The familiar cadence of crashing footsteps rushing down the stairs echo into the dining hall where Mom and Grandma are getting ready for dinner. The final clomp of the hundred-and-twenty-pound elephant ceases at the foot of the staircase. Lily, the youngest of the brood, walks into the hall and places her sketching journal on the table currently being set by her elders. Without consideration for the current, ongoing conversation - she interrupts.
Lily’s Mom turns to her daughter and gives her ‘the glare.’
“I would think after sixteen years of life, you would have learned some manners by now.”
Lily took up many of her Mom’s characteristics, her physical attributes – reasonably tall, thin, and attractive, not to mention stubborn and mouthy.
Grandma, currently running in the fortieth anniversary of her twenty-ninth birthday, quickly interjects and takes the opportunity to put Lily to good use, “Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes, go tell Grandpa it’s ready now.”
“But Grandma, I have never understood this. Why tell Grandpa it’s ready now if it’s going to be ready in fifteen minutes? Why not just say that?”
Grandma grins, and with a light chuckle, she tells Lily, “If you tell him now, he might show up on time. Grandpa needs to find a stopping point when he is working and wants plenty of time to wrap up. Of course, knowing that man, he will just forget, and you will need to run down and get him again. Sometimes I just don’t know why I ever bother with your grandpa. that old coot ain’t never gonna change.”
Bearing in mind a previous conversation with her parents about perceived maturity, Lily resists the urge to roll her eyes and drag her feet out of the room to exaggerate her disinterest. Instead, she chooses the high road, “Sure thing, Grandma. I’ll take care of it.”
She has prepared a proposition later for dinner conversation and wants to appear as mature as possible.
As Lily heads out to the workshop, she overhears her Grandma praising how mature and sensible she has become to her Mom.
I knew I could depend on you, Grandma. As long as the others do their part, I am confident this dinner conversation will go just as I want. My parents won’t even see me coming.
The sun is setting, and the last bits of the red sky fade to black. the full moon bathes everything in bright white light, and there is a light breeze cascading through the open countryside, carrying with it the smell of the nearby cherry tree in full blossom. Lily lifts her head in the breeze and takes in a lung full of the fragrant surroundings. She looks up and takes into account a long-time debate with her brother.
The evening sky seems much sharper than before the calamity. It appears more natural light makes its way to the naked eye on nights light this – the clarity is amazing. I don’t know if Robbie and I will ever resolve our bet. I love my brother, and he is one of the smartest people I know, but I don’t see why he would think it’s a lack of light pollution when we see it so clearly while we are so close to a giant leyline. I am sure that the atmosphere has something to do with it. I think the event changed more than just the surface of the planet. I think it affected below and above as well.
Lily walks a short distance from the Inn, down a slight slope, and across a wide dirt and gravel road. The warehouse lies lengthwise alongside the road passing through the Queen’s Way, a large hangar door on its left side, and the roof panels are currently open, giving the building some much-needed ventilation.
In front of the warehouse's main roll-up door is a thirty-foot pole. On the top is a large, illuminated sign, reading ‘Mana Bob’s.’ The highly-charged quartz crystal that comprises the letters on the sign shines a bright, bluish-white light. When it’s clear like tonight, you can see the sign for miles.
Obfuscated by various bits of junk and a large item covered by a canvas tarp, she can hear her brother Robbie banging away on some project. Just inside the oversized front door, along the wall, is a workbench that runs nearly the entire length of the wall. Hanging above the workbench are all kinds of old-tech devices. Oscilloscopes and vacuum tube testers are some of the older instruments. A sign hangs on the wall that reads: ‘If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration. – Nikola Tesla’.
On a stool in front of that sign sits Grandpa Bob, the former six-foot, now five foot eight, septuagenarian. Grandpa Bob has long been an engineer, mechanic, vintage radio restorer, amateur inventor, and science fiction enthusiast. A man so meticulous, in his giant wall of organized boxes, used to sort various parts, you will find one that reads ‘Misc.’ and another labeled ‘Catch-all.’
