MENU

Fiction
Tag Archive

258

Fiction: Take You Home

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

July 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

On the seaside Red Cliffs where the gryphons built their aerie, storms are all too common, from the light showers of summer to the harsh monsoons of wet winter. But the cliffs gave them shelter, and the ocean gave them food, and the proud gryphon folk desired little else.

One particularly dark and cold winter, soon after dawn on the shortest day, there blew up a storm more terrible than any in living memory. The sky blackened like midnight, the waves frothed and beat against the red granite, and the strongest and smartest of the gryphons’ warriors and hunters exhausted themselves keeping the aerie’s nests safe and secure. The storm lasted three days and three nights, the heavens themselves shattered by lightning and thunder, and when dawn the final day finally brought calm, the gryphons patrolled their beach to see what havoc the sea had wrought.

There were fish and creatures well known to them washed ashore, which they gathered to eat, and the remains of their beach shelters washed away. Corals and shells from the briny deep lay scattered about, as well as bits of wreckage and debris from constructions made by some unknown hands. And there was the girl.

The gryphons of the Red Cliffs had never seen such a creature. Nor indeed had they ever seen a human, or else they would have deemed her to be like them, slender and clad in a garment of shimmering sea green, but unlike humans her pale blue skin bore the outlines of soft scales, and webbing stretched between her digits as well as between the spines of the fins on the backs of her arms and legs. They gathered, concerned, and sought the elders’ advice on what to do about her.

“Cast it back to the waves. It is no problem of ours,” said one elder. “Put it with the bounty of the storm, we shall feast upon it,” said another. “Kill it and bury it with haste, lest it attract more of its kind,” said a third. They and the others argued about how best to dispose of the creature, when a voice boomed over all of them, “NO.”

They turned and there stood the one called Yalos, eldest son of the chief, and regarded in all things a wise elder of the clan despite his youth. “Have you not listened to the tales? This is not a fish, nor merely some deeper animal. We must show compassion, lest in our haste and greed we commit a grave sin.”

The gryphons scoffed. How could this be anything but an animal? Did it not lack feathers and beak as well as tail and hindclaws? Such a thing could be nothing better than the bounty of the sea, and nothing worse than a pest. But Yalos stood over the creature and drove the others back with wings, claws, and beak. They hissed at him. “You may be our Prince, but that does not give you leave to break our traditions!” spat an Elder, the one who had wished to eat her.

In ones and twos they left, voicing their disdain, and when Yalos was again alone on the beach a soft voice spoke from between his legs: “You have faced your own kind… for me? Why?”

The gryphon stepped aside and peered down into the now wide open pale blue eyes of the girl from the sea. That she spoke his language surprised him, but that she spoke at all did not, for he had listened to the tales. “The right thing to do is that no matter who it is for. I am called Yalos, Prince of the Red Cliffs. May I have your name?”

The girl hesitated, then sat up. “I am Nehelennia of the Waves. And I think… I am lost. Where are these cliffs?”

Yalos indicated the tall cliffs of granite and clay that ran along the beach, but he understood her deeper meaning. “The Mourning Mountains lie further north, the forest we have not named lies further inland to the west. All else is The Sea.”

“The stars, the stars. I must see the stars…” Nehelennia said, though it was not a reply. She pushed on the beach, trying to stand, but was unable.

“Hush,” said the gryphon, shaking his head. “You have been injured in the storm. Rest here; I will bring you food.”

Nehelennia began to protest, but Yalos had already flown off. The prince was as good as his word, and over the following days cared for the nereid, for that is what she was, as though she was his own chick. And each night, as the black velvet sky shone with stardust, she became sadder and sadder.

“Why do you cry when you see the stars?” Yalos asked one such night.

“I am lost,” she replied, “This is not the sky of my home.”

“It is the only sky,” said the gryphon with some confusion.

“No. It is but one of many. When the storms between the worlds blow, they cross from sky to sky, and the storms…. they took me, years ago. I have been alone ever since, and do not think I will again see the sky over the Brightwater.”

And with that, she placed her face in her hands and wept sea foam.

Yalos’ heart broke for her, though he did not understand this talk of other worlds. He wrapped a wing around her in comfort and said, “Then let your loneliness at least be eased. I will take you home.”

The nereid shook her head. “No, you cannot! Even I do not know the way.”

“We shall find it together,” said he. “By the Egg of the Sun, I will take you home.”

Nehelennia protested further, but it was to no avail. A gryphon’s promise is neither given nor broken lightly, and a prince’s even more so. A fortnight had not yet passed when she dove into the waves to once again seek her home, and when she did so Yalos took wing and followed overhead.

A gryphon is a strong creature, and Yalos was both strong and wise, but they are not normally users of magic. A nereid, contrariwise, is formed of the magic found in the hidden depths. Nearby, water and ice moved as she directed it, and each night of their journey as the sun sank and Yalos’ wings tired from flight, she would make a pan of ice and there they would both spend the night, he curled upon it and she bobbing upon the waves.

Days passed. Nehelennia seemed to know where she was going, but each night when Yalos asked if they were drawing nearer, she would simply reply, “This is still not my sky.” Just as the gryphon was beginning to wonder what they sought, the girl pointed excitedly at the horizon. There, a huge storm was gathering against the darkening sky.

“That is the storm between worlds! We must… I must go to it!” said she.

“What? Go into the storm? We will be killed!” Yalos squawked.

“I must!” Nehelennia insisted. “You do not have to. Return to your people.”

Yalos shook his head. “I cannot. We are too far – but that does not matter. I have not fulfilled my oath.”

The argument would no doubt have continued, but no storm moves as fast as the one between the worlds, and it struck them as they spoke! The gryphon struggled, beating his wings hard and dodging the flashes of lightning and the worst downdrafts, as did the nereid, fighting to maintain control as the waves began to rise and tower nearly the height of the Red Cliffs themselves!

Nehelennia was losing the battle for control. A creature of the sea, she could not drown, but neither could she control where she was thrown. The waves buffeted and threw her about until, with a sudden jerk, she was yanked upward into the storm instead. Yalos had scooped her from the foam.

Traveling upwards within the clouds, both beheld a sight they had never seen before: as the clouds roiled and broke, between them snatches of land and sea could be seen – but not the sea they left. Worlds mundane and exotic flashed past, until finally the nereid pointed and yelled “THERE!”

Yalos threw them both through the gap without thinking about what he was doing, and suddenly the storm was gone. Instead, they floated above a calm green sea, with islands on the horizon.

“What has happened?” the gryphon asked, amazed.

“The storm between worlds, dear Yalos. We have crossed,” the nereid replied.

She looked around, and a smile began to spread on her face.

Yalos looked at her. “Is… is this your sky?”

“It is not… but it is one I have seen before. Perhaps we can follow the trail backwards. Through the storms.”

Thus began the hardest time in the gryphon prince’s life. Through storms and strife, barren worlds and worlds rife with deadly creatures, the two of them traveled, always seeking out the Storm Between Worlds when it touched down. With Yalos’ wings, they were able to choose between the worlds they glimpsed among the stormclouds, rather than being at the mercy of the waves to toss them through as Nehelennia had once been. Still, it was nearly a year and a half by Yalos’ reckoning when finally their journey came to an end.

They passed through the storm to a foggy world with no clear horizon, and touched down gently upon the waves. The fog bank proved to be nothing more than mist and blew away, and when it did, Nehelennia looked up and shrieked with delight.

“Look! The Dancers! The Anglerfish! The Waterspout! See the stars, Yalos? We are finally here! This is my sky!”

The gryphon smiled and flew a grand loop in celebration. With the familiar stars overhead, it was only one more night before Nehelennia directed them both to a lagoon surrounded by a reef – a lagoon within the sea. “This is the Brightwater. This is the place where I was born, and where my family…” She trailed off and watched him land.

Yalos settled down on a reef to rest. “Good, good. If this is the place, then you are home. I am glad. Allow me to rest here a short time, and I will… be on my way.”

They looked at one another, and at the same time realized what Yalos had done. He had crossed the storms, driven to keep his oath, and come as far from his home across as many worlds as Nehelennia had been when they first met. Nehelennia, for her part, looked about the deserted Brightwater and realized that she had not been the only one swept up.

Yalos put his head down on his forelimbs. “I cannot deny it. I am lost. But you are home now, my oath is fulfilled, and with guidance of the Egg I may yet find my way home.” He closed his eyes and shuddered, thinking of the journey ahead.

Nehelennia hopped up and sat beside him upon the reef. “You have shown me a greater kindness than I ever imagined. You have taken me across the worlds, and kept me safe, and never once thought of your own journey home.”

She laid a hand on the feathers of his head and stroked gently. It was the first time they had touched for a reason other than the necessities of the journey. “Let your fear be eased. By the Dancers on the Deep… I will take you home.”

The gryphon began to protest, but it was as futile as her own had been before. When Yalos left the reef, Nehelennia came with him, and together they plunged once again into the storms.

That is them there, as you may have guessed. Even in a place such as this, a gryphon is a rare sight, and it is hard to miss the blue maiden of the sea. You may wonder how they came here; why, they came as most do, blown in from the storm. And they have stayed, for one very important reason.

They did not tell each other at first that they were alone. Yalos’ actions on Nehelennia’s behalf earned him, if not the status of an exile, at least the status of an insubordinate, and among the Gryphons of the Red Cliffs that is nearly the same thing. Nehelennia’s home had been devastated by the storm, much more than she had known before her return; all that she had known was gone, and the work to rebuild would be great indeed.

But the reason they stayed was to keep their promises. For neither had promised to bring the other to a place, but rather promised to bring them home – and after the trials they had faced together, for each of them, ‘home’ could be anywhere…

As long as that is where the other is.

Read article

226

Fiction: Clone Me Baby, One More Time

Books & Writing, Culture

June 30, 2017

The rocket hit me in the face dead on. My teeth shattered, pieces of bone shearing the soft tissues of my tongue and mouth. My nose hollowed out and everything from its bridge down became pulp. The faceplate I wore saved my eyes, though it cracked and the display disappeared in a flicker of red. I wavered between consciousness and darkness as blood loss took its toll.

I respawned back at home base, my new body buzzing with fresh energy. This was my third death this game; my K/D ratio was going to go to shit if I kept this up. I grabbed an Energy Aid Cola from the drink machine — the price automatically deducted from the game’s winnings — and downed the methamphetamine laced drink.

My name is Lady Death and this is the life I was cloned for.

We were down two lane lengths, the enemy team’s crawlers pounding at our door, and I was playing like a newbie-clone who still needed her training bot to function. If we didn’t get a grip on this game then the Sunbros could say goodbye to our place at Superchamp stadium, and we might as well stop playing if it came to that. I grabbed a Lady Death Soul Reaper Scythe™ from the rack and breached the base’s doors to once again join the fight.

Big Johnny Four was waiting at the entrance, his black and gold exosuit glinting in the noon sun.

“Saw the replay of that hit, you okay Lady D?”

His immense frame towered over me, his right arm encased in a massive gatling gun.

“I’m fine. It’s just the crowd today. They seem more hostile than normal,” I said.

I could see small wars breaking out where the Sunbro fans met the Battering Bruiser fans. There was more gunfire going on in the bleachers than on the actual field. The Game Devs would have to step in if it escalated any more.

“Don’t let it get to you. The Devs just decided to make today free Battle Bright Taco Tuesday. I think they spike that shit with speed.”

Johnny patted my shoulder with his huge hand, his touch soft through my skin-tight armour.

“Come on, we have the the left lane to cover. Silvia’s all by herself and they’re pushing hard.”

I nodded and engaged my cloak, leaving his hand sitting on my ghostly shoulder. He hefted his gun and trundled toward left lane as I took my own, faster route. I ran toward the nearest wall, took a step up it, and flipped on top of it.

The entire field spread out before me, maze like halls with open tops and two uncluttered lanes winding their way through them. Above all was the multifaced big-screens that currently showed Deadringer Silvia holding off two enemy champions. I couldn’t tell which, but I thought I could see the tell-tale shimmer of one of my clone sisters weaving between the crawlers.

I jumped from one wall to the next, making time faster than Johnny who had to traverse the maze on foot. I knew every inch of this course, had been running through it and four others since I was barely out of the clone tubes. I’d run through it blind more than once.

I made my way to Silvia’s perch and tapped on the back of her helmet.

“Dead.”

She nodded and continued firing at the enemy crawlers. Each one she hit exploded in blue flame before disappearing in a mess of metal.

“Big J is on his way, it’s gonna take him a minute or two. I’m going to hit the crawlers on the back line, just keep our own in good shape.”

She nodded again as I jumped down to the lane and headed behind the enemy champs.

I hit a wall and ran on it, the sound of my boosters matching the whine of the crowd. There was the opening: the enemy’s Dirty Harriet was reloading and the blue clad Big Johnny was focused on a crawler that had made it past their defensive line. I slipped between them and toward the stream of crawlers behind.

The edge of my scythe cut through the ribbed bots like they were melting snow. Each one seemed to look around for whatever had hit it before puffing into a fireball. I swept through the advancing crawlers, taking them out two at a time.

Then I heard it: the mechanical trill of my sister Lady Death coming to stop me. I turned toward the sound, trying to spot her before she could close in. She was in-lane, a shimmering blue ghost heading directly toward me. I opened my booster’s throttle to full and jumped over her, her scythe missing me by inches. I rapped her on the back of her helmet with the hilt of my scythe and dropped my cloak before leaping over the wall into the maze.

She followed, still cloaked and probably mad as hell. If she was following me it meant that she wasn’t bugging someone who could do some real damage. I was done sweeping the oncoming crawler wave anyway, enough that Johnny and Silvia could gain ground.

I ran on the maze’s walls and boosted around corners, my mobility easily keeping my doppelganger behind me. She was just boosting along the ground; that meant she was still wet behind the ears with amniotic gel. That meant I could have some fun.

I jumped vertically off the wall I was on, tucked in my legs cannonball style, and boosted high into the air. As the ground fell away behind me I switched on my cloak. Between my golden armour and my cloak, the sunny sky would make me completely invisible. I swung myself around till I pointed at the ground and revved my jets. I came down right on top of her, scythe ready to cut her head open like an avocado.

Then I saw her face. She’d noticed that I was coming down on her and that there was nothing she could do. Her faceplate was just clear enough that I could see her wide, terrified eyes and her mouth hung open, twitching at the corners.

I had a wave of utter horror come over me then, remembering my first few matches when I still felt scared to die. Her face was so much like my own, a few less scars but still as beautiful. I hesitated and she cut me in half.

We won, somehow. Silvia and Big Johnny managed to beat back their lane till it was at the Battering’s base, then Warhammer — a guy on our team with so much armour a tank shell could hit him and he would still be standing — walked our crawlers in. The base exploded, fans cheered, and my ranking dropped six places.

I was still in the top ten rankings for Lady Deaths but it hurt my sponsorships. I lost my contract with Burger Boys and Ooze Energy drinks which meant I would have to start downgrading my equipment. Goodbye steel bones, I knew the well.

Back at the Sunbros’ group home. I sat on the floor of my shower and bit my nails till they bled. I could hear the rest of my team talking about today’s game in the living room.

“What the fuck was up with Lady D today? She was playin’ like a kid in a barfight!” Harriet grumbled, her southern drawl stinging my ears with every twang.

“It was the crowd. The Devs are going crazy with the sponsors lately and it’s getting to her.” Johnny Four said, “They’re getting to me too. Some of our fans had a higher kill count than us today.”

“Bullshit,” Harriet slammed her fist on to the table, “That stuff ain’t more’n a little more noise than normal, it ain’t worth losin’ a lane over. She’s goin’ soft. I watched the replays of that fight with the Batterin’ bitch, I know she hesitated. She’s gonna run soon and you know it.”

Silence came from the other room and tears mingled with my shower water. She was right, maybe I was getting too old for this shit. Maybe I’d overdosed on Energy Aid one too many times and finally snapped, my brain rewiring itself into an emotional stupor. Maybe running was a good idea. At least I’d get to die on my feet.

Johnny caught me leaving that night, his muscled body blocking the doorway out of the apartment.

“You don’t have to do this.” His hands shook at his sides.

“I can’t stay here. Harriet’s right, I’ve gone soft.”

