This week’s fiction is actually a deleted scene from my current work in progress. It was a flashback, the only one in the book. After a great deal of consideration and a lot of feed-back, I cut it from the book as being unnecessary. There were better, more fluid ways to get this information to the reader. I still like the scene though, so I thought I’d share it here. It is in a slightly shortened state to better fit my blog’s format. I hope you enjoy it.
His blue-bladed spear steaming and dripping, the Lord of Guards kicked the door to his wife’s chamber open, startling the cluster of women within.
“We’re out of time!”
They looked up, terrified of what his words meant. The enemy was coming to devour their bodies and drink their souls. They stood frozen in their actions, still bloody from the birth. The newborn mewled in his wife’s embrace. Zerah was pale, sweaty, clearly exhausted and in pain. He had not wanted her here, pregnant and vulnerable, but she was an Heir. She belonged at the battlefront where her kinsmen fought. The Great Families still had their honor. Besides, she provided an advantageous route of retreat. She was an Auger, a delver of portals.
“The lady can’t be moved,” the midwife said but Keleb brushed her aside.
“Zerah, they’re coming. We have to get everyone out now!”
“Take the baby.”
Keleb let go of the spear to take his unnamed daughter. The instant the weapon left his hand it vanished in a bolt of light that shot up through the ceiling without a trace. His daughter in his arms, the Lord of Guards stepped away from his wife. She winced as she adjusted herself on the bed and summoned her black Auger’s rod. Zerah closed her eyes, focused on the formulas, the mathematics and physics required to open a safe passage from the manor house to the Great House of Beyz some sixty miles away.
Outside the room, the last of his men screamed as their lives were torn from them.
Zerah’s eyes snapped open, her calculations complete. Violet lightning blazed from the black rod in her hand and tunneled through space-time, ripping open a hole in the air. The baby in Keleb’s arms began to scream. He turned to the women.
“Through the portal! Now!”
The servants hustled through. Zerah, crawled from the bed, her pain evident. Her bright blood glistened on her gown. The agony overwhelmed her and she stumbled, leaning heavily upon her staff. Keleb was already moving. He lunged through the opening as his wife’s concentration wavered. The portal seemed to warp as Zerah lost control of the portal’s end point. It jumped, just for an instant, to another world. She gasped through clenched teeth. “Keleb, no!”
Keleb hated portal travel. It was impossibly fast, but the sensation was unsettling. Fortunately, it passed in an instant. But instead of relief and a return to normalcy, Keleb emerged from the portal’s far end into a world of pain and noise. A searing gold light tore into his eyes, slashing into his retinas even through his eyelids. A weight seemed to slam down upon him, dragging him to his knees. He barely managed to keep his grip on his daughter. The baby screamed. A gale tore at them.
He forced his watering eyes open as a shadow fell across him. He looked up into a silhouette framed against a scorching wall of light.
“Where am I?” he groaned.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, young man, but I’ll take a guess,” the woman said, flinging her coat over his, and his daughter’s head. “But if I’m not mistaken, you’re a long, long way from home.”
Once, fifteen years ago, a babe was born in Denver, CO. This new born child was innocent of her future, which would include being sucking into the Techie universe at her high school and learn to have a passion for language, including Chinese. She had no idea that one person could become a fan of Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock all at once to become Sherlocked. Little did she know that she would want to move far east and learn that her dopamine comes out more often on cloudy days. Steampunk wasn’t even around during her birth, but the first Harry Potter was. Nobody would have guessed that when she grew up, learning and education would be her drug of choice, even to the point of yearning to be an English teacher. This babe was Ricki Elizabeth Palmisano, awkward teenager extraordinaire.
The harshness of the cathedral floor could be felt on the older nun’s knees through her heavy skirts. Her ‘r’s rolled through her whispered prayer; her muffled wishes prostrated across the glimmering shrine. The room bumped, making the holy woman pray even harder and bruise her wrung hands on the strong prayer beads within them. She rubbed her forehead against a bead, focusing all she could into her one solitary request.
“Let my daughter live.”
She could feel all the air forced out of her lungs in a final sob, letting herself fall entirely to the wooden ground. The room bumped again, but this time seemed more real now that she had let her mind to rest in its agony. A blue spark flashed in the peripheral of her closed lids, and she allowed a few moments of process until she pulled herself off the dingy-smelling floor. Slowly the nun opened her watery eyes, the smell of unidentifiable metal and essentially burnt things overtaking the small, frankly underused church-room. The presence of someone, or something, behind her overwhelmed her senses.
“Maria Angelica Estevez Cortez, the under-spoken nun of the Reonquistadors,” says the presence, with perfect Spanish although Maria knew from tales told to her that his native tongue wasn’t such case. “More nonexistent according to the history books that conveniently leave you out,” the husky voice of a boy came more clearly, nearing Maria. A hand carelessly placed itself on her shoulder, a body soon following kneeling down next to her. She blinked over her shoulder with tear-filled eyes. A young man filled her sight clad in dark rich pants, a brown thinly stripped vest with a crisp shirt underneath, curious slick shoes and an even more curious bronze wrap around his wrist. From it a ticking noise startled Maria nearly as much as the young man’s presence. What startled her more was the deep coloring in his eyes under the ends of his shaggy hair, the kind of color she had only heard of from stories of the far north.
“If patriarchy where an ice-cream flavor, it would be full-grown-man poo and rabies,” Maria’s eyes grew even bigger and her brow more frightened. “Ah, no ice cream yet. Well, spoiler alert I suppose. Now,” he stood up. “Never been in battle before. Then again history still needs this event to happen so all is in order a few thousand years from now. Hm. I’ve never been on anyone’s side before. Never been one for picking sides.” He rubbed his hands together, the edges of his finger nails coated in black soot. “Time to right some wrongs in the books. Ready to be famous, Maria, scandalous mother of the first cross-dressing female pirate captain the world needs now to know about?” He smiled, flashing ghastly white teeth at the nun, and held out his hand in invitation. She looked at it, then at his face, then back at the hand.
“Are you the angel Elmo?” She spoke, nose flaring.
“If you will help right wrongs that haven’t even happened yet on a convenient that you don’t even know about, then I will be anything you need me to be. Right now, I can be your angel.” He focused in on her, pleading desperately with his entirety, both unspoken and spoken. “Help me, Saint Maria of Love.”
~Ricki Elizabeth Palmisano
First, here are today’s contest requirements
This week’s flash fiction is brought to you by a long time fan, Toni O’Neill. Her comments always are a source of encouragement for me. She’s chosen to add to the Wandering Sword series so if you haven’t read the first or second installment you might want to check them out. Toni is a homemaker, potter, sculptor and sometimes writer who lives in New Mexico and commutes to Colorado to visit her grandchildren.
Drawing by G.W. O’Neill
“The sword is gone!” the commander exclaimed.
Jayjon involuntarily cowered, his whole body trembling, waiting for the killing blow, a blow that did not come. The commander took a step back and sheathed his sword. Then he reached down to help the old man to his feet.
“Are you alright?” the commander asked while he steadied the old man. Jayjon jerked free of the man’s grasp, and turned away in despair.
With breaking voice, Jayjon said, “I came to find a noble death, but all I found was humiliation. I have nothing left.”
The commander lifted the helmet from his head. In shocked recognition, Jayjon stared at the face…of his grandson. Hesitantly, he reached for him. The son of his only son held his arms wide to receive his grandfather’s embrace. At the last moment, however, the old man stopped short. His face went red and his fists clenched.
“You… you let me fight with you. You didn’t tell me!” he yelled.
“Grandfather, please, let me explain” the commander cried. “When the sentry told me the sword had appeared to an old man from the provinces, I genuinely thought I might find the answer to my questions concerning my great victory. Therefore, I put on my armor. When I saw it was you, I realized I could not reveal myself for fear on interfering with the will of the gods.”
Jayjon considered his grandson’s answer in silence. It still gave him no direction. “It is true that had I would have forgotten my purpose when I found you, but why would the sword appear to me for nothing?”
At that moment, an alarm sounded from the camp. Jayjon’s grandson dashed away, apologizing for abandoning his grandfather. The old man, unsure of what to do next, sat upon a log at the clearings edge. The sound of battle was heard in the distance. Then he heard quiet footfalls fell upon his straining ears. From his right, through the underbrush, came the enemy, obviously trying to move into a flanking position.
Jayjon shuddered in surprise, and then the familiar weight of the sword was in his hand. He stood to face his opponents, strength pumping through his body. With an agility he had never known he fell upon the enemy. Though he was pierced with many wounds, he brought down the warriors two at a time. Those who did not perish, fled from the power of the sword and the ancient warrior. When all was done, the sword was gone, and Jayjon fell among those he had slain.
He awoke to someone cradling his head upon their lap. “Grandfather”, a quiet voice called.” What happened here?” Jayjon explained through shallow gasping breaths as death drew near.
“But you couldn’t fight before,” his grandson said through his tears.
“Of course not,” said Jayjon, “you were not my enemy.” He smiled weakly in his understanding.”Desiring to live gave me the strength to face death.” His eyes closed and he whispered his last words. “Now, go and find your brother.”
First, here are today’s contest requirements
This week’s flash fiction is brought to you by a long time fan, Toni O’Neill. Her comments always are a source of encouragement for me. She’s chosen to add to the Wandering Sword series so if you haven’t read the first or second installment you might want to check them out. Toni is a homemaker, potter, sculptor and sometimes writer who lives in New Mexico and commutes to Colorado to visit her grandchildren.
The commander stood before Jayjon in full armor, a helmet obscuring his face. In his hand was the beautiful, perfect sword made of platinum and ebony, steel and diamond, with its lean, needle pointed blade.
“So this sword materialized in your hands?” the commander asked as he paced across the command tent.
“I already told you.” Jayjon said with exasperation. He was tired. He had sought out a military base to join the infantry. When he got there, he had been arrested for theft.
“Let’s suppose I believe your story,” the commander said. “It is not unlike my own. I was in battle when this very sword came to me. With it, I defeated a great enemy, and then it disappeared. Since that day, I have wondered if it was my skill, or the swords magic that brought me victory. I believe the sword has returned to give me the answer to this question.”
“I mean you no disrespect,” said the old man, “but how do you intend to prove anything with a sword that appeared to me?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said the commander. “Combat between you and I will be the proof. If you, the sword barer, can defeat me, than clearly my victory was not my own but the virtue of the sword, for you do not have the strength or skill to beat me. And If I defeat you… well.. that still wouldn’t be saying much about my skill, but…” He grinned beneath the shadow of his helmet.
Jayjon frowned. “I did not come to appease your doubts. I came to die in battle against the enemies of my emperor.”
“Life does not always accommodate our wishes” the commander said brushing aside the old man’s arguments.
The commander lead Jayjon, with courtesy and patience, to a quiet, sunny clearing not far from camp. It appeared their duel would be private.
It did not escape Jayjon’s notice that he had no armor which hardly seemed fair, but he accepted the inequity knowing it was his prayer for death being answered. His weak arms trembled as he stood before his opponent unsure how to begin a battle. With a quick flash of the commander’s sword, he knocked the weapon out of the old man’s hand. Jayjon bent slowly to recover his weapon as the man waited. This exercise in futility was repeated again and again.
“It is not my intention to humiliate you. Shall we end this?” the commander suggested.
Tears welled up in Jayjon’s eyes. “I came for battle.”
With a great effort, he lifted the sword high above his head. Before he could bring the sword down, the commander stepped in close and pushed against Jayjon’s chest, who was already off balance. The old man fell onto his back. The sword disappeared from his hands. The commander postured for his final blow. At that instant, Jayjon realized all too late that he did not want to die at all.
To be concluded.
First, here are today’s contest requirements
This week’s flash fiction is brought to you by a long time fan, Toni O’Neill. Her comments always are a source of encouragement for me. She’s chosen to add to the Wandering Sword series so if you haven’t read the first or second installment you might want to check them out. Toni is a homemaker, potter, sculptor and sometimes writer who lives in New Mexico and commutes to Colorado to visit her grandchildren.
