Alan walked back and forth through the shop. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Absolutely amazing.” And they were amazing. His feet had never felt so comfortable. People talk about feeling like they were walking on air. That’s exactly how these felt.
“Grin,” he said, returning to the counter where the gnome sat. “You were right. These are the best shoes I have ever worn. Worth every penny of that $600. I was wrong to doubt you.” He reached for his wallet as the gnome rang up the purchase.
“I do hope you’ll share that with your friends,” Grin replied. “Business has been a little slow this week. I could use the word of mouth. People don’t understand that you just can’t get truly good shoes off the rack. You have to match the leather to the foot, and every foot is different.”
“Oh, I will,” Alan said. “It’ll be all over my Twitter and Instagram within the hour.” He shook the gnome’s hand and stepped out of the little shop, checking his watch. He had a while yet before he was supposed to meet Than for lunch. He began to stroll slowly down the street, taking his time, and enjoying the new shoes. As he did, he made good on his promise and began posting words of high praise for Grin on all of his social media.
Posts completed, he found his thoughts drifting to the state of the world these days. It had been nearly 10 years since they had appeared. One day, they had been nothing more than fairy tales and legends. The next, the world was once again populated with them: Gnomes, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, pixies, a thousand different types of creatures. Just then a shadow passed over him and he looked up. Oh, yes, and dragons. Dragons had returned to the Earth.
Of course, humanity had collectively freaked out. Well, not all, but most of them. At first, many simply refused to believe the truth. They thought it was some sort of special effects or marketing stunt. Then, as the truth had begun to set in, a lot of people had problems dealing with their new reality.
But they weren’t the only ones. The Returned, as they eventually became known, had been just as confused. For them, one day it was the year 1289, the next it was 2021. The small, simple towns and villages they had once known were suddenly sprawling urban landscapes. Slow, plodding ox driven carts were suddenly giant trucks hurtling past at 80 miles per hour.
There were a lot of “accidents” and “incidents” in those first few weeks. Humans, being humans, struck out in fear. And the creatures of the Returned struck back in self defense. Hundreds of beings on both sides had lost their lives before order was restored. It took a lot of time and effort by “cooler heads” on both sides to eventually establish peace between the two sides.
You see, a lot of the Returned were victims of reputation. They were just like us, really. All they wanted was to work, take care of their families, and live their lives. History and fiction rarely focus on the quiet, peaceful times. And in the past, most relationships between humans and the fairy tale creatures had been quiet and peaceful.
Unfortunately, they had long since faded from knowledge into myth and fairy tale. And many of those tales had not been kind. Certain races had it harder than others. Trolls, giants, orcs, dragons, and a few others had faced an especially difficult transition to the modern world thanks to unkind literature and movies. It was changing, certainly, but they still faced a lot of discrimination and fear.
The Brothers Grimm, Tolkien, Perrault, Jacobs, Lang, and others had painted many of their kind in a very poor light. And Hollywood had embraced that unkind view, cementing in humanity the idea of their evil natures. That’s not to say some of it isn’t earned. There are bad and evil beings amongst them, but no more so than there are among humans.
Take for instance, the myth that dragons kidnap and eat princesses or imprison them in castle towers or things like that. It was all a big misunderstanding, really, that had emerged from the money making scheme of one particular dragon. Now, the legend that dragons love gold and jewels and try to gather up all they can is true, for the most part. Most dragons are all about making money.
Well, one day a dragon name G’Thurlnarxis got it into his head that a great money making scheme would be to kidnap a princess and then extort money out of the king in exchange for her return. And the first part of his plan worked tremendously well. He was able to snatch the princess and deposited her in the tower of an abandoned castle. It was only at that point that things began to fall apart. He had never learned how to speak any of the human languages. And it didn’t even dawn on him that no one in the king’s castle could speak draconic.
So he flew over the king’s castle shouting his demands to bring gold and jewels to a particular meeting point at sunset. As one might expect, no one showed up at the place and time he had demanded. So he flew back and shouted his demands again the next day. Again, no one showed up. Three times he did this. After the third time, he flew back to the abandoned castle in such a huff, that he didn’t notice the knights following him on horseback.