“What about Sylvia?”

Just minutes before, I’d snuck into her room, leaving a note saying “Goodbye, thanks for all the fun times. I’m sorry it had to end like this.” I should have written more but there wasn’t enough time. I looked at Johnny’s feet.

“What about me?” he said.

I hoisted my scythe to hide myself behind bravado. “It wouldn’t have worked out. I like the ladies too much.”

I pushed him aside with it so I could leave. He let me pass and closed the door behind me.

I switched on my visor and the night vision painted the rooftop in sharp green. The Sunbros’ headquarters were on the edge of the mega city Keres — the Devs wanted to keep us as separate from the general population as possible and not even the most avid fans want to risk getting caught in The Taint beyond.

I walked to the edge of the building and looped a rope. As I descended down the building, I began flipping through TV channels on my HUD. Jack Flack’s face filled my vision and the Superchamp theme music began to play.

“Welcome y’all to this special edition of Superchamp, the game that keeps y’all’s blood running hot. As you know, when a Champ gets all cowardly and such, they have a tendency to run like cattle from a bonfire. When that happens, we gotta hunt ’em down like the dogs they are.

“Tonight, we got a little clone who’s a running, the woman in the black and gold, LADY DEATH OF THE SUNBROS!”

The crowd in the background screamed, their voices too loud in my helmet earbuds.

“For those of you who may have forgotten since our last runner, we got a bit of a reminder. When a Champ is cloned in game, they keep the core memories of the previous version. That’s so we get all the different kinds a personalities that y’all enjoy in the games. So the Warhammer from the Glass Cannons won’t act like the Warhammer from the Silverados.”

“But, we don’t keep those memories around after the games: they go right back into a Champ clone for storage. If a champ gets killed outside of a game, they’re gone for good.

“This Lady D has decided to leave her coop and bring all those cowardly memories with her, which is good for us. We have to get rid of em but why leave out all you people from the fun of it.”

Jack turned to the camera and gave the audience a wink.

“We’ve set up another, randomly picked, champ with their own cameras and we’re sending them after her into the wastes. Tonight’s hunter will be…” He turned to a screen at the center of the stage and swept his hand toward the flickering name, “Lady Death from the Battering Bruisers!”

I shut the feed down. Of course they had to bring that Battering Bitch in. I rappelled down the side of the wall as fast as I could. If I was going to get through this, I would have to put some distance between us before they released the hunter. As soon as I hit the ground I ran off into The Taint.

Two hours later, I was running along the edge of a cliff face with the last dregs of a can of Energy Aid flowing through my system. There hadn’t been much excitement other than the occasional man-eating plant. Games never lasted this long, and without the soothing life of a new clone body, the new sensation of sore muscles was wearing me down.

I slid down the steep cliff face, vines making the boost-assisted climb a nightmare. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep this up before I had to find somewhere to hide and let my poor muscles rest. My foot caught an outcropping of rock and I almost fell, just managing to hold on with my fingertips. Then an explosion thrummed through me.

To my right, a chunk of the wall fell to the ground seventy feet below. The explosion shook me off of the rock face and I plummeted along with the rubble. With help from my booster my fall slowed but I felt a deep crack as I threw my arm between my face and the ground.

Pain crested from my shoulder to my elbow. My ribs burned every time I took in a whistling breath. I reached into the pack I’d taken when I left and grabbed a Bingo Bandage (“With child friendly morphine!”) to slap on my neck. With the drug seething through my body, I grabbed my scythe from my back and stood to face whatever had knocked me from my perch.

“Whoa there D,” someone said from the edge of the rubble-filled clearing. “Don’t move or I’ll actually hit you this time.”

“Johnny?”

From the shadowed treeline stepped Big Johnny Four, his armour overgrown with moss but still showing the lime green underneath. He hoisted a golf club onto his left shoulder and smiled at me.

“You the runner or the hunter?” he asked.

I put my scythe away with my good arm and lifted my faceplate. “I’m running. They have Newbie after me though.”

“Good,” he said, shrugging his shoulder in a beckoning gesture, “We’ve got time to talk before she gets here.”

He walked into the forest and I followed after him.

“Greenskin Johnny, huh? You ran two years ago, right?”

“Yeah. I was slowing down too much in-game. They were about to retire me. So I ran.”

“I thought they’d killed you, though. Sylvia shot you in the heart. They got the vitals and everything.”

He raised his right arm as we walked. Where the chain gun should have been was a healed over stump poking out of the armour.

“She shot me all right. I lost the arm but she just missed my heart. It’s good to see you.”

“Good to see you too.”

We walked and the silence between us filled with the sounds of The Taint. Birds chirped as the crunch of the leaves beneath our feet fell into a rhythm. I took a deep breath and felt the cool air soothe my broken body. The morphine was beginning to wear off, the silver chill of it dissipating.

Johnny stopped, looking back toward the way we’d come.

“She’s coming. The shit around us just got too quiet. There’s a clearing not too far from here and my house is just beyond that. We can make a stand there.”  

We ran together as I fumbled in my pack for another round of Bingo and Energy. We breached the clearing. Vine covered cliffs fed in and out between too tall trees. It was a fun place for a battle and I was pretty sure I could outmaneuver a Lady D who hadn’t figured out wall-crawling yet.

“I’ll go set up behind the bush over there,” Johnny said and pointed his club across the clearing. He ran toward his hiding spot, his breath coming out in jagged gasps, and leaned on his club.

A camera drone roared into the clearing and began circling around me, its engine spitting up dirt and leaves around the clearing. Then came the hum of my pursuer’s cloak, so familiar even through the buzzing of the camera drone.

She came and I ran. I activated my own cloak and burst away from her. We moved through the clearing together, dancing around each other in playful arcs. Even through the adrenalin and knowledge of perma-death, it was still nice to be back doing what I was made for.

She finally attacked me and her blade slid across mine as I blocked. I felt the sting of my injured arm worsen and heard another crack, the limb falling from my scythe to hang by my side. I boosted away from her and toward the wall. She followed behind, the shimmer of her cloak drawing lines of sunlight behind her.

Johnny started hitting grenades then and the forest floor was torn apart. His signature move and the reason for his nickname lit the clearing up, the whack of “golf balls” preceding it. The Blue Bitch sped up.

I hit the cliff face and stepped up it with ease. Behind me followed the newbie and explosions. She’d apparently practiced after the last match; her wall-crawl was sloppy but existent. Behind us the cliff shed rock as Johnny put the heat to her heels.

I twirled and shifted back toward her. The dust from the grenades had overwhelmed her cloak and I could see her face again, just as scared as before. I hung in the air for a moment as my momentum fought my boosters.

“Fuck it.” I said to myself and tackled her, carrying us both into a grenade blast.

The pain in my shoulder flared brighter than the sun as the concussion hit me. I lost my breath and what was left of the two of us fell. I looked down at the ground coming to meet me through a broken visor and closed my eyes.

Johnny rested on his golf club and stared down at me.

“That was stupid, D,” he said.

I tried to push myself up but my arms refused to move.

“Just stay there, If you wiggle it’ll make you bleed worse. I wrapped it up as best I could, but…”

“Where’s the other one?” I felt blood flow from the split in my lip.

“Still in the pile of rocks. The cam’s gone so she’s probably dead,” Johnny pointed his club in line with my legs.

I flexed my arms again and felt my palms clench. I took two deep breaths, put my arm out to catch myself, rolled onto my right side, and kept rolling as my elbow never met ground. Blood smeared across the grass and pain punched through my morphine haze as the thing that used to be my shoulder hit the ground.

“That’s what I was talking about, D. Stay down.”

“She’s just a kid.”

I lifted myself to my knees and static filled the edges of my vision.

“I’ll get her D. Just lay down,” Johnny said.

The dirt tasted just about as good as I imagined it would. As I heard Johnny stomp off to the pile of rubble under the cliff, I enjoyed the feeling of grass on my cheeks. I turned my head and looked at the clearing around me.

Without the visor the world was closer, the light more severe. Glowing flowers lit the clearing and through the break in the trees, I could see tiny lights dancing in the sky. Something big moved far into the foliage around me.

“She’s still breathing,” Johnny said, dragging my clone’s Blue clad body behind him.

Her faceplate was cracked, the flashing light from the broken screen inside illuminating her eyes. I reached over and slid the useless tech off her. Her face was unbroken, except for a small cut under her left eye. Something was wrong, so similar but dissonant to the face I saw in the mirror. I reached out and stroked her short, black hair.

“She’s got a few ribs broken at least and there’s a rock sticking out of her leg that’s like two feet long. I don’t want to take it out ’til I have a proper setup though. There’s no telling how much blood she’s lost.”

Johnny started tearing apart cloth from a bag on his hip and wrapping them around Battering’s chest. She coughed and her eyes fluttered.

“It’s okay. Shhh, just rest,” I said. I grabbed her hand with mine and squeezed it.

She squeezed back. “They’re going to send another one.”

The lights in the sky shrank away as the twilight of dawn rolled across them. I squeezed Big J’s knee as he worked and then slid my hand back to Lady D’s.

“We’ll be ready.”

_____________________________________________________________________________

Holly Sophia McCrea is a poet, artist, and short fiction writer from Vancouver BC. She’s been published in The Drabblecast audio fiction magazine and currently has a chapbook available on Amazon.

If you liked this, then you can read more from Holly here.

Read article

280

Fiction: Goblin King Rising

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 23, 2017

Below the homes and below the streets there is a place where vermin dream, where castoffs live and work and breathe – where nothing is what it seems. Here is where the worst go to thrive, where fever dreams are kept alive. The hidden and mad go to ground and sunlight is beaten, broken, drowned.
The Get of Kingu conquered myth and tale, they devastated the sacred veil, bound those creatures to a treaty and placed their children in the Undercity. Down and down go these black roads and the secret stories only they know, the powers that were left to linger smothering every light bringer. Blood is shed and shadows swell and no one knows where bodies fell, they hold their secrets and this truth, they hold the end and blackened youth.
Some children of Kingu live down there, those whose power inspires fear – not powerful enough to hold their own they retreat into the dark and live alone. Or so they think and learn to dread, for here terror lives in waking heads – waking hours offer no respite and sanity doesn’t seem so right. The consequences of taking seed are the children no one ever needs and they are shoved down and left to die but still they breathe and still they strive.
From continents that were torn undone come those who fear the sun, eating dead flesh left to rot; and though they’re here you’d swear they’re not. Their tunnels are below your feet and all around you unseen they creep, a breath on shoulder never felt, the dead their only source of wealth. They fear the living and feed on death, bones knitted beneath their flesh – and though you might think you’re safe there is no escape from that which waits.
But worse that those that feed on death are those that seek to surcease breath, those that bathe in battle’s gore, they born from atrocity and war. Grey skinned they look and ill, muscle like wire driven by will, hair a pale fluttered gray until their knives cut away. It’s pain that feeds them and makes them rise, bathing in viscera freed by knives, covered in insides still steaming, devouring they that die screaming.
From emerald isles across a pond they came, for those called snakes they were to blame, their crimes carried beyond those who could to exile those who understood. Yet down in the dark they found a place and one born of them is their face, a champion anointed upon her brow, called Falciamar she stands unvowed. Her people are the Dearg Capini, the ones who rage and ravage cities, like bomb and mortar they come to kill, like knife and spear with blood to spill.
Yet even they respect the whispering dark, where the Sluagh perfect their art. Led by a coven steeped in rite and never caring for the light; the Sluagh dwell in the darkest places with rarely seen yet pale faces, gaunt and tragic and sunk of eye, they whisper hushes and terrible lies. How could you stand their gaze, they who see the ghostly ways? How could you find their meaning in whispered chalk scratch quiet screaming?
Below them all, the furthest down, the children of Mountain built their town. Brilliant and tied to the core of earth, strong as boulders below the dirt. They stand alone and they stand apart, gifting aid with their art, and those that come on bended knee can here find what they might need.
And past them all and past the stair, there’s one who stands everywhere – the one hunted broke on olden moors, of murmuring madness – the Lord of Doors.
Feeding on scraps and always in danger are the ones their gods made strangers; forever outside and never trusted, their existence makes other disgusted. Call them Goblins if you must, but whisper the word and check the dust. For while they walk about unseen they leave tracks in what’s not clean. So it’s said and so I’ve been told, and wisdom is age and I’m quite old.
They were hunted, hated, and cast down, unwanted by all in the undertown. Staying quite far and staying quite hidden, keeping their secrets and always unbidden. Outside of company and outside the light, not one soul trusting them to be right, their children in the darkness hide and sometimes you can hear them cry to lay the groundwork that others might grieve, so they might betray those who believe.
Give not a Goblin sympathy, for your slavery is what makes them free.
And to this fell Academy came two more Goblin children, two supposed innocents come to be better villains. They stepped into the southern lands and found someone to take by the hand, and one child trusted and one did not, and one become a slave while the other did not. They were not brothers, not age old friends, but Goblins learn to themselves defend, for they are weak and sad when young and those who took them were quite strong.
There is a place above the Undercity, the Academy where walk the pretty, and some of them seek to enslave others and revel in breaking one another. One trusting child to the breaking was took, the other beaten and left bleeding shook – that one escaped down into the dark, to mend the flesh that had been cut apart.
Maricurius was this Goblin’s name, and at that moment he did not know the game. He knew only that a child had been taken and that no one cared and so his soul was shaken. Not even the other Goblins cared, not even when they were made aware that one of their own had been taken for pleasure, that the shattered soul would be another’s treasure.
He begged for food that was not given and stole scraps and rags and plotted sedition: if none would help him save his own he’d venture forth and do it alone. He stole a knife from Falciamar’s pack and ran without looking back. He struggled for food and struggled to eat, found cracked concrete in which to sleep, stole old blankets and stole clothes, stole what he needed to the system oppose.
Stepping into the light he walked unseen, using a Goblin’s gift to fit the scene to scout the place where slaves were taken without alerting any of this break-in. He saw what was done and he saw the locks, he saw as much as he could without shock. He left the place and wretched and sobbed, but then he stood and his tears did daub.
“This is wrong and this will not stand. There must be one to lend a hand.”
But Goblins stand apart and are not to be born, and everyone knew they were forsworn.
He went to the pariahs who hid from their kin, but even they despised what he’d been. He went to the ones who ate the dead and was chased beyond the watershed, down into the depths and into the tunnels, escaping through the sewage funnel.
From there he went to Mountain’s children and they were not pleased with a guest unbidden. “At least that one’s wanted,” they said and smiled, “perhaps you should think on that awhile.” Dejected, he walked towards the slaughter where ruled war’s atrocious daughter. Falciamar saw he carried her knife and hunted him to take his life. He offered it back and offered his breath if she would but follow him into death, but even she would not take his oath and he escaped barely and still alone.
He next sought out the Lord of Doors and pleaded his case without succor. His own people would not give aid and no other could ever be so brave. And so Maricurius went alone to the place with a Goblin’s unseen grace; he steeled himself against every terror and caught the guards unaware. He fought and stabbed and found whom was lost, but too late and too late and life was the cost; all that rage and all that hate and because he was alone he’d come too late.
Dejected, despairing, he walked in lands of light, turning to the Academy’s center in the night. There, every name is writ on a wall and beside every name is a title to call, and Maricurius found to his surprise that his actions had made his name rise – someone was watching and someone approved of what he’d done in the interfluve.
That judge had placed him above his kin, had raised him as Goblins had never been. He stared and stared and got to asking how Goblins had lived in the masking – had they always lived in fear, or was there a life he could commandeer? He walked south towards stacks of books and peered in tomes and in finding looked:
A time had passed when Goblins stood without being beaten, and this time had been in every land and season. What happened was a story worthy of operetta, a tale of woe and bloody vendetta. There’d been a time when Goblins accepted hate, but those that acted upon it met their fate – a Goblin killed meant another life lost as Goblins sought vengeance regardless of cost.
This had ended when the others wanted peace and signed a treaty to make all sides cease the slaughter carried from generations towards a final destination. His people remembered what others forgot, but they’d broken their promise and the Goblins had not. He turned from the book to the knife in his hand, the knife that he’d taken and taken again.
So he moved away from the books and away from that treaty and took all his rage to the Undercity, and there he listened to Goblin’s cries and when he heard those that caused them died. He killed while being hidden and was never seen and the murderous debt was wiped clean, and other Goblins took note of his skill and bound themselves to follow his will.
It did not take long for the others to learn that when you kill a Goblin it’s you that gets burned, and when they sought to attack en masse they found that the Goblins had vanished and passed; who can fight an enemy you cannot see? Can you adapt when bullying is not free?
Maricurius threw the Undercity into uproar, where the powers that be weren’t powers anymore. “Why should there be a price for what we’ve always done? Why disturb what has always been fun? Don’t they know it’s meant to be this way? Why do those we hurt think they’ve something to say?” Abusers do not like to admit doing wrong and do not like to admit they are weak and not strong. The Goblins had found a better way to live and the Undercity shivered to find them combative.
“The natural order has been disturbed, the social contract and unwritten word – why can’t things go back to what they were, when Goblins trembled and we were assured that our way was true and our power was just, when we could satisfy more than lust? How can we show them back to their place when we can no longer see their face? The Goblins are missing, the Goblins are gone, and all this social disruption is wrong.”
Down and down and deeper to Mountain’s children, these abusers now turned their vision. They sought answers in the iron way but those children had nothing to say; they were not willing to pay the Goblin debt, the promise that was as much a threat.
“But your inventions could find the Goblins, yes?”
“Perhaps, but we now know what would come next.”
And Mountain’s children show the signs of pact, the vow’s markings on their back. The Goblins had gone into the depths first and there they’d bargained for what they were worth; Mountain’s children would not interfere and the others were angry to cover their fear.
The Slaugh wailed in their quiet way and turned their magic to saving the day, but they had more and more to dread as the Goblin price promised bloodshed. They could not scream above a whisper when Goblins came from yon and hither and they could not slip from Goblin eyes, whose irises saw through illusions and lies. The shadows could not offer safety but still they thought their secrets may be the way for them to stave off death and rob the Goblins of their breath.
Down in the darkest places they gathered, the coven using fell magics to shatter the will the Goblins had finally found and drive their hopes into the ground, but they never saw the flashing knives that slit their throats and took their lives. Maricurius stood among the dead and demanded that the Slaugh be led – that he would take them under his protection or kill them all for their provocation. And so the Goblin promise accepted, written in flesh and now protected.
“Finally,” said Falciamar of the Dearg Capini, “we have a target in the Undercity.” She led her people against the Slaugh’s kin and with ragged knives they opened skin, bathed in blood and wore their guts and fed their rage fueled by bloodlust, but Maricurius was as good as his word and came to the aid of those put to the sword. Goblins appeared around the Dearg Capini and slaughtered war’s children without pity.
“No, no, step out of where you strike and are hidden,” Falciamar demanded the Goblins be bidden. “Fight fair as I demand and come fight me now, there is no other outcome that I’ll allow!”
Yet the world was silent except for the killing, and the Dearg Capini found their courage slipping. The war was fought with savage pride and they that were mighty were barely alive. When Falciamar next demanded a duel for pact, Maricurius stepped out from where he’d been hidden at last.
“I accept your duel and here are the stakes – if I win then your people must hold and wait until I am dead or until I am gone, your people will slumber, your violence withdrawn.”
“Yes and alright, I accept your terms,” Falciamar said and was about to learn. She drew her sword and washed blood in her hair and so came fighting awake and aware, but Maricurius could not be seen and how does violence fight a dream? He cut her down over hours and hours, slicing her flesh and her fury devoured, but it was not until he threatened to her dismember that she accepted the terms of surrender.
She would face exile into nightmares and screams, her madness haunting sleeping seams – for so long as he ruled and drew breath she would not inflict any more death. Non-interference was the invocation that was demanded by the Goblin nation and Falciamar’s sole choice was to accept and so was driven without recompense.
And now Maricurius came to the eaters of death to discuss the matters of shibboleth. Their leader was a creature who’d learned to think ahead, sometimes taking those who were not quite dead and letting them stay chained and crude until his people needed them for food. Had Maricurius anything to offer they could not take, with patience and jaws and the promise of fate?
“Yes, I have, an offer you’d like,” Maricurius said, putting down his knife. “Bodies to be brought to you should you keep to yourselves, a zero-risk investment of your only wealth. And if you listen to what else I have planned there is no door from which you will be banned.” Curious, the death eaters listened to the plan and took Maricurius by the hand, agreeing to his idea and his terms and fading from sight not to return.
But of the dangers there was one more – the madness called the Lord of Doors.
Maricurius was going to see the wall that had inspired him to change the all, but that meant passing through the frame and that was when I took his name; your narrator was splintered on ancient moors, called Fhioscath to some and the Lord of Doors, and there was none that could stay my hand and my attention turns clay to sand.
He stepped from one place to another and was robbed of all his brothers, all he’d done and all he’d built taken as a sign of guilt. I surrounded him and him alone and kept him from his deserved throne, peering long into his mind and so all he’d hidden I would find – the eyes are doorways to the soul and thought a place where I might stroll.
I stepped inside all Maricurius could ever be and what I found set neither of us at ease – my wanderings had driven others insane but he just stood and learned my name. We walked through all his memories and came to know accessories; he would kill and he would in blood bathe to make a world he felt worthy to save and through his will this is what he’d done, a feat dreamed but never done.
How could I stand in the way of this? I anointed him with my kiss and brought him to the blackened wall where we saw his name would never fall; I promised that I would sleep so long as his will defined the deep. He was lord and he had risen, breaking what had been a cultural prison and from the grime and gore and gritty become the Goblin King of the Undercity.