Jayjon’s eyes opened to a grey dawn. The stillness was deafening. He knew he could not live in this terrible seclusion any longer. With or without strength, with or without hope, he would make the journey today. With any luck he would die along the way. He brought only his oiled cloak and the clothes on his back, and began his trek on the muddy, rutted road that lead to the shrine. His feet shuffled in the muck, as he walked haltingly through the drizzle. He cried out the misery of his life, speaking only to himself and the tree lined road.
“Three years since my son and his wife died. Three years since I buried my wife.” He sobbed unrestrained. Through his weeping he shouted.
“I had my grandsons in my grief. They were conscripted only a month after I buried my LeiAnn. One month! Any news from them would have given me hope. I have heard nothing!” He knew peasant soldiers were used on the front lines of battle and had inferior weapons and training.
“They’re probably dead,” he sobbed.
Jayjon climbed what seemed like endless steps to the shrine, shivering from the cold and shaking with fatigue. He was alone, even there. After many stops, he reached his destination, and fell to his knees before the ancient idol.
“Let me die so my suffering will end,” the old man cried out in lament. With trembling hands, he reached to the heavens to embrace death, when suddenly he gasped, his eyes wide in surprise. A sword had appeared out of nowhere, laid across his opened palms. In astonishment, he had nearly dropped it on his head. He had recovered himself enough to grab the pommel in his right hand, guiding the weapon’s fall as its tip sank into the clay brick of the shrine’s floor. He stood, unsure if he should touch this sword of incredible craft and beauty. Then it occurred to him that some prankster must have placed it in his hands. He searched the area, checking behind the four pillars which held the roof of the shrine, but who could hide on this all-but-empty hill top surrounded by stairs? Finally, convinced he was truly alone, Jayjon wrestled the weapon from the soft brick.
“It is only proper I clean the blade.” he said. This took some doing as his arm was not strong enough to hold the sword with only one hand, so he finally propped it against the stone idol and lifted the end to polish it with his inner shirt. Then he wrapped the sword carefully in his cloak and slung it upon his thin shoulder.
Jayjon laughed out loud in his delight, and the sound of it was strange after so many unhappy days. He knew in his heart that the god had answered his prayer for death.
“I shall not die in weakness, alone and defeated, but in battle.” That thought made Jayjon’s old heart sing in his chest as his doddering legs carried him home.
They arrived, three of them mounted on fine horses with silver and turquoise decorating their tack. Their fur lined capes were thrown back to reveal red imperial uniforms that dripped with gold braid. Their swords, pistols and bicorn hats flashed. Ruben sent his mother inside their little cabin.
“Hola senior!” called the first merrily. He looked to be perhaps eighteen, a good two years older than Ruben. He wore the red sash of a captain. The others were older, though not by much.
“Hola,” Ruben answered cautiously. He’d known men like these years ago. As a boy he had been discovered to be Elegido, the Chosen One. He’d fought with them, toppled governments and conquered nations with men like these. When the Great Danger had been defeated, men like these had devoured the world he’d fought to save. “You are not welcome here, seniors. If you do not know, you are on private property, granted to me by the Emperor himself. If you know this then you also know I value my privacy. Either way, it would be best if you went back the way you came.”
The men laughed and kicked their bright spurs back, edging their horses up the slope.
“Peace, Elegido!” the captain called. “We are here for the Emperor.”
“He knows I don’t want visitors.”
“Si! He does, but I fear that this is unavoidable. He requires your services again.”
Ruben scowled up at the captain.
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“Not even for your, Emperor?”
“No,” he turned away, retrieving his hoe from where he’d propped it against the split rail fence. The vegetable patch was in bad need of weeding. The thunk of something hitting the dusty ground brought Ruben’s head around. A fat sack lay between him and the soldiers, the bright gold within splayed out in the dust in a fan of wealth most men could scarce imagine.
“Not even for that?”
“I didn’t take his gold before. Only the land he offered. Land he said I would never be troubled on again, I might add,” Ruben snapped.
“What then can move you, senior? I am authorized to grant it, whatever it might be.”
“I told you, I don’t do that anymore.”
The young captain, still smiling, waved to the other men who dismounted quickly. Ruben shifted his grip on the hoe, tensed for action but the two toy soldiers only began to gather up the gold.
“Yet you hold that hoe as if you remember how.”
The captain’s hand twitched in signal and with the speed of snakes the two soldiers transformed from popinjays to deadly assassins. Their swords leapt from their scabbards and they lunged forward. The first flung a handful of dust and gold at Ruben’s eyes, but it was already too late. The Power surged through Ruben. A shield of protection deflected the grit and gold. The hoe swung. The two brutal Power imbued strokes shattered swords and skulls alike. The two soldiers were flung though the air a dozen feet before flopping still and lifeless in the dust.
Ruben stood trembling, his teeth bared. The hoe gleamed red.
Laughing, the young captain clapped is gloved hands.
“Excellent, Elgido! Now will you be coming or shall I return with more men for you to kill first?”
From the shadows up by the ceiling Finn watched as the woman who had killed her friends, her allies and mentor ascended regally to the crystal throne. Terra took a place beside the great seat, her recurve bow strung and ready. The other guards and the courtiers she could deal with but Terra… Finn thought of the murderous broad headed arrows her once-friend carried and the damage they would do if—when—they struck home. Terra didn’t miss.
Finn adjusted her grip on “Heart Breaker” her sword. It was black from tip to pommel so that no tell-tale gleam would give her position away. Time had been too short for proper planning. Master Aria would have told her that a mission in such a state was doomed to failure and Finn knew she would have been right, but her one chance to get close to the queen had come. She wished she’d brought something she could throw with a measure of accuracy. Then she might have been able to kill her target and still escape. But that would not be possible. She would die one way or another. Revenge would have to suffice.
“I’ve got to try,” she told herself.
The new queen’s audience began and supplicants came forward hesitant, uncertain if the pale woman who had murdered her own brother to take power could or would help them.
Her mentor had taught her that people, even ones as highly trained as Terra, were not designed for constant vigilance. Wait long enough and even the most cautious target can be taken by surprise.
She closed her eyes, envisioned her attack, how it might play out second by second. One: drop. Two: recover. Three: disable guard at the foot of the dias. Four: recover. Five: second guard. Six:… “Arrow goes through my throat,” Finn said silently and shook her head. If she could just neutralize Terra or avoid the first shot she’d have more than enough time to end the queen.
Her window of opportunity crept slowly closer.
One: drop. Two: recover. Three: Try for Terra. Five, six, seven… ten… twenty: “Terra goes down… maybe. The queen is gone. Guards hit me from behind. Not good enough.”
Finn focused. One chance.
She dropped. The supplicants gasped, recoiling in horror but Finn was already in motion. Her sword danced its deadly dance. The guards hit the floor, alive but out of commission. She whirled towards the queen and Terra. She focused all her will, all her training. Time seemed to slow. The queen was coming to her feet, pale face a mask of haughty arrogance. Beside her Terra brought up the black bow. Finn heard the string slap, and the flutter of the black fletched arrow.
Heart Breaker snapped up, faster than Finn ever thought she could move. The arrow splintered. The deadly broad head spun harmlessly away.
For a moment the world froze at the sheer impossibility. Terra stared, wide eyed. The queen’s face transformed to rage and horror. Finn smiled. Time snapped back to normal.
The queen screamed, “Kill her!”
Terra’s hand flashed to her quiver but Finn was already moving. Like a wind she surged up the dais and “Heart Breaker” struck.
They took his clothes, except for his breeches. Barefoot he walked into the deep darkness beneath the earth. The stone floor cut his feet. Half-felt tendrils brushed at his bare flesh. Things skittered before his steps.
“I won’t fear. I am a Butterfly Warrior,” the boy whispered.
The darkness closed around him and with it the walls. Slowly he was forced to stoop, then to shuffle bent double. He had entered a place where sound and light were invaders doomed to defeat by the infinite patience of the ageless earth. The passage narrowed further. He dropped to his knees, sinking into the slick muck on the cavern’s floor. He could feel the weight of the earth around him, straining to crush him.
The earth was strong. Strong as his master and they were not always friends.
“I will have faith. I am a Butterfly Warrior,” the boy said softly, and his voice leapt from stone to wall echoing and reechoing in the darkness. He slithered into the passage on his belly.
He crawled for a nightmare eternity, stone scraping his narrow shoulders. His knees and toes, elbows and fingertips were grated raw. The filth of the passage oozed burning into his wounds. His breath echoed around him, mocking him, muttering of boys lost and dead beneath the earth.
He stopped exhausted. Tears stung his eyes.
“I will not despair. I am a Butterfly Warrior!” the boy gasped and forced his toes and fingers to drag him another few feet. The air began to move and far ahead his light-starved eyes faintly detected a patch of darkness lighter than the rest. His struggles took on a frantic energy, until with a strangled cry, like a newborn’s scream, he flopped out of the tunnel and into the open air beneath the stars.
He lay a still a long time. He found himself on a wide landing beside a steep stair that ran straight up the side of the mountain. With nothing else to do the boy staggered to his aching feet and began the ascent.
Long before the sun rose and turned the mountain into a spike of gold, his legs had begun to burn. His knees to tremble. His muscles to protest. His feet to scream. The cavern muck dried to an itching crust that covered him completely. His sweat dug furrows through the filth. His rebelling body forced him to sit. The sun was swiftly approaching its zenith. His time was running out.
“I will continue where others cannot!” he growled through clenched teeth. “I am a Butterfly Warrior.”
Staggering and then finally crawling the boy dragged himself up the stair. He did not feel the last step pass beneath him. He did not notice the circle he collapsed within. He did not see the sun reach its highest point above him until the Power exploded within him. Wisdom and strength filled him. His flesh was scorched black as jet and his eyes white, featureless as pearl. He was lifted into the air and from his back burst his new gorgeous wings of black and white and purple. He landed, a new creature, and folded his wings like a glorious cloak at his back.
He lifted his fists and screamed to the sky. “I AM A BUTTERFLY WARRIOR!”
The Rune Wright observed Fia carefully. The woman was terrifying, tall and pale with gray eyes, hard as granite behind the cheek-guards of her crested helm. Her rune etched armor flashed in the desert sun.
“You want to become a Wright?” the woman asked, her voice oddly quiet. She toed the sand idly as if bored. Fia hesitated. She’d come so far.
“And if I tell you, you’ll never be one?”
Fia’s heart skipped a beat. She had the power and she’d made her promise.
“I won’t go.”
The Warden nodded and moved her foot in the sand again. Too late Fia felt the surge of power as the rune scratched in the sand was completed. The ground opened beneath her and she fell. Something rushed up towards her and Fia gasped as she slammed against a stone platform.
“I’ll train you when you get out,” the Wright called from above. All light winked out with a growl of shifting stone and Fia found herself in echoing darkness. She touched the light rune, part of which was marked on the tip of her index finger and another part on her thumb. When she touched the two together, she completed the symbol and sent a spark of light swirling into the dark. A thousand runes suddenly flashed all around her. Their power pressed down on her, snuffing her conjuring.
“Oh Maker,” Fia whispered as she stood.
The glowing runes had revealed she was trapped within a vast spherical room, stranded upon a floating platform. Everywhere, on the inner surface of the sphere, there had been inscribed thousands of runes that would suppress any conjuring she might write a split second after it rose. She saw other symbols that lay waiting, waiting to hold her on the platform, waiting to keep her alive through thirst and hunger and disease—alive but still feeling every excruciating moment. It was a prison capable of holding a rune scribe of almost any power.
“This is impossible. How could anyone get out of here?”
Her foot hit something that skittered across the floor with a dull clatter. She conjured her light again and in its brief life she saw a piece of chalk lying near the edge of her island of stone and magic. She retrieved it by touch.
“So I’m to have a chance,” Fia said. She supposed it wouldn’t have been much of a test if there were no way to pass. That calmed her a little. She sat down to consider what she would have to write. It would have to be a single simple rune—like her light—fast acting, powerful but not overly so. In the darkness she stared blindly down at the dry, dusty chunk of chalk in her hand. She could try the handful of runes she knew but she doubted any of them would free her. She might try something of her own design but that could be dangerous. She had the power but not the knowledge to contain it. Not to mention, it could take years before she came up with the right rune. She might never do it.
