "The currents of weave space are unforgiving, but reliable. We're both here safely. Why don't you focus on that instead of your bruised ego?" asked Shaela, perhaps insisting that Monique simply couldn't handle it.

    As Shaela had insisted, the portal sickness had passed, almost as suddenly as it had set upon her. She quickly jumped to her feet.

    "So where are we?" asked Monique.

    "We're in an alternate plane. This is the Aerth. The same Aerth you know and presumably love, but its different. A variation," Shaela explained to her.

    "You said Aerth if I'm correct? What's Aerth? Is that how people with a British accent refer to what everyone else on the planet calls Earth? Or what my parents would call Terre and Zemlya?" asked Monique.

    "Yes, its simply what you call the Earth. The planet which you inhabit. We call it Aerth, from a much more ancient linguistic source and holistic concept," Shaela responded.

    "So its not some game where you simply switch every EA around to become AE, is it? Like HEAT would become HAET, or MEAT would become MAET. Or, how about SHEALA becoming SHAELA? Huh Miss Goth 2023 reject?" Monique came back.

    "That's fairly sound reasoning for a bimbo model, but the name Sheila is spelt with an I, not an A," Shaela responded, flaring a little bit of her edge.

    "Look. I was horrible at spelling in school, but that doesn't make me or any model a bimbo. Besides, I'd bet there's no rocket scientist witches amongst your numbers, seeing as most of you have exactly enough skill to operate a broom and not much more. Let's start by being a little more productive rather than trying to outdo each other in insults because you're clearly outclassed. How about that?" asked Monique.

    "Fair enough, Eclipse. ...of Aerth. So ask your questions and let us be gone to deal with this threat," Shaela replied.

    "You said planes, obviously not referring to the contraptions that everyone else flies around with. What were you talking about?" asked Monique.

    "Alternate universes. Pocket universes. I'm not an Astrographer or Alchemist, so I couldn't explain it to you properly in terms of metaphysics," Shaela replied.

    "But you are referring to parallel universes. You mean like the multiverse? Like in those Marvel movies?" asked Monique.

    "No. Those are much different, but I couldn't tell you the science or metaphysics of why, where as we're dealing with planar space. Extra dimensions afforded us through our awareness in the weave space, which has no relation to the space around us. Its an infinite eternity of energy that culminates in alternate realities different from our own, yet some of them are eerily similar. They cascade like waves into existence, sometimes for the blink of an eye. Sometimes for a billion years or more. Some of these realities have residents. Like us. Some of them are aware of the Aerth and of those who are, there are few who wouldn't attempt an insurrection upon humanity," Shaela replied.

    "When you say weave, are you like referring to sewing? Like fashion?" confirmed Monique.

    "No. The weave is the fabric of existence itself. All universes. All times. All spaces. It is everything, and yet nothing. It is that through which all knowledge and every mystery of existence resides, ad infinitum," Shaela replied.

    "Like the force?" confirmed Monique again.

    "I'm sorry. Of what force do you speak?" asked Shaela, now somewhat confused by the use of the term.

    "In Star Wars. You know, like Obi Wan Kenobi? Jedi?" Monique pushed Shaela's pop culture knowledge to the brink.

    "Oh. That movie. With that little green fellow? Perhaps the weave is similar to that philosophy, but it is different and yet so much more. It is simply everything and nothing. The best that I can explain it. Back in the Sanctum Of The New, there are tales of philosophers who spent their entire lives, every waking moment debating the weave, for thousands of years on end, and yet none were any closer to understanding it than the day their debate had begun," Shaela insisted to Monique.

    "Whew. My head is spinning here with information overload. So where are we exactly?" Monique rubbed the side of her head.

    "We're in the Realm Of Shards," Shaela responded with little other information.

    "Alright. We'll get to the part as to why its called the realm of shards later. First, let's make our way to wherever we need to be or close enough from which we can devise a plan?" Monique asserted, now having a firm background enough so to make informed decisions.

    "Eclipse of Aerth, I couldn't agree with you more. Even if you're a bit of a bimbo," Shaela replied somewhat cantankerously.

    "I hear there's a nearby curling rink with a job opening for sweepers if you're up to it, wytch? But its BYOB. Bring your own broom!" Monique quickly replied.

    Shaela of all Night Wytches who was the least familiar with her own patience, somehow managed to find a little bit of humour in how Monique had responded, and ever so slightly, she laughed aloud. Just for a moment though.

    The City Of Cusmant

    They'd each flown for what seemed to be hundreds of kilometers, perhaps much more. Monique in her light form, which allowed her to scout ahead periodically to ensure their path was clear. Shaela, in her shadow form, which allowed her the ability of lighter than air travel, the local star light providing the aetherial tidal force to push her forward at considerable speed. All the while, she was enveloped in a perpetual cloud of shadow, which kept her well hidden. Those who'd seen her might have mistaken her form for the shadows of overhead clouds as they traveled across the ground.

    They eventually arrived at a large stone monolith, that shot up to the sky, peaking at nearly two thousand meters (twenty-two hundred yards). The base of the monolith was nearly three hundred meters diameter, while its top was closer to a hundred. It was certainly Ionic in form, yet without the decorative base and cap of their Earthly counterparts, not to mention that it was much, much larger.

    "What is this? A tourist attraction of the planes? Where's the rest of the place?" asked Monique, immediately thinking of the C.N. Tower, not far from which was her own condominium and residence.

    "Be careful as we approach. Things are not as they seem," Shaela warned Monique.

    "There's a doorway of some kind. What's the plan? You want me to take point, and if I see someone, you get 'em with your shadow puppets?" asked Monique.

    "We should stick close together. There's more power in two together than there is with one and then one," Shaela replied logically.

    "I'd have to agree with you there," Monique replied, recalling that Heylyn had once said the exact same thing to her.

    As they approached the monolith, something extraordinary occurred. Something that reminded Monique of those old school holograms you'd see at conventions and knick-knack shops. Where a reflective parabola would render a feasible three dimensional representation of another object through reflection and rarefaction. Essentially projecting the object with light as an illusion where the eye could not distinguish the difference between the actual object and the reflection. In this case, the sky had become the refractor and they weren't looking at a monolith. They were looking at a pit whose depths were the inverse of its previously assumed height.

    "Are you gettin' this? If these guys started making lava lamps, they'd all but have the knick-knack market on Aerth cornered. Is this the big threat you were talking about? Oh no, we'd better watch out! They might have hippy bead traps!" Monique responded sarcastically, still amazed with the feat of their earlier realized illusion.

    "We should be able to find a way to descend into this thing, but beware what there might be hidden within. They've proven themselves to be great deceivers," Shaela responded observantly.

