Monday, October 17, 2016

The Ruling Mask

Dan and I are delighted to announce the release of The Ruling Mask, the third book in The Grey City series.

I have to apologize for how long it's taken to get this book done. Of the entire series this was the hardest book to write, for several reasons. First, we were so burned out from releasing two novels in two years that we just needed a break, and that break seemed to go on and on. Second, 2016 was an incredibly busy year for us; in addition to finishing Mask, we launched a weekly podcast and wrote a paper that was published as part of Sense Publisher’s Challenging Genres series. (This in addition to jobs, family obligations, and taking care of a house seemingly determined to fall apart.) Third, we have a process by which we write together, and for this book we for some reason decided to abandon that process—and we paid the price in a wearying succession of revisions. Lastly, Mask turned out to be a much more complex story than we ever envisioned, something we discovered only in the middle of writing it.

That said, The Ruling Mask is the longest book we've ever written—almost twice as long as The Duchess of the Shallows—and in many ways I think it's the best. You can decide for yourself if I am right; a sample chapter is available on our web site, as well as links to purchase the book for Kindle, Nook, or in paper.

Once again, we were lucky enough to work with the inimitable Amy Houser, whose illustrations are so in line with our work that it is difficult to envision a Grey City book without them. Jim Genzano was a tremendous resource, as he picked through more than 140,000 words to find all of the mistakes we’d made. (No small task!) We are also honored to have the services of our test readers, particularly Mark Fabrizi and Suzanne Onesti, who kept us from getting lost in the fog of writing.

Finally, we are eternally grateful to everyone who has ever bought a book, written a review, tweeted a tweet, or in some other way taken a chance on a couple of indie authors. You are superheroes, every one!

Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Calling out the call-out

There are many things I appreciate about The Future (Netflix! Podcasts! Amazon.com!), but one we could do without is call-out culture.
I'm not objecting to voicing concerns or even throwing down about the ways in which minority groups (women, people of color, gays and lesbians, trans people) are marginalized. As a member of one of those groups, I'm glad that gone are the days of assuming that the world is for straight white dudes and everyone else is just living there. That sucked. What bothers me is the notion that being angry about that marginalization gives one license to be an asshole.
Let's be clear about what it means to be an asshole. Having and expressing an opinion is not being an asshole, nor is disagreeing with such an opinion. Being an asshole is expressing an opinion in a way deliberately calculated to annoy, insult, or intimidate. Example:

"I don't think the agenda you support is sensitive to, or respectful of, the needs of the poor." – Good!

"You are an elitist dirtbag and a shill for the corporate scum who rule this nation." – Asshole.

As you have probably already guessed, this example is inspired by the news of Matt Bruenig, recently fired from Demos. I don't much care for the way Bruenig conducts himself online; he's provocative only in that he seems interested in provoking anger and not thought. Unfortunately, he's not alone in his seeming  belief that righteousness justifies any and all reactions to real or perceived injustice. Don't like what Joan Walsh said about Bernie Sanders? Call her old. Upset about the way Neera Tanden speaks about welfare reform in the 90s? Accuse her of trying to starve people.
That's being an asshole.
Don't imagine this is limited to the sphere of political dialogue, or that it never goes beyond scorching tweets. Anita Sarkeesian has suffered all manner of intimidation , including credible death threats, because she dares to critique video games. (Disclaimer: I am a fan of Feminist Frequency.) Lindsey Stone lost her job over a silly picture that wound up on Facebook. Adria Richards inspired a sanctimob over a questionable comment at Pycon, only to find that mob howling at her own door.
The folks who sent threats or demanding firings were acting like assholes, but they believed they were doing what was right. After all, how dare Sarkeesian criticize their beloved video games? Does Stone think she can show disrespect to veterans and get away with it? Richards got a guy fired, so doesn't she deserve what she gets?
The problem with self-righteousness is that it can make actions that are clearly indefensible seem morally justified. In my view, more harm is done by those who are sure they are right than by those who know they are wrong.
I'm not making a call for civility, either. Sometimes debates get heated and people are less than polite, and sometimes that's what needs to happen. This isn't tone-policing; it's objecting to what is actually being said. If the tone of a comment is making the speaker sound like an asshole, that tone should be questioned. And if the tone of a comment is leading people to believe they will be hurt or killed, then that tone most definitely should be policed. We're all aware that we have freedom of speech, but I don't think anyone should be proud of speaking like an asshole.
That's what we should be calling out.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Nitpicking: The Next Generation