“Time to learn,” Fia told herself and began to write.
Tags: chalk, dark, girl, learn, magic, prison, rune, wright
The flat cracked, table of the desert stretched endlessly out before him. On the horizon a massive spreading anvil of red clouds spread impossibly tall and wide. Lightning flickered.
“One heck of a storm coming,” the boy said to no one in particular. He was alone, well almost. The Cowboy was dead. The Ranger lost. The Witch… he shuddered. No one should ever die the way the witch had. Even the Ranger’s wolf was dead, which just left him and the ghost girl. They were supposed to be the side characters, the people who helped the Cowboy when a particular difficulty arose but who died in the end to show how serious things were. Everything had gone wrong.
“What am I going to do?”
“About what?” the ghost girl asked as she drifted insubstantially next to him in her tattered Sunday dress and bonnet. “The storm or the quest?”
He looked around. For miles there was nothing but the baked salt flats. Not a tree, not a rock, not a stick of shelter. In minutes when the storm hit, he’d be knee deep in alkali rich mud that would turn his already plodding progress to a crawl. He hefted the Cowboy’s gun belt. He’d managed to save that. The heavy enchanted Colt 45 and its rune encrusted cartridges seemed to weigh a ton resting on the boy’s narrow shoulder.
“I don’t see as there’s much you can do in either case,” the ghost said. Red dust bloomed around the boy’s boots with each of his slow steps. A hot dry smell rose up as the storm rushed towards him. The wind sighed. Thunder grumbled. “You’re going to get wet, and the quest has failed. That’s the long and short of it.”
“Quest ain’t failed yet,” he said even though he knew it was. The hero was dead and not one of those maybe-he-was-maybe-he-wasn’t deads like in books. Have a big enough chunk shot out of your head and you’ll die, hero or not. It had been a mighty big chunk blasted from the Cowboy’s skull.
“Oh, and who’s going to complete it? You?”
The ghost girl laughed. “You ain’t in the prophecy, remember? It says in the end there’ll be either the Rider or the Cowboy. Cowboy’s dead. Didn’t even hang around as a ghost. I checked. That’s how finished his business is. So that leaves the Rider. The end.”
The wind gusted, throwing rusty grit into the air. The boy could hear the distant thrum of falling rain.
“Maybe I’ll take his place.”
“Was you born under a sickle moon on St. Alnoth’s day? Was your family killed by the Rider? Was you raised by the Sky People and taught to shoot almost afore you could stand?”
“You know I weren’t.” Fact was he still couldn’t shoot. The rain came in a curtain of pummeling drops, big as silver dollars, warm as sweat. The desert seemed to seethe and jitter under their fall. The boy kept walking, instantly soaked. The ghost girl floated un-phased beside him.
“So how are you going to stop the Rider then?”
“Don’t know,” the boy shouted over the storm fury. The mud was already sucking at his boots. “But I aim to try.”
Catalina looked across the moon touched hills full of ripening corn. To the south she could see the dark chain of Coughnut horsemen snaking their way up the old track of road. She squinted trying to gauge how long it would take them to reach the bend where the path snaked around a frowning ridge of stone. She’d always had a hard time determining distances in the dark. After another few minutes she decided that her rangers would have enough time to set their ambush.
“John, Elecia, take your troops to that ridge. Wait for my signal.”
“Si, El Chica.” John answered immediately. He was seventeen, two years older than Catalina but she was still El Chica to him, the Girl, a fearless resistance fighter and his commanding officer. Once she might have blushed just talking to him or holding his hand as he led her to the dance floor. She’d grown used to ordering boys around and they’d grown to fear and respect her.
“Stay quiet,” she snapped but she knew she needn’t. John and Elecia, young as they were, knew the business of stalking and killing Coughnut soldiers nearly as well as she did. They slipped off into the corn quiet as the moon beams that painted the stalks silver.
Catalina unslung her musket and signaled her own handpicked troops forward. The corn enveloped them with a crackling rustle. She padded through the darkness using a trickle of magic to keep her orientation among the rows of stalks. She couldn’t use much in case the horsemen had a wizard with them but no one could detect such an infinitesimal use of the Power. The air was thick and dusty warm in her nostrils. The corn had its own dry, growing scent. Insects screeched at the moon and mice scuttled out of her path. She focused on the coming skirmish, playing through the various possibilities. If her troops did this than the enemy might do this. If they did she could do that… on and on it went. She didn’t know how at fifteen she could see the different turnings and options in a fight better than many adult soldiers, but she could.
They reached the road and she left her troops in the corn and slipped out onto the red dirt track. She glanced at the stony ridge. John and his boys were taking up positions. Muskets and bayonets flashed. They were too far forward. She couldn’t see Elecia’s rangers. The girls had either gotten lost or were deep enough in the shadows to stay hidden.
Hidden, she told herself.
Catalina whistled a low warble of a night bird ‘s call that brought John’s head around. She waved him back. He nodded and his line slithered back into the darkness.
She heard the jingle of approaching spurs and the clip of iron-shod hooves, and wrath-like dropped back into the rows of corn and lay down on her belly. She eased the dog-leg hammer of her loaded musket back until the spring caught. Her Power imbued shot would blast a tunnel through her target and signal the other rangers to open fire.
Time to do what her father had taught her. Time to fight. Time to revenge.
In honor of Valentine’s Day I’m interrupting Burner to bring you the third installment of my most popular story to date: “Girl In The Glass” and “Pen Pals.” Enjoy.
Seventy-six sat before Celine’s crystal obelisk in a daze. He had been staring at the message on her hand on and off for twelve months. He sat, grinning like an idiot at the six words scrawled on the girl’s pale palm: I think I love you too. Even after a year, it was his favorite form of entertainment. But his time had run out. Reluctantly, he brought out his silver key and unlocked Meg’s tower. The nine day process passed too quickly and then it opened.
“Hello,” the girl said around a yawn. “Good year?”
“Yes!” he said happily. Meg raised a dark eyebrow at him. Over the subsequent nine days Meg grew more and more annoyed. She shook her head at the unfinished projects in the work room. She scowled at the weeds that seemed to have materialized in the garden. She actually tisked at the state of the reports.
“What have you been doing all year?”
Seventy-six grinned. “You know… the usual.”
Meg shook her head again and closed his case. After the girl walked away, he pressed his hand with his latest message written upon it to the glass. Seventy-six slept. His dreams crept over him, fuzzy and pleasant. He didn’t want to open his eyes when the crystal chamber popped open. Seventy-six cracked one eye and froze.
Celine was there, her brown eyes twinkling. He’d never seen her eyes before and for a moment he wondered why he would dream them that color. Then he realized with a start that he was awake.
“I stayed awake. I swapped places with seventy-five’s shift… well, I suppose she’s seventy-three now,” Celine beamed.
Nine days together! He bounded out of the crystal obelisk and took her hand. Together they began the transition between their shifts. The green eyes in the passage ways seemed to wink at them as they held hands on the rounds. The garden seemed like a paradise. The supply hall with its towers of equipment became a grand ballroom to dance within. The food tasted better. The air sweeter. They talked and didn’t stop talking for over two hundred hours. Then she had to sleep and he was left alone.
The eyes glared green at Seventy-six. The garden seemed ugly and empty; the food bland but eventually the year passed and he too eventually escaped into dreams warm and gold and chocolate. But then they started to twist and chill. Gold turned to red. Thunder rolled transforming into the quiet tick of a silver key opening his crystal tower. He opened his eyes to chaos. Sirens wailed. Smoke filled the air. The Citadel shook as something smashed into it with a titan’s strength. Celine smiled weakly at him.
“Sorry,” she said. She was bleeding from a cut on her head. The world seemed to bleed with her in the flashing crimson light. “They’re coming. The end is coming.”
He forced down his panic and took Celine’s face in his hands. “Then we will fight. And if it is the end, then I’m glad that it has come while we’re together.”
Then gently, carefully (for he’d never done it before) and as if the Citadel was not crumbling around their ears, Seventy-six kissed the girl in the glass.
Cekme fought listlessly, his sword hardly making into place to parry his opponent’s savage stroke. The weariness of too many blows, too much lost blood covered him, threatening to drag him to the featureless ground. He feared, as he always feared at this point of the fight. His chest heaved. His wounds burned. His hands trembled. The end was a few strokes away. Death reached out its harsh hand.
His opponent, his twin brother Itmek, stepped back for a moment rather than pressing his advantage. He was young, sixteen, and darkly handsome just as Cekme.
“Ten thousand. Time to be free,” the boy said and smiled mockingly and poised his wicked blade above his sweat sodden head, his curling black hair hanging lank. “You know. I’d have thought I’d get bored with this, brother, but no.”
If he hadn’t said anything Cekme might have just let the blow land he was so weary but the taunt seared a red line through his mind. For centuries they had fought. Could he let his brother win? Could he accept ultimate defeat? Itmek’s smile broadened. His sword chopped down and the battle fury finally came upon Cekme. He twisted aside at the last instant. His brother’s sword scraped the ground but the point darted back up, twisting, lunging for his throat. The the lethal blade suddenly seemed absurdly slow. Cekme let the lunge slide past and drove the heavy bronze pommel of his sword into his brother’s shoulder. His knee shot up, thudded into his brother’s thigh. His elbow made a short, sharp circle and cracked against Itmek’s jaw. Muscles, weary from endless battle gave way beneath the blows, and Itmek went down, his sword spinning away into the blood stained dust.
Itmek scrambled for his blade but Cekme stepped on his brother’s back, forcing him down. He lifted his sword.
“No!” Itmek screamed, his voice high and panicked.
The sword fell. His brother’s life gushed out, red and bright. Cekme stepped back from the suddenly still body and hobbled slowly away. He stopped perhaps twenty feet away, where in the smooth white grit of their featureless prison 9,999 little hash-marks had been scored. One for each time his brother had killed him without being killed himself. He spat on the closest marks and kicked them contemptuously, scuffing them from existence. He turned back to his brother’s body and sat down, his bloody sword resting across his knees. He let his eyes close. With the battle done, the weariness had returned.
He didn’t know how much time passed. There was no way of knowing in the ever-even light of the prison the gods had locked them within. A footstep scraped. Steel rang as it was dragged up from the hard ground.
Cemke sighed and opened his eyes. Itmek’s baleful glare scorched across their eternal battlefield to meet his gaze.
“We agreed! We would end it, thwart the gods’ punishment!” Cemke shrugged but his brother continued. “We were so close. Ten thousand battles.”
Such was their punishment for the foolishness they’d exhibited in life. Ten thousand deaths in a row, each hard won or the oblivion of the afterlife would not find either of them. Cemke supposed he had not yet ceased to be a fool. Almost, but not quite.
“I changed my mind.”
“Idiot!” Itmek snarled and pointed his weapon. “Pick up your sword!”
Thanks to all the talented writers who contributed to the past seven weeks’ guest posts. It’s been a real pleasure to host their work and I hope that my readers have enjoyed them. But all good things must come to an end and now we return to your regularly scheduled flash-fiction. For those wondering, writer S. Owen Malles received the most votes from you wonderful readers and is now the proud benefactor of a Barnes and Noble gift card. Don’t spend it all in–Oh wait…
Let me start by saying two things. First, I was a traitor, now I am not. I have seen through the lies and returned to the narrow path. I have been forgiven. Enough said. Second, I always liked Lucifer, certainly more than I liked Michael. Michael is… well he’s Michael. He’s a blunt instrument. Lucifer was subtle, cleaver—too cleaver for his own good. But no matter how much I do or don’t like Michael I must give him praise for never being deceived. I wish I had been so discerning.
I remember when things first began, when the Creator seemed to have vanished (really he was off creating) and the factions had begun to form. I was alone in my corner of the cosmos watching stars blaze into life from the boiling belly of a nebula. One instant there were only the stars and I and the next he was there, Lucifer, smiling and shining brighter that a new sun. I should have been suspicious as to why an archangel was so interested in me, an angel who had no purpose—well, no purpose at that time.
“Tell me of your name,” he asked. Vanity, I’m sad to say is not a human sin alone. Even angels like to talk about themselves.
“Destroyer?” I had replied. “The Creator tells me that I shall un-make things.”