    Monique by this time had sighted a flight of stairs, which spiraled the circumference of the pit all the way down into its depths.

    "Stay close behind, and I'll keep the way lit, while you stay hidden in your shadows," Monique advised as she stepped down the first flight of the nearly kilometer circumference spiral staircase.

    The two of them continued their descent cautiously, and for nearly an hour, until they'd finally arrived at the bottom of the pit (or the top of the monolith depending upon which side of the reflection your were viewing).

    There on the doorway, written in a strange language and unfamiliar language that was somehow completely familiar to Monique, were the words:

    City Of Cusmant

    "City of Cusmant... What is this language? I've never even seen it before but I can understand it?" Monique asked Shaela.

    "Perhaps you've always been here, and you're just coming home for the first time. Something long overdue I'd say," Shaela suggested to her, making Monique suddenly feel very uneasy.

    Where the words once were, a doorway materialized, sliding open vertically through some hidden mechanism in the walls.

    "Go forth and find our path," Shaela urged Monique, her words becoming more and more frightening to the younger girl of the two.

    When Monique looked back to Shaela, there was no longer the familiar face and red-hair of the eccentric woman, but rather, the face of a man she'd seen before. He had a shapely angular face and jaw, except for the top of his head, which was clean shaven and rounded like a dome. The man had produced a handgun of stamped metal and was leveling it at Monique in what seemed like slow motion to her.

    Before he even had time to center it upon her, she was already gone, leaving him by himself and in complete darkness. She'd fled through the doors at the bottom of the mysterious pit and was off into the recesses of an ever growing mystery.

    The Party

    "My friends are this way. I'm sooo glad we had that adventure together! I feel like an entirely different woman!" Monique responded after having gotten her bearings post portal sickness.

    "We did well. We work well together as a team. We will definitely be doing so much more in the future. Especially once I let Nelony and my friend Mila in on our success," Shaela told the younger woman, who began walking energetically over to the creative room door.

    "So this is the headquarters of West Meet East International, just off of Queen Street West in Toronto. This is the company my boss started, like twelve years ago, just after she'd graduated, though I didn't know her at that time," Monique shared the background of the building with Shaela as they made their way to the post-show party.

    As they proceeded down the main hallway which followed the circumference of the building, connecting with each of the company's departments, they heard the sound of thumping bass and corresponding harmony and melody of the music in the auditorium show room.

    "This is the creative department. They deal with every aspect of visually complimenting Heylyn's designs. They come up with colour palettes for make-up, hair, backdrops on photoshoots, and any of the screen colours that accompany our advertising campaigns. We shifted away from print advertising about six months ago, and now we're all all digital," Monique explained to Shaela.

    "I don't think I got a word of what you said, except for colours, so I must assume that there's a lot of art involved. My friend Mila will certainly enjoy working with you and your friends," Shaela responded, understanding little of the ways of business or commerce herself.

    The entirety of her life was all about the Sanctum Of The New, which took up the vast majority of her time. Hence, she'd become out of touch with what other residents of Aerth went through just to survive on a daily basis. She found it fascinating in one sense, as long as it were at an arm's length from her, for she could not understand how the Sanctum could possibly protect the Aerth under any other model. Their food. Their clothing. All of it was provided by the Sanctum, or some facet connected to it in the economies of the Aerth. There was commerce in the Sanctum and they did business with the Aerth, although Shaela, like her friends Nelony and Mila, simply were not a part of it, though they certainly relied upon it.

    Mila on the other hand had grown her own artist's business from the ground up, and was a financial success. She'd continued to grow her wealth through wise investment of her growing capital, while reserving a sizeable nest egg and investment fund to secure her's and Barris' future. To both Nelony and Shaela, this was beyond them. They'd been in the service of the Sanctum since they'd been enlisted to join the classes which were Yirfir's place within. They were as dependent upon the Sanctum as it was upon them. As a result, their values were slightly different than those of Mila, and certainly Barris, if not completely alien to Sato, though all of them fought for the same set of principles. The eternal protection of the Aerth, and the life there within.

    As Shaela's mind drifted to times past, Monique approached the backstage door.

    "This is the way to the auditorium show room, but they're folded up the stage so that there's now room for a sizeable dance floor, and some gaming tables, as Heylyn likes using these opportunities to raise money for charity," Monique explained as she opened the backstage door and proceeded through.

    At that point, Shaela could no longer hear the words of the model over the thumping sound of dance music. They turned left, passing a door that read: Makeup & Hair, which Monique checked to see if it was open. The doorknob didn't move as she attempted to open it.

    "Guess they've closed up shop. That's alright, we'll me them out here..." she yelled, leaning over to Shaela.

    Shaela, who still attended the various Goth Nightclubs throughout the world was familiar with the dynamics of conversation in the midst of a club environment.

    When they emerged from the hall, the light show caught their attention first, as the light organ rack Heylyn had installed earlier in the year displayed a multitude of colours, as the micro-motors redirected the lights and lasers all in tandem with the music. They were literally keyed in much the same way a media player's visualization tool would automatically generate graphics in real-time based upon the frequency and volume of music playing. A plug and play light show as some DJs would have called it.

    Monique immediately began grooving across the dance floor, her hands in the air as she did. When she spotted Heylyn at one of the roulette tables, she quickly strutted over to it, as Shaela followed her. Surprisingly enough when they arrived, the level of music had dropped dramatically and Monique recalled that at the same time Heylyn had the lighting system installed, she'd also had acoustic baffling installed strategically along the outer walls of the auditorium show room.

    "Good to see you! You're feeling better! Monique, I'd like you to meet Gordon Wellson. He's one of the first people with whom I signed a distribution deal for my summer and autumn fashion line. Back when I was twenty-two and fresh out of school," Heylyn said, grabbing Monique in a buddy grip, shoulder to shoulder to introduce her to one of the old-timers of the fashion distribution market.

    "How you. Monique is it? I've heard a lot about you. It's a great pleasure to have finally met you," The older man said, his wife beside him.

    "I'm Nancy, Monique. You're quite the spark here according to Heylyn," Nancy smiled in a comforting way, making Monique feel like she'd just met her Grandparents for the first time.

    Heylyn suddenly noticed the tall girl with the black clothing and the red hair.

    "Who is this?" Heylyn asked, security just having taken notice of the woman they'd not accounted for on the guest list.

    "Oh, she's my personal guest. A good friend of mine from back in the day, here in Toronto," Monique responded quickly.

    Heylyn gestured to security to back down. She gave them another signal and they nodded affirmatively, keeping an eye on the situation.

    "Well, as long as she doesn't start any problems here, she's more than welcome to stay and enjoy herself. Isn't that right Gordon?" Heylyn asked her friend.

