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.
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.”
Someone must have seen what was about to happen because a cry rang out from across the court and a rush of feet approached. I paid it no mind. Priests were a spineless group for the most part, worrisome and punctilious, but the assassin chanced a glance in their direction.
To his credit the warrior sidestepped, lightning quick and swept his sword out. He swung, a single exquisite stroke that hissed passed my jaw. But I had wanted him to evade my first blow. I wanted him to think he had an advantage. I pulled my strike short and reversed the motion, turning the thrust into a back-handed slash. I used the micron-thick silicate blade of my spear like a sword. It struck the assassin just above the right knee and without a sound took his leg neatly off. He fell in a shrieking heap, his life gushing out with the measured beat of a frantic heart.
I lowered my spear. It was done.
My knees turned to water.
It was only then that I felt the hot sheeting of blood coursing down the side of my neck. I reached for the source of the flood and found an almost imperceptibly thin cut just above my high collar. The assassin’s micron-blade had struck with surgical precision. My spear slipped from my fingers but I did not hear it fall. The world swam and I found myself kneeling, clutching at my wound and listening to the thick patter of my draining blood. Somehow that sound was louder than the screams of the maimed warrior and the shocked cries of the priests.
Blood pooled on the crystal floor under me slowly obscuring the view of Jerusalem, hundreds of kilometers below. The priests gathered around the dying assassin trying to silence his screams and impede his thrashing. Solomon had vanished. No one seemed to notice me. Perhaps they knew I was already dead.
The last of my strength failed and I fell forward onto the ground, my brow touching the floor as if I were praying. I turned my head away from the blood that began to gather around my face and a surreal sideways view of the Temple Court came into focus. Blood-spattered attendants scurried about, unable to do anything but hold the wounded warrior while a ring of priests looked on with grief and horror. What did they have to grieve over? The warrior went suddenly still and silent in the arms of a frantic attendant. It was the stillness of death. I had seen it hundreds of times. I knew it was coming over me.
He did not answer. Perhaps, He waited to speak until I had passed beyond the veil?
My heart gave a final weak flutter and like a thin tendril of smoke seized by the wind, all I was, all I might have been, slipped silently from the universe.
I am ashamed to say I dozed, but the clink of approaching footsteps lifted my chin from my breast. Two men crossed the Court. My emperor would not forgive me for taking his traitorous son’s life. There was no need to send two with a message of forgiveness. Two meant a messenger and an assassin.
The footsteps stopped near me.
It was the emperor’s youngest son, Solomon. The boy was perhaps sixteen and, from what I understood, not much of a fighter. He excelled at politics, the games of court. The messenger. I wished to turn, to find out who the other was, but I kept my eyes closed.
“Solomon,” I replied.
“My father was wounded in the battle with Absalom’s fleet.” The boy’s voice was smooth. I didn’t like it. “He died, but not before making me emperor.”
“And asking you to order my death?” I added, still not turning. “I suppose I should be thankful David did not command it himself.”
The boy was quiet and I knew I was right. I would not go quietly. I stood as smoothly as my protesting knees allowed and cradled my spear in the crook of my arm. I looked at my accuser. Solomon stood before me, resplendent in gold and purple, his hair long and manicured like a palace woman’s. He carried a decorative sword. The messenger. Nothing more.
Behind him was the assassin.
He was not much older than the new emperor. His short bristle of dark hair and his face were streaked with red paint that ran in lines down to his chin and gave him a fearsome look. His tunic was red, over which he wore slick, black composite armor. He carried a long, micron-sword that he casually rested his hand upon. He looked more flashy than skilled.
And fast, I thought wearily. He’ll try to get me to move at his pace.
“You killed Absalom against my father’s orders,” Solomon said.
“I killed a traitor. Because of that, you are now emperor instead of him.”
Solomon glared, unable to deny the truth of my words.
I glanced at the assassin. “He’s to stop me from leaving?”
The warrior nodded. I noticed his eyes never left me. There was more to him than just flash.
“And if he doesn’t?”
Solomon pursed his glossed lips. “The galaxy is a vast place, Master Joab. Should you overcome my champion, I certainly could not stop you from leaving and I would not expect to see you ever again.”
So that was how it would be. A token gesture, a single attempt to satisfy the promise made to his father. Beyond that I was free. I looked again to the assassin.
“Ready to die?”
He shook his head and he smiled mirthlessly. I dropped into a combat stance, my heart suddenly beating hard, when a moment before, it had been quiet. I had years of experience killing great warriors. I had the blessing of God. I would win. Still, I felt cold fear speed through me. A hum rose from my spear as I increased the structural field reinforcing the blade.
To be continued…
Based in part upon events described in 1 Kings 2:29-34
I had just killed a man. A traitor. A usurper of my emperor’s throne. But I knew I would receive no reward. Instead, I would receive only trouble, for the traitor had been my emperor’s son. I fled the scene and traveled mindlessly, hopping from system to system, until the Temple appeared outside my view port. It flashed in the distant starlight, a beacon to my weary soul. I docked and stepped from my starship onto the glass deck. Far below, I could see the planet Jerusalem which the Temple orbited. Its citizens had no idea who ruled them at that moment. They would not have to wait long. No doubt, news of Absalom’s death and David’s victory would arrive soon. I entered the Temple Court. The attendant, an apple-cheeked boy in white robes, nodded to me.
“Your weapon is not permitted in the Holy Place,” the boy said, indicating the long micron-bladed spear I carried. “Would you like to leave it here?”
I gazed across the vast, amber Temple Court towards the altars and the Holy Place where God resided. The temple was quiet at that hour. The priests had likely retired for the day. With no one to bless their offerings, most of the supplicants had abandoned the place. I hesitated a moment. At the altars I could linger indefinitely, in orbit around the emperor’s world, but forever out of his reach.
If only the emperor had killed Absalom the first time he tried to usurp the throne. But David loved his traitor son and ordered his life preserved even when Absalom made this second grab for power and captured Jerusalem. I shook my head. Absalom wouldn’t have stopped. He had needed to die. If David could understand that, he might forgive me.
“I shall remain in the Court,” I said. I brushed past the boy and made my way to one of the prayer niches, the soles of my boots ringing out with a musical chink-chink-chink on the glass floor. I sank to my knees, letting my spear support my weight as I made the transition. My old tendons and bones protested with various cracks and aches as I settled upon the crystal deck. I wished I had brought my prayer mat. I set aside my spear and touched my forehead to the floor.
“Oh God of my ancestors…” the prayer came easily to my lips.
When I had finished my prayer, I settled into a more meditative position. I let my eyes close and focused upon my God. He had guided me all my life, led me every step. Now was no different. He had guided my shot at Absalom’s fleeing fighter. It could have missed, but instead, his vessel had been vaporized with a single shot. It had been God’s will just as my fate would be.
To be continued…
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…
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