Friday, December 31, 2021

All the Years Before Her [A New Year's Eve Short Story]

 And here we are! Back with another New Year's Eve short story! This story should stand on its own, but for fullest appreciation, you may want to go back and reread my previous New Year's Eve stories.

NYE 20212 All the Years Before Her

All the Years Before Her

The sounds of upbeat music and laughter drifted over the hill from the main camp, through the slowly dying light, and came to rest in Laelia's ears as she knelt by an ancient, weather-worn pillar, cleaning dust from carven grooves with a brush. The words tangled in the trees, but Laelia could just make them out: Ring the old year out, ring the new year in, bring us all good luck, let the good guys win . . .
She recognized the tune quickly: an old song from Earth — she automatically recalled the designation, memorized and drilled over the last three years of her studies: world 1-3, erroneously known as the Magicless Realm until 5497 P.C. . . . She dismissed the memory with a shake of her head. Her friends always said she spent so much time studying that she didn't know how to be a person. Maybe they were right. There had to be some reason why she was out here, working her way through the last of the old year, instead of with the rest of the dig team, entertaining their sponsors and enjoying spiced cider and sweet wine and the best of Torio's cooking. Among the many delights and delicacies he'd prepared was one of her favorites, that one dish with the beans and the long noodles and the thin-sliced ham that she could eat bowls and bowls of. She should be back enjoying it and making small talk with the university representatives, telling them all about their work here at the dig and all the great discoveries they were making about the history of Dacharan. She should be celebrating the end of a successful year and welcoming in the new one with shouts of joy.
But instead she was here, staining the knees of her best slacks with the dirt of the ages, shivering in the chilly winds that blew straight through the thin fabric of her fluttery blouse, staring at grooves in old stone in the glare of spotlights pointed on her location. Once they'd been letters, she thought, but the forms were so worn and chipped and weathered that it was hard to make out what they'd said. Maybe if she kept working, she'd figure it out.
Or maybe she'd work and work and work and go to bed when she couldn't work any more, and she'd wake up and find that someone else had picked up where she left off and made a brilliant discovery that she couldn't claim any part of for fear of seeming selfish.
The music coming from the party grew in volume. "We're coming out into a brand new day and I just know it's gonna go my way . . ." Someone important must've decided to start dancing, and now everyone else was following suit. It really was a good thing she hadn't stayed. Talking was hard enough. Dancing was harder — especially when everyone swept off in a wave that she didn't notice until it was too late, especially when the music was loud and the lights flashed off every speck of shine anyone happened to wear and everyone was moving. She always ended up on the edges then, trying not to drown in the endless sea of excitement and sensation.
In that respect, really, it was for the best that she was out here. At least she was doing something productive, even if someone else probably would get the credit for it. Anyway, didn't some people say it was lucky to be working when the new year found you? They'd been people in other worlds, mostly, but luck was luck.
The letterforms cleaned to her satisfaction, she moved up the pillar. Here, the carvings formed pictures inset into the stone. Maybe they'd been filled with something else once, but whatever it was had been lost to time, leaving only outlines. Laelia allowed herself to imagine what the shapes might've looked like when they were new-made. Had they been filled with shining gold to proclaim wealth and power? Or perhaps they'd been filled with cut gems and glass, mosaics like her sister created and had used to win her fame.
Tamati would be holding her own party today, a gala in her newest exhibit. She'd sent pictures of it to Laelia: the white marble floors and the columns that separated each piece of artwork, the skylights that let in light to shine and sparkle off the precious materials making up the mosaics, the wide window-doors that opened onto a balcony with a perfect view of the sunset. Tonight, it would be filled with men in perfectly-tailored purple suits and women in silk and velvet and beads: artists and businesspeople rubbing shoulders and commenting on this piece or that or on the quality of the wine or the exquisiteness of the music — commissioned, Laelia knew, exclusively for that party and not to be released to the public until just before the next new year.
Laelia had received an invitation, of course. Tamati had been more than generous, as she was every year. There would've been a place in that room for her, Laelia knew; a dress and shoes and jewelry picked out and paid for by Tamati herself, platters of Laelia's favorite chocolate truffles and tiny pecan pastries among those circulated by waiters, and a few of Tamati's closest friends with instructions to make sure Laelia was always being included in something.