    "That's right," Gordon added, a generous smile on his face.

    "Why I bet there's even enough room for that gorgeous cat of hers!" Nancy added with a look somewhere between serene and sinister.

    "How did she even know that about me, or was it just a coincidence that her playful banter just happened to coincide with the fact that my shadow protector is of the feline variety?" Shaela thought to herself, carefully keeping any emotional response from her face.

    "Place a bet? Red or black?" the croupier of the roulette table asked her.

     Shaela feigned ignorance, playing it as if she'd not heard his question, instead waiting until the wheel and ball were already in motion before she spoke.

     "Monique? Is your other friend here? The blonde haired woman who helped you and Nelony rescue Sato's little dog? The pug?" asked Shaela, defensively switching the focus of her attention.

     "Great idea! Let's go find her!" Monique said enthusiastically, turning to Heylyn before she left.

     "See you soon sis!" Monique said to Heylyn, who responded by waving the fingers of her hand, while still keeping her attention on the bouncing metal ball of the roulette table.

     Monique continued her strut across the dance floor, her hands in the air as she stepped in beat to the music, her hips swaying with each footfall.

     One her way through the crowd, most of whom she was unfamiliar with, she recognized Lisa (from the Technology Department) and Dylan (from the Post Editing Department). She danced her way over to them, hitting hips first with Lisa, and then Dylan. Their dates followed their example and before long, a side-by-side dance line had formed. Shaela played it safe, staying a few steps away from them given her preference to remain incognito.

     They danced for half a minute together, looking very much like the chorus line of something you might see during the finale of a show at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Innocent fun amongst a group of familiar friends.

     "What's a matter Shaela? Don't you dance?" Monique yelled over to her red-headed friend.

     "I do and although this sounds enjoyable, it isn't quite my style," she responded politely.

     It was then that someone came up behind Shaela and put their hands in front of her eyes.

     Shaela immediately broke through the hands and turned to face her would be assailant.

    "Easy girl! I'm a friend of Monique's," Valerie said to the taller red-headed woman.

    "She's a bit jumpy this one. Don't mind her. Must be the cat she hangs out with," Monique quickly intervened.

    "Did I even tell Monique about my shadow cat protector?" Shaela wondered to herself.

    "Shaela, this is my good friend Valerie. Her and I have been through a lot together," Monique introduced the shorter girl.

    "I do beg your pardon, but it is as your friend says. I'm a bit jumpy out of my own element," Shaela responded elegantly.

    "Nice to meet you Shaela. This is my boyfriend, Troy," Valerie gestured to Troy, who stood back, snapping photos of them with an invisible camera.

    "Shhhh! Be very, very quiet. I'm hunting shadow cats!" Troy said, his imaginary camera now becoming an invisible rifle, through whose scope he now peered at Shaela, pulling the trigger once he had her sufficiently lined up.

    "Monique, is this your friend who helped Sato find his pug?" asked Shaela.

    "What's a Sato?" asked Valerie, mocking the name.

    "No, this isn't her, though she'd certainly have helped if she was there, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, forgive my faux-pas," Monique winked exaggerratedly.

    Monique slowly broke away from the dance line, and started heading the direction of the Black Jack table. 

    "Nice meeting you. Be good," Shaela said to them menacingly as she followed behind Monique.

    "Kori!" Monique yelled, her hands once again up in the air as she tiny stepped towards her friend, who too echoed the same sentiment.

    From Shaela's perspective, she could have been seeing Monique approaching a mirror excitedly in anticipation of a never to be possible hug, as reflection and person met the medium between.

    "This is cute, but gag me with a shovel despite," Shaela remarked quietly to herself.

    "Kori, meet Shaela. My sullen and morbid Goth friend here," Monique introduced Shaela once again, reminding her why she so abhorred being a stranger at the parties of others.

    "Pleased to make your acquaintance Kori," Shaela responded diplomatically, her thick Welsh accent still audible over the background music.

    "So Monique tells me that you actually know the guy that owns that cute little shop in Shepperton. The knick-knack shop with all those treasures from around the world!" Kori said, sounding more like she was building up to referring to the person who'd cured death itself rather than Mishima Sato.

    "Yes. I know him a little bit too well. He's very charming, to say the least," Shaela responded, already having grown tired with the conversation and Kori.

    "I've told everyone in here about the place, and about thirty of our models who travel regularly. His shop is an inside secret amongst those of us in the industry you know. Where did you get your hair done, because that is the most remarkably sinister red I've ever seen. Has Fay seen her makeup, that is just sooo esoteric and mystical?" Kori bantered with Shaela as if the two had been old friends, while Shaela imperceptibly retreated backwards away from the girl.

    "Thank you," Shaela said, feigning flattery ever so slightly, though her hair colour was natural and her makeup was in fact magic.

    "You know, you remind me of someone else I just met. She's right here as a matter of fact!" Kori stepped aside, revealing the Black Jack table in full.

    "Hello Shaela. Long time, no see. Care to join me for a game?" Mianamor Selembrosi said as she sat at one of the three hands being dealt.

    "You're supposed to be held within indefinite purgatory confinement, awaiting evaluation by the Order Of The Night Wytch before you'll ever procure your freedom. I'm placing you under arrest by official order of the Sanctum Of The New. If you come quietly, that will act in your favour before the Sanctum judicial tribunal. If you resist, then you may end up becoming a quick snack for a good friend of mine," Shaela suddenly became tall and firm with her speech.

    Both Monique and Kori looked intensely to the intimidating red-headed woman as she challenged the seated gambler.

    There was a moment of thick tension between the two, as Monique and Kori watched.

    Then, unexpectedly, both Monique and Kori burst out laughing simultaneously at the display of ego and bravado before them.

    "That was the best charades I've ever seen in my life!" Kori spoke, barely able to breath.

    "That bit about the Sanctum, was it improv? Or were you really being sanctimonious?!" asked Monique of Shaela, causing another round of laughter between her and Kori, who gasped for air over Monique's ubiquitously funny, yet obvious pun.

    Shaela's attention was not upon either of them, except perhaps to protect them should the need arise. She remained focused upon Mianamor at the Black Jack table.

    "We can at least sit and discuss this like civilized people, can we not?" Mianamor invited Shaela to take the hand beside hers, while a mysterious stranger took the seat on the other side of Mianamor.

    Shaela rubbed her hands on her neck and behind her ears, and then smelled her hands before she sat.

    "Forgive me. I had to make sure I was wearing my bug repellent," Shaela said sarcastically as she took the seat beside Mianamor.