I am totally excited to announce the debut of "Nitpicking: The Next Generation." In this weekly podcast, Dan and I will examine each episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", praise the good, poke at the bad, and really have at the ugly. The first episode "Encounter at Farpoint, Parts 1 and 2" is now available on our Web site and on iTunes.

The podcast is free, but if you want to donate to support "Nitpicking" we won't complain. More important, though, is that if you like what you hear, please do recommend the podcast to other fans (or detractors) of "Star Trek."

So please do join us every Monday morning as we go where everyone has gone before!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Calling it out

I wrote this letter to the Office of the District Attorney today, and I copied various people on it. I'm having trouble letting this go, I realize, so I'm hoping that I can write it out.

***


To Whom It May Concern:


I'm writing in response to the decision of the district attorney's office to allow Kevin Harrigan and Philip Williams what can only be described as a sweetheart deal to escape punishment for their September, 2014 attack on Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught.


I don't expect Seth Williams, Mike Barry, or any heterosexual man to understand how it feels to live in a world in which, at any time, you can be in danger of life and limb simply for walking too close to the person you're spending your life with. I don't expect them to understand just how frightening the term "faggot" is to gay men, because when we hear that, we know that violence is not far behind. I don't expect them to understand how it is to grow up believing that the only way you'll be permitted to survive is by lurking in the shadows and alleys of life, leaving the main streets to the straight folks.


I do, however, expect the Office of the District Attorney to understand that when it allows confessed gay bashers to walk away without so much as seeing a day in prison, it sends a definite message to those who like to harm gay people. That message is that breaking the face of a gay man is, at least in Philadelphia, no big deal. The city would prefer that not happen, but if it does, well, a small fine, some probation, and a promise to sin no more will make it all go away. It's a message all gay people understand, I assure you, as we've heard it most of our lives.


I'm sure that Hesse and Haught approved this deal, but in my view that is not sufficient excuse. Crimes are committed not only against individuals but against communities, which is why we have a district attorney in the first place. The gay community of Philadelphia is not well served by this deal, particularly since part of the deal will bring into the safe spaces we've created the very men we're trying to avoid. I cringe at the thought of entering the William Way Community Center to find Kevin Harrigan or Philip Williams staffing the front desk, destroying the community's sense of safety for their own personal growth.


I know that I'm shouting into the wind here; the plea deal is done and the DA's office doesn't care how I feel about it. However, I believe that democracy functions best when elected officials are called out for their mistakes, even when they don't think they've made one. So I'm calling this out, because even though I'll never feel quite as safe in Philadelphia as I used, I still believe that things can change if we all work hard enough. I'm sorry that, on this day, hard enough just wasn't good enough.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dirty fucking faggot

That’s what Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught heard from the group of heterosexuals who accosted them in Center City Philadelphia a little more than a year ago. What they heard yesterday in court from two of those same heterosexuals was that the beating they received that night wasn’t about sexual orientation. What I heard was a flashback to the very first time the word “faggot” was used against me.

I was seventeen years old, fresh out of high school and working as a courier for a Center City law office. I’d hand deliver letters, pleadings and other documents to other lawyers, to court offices, etc., and sometimes during those runs I’d take care of personal business. One day I was in a mall (the Gallery, for Philadelphia residents) and approaching a Waldenbooks when I heard, “Are you gay?” I turned and saw, gathered to one side, three or four boys about my age, looking at me the way you look at a cockroach you’re about to squash. I knew better than to reply--back then every gay person knew that “are you gay?” from a group of straight men was the rattle before the snake bite. Instead, I hurried inside the store, hoping they wouldn’t pursue, and as I moved off I heard one of them mutter, “Faggot.”

