The world is about to unravel ...
Dan Barker and Aaron Flanagan left the office that morning headed to an appointment. Dan seemed particularly anxious about it, and Aaron couldn’t help but wonder why.
As it turns out, Dan is part of a plot and Aaron will soon find himself tumbling down a hole. At the bottom he will land on an island surrounded by darkness, and there he will encounter his first goblin, a white staff, and Michael Maccini, the King of Hearts.
Aaron, like Dan before him, is about to be offered an apprenticeship. If he accepts, it will change his view of the world completely and place him in a position of great power. That is, if he and Dan can survive the tests of Mimgardr.
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Nearly five years had passed since they walked away from Merlin’s realm for the last time. Mimgardr had once been a bustling hub of world culture, but not anymore. Battle had changed that. Now it was vacant and lifeless, an empty waste filled with sorrow and regret.
Originally the king and master had pledged to return, thinking that if Mimgardr could be reclaimed then so could the world order. The realm would be their manifestation of hope. But as with most well-intentioned oaths, their valor faded in the face of difficulty. Each day it grew fainter and fainter until Mimgardr was finally left to its tormented demise. In the end, they never returned, they never rebuilt, and they hardly spoke of trying.
But why should they? They didn’t need Mimgardr, and they had dealt with too much sorrow already anyway. Five years ago, a single flake of mischief had started an avalanche of misfortune which swept over Mimgardr like an engulfing tide. Why go back? Why go back to the vacant homes and rundown shops that hardly whispered of their former purpose? Why go back to the little community beneath the tower’s watchful eye? Why go back to the once proud castle that now lay in a pile of dusty rubble? The only well-kept part of Mimgardr was a monumental tomb that proudly rose out of the ground before the tower. Everything else, from the overgrown shrubs and weed-infested gardens to the faded light and mossy walls of the sorcerer’s old property, would only recall the dismal memories of days gone by. So why go back? There was no reason.
Or at least that was the logic Aaron used to banish any thoughts of Mimgardr when they came nipping at his mind like a stir-crazy dog. Inside he knew he would have to face Mimgardr again someday, but he assumed that someday would be far off in the future.
The king, it turned out, thought differently, for all during breakfast this particular morning, he seemed distracted and irritable. He didn’t speak and he hardly ate. Then just as Aaron was about to excuse himself and start into the day’s duties, the king called out firmly, “Aaron, gather your things. You and I are going back to Mimgardr, and we’re going today.”
After stepping through the enchanted door and crossing the corroded community on foot, they entered Master Merlin’s forgotten tower. Pale light seeped through the dirty windows and cast shadows across every stone. Thick layers of dust and mold found refuge on nearly every surface and filled the air with a choking aroma. The faint sound of dripping water echoed around them and gave the tower an eerie presence. It was as though the tower were rebuking them for leaving it behind and letting it go the way of all the earth.
Aaron waited alone for several minutes while the king retrieved a large, flat bundle from its hiding place in the basement. Then they made their way up the stairs cautiously, taking a moment to pause on each floor and look for any signs of life. Six floors up they climbed until they reached the door of the sorcerer’s now roofless office. Across the hall the door to the old library was open. Raiders had removed a few of the relics inside, but most of the library’s bounty had been left for the duo to remove before they sealed the little realm off from the rest of the world four years and eleven months ago.
Their attention turned to the old office and they entered it reverently. It too had been emptied, and now only the furniture and dust remained.
“Sit down, Aaron,” the king admonished, gesturing to the two chairs that sat before an ominous desk at the heart of the room. Aaron remembered spending a great deal of time in those chairs during his apprenticeship, and the thought of sitting in them again made him long for the happier days of old.
“Your Highness?” Aaron returned, taking the offered seat slowly and examining the octagonal office. He knew that King Michael insisted on being called Mickey among friends, and only allowed himself to be called by his given name or a title in formal circumstances, but it had never sat well with Aaron. It seemed to contradict everything his parents had taught him about respecting people of high standing and greater age. So, he used titles as much as possible, even though the king detested it at every turn. “Why are we here? Why did you bring me back to Mimgardr? You know what this place does to me. There’s a reason we chose to abandon it.”