“As the creator makes, I shall un-make. Things that are will cease to be. They will return to the nothing from which the Creator summoned them.” He was cautious. He didn’t ask more about it for a long time. He returned many times though and we talked and mused upon things until I thought him a close friend. Then he reintroduced the topic.
“Did the creator tell you how you will un-make things?”
Oh! The rage I feel now remembering Lucifer’s voice, hearing now the treachery buried in its subtle tones.
“With this.” I summoned the sword of fire my Lord had created for me, the Blade of Death. It is an awful thing, beautiful and terrible, made of a fire that consumes light and burns so hot that it freezes.
“May I?” Asked Lucifer and stretched out one perfect glowing hand. I wish I could say I felt my first twinge of suspicion then, but no. Most of the rest of the Host ignored me. I was strange and solitary, an oddity, and they had more interesting and beautiful company to keep. In Lucifer I saw only a friend innocently asking me to do that which I had been forbidden. I hesitated for scarcely a second–that is how easily I fell–and handed him the sword. He held it for a long while, a century or two only and then he smiled.
“Ah! That is the nature of it.”
And he handed the sword back to me, for he had learned its secret in that time.
Only later when I saw the swords of the traitors first blaze to life, did I realized the depths of my failure. If only I had been more discerning, I might have… but it is too late for such thoughts. Far too late.
Over the next weeks I have the honor of hosting a number of talented guest authors. Please, take some time to read each one and vote for your favorite by “liking” their posts. The writer with the most likes at the end of the series will receive a Barnes and Noble gift card. This week’s guest fiction is by Tamara, an employee at a local hospital by day and freelance writer by night. She is momma to a very spoiled kitty cat named Wilson. Stories have enthralled her since she was a child, and she enjoys finding the stories in everyday life. You can visit her blog at www.rockymountainwriter.com.
Rain pelted Malia’s jacket and stung her eyes. The building’s eave wasn’t shielding her, and her muscles screamed from being hunched in one position for so long. She held her breath and stared into the twilight. Feeling the cold steel of the dagger against her calf calmed her nerves.
Under the sound of raindrops on the cobblestones, Malia heard something else. She drew in her breath with a hiss. The unmistakable click, click, click turned her stomach. Her enemy had found her. The smell, a sweet odor mixed with animal urine, told her he was close.
She knew it was now or never, and never was not an option.
For years, Malia and the dragon had danced around each other, never fully engaging. It felt safer to cower in the shadows than to face him outright. He had left a trail of death of innocents in his wake. But when the beast had torn her best friend to pieces and grinned in pleasure as he devoured Jai’s heart, Malia vowed to kill him no matter the cost.
Malia stilled her heart and formed a plan. The beast came closer, snuffling around the arch in the wall that separated the house from the street. One bright yellow eye filled the archway, and Malia jumped. Laughter spewed from the dragon’s mouth along with remnants of the last meal he had gorged on.
For the moment, Malia found safety behind the wall. The beast attempted to push his way through the arch. This time Malia’s laugh rang out, and the dragon roared. He raised his head above the wall, and she saw understanding in his eyes. He stepped one giant, taloned foot into the yard.
Malia drew her dagger from its sheath. Dismay needled her as she realized the weapon was but a toothpick against the beast. She flattened against the hard brick and stepped to the left. Another foot plunked down, and he was in the courtyard.
She needed a better plan, and quick.
Moving further left, Malia felt an indentation and remembered the odd decorative insets that spidered up the facade. Seeing it in her mind’s eye, she remembered thinking it looked like a ladder when she first saw it. A small bird flew into the courtyard, and the beast turned to eye it. Saliva dripped from his jowl and splatted on the ground when his thin, vein covered tongue whipped out and wrapped around the bird.
Seeing her opportunity, Malia turned, pressed the handle of the dagger between her lips, and climbed the wall using the indentations as foot and hand holds. At the top, she hoisted herself onto the stone roof.
A wet drop splashed on her cheek, and Malia looked up to see the evil grin and yellow eyes of the dragon. His forehead pulled down, hooding those eyes as he swiped at Malia, barely missing her. She scuttled away from him. He watched her until she reached the other side and rose to face him.
He had almost killed her once. When he pressed her to his chest, she felt the softness and his beating heart. Jai pulled the dragon’s attention away from her, and Malia managed to get free. It was then the dragon had killed her friend.
Striking her dagger into that soft spot was her only hope, but he’d have to be on the roof for her to have any chance.
“Enough. It’s time to end this. You killed my friend, and tonight one of us will die. Come fight like the beast you are.”
The animal threw back his head, roaring laughter into the night. “Foolish girl. You want to die? I’ll be glad to kill you.”
He had spoken to her before. The gravelly voice didn’t surprise her this time as it had the last.
The dragon hopped on the roof. He rushed at her, and his sharp talons raked across her abdomen. A cry spurted from her lungs and blood seeped through her shirt. She dodged away, grabbed a loose rock and threw it. The projectile struck his eye, and he bellowed. He reached out and captured her in his meaty fist.
Panic quickened Malia’s breathing and déjà vu washed over her as she searched for a way out. A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky. Disoriented, the beast dropped her.
She thumped to the rooftop and backed away to face him again. She steadied herself, raised her arm, and aimed the dagger.
Seeing her, the beast spewed laughter again. Malia whispered a prayer and released the blade. Her eyes focused on the blade as it flipped head over hilt. A soft thud sounded as it made contact with the dragon’s skin.
He sucked in the laughter and looked at her. Those evil yellow eyes rolled in tandem up into the beast’s head, leaving only white. He thrashed at the dagger, but missed. Stumbling backward, his feet hit the edge of the roof, and his arms windmilled as he attempted to keep his balance. He tumbled off the roof, crashing in the courtyard below.
Malia ran to the edge and peered over. He lay still. She had ended it, and secured justice for Jai. Relief and adrenaline galloped through her as she dropped to the stone rooftop.
The alarm clock blared, and she came awake with a start. Sunlight poured into the room. Pink walls surrounded her, and Mittens slept warm against her leg. Jai, the beast, the battle came rushing back.
“Malia, turn that thing off and get out of bed. You’re going to be late for school.” Her mother’s voice filtered up from the kitchen.
She slapped her hand onto the alarm clock and pushed herself up in bed.
“Wow, that was quite a dream.”
Throwing off the covers, she saw a red streak on her white t-shirt. Lifting the cloth, Malia stared down at her stomach. Four gaping wounds stretched across her, oozing blood.
How could that be? It was only a dream, right?
Over the next weeks I have the honor of hosting a number of talented guest authors. Please, take some time to read each one and vote for your favorite by “liking” their post. The writer with the most likes at the end of the series will receive a Barnes and Noble gift card. This week’s guest fiction has been generously provided by L.D. Silver, a writer, avid reader and movie fan. She enjoys zombies, the fae, and anything else with an element of fantasy. She writes about these subjects and more on her website. Be sure to check it out.
If a Pale Man caught you, your soul died. All of the kids in his class said that, whispering behind their hands when the teacher’s back was turned.
Michael stared at the Pale Man in front of him, his backpack fallen to the ground beside him and forgotten.
The Man stood patiently with his hands by his sides. He was naked, but that didn’t really matter because he was smooth all over, like an action figure with all of the paint rubbed off. Also he wasn’t really pale; instead he was deep blue.
Lots of people said the Men were different colors. Some people said they were white as stone, or red, or purple. Jenny Hogarth swore they were green.
But Jenny was gone. They took her away after she touched a Pale Man. Michael’s parents said it was for her safety, while the kids swore that something bad had happened to her. Jenny had been his friend, even though she was a year younger. She liked playing video games and cards. She could even hock a loogie almost as good as a boy. She thought the Pale Men were cool. She said they were magic, and swore that they could share their powers.
He’d been there the day she touched one. The Man appeared on the edges of the playground and she ran up to him like he was a friend. He extended his hand and she shook it. Then wings, like those of a butterfly, burst out of Jenny’s back.
After that the teacher screamed, and all of the kids ran, and the Pale Man disappeared as the grown-ups led Jenny away. But Michael saw her face right after it happened. She didn’t look scared, or bad, or soulless. She looked happy. And she got wings.
The Pale Man in front of Michael took a step closer and extended his hand. The Man’s face was blank; his eyes simply closed instead of missing. Not scary at all.
Michael grabbed the Pale Man’s hand.
It was warm. The warmth spread to his hand, and he felt… calm. The heat swept through his body, concentrating in his upper back until he felt like he had a sunburn. Then something burst through his skin, right next to each shoulder blade. It didn’t hurt though.
He turned his head and saw white feathers. They looked like eagle wings.
“Awesome!” He said. This was better than his birthday; better even than the PlayStation 3 he got last Christmas.
Michael looked back at the Pale Man, but he had already disappeared. Michael shrugged.
He flapped his wings, feeling stupid at first. Then he made it a foot off the ground. He did it again and again, rising a little higher each time. The fourth time he grabbed his backpack and floated a few feet off the earth.
Laughing, Michael headed home. He couldn’t wait to show his big brother.
Over the next weeks I have the honor of hosting a number of talented guest authors. Please, take some time to read each one and vote for your favorite by “liking” their post. The writer with the most likes at the end of the series will receive a Barnes and Noble gift card. This week’s guest fiction is by S. Owen Malles. In a hive on a hill, she lives with four kids, a husband, a cat, a dog, a fish, a rabbit, and the occasional forty-odd dinner chickens. She writes when she’s not sewing, cooking, reading, gardening, teaching, or cleaning up after everyone else. When she grows up, she’d like to write real books, but stories and craft-practice are perfect right now.
Once there was a lanky, long-legged blue-eyed boy who went looking for the wind. The wind wound through the valleys and rushed over the hilltops and ruffled all the leaves of all the trees, and in following, the boy’s heart turned and twisted and doubled back on itself until he didn’t know who he was anymore.
Then the lanky, long-legged blue-eyed boy began to steal hearts, and glances, and kisses, and soon enough more than he could comfortably carry away. He felt if he could just keep chasing and just keep chasing soon enough he’d catch what he wanted but the wind just kept blowing and the boy just kept breaking what he could catch.
When there were enough little blue-eyed babies through the town and through the valleys, the fathers of the girls in those towns and valleys said, “Enough is enough!” and they ran that blue-eyed boy right out of town.
The boy ran and ran until he ended up on a hilltop under the stars with a hard straight wind raking flat the grass from west to east and the boy turned his face into the wind and it raked his own heart straight and true and the tears streamed down his face and the wind blew them off and dried the tracks on his cheeks.
After the boy had wept himself out and the wind had blown itself out the boy said, “I have given my soul away for less than a meal at any table, and I have stolen what was not mine and squandered it, and I have made too many promises I cannot keep. But there is no justice that can right my wrongs and so penance will have to do.”
And the boy worked and lived by the sweat of his brow and the work of his hands and he sent all he had to each of those blue-eyed babies but himself he always withheld for fear and for punishment and he lived all alone until the end of his days. And had he but known it, most of his blue-eyed babies followed not in their father’s footsteps but instead found love and begot children and let the wind blow where it pleased unhindered and unlet.
~S. Owen Malles
“Where did you get my coin? How did you know the pass-code?” The Tea Server whispered barely loud enough for the spoiled lordling crumpled at his feet to hear. “Answer carefully, because I will kill you without making a sound if I do not like your answer.”
“I won them,” the noble croaked.
“In a game of Wei-Qi from an old scholar named Xian Zu. He was in debt to me for a fortune and said they were worth much more. He said they bought one favor from the assassin once called Jade Tiger.”
The Tea Server’s eye twitched. It made a certain amount of sense. There were only four coins in existence. He had used them to pay powerful men to let him disappear, escape the wrath of the emperor and the guild of assassins, and become a humble tea server. Xian Zu had always been a reckless gambler. According to the rules of the coins their ownership could be transferred. Xian was in his rights to exchange one debt for another.
He released his grip on the noble and helped the young man to his feet.
“My apologies, I was…” he hesitated on his word choice. “Unprepared for a new face to present that coin and code. Speak your request and I will repay my favor. Speak quickly, precisely and quietly.”