But the last four years, Laelia had attended and smiled and eaten delicacies that probably cost as much as a month's tuition in the shadow of all her sister had accomplished, and she'd managed polite replies to everyone who inquired if she were an artist like Tamati, what she was doing, when she'd succeed like her sister had. She never mentioned that she'd been the artist in the family before Tamati was, that Tamati had started out by watching Laelia — and then rapidly surpassed her. She didn't mention how she'd given up on art several months after Tamati sold her first piece. What was the point, when she'd only ever be a poor shadow of her sister?
Under Laelia's careful brush, enough dust had fallen away from the carvings to reveal their shapes. Here were robed human figures, hands outstretched to hold stars or flames. Here were great, curved waves of something threatening to overwhelm the people. Here was a great castle, and another star above its tallest tower.
There came a sudden stillness and a change in the air. Laelia's skin prickled. Then a sudden light flashed above her, and a wave of energy broke against her, stinging like hundreds of tiny sparks. Before she could even start thinking about identifying it, she heard a yell and a thud as something — no, someone — fell from midair onto the stone beside her.
Another shout came from above. "Carrie!" Laelia looked up. Another two people — one a man with messy dark hair, another a lady with a thin face and large eyes — drifted towards the ground, moving as slowly as if they had a parachute to hold them up. Both wore robes like Laelia had seen only in history books and museum exhibits and living history villages.
She looked down at the figure who'd fallen. Another lady, wearing similar robes in brilliant green under a darker-hued puffer coat like the ones popular on Earth. She lay still, but her chest rose and fell in regular motion.
The two in the air landed some feet away and dashed over to the lady on the ground — Carrie, it would seem. The man dropped to his knees, muttering under his breath, and fumbled for the lady's wrist.
Was he blind, then? "She's breathing," Laelia offered. "She's not dead."
Both looked to her in shock. Had they not noticed she was here? But before either could speak, the lady on the ground let out a groan and her eyes fluttered open. "Ow."
"I should think so," the man retorted. "What were you thinking, time-porting from thirty feet up like that? You could've killed us all!"
"I wouldn't've needed to if you hadn't gone poking things you should've left alone and waking up Cthulu's great-grandson." Even with the sharp edge of annoyance, the lady's accent reminded Laelia of molasses or caramel syrup. "What were you thinking?"
"I didn't know what was in the box —"
"It had Lost Realm runes on it! What did you think would be in there, a litter of puppies and a leprechaun's rainbow?" The lady propped herself up on her elbows with a wince. "I knew you were a fool, but didn't think you were an idiot, Tam."
"I would think you'd know by now that Lost Realm runes are also used frequently by people who want to leave messages that own't be easily read —"
How long would this go on? Laelia picked up her brushes and carefully started edging away.
The thin-faced lady sighed and edged with her. "They do go on," she murmured. "I apologize. I'm Willow, and that's Tamison and Carrie. We didn't mean to drop in on you."
"Where did you come from? You fell out of nothing." As soon as the words left her mouth, Laelia realized what she'd forgotten. "I'm Laelia Kynn." Their names sounded oddly familiar, though she couldn't place them. Family of one or more of the other members of the dig crew?
"Nice to meet you." Willow offered a friendly smile. "We came from here, you could say. Just a different here. It's a long story."
"A different here?" Laelia echoed. The site around the dig was blocked off for two miles in any direction; she knew everyone who had access. Unless they were party guests, she supposed . . .
Tamison and Carrie's voices had both steadily risen in volume over the last few exchanges. Finally, Tamison's voice reached a shout, "You always do this! You always jump to portals as your first resort, and you do it willy-nilly and we end up who knows where, except now it's who knows when too!"
"Well, we didn't change location much. Just altitude. I can tell you that. And we just met someone who knows when we are." Carrie, who'd managed to sit up properly by now, turned towards Laelia and Willow. "You do know when we are, don't you? What year?"
"Thirty-eight — ah, seven thousand eight thirty-eight. Almost thirty-nine." The words felt like they were coming out of someone else's mouth. Had she been the one to hit her head, and now she was hallucinating? "Who are you?"
"Travelers." The woman started to struggle to her feet. "We'll be leaving in a moment — ah!" She let out a small cry of pain and sank back to the ground as her leg gave out under her. "Or maybe not."
"Definitely not," Tamison snapped, still scowling. "You've made six timeports in four hours. If you don't take a break, you'll burn yourself out and we'll be stuck who-knows-where-or-when for the rest of our probably very short lives. Of course, if you'd show someone else how to do it, that would be a different story. I know you probably won't deign to grace me with that knowledge, but at least show Willow."
"If either of you had a chance of managing it, I would show you." Carrie shot back. "But I'd rather be stranded somewhere than lost in the Void and the Chaos because you mucked up something this complicated without a safety net."