“We’ve waited long enough,” the king returned as he carefully deposited the bundle beside the desk and glared Aaron down yet again for his use of Your Highness.
“Long enough?” Aaron asked in confusion. “Long enough for what?”
“Long enough for things to … Settle? I believe that’s the word you used.”
“Oh,” Aaron breathed, cringing in guilt. “You saw the letter on my desk, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” the king confirmed as he seated himself in the magnificent armchair across from Aaron and turned his gaze to the metal door on his right that led away to the private chambers of the tower’s former master. “Not that I needed to. You’re about as easy to read as a picture book. Actually, your little ranting letter was quite timely. I think you’re finally ready to see what happened to Dan all those years ago from his own perspective.”
“I think I understand what happened well enough, Your Majesty. I don’t want to see it from Dan’s perspective; it was bad enough from my own.”
The failing health of the king made smiling difficult for him. His spritely pizzazz was growing dim as unnatural age continued to wreak havoc on his body. Many of the activities he once cherished were simply beyond him now. However, faithful to his word and his master’s centuries-old traditions, King Mickey had insisted that they return to Mimgardr and that they cloth themselves in Mimgardr fashion before doing so. As for himself that meant he was back in his characteristic attire: brown pants, simple red robes, broken-in loafers, and the famous white gloves Aaron had never seen him without. His hair was slicked back as always, and he wore no crown. Why he refused a crown, no one knew, but he had been quite adamantly against them for the entire duration of his rule. He preferred flat caps and fedoras if anything.
He looked down on Aaron and shook his head as he declined the young man’s claim, “You have no idea what they’ve done to him, Aaron.”
“They? Do you mean the Fallen?”
“No,” the king returned ponderously, “and yet, yes.”
“I don’t understand,” Aaron groaned in frustration as he sank back into his chair.
“That’s exactly why I’ve brought you back here,” the king snapped. His higher-pitched voice had lost none of its potent enthusiasm. “It’s about time that I take you back—back to the beginning—to see some things you haven’t before. Then, you will be able to help me repair the heart I should’ve kept from breaking and reinstate Dan’s honor.”
“The beginning?” Aaron questioned, glancing down at his watch when it chimed the ten o’clock morning hour. “Do you mean whoever they are has been after Dan since even before he and I were made your apprentices?”
“Long before then, Aaron,” the king returned. “Someone tainted Dan years before Merlin and I ever met him.”
Aaron’s eyes turned downward. His blue robes seemed to be bunching up strangely now, so he straightened them vigorously while balancing his white staff against his chest. Then he anxiously straightened the pointy, brimless, blue hat that adorned his brow. Why would anyone want to ruin a person’s life like that?
“What do they want with Dan, Mickey?” he asked nervously as his eyes danced around the office. “And why did we come back to Mimgardr to talk about this? Why couldn’t we talk about this back home?”
“I don’t know what they want with him, Aaron,” the king answered as his eyes descended to the object beside the desk. “But there is much to learn from Mimgardr. This tower is where your apprenticeships began, and for now that’s as far back as we can go.”
The king cautiously leaned forward to pull away the knotted cloak that covered the secret object. The mirror beneath the cloth had an exquisite silver frame and was about two and a half feet tall. A beautifully realistic, silver rose was the crowning piece of the frame’s composition, and if it weren’t for the evil locked away behind that rose’s magical seal, Aaron would’ve very much liked to have the mirror for his own home. But this mirror was evil, to say the least, and it had been left in Mimgardr on purpose. As long as it remained wrapped up and locked away, its horrors were safe from discovery.
The foremost of those horrors was the slumbering face trapped deep inside the glass. The holographic visage was composed of separate red, yellow, blue, green, and black layers that came together to create a three-dimensional image. Aaron studied the face carefully while a deep longing sprang to life within him. The face belonged to Dan Barker, the best friend Aaron had not seen in several years.
“Aaron?” King Mickey called, snapping his younger counterpart’s attention away from Dan’s slumbering expression. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, sir,” Aaron sighed.