The noble looked down at his soiled gaudy robes, and for a moment he looked as if he might complain. His hand stole to his bruised throat. He glared.
“I want an opponent in court removed,” he whispered hoarsely.
“You seem rich and powerful. Why not use the means normally open to such as yourself.”
“He is beyond my reach.”
“First General Yeu Fei.”
Again the Tea Server’s eye twitched. The motion was hardly perceptible, but he turned away from the noble all the same and walked calmly back towards the tea house.
“Where are you going?” the noble shouted.
The Tea Server paused.
“You have told me what I need to know. Be gone. Do not return if you wish to live.”
With that he stepped back into the restaurant. Despite his calm exterior the Tea Server’s mind whirled. Yeu Fei. Yeu Fei! The first general of the Imperial Army was almost as well guarded as the emperor himself. At the height of his skill it would have been all but impossible. Now, fifteen years out of practice…
His eyes suddenly registered the warrior in the battle scared armor leaning against the counter and he remembered his duties.
“My apologies, sir. A cup of tea?”
“Yes,” the warrior’s voice boomed as he turned. “A cup of Golden Needles!”
The Tea Server’s face fell.
“We meet again, old friend,” the general smiled as he slid his jade tiger coin across the table. “And I think you know why I’m here. If I’m not mistaken, he’s just left around back.”
The idea behind brewing tea in the old style was to get the maximum subtlety and flavor into each tiny clay cup. He liked to think he achieved that. He also liked to think that it was something of a metaphor for himself, full of life and flavor and also full of hidden nuances that only a few would be able to detect. Such were the thoughts of the Tea Server as he went about his daily routine. Brew, serve, chat, clean, repeat—all day, every day from dawn to midnight when he was tasked with closing the shutters and locking up the store for the night. He loved every moment.
It has been said that even a small stone sends ripples across the whole pond. So can a single event send ripples through a man’s life. Such was the appearance of the young noble came into the shop, his robes gleaming with gold dragons and dancing cranes.
“A pleasant evening to you, my lord,” the Tea Server said with a low bow.
The lordling smiled.
“A cup of tea if you please.”
“No, Golden Needles, I think.”
The Tea Server’s eyes widened. Golden Needles was the rarest tea in the world, fragrant, strong, subtle and notoriously hard to brew. Few, even emperors, drank it due to its harsh flavor when improperly infused. “It is very expensive, my lord.”
“This should cover the cost.”
The jade coin emblazoned with a snarling tiger made an unusual tick as he laid it on the counter. Again the Tea Server’s eyes had widened. Once he had possessed coins such as the one before him but he had spent them long ago. Their value was beyond measure.
“Of course, my lord!”
The Tea Server reached for the coin but the lordling held up a manicured hand.
“Wait! You understand what this means?”
The Tea Server flinched at the man’s obtuseness.
“Yes,” he answered, then lowering his voice lest the other patrons hear. “Around back, once the water boils.”
The Tea Server set about preparing for the difficult task. He forced himself to focus, to order his mind and steel his nerves. He had not done what he was about to do in nearly fifteen years. He traced the shape of jade coin in his apron pocket. Could it be? He found his hands trembling and chided himself for letting his nerves get the better of him. Swiftly he laid out the tools of his trade, and then slipped out the back door.
The lordling was waiting, looking repulsed at the grubbiness of the alleyway.
“Gods, but you took your time.”
The Tea Server lifted his hand in a shushing motion and with the speed of a striking snake, drove his stiffened fingers into the young man’s throat and caught the boy’s hand as he reached for his sword. With a twist the Tea Server brought the noble to his knees. He grabbed a handful of the oiled, perfumed hair and forced the boy to look up into his eyes.
“Where did you get my coin? How did you know the pass-code?”
Celine had to admit, it was brilliant. In the keep the guardians were limited to communication with just two other people, the guardian who woke you and the other whom you woke. One could not simply leave a note for another guardian. Paper would deteriorate or be misplaced or altered long before the recipient woke. A verbal message would become too distorted. Then the boy wrote a message across his hand and pressed it against the wall of his glass obelisk before he went to sleep. “Hello, my name is Seventy-six. What’s your name?” The message was perfectly preserved, unalterable and impossible to lose.
Most everyone tried to respond. But every cycle the message on Seventy-six’s hand remained the same. Other guardians struck up their own conversations, one sentence at a time, every hundred years. Eventually, everyone gave up on communicating with Seventy-six. He was forgotten largely, except by Celine who observed the boy’s unchanging message century after century. The thought that perhaps the lean, dark haired boy was waiting for her to respond intrigued her. She’d never written anyone, she didn’t know what to say. Besides, why would he want to know her name? They were decades apart.
Her shift ended. She used her key to wake Kane. As her own chamber prepared itself, she walked the boy through the regular transition period. On the third day she yielded her role as guardian and entered her glass obelisk, this time with a simple message scrawled across her palm.
Then she slept.
It would take just three years for Seventy-six to read her message but it would be another ninety-seven before she would get any response from him. The entire time she would sleep. The years glided past in a gray haze of dreams and muffled half-heard sounds. Mathias woke her and, in his proper time, went to sleep. Celine avoided the pillar hall at first, irrationally nervous that Seventy-six might not have written her back, that he had not been waiting for her at all. But eventually her duties brought her into the long curving hall. She counted off the pillars as she passed them. Seventy-one. Seventy-two. Seventy-three. Her heart beat faster. Her footsteps slowed.
“I’m glad you wrote. Your name is perfect,” read his hand. Celine laughed and clapped in delight. It could have been to anyone but she knew it was for her.
The rest of the year, she could hardly focus. Every spare moment was filled with carefully planning her next message. She decided to take a cue from Seventy-six and make her message generic enough that it could be for anyone. She knew he would recognize it as being for him. After a year she had determined the perfect response.
“Why did you write?”
She slept again and woke again. This time she fairly ran to the pillar hall once Mathias had gone to sleep. There were a dozen responses to her message but Seventy-six’s made time stop for her.
“I had to. I think I love you.”
Celine stared at the message for a long time, her hand pressed over her mouth, a riot of emotion swirling within her. It was absurd. They were separated by ninety-seven years and six inches of unbreakable glass. They would never speak. Never touch. Never even make eye contact. It was sad, stupid and useless but Celine could not help but smile and blush.
She reached out her hand and touched it to the glass that separated his hand from hers. Her smile grew. She already knew what her next message would be.
Every hundred years, for one year, Seventy-six did the same thing every day. He made his rounds through the stone halls, past the green eyes that never turned red (though he was prepared should they ever change), through the garden with its neatly arranged beds of fruits and vegetables, across the crystal stream and through the vast supply house filled where towers of crates, spires of casks and dunes of bags. When he came to the workshop he would tend the handful of projects that required tending before continuing on to check the gates and locks. He would make his journal entries, review the protocols, exercise, eat, read, practice and then he would allow himself to walk down the rows of crystal obelisks were the others slept.
There were ninety-nine of them. They were all young like himself, scarcely more than kids. They were fair skinned, and dark, boys and girls and they were all asleep, waiting to take their turns as guardians. He would walk down the long spiraling hall touching each glass pillar as he went, looking at the faces. He had given them names long before—though oddly he thought of himself only as Seventy-six—and greeted each in turn. Twenty-two—Hello, Thomas—Twenty three—Evening, Eveline—and so on until he reached Seventy-two—Good to see you Arthur. Then his heart would beat faster and his steps would slow. There, just three slots to the left of his own empty obelisk waited the girl.
She was pale and golden, the bridge of her nose sprayed perfectly with freckles. Her hair was wavy and blonde save for one lock that was bright red. He had not named her, that seemed somehow too presumptuous with her. He often tried to imagine what her name might be. Once he had thought it something exotic, infinitely unique, and then for a season it had become a flower name, beautiful in its simplicity. Eventually though, she became simply the girl.
He would linger before her glass tower, studying her carefree face and form. He loved the times just after he came on duty for the year, when he could see how she had changed during her time awake. Little things changed, her clothes, the position of her body, her expression—once he had woken to find she had cut her hair very short which saddened him for a time—but the elfin face was always the same. He wished he could meet her but it would never happen. She lay to the left of his glass obelisk in the seventy-three position and his key could only open the right-adjacent number seventy-seven pillar which held a girl called Meg.
Meg was nice enough. They spent three days every year together, between when she woke to replace him and when his pillar was prepared to receive him again. Seventy-six relished their brief time together but she was not the same as the girl. The girl… She was special he knew.
There she lay, the girl in the glass, forever dreaming, forever beyond his reach.
Unless… And so the plan had begun to form.
The winner of the September Contest is Brian Coleman. He will be receiving his copy of Dragons of the Watch shortly. I’ll be having one last drawing this year come November, so watch for that.
This week’s story is set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Entwood and Nimrodel’s Pool are not my creations.
He pounded through the forest, his frantic footsteps thumping hollowly in the silence. Branches slapped and snapped against his forearms that he held up to protect his face. The ancient forest seemed to loom over him, clutching and tearing at his clothes, feeding his fear. It had been a mistake coming here, but the stories of treasure had silenced the many warnings they’d had regarding coming to Nimrodel’s Pool.
He glanced back but Zanna was nowhere to be seen. He knew Dromwin was already dead.
It must have killed her too. He swore and with trembling hands strung his great bow. He had lost most of his arrows in his panicked flight from the edge of the pool where Dromwin had died. Finally armed, he straightened ready to draw and release in an instant. Gradually his hands ceased to tremble. His breathing calmed. The weapon, the arrow, soothed him. He had grown up with them in his hands and their familiar deadliness replaced his fear. He had killed everything from squirrels to trolls with the mighty bow. If he could see it he could kill it. Whatever had attacked him and his friends had not counted on the war bow carved with runes of power and strength. He would reap a terrible and swift vengeance for companions.
He scanned the tangle of mossy trees slowly, alert for any movement. Birds trilled in the distance. The distant falls roared endlessly, a low bass rumble that permeated the misty air. The ancient wood was utterly still. Then faintly first in one direction then another the laughter echoed. It was the laugh of a child, a giggle sparkling with joy, but there in the heart of the Entwood the sound stood the hairs upon his arms and neck on end. Then the cheery voice sang out, the same words that it had called just before Dromwin had pitched face first into the crystal pool, bright blood swiftly coloring the water.
“The elves are gone!”
It was a mocking sing-song call that chilled him right down to the marrow. Wrath melted away into terror again.
Time to cut and run. He plunged into the wood again and ran, and ran, and—
The metallic ring came an instant before the wicked black blade slammed into his chest. Red pain, bright as a lightning strike, lanced through him. The world spun and slammed into a sky of mossy branches and shadows. From high above something dropped to land beside him. A face, drawn, skeletal, grub pale leaned over him. Its eyes were two smoldering coals that gazed down, with passing curiosity. The creature smiled a grin full of needles and in the child’s voice spoke.
“The elves are gone and I am free to hunt again.”
Orson thrashed against the other boys. They held him pinned against the alley wall so he had to watch as Cabbot drove the sword between a chink in the stones and heaved on handle. The metal gave a high pitched shriek—
It sheared off at the haft and the boys holding him laughed. Cabbot hurled the handle with its stump of a blade at his feet.
“Let’s see you compete tomorrow now, village trash!” the boy snarled and nodding to his lackies, stalked away. Orson collapsed as if the breaking of the sword had also broken his spine. The sword was everything. It was a simple weapon, just brass and steel. The whole village had donated their meager earnings to buy it so that he could compete to become a Champion. It was the one thing required to compete. Purchasing a new blade was miles beyond the handful of coins he had to pay for his room and board. He might have it repaired in time for the morning matches but a repaired blade was unreliable. It would never see him through the competition.
“My god, he’s crying,” one of the boys sneered.
Unfelt tears coursed down his face long after the footsteps of the city boys had vanished. He felt crushed and foolish. His master had warned him not to display his talents but he had been unable to resist the chance to put the other competitors in their place. The other boys had seen him practice and had known they could not beat him.
He cursed his stupidity and the other boys’ cruelty. All the village’s money, all his time and effort training had been wasted.