Inside, I pretended to browse, but a block of ice had formed in my belly. This was 1987, and back then there was no assurance that, if something started to happen, that anyone would interfere. I could have asked the store staff for a phone to call the police, but I was far from certain they’d allow it, or that the police would even care. It was just as possible that I’d end up in trouble myself; after all, hadn’t I looked at them a little too long? Maybe I’d made a pass and caused gay panic. Remember that this was less than 10 years after a San Francisco jury had let Dan White off easy for killing their own mayor, all because he also happened to knock off a homosexual while he was at it. A furtive glance outside revealed that those boys were still camped near the only entrance to the store, watching--for me, I feared. No one was going to protect me. No one was going to save me.

It didn’t take long for these truths to register with my still-developing, seventeen-year-old brain, so I did the only thing I could think to do. I walked casually towards the back of the store, went through the back office hoping no one would stop me, and slipped into the service corridor that runs behind all the stores. As I hurried along that white-tiled expanse of hallway, I felt not joy at the cleverness of my escape but shame that I was slinking away down an alley after having been kicked off the main street. In that moment I felt like a dirty fucking faggot.

Twenty-seven years later, when Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught had their “are you gay?” moment, they did not slink away like stray cats. They had grown up in a more enlightened time, and they believed that they didn’t need to stand for such things. Philip Williams, Kevin Harrigan and Kathryn Knott thought otherwise, and they drove home that point by shattering the face of one of those men. When I heard the news I flashed back to my back-hallway escape, but I told myself that society had changed since that day. The response from police, media, and the public all seemed to confirm that there were new rules for a new millennium.

Unfortunately, we learned yesterday that the district attorney’s office was partying like it was 1987. Two of the accused--Williams and Harrigan--negotiated a sweet deal that gets them some probation, some community service, and a ban on entering Center City, a ban that everyone admits is almost impossible to enforce.

I understand that Hesse and Haught were on board with this deal, and let me be 100% clear that I harbor them no ill will. They’re doing the best they can to deal with a situation that should never, ever have happened, and that was far worse for them than mine was for me. They are tending to themselves, just as they should. However, by allowing Williams and Harrigan to wriggle away from real punishment, the City of Philadelphia sends a message that, no matter how many gay couples get legally married, it’s still pretty much OK to beat up one. Which is pretty much the way it was back in 1987.

There’s not much I can do about this terrible deal. The district attorney’s office is certainly not going to change course, and there’s nothing the mayor, my councilman, or my state representative can do either. And, yes, I know that the fact that outrage has registered at all is a sign that I live in a much more enlightened society than I did when I fled down a back hallway to avoid being beaten and/or killed. I’m sure that in a few days I’ll regain the confidence in the ultimate success of the gay rights movement. Right now, however, I just feel like a dirty fucking faggot.


Neil McGarry lives in Philadelphia and, with Emmy Award-winner Daniel Ravipinto, authors The Grey City novels, which Kirkus Reviews calls "a fresh, compelling twist on fantasy."

Friday, September 11, 2015

Fourteen years was what it took

Like everyone, I'm aware of the significance of today's date, and for the first time since I got on social media I'm going to talk about the destruction of the World Trade Center, something I have been reluctant to do. That reluctance is due to the way the calamity was weaponized by conservatives against liberals, making it difficult for lefties like me to say anything without sounding traitorous, uncaring, weak, blah blah blah. So I'm breaking the silence. Here's how what happened on September 11, 2001 makes me feel:

