This Mentor Lives

by J.R. Dawson & John Wiswell in Issue Sixteen, July 2024

Abraham was rushing through his miracles. He drew out the rune-etched broadsword of young Haddad's great-grandfather and laid it in the boy's hands, along with the elegant sheath that lunar moths had woven from their own silk. Then came the maps that would send Haddad on the next leg of his journey: those that told how to navigate mountains by constellations of the sky, and those of the eight oceans that could only be read amid sea breeze.

Underneath that pile of iron and parchment and enchantment, the little Haddad wriggled. He was barely visible under the pile of destiny he held.

"Wait! What do I do with this one? Does it re-dead zombies?"

Abraham couldn't see which item he was holding up and asking about, not under that mess of rainbow folds and sacred cartography. Did he have time to help the boy sort all this out? He fished around his robes with his gnarled hands until he felt the chill touch of the astral pocket watch. He flicked it open and gaped. He was three hours behind.

Haddad's head poked out from under the cloak and broadsword, his brown eyes wide and imploring. "Wait! Just one more minute. Which way do I take through the Forest of Tombstones?"

"You're the hero. You need to figure these things out on your own."

"I've been trying, but assembling my party is hard and nobody has escaped the Forest of Tombstones alive. They all come back zombified. Please, I just need to know whether to go east or south."

Oh, the Forest of Tombstones. Abraham had been through that blighted place twice in his younger years, on other business trips with other heroes. He really ought to install a signpost at the entrance.

"Go south," he said, "The real trick is to go slowly. If you try to rush through the Forest of Tombstones, its curse will wake more of the residents. It's like quicksand, but with ghosts."

"Is there quicksand?"

"Yes. But again, you..."

"I need to figure these things out myself. Yes, sir."

Then Abraham flicked the astral pocket watch closed, and its enchantment opened the gateway. Light spilled into the clearing, splitting open a circular portal in the murky air. Its radiance drove every bug and rodent from its sight. Even Abraham had to shield his eyes from it. He needed new glasses.

As he stepped through, he thought the boy thanked him. It went too fast for him to be sure.

As soon as the radiance faded, he stepped into the next world, a humid bog where his shoes sank into the earth, and the drooping willow trees blocked out the moon and brushed the point of his hat. Immediately the young heroine Rania darted close, getting nose-to-nose with him, her green eyes bloodshot and furious. Her voice was hoarse and phlegmy, as though she had a cold that, with her proximity, he'd soon enjoy as well.

"Where have you been? I've been almost dead for a week out here."

Before he'd met Rania, she'd been under a curse and forced to live the life of a stable boy. She broke the curse on her own, reclaimed her name, found Abraham, demanded he mentor her, and they'd gone on many adventures since. She'd always known exactly what she wanted. And now she had grown up. She was nearly as tall as himself, long of leg and reach, and was a natural at channeling her anger into progress. Her quest was the best shot at establishing democracy in her world.

Her hair and jacket were snagged by an army of pricking brambles. Unpleasant, but not exactly dead.

Abraham put a step's distance between them and said, "Did you find the key in the troll's den?"

"I was stone! They turned me to stone. Trolls are supposed to turn to stone. Why didn't you warn me that they can turn people into stone, too?"

She tensed like she was going to take a swing at him, and it was a vigor that got his heart going faster. What a spirit she had.

He almost bantered with her, schedule-be-damned, but suddenly his vision blurred. For a moment, he couldn't tell if the ground was above or below him. He grabbed onto anything nearby, and Rania had caught him.

Her anger turned into something like concern. "Hey Pops, are you okay?"

He willed himself to focus on Rania. She was the only reason he was here. So many people like her were in so many other places. He had work to do.

He asked, "You have the key?"

"Yeah. Of course."

She pulled open her bedroll and produced a bronze key that was half her height. Everything was bigger in Trolltown.

Abraham touched the three grooved triangles at the long end and whispered the appropriate lockpicking spell. He'd said it over so many keys he couldn't even remember when he'd learned it.

"There," he said. "That'll get you into the Church of the Giants. Make sure you've recruited giants into your party before you venture there, though. You'll need them if you're ever going to revive the parliament of this land."

"You're coming with me, aren't you? I don't even speak giant."