Eventually the tears subsided and he knelt numbly in the filthy alley staring down at his broken hopes. The moon rolled out from behind a tattered cloud and glinted off the shattered steel. The shivered blade seemed to blur and shimmer. Orson blinked, rubbing at his raw eyes and when he opened them again a sword, a beautiful perfect sword, lay across the sheered stump of his old blade. It was a thing of platinum and ebony, steel and diamond with a lean, needle pointed blade.
He reached out hesitantly. His fingers grazed the platinum inlaid guard. Cold metal greeted his touch. It was real. It. Was. Real. He closed his hand upon the black wooden handle and felt its warmth. It was full of life and magic. He hefted the blade. The balance, weight and length were exquisite, deadly, perfect.
His heart leaped, leaving sorrow far behind.
“With you,” Orson whispered to the sword. “Victory is mine!”
Then brandishing the blade high he whipped it around in a series of cuts each faster than the last, until the boy’s hand and arm and the marvelous blade blurred into a streak of silvery death. The air screamed. The sword sang. Orson would be a Champion.
It took us hours to scale those great stairs. Each riser was nearly as tall as a man but we were determined. The ten of us remaining scrambled up the last step into the tower where the giant snored, his head resting upon the vast stone table from which great drips of foamy ale fell. He’d spilled his drink as I was about to spill his blood.
“Darro, Kent,” I signaled the two big wood cutters. The rest of us were armed with swords or spears but in this battle they would be of little use. We drew and strung our great war-bows and set arrows on the straining strings. The brothers stalked silently across the chamber, taking up positions near the creature’s pillar-like ankles. They lifted their crescent bladed axes and almost as one, swung. Darro’s blow sank into the tendon above the beast’s heel. Kent’s would have done likewise but the axe clipped the giant’s shoe—a construct made of what looked to be a dozen cow skins sewn together—and merely scratched a bloody gash in its thick skin.
The giant roared, coming fully and instantly awake. Kent and Darro ran but the huge stool it sat upon was thrown back and rolled over the elder brother mashing him to a pulp. The giant stood but the dead woodcutter’s blow had done its work and the ankle gave way. The towering creature stumbled to its knee.
“Now!” I screamed and hauled back on the string of my bow.
The strings slapped. The arrows sighed. The giant screamed as broad heads buried themselves in his eye and face. We drew and fired again and again. Kent, enraged at his brother’s death wildly hewed the creature’s foot. The giant straightened and tried to run but the severed tendon and mauled foot again brought its face in range of our wicked arrows.
“Bring him down!” I shouted and sent another arrow towards the beast’s remaining good eye. But my men needed no encouragement. They continued to loose, sending every ounce of fury and vengeance into the giant that had tortured our village for so long, killing so many of our friends and families.
My last arrow lunged from the string. I saw it strike the giant in the neck near to another half-dozen shafts. In just over a minute we had buried two hundred arrows in the beast’s head and neck. We retreated to the edges of the room as the giant raged and thrashed around in a blind, pain-fueled fury. But weakened, blind and bleeding it collapsed to the floor, its life leaking swiftly from punctured arteries.
Then I drew my sword.
I approached the gasping, mountain of an enemy and stopped just beyond his reach.
“Listen, giant,” I shouted. “Your bones will soon become walls for our village and your skull a watch tower. We will loot this tower of yours and take all that you have stolen but before we do, you will answer me one question and perhaps I will speed your death.”
“Impossible,” it whispered. The giant clutched feebly at its wounded neck.
“Where is my daughter?”
He glided down the dark street, forked staff thrust out before him like the prow of a ship. Shadows clothed him. They billowed and fluttered round his knobby knees and elbows. He was tiny, small as a baby. His skin was pale gold, his hair white. Long, spindly limbs and black, inhumanly large eyes made him all the more alien. His bare feet swung limply behind his floating form. Talon-like toenails scrapped dully along the sidewalk, until he caught scent of what he sought.
His breath hiss between his pointed teeth.
“Sweet. So… sweet,” he sighed.
He faded, and like a dandelion seed drifting on the wind, floated easily through the wood and drywall of the house, passed the wiring, the book shelves and pictures and entered the child’s room. Slowly, cautiously the fae drifted to the head of the bed where the little girl’s blonde curls lay fanned upon pink flannel. The scent permeated the air, thick and heady. His mouth watered. His fingers twitched.
Dreams. Intoxicating dreams.
He reached down with his forked staff and it slid insubstantially through the girl’s head. She gave a little moan and he froze. He had been too eager. Wake the dreamer and the dream was spoiled, useless. Catch the dream at just the right moment and…
He pulled the staff gently from the girl’s head and tangled in the fork clung the gossamer glow of a perfect dream. Most dreams were mundane, day to day events, work, school, chores. Some were disturbing, confused or angry, others were true nightmares. All were useless. But the sweet dreams, the perfect dreams, they were worth a fortune to the right faeries.
He drizzled the glowing threads of the dream into an amethyst phial and then ghosted from the house, leaving the dreamer to her less valuable dreams. He alighted on the sidewalk again and renewed his slow search, his slitted nostrils flaring as he took in the night air. The sweet scent came again. What luck! And then he paused. The scent was getting stronger, impossibly so. The dream thief froze.
“I told you what would happen if I caught you stealing dreams again,” growled a voice deep as the dark.
He swallowed and slowly turned. A towering figure of shadow loomed over him. A pale sword, clear as crystal, thin as paper gleamed as it slipped from its shadowed scabbard. The thief shrunk back, his black eyes searching desperately for a rout of escape.
“S-s-sandman, you’re mistaken. I swear—”
“My dreams,” Sandman rumbled, “are not meant for the fae. My dreams are not meant for you.”
The thief tried to run. The sword flicked forward. Black blood splashed on the sidewalk and hissing, evaporated, leaving not even a stain behind. The vial of violet crystal tinkled against the hard ground and shattering into a thousand glittering shards. The dream faded away. And in her bed the dreamer sighed as the stillness of night returned.
They stopped in a dark hall, panting and trembling like hunted beasts.
“We have to keep moving,” Mirevir said.
“I’m afraid I must refuse,” Denen said with effort. Blood streamed from his side and he clutched at the wound. His eyes were misted with pain.
“You’re wounded!” She winced at the severity of her friend’s injury.
“We have to keep going.”
“I can’t—“ Denen began.
“I’ll help you,” Mirevir snapped. She had lost so much already. She wouldn’t lose her last friend too. They moved down the passages at a quick walk, Mirevir supporting Denen as they went. Down the Long Stair they climbed, ever downward, through the bowels of floating island until the stairs came to an end and the Fang lay before them.
A stone doorway opened onto a small echoing landing. Two wide passages stretched away to the left and right, following the edge of the island. On the walls facing outward, the wind screamed through hundreds of arrow slits and murder holes. Jets of sea spray crashed through the openings. Lightning blazed. Thunder shook the air. The Fang dripped and roared. Mirevir and Denen moved down the left passage with what speed they could until they reached a gate of black metal and a ladder of the same stuff which hung down almost the turbulent sea’s level.
“I’ll never—” Denen began but the sound of rushing feet upon the stair turned them both around. The assassins leapt through the doorway of the Long Stair.
“GO!” Denen begged.
Mirevir spoke the password that opened the gate. She scrambled partway down the ladder and turned to help Denen, but the gate clanged closed above her. Denen looked down at her, his dark hair hanging limp with spray and rain.
“Go, Mirevir. Live.”
He slipped away but Mirevir climbed up screaming after him. She reached the gate and tried to remember the password she’d spoken a moment before but the word had vanished in her panic. Denen moved laboriously away, stopping a dozen yards away. He stood with arms crossed over his chest his head bowed. Mirevir could feel him drawing upon the old powers, summoning more and more and still more. The assassins came cautiously forward, wary of the unmoving Druid. Rain and spray and wind hammered Mirevir as she clung to the ladder.
“Denen, please! I need you,” she screamed.
The air seemed to vibrate with the power massing within the druid’s body. The assassins came almost within arm’s reach of the boy but the young druid did not stir. A great light erupted from within Denen and blasted out from the center of his being, consuming him instantly.
The Fang exploded.
The outer wall shattered, torn apart with a terrifying force. The gate ripped loose from its hinges and went flipping through the rain drenched fury. The blast kicked Mirevir from the ladder. She groped for a hand hold but only air and burning stone whipped past her, hissing as the rain and flames did battle. The waves rushed up and embraced her in their icy grip.
The meaty smack of the man’s fist colliding with her father’s jaw, jarred Morwyn from her slumber. Before her eyes had fully opened she was at the wagon’s door peering through a gap between the planks. A narrow sliver of the world came into view and Morwyn’s heart skipped a beat. Her father staggered and fell into the dusty road. The moon glinted off of blood on his face. A pack of dark shadows loomed over him. Bits of armor and weapons flashed.
“Loot the wagon,” someone growled. “This piss pot is done.”
The shadows prowled closer and the girl scrambled back. Morwyn looked around at the dark wagon interior, the bales of furs, the boxes of spices all bound for the annual bazaar. There was no place to hide. She had warned her father that the roads were rumored to be dangerous this year. She had begged him to hire guards or at least purchase a sword but he had insisted there was no money. Now they would be assaulted, robbed and murdered.
Morwyn dove between two fur bales as the door flew open.
“There’s someone in there!”
“Well, get them out, idiot!” shouted the first voice.
She drew her knees up to her chest and resolved not to scream when they found her. All too soon, a pair of rough hands seized her and she was flung from the wagon. Above her towered a man clad in a rusty coat of mail. He carried a hatchet in one hand and a pair of knives hung from a broad belt. Shadows hid his face, save for his eyes which flashed in the star light.
“Looks like we found a treat!”
“Don’t touch her,” her father groaned from where he lay.
The bandit chief laughed and turned, delivering a savage kick to the merchant’s head. Morwyn’s fury exploded and she lunged up from the ground, teeth bared. Someone grabbed her by the shoulder. Harsh laughter answered her challenge.
Suddenly there was a sold, substantial weight in her hand. A sword. She had no time to wonder where it came from she just twisted around, and drove the blade into the man holding her. His grip vanished. She whirled back towards the chief who brought his foot back to kick her father again.
“Stop!” she screamed, her voice high with fear and excitement. She wrapped both hands around the hilt of the sword and tried to keep the point of the miraculous blade leveled at his chest. The hand ax flashed towards her and the sword seemed to twitch of its own accord. Hatchet and hand spun off into the night. The bandit chief collapsed in a shrieking heap. Morwyn turned on the other bandits but they were already running. She rushed to her father’s side.
As suddenly as it had appeared the sword vanished. She hardly noticed for her father stirred from where he lay and wrapped his arm around her muttering half- coherent words of comfort and thanks.
This work is based in part on the song “The Cave” by Mumford and Sons.
At first there was nothing. Nothing at all.
Then the light appeared and with it a flurry of language. Light. Dark. Bright. Shadow. Pain. Eyes. Body. The words spiraled into being down through his mind like a chain of Christmas lights flaring to life one after another.
Christmas? What was that?
The ground seemed to move beneath him and he emerged from the cave blinking in the thin sunlight of an unknown world. As he looked across the new place he found that, while the sights were new, the words, the things, he recognized. Sand. Lake. Trees. Desert. Oasis. People. Thousands of more words, an entire language seemingly, came crashing into his brain with enough force to make him sit down on the sandy ground.
“Hello,” the word came out before he knew what it meant. He looked up at the speaker and found himself gazing into a face without worry. The old face was smoother and the eyes clearer than they should have been if worry existed within. The older man helped him to his feet.
“I am Oldest. Welcome to the Oasis.”
“I have been at the Oasis longest of all those here,” the man said as he lead the way towards the sheltering trees. Their sandaled feet padded in the powdery sand that was the same dull white as the long, high collared smocks they wore. It took only a few moments for the two to pass beneath the shade of the trees and reach the lake’s edge. It rippled and flashed under the brittle sunlight.
“You are called Oldest, but what’s your name?” He stopped. “What is my name?”
The old man looked at him with his vacant, worry-free eyes.
“None of us have names here.”
A corkscrew (corkscrew?) of emotion twisted in his guts, searing hot one moment, icy cold the next. Rage. Terror. Horror. His name was gone. Someone had taken it from him. He did not know how he knew but he did. Someone had taken his name, stolen it, taken away the essence of who he was, taken his power and left behind… what? What was he without a name?