I'm angry that thousands of unsuspecting people were targeted by a bunch of murderous, self-righteous assholes.
I'm disgusted that this nation was bamboozled into the worst foreign policy blunder of the past century because unsuspecting people were targeted by a bunch of murderous, self-righteous assholes.
I'm furious that the folks who bamboozled us made it impossible for Americans to come together on something that should NEVER HAVE DIVIDED US.
I'm resentful that we Americans compounded the damage by turning this nation into a place where law and custom now assume that those who prefer privacy are suspicious.
I'm saddened by the notion that my nieces and nephew will grow up thinking that being asked for ID before entering an office building or other formerly public space is perfectly acceptable.
I'm confused that we consider any American who puts on a police or army uniform automatically upgraded to hero.
I'm bewildered that my fellow Americans accept as normal that to board an airplane we have to allow government agents to view us in the nude.
I'm horrified that this nation actually conducted a serious debate over just which torture tactics were acceptable and which weren't.
I'm resigned that, when the next big attack occurs, we'll do it all over again.



Kirkus Reviews calls The Duchess of the Shallows "a fresh, compelling twist on fantasy."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rahasia and the Demon Bottle

I wrote this in college for a short story writing class that I took in the evenings. One of the other students opined that she didn't think men were very good at writing female characters, so I naturally set out to see if that were true with me. You can decide for yourself how good a job I did. I haven't changed anything since I wrote it, way back in 1992, and looking back now I see that this like a children's story. Oh well.

(Sadly, the instructor of that course, Denise Gess, passed away at the untimely age of 57, but I'll never forget how much I enjoyed the course she taught.)