Timeport. The word finally struck the right chord that made all the other discordant notes come into tune. She'd read about this — it had been a sidenote in one of her textbooks, History of Magical Theory and Practice. The sidenote had said such things, such teleportations or portals through time, usually only happened by accident while traveling between perpendiculars, but that it had been theorized that they could also be produced purposely. One wizard had been on the verge of discovering how to do it before she disappeared. What had the wizard's name been?
Tamison and Carrie were still quarrelling, while Willow was steadily looking more and more tired. Laelia finally found her voice again. "Are you from — from another time? Can you do magic? Do you know what this place is? Was?"
Both Carrie and Tamison stopped arguing and turned back to her. Carrie gave a sideways smile. "Of course we can." She flicked a hand and Laelia found her feet lifting off the ground. She rose six inches before Carrie set her down again.
Tamison gave Carrie another cross look. "I could've demonstrated. The rest of us are capable of some things, you know." To Laelia, he added, "You act like magic is something unusual. We're still in Darachan, aren't we?"
"Ye-es." Laelia drew out the word. "We haven't had real wizards for — for at least a thousand years. Something — something happened. At the old capital — here. Ages ago. We don't know what. It destroyed everything, though. And then Darachan sort of . . . it sort of wasn't for a long while. And now it is again, and I'm — we're trying to figure out what happened."
Willow perked back up. "You're a researcher?"
Laelia felt the heat rise to her cheeks, and she glanced down at the tools in her hand. "Not — not exactly. I'm — I'm just — I — I'm still a student. This is my first dig."
"We're all students, really, aren't we? So you're an archaeologist? We're nearly in the same field, then; I study interdimensional anthropology." Willow gave Laelia a warm smile. "This was the New Council Building; it was just being built in our time. Is the Tower of Luck still standing? It should've been just a mile or two east of here."
"We've found a stone circle that way, and a cracked foundation." If she focused on Willow, she could just about block out Carrie and Tamison, both of whom gave off an air of intimidating importance. "We think it was at the center of whatever happened to the city."
The three traded a look. "I can't say I'm surprised," Tamison said wearily. "If anyone were going to blow up the city, it would be them."
"They definitely don't do things halfway." Carrie already sounded much less cross. She sighed and shook her head. "We should go. We're trying to find something that was supposedly left here — a book, we think. Tam, Willow, help me up."
"I told you already, we can't go anywhere." Nonetheless, Tamison slid himself under Carrie's arm and hoisted her so she could stand on one foot and lean on him. "Not with you this tired, and not with your leg like . . . whatever it's like."
"Well, we can't exactly stay here either." Carrie shook her head, already starting to make motions in the air. A faint shimmer followed each gesture. "I'll be fine."
"Wait!" The word shot out of Laelia's mouth before she could think about what she was saying. She froze as three sets of eyes turned to her, but forged on without giving herself time to second-guess herself. "Stay — for a little while. Just a little. Please. Maybe you can help me — help us figure out what happened. We have a doctor, and we have some extra beds. Or — or if you have to — to go, take me with you."
Had she said that? Had she really said that? But even as she questioned herself, the possibilities sprang to mind. If this was real, if they really were traveling in time, then she could find out for certain what happened to the capital. She could solve the mystery. She could accomplish something that was, to some degree, hers.
Tamison frowned. "I don't know . . . Did I mention that Carrie tends to throw us pell-mell through time and space according to her whims?"
"Not according to whims," Carrie muttered. "It's not my fault I've had to rush so many to get us out of trouble you caused."
"I can risk it." Laelia clasped her hands in front of her. "Please?"
Tamison and Carrie traded a look. But Willow studied Laelia a moment and then smiled. "I think we could." She turned to the other two. "I have a good feeling about her. And if she knows where we can find a doctor, I think we should have someone look at Carrie's leg. No one else here has any medical training."
"Well . . ." Carrie pursed her lips. "One more shouldn't hurt." She nodded to Laelia. "Show us to the doctor you said is around. He can make sure I didn't break something when I fell. Assuming it's nothing too serious, we leave first thing in the morning."
"Just follow me — thank you." Laelia gathered her things and headed back towards the camp, beckoning for the three to follow. She glanced off to the west as she went. The sun was setting, turning the clouds brilliant orange and pink. The old year was passing — let it pass! All the years were before her now.



  1. Yay, a history mystery! Good to see these guys again, and interesting to see how the crew is growing.

    1. Indeed. :D Glad you're still enjoying their adventures!


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