    Within The Pit

    In the time since Monique had fled, which was all of three seconds, she'd explored the entirety of all six hundred kilometers of maze-like corridors within the bottom of the pit. There within, she'd found a space considerably far from where her pursuer had aimed his firearm at her.

    "You know that I'll find you eventually, Eclipse. You remember the song, don't you? Where ever you go, whatever you do, I'll be there ready for you. In your car, or beside you in bed, shoulder to shoulder, where we're head to head," the man's singing voice echoed through kilometers of stone passage into a thick reverberation in her head.

    "Come on Monique! Wake up! You can fly at the close to the speed of light. You're trained by one of the world's leading martial arts masters. Why do you even need to hide?" she said to herself just barely audibly, yet her voice reverberated throughout the stone walls of countless passages to become an illegible gobbledygook of nonsense in her head.

    The only light around her emanated directly from her body, meaning that her pursuer, unless he had his own source of light, would be lost in a perpetual sea of darkness.

    And yet, she heard a multitude of voices within the corridors pursuing her within. They were closing from multiple directions, no matter the distance.

    "Lady! Young lady! Sssspt! Over here!" a man's voice beckoned her from the darkness beyond her bodily light.

    Monique was upon her feet in a defensive stance, ready for anything.

    "That will not help you. Not here. Not now. Just come with me, will you?" urged the man's voice.

    Monique examined her options, realizing that she was being forced further and further into the maze of tunnels within the pit. Perhaps she'd eventually become cornered where she'd meet her fate, unless she went with this strange man.

    Monique approached the source of the voice, the shadows quickly retreating from her glowing body of light as she did.

    When she saw the man's face, she nearly let out a scream, and had to cup her own hand over her mouth to cease herself. It was the face of a man she'd not seen for a decade. A man whom she presumed was carefully locked up in the depths of a jungle in Columbia. A man confined to Modela Prison therein.

    "Zek?!" Monique nearly shrieked.

    "You can wait for the unfamiliar devil, the one about whom you know nothing, or flee with the devil you know all too well. Either way, we're both in danger so I'd suggest a makeshift alliance?!" Zek's face was exactly as she remembered it.

    He was still the shorter of the two. A small and meagre man who'd at one time ruled the entire world. His hair was shaven short around the sides, clipped neatly around his ears and yet atop, it was nearly devoid of hair. Combed over in fact, though he wore it comfortably, for it was the least of his concerns. His metal framed glasses gleamed in Eclipse's light.

    "If you try anything, know that I'll have struck you a thousand times before you even feel it," Monique exclaimed to the former ruler of the world.

    "You'd be a fool to attack me, and I'd be an even bigger fool to betray you," Zek admitted that they were in a situation of mutual dependence.

    "So how has prison life been for the former ruler of the world?" asked Monique of Zek, as he led them crouching through a half-height passage.

    "Eclipse, you saw the tower and its immense heights yourself when you first arrived, and yet here we are in the greatest pit we've ever seen. Tell me, do you really believe the world to have been etched out so perfectly. Readily to be accepted by a generation of skeptical snot nosed technologically minded prodigies, or that its just the layers of an onion whose inner skin lays infinitely within, never to reveal its secrets?" Zek posed to Monique.

    Monique quietly pondered the man's words, albeit very skeptically.

    "Is this some kind of trick? Are you trying to toy with me? Prey on my naivety?" asked Monique, though she knew that her naivety had long since been lost on the same trail upon which her innocence had fled a decade and a half earlier.

    "I've faced the philosopher in the Butterfly Dragon. The cerebral scientist in the one you know as Night Style. The determinately strong and enduring Kyra. The darkness and light of the innately vane Eclipse. Yet of the four women who felled me, when I've come to understand the nature of being in its true form, it is the one whose entire life is based upon nothing more than *vanity* and a *lie* who arrives to hear my words. *That* is a prison beyond any you relinquished me to all those years ago," Zek responded to her words as he continued to lead her deeper into the hand dug corridors she'd earlier missed.

    As he made his way squatted over, just barely crawling through the cavernous opening, Monique saw that the man had a scar that encompassed his right wrist. A scar that went all the way around it.

    "What happened to you?" asked Monique of his scar, pointing to his right wrist.

    "That? I honestly couldn't tell you for the life of me. I can't even remember where I got that. Funny thing isn't it? A man like me lives by the scars he causes others, yet when confronted with his own, he has no recollection of from whence they were etched upon him," Zek responded as they emerged in an immense opening in the cavern into which they'd just crawled.

    "You tell me. What's funnier, you not knowing where your scars come from, or that same man that I imprisoned a decade ago leading me into the depths of hell," Monique responded cautiously.

    "Ha ha haaa! The immense irony of life, isn't it. Perhaps you're not so lacking of philosophical insight as I thought," Mr. Zek responded as he got up onto his feet.

    "Is that her whom you bring before me?" a familiar voice beckoned them.

    "It is as you requested your highness," Zek bowed, getting to his knees to reach the floor before a barely illuminated man who sat upon a throne.

    As Monique approached, her glowing body illuminated the face of the man in the big chair. The man whose songs from the big chair ran their underground.

    "This is the Eclipse, sire, whom I bring before you to grace with your light," Mr. Zek groveled before the throne.

    "You bring before me the very woman who felled us both?!" the man on the throne spoke as Monique stepped closer to hear the man's voice, her light illuminated his face.

    "Torman?!!!" Monique responded in shock upon seeing the face of a long dead man.

    "From across the grave I reach out to you. You need me, and I need you," Torman responded, a thin cardboard crown, much like those one might find at a popular fast food burger restaurant upon his head.

    "What do tell would I ever need you for?" Monique refused to grovel before the man.

    "It seems we share a common foe. I by myself and with the assistance of my court jester, Mr. Zek, can't defeat this foe on our own. Having you on our side would definitely sway the balance in our favour," Torman explained to Monique.

    "And what is it exactly that you're fighting for? The last I recall of you, the only thing you'd have ever fought for was your own pocketbook and your own grasp of power!" Monique challenged the man.

    "Time changes us in ways not always so obvious to our (former) adversaries. I am beyond seeking any such things as you've mentioned. I only seek peace and wisdom," Torman said to her, his face perfectly calmed in conjunction with the statement.

    "What he says is true, Monique," a voice came from directly behind her.

    She turned to see the bald man who'd been in pursuit of her. He leveled his gun again and fired just as Monique moved.

    The bullet left the chamber, moving towards her as she easily side-stepped. It continued along its path as she worked her way around behind the gunman. She quickly delivered a fist to left side of the base of his skull. The man's consciousness would be cut off by the blow, though in her current state, it would take him a week to collapse to the ground from her point of view.