They arrived at the castle shortly after the dragon. In the ensuing battle G’Thurlnarxis and all of the knights, save one, were killed. The last knight retrieved the princess from the tower and returned her safely home. Thus was born the legend of the brave knight rescuing the princess from the dragon. Over the past few years, people were learning that while most of the old legends and myths had a basis in fact somewhere, the real truth of the story had long since vanished from the telling.
And Arthur. That was the one EVERYONE wanted to know about. Yes, he existed, as did Excalibur, Merlin, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. But again, the truth of it all had mostly vanished away over the years. People had been very disappointed to learn the real truth: that Arthur was little more than a warlord with a magical sword, who in fit of jealous rage at the betrayal of Guinevere had sown the seeds of his own kingdom’s destruction rather than let Camelot continue. What remained of the castle and surrounding city now lay buried deep beneath modern day Birmingham, precluding any possible archaeological examinations.
Alan continued to watch the dragon as it landed in a large opening that had been carved out of a skyscraper about 25 stories up. The dragons had struggled for a few years to find their place in the modern world. That is, until they were able to figure out that no matter its form, money was still money. Now they were everywhere across the financial sector. Banking, investments, stocks and so forth had become the gold and jewels of the modern dragon. He’d even read yesterday that one of the largest banks in the world had just named a young dragon as their new Chief Financial Officer.
Others were also beginning to find their niche in the modern world. Some of those played well to the stereotypes of the legends. Mine owners found dwarves had exceptional skills at rooting out veins of ore. Gnomes were highly sought after in the various manufacturing spaces. Elves had found their place in fields such as botany, forestry, architecture and environmental engineering. Orcs, giants and trolls had found a home in the construction industry.
Others found surprising fields of labor. Pixies, for instance, found they had a real knack for law enforcement. Brownies were fast becoming well regarded as therapists, psychologists, and social workers. Nymphs and satyrs made tremendous doctors and nurses. Minotaurs turned out to be exceptionally gifted as instructors and more than a few were pursuing careers as university professors.
Some, however, were still having tremendous struggles finding their place. Mermaids were especially angry at the polluted state of the world’s waterways. Many had begun to form eco-terrorist cells and stories of attacks on shipping and fishing vessels were becoming more commonplace. Centaurs, long being hunters above all else, were struggling with the concepts of endangered and protected species and hunting seasons. It was getting them in trouble with the law on a regular basis.
And then there were the dark ones. While many fairy creatures suffered from bad reputations unfairly, certain groups absolutely deserved the fear and loathing. Just like their reputations, certain races of the mythical creatures were bad to the core. Goblins, for instance, really enjoyed inflicting pain and many had found place in the criminal organizations of the world as enforcers and thugs.
And then there were the vampires. People had learned quite quickly that vampires never, ever sparkle. They were evil predators and most governments the world over had pretty much taken up a kill on sight protocol for them. These days police and military units had made the tactics of killing vampires and were-creatures part of their standard training protocols. Wooden stakes, swords and silver bullets were all fairly standard issue for law enforcement these days.
Some nations, at least, were trying to find somewhat positive ways of dealing with the dark ones. Germany, for instance, had instituted a series of facilities, little more than prisons really, to try and lock up those inflicted with lycanthropy when the full moon was near. It had met with some success. However, on a couple occasions there were escapes that the guards had to put down. The overall effect, however, has been an influx of those cursed with lycanthropy moving to Germany in the hopes of finding some semblance of a real life.
The biggest change, Alan thought as he started walking again, was the effect on science. Science had been forced to deal with one of the things they had adamantly refused to believe existed: magic. Even now, a decade later, many scientists were still having a hard time dealing with this new reality. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary over the last 10 years, many of them steadfastly refused to accept the evidence of their eyes. Alan smiled, amused at the irony of it all.