He turned away from the oasis and looked out through the thin screen of trees and bushes edging the pool towards the endless tracks of the dunes. He glanced in the opposite direction. On every horizon there was nothing but dunes. Oldest spoke but he did not hear. He chose a direction and strode out into the desert. He would tear the world apart to find his name and when he got it back…
“Where are you going?” Oldest shouted. “What are you doing?”
“I am going to find my name!”
“But, no one–”
“I am going to find my name.”
“How will you know it even if you find it?”
He paused at the crest of the first dune and looked back down at the blissful old man.
“I will know my name as it’s called again!”
This work is based in part on the song “Bonnie House of Airlie” by Kate Rusby (one of my favorite musicians) and inspired by the world of Flora Fyrdraaca by Ysabeau Wilce
It fell on a day, a buenisimo day–a perfect day–when the corn grew green and yellow in the deep, black furrows the farmers cut into the mesa-top. The sun soared high above the great hacienda and the pueblo surrounding it. Senor John and his wife had gone, with the Azul Guard and a gaggle of servants. Lunch had been served. The air shimmered. The pueblo went still as everyone settled in for a siesta.
Lady Josephina lay upon sweet scented pillows, drowsing, letting the coolness of her dim chamber seep away the heat. Slowly, a strange and continuous crackle and rattle drew her from her slumber. She lay listening, wondering what the sounds could be. It seemed to be getting louder.
Then she heard the screams.
The girl leapt out of her vast bed and tore her dressing gown from the peg beside the door. The sounds were of guns and swords. She hesitated at the door and instant before tearing it open and racing down the long hall, her bare feet slapping rhythmically against the tile floor. The guards and servants that should have been in the long passage were absent. She reached the great double doors at the end of the hall and, despite the sound of combat on the other side, she hauled it open.
Her world exploded into a nightmare.
Airlie was burning. The House Guards in their proud red and blue tartan lay in their own dark blood. Servants and villagers too lay where they had been cut down. And the pueblo–the fair pueblo of her father–burned. Flames and grey kilted Dunkel soldiers gutted the village, both destroying with the same wild abandon. Behind her, in the hacienda, she heared the crash of splintering wood as the raiders set to work within.
“My lady!” a deep voice roared. Josephina realized it had been shouting at her for some time. She looked and there at the foot of the blood-slick stairs ascending to the hacienda stood the great Argyle. He was a towering brute of a man with a thick black beard. He was clad in a black chain mail and a green and grey kilt. A broad sash of the same tartan was thrown over one of his shoulders. A coyote tail hung from his bright helm. He leaned casually upon his massive two-handed sword and smiled at her as if he was not surrounded by blood and death. Behind him his leering troops looked up at her with eager and wild eyes.
“Come down, lady. Come down and kiss me.”
“I’ll not come down, nor kiss you!”
“Come down, lady” Argyle called again almost gently. She looked at the faces of the Dunkel soldiers who yipped and howled like coyotes amid the carnage of the courtyard. If only Senor John had been at home. But he was gone and the deed done.
Her heart broke. Unnoticed tears coursed down her fair face. Her feet carried her down the gore covered steps. She stopped before the towering Argyle, her head hung in despair.
“Take me away,” she whispered. “So I do not have to see this. Please.”
His huge hand patted her slender shoulder. “No, mi chiquita bonita, no you will watch until not one stone is left standing of this place.”
She tensed under his touch.
“Do not fear, my lady, you will be unharmed. You will be a message to Senor John, a flor perfecta amidst all this ruin. He will know I could have taken everything from him but I did not, and he will fear me all the more.”
The trees had kept the heat of the afternoon from escaping the shady confines of the Running Wood. The air was humid there, hanging thick and still about the broad, gnarled boles of ancient trees. Dew condensed and clung in tiny droplets upon leaf and stem so that the wood seemed to shine and sparkle in the mottled green light that fell through the leaves above.
A boy, small and slim, armed with a wooden sword, stalked through the wood. His grey eyes flashed, sharp as flint. His hand grasped the hilt of his little sword as he boldly surveyed his domain. He was the king of all he saw and in his mind’s eye, a great battle unfolded before his eyes.
In a burst of movement and a bellowing shout, the boy leapt forward. Bracken cracked beneath his feet as he raced through the wood, hacking at imagined foes as he went. He bounded over fallen logs and dodged low-hanging branches that trailed long beards of grey lichen. With reckless abandon he raced through the underbrush. No branch dared scratch his fair face or root trip his foot.
The woods parted before him and he entered into a clearing, round and wide.
His smile faded, the imagined battle abandoned.
The clearing was strange to him. It was overgrown with twisted thorny bracken that lay brown and listless in the summer sun. Dead leaves, that seemed never to have been green and living things, rasped harshly as an impudent breeze touched their dead forms. In the center of the dell jutted a great black stone carved with many strange symbols, the likes of which the boy had never seen. The sunlight seemed weak.
He crept forward, licking his lips nervously. His course began in a wide berth around the strange stone, but after a few steps he turned, almost unwillingly, to the monolith. The boy’s breathing quickened. His face and arms became slick with sweat. His grey eyes flicked about like a cornered animal. In the stone’s black shadow the boy shivered and twitched. From nerveless fingers his sword fell as he reached out and touched the inky surface of the stone. It was cool and smooth, the edges jagged and wickedly sharp. His tremulous fingers traced the patterns carved into the hard stone which cut him deeply. As his blood trickled down the dark stone a haze enveloped him and in his mind’s eye flames leap to life.
When the boy shook himself back to his senses, his arms hung loosely at his sides and his eyes stared blankly at the glassy stone. A raindrop struck him upon the face and he looked up. The clear summer sky had become suddenly overcast and the sun seemed much closer to the horizon then when he had first stepped into the clearing. The fear that lay thick in that place overcame him and he fled in a blind terror.
Long after the boy’s footfalls vanished into the forest the sun set and the storm broke. Sheets of rain lashed down. The wind screamed like a tormented creature. Brilliant forks of lightning stabbed down from the ebony sea of clouds. In the tortured clearing, the great black stone stood unmoving. One lightning bolt after another smote down upon the stone so that it smoked and hissed in the falling rain. Then, with a final blast, the lightning blasted a crack at the crest of the stone. Vast gouts of fire blazed from the fissure until its edges glowed red hot.
The stone seemed to convulse in upon itself, forcing the crack to close partially. As if in response, the fire leaped ever more fiercely. The entire stone steamed in the falling rain, filling the clearing with a vapor and stench. The fire blazed suddenly higher and from its heart a hand exploded, clutching at the searing edge of the crack. It seemed for a moment that it would be drawn back into the stone, but the sinewy fingers lay hold of one red-hot edge and held fast. Slowly, the hand groped along, dragging behind it an arm, a shoulder, a head. Still the crack widened, until finally, with a scream that chilled the air, a being tumbled from the fissure that had been rent in the side of the stone.
The prophecy had been fulfilled.
The blood of the Innocent had freed the Prisoner.
“At firs’ I thought it were gophers,” the farmer said and spat a thick spray of tobacco juice. I watched it glisten as it arced through the afternoon sun and wondered what exactly I’d done to deserve this fate. I’d stumbled through life from gig to gig, family-less, fortuneless, directionless until I settled on this. Some people might call it an adventure. I just call it work. I’m an exterminator.
“’Course once the holes got bigger I knew it had t’be some-it else.”
“Right. Sure.” I glanced around at the farm. It was situated at the mouth of a narrow canyon. A dense wood of dark evergreens loomed over the crack in the earth. Wagons, crates, barrels and sacks filled with, as yet, undetermined excess choked the gully. No wonder this guy had pests. Anyone with half a brain knew that this much garbage would attract all sorts of unwanted attention.
“I tried settin’ out some traps but no luck.”
I shrugged. That didn’t mean much. Most amateurs couldn’t set a trap that would snare a mouse much less the larger pests that roamed the world. Even when a trap is properly placed, hidden and bated they’re only marginally successful.
“What type of bait did you use?” Roardan asked. He was there to observe me in action and compile a report for the guild master, but he never could keep his yap shut.
“Oh, I use th’ good stuff. Virgin,” the farmer said, hacking another blob of browned saliva onto the ground.
“Well, we’ll take a look in the canyon and figure out exactly what we’re dealing with. After that we can figure out a fee and—”
“Fee don’t matter,” the farmer growled. “They’re ruining my crops. Take care of ‘em. Y’er supposed to be the best. Git to it.”
Roardan could barely keep from soiling himself with excitement at the prospect of severely overcharging the ignorant farmer.
We headed into the canyon.
Immediately it became clear that we weren’t dealing with gophers. Caverns and tunnels, some a few feet across, others as big as doorways, pocked the walls of the gully. The rubbish that stood intact at the mouth of the canyon was demolished further back. Torn, broken and gnawed. Other spoor of the pests was evident. Tracks, some remarkably large, criss-crossed the sandy ground. A little ways ahead, leashed to a metal stake, sprawled the trashiest woman I had ever seen.
She was, foremost, filthy. Her bleached hair stood out in a tangled nest. Garish makeup smeared her gaunt face. One pale thigh was sun-buring brilliantly where her too short skirt had ridden up over her hip. The soles of her bare feet were black with grime. She clutched the handle of a rusty knife in her fist. Swirly tattoos on her ankle, back of her neck and the small of her back completed her look. For a moment I thought she might be dead but she grunted, belched and flopped over onto her stomach.
“I’ll be roasted alive if that’s virgin bait,” Roardan sniggered.
I nodded in agreement and cut the girl free. The only thing she was attracting was flies. She repaid me by vomiting up something that smelled like pure alcohol. We pushed on farther back in to the ever-darkening canyon hoping for some solid proof of what we were facing. And then we got it. Outside an especially wide cave opening stood a row of heads, some human some bestial, all spiked along a sagging bit of split rail fence that stood before the cavern’s mouth. Animal pelts, wolf and fox tails, raven wings, scraps of tattered cloth had been nailed to the gray wood forming a grizzly and haunting collage.
I unslung my equipment bag and began strapping on my gear. I buckled on my white chainmail coverall, pulled on my tall black boots and steel gauntlets. I settled my helmet on my head, secured the chin strap and buckled my belt around my waist where vials of holy water, healing potions, foxes cunning, bear’s strength and half a dozen other buffs dangled from the leather thongs. I synched the straps of my kite shield tight against my forearm and hefted my mace of Holy Vengeance.
“Tyr be with us,” I prayed. “Looks like this farmer has a bad case of orcs.”
“Remember, safety third,” Roardan grinned plucked a few notes on his small harp. The bard was as ready as I. Together we strode forward and entered the cavern. It would be hell, crawling through tunnels, hunting down every last member of the orc clan that had moved onto the farmer’s land. We might pick up some nice loot. We might die. It’s our job. Some people might call it an adventure. I just call it work. I’m an exterminator.
The others reached us and we began to run, Merlin in the lead, guiding us uncannily through the maze of streets. The city increased its pace back into the pit, carrying us with it. The the streets were now filled with screams rather than the seductive whispered of earlier. We seemed to move at an incredible pace but in fact, we only edged a few dozen feet beyond the pit. The city’s fall aided us though. As it slid back into the Beyond it drew the outer walls closer even as our steps propelled us towards them.
The black, moldering stones roared around us. The voices of the city screamed. Merlin was shouting the incantation that would open the gates. The archway with its gauzy doors rushed towards us. The street beneath our feet hurtled over the edge of the abyss. As the last stones fell away I leapt and the others leapt with me.
The noise of the city went suddenly silent.
I looked up. The storm clouds were breaking apart over Lunden. The Temes rolled lazily. A bird trilled a cautious call. Nekropolis was gone, all save for the gates, the tall arch of stone which towered above us.
“It didn’t work,” I said.
Merlin stood, and with a word cleaned his white robe.
“Nonsense. The city is gone.”
“But the gate.”
“What of it?”
“It’s the entrance of Nekropolis!”
As if to emphasize the point, a figure stepped out from beneath the arch, fading into existence before our eyes.