Read article

293

Fiction – World of Mercedes Ketch – From the Wheel

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 16, 2017

Keira stared at the hourglass shaped board in front of her, considering her options. She’d used a Surcess Opening, had been surprised when her opponent had not followed suit – she had thought he was planning something she might not expect but had found his subsequent moves efficient but easy to predict. It was a dangerous weakness to expose in a place such as this.

They were playing in the living room of an apartment in the eastern part of the Sengri Academy. She was Keira Turn, a recognized genius with dangerous friends. He was Lucio Amadus, the younger of twins, and it was his sister that had set this appointment in an effort to socialize her brother. Keira hadn’t liked the sister but had done her the favor anyway, mostly to sate her own curiosity.

Kinguim children were typically raised by their parents or by their parent’s servants, taught the rudiments of the world and left to discover what they wanted to on their own before coming to one of the six Academies at the age of nine. There, her people learned to harness the divinity in their blood and learn what it was to be the Get of Kingu.

One of the first things they learned was that there was no law against murder, either among the adult Kinguim or among their children here at this school. Within the first week, they were marched over to the Trypper’s Tower, where a withered old man named Pitch taught them that their souls would always return to bodies with Kinguim blood. He even showed them a method to see this happen, so there could be no doubt.

Keira had trembled, helpless to do anything but watch as Pitch slit the throat of two grown men from the outside world. They had been collected for just this purpose: the Adama had been screaming for mercy, but the Kinguim had smiled at the assembled children, had waved at them before Pitch killed him.

It wasn’t the first time Keira had seen someone die and it wouldn’t be the last. She’d likely see the exercise repeated that afternoon. It was just that she’d never seen someone willingly go to the slaughter like that.

Pitch showed them how to watch, to trick their eyes into seeing the soul of a thing. Five hundred children had gasped when the weak soul of the Adama fell apart and drifted away like flotsam on an ocean tide, but the soul of the Kinguim began to glow sapphire blue, sinking into a shimmering net to await a body to inhabit.

She’d been there when Lucia and Lucio Amadus had been exposed to this horror and neither of them had flinched. She wondered how Carmen would react, her finger tracing a path along the edge of the table upon which the board was set as she tried to distract herself from the time and studied her opponent and his consideration.

There was a piece in this game that could only eliminate other pieces. It was a useful piece but it was unable to touch the me, and thus unable to affect the single means by which the highest amount of points that could be collected. It was meant to show that murder was useful but ultimately wasteful. She could reach over the snap his neck and no one would punish her. The sister would be mad, but Keira could kill her, too. She knew that would make her enemies, make people wary of her, and that she would die at the hands of the Amadus line. Instead, she studied his slight frown, his narrowed eyes.

He was cute and of West African descent, younger than her but brilliant, younger than the person she was waiting for, his fingers thrumming a gentle constant rhythm that mirrored his decisions. She had offered to put on some kind of music but he’d asked her not to, favoring the soft percussion of his fingers. She might have found it annoying had his talent for music not far exceeded his talent for Rafael.

“It’s five minutes since the last time you checked,” Lucio said, not looking up from the board. She bit her lip, took a deep breath.

“There’s someone coming today,” Keira said, watching his fingers keep their steady pattern. She was eleven years old and he was eight but very bright, and the girl coming today would be all of nine. “Someone I’m looking forward to seeing very much.

“A sister?” Lucio asked, looking up, a flicker of interest passing through his features.

“My sister is older than I am,” Keira answered. He nodded sympathy; Lucia was, Keira had been given to understand, thirty-six minutes older than Lucio. Their parents had not been expecting twins. Keira knew this because she was inquisitive and liked to know things about the people she was going to have to deal with and she expected Lucio to ask her questions about her sister or the person coming.

He didn’t.

Sitting, silent, he stared at the board and considered his next move. She could understand why the parents Amadus had sent their kids to the Academy so early. Lucia was gifted at getting people to do what she wanted, so much so that Keira now sat here playing Rafael with this strange boy. Lucio himself was a gifted mathematician and she could see how that played into his decisions even upon the hourglass between them.

Both twins liked music and languages. Lucia wielded all three like weapons. Lucio seemed to love them for their own sake, but there was an alienness to their gifts that frightened some of the other Kinguim. Keira was not so afraid; she, too, had talents that set her apart even from those with divinity in their blood, and while she did not like Lucia she felt a strange kinship for Lucio, a kinship the parents of these twins had not felt.

Lucia had told her all about it. For his part, Lucio seemed glad to be rid and distant from them.

For his part, Lucio seemed glad to be rid and distant from them.

He made a move. She countered. He frowned, staring at the board, moved again. She boxed him in. The two of them were still experimenting with the nuances of the game, both getting a feel for what the game said about themselves and one another. She offered Lucio’s scowl a shy smile, moved another piece.

She was thinking of trying the sport later that year, trying her hand at joining one of the wings that represented the school. There was power that came with being a celebrity but there was risk in becoming a public figure and she wasn’t sure yet how to balance the two. She wasn’t even sure what position she would try out for – a searcher, maybe?

Biting her lip, she checked the time again.

“Six minutes,” he muttered, staring at the board, frustration beat out in the gentle pounding of his fingers. He looked up at the ceiling, never once meeting her eyes, the hand not drumming on the table running through a complex pattern that she realized were all the moves he’d made so far. “I’d say your mind is elsewhere, but…”

“I’ve got a head for games.”

“Ya-huh.”

He moved again and this time she started eliminating his pieces, removing them from the board as she made her way towards his me. He struggled, but she could see his patterns now and was able to counter them – she wondered what he’d be like in a full game, but they had agreed on single rounds today, feeling one another out, getting to know one another and the game itself.

“My plan should have worked,” he said, once all his pieces were gone.

“You’re looking for perfect games,” Keira responded, “and you’re looking at the most amount of direct movement. You’re playing like a mathematician.”

“Aren’t you?”

“No.”

“She’s looking to win.” Keira had a small apartment all to herself and she had made only two spare keys. One dangled on her chest, safely kept in waiting. The other belonged to the newcomer, a boy she’d known since childhood. His name was Christian Kennedy.

He was a tall boy, skim, filling out nicely as puberty set in. He wore his hair long, white pants and gray shirt, eyes gray and cold and patient, snake eyes, the sort of eyes that should have been a warning. He moved like he owned the world, opening her fridge and grabbing a drink, looking over at the hourglass as Lucio reset the pieces.

“You weren’t even here,” Lucio muttered. “How could you know that?”

“Because I know the two of you,” Christian answered. He grabbed some glasses from Keira’s cabinet, poured another couple drinks for Keira and her guest, all the time acting as if it were his home that they were in and not hers. He looked at Keira as he offered her the drink, giving her a smile that was anything but shy as he nodded towards the board. “Do the thing you do.”

She kept her face neutral as she turned to the board, silently asking permission from Lucio. He hesitated for only a moment, but his love of language extended to the silent words of stance and breath and he moved back, nodding.

Christian saying do the thing you do was a code; he was uncertain how to pronounce the word eidetic and probably couldn’t spell it, either, but he knew that Keira’s memory was exactly that and loved to take advantage of such. She went through the game they had just played, move for move, Christian studying the changing hourglass until the game she and Lucio had just played reached the ending.

“It’s weakness,” Christian laughed, sitting down on a chair between the two of them as he leaned in close to Lucio, careful not to touch him. “You think you’re playing with set equations, but the game is algebra.”

“Algebra?” Lucio frowned.

“You know what you wanna do and you know you want to win,” Christian explained, leaning back with a pleased smile. Tonelessly, tunelessly, he began to tap his feet on the floor. “What you don’t know is what she’s going to do, but you think you do and so you’re playing a game that suits what you think instead of what is. Solve for x.”

“I don’t understand.” Lucio actually looked him in the eye. “Isn’t that what we all do?”

“No,” Christian shrugged. “Everyone plays this game differently. I’ve only seen you do that, which isn’t good or bad, but it’s your perfection that kills you. Anything that’s perfect is perfect for a single moment in time. Then it stops and becomes imperfect. Like, what were their names?”

“The Verenes.”

“Them,” Christian nodded, thanking her for remembering the object lesson when it came to failing despite the divinity of Kingu’s blood. “Don’t assume you know what another person is going to do, or what their game is. And don’t have any set game yourself. It’s easier to break a rock than it is to break water.”

“I don’t understand,” Lucio repeated. Christian turned to Keira, frowning, wondering if he was explaining this wrong. Now it was her turn to shrug, she moving and letting the other boy take her seat.

“Okay, tell you what… we’re gonna play a game, and then I’m going to walk you through why I’m doing what I’m doing and you’ll do the same, okay? Or you can just ask questions. Whatever you’re cool with.”

“You said okay twice.” Lucio’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the hourglass “You’re up to something.”

“Yes, but nothing malicious.” Christian smiled, making a steeple of his fingers and looking past them at the small genius sitting across from him. “Trust me.”

They started playing. Christian began explaining his actions at first, but quickly let those explanations slip when it became obvious that Lucio was not paying attention to them. Keira watched for a few more minutes as Christian began breaking his wing down, taking control of the board and smothering anything that Lucio tried.

“Do you even have a plan?” Lucio asked, frowning at the board and trembling.

“No,” Keira answered, Christian grinning and silent. “I reacted to your moves and forced you into circumstances that worked for me. He’s looking for weaknesses in your moves and then crumbling the support you’re using. You’re ignoring us both in favor of claiming the me.”

“Start trying to solve for x,” Christian added, resting his hands behind his head. “Don’t forget that your opponent is part of the equation, so you need to know your opponent to win. I like to think of it as turning numbers into fractions and breaking them down. That make sense, genius?”

“No.” Lucio actually growled.

“Well, we’ll let you think on it,” Christian said, standing up. He offered Keira a hand, smiling. She didn’t take it, and that just made him smile more. “C’mon, she’s nearly here.”

“Lucio…” Keira began, standing, but Christian cut her off.

“Let him stay and study the board,” he said. “We’ll be gone, what, an hour? Two?”

“Fine,” Keira muttered, not happy about leaving the strange boy in her home unattended.

“It’ll be fine,” Christian said. “Don’t burn the place down or anything.”

“I won’t,” Lucio said, his voice serious and his eyes not leaving the board. “Thank you.”

Keira thought about saying something, but bit her tongue and grabbed her jacket and sword, following Christian as he buckled his blade around his hips and stepped out the door before cursing herself, hurrying up to stand beside him instead. If I follow him, it looks like he’s in charge, she thought, if I stand in front of him, I’m exposing my back. Neither option was good; the best option was to stand beside him and hope for the best.

She didn’t lock her door, and her keys felt heavy in her pocket the further she moved away. She risked a glance back and Christian noticed, chuckling softly to himself.

“You really think he’s a risk?” Christian asked. “I mean, his sister maybe, but him?”