"Giants aren't a monoculture. Plenty of them speak the same language as you, and don't pretend you don't know better," he said. "You need to do these things yourself. You're the hero."

Rania slammed one end of the great bronze key down on the ground, cracking fallen branches beneath it. "Hey! Why are you rushing?"

"A wizard never rushes!" Abraham flicked his astral pocket watch. The portal opened. He rushed through. 


His head swam, and he realized he'd been standing for a good thirty seconds in a palace hall, staring absent-mindedly at a marble wall. And stepping into his view to wave his hand in front of his face was Miguel.

No, King Miguel.

He was a king now that he had opened the Gate of East Door.

But the coronation wasn't until next week. Why was Miguel dressed in a crown and robe now?

"What did I miss?" Abraham asked, holding the left side of his head. Vertigo enveloped him. All of his muscles sobbed, ached, and he tried to focus on Rania... no, damn it, he was with Miguel. Who was next?

"You missed the coronation," Miguel growled. "You were supposed to be there to put this on my head," he pointed at the crown. "You know you're the closest thing I have to a... Abraham?"

"Yes?" Abraham asked, telling himself to swallow it down. To straighten out and keep going. He had to set an example.

"Are you even listening to me?" Miguel's voice was hurt. "Abraham?"

"Go south," Abraham managed, before collapsing on the marble floor of the royal hall.


He should've recognized where he was. This room was brightly lit, both by lanterns and the sun coming through the windows, and it smelled oppressively of rubbing alcohol. The mattress was firm beneath him, reminding him how soft his lower back had gone. White linen sheets were tucked over him, tight enough that he had to wrestle to move either of his arms free.

Usually it was his heroes who woke in safety like this, after Abraham had fished them out of the river or poisoned miasma or burning rubble. He'd never experienced this side of it before.

Abraham reached to his chest, seeking the folds of his robes to fetch his astral pocket watch. He needed to know how much time he'd lost and how many people needed him. 

He heard the telltale sound of the astral pocket watch snapping closed. It was in the hands of someone sitting at his bedside. He blinked aggressively to clear his vision, gradually recognizing the boxy frame of the woman's face. She'd put on a few wrinkles since he'd last seen her.

He asked, "Evelyn?"

"Until you're discharged, I'm Dr. Taussig to you," she said with a knowing smile. "Hi Abe. When's the last time you had a check-up?"

Little Evie Taussig was towering over him in a white coat, now not so little. She'd been the first hero he'd mentored who'd wanted to go into healing rather than stabbing or magic. The miracles from her clinics had changed the whole tenor of her nation. Seeing her here, in what had to be one of her clinics, there was pride in how much she had become. How long had it been since he'd visited her?

"Is he awake?"

There was someone else in the room. It almost sounded like Rania, except she didn't live in this world.

"Abe," Evelyn said, her voice crisp like the snap of fingers. "Your blood pressure is terrible. You're emaciated. We're not sure how your lungs are still working. You can't run around in this state. You're not 900 anymore." She raised the pocket watch in her hand and shook it like she'd found the culprit mouse in the cupboard. "How much have you been using this?"

He placed both palms on the mattress and tried to force himself up. The blasted linen sheets must have been enchanted. It took all his might to slide up half a foot.

"You should have told us."

It was Rania's voice again. 

Now he saw Rania, with her long hair and her frustrated scowl. Her nose and eyes were pinkened like she'd been crying, but nothing made that girl cry. She stood behind Evelyn, gawking over her shoulder.

And they weren't alone. The hospital room was packed. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, some in silver mail, others in mechanical wings. The tallest of the frowning host stood in the back, while shorter and younger ones sat on the windowsills or rose to their tiptoes to see him. It took him a while to recognize them all because he'd never looked up at them from so low an angle.

These were his people. His life's work.

He whispered, "How are you all here?"

King Miguel cleared his throat. He still wore the crown and raiment from his castle, from where Abraham had fallen. He said, "You dropped your watch."

"And sent this monarchist to me," said Rania, jerking a thumb at herself. "I was flirting with a giant when he appeared with you dying in his arms. Way to scare the hell out of everyone."

King Miguel said, "We went through a lot of turns of the watch, first figuring out what it was, and then trying to use it to find help."