For those who didn’t refuse to believe their eyes, the Returned represented a bonanza of research opportunities. Entirely new scientific fields were emerging every week and new ideas were flooding into many existing scientific and medical fields. Just last week there was news that antibodies produced by troll physiology had been adapted to fight cancer. And carbon nano-filaments developed by elves more than 1000 years ago had been demonstrated to be stronger and lighter than anything modern science had developed.
Several prestigious research labs were working on cures for lycanthropy and vampirism. There was growing evidence that both of these were actually viral infections passed by blood and fluid transfers. Lycanthropy especially seemed to be helped by many of the same treatments being used to fight other viral infections. It was hoped that such treatments would one day lead to cures for many of the dark ones. One thing was plain. The world had changed, and mostly for the better.
He strolled past a work site where a new 30 story hi-rise of condominiums was under construction. Pausing again, he watched the crew of humans, dwarves, orcs, and trolls work in harmony for a common goal to build something new.
He was surprised, though, to see a female centaur among the workers. She had enormous saddle bags laid across her back. He watched as she trotted back and forth, collecting the refuse and debris dumped by the other workers. When the bags were full, she hauled them too the dumpsters and unloaded them. She had the look of dejection common to all species when someone is down on their luck and working whatever job they can just to survive.
A frown creased his face and he shook his head as he moved on. Life was like that, he thought. There are always those who find success and those who struggle. He couldn’t imagine what struggles the centaur had faced that had driven her to accept such a lowly job. Alan owned his own engineering and construction firm. Mostly they built bridges for freeways and railroads. He’d hired a few centaurs in the past, but they’d never lasted more than a couple weeks. They were a people of great pride, nobility, and tradition. And the modern world remained a mystery and a struggle for them.
He glanced at his watch and realized he had dragged his feet too much. If he didn’t pick up the pace, he would be late. Than was a woman of great sophistication and beauty. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, the elven botanist had taken a great liking to him. It would not do for her to be kept waiting. He picked up the pace to a fast walk, keeping his focus ahead to prevent further distractions.
He turned the corner a couple of blocks later and the restaurant came into view, situated halfway up the block. He could see Than just arriving from the other direction. The bio-tech firm she worked for was located about two blocks further up the street. She caught sight of him, waved with a smile, and stopped to wait for him. He’d covered about half the distance when a pair of figures slammed into him from behind, knocking him aside as they ran past.
As he picked himself up off the ground, he began to hear the approaching sound of police sirens. The hum of wings then filled the air as a pixie zipped past him in pursuit. He turned to look and take in the scene. The two figures were just turning to disappear into the restaurant. Their clothes were plain and shabby, two things stood out to Alan. First, they each bore an identical, brand new backpack. He could even see the sales tag still hanging off of one of them. And second, the thing that filled him dread, was that in their right hands each of them bore the double-tined spear of the mermen. Every instinct started screaming at Alan to run.
Than, having seen him knocked down, took little notice of the two and had instead started to take a few steps towards him, but then had stepped aside to let the pixie fly past. Alan started to call out, to tell Than to run. Then his world suddenly fell into slow motion. It was like they do in the movies sometimes, except this was real life. He could see it all slowly evolving around him, and he was powerless to stop it. The pixie winging through the restaurant doors in pursuit. Than mid-step into her next step towards him. The slow droning sounds of sirens approaching. Then came a blinding flash of light and an eruption of fire and sound that sent Alan flying backwards. His world returned to normal speed just before it all went black.
Alan awoke 3 days later in a hospital bed. He knew. Even before the doctors and police spoke with him, he knew. Than was dead, and he was not. The explosion, they told him, had leveled half the city block. Alan had been the closest person to the blast to survive. In fact, they told him, he was lucky. It had been a miracle that he survived. People much further from the blast had been killed. They offered their condolences on the loss of his girlfriend. It was stated with the smooth, practiced ease of those who have said similar things many times before.
The police questioned him for over an hour, seeking every detail that he could remember. His answers only seemed to confirm things they already knew. Merman eco-terrorists had been behind it. The target was apparently a business luncheon being held in the restaurant’s event hall. Executives from some of the worlds biggest chemical companies were meeting to discuss whatever things people like that talked about.