Rahasia and the Demon Bottle

Rahasia was meant for greatness. Her mother, father, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins and grandparents all thought so, and why shouldn’t they? They were all accomplished wizards, every one, and they naturally expected the youngest member of the clan to carry on the glorious tradition of the Goomdomberous family. The only problem was that she was not very good at magic; in fact, she was terrible. Her fireballs were decidedly green and only lukewarm; her illusions, tired and thin-looking; and the rabbits she produced from her hat, dead.
Her instructors (really her aunts, uncles, and older cousins) had all tried to improve her disappointing conjurations to no avail. They did not understand that she was bored with the wonders of teleportation, and that the arcane mysteries of turning lead into gold only put her to sleep. In fact, the only magic she excelled at was shapechanging. Rahasia could transform herself, with a speed and accuracy her family could only admire, into dogs, cats, birds, and even small insects. But there her magical proficiency ended, and her siblings shunned her as a pariah, except for her brother Sethan, who was all too attentive to her shortcomings. He made a point of upstaging her at every opportunity, as if the issue of who was the better spell-caster was really in doubt. Maddeningly enough, he was in a way a better shapeshifter than she, for he could become the very largest of animals, a trick that still eluded Rahasia. Once, when irritated by her quick transformation into a wolf (speed-changing was something Sethan had still to perfect), he had changed himself into an elephant and chased her all around the backyard. Rahasia could not believe such a large animal could move so quickly, and only her split-second shapechange into a sparrow had saved her from being squashed. The trumpeting laughter that had mocked her as she fluttered to safety seemed to haunt her through the frustrating days and weeks of fruitless lessons she endured.
The truth was that she did not want to be a wizard at all, but she reluctant to disappoint her relatives by abandoning the family vocation. Still, in her secret heart she dreamed of becoming a witch, a wild woman of the wilderness, who ran in animal form and practiced woodland magic, and who spoke with animals as if they were tea-companions (although she wasn’t sure if witches took tea at all). Unbeknownst to her family, Rahasia had already exchanged a word or two with the local fauna (the exchange was limited mainly to concerns of food or weather), and had begun the brewing of several herbal potions, but she kept her newfound abilities a closely-guarded secret. Wizards of all types scorned witches as untutored rubes, and Rahasia honestly did not know what her family would do if they discovered a budding witch right in their midst. She had heard stories of how her great-grandfather had turned one of his own sons into a bird just for speaking with a witch, and had left him in that form for six months. She wasn’t sure that this was true, but since she had little desire to join her mother’s prize parakeets in the arboretum, she kept her silence.
Her days passed slowly, and her frustrations rose to a fevered pitch, until she knew that she would have to do something to change her lot or else go mad. Perhaps if she could give her family a demonstration of just how hopeless a wizard she really was they would cast her out, leaving her alone but untransformed - and free to make her own way. With this in mind, she crept into her father’s study, where thick tomes sat stolidly upon shelves that groaned from their burden of knowledge. She took no particular care of the watch-imp that guarded the area, as the poor thing had lately become alcoholic and spent most of its time sprawled in a boneless, drunken heap on the window-sill (her father was aware of the imp’s disability, she knew, but since good watch-imps were costly to conjure, he tolerated its excesses). Rahasia was an intelligent girl, and after a few hours of study she had found what she needed, more in fact than she had hoped. Filching a quill and a piece of parchment from her father’s desk, she copied down the information she needed and crept out of the musty room, leaving the imp to its spirits-induced slumber. The next day, with a bag of stolen food slung over her arm, she set out at dawn from her family’s luxurious estate for the legendary ruins of El-Eventir.
A week later, after an arduous but uneventful journey (hastened by shapechanges into various fast-flying birds), she had set foot upon the hill on which stood the remnants of the ancient tower of El-Eventir, which brooded sternly over the surrounding countryside. Clambering carefully over a ridge, she wiped a hank of sweaty red hair from her brown and paused for a moment to collect herself. El-Eventir was a place of legend, a mighty tower of sorcery where great wizards of yore had once dwelt and made magics of incredible potency. Their time had passed centuries ago, yet it was said that the sorcerers’ spirits still dwelt in the empty shell of their stronghold, keeping watch upon their ancient home. According to the books in her father’s study, any wizard who dared tread upon the sacred ground would be put to a magical test by these spirits, to determine if his magical powers were worthy. Those who failed the test were marked with glyphs that proclaimed them as failures and frauds possessed of no true magical talents. Rahasia hoped that the book was correct, for the wizards of El-Eventir might be her only hope of finally convincing her family that magic was not her lot. She would surely fail any magical test to which she was put, and would wear the onus of defeat with pride.