Evelyn ran one black-painted fingernail along the opal and silver inlay of the astral pocket watch. "None of us knew you were so busy."

Haddad moved through the crowd, with all the equipment Abraham had given him still strapped to his back. His voice trembled as he asked, "These people are where you went when you aren't helping me, right?"

"Haddad!" Abraham said. "You are supposed to be in the--"

"I'm not going anywhere while you're sick."

Abraham fought the sheets to let him up. "We can get you back on target, just give me a moment to collect my things and grab some water and we'll set it right."

"I don't think you understand," Evelyn said. She put her hands out to stop him. It made him feel like a child. All of these young eyes staring at him as he lay in a bed like a baby in a crib. "You are not going anywhere, either. You are going to stay here and rest."

Abraham said, "But a wizard never rests."

Evelyn said, "Well, this wizard does or he is going to collapse again. And next time, he might not make it."

"So that's it?" Abraham asked. "I have one fall, you all put me out to pasture? No. Haddad, Rania, you have adventures to complete. We have to go. If I don't have much time left, then it will be the last gift of an old wizard to bring you all to your futures. In my death, you will all come to realize your powers of—"

He was cut off by a choir of protests. 

"Come on!"

"We don't need you to die," Haddad pleaded. "We need you to get better." 

Rania grabbed her hair and pulled at it in frustration. "You're not a fucking martyr!" 

The words struck him across the face. Should he laugh? Should he snark back? Rania seemed serious. 

They all seemed. So. Serious.

King Miguel removed his crown and set it beside the bed. "All of us thought you were running away to take time off. That you didn't really care."

Evelyn said, "It was even that way in my day, and that was a long time ago. Have you ever taken a break?"

With his blurry vision he searched among them for his youngest heroes. Where was Somchai? Where were Isabella and Tomaz? Were there kids out there risking their lives, in desperate need of a wizard arriving in time while he was lying here?

"I didn't have anyone when I started," he said, struggling to sit up. "It's hard for you to imagine me as someone without a staff and beard to my knees. But before any of you were born, I was someone who just wanted to change things. And not one person came for me. I survived, I discovered the astral pocket watch and the forbidden magics. Each of you know I didn't do it for myself."

Blurry as they were, he looked them hard in their faces. They weren't on adventures merely to become special or prove a prophecy. They wanted better for their worlds, and for them.

Rania was the first to answer him, because of course she was. "I want you to see me succeed."

"You will, Rania. I know you will."

She said, "You don't understand."

King Miguel said, "I wanted you to crown me, but more than anything, I wanted you to see me crowned."

Haddad swallowed hard. "If any of us survive our journeys, we want you to be there. Alive. Safe."

The astral pocket watch clicked in Evelyn's hand, and she gave the saddest laugh. "We all agree, Abe. There's only one person you need to show up for now: yourself."


 Evelyn and Rania chose a world for him. When they arrived, it had just rained and the rolling hills glowed with the green that only comes after a spring shower. It was quaint, peaceful, perfect.

Abraham hated it.

He felt his body follow them from the mayor's home to the cobblestone road, to the porch of a blue house, to the front room, to the fully stocked kitchen, to the quilted bedroom. While he was still thinking of how to get back to work, they said goodbye and took the astral pocket watch to another world.

Evelyn's parting words were, "I'll be back in a week."

Abraham stood in the middle of the rustic cottage, knowing war was going on somewhere, and he couldn't help the people in it. His heroes were elsewhere.

He looked to the broom in the corner. Could he turn that into a staff? 

Music silted from outside. Abraham turned to look out to the patio. A bard? Perhaps telling of a quest or someone in need of help? He sped to the outside, wheezing from the effort. But all he found was another old man, sitting on another old porch, in another ugly blue house.

The man looked scraggly, tired, scars along his face and his long beard white and curly as it dropped past his neck. He strummed his lute.

"Hello neighbor," he said as if in song. "Abraham the Wise?"

Abraham set the broom aside. "Do I know you?"

"Perhaps not," the man said, strumming another chord. "But I know you. Everyone knows you. You're every bearded wizard in every story in every world." 

"Yet I am in this world. And I am meeting a man named...?"

"I'm Bob."

"Bob the what?"