“I notice you’re in no hurry to leave people alone in your home,” Keira said, pleased with the primness in her tone.

“If it were him, I might,” Christian replied, shrugging. “Besides, we’ll know if he did anything.” Keira stared at him, the two of them continuing to walk.

“Did you leave bugs in my home?”

“No more than usual,” Christian grinned. That’s not a good answer, she thought. “No more than you have bugs in mine. And if he bugs your home, well, that tells us something about him and his sister.”

“And you’re willing for me to take that risk on your behalf?”

“No, no at all,” Christian said. “You have better self-control than I do, so if they do bug your home – and it would be the sister, not the brother, that would do that – you’re the one more suited to feeding them false information.”

“It’s still a risk.”

“Certainly,” Christian laughed. “But save the conversation – it’ll be a good introduction for our good friend, maybe help instill a healthy paranoia.”

“As if Pitch’s welcoming display won’t do that.”

“There’s a difference between a healthy paranoia and fear.”

“Fear? You?” Keira scoffed, kicking at a stray rock and watching it bounce ahead of them. “You’re staying behind to help check the place.”

“I’ll even grab dinner,” Christian nodded, agreeing. “Besides, it’ll be good to catch up with Carm and see where her head is at.”

They walked in silence for a time, watching the alleys and side streets, but no one seemed to be paying them any serious attention.

“You really think you’ll learn anything?” Keira asked.

“Not really, but it’s the thought that counts.” Christian slipped his hands into his pockets, a sign that he thought they were in no danger. “Besides, neither of us are that important, not yet.”

“Your brother runs the Academy.” Keira kept vigilant, her eyes on the people around them, a greater number of them heading south to greet the newcomers. “And your brother knows you, knows what you’re capable of.”

“Yes, well, I know him, too,” Christian shrugged. “Can you believe he’s not in charge? The Halkett Bloc. Pah. Have you ever even heard Jay speak? All he does is shoot things and look intimidating and wave that empty gun of his around.”

“I saw him shoot someone once,” Keira said, shuddering. She remembered the crack of the pistol, the way the teacher had fallen twitching to the floor.

“Let me guess,” Christian muttered. “No bullet was found, the wound was worse than it should have been?”

Keira nodded.

“Yeah,” Christian sighed, looking around. “Jay shoots entropy. Not sure if that’s something he inherited from his father or a gift of Kingu.”

“He’s not of the Old Blood.”

“It’s not just the Old Blood that sometimes have Kingu’s gifts,” Christian said. “And there’s other powers, like whatever Pitch is. Or Ashley.”

“I’m not scared of the elf,” Keira growled, fingers tightening around the hilt of her rapier. “Our people already conquered his. His being here is proof of that.”

“Right,” Christian smirked. “Nothing to worry about, then. And as for my brother, well, he’s got other things to worry about right now and I’m not exactly rattling a saber in his direction. He’ll leave me alone right now. Priorities and all that.”

They continued to walk south in silence, covering one another’s blind spots, keeping one another safe as the crowd got larger. There were maybe a few hundred people around them now and they kept towards the back of the platform where the Aswasi’atar would come, their backs to pillars in a small and defensible alcove.

Both of them knew that the chances of being attacked here were small. There were traditions that spoke against violence around the Aswasi’atar and there were eroseeqhi – Kinguim sorcerers – whose duty included the enforcing of those traditions. Challenging a sorcerer in his home was not a good idea, and breaking a tradition without good cause was a good way to draw all sorts of bad attention.

None of that made that tradition a law, though, and there were those that would risk anything to get what they wanted.

“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” Christian asked. “A year?”

“You’ve been here as long as I have,” Keira said, shuffling and nervous, staring at the place the Aswasi’atar would come to. The eroseeqhi had already gathered, drawing their etchings on the ground, lighting candles and incense to keep the ground holy.

“Your memory is better than mine.”

“What? Yes. A year. It’s been a year.”

“Nine-year-old Carmen Rosencratz,” Christian said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the pillar. “This should be interesting.”

Keira wasn’t sure what to say to that and so said nothing. There was a smugness to her ally that she often found grating, and this was one of those times. She wanted to hit him but swallowed the bile in her throat and the rustling in her belly – they needed one another, their alliance a mutually beneficial one that had worked out well since they had been children.

Purple-pink mist began to swelter out of the aether on the platform and an excited muttering began to waft through the crowd. The massive and shining black scales of the Aswasi’atar began to solidify out of nothing, the creature pulled out of the soul of the planet and made real. The eroseeqhi approached the creature as it faded from dream to flesh, using hand signs and words that crawled along the skin like spiders, lifting scales the size of cars up and open and revealing the people within.

A gaggle of nine-year-olds spilled out of the creature that had brought them here, brushing past the Aswasi’atar. Some returning students, older than the others, also made their way out – they all looked much more certain, pushing past the assembled children without paying them any heed.

Keira scanned the mass, looking for any sign of the girl that was more precious to her than anything else in the world, but all the kids were dressed in shades of purple and few of them carried anything from the world outside. Their parents would have warned them about standing out in the early days, Keira knew – her parents had done the same. It was important to be invisible until you had some place to retreat to once those you never wanted to notice you, did.

“Do you think you’ll spot her with that thing you do?” Christian asked. Keira grit her teeth and ignored him; he knew full well that wasn’t how an eidetic memory worked but he also liked to tease out the weaknesses of others and she wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction.

Instead, she kept silent and continued to scan the crowd, in this instance no more skilled than anyone else might be when looking for someone important to them. She knew Carmen had always been on the small side, the slight side, and a small slight pretty girl coming alone to a place like this was a scary thing.

When she’d come here she and Christian had one another, had watched one another’s backs and had gotten themselves to the point where they were reasonably secure. The Amadus twins had come with one another and though their age had drawn interest, Lucia had been able to strike deals with people on the way in, deals that had served her well.

There’s an ambitious creature, Keira thought, smiling. I wonder what Carm will think of her…?

Most children coming to the Academy would have at least one ally, but Carmen’s difficulties kept her isolated mostly. The only people that she’d ever relied on that were her own age were Keira and Christian, and that was why Keira felt it important to be here and now and why Christian had come with her.

Carmen was all alone.

The crowd was noisy and nervous and a little scared. The eroseeqhi directed the kids away from the Aswasi’atar and the new arrivals would have had a chance to look over their pamphlets and maps and make their way to their new homes. Their parents and the pamphlets would have warned them to make alliances with others on the Aswasi’atar, to map a route to where they’d be living, to waste as little time as possible getting to the place they were supposed to be: Pitch’s people would be along in the morning to walk them through breakfast before taking them to the Trypper’s Tower to give them the same demonstration that still haunted Keira and had frightened Christian.

Better that, though, than some of the other horrors the Academy could offer. Custom kept people from attacking and nabbing the kids and the eroseeqhi would deal with violent offenders, but they could not be everywhere. Thomas Kiker, the person currently in charge of the slave pens, had some of his people here pretending to offer guidance to children that looked scared or lost. Keira could pick them out of the crowd easily enough, their smiling faces and gentle motions, the lies they spun to get kids to walk into the charnel house that Kiker called home.

She looked at the small groupings of frightened children that gathered around those faces, breathed a sigh of relief that she did not spy Carmen’s face among their number. She felt bad for that relief, though, and thought about saying something, doing something. There was a small girl with a cane who moved with halted half-steps, and the look on her face – the smile that curved her lips – was the saddest thing that Keira had ever seen, gratitude given to a slaver.

“Don’t,” Christian whispered, his hand brushing her shoulder. “They didn’t notice. We’re fine. There’s nothing we can do about it now.” She realized her hand had tightened around the hilt of her sword and she took a deep breath, slowly relaxing her fingers.

She realized her hand had tightened around the hilt of her sword and she took a deep breath, slowly relaxing her fingers.

A tug on her sleeve nearly made her jump out of her skin.

She turned, ready to draw her sword, a battle-cry dying on her lips as she took note of the person who now stood beside her, looking up at her.

“Keira?” asked Carmen, purple eyes wide. Her hair was a deep rust and she’d added a crimson streak to it, but she looked as good as ever had, looked better than she had in the dreams Keira told no one about.

“Carmen.” There was more warmth and wet in that single word than she’d meant to let out but in that moment she forgave herself. She let go of the sword, sweeping the small and slight frame into her arms, holding her, soaking in her scent. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“I found you,” Carmen whispered, her fingers playing along Keira’s spine, her shoulders.

“Hey, I’m here, too,” Christian said. Keira let her friend go, let the two of them embrace as she took point, watching the milling crowd and some of the other people her own age who were watching with interest. She met their eyes, stared them down.

“We should leave,” Keira said. There was a milling group of five girls standing there, looking at them, girls that Keira didn’t recognize. Carmen let go of Christian.

“How do you always find us?” Christian grinned, ruffling Carmen’s hair as if she were a pet. It bothered Keira, the way Carmen pushed up into the ruffling.

Carmen had always been intuitive, always found her way around in the dark, always managed to catch up to people even when anyone else might have been lost. Her parents said it had something to do with her difficulties, but there was no sign of that in her eyes or stance right now and Keira had learned what to look for over long hours – a shadow in her eyes or a cruel twist to her lips or twitching fingers. Right now she was simply Carmen and that was all that mattered.

“I made some allies on the Aswasi’atar,” Carmen said, motioning at the five girls that were staring at them, looking nervous and fidgeting, keeping a polite distance from their small troika. Behind them, the eroseeqhi were preparing to send the Aswasi’atar on its way.

“Allies, eh?” Christian said, studying them with interest.

“I’m Keira,” Keira said, releasing her sword and stepping forward, keeping her tone polite and letting a little of the gratitude she felt slip in. “This is Christian. Who’re you?”

“My name is Michelle,” one of the girls said, pushing in front. She was pretty – some mix of European bloodlines, with an echo of the arrogance that Keira had come to associate with the Old Blood. “This is my bloc – Darcy, Jackie, Robin, and Helena.”

Keira smiled at the hubris of the statement; strong alliances at the Academy were called blocs: six individuals who tied their fates to one another, working to keep one another safe and further the interests of the group. Most people waited a year or two before committing to a bloc, if they ever did; she and Christian had been here almost two years now and the only close alliances they had made were with one another.

“You’re one shy of a bloc,” Christian noted, slipping his hands into his pockets and leaning back against the pillar, his eyes lazy and head tilted back.

He’s measuring them, Keira thought, looking for weakness.

“We make do,” the one named Jackie said, smiling. She had golden hair and a pretty face and stepped up with an easy familiarity. She was used to this, trained for this, and even at nine years old she was good at it. She drew attention like light attracting moths, but Keira had seen people more practiced at it than her and was able to turn away, to notice the way the small girl named Robin was staring at them, studying them with an intensity that mirrored Christian’s.

“It’s okay, guys,” Carmen said, but she had always been a little naive, a little confused, a failing inflicted on her by her unique circumstances.

“Your bloc,” Christian said, a lazy smile spreading across his lips without touching his eyes. He shook his head. “You just got here and you’re already talking blocs. You have any alliances? Know anyone else here worth knowing?”

“We have each other,” Michelle said, one hand on her hip, the other dangling uselessly by her side. “And we’re open to new faces.”

“There was someone on the Aswasi’atar that was following me,” Carmen said, tugging on Keira’s sleeve. “People my age, but they wanted… I had a feeling about them. When I ran I met these girls and they took me into their link.”

“You have a private link?” Keira asked, suspicious. “A whole link to yourselves?” That took a serious amount of wealth and pull, pacts with the eroseeqhi that were beyond the ability of even most Kinguim to grant. The sort of people that had their own links on the Aswasi’atar were dangerous and more than capable of setting up circumstances to fool poor slight girls who would already be nervous about coming here.

She thought about the people that had that sort of pull, the names of the Old Blood families cycling through her head. She didn’t know these girls, didn’t remember anyone of import named Michelle, didn’t know why someone just arrived would command the pull she clearly had on the other four girls.

“People that come here with a bloc in mind aren’t opening themselves up to new experiences,” Christian drawled, his tone keeping attention on him; she knew he was drawing their ire on purpose, letting her feel them out.

“We’re open to alliances,” Jackie said, her voice polite.

“What bloc are you?” Christian asked. “What title have you given yourselves?”

Michelle and Carmen both looked about to answer, but Keira realized who they were and beat them to the revelation, speaking the name out loud.

“Verene,” Keira said, staring, spitting the name as she spoke it. “These are the Verenes.”

“The Verenes?” Christian sneered and shook his head. “Kingu’s greatest failures? I didn’t realize there were any left.”

“Just us,” Michelle answered, but her eyes had narrowed, her shoulders tensing. “We make do.”

“Carmen, get behind me,” Keira demanded, holding up an arm protectively, her other hand going for her sword. One of the girls, bigger than the rest – Helena – stepped in front of the others. “It’s okay. Thank you for your service. You can go now.”

“Oh, by your leave,” the small girl, Robin, said. Her voice was mocking, her exaggerated bow an insult.

Keira paid it back with the exact amount of vitriol that motion deserved.

“Fuck you,” she said. The small girl looked like she might try something but Michelle put a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head when Robin looked back at her. Robin muttered something, shaking, as Michelle pulled her people back, eyes never leaving them as they moved away and into the crowd and were gone.

“Why,” asked Carmen, licking her lips, “why did you do that?”

“She wouldn’t have been good for you,” Keira said, taking her hand off her blade and looking at her friend, hoping that she could make the other girl understand. “Do you know the Verenes? Who they are? What they did?”

“No, but I know she kept me safe,” answered Carmen, hugging herself.

“It’s okay.” Keira brought her closer, held her, thrilled a little to feel Carmen’s small arms wrapping around her, hugging her back.

“I don’t understand,” murmured Carmen. Keira could feel her tears through the shirt she wore.

“We’ll bring you up to speed,” Christian sighed. He pointed with his eyes and Keira followed his gaze, noticing that Kiker’s people had taken a casual interest in them. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We’ll talk once we get back to my place.”

Read article

343

Fiction: Eyes Like Boxes, Mind Like Fire

Books & Writing, Culture

June 15, 2017

The boat was old, something they’d dug up from the mid-forties that looked more like a battleship than a commercial vessel, all sharp lines and doorways with wheels instead of handles. I squinted across the gangplank towards the party boat we’d rented for the weekend, my dreams of a picture-perfect first kegger party dashed.

“Where did Jason find this thing?” I asked my boyfriend, Justin. “It looks like a submarine fucked a sailboat.”

“I like it,” he said, wrapping his arm around my waist. “It’s bad ass. We don’t have to worry about breaking shit.” He grinned at Jason, who was in the process of exploring, opening doors and climbing up railings to look at the above deck. “Besides, we didn’t have to pay much for it, which means we have more money for beer.”

On cue, the rest of our party showed up: two teenage girls with a keg of beer between them, gasping from the weight.

“Hey Twins,” Jason called from his perch on one of the railings, his feet dangling over the water.

“Hey yah,” they said in unison, their voices strained under the weight of the keg. They set it down and studied the boat in front of them. They weren’t really twins; Puck was a year older than Pan, and they looked different enough that the non-familial connection was obvious. Ever since grade school, they’d been inseparable, though, and thus the nickname.

Jason ran off the boat and helped Justin take the keg from the women; “All aboard who’s going aboard. Welcome to your home for the weekend.” They walked up the plank, the dock bobbing under the weight of them and the keg.

“This looks safe,” Puck said as she joined me next to the boat.

“Safe like broken bottle,” said Pan. She hugged me before carefully walking across the black water below and onto the deck.

Puck followed her other half and left me alone on the dock. I looked over the side of the bobbing wood below me and into the inky black. I really didn’t like the look of any of this; it was all so different in my head. Nothing like how I’d been fantasizing all through school last week. I stepped onto the gangplank and started up to get ready for our gathering.

The walls were coated in faint scratches near the bottom and icy cold, the metal of the place quickly shedding what heat it had gained before the sun set an hour earlier. The upper deck had the wheelhouse, two bathrooms, a few sleeping quarters, and an extra room that was empty, probably for meetings. The bottom deck was a twisting maze of halls with a few more bathrooms and a galley that had a table perfect for our partying needs.