Alan only half paid attention to what they were saying. All of his thoughts were on Than. She was the kindest, gentlest person he had ever known. She made everyone around her better just by being there. What had she done to deserve this? It wasn’t fair that she had died and he hadn’t. It should have been the other way around.
The more he brooded on it, the angrier he became. His answers to their questions grew shorter and more irritated with each response. Eventually, the police had had enough, knowing they had learned all that they were going to learn at the moment. They handed him their card “in case he remembered anything else” and left him to rest. Alan merely nodded and then stared out the window.
“You know, that was a rather impressive display,” came a voice from the empty chair beside him.
Alan was startled as a figure suddenly appeared, seated in the chair. A human woman, probably in her 40’s, sat there and regarded him. “Wha???” Alan started. “Who are you?”
“You’re powerful,” she continued as if she hadn’t heard his question. “Probably more powerful than I am.” She studied him for a minute.
“If you’d known what you were doing,” she finally continued. “If you’d had any real training, it’s possible you might have saved her.”
Alan could only stare at her in response. It was already beginning to dawn on him who, or rather what, she was. But he was still groggy and it was hard for his mind to compute it all.
“Yep,” she nodded, reading his thoughts, “Wizard. That’s me!
“Look,” she said as she went on, not waiting for him to respond. “I’m not saying it’s a guarantee. But there was at least a possibility that you could have done it. Saved her I mean.” She suddenly looked flustered. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m not really good with people.”
She looked distant for a moment. “If I…” she started. “If I had managed to get there in time, I could have stopped them. There were four of them in the cell. The mermen, that is. They split up into pairs. I couldn’t follow both sets, so I picked one and called the police to chase the others. I picked wrong. I’m sorry.”
She seemed a bit frazzled now as she continued. “I picked wrong, and your girlfriend and a lot of other people died. And I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I had picked wrong until it was too late. I turned the corner just in time to see the explosion.” Her head drooped and she stared at the floor. “Just in time to see that I was too late.”
Alan continued to sit there in silence for a few moments, taking it all in. Finally, he managed to muster enough coherent thought to speak. “What do you mean? How could I have saved her?”
She looked up at him. “I saw it. I saw you do it. I think you saw it too. You did it with absolutely no training, no study. You just reached into your mind, and you did it.”
“Did what?” he asked softly.
“Paused time,” she said. “I know wizards who have studied for decades and couldn’t pull that spell off. And you did it out of instinct. You reached into your mind and soul, found the power, and paused time.”
Alan snorted. “That’s absurd,” he sneered. “No one can pause time.”
“You did,” she responded. “You saw it with your own eyes. Everything stopped. Just for a moment.”
She waved her hand. “Well, ok, the spell doesn’t stop time so much as speed the wizard up to a ridiculously fast speed so everything else seems as if it isn’t moving. If you’d had the training and discipline, you could have held it for a bit. As strong as you are, you might have held it for as much as 20 heartbeats.”
“This is ridiculous,” Alan interjected. “Wizards aren’t re…” He had been about to say that wizards weren’t real. Even ten years later it was hard to kick old ways of thinking. But that was it. The Returned were real. Couldn’t wizards be real as well?
It had been a subject of tremendous debate since the arrival of the Returned. The stories and legends were clear. And the Returned had confirmed that wizards had existed. But when the Returned came back, when magic had returned to the world, wizards hadn’t. No one could answer the question why.
“They’re wrong. They’re all wrong.” Alan said. “You did come back. When the Returned came back, so did wizards. Didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “We came back. We’ve just been hiding.”
“Why?” Alan prompted when she didn’t continue.
“Well, there’s a very good reason that we have remained in hiding since the day of the Return. When they learn that we came back with them, that we are here, there will be war.”
“War?” Alan asked confused. “Why? Why would there be war?”
“Because,” she answered, staring him straight in the eye. “We’re the ones that made them disappear in the first place.”