"Bob the Guy with the Lute who Lives Next Door to Abraham the Wise."

Abraham felt something drop in his stomach. "How long have you lived here, Bob?"

"Oh," Bob said. "I don't know." Another chord. "I lost count sometime back a ways."

"Well. You look venerable. Are there any crises that need expert intervention?"

Bob thought on it. "Well, there is one thing."

"Is it a dragon? Perhaps a four-legged one?"

"I'm working on a puzzle. Do you like puzzles?"

Abraham squinted at him. "Is your lost lover trapped inside and can only be released when it's solved?"

"No. But it's a landscape and it's tricky. Wanna help? Unless you got some dust bunnies to tame or intrepid honeybees to rescue."

Abraham turned away, begging for any of his old heroes to be behind him and in need. Unfortunately, there was no destiny waiting there. Only a broom and a tea kettle. 

He imagined the youths who used to look up at him, listening with awe as he explained the vagaries of the universe and the greatness that lay ahead of them. All the people who needed him.

Who needed him now?


He came around Bob's rear porch, a structure in mosquito netting, with a warped pine roof covered in happy moss.

"Collect all the red ones, would you?" Bob said, taking a half-sit half-crouch over a coffee table made out of a broad slab of slate. "On the left side."

The table was strewn with thousands of wooden puzzle pieces, each half an inch thick, like someone had broken apart an antique woodcut. They didn't look painted so much as they looked stained with wines and juices. Only in the clusters of pieces that Bob had assembled did the subtle blotches of color resemble a rocky field where laborers were laying the foundations for something.

Abraham sat beside Bob and assessed the puzzle. "What are they building?"

"I'll tell you when I finish. Do you see any reds? You'd never think a landscape would have so much red in it."

Abraham felt his fingers fumble with the wooden pieces. The memories of finely tailoring coats, planting little seeds in little pots... all the little things he'd nimbly done with his fingers and now... these hands were strangers. They shook as he pushed the pieces around.

"Take your time," Bob said. "We're not in any rush."

"This puzzle is enormous," Abraham grumped. "If we want to make a dent in it before we lose sunlight, we need to work a little faster."

Bod said, "We don't need to finish it today."

Abraham stared at him. "You're going to do this again? Tomorrow?!"

"I enjoy puzzles."

"Do the puzzles have a mystery attached to them? As in, an answer to a cosmic mystery at the end of them?"

"Not that I've found yet."

Abraham turned over the nearest piece. "Is there a map that leads to something important on the reverse side?"

"I like the sound the pieces make when you clack them into place." He did so, fixing two reds together, and then placing them in an empty space with another clack to make the picture even more complete. "Hear that? Satisfying."

It was sort of satisfying. Like scratching an itch.

Abraham studied Bob as Bob fitted more wooden pieces together. He was quiet, sometimes humming to himself, sometimes stopping and pointing at something beyond the screen porch ("Oh, look, you hear that? A woodpecker!"). And once Bob made a loud exclamation of "Ha ha!" as he finished constructing a cloud. Clack.

Abraham waited for the truth to rise. Bob was trying to distract him from something in the house. Or perhaps Bob was one of those artisans who said they did it for the fun but at the end, would indeed turn a profit. 

The whole day went by, until Bob patted his stomach and said, "Well I suppose I should eat something. Would you like a sandwich, Abe?"

He remembered Evelyn threatening to leave him another week if he didn't eat while he was here.

So they ate sandwiches.

Bob said, "Abe, can I ask you something?"

"It seems as if you will regardless of my answer."

Bob said, "How about you start with this: what is something you've always wanted to do, but never got around to doing?"

"I am already living a fulfilled life. I'll return to it soon."

"Which is good but is also not an answer. I'm talking about doing things just for yourself that you haven't done. Small things. Like finding these darned red pieces."

Abraham found two more red pieces and clicked them down heavily in front of his new neighbor. "All I wanted to do was help people. It's why I've dedicated my life to it."

Bob took the pieces with a lopsided grin. "I have it on good authority you did help people." 

"And I'll do it again."

"Yes. But is there something you've always wanted to do for ... well ... just you?"