At present, he is hunched over a project on his workbench, peering through a combination of lenses that adorn the silly looking headgear he created. Along with various lenses that magnify and some that filter specific light, the headband also has four little telescopic extensions with robotic clamps he can control with his thoughts. He uses them as extra tiny hands. The device looks a bit like a metal insect is growing out of his head. The old man’s tongue wags about as he fuses one part of his project to another.
Lily knows when Grandpa’s tongue is sticking out, he is in his most profound train of thought. It’s in this state he is most vulnerable to a surprise attack. Leap out and scare Grandpa has always been a favorite past time of hers, and it’s been a long time since the last attack. She always enjoys watching his reaction, as he always exaggerates them. Without any forethought, her mischievous side takes over, and she hops forward, throwing her arms out and quickly blurts out, “Grandpa!”
Grandpa Bob is absolutely startled and jumps, nearly falling out of his stool. The old man screams and clutches his chest. After exhausting all the air in his lungs, the poor old man hyperventilates a bit. Once he realizes he hasn’t died from a heart attack, he bangs his fist on his workbench, “Dammit Lily, you’re worse than your mother. I thought for sure my heart just landed on my workbench.”
Looking back, this might not have been her best use of her judgment. That took a lot of the fun out of her prank. Then she recognizes his flair for the dramatic and understands most of his terror is just an act. She gives a slightly subtle sarcastic apology.
“I’m sorry, Grandpa. I didn’t think it would be that bad.”
The old man, who was only slightly startled, does his best to regain his composure, reminds himself he loves his grandchildren and finds a way to send his dear granddaughter a smile, “You damn kids are gonna be the death of me. What was it you wanted, or did you just think it would be fun to try to kill an old man?”
“Grandma said dinner’s ready.”
“So, what’s that mean? I got like twenty minutes?”
“More like ten.”
If I tell him less, maybe he will be on time for once.
“Ten!? That dizzle-brained woman! She knows I need enough warning to get to a stopping point, dammit! Ten minutes …damn woman …always interrupting my work.”
Although he is upset about his new deadline, he knows better than to cross the matriarch, “Ok, I guess I’ll just have to finish this after dinner.”
“Ok, Grandpa. By the way, you remember what I’m doing tonight, right? I still have your support?”
Grandpa Bob lifts the obnoxious lens from his face, looks his granddaughter in the eye, and smiles reassuringly, “Of course! You kids need to do this, even after all that has happened in the world, you have to experience it yourself. Besides, I need more dependable people in the field.”
“Thanks, Grandpa, I knew I could count on you.”
“‘Nobody ain’t never got nowhere doin’ nothin.’ That’s what my grandaddy taught me, and I’ll tell you the same thing.”
Grandpa Bob takes off his headband, and it folds itself into its resting position. He puts on his large, round, pair of spectacles, grabs his walking staff, and pulls himself up and out of his work stool. He squints a bit as he takes in his granddaughter’s presence and gathers some thoughts.
“Hey Monkey, promise me before you go, you will come back to the shop first. I got something that isn’t quite done yet, but I want you to take it before you go. Also, make sure you pack several mana charges…”
“I have Grandpa.”
“Also, clean underwear! Heh, heh, heh. My Mom used to tell me that all the time. Now that I’m old, I hardly see the point. If I get in an accident, I’ll likely be dead and crap myself anyways, ahh, ha, ha, ha, ha…”
“And don’t forget…”
“Grandpa, I got it…”
Grandpa Bob bonks Lily on the noggin.
“Quit interruptin’ your grandpa …he’s old! He’ll forget the end of his first thought halfway through yours!”
Lily rubs the top of her head.
“Ow, sorry, Grandpa.”
Grandpa Bob puts his hand on her shoulder and leans in, “Keep this on you, even as you sleep, and return it to me tomorrow in the shop.” He grabs something off his workbench about the size of a fist and hands it to Lily. The item is wrapped in butchers’ paper and tied with twine.
“What is it?”.
He lets out his old-man giggle and says, “If I wanted you to know, I would have handed it to you unwrapped - heh, heh, heh.”