Justin already had the keg set up with a row of red plastic cups waiting to be filled ringed around it. I went to the cooler we’d brought along and began to help dishing out the food. Cupcakes, sandwiches, a few cliche party hats, and one big bowl of candy were soon spread out on the metal table.

As I unwrapped a Lemon Head and popped it in my mouth, I noticed Puck staring at something on the ceiling. There was a hole, the inside made of a of stained and slick looking synthetic cloth. I went to stand by Puck and examine it further.

“And more weird shit,” I said. “What do you think it is?”

“A garbage chute maybe? I don’t remember seeing anything upstairs though.”

Someone slipped their hands around me from behind and I smelled Justin’s cologne. He tightened his hug and nibbled on my ear. “What’s up, pup?”

My breath quickened. “Nothing. Just something weird Puck found.”

“Then come and have a drink with me.” He took my hands in his and led me to the drinks, giving me one of the red cups. I drank from it, the bubbly liquid making me blanch with its bitter taste. I kept drinking as Justin and I sat together on the floor, my head resting on his shoulder.

Across the room Puck and Pan were doing the same, the weird hole forgotten with drink and cuddling. Jason was eating a sandwich and watching an episode of some show on his tablet. I pressed myself into Justin and kissed his jaw before taking another sip of beer.

Sudden music came from Jason’s tablet, something by The Killers that was calm and frantic at the same time. He grinned as the Twins got up and began swaying to the music. I set my beer aside and stood, grabbing Justin’s hand and dragging him to his feet.

We danced, all of us together. Jason danced by himself, using the cheesiest moves he could think of. Puck and Pan, with fits of giggles, swayed next to each other in a way I was sure I’d seen in a cartoon when I was a kid. Justin and I took each other by the hand and started a fast paced waltz, his hand drifting slowly down as mine stayed on his shoulder.

The Killers gave way to the Gorillaz and the Gorillaz gave way to a techno song I’d never heard. Between the dancing, the eating, and the making out, we spent a few hours in bliss. My head felt heavy as I watched Puck kissing Pan, my face half pressed into Justin’s leather coat. Jason was on the table, lost in his own world as he continuously danced the grocery basket.

I smiled into my boyfriend’s chest and breathed deeply of his sweat-tinged cologne. I felt my way under his jacket to slide my hand along his stomach. Perfect night, perfect smell, perfect friends. I was glad Jason had found this place, glad for the music and the frothy liquid in my stomach. I leaned up to kiss Justin’s lips and let this perfect moment be even better.

A squealing came from the door at the far side of the room and over the music, I could hear the clunk of the lock falling into place. Jason stopped the song with a tap on his tablet and jumped off the table to inspect the only door out of this room.

“What the fuck?” Justin said.

“The door done locked us in, pard,” Jason said as he twisted the wheel inlayed in the door as hard as he could.

“Well shit,” I said.

“Is there another way out?” Pan asked.

Justin stood up and went to help Jason open the door as I went to look for another way out.

“Well, there’s the hole,” Puck wandered over to her discovery and stared up at it. “It’s got to lead to somewhere.”.

Justin and Jason walked over to the Twins and me, sweaty from the exertion of trying to pry open the door. We all stared at the hole above us, the opening looking yonic and wet.

“Who’s going first?”Jason asked

“Fuck that noise.” Justin hit Jason in the arm.

“I’ll go,” I said.

Justin boosted me up; his strong hands felt good and warm. I touched the cloth with my fingers and was surprised to find it was silky and dry. I grabbed a fistful of the lining and heaved myself into the blackness above.

The darkness pressed against me as I climbed, the cloak of cloth sliding against me and reminding me of the soft skin of my grandmother. The fistfuls of cloth made it easier than I expected and within a few seconds, I’d made it to another opening. Blue light met me as I climbed out onto the deck above.

Something was wrong with the light, the way it shone off the walls and the shadows it made. I stepped from the hole, my arms tired from the strength I had to use to ascend. I looked around for what was making that strange blue light and came up empty.

“You okay?” Justin called from below, his voice muffled and far away.

“I’m fine. You keep trying the door, I’ll look for a way out.”

I looked around the room I was in, really taking it in for the first time. It was like the rest of the ship, all steel and devoid of anything comfortable. Beside the entrance, I’d come from was an old-looking sledgehammer and a panel that would just fit over the hole, with a box of bolts beside it. Across the room was a door, the same as the others but slightly ajar.

“I found something,” I called down to my friends. “I’ll be right back.”

I stepped toward the open door, the blue glow strengthening as I fully opened the door. Outside was a hallway that stretched out in both directions, the glow coming from the walls. The steel of the ship had turned wrong, the rivets holding it together placed at random. I felt cold; the warmth from Justin’s hands still lingered on my hips and made the chill of the hallway more noticeable.

“Hello?” I called. Something answered, its whimpering carrying softly down the hallway from my left. I shivered at the inhuman sound, and anxiety spread through my stomach. “Is someone there?” I asked as I crept towards the noise.

The hallway curved in front of me and within a minute the door I’d come from was lost behind blue steel. I dragged my fingers across the wall as I walked, the steady bump of rivets keeping my tipsy mind focused on the task at hand. In front of me the whimpers continued, and seemed to be getting closer.

I stopped my march. I’d lost track of how much time had passed since I started but it didn’t seem possible for this hallway to fit in the boat I’d seen at the beginning of the night. Drunk or not, this didn’t feel like a good place to be. I had to find a way out fast.

The wolf stepped from behind the curve in front of me. Fire dripped from its lips as drool, spilling onto the floor to settle between its huge paws. It growled and moved closer as I froze in fear; a small gasp escaped my throat. I stared into its eyes, pupils square and black, as it tilted its head to let out a howl.

The howl was returned. From all around me the sounds of a wolfpack rebounded and turned my knees into jelly. From behind the wolf came a pack, each one as otherworldly as the one in front of me. They growled and I turned to run.

My heart thudded in my ears as I ran the way I came, the wolves close behind. I could hear their great paws thudding on the steel, echoing my footsteps. My leg muscles began to seize up as the dancing and drink of the night caught up to me. My vision started to blur, just as I saw the doorway peek out from behind the curve ahead.

Teeth clamped into my thigh and I fell. Pain spread from the bite, cold fire and needles. I kicked out with my good foot and felt the soft impact as the wolf let go. I was only a few feet from the doorway and — if I could get it closed — safety.

I pushed myself up, my leg screaming, and bolted through the doorway. I tried slamming the heavy metal shut behind me but it refused to close, the metal warped. I dragged over the box of rivets and braced the door as the wolves slammed into it. It wouldn’t hold for long.

“Tessa! Are you okay?” Puck called from below. They were still trapped down there, waiting for me to come back with news of a way out. Justin was still down there and if I ran the wolves would follow. I couldn’t let that happen.

I lifted the plate that I’d found earlier, the holes drilled in it matching up perfectly with holes ringing the yonic entrance I’d entered from. It slid into place and I put rivets into the holes; each one fit snug. I grabbed the sledgehammer and lifted it above my head, the wolves behind me growling.

The metal clanged as I brought the hammer down, slamming a rivet into place. Slam, clang. Another one home as the door creaked and began to move. Slam, clang. The door burst open, the box of rivets spilled out and across the metal floor. Slam, clang. The final rivet hit home as the wolves hit me in the back and knocked the hammer out of my grasp. I screamed as the wolves fell on me, their hot breath stinking of rotten eggs and grass. I began to cry as I waited for them to tear into my throat but instead I felt the soft touch of a tongue against my cheek. A wolf licked away my tears.

“Tess, come down! The door’s open and you’re scaring me,” Justin called from below. The wolves raised their heads and let out a singular howl.

==========


I stumbled on the graveled shoulder of the road. My injured leg burned and throbbed. The last thing I remembered was the wolves howling as tears streamed down my face and then I was walking down the road to my house. I could almost believe it was all a dream except the blood still caked on my pants.

The first rays of dawn stretched across the sky as the cul-de-sac where my house was, came into view, the street empty save for two figures walking along the shoulder. I recognized them and started running. It was Jason and Justin. I didn’t know how, but I was glad.

I screamed his name as I ran, ready to hug him, kiss him, press my face into that ridiculous leather jacket he always wore. As I put my arms around him from behind, they passed through him and I felt them touch. He stopped and turned, his eyes wide.

“Jason. Did you feel that?”

“What?” Jason turned and looked around for what was bothering his friend.

“I felt really cold all of a sudden, like, really cold,” Justin said.

“Must have been the wind. Either that or you’re still in shock.”

I deflated, all of the joy I had a moment ago drifting off and replaced by dread.

“Justin?” I tried to say, but all that came out were whimpers. I collapsed to my knees and stared into my boyfriend’s eyes as tears started flowing. Then there was pain, all through my body. I reached out to him, my fingers shimmering and morphing as they brushed his shirt. I screamed but all that came from my throat was a dog’s whine.

“Come to me,” said a voice, and the sky glowed with the blue light from the corridor. The wind picked up, swirling my hair around my face and biting into my bare shoulders. I screamed and my voice became a howl, others joining in all around me.

“The fuck man,” Jason said,” We should get inside fast. The cops will be here soon and we don’t want to get eaten by the some wolf before that.”

Justin stood, staring at me, looking through me. I tried to reach out for him again but my hands were useless now, my fingers turned to pads. I felt heat in my mouth and the aroma of rotten egg mixed with grass engulfed me. I looked into Justin’s eyes and my tears dried up.

I turned and ran, the voice still calling and my boyfriend still waiting for something to happen.

 

__________________________________________________________

Holly Sophia McCrea is a poet, artist, and short fiction writer from Vancouver BC. She’s been published in The Drabblecast audio fiction magazine and currently has a chapbook available on amazon.

Read article

191

Fiction: Dearly Beloved

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

Time passes here, though not always in step with the many worlds it touches, and even here there is change. Consider the proprietress, the young silver-haired woman all in white whose true nature is betrayed only by the small nub of shimmering ivory in the center of her forehead. She accepted the task when her predecessor tired of it, the latest in a line of innkeepers stretching back through time immemorial – the latest in a long line of beings who found so much solace in the World’s End that they chose to remain here for much of their lives, abandoning the worlds that birthed them. They had each their good reasons for doing so, each a past so riddled with sorrow or anger that ‘home’ lost all meaning.

The lands of the fey are very beautiful, as are many of the fey themselves. The lands of the fey are also deadly to the unwary, both in body and soul, as are many of the fey themselves. Even in lands of such magic and beauty, a unicorn is a rare thing indeed, and much hated by the darker fey for its purity of nature and its magical light. Most of them are for this reason shy and retiring, preferring to hide among the ever-present foliage in the Summer Queen’s Great Forest, but this one could not.

Dahlia Shining Sun named herself in traditional fashion for the flowers that grew around her birthing nest when she came of age, for unicorns are not born of unicorns, and no matter their good intentions, her sire and dam could never hope to understand their daughter. Dahlia was never by nature the sort of creature that could easily hide. She grew at first bored and soon deeply frustrated with the self-imposed exile, and craved friendship; more than that, she craved adoration.

And this is how she nearly lost her life.

To we outsiders, the fey seem capricious agents of mischief. And indeed they are, but within the chaos is a core of rigid order. All fey owe their unswerving fealty to either the Summer or Winter courts, to lofty Oberon and distant Titania, or to dreaded Cernunnos and mad Maebhe, and the main part of that fealty is war. The Summer and Winter courts have been at war for so long now that not even the Kings and Queens remember why, but it is a deadly and vicious war for all that.

Oberil Wheatwhistle was born to and was for many years a member in good standing of the Court of Titania and Oberon. Their orders were easy enough to fulfil until the focus of the War shifted to bring the fey of the Wheatwhistle lands into direct conflict. Oberil was and is a pacifist, claiming that choosing to harm another creature, even a vassal of the Winter Court, is the greatest sin there is.

Thrice did the Queen and King of Summer ask Wheatwhistle to take up arms for the Summer; thrice the refusal came. This was itself an honor beyond measure – not the order to battle, but the three times asking. The monarchs of the Fey brook no disobedience and have destroyed others on the spot for far smaller infractions. Oberil may have somehow been blood of their blood to receive such a favor, as well as the sentence passed: exile instead of death outright… though exile from the lands of Summer means only the realm of Winter, and death would still be the inevitable result.

In the Winter lands, the sun had not set thrice before the young elf noble encountered a disturbing sight. In a clearing were many lesser creatures of the Winter court, boggarts and redcaps and kobolds, trolls one and all, stood in a grand circle laughing and jeering. In the circle was the unicorn, battered and bloodied but unbowed; the creatures had found her in the Summer fields and lured her with promises of love and adoration to the Winter lands, where they began their terrible sport. Whichever way Dahlia faced, whichever way she tried to charge to end the torment and break free of her captors, the rocks and arrows and blades that harried and tortured her came always from behind; in front, she encountered instead pikes and torches that would drive her back to the center.

Oberil’s heart melted at once. Here was a better reason to take up arms than a thousand thousand years of politics. If protecting innocence was not a noble battle, nothing was. So the exile charged into the ranks of the trolls and scattered them to the four winds; they were no match for the singing blade of a full-blooded Summer Court warrior, exile or not.

This done, the elf went to render aid to the unicorn, but instead of gratitude was met with fury. Blinded with rage and terror, Dahlia charged her would-be savior, her horn cutting a furrow into Oberil’s side. Realizing she thought herself still under attack, Wheatwhistle ran; and when Dahlia gave chase, the young noble realized that after all this time in the dark lands, the only way to save the unicorn would be to lead her back to the light – despite the terms of exile imposed by the Summer Queen.

For three days and nights they ran, and whenever they met Dahlia inflicted another wound on Oberil before the elf evaded her and ran again. Oberil refused all this time to simply escape, leaving Dahlia still in the dark, until finally they burst into the Summer fields, where the noble collapsed.

Dahlia rushed in to destroy her quarry, believing this would free her once and for all, but at that moments the clouds parted and the shock of the bright Summer sun after all the darkness cleared her mind. The unicorn realized she was free, and it was her liberator she was about to kill. She fell to her knees instead and cried over the still form of the elf that risked everything to bring her back into the light.

They say unicorn tears can heal. Sometimes… they are right.

True love does not come at first sight, no matter what the stories say. But sometimes it is fated, and blossoms from even the harshest of beginnings. Oberil Wheatwhistle is an exile from two lands of the Fey that both promised an undeserved death, and finally found solace here beyond the end of the worlds. And Dahlia is here because there is nowhere else in all the worlds or beyond she would rather be than here, with the elf who proved more noble than Summer and Winter combined.

And she calls herself Dahlia Dearly Beloved now, because after all those years, she finally is.

Read article

391

Fiction: My Bad Dream

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

May 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

Among them, strangely even for this strange place, is a child. A girl of eight or nine in a nightdress, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed, the very picture of innocence. One might be worried in this place that she is somehow a trap, a monster hiding, but it is not so. Goldie really is a little girl, but she is a dreamer.

Goldie fell asleep one night. It was a strange falling asleep, but she remembers nothing more about it. Then the terrors began. Night after night, week after week. The teeth in the woods, the house of blood, the gray faces, each more terrible than the last, the nightmares haunted and tormented her. Even in sleep, there was no rest.

But time passed. It always does, even if it moves strangely beyond the veil of worlds. One can eventually get used to anything, and though Goldie really is a little girl, she had been a little girl now for a long, long time. One day, with the teeth snapping at her heels again, she tired of the chase. She sat under a gnarled, blackened tree, picked up one of the fallen branches, and waited.

The snarling and howling stopped the moment she sat, and in short order, intrigued, the nightmare appeared to her, taking the form of a tall, dapper man whose body seemed to be made of black fire.

Why do you not run? it said, the words being remembered without ever being spoken.

“I’m tired.” she replied.

But you are asleep, it said, For years now. How can you be tired?

“Not sleepy,” said she, “Tired. Tired of running. Why do you torment me?”

The nightmare paused. This was something it had never considered. How could it? Do fish wonder why they swim, or flames wonder why they burn?

Finally, it spoke, without speaking: I am your Nightmare, it said.

“Mine?” Goldie asked.

Yours and yours alone, it said, as long as need be.

The girl stood. “You… are mine? You belong to me?”

Confused, the nightmare nodded, for was that not what it said?