Abraham was blank. Bob waited for an answer like a patient teacher. He could wait all day. Abraham's life had been the wars and those who were fighting it. And now that he was sitting in a world that didn't need him, what the hell was he supposed to say?

For the moment he walked his stiff fingers through the piles of wooden puzzle pieces, for anything vaguely red. It was something to do to fill the silence.


He did not know how to sleep. For so much of his life he'd laid his head down and exhaustion had taken him into dreams. He couldn't force himself to fall asleep, not even with two cups of chamomile tea. He had to do something, and he had no way out of this awful and charming land.

Bob wouldn't mind. Bob had invited him to come by anytime.

Abraham was quiet about it. No one traveled as quietly as a wizard. He knew exactly where to go and how to get there. His lungs were beginning to clear up, and he scarcely coughed the entire walk to Bob's porch.

The wooden puzzle still sat on the table, with piles of spare pieces waiting on the chairs. He couldn't see well by the moonlight, so he put on his glasses. The pieces were chill from the night, a pleasant sensation against his aching knuckles. He squeezed a couple of them for relief. 

This was how he'd think out this insipid problem. What did he want, other than to help others? He'd think it over as he solved Bob's silly puzzle. He completed painted laborer after painted laborer, setting them all around the vacuous foundations of their work. Over an unknown span of time, he finished an entire pasture of roan cows. He traced red piece after red piece until he thought he knew what they were for.

The door to the porch rattled, and Abraham set his jaw. Had he woken Bob up?

But Bob came out in a blue robe and a chiding smile. "You're an early riser too, huh?"

Abraham sat back and met that chiding smile with a smug one of his own. 

"A wizard rises when it is his time. Also, I figured it out."

Bob raised his bushy eyebrows. "Yeah?"

"What's red amid a grassy field with people in the midst of stone construction?"

"Do tell. I've never wanted to hear a riddle solved so badly."

Abe gestured from the top of the puzzle where he'd snapped dozens of fading red and orange pieces together. Then he took one loose piece he hadn't been able to slot yet and pointed it at the first hints of the sun over the mountains beyond Bob's home.

"It's dawn."

"Dawn! The gods put it in front of me every morning, and I still never thought about it. That beats everything."

Abe put the lone red piece in the general vicinity of where it would need to go, someday.

"These puzzles are silly things."

"Aren't they ever? I've got a couple in my basement so huge that the pieces come in burlap sacks. Want to help me with those?"

"I absolutely do not."


He absolutely did.


Allegedly it was ten thousand pieces. It was so grand an undertaking that Abraham and Bob had to push every table in the house together to assemble the puzzle. So far they had gotten two clusters of pieces, each of which depicted a brown curve in some far greater image. From the dimensions and details they'd found so far, Abraham had begun to suspect the entire ten-thousand piece image was a lovingly detailed hand.

He reached to one side for his hot cocoa, then remembered this was the last of it. Bob was off on a little stroll to get more. There was a new cluster of yellowish white pieces that he wanted to show the man, to test his theory they were a fingernail. 

Then he noticed he wasn't alone. From between the posts of the banister, Rania's impish face grinned at him. Her hair was bound in a new braid, and her nose was bandaged like it had been broken.

She announced, "Hey Pops! Guess who got the giants on board the democracy plan, aaaand guess who's in a love triangle!" 

Tiny puzzle pieces of toenail fell from his lap as he leaned towards her. He instantly realized he was in civilian clothing, a meager jerkin instead of proper robes. This was undignified. But when she reached out a hand, he slapped a five onto it. 

He said, "I always knew you had it in you."

He deliberately didn't ask about her nose, or the sling he now realized her right arm was in. There would be no fretting to undermine her accomplishment. Just eye contact and approval. He was almost surprised at how quickly his old role came back to him. That part of him wasn't gone.

"I didn't know you had this in you," she said, gesturing with her good hand to his beard. "Is that a marshmallow in your beard? Is ... is that hot chocolate?"

His back crinkled as he sat up, fixing her with a stare. "Chocolate is good for the heart. It's not like I haven't rescued you from a gingerbread house before."

"Yeah, but I had bet money on you not adjusting this well. Damn it."

"Thank you for the confidence, Rania."

"It's Senator Rania, now." She clucked her tongue in too much satisfaction and lifted a blue and silver pocket watch. So, she had it. "Evelyn's busy right now, so I'm here to check in on you. She's going to gloat about this."