A dry cough stifles his giggle, then he follows up with, “…Where was I? Oh yea, I guess I better head up to the house before the old battle-ax starts screaming at me.”
He turns toward the back of the shop and yells to his apprentice.
“Robbie, lock up! It’s time to eat!”
From far in the back corner of the warehouse, you can hear a faint and unenthusiastic reply.
“Huh? Already? – m’kay.”
Grandpa Bob grabs his walking staff, prepares to walk toward the house, and would like to, but has to wait for the rest of his body to agree. For a few short seconds, you can see the old man’s hips sway back and forth, and then the leg shakes to take its first step. As soon as it goes, the rest of the body appears to follow suit, and inertia does the rest.
“Still kickstarting yourself to walk, Grandpa? Why don’t you make yourself something to travel to and from the house? I know you could do it in a snap, yet you still stubbornly continue to do the old man shuffle.”
Without slowing or stopping, Grandpa Bob replies as he baby-steps to the Inn with his walking staff.
“I’ll do that when I can’t get my legs motivated. Until then, I’ll be thankful for my mobility, as feeble as it may be. Besides, I have a beautiful granddaughter that is always willing to help an old man about.”
He turns his head to the side and gives Lily his big dopey Grandpa grin, then puts his free hand around her shoulder.
Silly Grandpa, but I guess I shouldn’t expect much different from you. Why would you be any less stubborn about walking as you are with anything else you do in your life? I hope you never change. It’s that part of you that lets me know you will fight for every second on this Earth, and you will be here working to make this place better for everyone.
Halfway up the hill, the two notice John, Lily’s third oldest brother, hanging out in a familiar spot, a memorial park bench under the cherry tree, placed there to remember their older brother who died in the calamity.
“Monkey, how about you go tell Donut about dinner before he gets too… introspective.”
“You got it, Grandpa, just don’t break your stride. Who knows how long it will take for your legs to restart? Ha, ha.”
“Dammit, Monkey, why do your wisecracks have to be so damn …accurate!”
Grandpa Bob continues up the path unescorted, quietly laughing at Lily’s ribbing, all the while muttering.
Lily walks down the road toward the grassy field, where a cherry tree and a bench stand. She can see her tall, lanky brother John, who can’t seem to wear any color other than black. John has been spending a more considerable amount of time at the memorial, a place the family dedicated to losing their oldest child, Noah. As usual, he has his guitar with him.
John’s guitar was a beauty to begin with, but with Grandpa Bob’s adjustments, there is no equal. The standard Gibson Les Paul Studio is pretty much the same. The body and neck are original mahogany and the rosewood fingerboard, and the pickups are dual Gibson 490/498 humbuckers with coil taps. The pickguard and fret markers were removed and replaced with a mixture of crushed quartz and epoxy. The quartz absorbs ambient mana and glows blue. The mana stored inside these particular pieces helps the instrument put out its sound with optimum resonance. Grandpa Bob completely re-engineered the inner workings to make the electric guitar function based on mana. Whatever he did is still a mystery to the rest of the family. To listen to him try to explain it, is asking for a headache.
When the crystals charge, they glow a bright light blue. Since the modifications, the guitar has no need for external power, shows no sign of wear, and has never needed tuning. John was happy that Grandpa Bob was able to make it work after the calamity. He is very sentimental about it as he inherited it from his late brother.
John seems engrossed with a single spot in the field.
Lily wonders what her brother is doing.
He’s always staring into the field like he is looking at something nobody else can see. His eyes always seem fixated in the same point of space before he plays.
A bell rings, like from a distant clocktower, but it isn’t ringing in the distance. It’s a note, the first note from the song that John plays when he comes to this spot. The tone resonates a bit. As it begins to fade, it chimes once again, still with no material origin. The sound comes into existence by pure thought. On the third ethereal ringing, John’s pick finally strikes against the strings of his modified Gibson.
For John, it hardly matters what song he plays. The power isn’t in the song or the instrument. John has a powerful ability to manipulate mana. The guitar is just a medium, and the music helps focus his mind. Since the great calamity, most family members have had some level of mana manipulation bestowed upon them, some physical, some spiritual, and some intellectual.