    It was then that she noticed that the bullet she'd so easily dodged was now less than an inch from Torman's forehead and closing. She quickly ran for it as fast as she could though by the time she got to it, with a bright flash of sharpened spokes of light emanating from her core, she blacked out completely.

    In The Cards

    "Who do you think is in the best position to win here, Shaela?" asked Mianamor of her.

    "I couldn't quite say, but I can tell you who is going to lose in a moment if you don't comply with my earlier request," Shaela responded firmly.

    "Fair enough. The dealer. The dealer is in the best position to win. The cards are always stacked in the favour of the dealer. Even the scoring favours the dealer. The dealer plays each of us one at a time, further extending the dealers powers. This isn't the three of us versus one. This is a very powerful one versus us each in isolation. You see, this is how the dealer almost always wins," Mianamor explained to Shaela, though in all honesty, she'd never thought Mianamor capable of such observations.

    "Watch. I'll play first. Card please?" Mianamor showed Shaela her hand.

    She had a five of spades and a ten of diamonds, for a total of fifteen. The dealer placed another card in front of Miana's hand face up as she'd requested. Miana eyed the card she'd received, an ace of hearts. Aces could both be eleven or one in terms of their scoring value. If the ace was taken to be eleven, Miana's hand would have gone over the limit of twenty-one. A break as it was called at the table. Instead, she was forced to accept it as a value of one, making her hand's total sixteen.

    "What would you do Shaela? Stand on this, or request another card, knowing full well that the odds are stacked against you?" asked Miana of Shaela.

    "Its your game, but I get your point," Shaela replied.

    "Another card please," Miana requested of the dealer.

    The dealer complied, giving Miana a seven of diamonds. The game terminated in the dealer's favour.

    "You see? The dealer will play you next, having already eliminated one of us, and they'll do so with a fresh draw of cards," Miana pointed out.

    Shaela looked at her hand. She had a nine of hearts and a jack of clubs.

    "Don't you see? This is just like life. And the entire reason that so few win against the dealer, is simply because we're divided. Each to play the dealer alone," Miana explained to Shaela.

    "I'll stand," Shaela told the dealer, who began dealing their hand.

    "And one by one..." Miana continued.

    "Twenty-one," the dealer said without bias, indicating that the house won the game.

    "We fall," Miana's delivery came together all at once, and Shaela was dealt out of the game.

    "Now if we worked together, we might actually be able to beat the dealer at his own game," Miana continued as the third player revealed himself.

    "Reginald?!!!" Shaela said in utter shock.

    "He can't hear you, Shaela. He's not really here. Consider it more like we're there, wherever he was that this game occurred back in the mid sixteen-hundreds. He's playing with a completely different deck and the game goes by a completely different name, but all in all, its the same rules. Rules as you know, are what this man lives by," Miana explained to Shaela.

    "Not rules. Rules are the shadows cast by the light of justice against the surface of ideals. Like shadows, rules move. Ideals don't," Shaela corrected her.

    "Ideals are as much in motion as are rules, Shaela. You know it, and I know it. The only thing separating the two are life experience, and the introspection to learn from it," Miana asserted.

    "You're taking Reginald's words and wearing them as your own!" Shaela recalled the night that she had discussed this very idea with Reginald, and yet somehow, Miana had access to that part of her.

    "Look. Watch as fate unfolds," Miana urged her to watch him as he played.

    Reginald started out by splitting his hand of a pair of sixes against the dealer's showing five of clubs. He turned each card over and requested a card for his left.

    The dealer dealt him a king of diamonds. which he stayed at sixteen.

    For his second hand, he received a four of clubs, giving him ten in total. He then requested another card, and the dealer gave him an ace, for a total of twenty-one.

    Those around the table clapped for him and his hand, though he couldn't hear it to be inspired by the support he'd been offered.

    The dealer then began with their hand, drawing first a nine of diamonds, for a total of fourteen. He then drew a two of spades, for a total of sixteen in three cards.

    The tension grew as he drew the last card for his hand. It was a five of diamonds for a total of twenty-one.

    "The house wins. Thank you," the dealer announced.

    When Shaela looked to the dealer's face, she saw that he'd become a skeleton, adorning a hooded cloak. The classical symbol of Death.

    At that moment, Shaela found herself naked in bed, tight up against Reginald when the door to his abode swung open violently.

    Shaela quickly wrapped herself in the silk sheets, and charged at the men who'd stormed Reginald's home.

    "You've no right to be here! Under whose authority have you given yourself the right to forced entry?!" she demanded of them.

    "The authority of the strangers under the edict of the rightful hunt of the Wytch kind!" the first man responded.

    Shaela was out of bed faster than they thought possible. She quickly grappled with the first one, struggling as he attempted to draw his arquebus against the tall red-headed woman. Reginald in the meantime had grabbed his cane and used it to move as fast as he could to intercept the second man, whose arquebus was already in hand and ready to fire.

    "Stop in the name of the rightful law and order of West View!" Reginald yelled as he moved quickly between the man with the arquebus and Shaela.

    Then, the sound of thunder erupted in the room, coinciding with a tremendous flash, as the room was quickly filled with the thick gray smoke of burnt firing powder.

    Reginald's hand covered his chest, just above the solar plexis. His hand weakened and dropped to his side, revealing a large flash-burned wound through his abdomen.

    By that time, Shaela had dispatched the one with whom she fought, laying him out sloppily to the floor as she ran for Reginald. He fell to his knees as Shaela caught him, gurgling as he struggled to speak.

    "Doooonnn... Don't let them win... ack!" he gasped.

    "D... d... don't become like them!" he said, falling forward flat onto his face, dead.

    Shaela's moans and cries filled the night, as the men closed in on her to contain the threat that she was.

    When she blinked, she was back at the table, sitting there by herself, the dealer across from her.

    "Miss? Card?" he asked her.

    She looked quickly to her hand, seeing that she had a ten of hearts showing. She looked at her hidden card.

    It was a jack of spades.

    "Black jack," she turned it over for the dealer.

    On The Couch

    Monique's eyes opened suddenly. Panicked and wide, she peered through her mask at her surroundings.

    "I said, we can start by talking a little bit about you," a soft encouraging male voice broke the silence as her eyes focused.

    She was in a old stained oak library. Now wait, it was an office. Carpeted. Quiet and serene. There was one painting on the wall in view from her place on the couch, which was shaped more like a day bed. Behind her and just out of view, the man who'd addressed her sat. He was very quiet, but she could hear that he had a pen in his hand, and that it was poised ready to write notes within a small notebook, on a page where he'd already started a few.

    She eyed the painting closely, finding no startling or triggering imagery in it whatsoever. It was merely a little girl, in a reddish-pink dress frolicking in a field full of flowers under the stars. Monique immediately thought to Heylyn, and the stories she'd shared about her dreams as a child.