With a glance down at her travel-stained garb (the dust-stained tunic and breeches hung loosely on her narrow, wispy frame), she resumed her climb, and in due course she came to the broken stone arch that served as gateway to the ruins. Silence lay over the hill-top like a shroud, and nothing moved or breathed in the shattered mess of stone that was once a home of magicians. She found herself wondering if anyone else in her family had ever been to this grim place. Taking a deep breath, she passed under the arch and made her way through the rubble, stepping carefully around pitfalls and crevices that scarred the area and clambering over piles of stones that lay across her path.
She came to what she guessed was the center of the ruins and stopped there, looking around and waiting for something mystical to occur. The wind had picked up a bit, and it now whistled emptily over broken rock and rustled through weeds that had grimly fought their way up between shattered flagstones. After a few silent minutes, she began to wonder what was taking the spirits so long. After a half-hour she was quite annoyed that the undead guardians of the place had not appeared to decry her as outcast (the thought that they might do far worse than that had not entered her mind). It was not as if they had anything better to do, she mused, irritably kicking at a loose stone. What else did any ghost have to do, other than to wreak havoc on helps mortals?
An hour passed, and she settled herself on a huge, flat stone, eating what was left of her stolen supplies and cursing her lot. It was just her luck that the spirits that guarded El-Eventir were foolish enough to find her acceptable, and without a test even! Perhaps new spirits were needed. After all, such an important place deserved to be haunted only by the most dedicated and qualified of undead, not any old ghost. She finished her makeshift meal and was just getting to her feet when she spied a flash of metal from under a nearby rock. Could this be an otherwordly sign? She hurried over to check, getting down on hands and knees to reach under the stone, but came out with only a old bottle. It was a fine piece of work to be sure, fashioned of some strange reddish metal and intricately engraved, but hardly remarkable in terms of supernatural phenomena. She decided then and there that she would endeavor to change to rules governing ghosts, if ever she became one. She sighed, and with nothing better to do, pulled out the stopper, unmindful of the danger that might be involved.
Glowing green mist issued from the bottle’s narrow opening, and Rahasia gasped and hastened to replace the cap. But the flow was too strong to allow her to position the stopper, and the smoke continued to stream forth. She dropped the bottle and scurried behind a nearby chunk of stone, berating her own foolishness. As a child of wizards, she knew better than to fool around with unknown artifacts found in magical areas, but she had been so bored and disappointed that she acted without thought. She briefly considered casting a protective spell, but wisely decided that her own magical ineptitude might endanger her more than whatever she had foolishly unleashed from the bottle.
The glowing mist coalesced into a hideous green face, complete with fangs, horns, small red eyes and a large, bulbous nose. It turned its fearsome gaze upon her and spoke with a voice like stones dragged through a gravel pit. “Look upon me, yon tasty morsel, for here is thy doom!” it boomed. She shivered in terror, wishing that she had never come here and tempted the spirits.
“Come forward, “ the huge face commanded. “Come forward where I can, er, canst get a better look at thou. Thee. Thou.” She shook her head, unwilling to move even if she could have unlocked her shaking knees to take a step. “Be not afraid, scrumptious. I will not devour thine pitiful bones until thou has...hast duly and rightfully...uh...losteth my challenge.”
Rahasia stopped shaking for a moment as its words sank home. “Challenge?” she squeaked, barely able to keep her voice steady.
“Indeed. I must needs...no,wait...I am duly dothly...oh, damn!” The face grimaced gigantically. “Look, sweets, let’s cut to the chase. I have to defeat you in a fair contest before I can eat your delightful flesh and steal your soul. Now come out where I can see you, dammit. My eyesight hasn’t gotten any better over the millennia, you know.”
She emerged from behind the rock, keeping what she hoped what a safe distance from the huge, disembodied head. It seemed large enough to swallow her with one gulp, although she saw no visible stomach in which she would be digested. “Fair contest?” she ventured. “But what if I win?” She jumped back as the creature howled laughter that shook the entire hilltop.
“Not a chance!” the creature chortled, its gross nose wrinkling with mirth. “But, in the occasion that you do, which is as likely as my seeing two hundred again, I must serve you until the end of your insect existence.”
She shook her head in confusion, scarcely able to believe what she was hearing. “Well,” she replied, clearing her throat nervously. “Why don’t we make it easy on both of us? I’ll just leave now, quietly, and you won’t have to risk becoming my life slave. Deal?”
“Not a chance, luscious,” the head replied, grinning wickedly. “If you try to leave without taking the challenge, I am authorized to eat you directly.”