John’s talent for music has always been phenomenal, but with the additional ability to manipulate mana, he can shape the music into just about any force he wishes. As an artist, he tends to have a flair for the dramatic, so the song usually caters to whoever is its intended target. In this location, it’s has been the same for quite some time, Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite the evidence against him, John believes his brother was not killed in the fight against Hoyle. He stands fast to this fact and is bound and determined to prove the family wrong.
Other songs have been attempted to try and locate his brother, but have ultimately failed. John swears this song has gotten him closest to bringing him back. So, it’s been variations on this one for a long while now.
As soon as the pick strikes the first string, a faint trail of mana emanates from the guitar and travels outward into the field. The mana trails travel apart a bit then connect in the same spot in the middle of the field. It’s as if there is something there for it to latch onto. A few bars into the song, and the wind picks up. Simultaneously, the air becomes thick and heavy, pushing down on everything in the area.
Lily stops, afraid to advance any closer as she thinks she may become collateral damage with this amount of chaos.
This is the strongest I have ever seen him play …it’s so intense. He has never generated this much force before. Please be careful, brother.
She notices that her brother is standing with his feet far apart while leaning into the wind. He does this to keep his balance in the coming resistance. His long, wavy, black hair and his black duster flap violently in the howling winds.
Her brother has picked up the tempo, and at his whim, the guitar’s distortion level increases, creating a raspier sound. With every strike to the strings, static arcs into the air, the mana trails coming from the guitar thicken and become more prominent. They swirl a few yards ahead, unimpeded by the surrounding tempest, and create an opaque ball of mana.
As John continues, his playstyle becomes more aggressive. He breaks into a solo of rapid harmonic notes, hardly recognizable to the original song. All the while the sphere of mana becomes a massive vortex of swirling chaos. One minute in and a little black spot appears in the very center of the vortex, like a bubble. The tiny sphere looks like a pupil inside a ball of white – like an eye of chaos.
John is still playing, but the music has become imperceptible. It’s like a dull tone, like the ones they used to use when they checked your hearing. The pupil grows as if an iris opening. When the black takes more than half the area, the colors switch in the sphere; white becomes black, and the center becomes white. Inside is a shadow, a blurry human-shaped shadow.
This is different than in the past. The wind and storms and heaviness had all happened before, but never did Lily see a shadow in a circle before now.
Did he finally do it? Impossible… he died. Didn’t he? Is he raising him from the dead? Am I looking at Noah’s shadow?
Lily screams for her brother's attention.
“John! What is that?”
Nobody else could have picked up on Lily’s voice, but John’s hearing is different. He looks up to see what his efforts have brought forth, then abruptly stops playing. The wind, the swirling vortex, the heaviness in the air …it all disappears in an instant. John hangs his head in defeat and quietly says, “Not him.”
He then turns and faces Lily, and she can see he is exhausted. They walk home together, and he moves as if he weighs twice as much as usual.
As curious as Lily might be about what she had seen, she knows her big brother is in no state of mind to discuss it.
Oh, Donut, please don’t push yourself too hard. I don’t want to lose another brother.
Since the great calamity, a lot may have changed, but over the last few years, there is one thing that has stayed the same for this family, and that is Sunday family dinner in the dining hall of the Queen’s Way Inn.
As Grandpa Bob shuffles up the slight incline, he looks over at the Inn and is reminded of how hard his wife Victoria works to keep it running.
That wife of mine can really rile me up, but I should praise her more often. She does good by us. I should tell her that when I see her next …unless I forget again.
Grandma Victoria, who looks like she could be the mascot of a cookie brand, runs the Inn with her daughters Robin and Jill. The hall has several small and medium tables that seat guests in groups ranging between two to eight. In the center nearest the hearth is a large, square table that has enough seats for sixteen occupants. It’s a table for large parties and the family get together. On Sunday, they place a small ‘reserved’ sign on the table. Currently, the Inn is uncharacteristically empty and has been for a few days, which may be bad for business, but it has given the family time to reflect on other matters.