    "Where'd you get that?" asked Monique impatiently.

    "The painting? Oh, that's not important right now. Let's talk about you, first," the man suggested calmly.

    "Why me?" she asked defensively.

    "Why not? I mean we're here to help you. To heal you. To heal that little girl that's inside you, lost and scared. Don't you think you've dealt with this by yourself for far too long?" asked the man.

    "Dealt with what? I don't even remember making an appointment for this place, no offense," Monique replied.

    "None taken. We're just here to talk. Let me start this way. You see that electric kettle there on the credenza?" the man began.

    "Yes. If you're asking if I want a coffee or tea, I'll pass. I don't think that sugar or caffeine would be the best thing for me right now. Maybe later though," Monique responded, trying to keep herself calm.

    "I wasn't going to ask you, but if you change your mind, I'll have Lena make you a cup. However, that kettle is a special little kettle to me. I've had it for years, you see. Even decades, and I've never had a problem with it. Do you have any idea why that is?" the man asked Monique calmly.

    "Because you got a good warranty on it?" Monique replied with the only answer she could think of.

    "I got the same warranty that everyone gets for the same kettle, but that was a good answer. Something I might have said if you were the one asking. That kettle lasted me a long time simply because I never over-filled it. I never put too much in it," the man admitted to Monique.

    "That's good advice. Thanks, I'll do the same with mine at home from now on," Monique smiled, having learned something, yet she still felt impatient about something.

    "That kettle, its a little bit like us. Like you and me. When we're filled up with too much of life's little struggles, sometimes, when the pressure gets to be too much, we can boil over. Have you ever felt that way?" asked the man of Monique.

    "Yes. Sort of. But..." Monique began.

    "When the kettle boils over. The water leaks out through the top, and sometimes down through the seal and into the burner and electric parts. If that happens ten times, there's usually no harm done. The kettle just keeps going and working fine. However, the more you do that, boil the kettle over, the more those parts inside start to break down. You start getting these little problems. Maybe the kettle won't turn on for instance. Maybe it will shut off before its even boiled. Maybe it won't shut off automatically when it boils. Maybe it will just stop functioning altogether. So knowing that, what could we do to make sure that kettle stays healthy?" asked the man.

    "Stop over-filling it?" Monique gave the obvious answer.

    "Perfect! What else? What do we need to do when its too full?" asked the man.

    "Empty it?" Monique asked.

    "Correct! We need to empty it. Not all the way. Just a bit," the man explained to Monique.

    "Then, when its at a safe level, we can boil it?" asked Monique.

    "Precisely! The problem is though, that not every kettle holds the same amount. Some might hold a lot, while others can only hold a little. So you kind of have to find the perfect level for every kettle. When you do, chances are, that kettle will stay healthy for a long, long time," the man said to her calmly.

    "How do you find the perfect level?" asked Monique.

    "Let's start with you. We'll pretend that you're a kettle. That everything you keep bottled up inside brings you closer to the limit. To being filled with too much. So we need to find a way to reduce that a little bit, don't we?" asked the man.

    "True," Monique agreed, as his logic seemed sound to a point.

    "So, we need to talk to you about it, and you need to talk to me. To us, in this clinic," the man suggested to Monique.

    "What do you want to talk about?" asked Monique.

    "You were looking at that painting earlier, weren't you?" the man asked her.

    "Yes, I was as a matter of fact," Monique replied calmly.

    "What did that painting make you think of when you looked at it?" asked the man.

    "It made me think of..." Monique suddenly stopped, realizing she was talking about something that was bound to a secret of great importance.

    Not just to her, but to one of her best friends.

    "It made me think about picking flowers. Feeding birds with bread crumbs. That kind of stuff," Monique said, improvising quickly.

    "A nice calming feeling I bet?" the man said in a soothing voice.

    "Yes. Watching birds eat bread crumbs is always peaceful," Monique said tactfully.

    "The painting didn't make you think about someone specific, did it?" the man asked Monique.

    "Yes. It did! My cousin Viviane!" Monique improvised yet again.

    "What is it that reminds you about your cousin Viviane?" asked the man.

    "My cousin, loves flowers, but she's deathly afraid of bees. Me, I think they're wonderful as long as you don't poke or prod them. Viviane though, you could only bring her near flowers for a very short time. Until the bees showed up, and then you'd have to leave with her," Monique recalled a real truth, though not the one the man was seeking.

    "I see. I bet that was disappointing. Do you have any other friends who love fields and flowers?" asked the man of Monique.

    "My parents had hay fever, so we couldn't spend that kind of time in parks like that very often, and I think that's why I ended up loving them so much. Because I had to be a little sneak and get away to see the flowers. You know, this little talk of ours has really helped me to feel much better. Like I haven't talked about my parent's hay fever problems before, and that was so much bothering me. That I had to sneak away if I wanted to see flowers," Monique went on.

    When she turned her head in the direction of the man's voice, she was greeted by the face of the bald man once again, two inches from her own.

    "You need to talk to us. We're going to help you. We're going to help everyone win, but we need your help to do it!" the man pleaded with her.

    "The way you asked me before, that was nice. What you were saying, it was engaging. It was calming. Even healing and it makes sense. What you're doing now, that's wrong!" Monique was on her feet, backing away from the man.

    "And that is why you're going to have to die, Monique," the man said, and it was at that point that she recognized him.

    His name was Jack. Jack Warren.

    Black Jack

    "So she is the real Wytch!" the music had stopped and now the party-goers were chanting.

    "Burn the Wytch! Burn the Wytch!" they said from all corners of the auditorium.

    "Do you see Shaela? What they don't understand, they fear. What they fear, they kill!" Miana suddenly appeared in the chair beside Shaela.

    Shaela stood and backed away from the sinister faces around her. Those who'd before were friendly and inviting were now vitriolic and spiteful. Full of hatred and ire for Shaela.

    She continued to back away, finding herself up against a door. She reached down for the knob and turned it. The door suddenly opened and she fell backwards within the room beyond.

    When she returned to her feet, she could see that she was now within a stone chamber of some form. A distance of forty yards ahead of her, were two stone beds atop of which were a woman. It was Monique. She was strapped down to the stone table, struggling to escape.

    On the other table, was Reginald. He was still alive, though wounded by the arquebus shot from which he'd protected her from all those years ago. He too was strapped to the stone bed much the same as Monique.

    Between the two beds was the man who'd pursued Monique into the depths of the city of Cusmant. The man who'd shot Torman on the only throne he'd ever have sat upon. The man who'd dealt the cards at the black jack table during Miana's, Shaela's and Reginald's game. The man who'd delivered Monique into a helpful cognitive therapy session, only for it to turn into an interrogation.