Years of darkness change anyone, even someone who really is a little girl, and there in the gloom and the dark Goldie smiled for the first time in years, and ran forward, embracing the burning man who did not really burn.

“You’re MINE!” she said. It was the first time she could remember that anyone or anything was truly hers, even from before the strange sleep began. And the Nightmare, for it was made of her dreams as much as her fears, to its surprise wrapped its burning but not burning arms around her and hugged her back.

This, gentle traveler, is how you may meet the dreamer who has been young for so long in the place beyond the end of the worlds. Beside her always is her traveling companion, her Nightmare, which brings her from dream to dream wherever darkness touches, teaching her now the joy and laughter that lives where light doesn’t reach, for it already taught her everything it could about fear and pain. The nightmare is itself, himself, young in many ways, and does not always understand the places they travel. But it knows two truths that are clad in iron.

Firstly, he is HER Nightmare. Without her, he does not know what he would be, perhaps the nameless dread in the dark again, and it would be awful to go back to that sort of nonperson after finding this richer life.

And secondly, he looks really good in that hat.

Read article

269

Fiction – Love is War 03:00:03:05

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

March 31, 2017

Click here to read the previous entry.  

 

Veskur Wyrd wore the very power of creation itself on her hand.

The gaurn she had crafted made the world around her a loom, each thread something that she could pull at, weave, color, or remove as she saw fit. But acting on one thread, she had learned, forced all the others to move as well and she did not possess the mathemagics necessary to predict the consequences of each movement. Difficult enough to know what results her more mundane actions would craft – when playing with the very fabric from which creation was wrought, well, who could say how long each thread was and how many other threads it was attached to?

She was becoming more and more hesitant to use the power she had granted herself, for she feared that each use violated the choices of those around her – thereby making her a rapist of the soul, something worse than Endrall could ever have accused her of being. She had seen the chance of Endrall and Figo becoming her lovers, of being with her into her old age. All she had needed to claim this future was patience but she had forced events to come sooner, not understanding what would happen because of her one selfish choice.

Both of them were gone now and she was alone.

Hurt, but wiser. More cautious. She would not use the power she had taken so lightly ever again.

Figo remained an absence in her life, leaving an aching emptiness in place of the joy his mere presence had once engendered. She mourned him often, dreamed of him, gentle words and soft skin, his laugh and smile. She could barely remember the sound of his voice, the taste of his laughter.

At least things seemed to be working out with Endrall. The man held her, kept her, made her feel wanted and all he wanted was to treat her as she deserved to be treated – and whenever she forgot why she deserved to be treated so, he was there to remind her. He held her and pushed her away, kept her close and whispered of his affair with Hekro. Veskur suffered these stories in silence, knowing better than to express any discomfort; whenever she tried to express anything save approval Endrall would remind her that she was disposable, that they were not friends, that she was not a thing to be trusted.

It was alright, Veskur thought. As long as Endrall was happy it was alright; nothing was more important to her. She had done so much, crafted so much harm out of her base loneliness. Endrall was right. Endrall could be trusted in ways that she could never be, not even by herself. The proof of her monstrousness was in the thing she wore even now and the knowledge her creation gave her.

Still, with Sotaas and with Endrall back in her life, she had some reason to keep moving. She started going out of her keep again, a feral presence tolerated in proper society through the auspices of those two people. River had left her, no longer speaking to her due to what had happened with Thea. Thea praised her with one breath and insulted her the next, treatment that Veskur was certain that she deserved. Sotaas argued otherwise. He was a dam against the abyss that Figo had left behind, supportive and honest.

It was through Sotaas that Veskur learned of Deeam’s coming union with Glow and received an invitation to the event. The two of them planned to go there together, Sotaas pressing Veskur into making the arrangements, knowing that she needed something to take her mind off the thoughts that had thrown her mental state into civil war. She took to it with gusto, with passion, making certain that they had transport and a place to stay, seeing to all the small details personally. Deeam himself got in touch with her.

There are treasures that the Darroken are lending us for the occasion,” Deeam said, sitting in the quiet of Veskur’s kitchen. “I know you’re familiar with that nation. Would you mind collecting them?”

Veskur said that she would be honored, made the necessary arrangements and spoke to Sotaas. The two of them would go and claim what was needed before heading south and west, into the lands where Deeam would wed his blood to his bride and ascend to the position of Njord. Sotaas was pleased with the promise of this escort mission and all that it entailed. It could mean much for both of them.

A week before the journey was to begin Veskur was working in her laboratory, trying to reconcile the mathemagics she had crafted to predict the extent of the changes she had already made. It was heady work, engrossing, and she felt a passion for it that echoed what had once driven her from one sleepless night to the next. She didn’t notice when her manservant interrupted her.

How long have you been there?” she asked him.

A quarter hour,” he replied, offering a lopsided grin. “There’s someone at the door to see you.”

Curiosity overcame passion. Very few people came to see her any more – Sotaas, Deeam, occasionally one of the Nauthiz Coven. She had been having trouble re-acclimatizing to the isolation that had once been her whole world but now, caught within numbers she had been forced to invent to describe meaning no one else would ever understand, she had lost all sense of time.

Following her manservant to the front gate of her keep, she pulled her cloak a little tighter around her body. Already she could feel the chill from outside, the chill summer wind and whispering snows that haunted her home even in the warmest months. Her manservant drew open the door, introducing her guest.

Endrall Sahr.

I can’t stay long,” Endrall said, removing the gloves from his hands. “I was visiting Hekro to the west and, well…” He stopped, looked at her.

What’s wrong?”

Hekro,” he paused, swallowed, came closer to her and waited until she had taken him in her arms. “Hekro left me. I have an invite to Deeam’s wedding but I don’t know if I can go now. I had planned on entering with the Golden Champion beside me. How am I to face the Nauthiz Coven, or Secu and Risue, or any of the others? What will they think of me if I enter alone?”

You won’t know until you get there.”

I don’t even have means of getting there, not this late. No way to get there, nowhere to stay, no means of holding ground.”

Hekro arranged everything?”

He nodded. She sighed.

You can come with me, I suppose,” Veskur said slowly. “I need to check with Sotaas first, make certain that’s alright, but I’ll see what I can do about getting you there, making certain you have a place to stay, and giving you the means to stand your ground.”

Why would Sotaas have a problem with it?”

You broke his heart,” Veskur sighed when Endrall just stared at her, eyes brimming with hostility. “Let me speak with him. I should be able to manage something.”

Alright,” Endrall nodded. “I’ll be in touch.”

He left.

The first thing Veskur did after he was gone was go back to her lab to tidy things up and retrieve her gaurn. She went to her manservant, told him that she would be gone for a few days, packed a light assortment of snack food and stepped out of her home. She looked at the horizon before holding her gaurn aloft and calling on the power of the ethcinos.

In the wastes, back in the wild places where the Coeecians and Vanir were not known, out at the edge of the world was where Ygg Sotaas had settled. No one else could find him there, lost in a self-imposed exile. They were siblings now, two whom had made each other more and, like lodestones, they would find one another, be drawn to one another. It was the destiny of one to find the other, writ in the fabric of everything as if it had always been. So mote it. So mote it. So mote it.

She found Sotaas on her third day of travel. The Wanderer of Ygg came up on her from out of the green, appearing as an extension of the woods that he had made his home. They fell into one another’s arms – there were ways, now, that Sotaas completed Veskur that not even the Lady herself understood. They walked in silence for a time, learning about one another merely by being in the other’s presence.

What’s bothering you?” Sotaas asked. Veskur bit her lip.

I have something to ask you,” Veskur said. “You’re not going to like it.”

Is it about Endrall?”

Yes.”

You know he took your name from you?” Sotaas asked. “He calls you a dryw to anyone that will listen.” Veskur choked on this insult, shaken. She closed her eyes, swallowed and accepted. She deserved to be named thus.

Endrall had already explained this to her at length.

I didn’t know.” It took her a moment more to find her voice. “He wants to come with us to the wedding. Hekro left him, doesn’t want anything to do with him right now.”

And he doesn’t want to be alone,” Sotaas snarled. “He needs female approval because the mother surrogate he was rutting with left him. Whatever.”

You’re okay traveling with him?”

No, but I’ll go to make sure he doesn’t do anything to you on the way up.” Sotaas paused, looking off into the green for a long while. “I won’t sleep under the same roof as him.”

Do you want me to make other arrangements for you or us?”

No, no, I’ll come up with something.”

This late?”

You know as well as I do that there is very little that you or I cannot accomplish,” Sotaas said, holding up the gaurn on his hand. Veskur smiled, hugged the man and left him to wander the wilds a few days more.

When the day came the two of them met at House Raido to collect their things. Veskur had taken care of their transport while Sotaas had plotted their path – they would head east, into the Darroken lands, then travel south and west to collect Endrall, loop up north to High House Wynn. The journey to the Darroken lands was simple enough, their claiming of what Deeam sought equally easy. The importance of what it was they held, however, was not lost on either of them.

The Darroken were considered the most trustworthy of the other nations and existed outside the politics that defined so much of Vanir interaction. As such, the Vanir elders trusted this other nation to look after the vestments used to proclaim a man or woman as Njord, Freya, or Freyr, vestments that were as old as any of the Vanir houses, as old as Midgard itself. They both held the fabrics with a sense of awe and gratitude, knowing how rare it was for any Vanir to so much as see what they now held.

When a Vanir noble ascended to any of the three dominant positions he or she set themselves outside the normal politics and games that existed in Midgard. Their sole responsibility was to tend to the Vanir nation as a whole; they cut ties with their former House, gaining instead all the Vanir peoples as a home. The Njord was given the task of mapping the constant change of Vanir borders, of keeping those borders pure while exploring other lands and developing Vanir interests. Over the ages those that had become Njord had furthered the obligations that came with the position, exploring the avenues of science and lore as much as physical geography and the passings of history.

The ceremony that marked a new Njord saw a long rope tied around the Vanir’s shoulders, starting on the left hand, looping up the arm and around the shoulders and then down to the other hand. The rope represented the ships that the Vanir had used in the earliest days. A sleeveless cloak was then draped around the neck and down the shoulders, leaving the back exposed. The cloak had writ on its length the sigils of all twenty-seven Houses, from hedonistic Fehu all the way to meditative Dagaz. Finally, a walking stick and oar woven together of elm and ash, symbolizing the willingness to wander every last corner of the world and leave nothing unexplored.

Veskur and Sotaas held these treasures in their hands with great care. With reverence they packed them, knowing that they would have to keep the nature of their burden secret from everyone else and understanding the honor and trust that Deeam was placing in them. They were both moved to the point of giddy exhaustion, each vowing to see the sacred fabrics to their destination even at the cost of their last breath.

The Darroken lands were well maintained, the roads peaceful and trustworthy. Nonetheless, the two kept a careful eye on the world as they crossed back into Midgard, heading to the far west and into the lands held by House Suwilo. Veskur had arranged to meet Endrall far afield from the capital, not wanting to chance bumping into Sahr Eri. If anything, Sotaas was even less enamored of that prospect.

He didn’t like me very much.”

Who? Sahr or Endrall?”

I don’t think Endrall is actually capable of loving anyone, never mind liking,” Sotaas said, frowning at a gathering ring of clouds. “But, no, I meant Eri.”

Oh, good,” Veskur said, shaking her head. “I thought it was only me that he despised.”

He really did, but only because you’re as erratic as his banished wife.” Sotaas sighed, climbing to the top of the carriage and lying down. “He thought you were going to ruin Endrall’s life the way that his wife ruined his.”

Eri is the most celebrated healer of our age, right?” Veskur asked. Sotaas muttered something that might have been assent. “Just checking.”

Good on you. I’m going to sleep until darling Endrall arrives. Wake me up when he gets here.”

He’ll be here soon.”

Sure he will.”

Sotaas was lost to slumber long before Endrall’s arrival, this casual notation of his faults something that Veskur passed the time thinking about. There had been a time just after Figo had left and she had been devastated that Endrall had offered to come and care for her. The day he was supposed to be there came and went, time stretching out as she waited and waited, thought and repented, but still there was no sign of the man that would claim that they were not lovers despite them being everything that lovers were supposed to be.

She had tried to contact Endrall by means of every Science at her disposal but had learned and found nothing. In despair she had retreated to the wilds around her keep, seeking solace in wander, but she had been only a day into her wandering when Endrall had contacted her. He had been furious to find her home empty of her, demanding that she return instantly before severing all contact. He’d spent the next day yelling at her, letting her know that she was inconsiderate, evil, and valued only so much as he saw fit.

Veskur had believed him then, in the wake of Figo’s absence.

She wasn’t so certain that she believed him now.

A full day came and went before Endrall appeared. He came in the company of Farrell, though the kitsune begged off coming with them – it had merely served as an escort. This was a good thing, as Veskur was uncertain how long she would have been able to not kill the creature. Everyone else seemed to have forgotten that the kitsune had betrayed them all once upon a time but Veskur had heard the broken words spilling from Figo’s sleeping lips, had heard her former love recount the crimes this creature had committed. Endrall kissed its cheek before glancing at the carriage, offering only a brief nod of approval as Veskur poked Sotaas.

What’s is… oh. You’re here.”

Is that any way to greet me?”

Yes. It is, in fact, the perfect way.”

Veskur stood by and said nothing during this exchange. Sotaas climbed into the carriage beside her, Endrall sitting opposite them. Sotaas’ hand briefly touched Veskur’s, some form of Science that Veskur was not familiar with allowing the man to implant words in her mind: He is not to be trusted. He is going to try and hurt you. Do not let him touch you and we will get through this together. Veskur was not certain how to respond so she merely nodded, trying to make the motion look casual. She doubted Endrall would catch such a slight twitch but a quick trace of fingernail along her hand let her know that Sotaas understood.

The journey took a total of four days. They spent all that time moving, Sotaas and Endrall resting while Veskur kept going – the same endurance that let her spend weeks awake and working in her laboratory serving her here in turn. The roads were quiet, all of Midgard hushed in anticipation of the new Njord’s ascent. Even the Coeecian borders had been relatively quiet, the madness named Jesam the First keeping to himself as Deeam prepared to become so much more than he now was.

Endrall spoke of his hopes for the future, the things he had learned while serving along the Coeecian border and then back in the lands of his House. Veskur listened with more interest than Sotaas, though the Wanderer of Ygg made polite noises where appropriate and seemed to relax his guard somewhat as the days wore on. By the second day, he was even volunteering some of his own stories, speaking of far off lands that he had traveled to since his exile.

Far to the east, past the Darroken, there are people that live in huts made of thick cord,” Sotaas told them as they dipped into and through a valley. “There are poles that stretch dozens of feet into the air and hundreds upon hundreds of these cords are woven together to form cities inside, though the ways into those cities are secret and hidden. Men there are seen as little more than work animals. Their entire culture is built around the domination of men by women.”

What a strange people,” Endrall said, catching Veskur’s eyes with an indulgent smile.

It’s true,” Sotaas continued. “They live the way they do because of the weather. For a full third of the year, they are battered by winds and rains that put the worst storms that Coeecian trickery can cobble together to shame, while for another third the naked sunlight withers and blackens all human life that it touches. Their structures bend with the wind and do not fall while the cords release the heat they suffer during the hot months.

I stayed with them for a full year but I never learned their language, only their culture. They subscribe to a strange series of beliefs, thinking that the energy of their minds leaves their bodies when they die only to be reborn as something or someone else. I asked them what the purpose of such a process would be and they claimed they were working towards some form of transcendence, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The women maintain their control of their nation through the secrets of those cords – the weaving of the individual lengths and the combining of them into structure. Though they respected me for my skills, they would not teach me or even allow me to witness their most secret craftings. I might have pushed but, to be honest, those same women have a means of fighting that can only be likened to a spider trapping things in a web. I would not like to fight them within what they have woven and have never seen the purpose in rewarding hospitality with hostility, even if the shelter offered is offered by barbarians.”

But they are only barbarians,” Endrall scoffed. “I’m certain, were we to bend our minds to discovering their secrets, we could take their weavings apart and put them back together.”

I am less certain of that.”

I’ve read about the people you describe,” Veskur said. “They were involved in that war the Darroken were fighting forty generations or so ago.”