She stomped her foot angrily. “That’s not fair! I had no idea what I was getting into when I opened that bottle.”
Again the demon smirked. “When is life fair, my juicy? Now, select a mode of combat, while my appetite builds to full force.”
“Mode of combat?”
“Oh, you know, weaponcraft, riddles, games of chance,” the creature remarked casually. “That sort of thing.”
Rahasia pondered, but her mind seemed to have to turned to clay; she had never been good at reacting under pressure. “Suggest something,” she said finally.
“I am not permitted to make suggestions,” it shot back, grinning once more.
“Why not?”
“Because that’s the way it works, sweets.”
“Says who?” she demanded, anger momentarily overcoming her fear. “What, does someone set the rules even for such a mighty demon-creature?”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” the demon thundered, but Rahasia could sense its seething frustration. She reflected that the sorcerers of El-Eventir had been powerful indeed, to have subjugated such a potent creature. The demon interrupted her musing, adding slyly, “You have thirty seconds to decide, or else forfeit the game.”
She started in fear. There was a time limit! This got worse by the minute. She started to protest, but held her tongue in the face of the demon’s smug grin. She racked her mind desperately, searching for some talent or interest she might possess that the demon would not. All of her skills and experience seemed so pedestrian when faced with a creature of such power!
“Time’s up, toots!” it exclaimed joyfully.
“Wizardry,” she cried at the same time. “We will fight with wizardry.”
The demon smiled. “Well now, there’s an idea,” it rasped, licking green lips thoughtfully. “I have not exercised my mind-boggling abilities in some decades; I am due for a little workout. Besides, I love the taste of wizards.” Rahasia’s heart sank. How could she ever hope to defeat a being of such extraordinary power, when she could not even prevail over her obnoxious brother?
“To the death?” she asked weakly, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation.
The demon sniffed disdainfully. “Hardly. I am of course immortal, so you cannot hope to harm me. You however, will die immediately upon my victory, which is as obvious and inevitable as my superiority.”
“And your modesty,” she muttered under her breath.
“Eh, what was that,” it demanded. Evidently the demon’s long stay in the bottle had done nothing to sharpen its hearing. “Uh, what I said was, you have a lot of honesty,” she replied.
“Umm. Well, let’s get on with this,” the demon rumbled, seeming put out. “As a sign of my-” it giggled evilly “-good faith, I will let you have first shot.”
“Thanks,” she muttered, suppressing an urge to stick out her tongue. It was bad enough that the demon was evil without also having to contend with a warped and decidedly unfunny sense of humor! Nevertheless, she set herself, breathing deeply, and searched in her mind for the most destructive spell she had ever been taught. She thought of searing flames, rending bolts, and crackling blasts of lightning and thunder, filled her mind with thoughts of power and its uses. With a final breath, she chanted arcane words and pointed at the demon, unleashing a wave of magical energy that enveloped the horrid creature before her...and turned it blue.
The demon looked down at itself, which required it to bend its entire face weirdly. It laughed long and loudly, a horrible sound of crunching glass and falling rocks that made her clap her hands over her ears. “Nice try,” it mocked her, at last getting the better of its mirth. “I only wish it had been red. It’s a much better color for demon sorts of things, you know. I mean, you turn the wrong color, say, pink, and soon you can’t strike fear into the hearts of mortals, other demons stop respecting you, your hideous visage no longer inspires terror-”
“Can we get on with this please?” Mercy, but the creature was smug!
“Of course, my dear,” the demon said patronizingly. “I was just getting to it.” It blinked bulging eyes, and in an instant, Rahasia found to her chagrin that she was entirely naked. The demon licked its lips again. “Hmmm, I have not seen a more buxom dainty in three hundred years.” She looked down at her modest endowment, deciding that if the demon truly thought her buxom it had definitely spent too long in that bottle. It was toying with her, she realized, rightfully unthreatened by her puny powers, and getting a good laugh at her expense. Fuming, she began another spell.
A puff of black smoke exploded around the demon, and when it cleared, she saw to her dismay that the face was unaffected, except for a profusion of bright red flowers that sprouted from the demon’s blue forehead. “Very interesting,” it mused, flexing its face once more to examine Rahasia’s latest blunder. The flowers waved gaily from the motion. “They should prove an acceptable seasoning to the main course.” It concentrated, wrinkling its flowered brow, and she felt the unmistakable tingle of magic. She closed her eyes, expecting the worst.
She realized what had happened as soon as the felt the cold air hit the top of her head, and when she opened her eyes she was able to verify that she was indeed entirely hairless. Her patting hands told her that even her head was now smooth and hair-free as a baby’s.