    His face was tattooed, like the skull Shaela had seen. Death. The Grim Reaper himself.

    Miana stepped out from behind him, running her fingers from the top of his bald head, down the sides and to his jaw line, and then to his muscular chest.

    "We have a chance to stop all of this. To stop life's dealer of cards once and for all! To become something more! Much more than any single one of us is alone! We can all proceed to the next level of humanity together, but you have to make a choice Shaela. We all did at one point, so we know exactly what you're feeling. What you're going through right now!" Miana pleaded with Shaela as she circled the stone beds.

    "Your friend here, Monique, she made her choice. It is unfortunate that she will have to be a casualty of her own misguided life, simply because she chose wrong. You however can save her, but you have to choose. Between saving your beloved Reginald, or her," Miana's hands extended to each side, one hand pointing to Monique, the other to Reginald who struggled to remain alive.

    "They were trying to get into the city! Don't believe them! Don't believe anything they tell you! They just want to know about the City of Cusmant! Don't you see!" Monique yelled to Shaela.

    "What is this city you speak of?!" Shaela responded.

    "Silence her!" Miana demanded of Jack, pointing at Monique.

    "At once!" Jack responded, pulling forth a tanto from its sheath.

    "They wanted to know about the flowers!" Monique continued to yell as Jack turned his attention to her, while Reginald struggled to free himself.

    Shaela concentrated on the word Cusmant. Rolling it around in her head. Trying to see if it matched any place she'd ever been. When she saw that Jack was making his way to silence Monique permanently, she tried summoning the portal of her shadow protector.

    "What foul curse is this that the weave is absent here?!" Shaela screamed, realizing that she couldn't summon anything, for there was no weave where they were.

    Instead, she ran for Jack herself, grasping at the hand in which he held the blade. With one hand, she kept him at bay, while with the other hand, she tried to throw him off balance.

    Shaela, though a tall and fit woman, was no match for Jack, who'd trained every moment of his life for this purpose.

    Jack broke her grip, and pushed Shaela back, slashing at her forearm as he did. He gave her a surface wound, that was more painful than it was damaging. As she grasped at her stinging forearm, her mind fell upon the answer.

    Cusmant wasn't a city at all. It was her home, for it wasn't Cusmant at all. It was the Sanctum.

    They wanted to know about the Sanctum and all of its secrets. They didn't know what it was, but they knew it existed. Much the same that flowers meant something to Monique, that she was protecting. They knew it meant something, they just didn't know what, or who it related to.

    "Everything will be alright Eclipse!" Shaela found her strength again, and even without the benefit of the weave, she charged at Jack to do combat with him.

    Jack swung the knife several times, barely missing Shaela as she caught him the one time he'd over-swung. He'd exposed his back for just a small moment, and that moment was all that Shaela needed. She quickly took advantage of the situation, forcing Jack to the ground forwards, so fast that he tried to break his fall with the tanto. The blade bit the stone floor and snapped in two. His face collided with the stone tiles, and slowed him to the point of dwindling consciousness.

    She then quickly grabbed the broken blade, and used it to cut Monique free from the table as Miana advanced to assist Jack.

    "You are turning your back on humanity Shaela! This is our future together and you're betraying everyone!" Miana's voice became anxious and angry as the frustration of their failing plan quickly set in.

    Jack got to his feet, as Miana summoned a portal of her own.

    "Got anything that stop her?!" asked Monique of Shaela.

    "I don't. I don't even know how she's summoning her portal without the weave!" Shaela answered Monique.

    "Simple. This is my realm. Our realm. The realm in which Mentis has domain. We make the rules here," Miana told Shaela as the portal opened, and a stream of shadow insects began emerging to cover her's and Jack's flanks.

    "This isn't the land of the bad man! This is ours too!" a young voice broke through the cacophony around Monique and Shaela, as a bright light opened up in the stone chamber, and a little girl stepped out holding the hand of an elderly lady.

    Where they walked, the stone turned to a bed of flowers, grass and soft fertile soil. Butterflies filled the air, and wonder replaced the darkness.

    "Warai!" Monique exclaimed happily upon recognizing the little girl.

    From the same light they had emerged. so did another familiar friend. It was large, sleek and had two enormous red eyes. It stepped forward onto the growing flower bed Warai and the elderly lady had created. It snarled upon recognizing Shaela.

    "It would seem that we are joined in battle by our friends," Shaela turned to face Miana and Jack once again.

    Miana's insects retreated from the light of Warai's portal.

    "This might be your realm, but it's my dream! Its our future!" Warai faced Miana and Jack, who backed away.

    The elderly lady, nodded in agreement, her face glee with a defiant comforting joy.

    They stood and watched as the last of the stone chamber was replaced with the field, and by the time it was complete, there was no sign of either Miana or Jack. They were simply gone.

    Reginald lay under the light of the stars on a death bed of flowers, as Shaela cradled his head one last time.

    Though she'd seen him die many times throughout the years in the worst of her nightmares, she was ready to let go. To let him pass on in peace, in the field of flowers and the hope of a future he'd helped to ensure.

    "Its time to go," Warai said to Monique and Shaela, who looked to the little girl as she rubbed her eyes, fending the sleep from them.

    "Don't worry. We'll meet again," Warai said as she walked hand in hand with the elderly lady, returning to the light from whence she'd arrived.

    Towards Creative Ends

    "Its time to..." Heylyn had barely finished her words when Monique sat up on the couch in a panic.

    "What happened to the flowers?" Monique said, the sleep still in her eyes, causing Heylyn, Alicia, Valerie, Aikiko and Kori to laugh.

    "That must have been some dream?" Alicia said to Monique, whose face drew into a suddenly confused stare, and then contorted to a smile.

    "That was all a dream? That was the most bizarre and incredible experience I've ever had!" Monique sat up on the creative room couch, clearing her eyes.

    "You've only been out for an hour, and the party's just getting started, and I ever so desperately need a wing-girl on the dance floor," Kori coaxed her friend.

    "You're not playing with me, are you? Only an hour?" asked Monique, astonished.

    "Its just after ten-thirty now, and you settled in shortly after nine," Heylyn said, checking the clock on the creative room wall.

    "What happened to Shaela?" asked Monique.

    "Who?" asked Valerie.

    "Tall girl. Maybe six feet tall? red-headed and sarcastic humour to go with it?" Monique looked to each of them in disbelief that they couldn't remember her.

    "Nope. Nobody here with that description... except Shania maybe," Kori clarified for her friend.

    "What about Warai? Where's she?" asked Monique suddenly realizing that her entire experience was nothing more than an illusion.