Eyeing the watch, he felt his belly tighten up. He caught himself hoping he could finish the puzzle before they had to go. What a silly urge. But those urges mattered. Had the time already come for this to end?

"Senator Rania," he asked, "who did you gamble with on my fate?"

She kicked at the dirt under the porch. "Just a couple people. A couple dozen people. I didn't think Bob's shit would work on you."

"Bob?" he asked. "How do you know Bob?"

Rania snorted so hard that the bandage almost fell off her face. She looked cockeyed at him. "Wait, have you been putting puzzles together this whole time and never figured out who Bob is?"


Bob stood at the edge of the lake. The dawn came in puzzles, and the sunset was a mighty yawn across the wilderness behind Bob's house. As if someone had once stopped to see the perfect sight, and decided to build a home here so they could see it forever. 

Abraham stared at him from the porch.

Of course he'd not recognized him. Robbie had been a child. His hair had been curly and black. His eyes had been without crow's feet, wide and round, his little cheeks laughing and smiling and ... even now, remembering this little face, Abraham's heart ached.

His first hero. 

As Bob now approached, Abraham weakly asked, "How could I not recognize you?"

Bob said, "You were too busy."

"I missed your whole life."

"Not all of it," Bob said, and patted his knapsack. "You notice I'm still able to go to the store for hot cocoa."

Abraham walked to him, reaching out, wanting to take his hands. "I meant to come back to you. To see how well you'd do."

"I'm not mad."

"How can't you be?"

Bob turned to reflect on the sunbathed surface of the lake. "You don't grow old without having some regrets. But I wouldn't have grown old without you. Toppling an evil sorcerer and helping this land were only possible because someone showed me the way. And growing old is a privilege, isn't it? It means you're still around to see the peace you worked for."

So many times, Abraham had meant to come see Robbie.

So many times, he'd meant to check in on so many heroes. To have times with them that weren't fraught.

Abe said, "I forgot how much I missed you."

"I expect when one is as busy as you, they forget a lot. Like sitting up with a boy too afraid to go to sleep, fearing the dire wasps would attack in the night. And how you took his mind off it."

Abraham barely remembered that night. He remembered saving Robbie from a swamp, he remembered the dire wasps. But he didn't remember—

Bob just gave a small half-smile and took Abe's hand. He set something there. A big old puzzle piece. It was blue, with an orange streak along its top. 

And then Abe remembered. The scared little boy tucked into his side, needing help fitting the pieces together. Pieces just like the one in his hand right now. A night where the quest was to calm his nerves.

Bob hadn't brought any of his armor or weapons from that time. But this little piece of blue and orange? It came all this way.

Bob said, "It's been a week. Rania says she'll take you home if you'd like to go."

"Not yet," Abraham said. "I have something I'd like to do."

"What is it?"

Abraham lifted the puzzle piece. "I'm putting Rania on sorting duty."

Bob sounded like a little boy again when he asked, "Can I come too?"

That night, Rania was cajoled into tackling the large thumbnail with them. Bob regaled Abraham with his adventures, all the people he'd met, the woman he'd loved, the boy he'd had and lost, the harvest where the bee-locusts had threatened to ruin their crops and he had to problem-solve a negotiation. Never once did they check the time.

© 2024 J.R. Dawson & John Wiswell

J.R. Dawson

Dawson (she*/they) is the author of The First Bright Thing (Tor), with shorter works in places such as F&SF, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018, and Lightspeed. She lives in Minnesota with a loving wife and three dogs. Her next book is coming soon from Tor, a sapphic ghost story set in Chicago where Lake Michigan is the River Styx. She is not good at puzzles.

insta: @jrdawsonwriter
twitter: @j_r_dawson

Fiction by J.R. Dawson
  • This Mentor Lives

John Wiswell

John Wiswell is a disabled author who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His fiction has won the Nebula for Best Short Story and Locus for Best Novelette, and has been translated into ten languages. His debut novel, SOMEONE YOU CAN BUILD A NEST IN, was published by DAW Books on April 2, 2024. He wishes all wizards to get more rest.

Fiction by John Wiswell
  • This Mentor Lives