I dare not call it he or she for it looked as if it were both and neither. I cannot even now try to describe its features. It was beautiful and terrible, paler than moon light and clad in shadows that writhed and billowed around its thin, towering figure. Its hair was long and white. Its feet and legs were dark and wet with blood up to its knees. In one hand it carried a sword, black as night and impossibly long. In the other it carried an hourglass filled with sand as fine as ash and as pale as bone.
It looked at us and even Merlin was struck dumb.
Then it spoke.
“I cannot pretend not to be displeased,” its voice was quiet but I know that it could be heard a mile away. “But know this, I have been given this realm. You cannot banish me. You haven’t the power.”
It turned to depart but it had pricked Merlin’s pride. Our leader mastered his fear and stepped forward, brandishing his staff.
“I will one day!”
It stopped and slowly glanced over its shoulder.
“No, you will not. You have not my talent.”
“And what talent is that?”
Death smiled. I trembled uncontrollably and tried to keep a grip on my sword.
“Patience,” it said and stepped beyond the arched gateway of Nekropolis. It faded away, leaving us alone under the thin light of a stormy sky.
Death’s servants rushed upon me in a wave of horror. They spilled through the distorted streets of Nekropolis and swooped down from the festering sky.
I gave them lightning. Blazing chains of it shot from my sword blade and tore into their ranks. The power arced and leapt from black armor and pale swords. The creatures wielding them burned. The thunder of my attack rippled out over the city.
I continued to speak the incantation. The light of the banishing spell grew ever brighter, until I was blinking against my own radiance. The power coursed through me. I could feel it pulsing in my veins and filling my belly, straining to tear me apart from the inside. It was getting harder to focus on the vocalization while keeping my internal castings separate.
Unfortunately, Death’s army was in no mood to help me focus. Another wave came forward, this one comprised of huge creatures with man-like proportions. They bellowed and lifted great scythes that dripped and ran black. I sent lightning at them and they shrugged it aside. I sent fire and they staggered. I unleashed every weapon in my arsenal of spells. Wind, fire, water, stone, shards of magical glass, beams of pure light. Some they ignored. Some slowed them, but none destroyed them.
I lifted my silver sword, drew a warding sigil before me that blazed blue and then vanished. I was struggling to continue the invocation. There were only ten words left in the spell, but I was breathing hard, the wells of my power depleted. I was out of energy and time.
Ten words. I would speak them before I was swept away.
The first great scythe swept towards me. It struck the sigil with a sound like a ringing gong. The creature stumbled back and I lunged forward. My sword cut deep. The creature screamed as its power was leached away. My sword is vampiric. It drinks the power of those it wounds and kills, and I have killed many. Another scythe swung and this time the sigil shattered. I ducked the blow, and countered with one of my own that clove the enemy’s weapon.
Five words left.
Another blow. Another dodge. Another stroke of my miraculous sword.
There were a dozen creatures assailing me. It was all I could do to focus on the words I spoke and hold them at bay. The will to hold onto the banishing spell and not speak other words, words that would give me power, consumed my mind. One great hand reached for me. I hacked it off. A scythe tore through my cloak.
The words faltered on my lips.
I would not be the one to fail. I gathered my will, my focus and resumed.
“Solei deius gloria!”
The world turned white. The power of the spell building within me exploded from my body with the force of a hurricane. Dimly perceived shadows and dark shapes were caught up in the light and wind and whipped away. I staggered to my knees and when my vision cleared, my enemies were gone and the city was sliding back into the abyss at an alarming rate.
I could see the others of the Order across the city running towards me. The roads they followed were being drawn back beneath their very feet, making their progress tedious. Merlin, ever the show-off took to the air, flew across the pit in a blur of white and alighted next to me.
“Now we just have to get out of here alive,” I shouted.
To be continued…
The city was colorless, filled with whispering voices. They muttered things I could not understand, but which were filled with malice and seduction. They called me to my death. Part of me wanted to follow the whispers into oblivion, but I doggedly pursued the rest of the Order. Merlin’s pagan staff glowed with a werelight, guiding us through the city’s gloom. A few of the others also conjured lights on the tips of their wands or at their shoulders.
We progressed through twisting streets, black with shadow and mildew. Merlin led us unerringly, pausing neither to consider a juncture nor to double back. The whispers grew more intense, but never could I hear individual words.
We reached the pit.
Never have I seen something so benign twisted into something so horrible. It was a vast black and bottomless hole rimmed with festering pitch. Out of its maw the city slowly crawled, maybe a foot an hour, just fast enough to be perceived. My mind tried to compensate and make sense of the city’s gradual expansion, but it could not. I felt dizzy.
Merlin turned to us.
“I will take position to the east, across the pit. The rest of you spread out around it, north, southeast and southwest,” the chief of our Order said softly. He looked at me. “Hold this position. It is our only means of escape.”
I nodded. The others did too, and with that, our party dissolved. Two went round the north rim of the pit, two went south. I stepped to the oozing edge of the pit. All down the sheer walls the shadowed shapes of buildings jutted, marching inexorably upward. The whole of Nekropolis was coming.Its darkness seemed to stare back at me and I stood transfixed, hearing only whispers and seeing only doom. Then one of the whispers transformed into a voice and shattered the spell lain upon me. I looked up. Merlin was shouting to me. The others were in position. I had stared for a long time, lost in Nekropolis’ dark power.
Merlin began the banishing spell. I shook off the last of the city’s enchantment and followed suit. The words I had learned flowed from my lips. Around the pit the five of us began to glow in the darkness as we gathered our power. We were beacons in the night. Beacons to which the Death’s servants flocked.
It is a fairly easy thing to cast a spell with a vocalization. It is harder to cast with merely a thought. It is harder still to cast one spell with your lips and another with your mind at the same time. But we were masters, we were the greatest wizards and witches alive. It was for this ability to multicast that Merlin had chosen us.
I saw the bubbles of protection, walls of fire and light flicker to life around my companions as swarms of spirits converged upon them. I knew I had not long before I too must defend myself or perish utterly. I continued to speak the banishing spell and turned my back on the pit. For a moment the vacant streets remained empty, but then like a rising tide, the whispers grew louder. Surging out of the shadows came Death’s army, thousand strong. It was made up of black armored forms with burning eyes and glimmering blades and hooded scabrous creatures that stretched pale skeletal hands towards me. They all seemed to glide forward, riding on the mists that filled the city.
Fear fell away.
I lifted my sword.
I was a war wizard. Battle was my home. Destruction my element.
To be continued…
Death’s city crouched atop a stony hill overlooking the old Roman ruin of Lunden. The ghosts of walls and towers undulated in the week light of noon. There were no sounds of birds or insects.
I gripped the hilt of the silver sword I used rather than a wand and looked to the other wizards in Merlin’s Order. They all looked as apprehensive as I, all save Merlin himself. He seemed unaffected by the sight of Death’s phantom fortress. He stepped to the front of our small group, his white robes flapping in the wind. His young, lean face had been marked with blue Welsh war paint. His staff was decorated with a fox’s tail and the feather of an eagle. He looked as savage and primitive as the people he had come from.
“Do not fear, brothers and sisters,” Merlin said quietly, but his voice seemed to carry for miles. “We shall drive Death back into the beyond and make this place safe again for mortals.”
I wish I could say I believed him, that my heart swelled with pride and courage but in truth I was terrified. We were the mightiest wizards in all Europe at that time, but still I feared that translucent city. I feared its ruler. I feared him and that place like nothing I ever feared before or since. But Merlin stepped forward and his force of will dragged us behind him, until the shadowy walls of Nekropolis towered over out frail mortal forms.
One feature of the city was solid and real, the gate. It was a huge soaring arch of gray stone. The gates were insubstantial, transparent and rippling like silk in a breeze, but everything had gone still. The dank air hung cold and thick around us, as oppressive as Nekropolis’ unholy presence.
I realized I had drawn my sword. I was shaking.
Merlin stepped forward and lifted his barbaric staff.
“Patefacio! Lux lucis of vita subigo vos,” the master wizard shouted and at first nothing seemed to happen. Then a tiny flash of light appeared at the seam of the undulating gate. The darkness of the city seemed to press in upon the glow, but Merlin lifted his staff higher. The light blossomed and grew, folding the gates slowly back until the opening it formed was wide enough to admit us.
“Come!” Merlin shouted, though all was silent. “Before the gates close.”
He strode through the gates. The others followed him and they all seemed to fade away as they passed into Death’s city. I trembled violently at the sight and ordered my feet to move, but they would not. The light began to recede. The shadow gates crept closed.
I am already dead, I reminded myself. If we don’t send this place back into the beyond.
I sprang through the closing doors and left the living world behind.
To be continued…
Congrats to the winners of the Nook Touch (Paul DeNigris). Thank you so much for entering and supporting my endeavors.
Now I would like to present you with my first true piece of Perilous Writing. Here is the prologue of my novel Kingsmen: the Dreamer which I have cut from the book. I hope that you enjoy it. Art provided by Bryce Cook
Adrian woke screaming his brother’s name.
For a moment the eight year old shuffled around, trying to make sense of why the world had gone black. He blinked rapidly, his heart pounding. Hot dry air filled the room. Sheets entangled his legs, clinging to his sweating skin. The night cloaked bedroom came into focus but it did not make sense to his young mind. He recognized everything. The little shuttered window that threw long stripes of moonlight across the walls, the toys left fallen upon the floor. Everything was in its place, even him, but he still felt confused, almost to the point of panic. A sob burned at the back of his throat and his eyes watered, but he held the tears back. A moment before he had not been in his room. He had been somewhere else. Somewhere with his brother. Somewhere dangerous. A green wood filled with dappled sunlight.
“Bastian?” he called tentatively for his elder brother, his voice wavering as he held his tears in check.
The door creaked. Cloth rustled in the thick nigh air.
“Quiet, Adrian. You’ll wake the girls,” his mother’s soft, authoritative voice came as she emerged from the darkness filling his bedroom. She looked rumpled and bleary eyed, but to him she was an angelic figure who descended to the edge of his narrow bed. He flung himself into her arms. Immediately, the tears he had held back began to stream down his face.
“Bastian! Mama, Bastian’s hurt!” Adrain gasped. His older brother was almost twice Adrian’s age, but they had a special bond as the only boys out of six children.
“Hush now,” she whispered and kissed his dark hair. “It was just a dream, my little bird.”
He was small for his age, thin and short and hence the nickname which he both loved and hated, but that night he paid it no mind. “No it was real! He was chasing someone… a girl. They were in a forest and the Red Cloaks—”
“No more,” his mother snapped gravely. “We do not say such things about those fighting. Not unless we know. Otherwise we could bring that very fate down upon them.”
Her voice was so stern that the boy gulped back his cry. Fresh tears, tears of shame, stung his eyes and he hung his head. His mother’s rough hand tilted his chin up until he could see her eyes dimly through the moonlit darkness. “It was a bad dream, a terrible dream. But it was just a dream and we will not speak of it again.”
He nodded. She did not understand. It was not just a dream. It was different, somehow real. Even there, surrounded by shadows and the hot desert air he could see the sunlit wood and his elder brother’s anguished face. He could hear Bastian shouting as he ran after the girl. He could see the tall figures, clad in swirling red cloaks, lunge from behind a stand of trees. He could still see his brother’s blood arc bright into the blue sky. He shivered.
“Do you understand me, Adrian?” his mother asked.
“Yes, Mama,” the boy replied. With a gentle kiss and a pat, his mother stood. She fussed with the sheets and opened the window, sending a faint breath of coolness through the sweltering room. The door closed behind her, leaving the little boy to his dark dreams.
That seemed to be the end of that. Adrian lay in his bed watching the moonlight creep across his walls until his eyes burned and sleep dragged at his eyelids. Still he fought sleep, fearful of returning to his dream. Gradually, dawn’s early light melted the darkness away. Day had come, chasing away the night’s fears. One day crept into the next and the next. Summer turned into winter and back again. Though it haunted him, Adrian never again mentioned his dream. The dream lay forgotten in the dusty recesses of the boy’s mind until a year after its dreaming when the messenger arrived. Then it came crashing back, never to be forgotten again, for Bastian had died, cut down in a green wood under a blue sky.
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