I hardly see what bearing the ancient history of a backwards people has on the modern world, though they sound interesting enough,” Endrall said, resting his chin in his palm. “Do they really abhor males so badly?”

Yes,” Sotaas said. “The Nauthiz Coven would feel right at home.”

What about you, Lady?” Endrall asked, leaning back to best show the line of his musculature. “What mad dreams have been driving you forward?”

Equations, mostly,” Veskur admitted, shy. “I’ve had to invent three mathemagical languages to fully explain what it is I’m trying to do.”

And what is that, exactly?”

Well, we know that there had to be a prime cause of which we are all echoes,” Veskur said. “Various other Scientists have tried to cast their numbers backwards to describe what was, but the future has always interested me more than the past. It seems to me that there should be equations that could be used to predict what is going to happen, seeing that matter and energy are consistently moving forward and behave in certain causal patterns.

The truth of this knowledge proves free will a lie. We are doing what we’re doing in accordance with forces that were set in place long and long before any of us were born and will continue to move thus when we are all gone and dust. The illusion of decision, of discovery, of experience is simply that – an illusion brought upon by a pre-determined lack of understanding. Though we are advanced enough as a people to recognize that truth we are not moved past the primitive superstitions of our own history to recognize that truth completely, which is why we still think that we are making choices.

My recent passions, which are not mine so much as they are an echo of whatever the prime cause was, have been trying to trace the passage of one thing to determine the passage of another. Cause and effect chain together, you see, and if something happens in the macrocosm there will be a mirror of that in the microcosm and vice-versa, as well as everywhere in between. If one can find the equations that describe the precursor of a macrocosmic event, then an understanding can be applied using those equations to predict what is going to happen in our immediate cosm.”

A long silence followed Veskur’s description.

Is cosm even a word?”

If it isn’t, it should be.”

Their talk turned to lighter topics thereafter – the weather that followed them, the quietness of the road ahead, the lingering taste of food eaten and processed. Sotaas‘ hand found hers, fingers tapping out a certain beat to let Veskur know that he wanted to continue speaking of those equations at some future time when they had left behind unwanted company. For all his brilliance, Endrall did not notice this silent intimacy between the two that he had abandoned for reasons of his own.

We’ve known forever that there is iron in the blood of both the Vanir and the people of the lesser nations,” Endrall said. “Father has had some small success using magnets in the healing of various aches and wounds, but my studies have actually taken me a step further than that. It seems that the movement of blood within the body creates a slight magnetic field that traces the outline of the body that it moves through. This field can be tested via a series of techniques that I’ve been developing.

The testing of this field can be used to determine the necessity of surgeries and the places those surgeries would best be performed. It can be used to chart the movement of energy within the body and discover those places where the flow of energy has been disrupted, thus allowing those of us with the proper knowledge to fix whatever they problem might be, or at least make a definitive diagnosis.

My imprint in the field of medicine will be so great that it will make my father’s efforts look like the urgings of primitive trickery when compared with our Sciences. This is the length and breadth of my genius and the glory I will win for it, well, it is a good thing that the two of you know me. My accomplishments will make you both great by the simple virtue of your association with me.”

Veskur and Sotaas shared a look but said nothing.

The three of them travelled to Njordheim, the place where every Njord since the dawn of the Vanir nation had ascended to that position and where they all ruled from once they had given up their old House and home. Soldiers from honorable Gebo were waiting to greet them, providing an honor guard for the two as they carried the treasure they had retrieved between them. A pouting Endrall was not allowed to accompany them on this journey. Instead, having spotted the Nauthiz Coven, he made his way over to them in order to exchange pleasantries.

Deeam was waiting for them in his private chambers, his back to the door and his hands clasped by the base of his spine. He wore a simple long vest and a pair of pants and somehow managed to look regal despite this; his mere presence and the perfection of his being flooded the room.

You have retrieved what was needed?” he asked, his deep baritone caught by architecture and booming around them, a rolling thunder that Veskur was sure he must have practiced. They nodded, dropped to their knees, presented him with what they had collected in his name. “Excellent. I also see that the two of you came here with Endrall. This is good – I had feared in the wake of what happened with Hekro that he would not be here. Does this mean the ice that lies between you has thawed?”

As much as can be,” Sotaas said.

Veskur said nothing.

Deeam had questions for them after that, wanting to know the state of things elsewhere in Midgard and what troubles threatened from the other side of the Coeecian border. He seemed bothered when they spoke of how quiet it had been.

Jesam the First has proven to be a cunning opponent,” Deeam admitted, clasping Veskur’s shoulder. “If only you had the chance to destroy him the way you destroyed his predecessor, eh? I’m sure the chance will present itself if we give it a little more time.”

Conversation turned to lesser things thereafter. Deeam wished to speak with Sotaas for a few minutes on his own, so Veskur left the two of them to go and wander the halls to look for Endrall. The two of them would have to settle the arrangements that she had made for them sometime in the near future and Veskur, for all her insight and knowing, was beginning to trot along the edges of exhaustion.

She found Endrall chatting up the Nauthiz Coven. The eldest of them caught her eye, her typical hostility mingling with curiosity. There was a conversation there, Veskur knew, and she did not need to use her gaurn to know that it was not meant for that moment. Endrall was reluctant to leave, enjoying himself despite the quiet tension of the three ladies that he was speaking with.

I was just starting to get comfortable,” Endrall muttered as they climbed back aboard their transport. Veskur said nothing, getting the vehicle moving and taking them to the small cabin that her own contacts had allowed her to acquire.

Endrall nodded acceptance as they entered, clearly deciding that their surroundings would do for this venture. There was a single bedroom, a kitchen, and a greeting area.

I’ll take the bedroom,” Endrall declared as Veskur unloaded their things. “You can have the greeting area.” Veskur had secretly been hoping that she would have been able to fall asleep in his warmth but she accepted Endrall’s terms – to do or say anything else, she thought, would have made her the rapist or the dryw that Endrall had named her. She gave him his things and found a place to lie down and was asleep almost instantly.

She awoke one day later to find Endrall preparing for the festivities to come. He had left dishes for others to clean and no food for her to eat, but she struggled out of the sleep haze and found something to drink, using Science to boil some water and make tea. As the fog of sleep faded she looked to her own things, retrieving the clothing that she would be expected to wear at the ceremony.

We’re out of food,” Endrall said, emerging from the changing rooms and straightening a cuff. He glanced at her, frowning. “How do I look?”

Perfect,” Veskur said, staring and not bothering to hide her hunger. He spared her an amused smile, walked forward and took her hand in his. There was something in his eyes, some small fracture that made a lie of his perfect confidence. “What’s wrong?”

It was,” Endrall swallowed, closed his eyes, was silent a moment. “I don’t know if I can do this. There are a lot of people here that have direct ties to, well, Sotaas or House Elhaz. They hate me, I know it. They hate me. The Nauthiz Coven and all the rest.”

No one hates you,” Veskur said, wrapping Endrall in her arms. “No one here is going to hate you on behalf of another; we’re all Vanir here, not barbarians.”

I hear them whispering,” he pressed. “I heard them whispering yesterday.”

We’re crowning a new Njord,” Veskur said. “There’s a lot to be done. I’m not even going to pretend to know the full scope of the preparations and things that are happening but I can tell you that no one has time just now to hate you. There’s too much else to do, too much else to focus on.”

So… I’m not important?”

You are to me,” Veskur said, cupping his cheek in her hand and looking into his eyes. “You are the most important person in any room you walk into. There is nothing and no one in my sight that will ever be more – you walk into a room and nothing else matters.”

He stared at her for a long time after that.

I don’t trust you.”

I know.”

We’re not friends.”

I know.”

But, well, I will say this: you’re sweet.” Endrall frowned as he noted the clothing that had been prepared for her. “I did not realize you were going to be among the Honored Guard.”

Neither did I.”

Deeam must think very highly of you.”

Veskur muttered her agreement, taking what had been laid out for her into the washing and changing rooms. She let water soak into her hair, scrubbed the aches and fatigues of her body out, left the pools of water and pressed herself with discarded clothing until she was completely dry. Sighing, she began wrapping herself in the traditional garb of the Honored Guard, the willowing sleeves and the long jacket, the pocketless pants and tall boots. She tied her hair back as best she could, raised the hood at the back of the jacket over her brow just so, set the rings that had been laid out for her right hand onto the proper fingers and studied her reflection in the water she had left.

The only thing that looked out of place was the gaurn that graced her left hand.

She studied this for a time, deciding it was not something that she was willing to relinquish.

Endrall was waiting for her when she emerged from the room. He watched her with his piercing eyes, measuring her. She turned when he asked her to, his eyes roaming over her as if she were nothing more than meat for him to devour. He nodded approval at the ended of it.

You look beautiful,” he said, and for the first time in her life, Veskur believed those words.

They joined hands and walked to the waiting transport. It struck Veskur that she had to look like something from a fable as she helped Endrall aboard, the uncomfortable weight of the levl an awkward presence at her hips. They spoke but sparingly on the way to the center of Njordheim but of this Veskur took no note; she was lost in her own thoughts, thoughts that inevitably turned to the man sitting beside her.

In spite of everything, she knew she wanted him. She wanted to see him smile, to hold him, to take him inside of her. She gave no thought to her own pleasure; even before Figo she had found more gratification in the giving of pleasure than in the taking of it. She wanted to wake beside him, for him to wake beside her. But most of all she wanted him happy, regardless of what that meant, regardless of what that took.

Her left hand twitched.

Endrall took no notice.

They arrived long before the gathering crowd, Veskur able to find a place to rest their carriage and helping Endrall down from that height. They spotted the Nauthiz Coven chatting with Rock and a handful of others and wandered over – Sotaas, too, bore the markings of the Honored Guard.

You look good,” Endrall said, sizing the Wanderer of Ygg up with a terrible light in his eyes. Sotaas ignored him, turned to Veskur and told her that Deeam was waiting for him and a handful of others, those that had been named as the Honored Guard. Nine such people had been chosen by Deeam, another nine by Glow.

Is there anyone else in their number that we know?” Veskur asked.

No one you’d be familiar with,” Sotaas said. “Follow me, I’ll introduce you.”

There was a moment, a single moment, where she turned back and saw that same fracture of vulnerability in the eyes of the man she was leaving behind, but then Sotaas had her by the arm and was dragging her away.

What’s the rush?” she asked.

Deeam wants to speak with all of us, to prepare us for the ceremony to come.” Sotaas paused, looked at her. “Do you understand what Deeam has done by naming us among his Honored Guard?”

Not really, no.” Veskur let her confusion show on her face when Sotaas continued to stare at her. “I’ve been a virtual hermit all my life, remember? Until I invented the gaurn no one wanted anything to do with me. So, no, I have no idea what being named an Honored Guard means. I never before had reason to care.”

Alright, granted.” Sotaas’ lips twisted in a small smile. “I keep forgetting that you’re just about as reclusive as I am.”

Maybe moreso.”

Given that you don’t know even this? Probably.” Sotaas sighed, started to run a hand through her hair and got his fingers caught in the hood that covered her scalp. “So annoying.”

Granted.”

Cute.” He shook his head. “By naming us his Honored Guard, Deeam is announcing to the rest of Midgard that he views us as the most competent, trustworthy, and skilled Vanir that he knows. Should he decide to quest, it is we that he will call upon, and should he decide to go to war, it is we who will be expected to raise and lead his armies.”

I don’t know the first thing about leading armies.”

You spent five decades with Lord Figo Jera, the most feared general this side of the Golden Champion, and you know nothing about leading armies? You must have picked up something. Anyways, in times of formal duress you’ll be asked to provide protection and advice to the Njord, to occasionally act in his interests or as his ambassador, and in certain instances you will speak with his voice or act on his behalf.”

Do the people that Glow picked as her Honored Guard do the same thing?” Veskur asked, wondering if she could ask for a transfer.

You’d hate their end even more,” Sotaas grinned. “Those chosen by the Njord’s spouse stay with the Njord and their chooser at all times, keeping them both safe.”

You are utterly correct in my not wanting to do that.”

I know. Follow me. There are some protocols we’ll be expected to go through.”

They spent the morning rehearsing the things that they would do over the process of the coming union – protect the young couple, escort them from place to place, and deal with any problems that might surface. Glow’s chosen had to deal much more with the latter, for which Veskur was grateful. Most of what she ended up doing was standing around, looking important, while Deeam and Glow drew every available eye – which, Veskur thought, was exactly as it should have been.

Rings and oaths were exchanged under a sheen of lightning and a slight drizzling rain. The falling water caught the flashes of light within them, twinkling like stars as they fell down around the new Njord and his presumably lovely bride. Veskur could feel the eyes of Sotaas and the Nauthiz Coven sometimes glancing at her but she ignored them. Her attention was divided solely between the new royal couple and the healer’s scion that sat prim and watchful. She could not help but feel that she was being judged.

Do you, Deeam of House Wynn, accept the vestments of the Njord, with all the circumstance and consequence that comes with it, knowing that your life up until now and the life of your lover are forfeit? Do you relinquish all ties to House and all ties to man, forsaking all in the names of Midgard and the Vanir nation as a whole?”

I do.”

Know then that Midgard accepts you as such. Deeam of House Wynn is no more and is gone as though he had never been. Standing, Deeam Njord, and remember always that you are an extension of the land and all that the land might be.”

I will prove worthy of the name you have given me.”

And do you, Glow of House Pethro, accept the lot of keeping the Njord in check, to provide consul and confidence, to hold his secrets and guide his hand? Do you forfeit all that you were, House and name, and wed yourself to Deeam Njord as conscience and sobriety to better guide and serve the names of Midgard and Vanir?

I do.”

Then rise, knowing that Glow Pethro is dead and will be struck from all record and all knowledge. Instead there is only and ever has been only Glow Skathi, extension and compliment of Deeam Njord. Rise and let it be so.”

The two new powers took one another’s hands and turned to face the assembled Vanir nation, Deeam raising the hand of Glow as the crowd cheered. White flower petals fell from every tower in a shimmering cascade. In their multitudes the falling tide looked as a massive snowstorm, the sight of it catching Veskur’s breath and holding her still for several moments until Sotaas poked her. She noticed everyone looking at her, wondered when everyone had quieted, remembered what it was she was supposed to do.

Veskur of House Wyrd yields to Deeam Njord!”

The next member of the Honored Guard did the same until all of them had spoken that oath, pledging themselves to the service of the new Njord until either he was dead or they were. Veskur wasn’t certain what she thought about this and so tried to silence her mind. The skin underneath the gaurn on her hand itched horribly but she held herself steady, ignoring the weight at her hips, the pull of her clothing, the sweat on her skin. There would be time to tend to herself later.

At that moment the only thing that mattered were Deeam and Glow.

The roar that followed the end of the ceremony was deafening, the release of petals that accompanied that conclusion making the previous downpour of same seem as a river compared to an ocean. Every noble present raised their weapon in salute of the Njord and his love, every peasant there fell to both knees and bowed their head. The pure scope of the adulation presented in this moment rocked Veskur to her very core – she had never in her life imagined that so many people could exist, never mind gather for a single event. When she stumbled, it was Sotaas who steadied her.

A series of large meals followed the ceremony proper, a massive celebration that lasted for several days. The Honored Guard came and went as the days wore on; working in shifts so that three of their number consistently surrounded one of the two they were now sworn to. Petals were kicked up with every step, giving the illusion of treading in an ocean, some trick or science keeping those colors from fading, wilting, or ever touching the earth. In what quiet moments she could find Veskur experimented with those petals she could grab, trying to figure out how the effect had been accomplished.

She did not have very much time to herself. The Honored Guard worked in shifts of six hours on and twelve off. The idea, as she understood it, was to keep them all fresh and active. She and Sotaas ended up working alongside a woman named Sas Ansu, who at least proved to be adequate conversation and a sharp wit, so that wasn’t awful.

How do you think they do it?” Veskur found herself asking. No matter how hard she pressed down upon the color in her hand it would not touch the ground.

Which? The thing with the petals?” Sas shook the hair out of her face. “I heard it’s some secret science that the nobles of House Pethro keep to themselves. You could ask some of our opposites among Glow’s Chosen, though I would recommend waiting until after the celebration is over.”

Why’s that?”