Upon entering the dining hall, you will find a sign posted near the entrance that reads, ‘Food tastes better when it is shared with good company.’ It’s one of the Queen’s Way hospitality mottos.
Grandma Victoria has begun to make a name for herself and the Inn. Old ideas have become new again. Those who travel have come to rely on a long-forgotten code of hospitality. Queen’s Way Inn holds the benchmark to these ideals and is slowly becoming a hub for road-weary travelers.
Inns are the embodiment of how a community should treat a traveler. Those treated well will speak highly of the town, increasing its reputation and encouraging more merchants and travelers to visit for trade and relaxation. Inns are still rare, so when someone finds themselves out of town and unable to find one, there is an expectation that residents will help visitors while in their community. A resident can refuse but risks the repercussions of being considered a bad host, which can leave a negative impression of their people as a whole. Those who do offer their homes to wayward strangers, and treat their guests well, will likely find themselves held in high regard with the rest of their community. Being a good host often has its perks.
Often a guest will leave some gratuity or gift for their host’s hospitality, especially if he plans on a return visit.
Grandpa Bob finally makes it to the dining room and sees he is one of the first ones to the table. Perturbed that he is now idle when he could have continued his work outside, feebly shakes his fist toward his wife in the kitchen.
“Hey, you said it was ready, and it’s not. I could have finished my project outside. You always do this to me…”
His commentary trails off into a dull grumble, ending with a loud, “…You dingbat!”
Realizing his faux pas as he sits in his favorite dining chair, he looks back toward the kitchen, reflects on what he just said, and readies himself for the return volley.
“Bob, I told you I don’t like it when you call me those names, and if I didn’t send someone to get you early, you would never make it inside before midnight. You’re going to eat with the family when we are all gathered here to spend quality time together, and not hide in your workshop. If I hear you give me lip one more time, I am gonna bop you one!”
Having been given the proper reprimand for his insubordination, Grandpa Bob responds with his tell-tale apology.
“I’m sorry, ok? I’m sorry I’m an asshole.”
Once again, the hangry man starts to grumble and mumble under his breath. It’s incomprehensible. Most of the family believes that he isn’t even aware he is doing it, just some inner monologue escaping from his brain through his mouth and is promptly overlooked.
Standing about three and a half feet tall and dressed in a waiter’s uniform, a Broonie who works in the dining hall helps Grandpa Bob with his seat.
Shortly after the calamity, a large group of humanoid creatures showed up at the Inn. They said they were under an ancestral contract as servants to the masters of this house. No one in the family knew about any agreement, nor did a document exist that could prove their case. They insisted they must fulfill their contract, and it was required they perform any task that was asked of them by the family. The Broonie spokesperson warned the family all of the Broonies would be banished from this realm and tormented eternally as punishment if they were unable to fulfill the agreement. They said the accord was fuzzy on the details on the type of torment, making the fear of not knowing what would come much more off-putting.
While it was a bit of a shock at first, seeing beings that did not exist just a few days after the leyline surge, the family quickly adapted to their new guests. They saw them as an equal member of civilized society, if society were ever able to become civil again.
Lily classified the creatures as house-elves, as their job, as they had described it, was absolutely on point for a specific character in one of her favorite book series.
Robbie, who had been a huge pen and paper role-playing gaming nerd, had a few books of mythical and fantasy creatures. Inside a book titled ‘Fantasy Folk,’ there were a few different creatures listed that fit some of their descriptions. None of the character descriptions got it precisely right. Ultimately, they seemed to be an amalgamation of a few folk creatures: the Tomte, the Hob, and the Brownie, or Broonie, as they pronounce it. The fae folk seemed most accustomed to the term ‘Broonie,’ but they were just as happy with house-elf as it also related to their duties. Over time, the name Broonie won.
The family felt at odds as they didn’t like the idea of ownership of people but felt guilty if the broonies came to harm because of their pride. Through a long conversation, they fleshed out the details of their bond.