“You’re lying,” the king exposed, smiling slightly. “I can see it in your eyes. You can’t hide your feelings from me, Aaron, you know that. You’re a terrible liar; you always have been. Don’t be afraid to admit it when your heart aches for friendship, for it is in those moments that we find our greatest desires revealed to us. You wish to see Dan again, alive and free, as do I, and that is exactly why I have brought you back to Mimgardr. Here we can study the past without the distractions of other people or technology.”
“I still don’t understand what we’re looking for.”
“What have we been looking for the last five years, young master?” the king returned incredulously. “We have a mystery to solve and a murderer to catch. Our friends are depending on us. Surely you haven’t forgotten the promises we made and the oaths we took.”
“Your Highness, I know you and the masters have been trying to finish my training as quickly as possible, but I’m just not ready to fulfill those promises yet. I need more time.”
“You do realize you haven’t spoken to Dan in three years? No letters. No phone calls. No visits. Nothing. It’s like you’ve abandoned your pledge to Dan the same as you’ve abandoned your pledge to Mimgardr.”
Aaron’s eyes dropped. The forthright question and accusations stung.
“I’ve tried to …” Aaron sputtered weakly. “I just … I don’t …”
“Did you bring the stone?” the king asked, moving on.
“Yes,” Aaron answered quietly, extracting the special stone from his pocket. It was rounded and clear, not too unlike the lens of a magnifying glass. As it passed from his hands to those of the king, a strange warmth radiated through it.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time gathering Dan’s scattered memories,” King Mickey explained. With a flick of his wrist, the king spun the stone into the air over the desk. It rose quickly and then hung there spinning at an incredible speed. “And it has cost me a great deal of sleep, I’ll have you know.”
“But harvesting memories requires the approval of the owner, doesn’t it?” Aaron inquired. “You’d have to be standing right in front of Dan to gather them, and he’d have to give you permission to take them, right?”
The king nodded slightly. “It was difficult to persuade him, but yes. After months and months of prodding, I’ve finally convinced Dan to show me what he’s experienced. At least what he remembers and is willing to share.”
“Remembers?” Aaron returned, trying to overlook the fact that the king had gone to see Dan without inviting him to come along. “How could he not remember?”
“When the will is strong enough, it is astounding what one’s mind can do. Especially when magic is involved. You see, Aaron, Dan refuses to talk about the old days and has even tried to cast away his memory in hopes of forgetting the pain. Unfortunately, for both him and us, because of the contract he actually has a place he can banish the memories to.” The king pointed to the mirror. “You’ll understand in a moment. Now, I will show you as much as I can from his perspective, but to fill the gaps I’m going to depend on your own recollections, if it’s agreeable that I use them.”
“That’s fine, I guess,” Aaron returned slowly, concerned more about what Dan would be trying to forget. “I don’t think I have anything to hide.”
The king smiled, and with a second snap the glass halted and lowered to the table. It floated an inch or so above the desk, and the king gestured to it politely, “Your finger, please, Master Aaron.”
“Exactly what are you going to show me?” Aaron asked with a tinge of fear as he gently laid his index finger to the seeing stone.
“Just … be prepared for lots of heartache, all right? And keep track of the abrupt endings and missing things in Dan’s memory,” the king replied gently, adding his own finger’s touch to the opposing edge. “To relive an old memory is to experience every part of it: the smells, the sights, the emotions, everything. We’ll begin with a scene that I hope is pleasant for you. Then we will watch the past spin by one memory at a time in hopes of divining the answers we seek.”
A surge rushed up Aaron’s arm, and his vision blurred as magical energy projected itself around them like a dream. It began as a flurried cloud of pigment. Then the colors began to take the familiar form of the company pick-up Aaron had driven just six years ago when he was working as a sales manager in Loudoun County, Virginia. The familiar music and lyrics of “Tom Sawyer,” a song performed by Rush, one of Dan’s favorite bands, filled their ears and brought a smile to Aaron’s face.
For the last time, the king’s taunting tone rippled through the air before the vision completely overtook them, “Do you remember this day, Aaron? I’ll give you a clue: the date is Friday, August seventeenth, two thousand twelve.”
“Of course, I remember,” Aaron returned fondly. “This is the day I met you.”
This excerpt was taken from Mimgardr by S. R. Ford.
Copyright 2013 S. R. Ford. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing.