Emote Timelapse

What is this? A time lapse of an Emote Painting process? A recording from a live stream?


Who is this person and what have they done with me?! Crazy abductions and mind altering madness!

Or maybe not that crazy?

Over the past week I have made a whole two emotes (go me!) and wow have I learned things. What things, do you ask? Well, apparently I belong to the Emote school of DERP. Huh, who woulda thunk?


I kinda like these giant eye-balled, overtly emotive little guys. So happy! So manic! I will totally be spending more time painting up these goofballs. And who knows, maybe I’ll be a chibi artist next. :O 

Music Credit goes to:  

Funny Adventures by WinnieTheMoog 

Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/6048-funny-… 

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/b… 

Illustration: Thell the Fairy

Three years later, and Thell the fairy is getting her picture taken! To be fair, I did try three years ago, but it was just a crazy stressful mess. Mentally, I was not in the right place, but that’s a story for another day.


Today is for celebrating! Thell has a lovely bunch of sketches all ready for her story. One coloured, a bunch to go! I will admit that I almost gave up at the colouring stage. That was Photoshop’s fault. I don’t know why, but no matter what I seem to do, I always end up with pen pressure issues. I’ve had problems with randomly loosing pressure mid stroke and then it suddenly coming back again. I’ve had pen pressure just full on dropping and only coming back when I restart PS.


It was a mess and made the whole painting experience a nightmare. These are known issues. Other people have these issues. And I found myself wondering what I was paying a monthly sub for if stuff didn’t even work properly.

Enter Clip Studio Paint and love at first sight. Yup. It’s true. I’ve converted and couldn’t be happier. I have only scratched the surface of the program, but already the whole process feels more natural. More peaceful and more in line with how I work when I paint traditionally. I wish I had made the change sooner.


Over the next few weeks I will be cleaning up and colouring these sketches. If you keep an eye out, you may even catch some of the process live streaming on twitch. This is another new experience that I hope will grow into joyful hilarity.


If watching each and every snail paced tiny brushstroke while the artist mutters incoherent stuff is your thing, you can find me here: https://www.twitch.tv/actonart

For now, I hope you enjoy Thell’s sketches. Progress and process walk throughs to come. 🙂

Alice in Wonderland: Painting

Finally, it’s time for painting. I don’t have much to say about my process. I keep things fairly simple. No special tricks or magic tools, just a bunch of familiar steps built over years of painting practice. 

Most of my paint is Windsor and Newton Professional Acrylic. I do have a couple of tubes of  Galleria (Windsor and Newton’s student range) as well as some Atelier tubes, but for the way I work, the Windsor and Newton Professional range feel the best.

For brushes I use a large, square to wash in the background, but the rest of the painting is done alternating between three differently sized round brushes. As for the actual technique, I can best describe it as layering on thin washes of colour and softly (but quickly) blending lights into darks until I get the desired gradient.

In future, I would love to video the whole process, but I don’t really have the right setup for it. For now, I can offer a photographic journey.

Next up: The Final Painting

Mini Spekboom Challenge

Spekboom is not only an awesome, carbon sequestering powerhouse, it also offers me a huge dose of childhood nostalgia, so when @dwarfjadebonsai over on Instagram started the Mini Spekboom Challenge I had to participate. What, you ask, is the mini spekboom challenge?

The challenge is to find or make the tiniest pot you can and then plant a tiny spekboom tree/cutting into the vessel, creating a miniature bonsai. And why are spekboom awesome?

In the words of @dwarfjadebonsai:

” Spekboom has the potential to mop up the excess CO2 responsible for #climatechange. Its immense carbon-storing capabilities and capacity to offset damaging carbon emissions are comparable to that of moist, subtropical #forests.

One hectare of Spekboom sequestering up to 4.2 tons of carbon per year!

Spekboom doesn’t burn, making it a hardy #plant to withstand veld fires and great material for firebreak hedges.

It can withstand drought too – mainly due to its succulent #nature, but also due to it’s unique ability to ‘shift gears’. While most plants require their stomata to be open during the daytime to absorb carbon dioxide, in dry conditions, the #porrulacariaafra can open its stomata at night instead, and close them again in the day to avoid loss of water. This slows down evaporation, and enables the Spekboom to #grow faster during the day. During the wetter months, the #Spekboom absorbs carbon dioxide during the day as normal, which helps reduce our #carbonfootprint.

We can eat it too! Its little #succulent leaves contain heaps of Vitamin C as well as a number of other minerals “

At first, I took an existing concrete pot (made by me) and planted one of my woodier looking cuttings. Most of my cuttings are still young and don’t yet have that hardened look. Of course, I couldn’t stop at that. So i pulled out some sculpey and had a quick bit of silly fun making the elephant and coil pot. If inspiration strikes, I may find myself doing another one… or several. 😛

This was a little bit of fun in these crazy times and I hope it brings a few smiles. 🙂 

Alice In Wonderland: Painting Preparation

With the sketch done, it’s time to prepare the canvas for painting. Word of wisdom, buy the canvas before deciding on what size to make your sketch. I, of course, did not work with this sort of wisdom and alas, when I went canvas buying, could not get the exact dimensions that I needed. The best canvas I could find was a little wider than the sketch, but not quite as tall.


With some tracing paper, a pair of scissors and ample floor space, I got to work making adjustments to my composition. Satisfied with the new positions, it was time to transfer. Another feat accomplished thanks to tracing paper. I make sure to put only the main lines down. They are fairly light on the canvas, and serve as a guide for the initial layers of colour.







Speaking of colour, I need to make some decisions on my palette choice. I paint out a few quick colour studies to get a feel for the atmosphere. For me, the yellow one best brings out the kind of vibe I’m aiming for.


Lastly, I prepare a reference board.


And now it’s time to paint.

Alice in Wonderland: The Sketch

After hashing out the idea for my Alice illustration in a few rough doodles, I jump right into the final sketch. This sketch is something of an exploratory process. I’ve got the basic idea of how I want the image to look, but I haven’t worked out the finer details yet. There is a lot of back and forth with erasing and drawing and erasing again, particularly in areas like the hands where getting the pose just right can be tricky

The sketch is A3 in size, done on an A2 sheet of Canson Artists Series Drawing Paper, 220GSM. I used a 6B graphite pencil for the entire sketch. I find I can get both really light and really dark with 6B pencils and don’t have any need to switch between pencils. The final trusty tool is the kneaded eraser.

Here are some shots of the process with the final illustration at the end.







Next up: Transferring the sketch to canvas and getting ready for painting!

Alice in Wonderland: Initial Sketches

When I started my Alice in Wonderland painting, I had three goals in mind. I wanted it to be vibrant. I wanted it to be busy, but mostly, I wanted it to be mine. I didn’t want my painting to be another iteration of Disney’s Alice (a glorious Alice at that) and in order to steer clear of those prominent influences, I had a few choices to make:
 
 
First, I read the book. Surprisingly this was something I had never actually done before and as a writer, well… guys, this story has no beginning, middle, nor end. It is a psychedelic stream of consciousness told through a series of puns (many of which I likely missed due to time period differences and whatnot.)
 
 
But as an artist? It’s a candy-bowl full of visual delights!
 
 
The first thing I decided to do was focus on the animals. The book has A LOT of animals. If an animal exists, Alice probably had a chat with it. I considered the human characters, but ultimately decided that I wasn’t up for the challenge of trying to better Disney on those. It is close to impossible for me to think about the Queen of Hearts and NOT see a tiny lady with a giant head. Animals would also much better fit my desire for something bright and lighthearted.
 
 
I knew I wanted to have Alice in the middle with rose bushes and animals around her.
 
 
My first thumbnail had her looking timid and scared, but the Alice in the books is never frightened.
 
 
 
My second attempt is better, but her expression still isn’t right. She’s not scared anymore. She looks like she’s in awe of Wonderland. Which, once again, she isn’t’. Mostly Alice waltzes around Wonderland trading snarky comments with everyone she meets. I did like the positioning of this thumbnail however and used it to further plot everything else.
 
 
 
 
 
I tried a couple of poses with Alice before coming to the one I liked. At first, she still has too much of the awe/scared thing going.
 
 
 
 
Finally I clue in to the fact that I need her cheeky. Sassy. Shes confident and strong and none of my previous attempts were carrying that message at all. Behold, the final Alice:
 
 
 
 
 
I did some quick sketches to figure out my version of the Cheshire cat and some studies of a few other bits and pieces, but that was pretty much it. My preparation for Alice was a lot of thinking and three pages of scribbling.
 
 
 
 
Next up: The Complete Sketch

A Long Overdue Update

It certainly has been a while since I last made a post. I had many good intentions, but was very swiftly overwhelmed with everything I wanted to do and it inevitably led me to a downward spiral in which almost nothing got done.

But life is a series of falling down and getting back up again and here I am, getting back up.

And to begin, here is a small update of what I have been working on.

Art:

Most of last year was dedicated to Sculpture. Primarily, I was making bonsai pots out of concrete, some more artistically leaning than others. I set up an Etsy shop and even sold a few, but it was a venture that came with a few problems that I’ve found hard to reconcile. Concrete is heavy. It’s also pretty fragile. The weight makes for really high shipping fees and when you have a product that needs to ship all the way from Australia, well, it gets expensive.

I did also experience breakages on items that I thought were really well wrapped. I seriously underestimated the amount of cushioning my delicate, chunky, babies would need. Luckily, those were sent to my parents and I didn’t have any unfortunate customer care situations to manage. It did however show me how easily I could end up with an unfortunate mishap.
I do love sculpture and I thoroughly enjoy mixing it up with bonsai and other plants, but after giving it a year, I think its safe to say that it’s an activity best left as a hobby for now.

So where does that leave me and my Fine Arts degree? Spiralling in self doubt and existential dread. I did a lot of that. It seriously messed with my productivity. It took a stern pep talk from myself, and a really long time, to pull myself out of that mess and come up with a plan. A project. Something.

Enter my saviour: Alice in Wonderland.

I decided to choose a book, any book, and make a cover illustration for it. No pressure. No time limit. Just me and the art and however long it takes. I am so glad that I chose Alice.
This painting has giving me my confidence back. It’s bright and colourful and it makes me happy. When I look at it, it reminds me that yes I can do this. I do make good art.
And thanks to Alice I have a sudden wealth of new ideas just waiting to be painted. Of course, I need to finish her still. She has a good couple of hours left to go, but they’re hours I’m excited to get to.

I haven’t taken a tonne of progress shots, but I will be sharing what I have in a future post.

Writing:
Last year I attempted to do another round of 12 short stories in 12 months. I got 6 stories into it before I realised it was taking too much of my time and seriously impacting the progress on my current novel WIP. It was a really tough call to make, but I made the decision to quit the challenge half way and save what was left of my crumbling sanity.
With the short stories no longer a priority I threw myself into Draft Two. It took a lot of self bribery (in the way of chocolate and clothes) but I got. It. Done.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t done done.
I am currently deep into edits of draft three and have made it to 50000 words. It is going slower than I had hoped and with the current state of the world, I am finding it increasingly difficult to get much done. Not to mention that I have suddenly become a quarantine-Home-school mom and what time I did have has suddenly shrunk to almost nothing.

But the book is coming along. I am making progress. I even have an excerpt to prove it. 😉

Excerpt:

“What does it do?” Autumn heard herself ask. She could not look away from the candle. She couldn’t stop the gaping pit of dread that grew inside of her.

She knew what the candle did. Of course she did. This was a gift like all the other gifts, made to fix her. Only, Zanele had never given her a gift before. Zanele had never even hinted that she cared about Autumn’s lack of manifestation. Zanele was a safe witch.
But not anymore. Just like the rest of them, Zanele was here presenting a gift. Like the rest of them, Zanele wanted her to change.

Zanele began to explain the magic and the more she spoke, the more the pit of dread grew.

“At it’s core, it’s a spell of waking, but there’s a lot more to it. It has threads for breaking barriers and some others to uncover hidden things. And the last bit, the really tricky one, is a thread of life giving. It took me months to work out the intricacies, otherwise I might have gotten this to you sooner.”

This was complicated magic. Difficult magic. Not entirely sanctioned magic. Waking? Life giving? Autumn swallowed.

“I can’t take this.”

Autumn reached out and pushed the candle away from herself. Just the brief touch made her feel like she might throw up.

“Of course you can.” Zanele pushed the candle back. “I’m giving it to you.”

Autumn’s eyes shot up to Zanele’s. She stared, wide eyed. “Is this even… legal?”

“I might be treading some fine lines but, “ Zanele shrugged. “This is for your Affinity, I don’t think anyone would object.” She leaned in close then, a spark of laughter back in her eyes. “Just don’t light it in a graveyard. You might wake up the inhabitants and then we will be in trouble.”

Autumn’s eyes went wide. “It can do that?”

Zanele pushed away from the counter, she laughed. “Not without a very elaborate spell, it can’t.”

Autumn was not convinced. She stared at the candle, horror plain on her face. Zanele spoke softly.

“It’s fine, Autumn. Light it, focus on your core. The only thing that will awaken is your Affinity. I promise you that.” She pressed her shirt straight. “But I do need to get going. Message me if you need to talk more, okay?”

“Okay.”

Break In

Lucy woke slowly. Sleep clung to her mind like warm toffee. She pulled at her consciousness and watched as it came toward her. It was a reluctant thing, kind of Lucy-shaped, and it was knee deep in a thick, slow moving stream. The Lucy-shaped-thing moved against the flow. It wasn’t making much ground. The sticky sweetness curled and hugged and pulled. It would be easy, so easy, to let go and drift away on that gooey warmth.

A soft “prrp” sounded in Lucy’s ear. Her eyes fluttered, but remained closed. The little “prrp” sounded again, this time followed by a fluffy head butt. Lucy rolled over onto her side and reached out with her fingers. She found fur and a string of frantic purrs followed. The cat was not content with head scratches, however, and kept pacing a small circle, tail, head and sides taking turns to buffer Lucy in the face. She crinkled her nose against the onslaught and pushed herself up.

“Mkay, Mags.. I’m… up… I’m…”

Lucy blinked her eyes. It was still dark. Very dark. Yawning, she reached over to the side table and picked up her phone. The screen lit up and Lucy was momentarily blinded by the light, but then fuzzy outlines became crisp digits and Lucy frowned.

“2:13? You woke me up at 2:13?”

The fluff ball responded by pressing himself tight against Lucy’s side. Her fingers reached into fur again. Little purrs reverberated fast against her skin, but beneath that and between those rhythmic rolls was a slight tremor. A stuttered shiver that didn’t belong.

“Nightmares, Maggie?”

A dull thump sounded from somewhere beyond the bedroom. Lucy’s eyes shot toward the door. Not that she could make out anything beyond vague shapes. Her brain was still fogged with sleep and her eyes had not adjusted to the dark, not with her glowing phone still in hand.

“Blue?” Lucy’s voice was little more than a whisper. A second cat jumped up onto the bed. Blue stayed near the edge, crouched low and staring into the shadows.

Not Me.

“Hades?”

Not home.

The cat spoke to Lucy as clear as if it were a normal conversation, except Lucy was the only one who could hear it. That revelation had come as a shock. She’d assumed everyone could talk to cats and her parents had assumed she was just a kid with a vivid imagination. It had only been later that Lucy had realised her relationship with cats was more than a little strange. And later still when she realised that the world was a lot more than a little strange.

Another thump came from outside and then the tinny thrum of a pot lid clattering to the floor.

Maggie pressed tighter still. Lucy looked to Blue. “Do you know what it is?”

Something Unnatural.

An Unnatural. In her apartment. At this time of morning? Great. Just absolutely, bloody, great. Lucy weighed her options. She could turn the bedside lamp on, but not only would that momentarily blind her and the cats, it would also alert whatever that thing rummaging through her kitchen was to her sudden change of consciousness. If she knew what it was, she may be willing to take that risk, but Unnatural was a broad term and Blue did not use it lightly. The Unnatural could be anything. Lucy cradled Maggie to her chest and directed her attention back to Blue.

“Show me?”

Blue gave the softest of prrps and then dropped from the bed. She crept from the room on silent paws. Seconds passed, the kind that felt like hours, and then Lucy’s mind was filled with Blue again, only this time it wasn’t words, but imagery. It was odd to see through the eyes of a cat, like a kind of grainy black and white film. It always took a moment for Lucy’s brain to catch up and begin translating the reels that the felines shared. Lucy was still adjusting to the vertigo of being so low to the ground when Blue peered around a corner and the Unnatural came into view. It was small, maybe around knee height and most certainly humanoid. It waddled on stubby legs, fat feet pattering against cold tiles. Long, monkey arms reached into a cupboard and rummaged through a mismatched collection of plastic containers. The body was covered in a haphazard spattering of bristle like hair. Blue edged closer and Lucy leaned forward with the motion. The bed creaked. The creature spun. And Lucy got a full view of crinkled white skin, glowing orb eyes and a mouth that split into a wide, toothy grin. It could only be one thing.

“Shit!”

The creature laughed, a gut wrenching cackle.

Lucy broke contact with Blue. She threw her feet out of bed and flicked on the light. Maggie yelped as Lucy plopped him on the floor and then he secured himself to her ankles as only a cat can. It would have been a problem if Lucy hadn’t made a point of learning how to move with a terrified fluff ball attached to her feet. She grabbed a pair of short sticks from beside her bed and stormed from the room, flicking lights on as she went.

Blue was on the kitchen counter, back bent and hackles raised. She was spitting viciously. The Unnatural danced beneath her. It hissed and spit and blew raspberries. All of his actions a mockery of Blue. All of it followed by that spine grating cackle.

“Hey!”

Lucy raised her sticks and banged them together. The Tokoloshe turned to face her. He stuck out his tongue and then laughed.

“Silly cat lady!” He looked at Maggie. “Scaredy cat lady!”

Then he turned back to Blue and threw something. Blue shrieked and bolted from the counter. She came to stand beside Lucy, hackles still raised and eyes shining with murder. Lucy held out one of her sticks and advanced on the devil. “Visiting hours are over, little man.”

The Tokoloshe smiled. It was a horrid, gap toothed thing filled with bleeding gums and rotted teeth. “I’m not done here,” he said.

Lucy bared her teeth and poked out with her stick. The Tokoloshe jumped back. “Haai man! Voetsek with that stick!”

Lucy advanced again. This time the Tokoloshe backed away. He had no real power here and he knew it, but still, that ugly grin remained plastered to his face.

“Get. Out.”

“Or what?”

“You want to stick around and see?”

Lucy flicked her eyes down to Maggie and the Tokoloshe followed her gaze. Maggie was puffed to twice his size, and managed a small spit, but for all of that, he still looked like a terrified kitten and not at all like the threat Lucy dangled in the air. But the Tokoloshe understood. They had all heard about the cat, Magma. They knew what could happen if Lucy dared unleash him.

The Tokoloshe looked back at Lucy. This time the smile could not hide the fear creeping into his eyes.

“You wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

The Tokoloshe grinned. He shrugged. “Maybe another time, heh?” With a click of his fingers, he erupted into a cloud of dust and was gone.

Lucy’s arms sunk to her side and she let out a slow breath. Her eyes panned the one bedroom apartment. The kitchen was an absolute wreck. Most of the cupboards had been opened and the contents spilled across the floor. Bags of meal and rice and sugar had split open. Broken glass lay amongst the wreck. At least the Tokoloshe had not made it to her fridge. It was enough of a nightmare job to clean this without adding food to the mix. Lucy turned. Her living area was even worse. It wasn’t so much a living room as it was her workspace. One side had her day job, easels and canvas and paint and the other held her workbench and all of the tools necessary for her after hours engagements. The canvases had been thrown over. Pages from her sketchbooks torn out and littered across the floor. The abhorrent creature had even tossed her paint tubes to the floor and then proceeded to step on them. Splatters of paint and wildly colourful footprints tracked across the whole floor. And then the other side of it. Books and texts and vials of herbs and tinctures. How on earth had Lucy slept through all of this destruction?

She walked the few steps to her workbench and sank into the single chair in the space. Maggie hopped up onto her lap and Lucy’s fingers went to his ears. Her eyes glazed over and she shook her head.

“What in the hell was that?”

A Tokoloshe? In her apartment? No Unnatural had ever been so bold as to come at her in her own space. Heck, they hadn’t even been brave enough to face her in broad daylight. Not before those fairies last week, at any rate. And things had been ramping up, hadn’t they? Work in the Supernatural had been picking up dramatically, in volume and strangeness. Spirits following living relatives to work. That shared dream between an entire residential block. And now a Tokoloshe ramshacking her apartment, looking for something. For what?

Lucy had no clue. All she knew was that something was wrong. Something was horribly wrong.

She scratched behind Maggie’s ears. “Any idea’s boy?”

Maggie mewled and pushed his head deeper into her fingers. Blue did the cat equivalent of rolling her eyes.

He could have helped.

“He helped.”

He could have helped better.

Lucy shook her head. It was no use arguing with Blue about what Maggie did and didn’t do. The threat of him had been enough. Forcing the poor boy to erupt into a ball of fiery vengeance wouldn’t have made any difference. He hated doing it. Better to spare him the anguish. Lucy ignored Blue and went back to the problem at hand.

“I don’t suppose you know what’s going on?”

Something is wrong

“Yes, Blue. I think we all know that. The point is, what?”

The balance is off.

Lucy knew that too. She was just about to voice those thoughts when a shadow coalesced on the workbench before her. A midnight black Maine Coon formed from the billowing mass. He stepped forward, fully intent on a quick nose-kiss, but then he saw the mess and paused.

What…

“Tokoloshe.”

Hades sat down. His tail flicked.

It’s true then. I had hoped they were just rumours.

“What’s true?”

It was taken from the Underworld and brought here. Someone has opened the box.

Lucy swallowed. “What box?” But Lucy already knew what box. She didn’t need to ask. She didn’t need to hear Hades’ answer, because Lucy already knew.

Pandora’s Box.

The Eschaton

Men and women stood in a line. It stretched across barren land and ended, quite abruptly, at a white tent. No birds flew overhead. No creatures scuttled for undergrowth. There was no undergrowth. Only the dirt. Only the harsh glare of the sun.

Gabriella shuffled forward. The man in front of her disappeared into the tent. Soon, it would be her turn. She waited three breathes and then Gabriella stepped out of the harsh light and into the dim interior.

Before Gabriella could prepare herself, a syringe plunged deep into the tissue of her upper arm. Gabriella sucked in a breath. Dark green liquid left the vial and seeped into her veins. The syringe wielding woman ushered her forward.

Another woman waited. She pressed a rapid succession of devices to Gabriella’s person and then, satisfied that everything was as it should be, she nodded.

“Fully synthesised. Please move forward.”

A shattered cry echoed from behind and Gabriella clenched her eyes shut. Sometimes the body rejected the serum, but that was only the first of a list of things that could go wrong. Gabriella moved toward the next station. A man waited for her.

“Arms forward. Palms up.”

Gabriella complied. A needle jabbed into her thumb. Pain jolted and something new awoke. A tiny lick of flame spurted from her hands. The man recoiled, but Gabriella stared in wonder.

A Firesage then. The military was not what Gabriella had intended, but it would do. Firesages were granted asylum.

The man gestured her forward. “Gate seven. Report to Commandant Alyssa on arrival.”

The portal was a mass of swirling darkness. Gabriella shuddered at the thought of stepping through, but there was nothing left for her here. She shed one last tear for her dying world and then, Gabriella stepped into her future.

Mushengo

Babalwa pushed her fingers into the pile of clothing that lay on her bed. She grabbed fabric, scrunched tight and then threw the unsuspecting garment into a large canvas bag. Her hand reached out again and repeated the process. Back and forth she went, grabbing at a shirt, or a skirt, or a pair of pants, balling the clothes up and then smashing them into the bag. The clothing didn’t deserve this kind of treatment. Babalwa liked her clothes, but she had been holding her rage back for what felt like an eternity and now that she was finally able to let go, to feel everything she was feeling without risk of hurting anyone, Babalwa could not make herself stop. The bag was half full already, a wrinkled sea of colours no more organised than the jumbled pile beside it. This was no way to pack a bag. She was going to run out of space. She knew this. She was going to have to start over.

But it made no difference. Her hand flew out again. She found fabric and clenched tight, but instead of the familiar feel of soft compliance, Babalwa felt little dots of resistance digging into her fingers and all along the fleshy cushioning of her palm. She paused. She swallowed hard and then, ever so slowly, Babalwa opened her fist. Bright orange fabric cascaded from her open hand. It was adorned with thousands of tiny beads. Black and yellow, they danced in thick lines and bold circles along the length and breadth of the skirt. Babalwa fought back tears. Most of her wardrobe was of a more modern style, but she had chosen traditional dress for her graduation. She had been so happy wearing the Umbhaco. She had felt so proud.

But that was before the final results had come through. Before she saw the class rankings. She had not ranked first. She had not even ranked second. Babalwa had come third. And third was not good enough. Third would not take her to Mushengo.

Babalwa laid the skirt down and began flattening it out. Her body shuddered as the first tears trickled silently down her cheeks.

How had it gone so wrong?

It had been her and Trish trading places for first and second. Always the two of them egging each other on to be better, go further. Always them planning and dreaming and stretching toward Mushengo. They were the best. They had always been the best. None of the other students had ever come close.

But now, when it had mattered most, Richard (Richard of all people!) had taken first place and the Royal internship that came with it. Second got an internship too, but not third. There was no prize for coming in third.

Babalwa rubbed her eyes and looked across to Trish’s bed. A pastel bedspread dotted with soft pink roses, and curving wreaths of lavender lay smooth and quiet against the mattress. Posters and photos still lined the walls and trinkets full of memories waited on the bedside table. Trish had not started packing yet. She was probably waiting for Babalwa to leave and Babalwa couldn’t blame her for it. If their places had been traded, if Babalwa had been the one going and Trish the one to stay behind, would she have been able to face her roommate?

A sob heaved through Babalwa and shattered against her lips.

It was supposed to be the both of them! Today was supposed to be happy!

And Babalwa should be happy. She had a Masters in Draconic Sciences! She should be proud. Her parents were proud. But Babalwa hadn’t spent the last six years of study pushing herself so that she could return to her home village. She wasn’t meant to tend to pocket dragons, to mere house pets. Her future was in the Royal Stables. Her future was Battle Dragons and working beasts!

Her future had collapsed under the smirk of an entitled boy.

Babalwa closed her eyes. Her final practical played vividly in her mind. She had been given a young Giwe dragon. The golden scales, interspersed with deep, black rosetta’s, had shuddered at her touch. Her task was to give the dragon a check-up and to remove a large thorn that had embedded itself in the youngling’s soft underbelly. Babalwa had been so intent on securing the swishing tail and removing the danger of the lethal, barbed tip, that she had forgotten to consider the Dragon’s front end. Young Giwe dragons had a strong, playful streak and it took months of training to rid them of their propensity to nip. When Babalwa had realised her mistake, she had acted swiftly to muzzle the beast, but not before teeth had sunk into flesh. It was a minor wound, but still deep enough to cause lingering pain whenever Babalwa moved her arm, a sharp reminder of a mistake that had cost her fifteen points. It wasn’t enough to unseat Richard, his final thesis had been near perfect, but it was enough to put Trish ahead.

Babalwa cursed herself for even having the thought. It had been Richard who had stolen her spot. Not Trish. She couldn’t let herself think badly of Trish.

As if summoned, Trish burst into the room. Her body swung around the door frame. Leather soles squeaked against well polished floor boards. She swung her arms wide and grabbed Babalwa into a fierce, gorilla armed hug.

“BUBBLES!”

Babalwa hadn’t had a chance to ready herself for the attack. Her arms were squished tight and straight against her sides, he face pressed awkwardly into Trish’s shoulder. And Trish was bouncing and wriggling and laughing.

“Trish, what…” Babalwa tried to choke out the question, but Trish’s voice thundered over hers.

“We did it Bubbles! We did it!”

Babalwa shook her head. “No Trish. Not me. Just you.” Babalwa tried to extract herself from the death grip, but Trish was strong. How did she have any right to be this strong? Trish laughed. She grabbed Babalwa by the shoulders and pushed her so that a small pocket of space opened between them. Trish’s eyes were sparkling. She looked deeply at Babalwa.

“We’re going. The both of us. Richard’s been expelled!”

Then Trish was pulling Babalwa into another embrace. Babalwa’s cheek smashed into Trish’s chest and she felt herself being rocked violently from side to side. Babalwa pushed herself away from Trish and this time, Trish let her go. Straightening herself up, she tried to sort through the jumbled mess in her brain.

“Expelled?”

“Yes! The moron cheated! He used his daddy’s money and paid someone else to write it! And as much as he’s had good marks, they were never quite that good. It was suspicious enough that the university decided to investigate it. And investigate it they did!”

Trish gesticulated wildly as she talked, but now she put her arms by her side. She grinned at her friend. “This is it, Bubbles. We’re living the dream. Are you ready to become a Royal. Friggen. Dragon keeper?!”

Babalwa couldn’t help the shriek that spilled from her lips. She couldn’t help the bounce that formed in her legs. She threw herself toward Trish and the girls embraced again. This time they both hugged and they both squealed. Because this time they were both going. Mushengo was waiting.

#

The caravan arrived in Mushengo early in the afternoon, plenty of time, Babawla had thought, to get cleaned up and start at the Royal stables. But their escort had insisted that they rest up. The trek to the capital was four days of flat grasslands, dirt roads and not much else. They were most certainly tired and in dire need of a long bath and a warm meal. Work, their escort had said, could wait another day. Babalwa disagreed. She felt like she had spent the last six years waiting. She couldn’t wait any longer. It was the same for Trish. They tried to relax, to soak their dust coated bodies in the expansive bathhouse, but soon, both women were scrubbing vigorously just to have an excuse to move. And what Babawla was sure must have been one of the best meals she had ever tasted was simply sustenance, Her mind too full to concern itself with something as mundane as flavour. When night came and Babalwa let her travel-weary muscles rest atop the sheets, her eyes refused to close. She and Trish willed the night away putting words to the dreams that floated just out of reach.

“I want to see a Dlovu in full battle armour!”

“I can’t wait to meet the Elder Keeper Nonhle!”

Eventually the room quieted and sleep came. In the morning, they rose with the sun.

#

“This is the tack room for all the basic housekeeping tools. If you need something for a job, you will most likely find it in here.”

Babalwa let her eyes roam the massive room. It was filled with everything, from the most basic items, like feed buckets and shovels, right down to the most expansive claw-clipper collection she had ever seen. It was going to take a while to learn where everything in this store room belonged. It was going to take her a while to learn where anything in the entire stables belonged. Babalwa had known it would be big, but the sheer size of the grounds overwhelmed her. There were over one hundred individual stalls, thirty massive arenas for training and as if that weren’t enough, a massive, man-built cliff face towered far above them. It served as a rookery for breeding pairs and a refuge for retired dragons.

A dragon keeper by the name of Akhona had been showing them around for the past three hours. Her mannerisms were short and clipped and she left very little room for casual conversation. As much as the tour had been fascinating, Babalwa was eager to part ways with Akhona. She was ready to begin the real work.

She turned from her inspection of the clippers and heard Trish ask, “Will we be meeting the Elder Keeper soon?”

“Elder Nonhle does not concern herself with apprentices. For the duration your internship you will be reporting to and working under me. Now…”

Akhona grabbed two shovels from a nearby wall. “Stalls thirteen through twenty need to be mucked out. Find me at Arena Three when you’re done.”

#

Hours later and ankle deep in muck, Trish started laughing.

“What’s so funny about being drenched in dragon poop?” Babalwa wrinkled her nose. Trish grinned.

“It’s the dream, Bubs! Six years of gruelling study, finally being put to good use!”

Trish made a face at the state of her hair and then she started laughing once more. Babalwa couldn’t help but join in.