Some of their qualities mentioned in the book were reasonably accurate. They did seem to have an issue with clothing. However, the family convinced them to wear ‘work clothes’ and ‘uniforms,’ as it fell in line with performing their duties. It was helpful and ironic that the broonies were so staunchly against wearing clothes, yet they were also very talented at tailoring them.
According to the broonies, they were to work for the family in any capacity as needed. Housework was the most prominent skill in their wheelhouse. But they were also a varied source of talent and skills, including the ability to manipulate mana, as naturally as breathing. Most of their magical focus centered on restorative magic, and some turned out to be quite a force in mechanical fabrication and engineering – Grandpa Bob was enthusiastic about having underlings. Their first exercise of independence was to refuse the job of ‘test subject’.
This was still a bitter pill for the family to swallow. The thought of servitude of this nature went against their standard of morality. But how do you turn away people who say they would be tormented if you don’t allow them to stay as servants? Ultimately the family was unanimous in their decision. It felt a crueler fate to allow their species to suffer under mysterious suffering, but they wanted to make certain people knew that the Broonies were there on an ‘at will’ basis.
In exchange for their work, they would have a place to live, and their basic needs met. Lily’s dad, Mark, had given some thought, trying to circumvent the issue of free labor. Given Mark’s savvy nature, he wanted to include gratuity for excellence in tasks performed. He thought this would give the family a way to pay for services rendered. Unfortunately, this met with stiff resistance, and they took some offense. It was a good try, but it was ultimately unacceptable.
Broonies have a particular food preference. They only asked for some porridge with a pad of butter and some honey. Confusing porridge with gruel, Jill adamantly refused. She had put her foot down and said, ‘If you don’t let us pay you, you will, at the very least, eat as we eat. I will not tolerate anything less.’
The broonies seemed to be an especially stubborn race, but even they dared not cross this line and reluctantly conceded the point. In the end, it all worked out. The Inn served breakfast continental-style, which included oatmeal, butter, and honey. Unbeknownst to Jill, this is what they wanted all along.
Because the property is so large, the family could create separate living quarters for the Broonie community- one that would be custom-designed for their stature. Give or take six inches, the Broonies only stood three feet tall. With the help of some architecturally skilled employees, they were able to create thirty apartment buildings. Each had four fully-furnished three-bedroom apartments. Living in their own space was foreign and uncomfortable for the broonies. They were reluctant at first, but they did as was requested. Over time, they seemed to grow accustomed to their new lifestyle.
Although the broonies would not listen to reason on this point, the family insisted that this act of servitude was voluntary and that they were acting of their own volition. As appearances at the Inn were very important to Victoria, she had someone place a sign on the wall of their reception office. The sign read: ‘We at the Queen’s Way Inn DO NOT condone the practice of slavery or servitude. The broonie staff has the right to come and go as they please – regardless of how it may appear.’
Once all the details were worked out, the staff began immediately, and just as quickly, the family saw what a godsend they were. Many could fully restore items to their original condition. This turned some rags back to good-as-new clothing, and shoes that had been falling apart were ready to be worn again. Some are adept at restoration and maintenance around the property returning many facilities into working order. Manufacturing and construction work are at a master level, and their precision and attention to detail are unparalleled.
A couple of weeks later, it dawned on Jill’s husband, George, that maybe the contract they claimed to have had was a ruse. It turned out his suspicions were correct. They had duped the family into creating an actual agreement during the ‘hashing out’ of the fictitious contract.
The broonies were obligated to come clean with their charade. Their eldest, who also spoke in the most broguish accent, came forward and said, ‘When we first be here, tis da only house we fine. We broonies nah use ta such large numbah in kinfolk. It like we all just got dumped out from de sky …we all had homes …we all had diff’rint masters, but it all gone. We err nutin’ without a master of de house. Brinn ‘da wise’ come up wit de idea ta say we already bonded, he say if we do dis, yoor kin would end up makin’ de contract all on your own. It worked wit’ nary a crinkle. Before dis farce, he be just Brin.”
To this day, the broonies accent is still pretty broguish, but it has gotten better. On the other hand, Uncle George’s has gotten worse.