“I always de-hair my meals,” the demon explained smugly. “But don’t worry, sugarhips, you’ll get one more chance to win.” Again, the demon greedily licked its blue lips. “After that I really must get something to eat. The ravages of hunger, and so forth.” With that, Rahasia knew that the demon’s next spell would be for real, and that her next move would either seal her fate or save her life. In desperation, she thought back to all her years of training, tried to remember every incantation, conjuration, or evocation that might defeat this vile enemy. The problem was that all the enchantments she could hope to carry out could never harm such a powerful opponent, but the ones that might actually do the job were far beyond her limited capabilities. She needed something else, something not even the formidable demon could anticipate.
Suddenly, she remembered her great-great-grandfather Samanious, who had lived to the great age of nearly 150 years by brewing and drinking his own youth potions. In his last years, after the potions had stopped working, he had lost most of his magical capabilities, but his mind remained keen. Rahasia had spent many hours listening to him retell the stories of the many magical duels he had fought and won, sometimes against wizards of far greater power. “I won them all, my dear,” he would tell her, gesturing with a bony finger that trembled with palsy. “I won them because I knew my own strengths, and I fooled my enemies into fighting by my rules. It’s the mind that makes the wizard, not the magic.” These words rang clearly in her mind, and in that moment she grasped her only chance at survival.
She faced the demon, her face set, and before it could taunt her, shifted fluidly into the shape of a wolf, sleek and black-furred. The demon frowned. “Now I’ll have to devour you re-haired,” it pouted, mouth tight with annoyance. “But if it must be so-” It glared suddenly, and sent out its killing spell, a dart of pure energy, red as fire and pulsing with enormous power. But Rahasia was now quick and agile, and with wolfish cunning she dodged the bolt easily, growling a challenge.
The demon’s frown redoubled. “Hmmm, I don’t usually miss, but then it has been a while. Very well, I’ll play your game, and beat you at it.” The demon shimmered and became a huge black bear, which swiped at the wolf-Rahasia with a deadly claw.
But Rahasia had made her move, and was already shifting to cat-form. The claw whistled harmlessly over her head, as she was now considerably smaller than the wolf. The bear reoriented and struck again, but now she was simply to small for it to get a clear shot. The shapechanged demon rumbled angrily, already beginning another shapechange. Soon it was a dog, large and fierce-looking, but still small enough to effectively pursue the cat, which it did. But even as it moved to attack, Rahasia shimmered and became a tiny mouse, which darted in and out between the dog’s sturdy legs. It snapped at her, but once again she was too small for it to attack.
The demon now became a rat, although still considerably larger than the mouse, and it leapt at Rahasia with its sharp teeth bared for the kill. But Rahasia outmanuevered it again, changing into a mosquito and buzzing up and away from the rat’s limited reach. The demon-rat squeaked in pure frustration, fed up with this nonsense, and it flashed into the form of a wasp, with a long, wicked stinger. The wasp zoomed to engage Rahasia, certain at last that it would finally make the kill despite the many distractions.
Rahasia saw the wasp heading straight for her, and in at that moment she accomplished her last shapechange for the day. She snapped back into human form, and before the demon could react, slapped her palms around it, squashing it flat and grinding it with a wringing motion of her hands. “I win!” she exclaimed in elation. Of course she knew that demon had not actually been killed, but she hoped that she had indeed defeated it according to the strange rules of this game. She released the crushed remains of the insect, and even as it fell it resumed demon form. The huge face was still blue, although significantly paler than before, and she saw fear and wonder in its eyes. It gazed at her with new respect.
“Damn,” it said at last, with considerably less arrogance. “I never expected such cunning from a”
“From a creature of insect existence?” she finished sweetly. It glowered threateningly at her, but she feared it no longer. If the creature truly was bound by the rules of the game, as it seemed logical to assume (otherwise it would have eaten her without so much trouble), then it was indeed under her command, for the rest of her life. But how would she command it? Nearly anything was possible with the powerful entity at her side, and her mind whirled at thought of the power she now had at her fingertips. Now she could finally seek out the witches, and leave her life of botched wizardry behind her like an unpleasant dream. Her family would damned well respect her decision, too, or else she would have the whole lot of them transformed into turnips!
The thought of transformations turned her mind to more personal considerations. “Can you show me how to transform myself into a dragon?” she asked the demon, which was still eyeing her warily.
“No problem, assuming the necessary spells can be grasped by your laughably limited mind,” it replied. After a moment, it added, grudgingly, “Mistress.”

Rahasia ignored the small slight as her thoughts centered on her first and most thoroughly enjoyable command for the demon: she would have it show her how to transform herself into a dragon. First, because it was a feat no wizard in history had ever accomplished; second, because it was the only creature she knew of that was bigger - and faster - than an elephant.