    "She's probably fast asleep by now. My mother would have tucked her in, and told her a few of the same bedtime stories my grandmother used to tell me. She's been out since at least nine o'clock," Heylyn assured Monique.

    "But I'm sure it was sooo real!" Monique wouldn't accept their explanation, though she got to her feet and made her way to the door.

    "It is an omen perhaps. If you feel good with the dream, then it might mean something good is in store for you. Dreams speak to us in ways our words can't," Aikiko responded to Monique's recall of her dream.

    "I hope so. Alright. Fine. Let's get out there and show them how its done!" Monique said, fully confident as she strutted her step in rhythm to the pounding music down the hall from them.

    "She's got the right idea. Let's get everyone else and see if we can get a line dance going," Alicia suggested.

    "I want to give this dancing a try. It looks like fun. I like anything where I get to move my body," Aikiko said enthusiastically, catching most of her friends off guard.

    "That's a plan!" Kori agreed, chasing after Monique.

    "I'll get Troy," Valerie followed after Kori.

    "Are you coming?" Alicia asked Heylyn, who seemed distracted.

    "Go ahead, I'll catch up," Heylyn replied distantly.

    "Valerie, Kori, wait up!" Alicia ran down the hall after her friends, closing the door behind her.

    Heylyn looked around the room, finding the quiet to be very peaceful and calming. It was when she looked towards the billiards table, that she spotted something a little bit unusual.

    There, atop of the cue ball, sat a butterfly, its wings still opening and closing slowly as it remained perched. Heylyn approached the table, and saw several flower clippings scattered around the cue ball.

    "Maybe it wasn't a dream after all..." Heylyn held her finger out to the butterfly, which stepped over to perch on her.


    A few kilometers away, in Heylyn's mother's home, Warai lay in the guest bed, sitting up having recently awakened.

    There, perched upon her index finger, was a butterfly, flapping its wings.

    "Good night little butterfly," Warai said, blowing the little creature a kiss.


    Six thousand or more kilometers away, in a bed in a small house in the community of Shepperton by the Thames, lay a tall red-headed woman. She'd just awoken from a bizarre dream, she couldn't explain.

    One of her cats, the one she'd named Mr. Puckerpuss had jumped up on the bed and was purring, happy to find her awake.

    It sat in front of her face on her chest, and meowed once, looking at her expectantly.

    "That's not a feed me meow," Shaela said to Mr. Puckerpuss.

    "Mreowr," Mr. Puckerpuss responded once, waiting again.

    "What has gotten into you?" she asked him.

    He then stepped carefully onto her chin with his front paws, retrieving something from the top of her head. When the cat withdrew to where it had earlier been seated, a butterfly was now perched on one of its ears.

    "Maybe it wasn't a dream after all," Shaela said as she watched the butterfly get comfortable on Mr. Puckerpuss's head.

    The End


    "Tell me Mr. Mutano, was Jack able to get the information from them as you explained he would?" asked Mentis of the Japanese man with whom he'd forged an alliance.

    "No. It appears that he underestimated their ability to shield themselves from scrying or any other psychological attempt to find out how they're keeping themselves hidden from us," Mutano informed Mentis.

    "Even with insider assistance from Mianamor Selembrosi too?" asked Mentis impatiently.

    "Yes. Even with her help, they failed," Mutano explained curtly.

    "I am far more patient with failure than our mutual friend. I find that failure in small doses, often leads to greater performance. To aptitudes that many would overlook. However, even I have my limits and they far exceed those of our mutual friend Mr. Mutano. See to it that we find the secret of their circle, and how they've managed to isolate themselves from us and remain impervious, while the rest of the world falls," Mentis ordered him.

    "As you wish, Master Mentis," Mutano said with both respect, and disgust.


    Thousands of kilometers away, aboard a heavily modified Gearing Class Destroyer in the Pacific Ocean, a man with one hand lay in bed fast asleep.

    "Who's there?!" he suddenly awoke with a start.

    He looked to the arm which in his dream, was fully complete. However, reality was not so kind and her realized that it was a dream. That he in fact had no right hand.

    "Zek?" a voice spoke to him.

    "Who are you?" asked Zek, not sure if he was hearing anyone at all.

    "I'm an old friend. Someone who died trying to protect you and your empire on Treadwater Island," the voice responded to Zek.

    "Torman?" asked Zek, his eyes wide as he frantically looked around the room.

    "The one. The only," Torman replied from inside of Zek's head.

    "This isn't happening... they must have put something in my food. In my water. They're trying to drive me crazy!" Zek said, slapping his own face several times with his only hand.

    "Zek. I'm going to help you. You need to get control of that boat, and I'm going to help you do it!" Torman assured Zek confidently.

    "I'm not doing anything for you. I'm going to lay low, and consider my options. Now leave me forever! Go home! Go home!" Zek ordered Torman.

    "That isn't going to work with me, I'm afraid," Torman told Zek.

    "Then what would you have of me?" Zek asked Torman.

    "I will guide you. Give you information you don't have access to in order to help you secure that boat under your command. If I do that for you, you're going to help find me a new body," Torman laid the deal out for him.

    "A body? Like a dead person?" confirmed Zek.

    "No. A living person. Someone who will act as a host for my mind to inhabit them permanently," Torman told him.

    "If you can do that, why didn't you just take over mine?" asked Zek.

    "You're too strong willed," Torman assured him.

    "So you did try!" Zek accused him.

    "If you were in my position, you'd have done the same. Don't hold it against me. We need to get this done together. The sooner we can do this, the sooner we can return you to your status as the most powerful industrialist of the world. The ruler over all. Alomera Constanza Zekestes!" Torman praised his name.

    "If you help me to get this done, I will reward you beyond your wildest dreams," Zek assured Torman.

    When there was no reply from Torman, Zek lay his head back on his pillow and fell into a deep but troubled sleep. He'd lost much in life, having fallen from near the top of it all. More recently, he'd lost his right hand. How ironic that he, with only one hand, would have it so soon replaced in the form of his former business partner. His right hand man.

    He'd woken up with one hand, and fallen asleep with two.

    Further Content

    Watching: X-Files: Jose Chung's From Outer Space (Season 3: Episode 20)

    Similar Feel: Jacob's Ladder (Esoteric)

    Credits and attribution:

    Artwork: Amy WongWendy PuseyGhastly, Brian Joseph Johns, Daz3DUnreal Engine...

    Tools: Daz3DCorel PainterAdobe PhotoshopLightwave 3DBlender, Borderline Obsession...

    Special thanks to the Daz3D artist's pool and Wendy Pusey for some of the dresses that were used in the artwork.

    Copyright © 2023 Brian Joseph Johns