They’ll be easier to ply then.” Sas’ voice was wry. “I mean, it’s not like they’re going anywhere. I imagine they’ll be starved for any sort of conversation in a year or two.” Sotaas smirked, saying nothing. The three of them were called away then, acting as guides for the other nobles, allowing some to go and greet the new Njord, barring others long enough for Deeam and Glow to collect themselves that they might better speak with those who sought them.

Veskur didn’t much see the point. Most of what she heard said was simple empty congratulations and everyone there seemed more eager to be seen than heard. Sotaas muttered something about social hierarchies that Veskur didn’t quite understand or care to; she just stood there, ignoring the questioning looks that surrounded her, fulfilling her role and counting down the moments to her periods of freedom.

Endrall inevitably sought her out whenever she was trying to sleep, speaking of the people he had seen and spoken with, asking for her opinion on his interaction with them. He would tell her everything, every last little detail, and ask her to analyze what had been told. He was looking for justification, for edification, for proof that he was as liked and admired and respected as he knew he deserved to be. Veskur told him the truth as she knew it and let herself fade into sleep when she was able.

Whether for sleep or for honor, he always seemed insulted when she had to leave him and when she awoke it was inevitably alone.

She missed Figo. She looked for him but neither he or Hekro were there. Her heart had always ever focused on his duty and this moment was no exception to that rule; she heard tell that he was still on the Coeecian front, watching for incursion, and that while he had been invited to stand witness he had declined the invitation. Endrall, in those quiet moments they shared, was quick to let her know that she was the reason for his refusal. Veskur could have brought up the delicate subject of Hekro but never did, not once in a thousand heartbeats.

On the final day of the festival, when exhaustion had claimed those who were there only for reason of politic or politeness and all that remained were those that truly loved Deeam or Glow, the new Njord called for musicians and invited all those with the will or means to abandon themselves in the mania of song and dance. Veskur circled around the assembled group, the Nauthiz Coven and Endrall Sahr, Ygg Sotaas and Sas Ansu, Roch Elhaz, and Gvin Berkano. The lot of them moved in graceful circles around the royal couple, singing along with the music, rocking out as hard as they were able.

Veskur stood apart, claiming a strip of floor that was not wanted.

Every time she had danced before this had been out in the woods and private, a duel between herself and music that only she could hear, but now she was sick from exhaustion and sick of people and sick with observations she wanted nothing to do with and there would be no stopping her, not now. Sliding one foot behind the other, bringing her hands around in a half-circle, she closed her eyes and let the music carry her.

She heard startled gasps as she moved but she did not open her eyes, wanting to know nothing in this moment save the joys of movement and noise. Whispers surrounded her, calls of insanity, of insult, of injury, but she refused to let those voices touch her, refused to identify any of those who spoke. She did not want to know that Endrall was insulting her. She did not want to know this.

The music fell and the music rose and she lashed out against it, seeing it as something to fight, something to rail against. Voices rang around her and she heard her own join them, warbling off-kilter and out of tune. Her face broke into a wild grin and she heard herself laughing as she leapt from one place to the next, every turn and strike in time with the music around her.

People came to the floor and left but she remained constant, a tempest brought to life. Soaked in sweat, all muscles aching and still she moved, still she sang. The sun came and went and came again and still she moved, still she smiled and laughed. This was her moment to by happy and that emotion filled her with emotions she had not felt since Figo had finally left her, since Endrall had told her that he would be happiest beside her closest friend. She danced and leaped and spun until her entire being was a throbbing fatigue and all movement itself was impossible.

Only then did she stop.

Things were quiet after that, Deeam thanking them all, Glow letting them know that they could move on with whatever it was they were meant to do now and so they did. Endrall let Veskur limp away to claim their carriage, then return to claim her in turn. Deeam went with her.

Are you alright?” he asked.

Tired, but otherwise fine,” Veskur murmured. “I have enough to get back to the cabin, but after that I’ll sleep for a day or so. Why? What do you need?”

I was going to ask you to take the vestments back to the Darroken,” Deeam said, studying her. “If you’re too tired, though…?”

No, I’ll be fine,” Veskur said. “I’ll come to claim them and Sotaas in the evening tomorrow.”

He’s not staying with you?”

He’s uncomfortable sleeping under the same roof as Endrall.”

I see.” Deaam glanced back to where the young healer was waiting and watching them. “And you’re alright sleeping thus?”

I love him,” Veskur said, the words rolling off her tongue. “I love him. I love him. I’d howl that from any rooftop I could if he would let me.” Veskur thought that Deeam looked like he might have said something else but then he thought better of it and said nothing. She shrugged it off; she was tired and there was a good chance she was seeing phantoms.

Deeam accepted the ride back to his new home. Veskur held the door open for Endrall, found Sotaas and told him what they had yet to do and asked if he was interested in making the return journey. He said that he was and told Veskur that he would be waiting come the following evening before shooing her away.

Go to bed,” Sotaas ordered. “You’re weaving on your feet.”

My calves hurt.”

The way you were moving, you’re lucky that’s the only thing causing you pain. Go.”

Okay.”

Sotaas helped Endrall back to the transport, saw both she and Endrall off. Endrall was silent the whole way back, the two of them travelling through the darkest part of the night in perfect quiet. Endrall’s fingers found hers and curled around them and Veskur’s heart fluttered from the slight contact, the sense that maybe now everything would be okay between them.

They arrived in utter darkness, even the lights meant to stand sentinel in the night long since guttered out. Endrall led her back into their small cabin, keeping her from stumbling over her numb feet and exhausted thoughts. Veskur held the keys to the door and managed to fumble their house open but nearly collapsed thereafter. Endrall’s gentle hands lifted her, held her, and guided her to the bed.

It’s lumpy anyway,” Endrall whispered. “I’ll take the living area.”

You can,” Veskur swallowed, tried to focus her eyes. “You can stay here if you like.”

Even in the darkness and through her exhaustion Veskur could see the cold that touched Endrall’s eyes at that invitation. The boy left her without another word.

She drifted unconscious thereafter, letting the tide of dreamless sleep overtake her and shatter her upon the unknowable shores of oblivion. When she awoke, it was still to darkness and the sound of hushed weeping. Exhausted, she forced herself off the slab of a mattress, creeping through the black to where Endrall sat.

Are you alright?” Veskur asked, keeping herself balanced on the entryway to the living area. Endrall looked back at her, a silhouette held by morning’s first sliver of light.

He hates me, doesn’t he?” Endrall said, holding himself. “Sotaas hates me. Just like you do. I know you do, and that’s fine because I hate you. I don’t trust you. And you know, that’s fine. That’s alright. I’m so much better than all of you. It’s jealousy, it will always be jealousy…”

He drifted off as Veskur came to him and rested her head in his lap, letting him know that she loved him, that she had always loved him and would always love him. She held his shoulders, whispering in his ear every oath of devotion she could think of, every promise writ in her heart, and all the words that passed from her lips she meant. She whispered and held and promised until he was sleeping, silent in her arms.

She knew this was the closest she would ever get to him. It would have to be enough, and it was. Exhausted, she bent over and pressed her lips against his forehead, crawled back to the room she had been given and let sleep take her once more.

When next she woke the sun was creeping past its zenith, seeping back towards earth. Endrall was still asleep as she slipped to his side, kneeling beside him and resting her head parallel with his, matching his breathing. His eyes opened a crack, a sliver, and she wished him good morning, told him she was going to get Sotaas, and asked him if he wanted to come with her. He begged off, desiring nothing more than rest. She kissed his forehead once more, her mouth brushing his skin, and then she was heading outside to where their chariot waited.

The passage back to Njordheim was quiet and simple. The vast majority of Vanir that had come here had already taken their leave, returning to whatever homes they had left behind. Only the best and brightest had stayed behind – the full complement of the Honored Guard, the Nauthiz Coven, and a handful of others. They were feasting when Veskur arrived, eating the remnants of the grand meals that had come before, and they welcomed her to their tables.

Where’s Endrall?” the youngest of the Nauthiz Coven asked.

Sleeping,” Veskur answered, catching a hint of mischief in the question. “He was very tired.”

I can imagine,” the middle member of the Nauthiz Coven said. “But he is unharmed?”

He’s fine,” Veskur replied, buttering a slice of bread. “He just needed a little more sleep.”

Endrall Sahr, Endrall Sahr,” the eldest member of the Nauthiz Coven smiled. “Who do we have to thank for his talents, really? Who do we have to thank?”

Veskur Wyrd did not reply to this, realizing that some sort of game was being played while remaining ignorant of the intent and the rules. She didn’t care what point they may have been trying to make and instead turned her attention to other things. Sotaas was there and speaking with Deeam, the two of them getting on as well as they ever did, and Veskur found herself wondering if anything had truly changed.

She could have looked into the future or changed it. The means of doing so was on her left hand even now, but she did not think she was worthy of that sort of power, not anymore; her use had caused so much change and she would never know if her violation of the illusion of choice had caused more harm than good. She suspected it had. She suspected there was no crime more profane than the one she had made with every use of her power, her only solace lying in the simple fact that no one around her could even comprehend what it was that she had done.

No one save Sotaas, as close to her as breath, and Endrall, the one she loved above all else.

The rest of her time there passed without incident. She spoke briefly with Deeam and Glow about nothing of real import, she packed the holy vestments of the Njord away with Sotaas and exchanged means of contact with Sas Ansu. Once all of that was done, she and Sotaas boarded the transport, piloted it back to where Endrall Sahr was waiting for them and began the long ride back.

Endrall tried to make conversation with Sotaas the entire way back. Veskur kept silent, allowing the man to try and mend that bridge as best he could. It was clear enough to her that Sotaas was merely being polite, friendliness meant merely to make the long journey back more bearable. If Endrall took note of Veskur’s silence or lack of comfort, he shared no care of it. Sometimes, he would turn the conversation to a direction that Veskur found downright insulting but still she kept silent.

She could have used the ethcinos to fix things, used her power to settle the distance between her two passengers, but the one who stood to benefit the most from such passage had already insulted her beyond all reckoning for doing such things. He still did not understand why there was even a modicum of chance that his doing so had been wrong. Instead of speaking her mind, Veskur tried to mend their wound with words but words alone had never been her weapon of choice. Nothing was fixed. Endrall blithely continued to speak and insult and demean, Sotaas kept up a passively insulting tirade that Endrall missed entirely.

Veskur felt herself tense from silence.

They crossed over into the Darroken lands, their strange little party. Sotaas insisted that they were being followed and even pointed out where there pursuers were. Endrall grew quiet after that revelation, fearing Coeecians, and the Wanderer of Ygg left them to scout around, promising to be back before daybreak. Veskur settled up for the night, made camp, and let Endrall wrap her in his arms.

Do you think he still likes me?” Endrall asked, voice very quiet.

You do yourself no favors by insulting others,” Veskur replied.

How can you tell?”

The way his jaw clenches when you do. The way his breathing changes, the slight narrowing of his eyes. He doesn’t much care for it though sometimes he forgets how angry he is with you.”

Me? Angry at me? Whatever for?”

You broke his heart.”

I know you’re delusional. I did everything for him. I supported him, I brought him into a world he would have never known, I brought him into the Darroken Lands long before you and he decided to go back there for whatever mad reason currently drives the two of you. I was the one that pushed him, that drove him. I hate you. He should hate you. You tried to keep him a child while I made him a man and now that he’s all interesting I feel like I don’t get to enjoy what I made of him.”

What you made of him…?”

Interesting. I made him interesting. Everything he is now I made and he won’t even speak with me. He should love me, he should be grateful. He should recognize me for everything that I did for him. But he doesn’t trust me, the way I don’t trust you, and why should he treat me thus? He shouldn’t. Not after everything I did for him.”

And to him.”

What’s that supposed to mean?”

Nothing.”

Sotaas returned as promised. He told them that there had been Coeecians out and about, a handful of spies moving quietly through the wild places, living off the land and avoiding contact. They had been following their party out of a sense of curiosity but had not recognized them for who they were, finally concluding that they were nothing more than a collection of young and stupid wandering nobles. The Coeecians had broken away from their path, having no desire to pass into Darroken land; the spies had been wise enough to recognize that as their destination.

Veskur caught Sotaas’ eye and knew they hadn’t been. Sotaas had used the ethcinos to change things, to make what he had said the truth. She felt her fingers itch beneath the gaurn on her left hand and fought the urge to see what might have otherwise been.

They crossed over into the Darroken lands without further incident, Endrall trying to patch things up with Sotaas and making things more awkward, Veskur keeping herself to herself, Sotaas subtly eager to be done with the journey and with Endrall Sahr. Veskur found herself wondering if the entire fight with Hekro had been a ploy to buy him this time, to allow him to reclaim Sotaas into his life.

If it had been, she thought, than Endrall had deeply miscalculated.

Once the vestments were returned Sotaas came to Veskur.

I’m going to go find out where the final destination of those Coeecians was,” Sotaas said, clasping her shoulder. “I will come to you after I know for certain.”

I’ll be waiting,” Veskur said. The two embraced and then Sotaas was gone, using the power of the ethcinos to vanish into the woods. Veskur felt her left hand clench. Where was the line to be drawn? When was it alright to use the power that she had discovered? She no longer knew. Too much of who she was now was wrapped up in Endrall Sahr, and Endrall, well…

Where’s Sotaas?” Endrall asked. She had left them to grab some refreshments, had even been kind enough to pick one up for Veskur. Sotaas had wanted nothing from him.

He went to spy on the Coeecians,” Veskur said. Endrall glared.

I can’t believe he didn’t even have the nerve to say goodbye,” Endrall said. “That dryw.”

Don’t talk about him like that,” Veskur said. “He’s going to find out why the Coeecians have quietly invaded Midgard. I think that’s a little more important than saying farewell.”

I do not think so,” Endrall spat. “He could have waited another second or two.”

Veskur shrugged and said nothing, enjoyed the refreshment that had been provided her and offered to finish taking Endrall the rest of the way home. Grumbling, the boy accepted.

They left the next morning, setting out in silence and with a light sprinkling of rain complimenting a golden sunrise. The emerald leaves of the trees along their path whispered above them in a thousand strange tongues, a poet’s miasma of promises only barely understood. In spite of everything, Veskur still felt her bond to Endrall, still desired the touch of that man’s hand on her flesh.

Nothing happened. They left the Darroken lands and re-entered Midgard, passed through lands dominated by several noble Houses before returning at last to the territories claimed by House Suwilo. The words between them turned once more to Ygg Sotaas, and Veskur felt herself shaking even as she said nothing.

I know I have to watch what I say when I’m talking to you about Sotaas,” Endrall said. “I don’t want you to confuse the ties that bind me and him with the ties that bind me and you.”

A terrible wave of fury bled over Veskur Wyrd and held her.

It was one line among many, one insult in a multitude. It was not a phrase that on its own would have poisoned whatever wells of emotion lay between the two of them but after everything else there was nothing left in Veskur save a terrible sense of cold. She swallowed, bit her tongue as Endrall continued talking, continued to insult, continued to hurt with the clear expectation that Veskur would bear whatever injury he chose to give her.

I think that Sotaas and I should get back together,” Endrall said. “I think that it’s time for the two of us to be together now that he’s a little more worthy of being with me. Not like you. You’ll never be worthy, were never really worth very much to begin with. You know that, don’t you? What do you think?”

Honestly?” Somehow, she managed to keep the bile and hate out of her voice. “If you work really hard at it, the two of you might become good friends. The two of you will never again be lovers.”

I can’t believe you’d say that to me,” Endrall said. “This is why I don’t trust you. Why I hate you. Why we’re not friends.” He glared at her once more before storming out of the transport and leaving Veskur alone. She stared after him for a moment, realized he’d left most his things behind, so she grabbed them and chased after them, handed them to him. He took them, glaring all the while, his entire posture meant to hurt, meant to cripple and make her less, but so consumed by hate was she that she took no note.

She returned alone to the transport, uncertain as to whether Endrall watched her or no. She did not care. She forced the vehicle to move and took it out into the wild emptiness, using the ethcinos to enhance her knowing of the world around her until she was certain she was alone. Holding herself, she fell out of the carriage and to the earth below, clutching herself until she bled, weeping until sight itself was not possible. She was so angry, so impossibly angry and hurt and she did not know what, if anything, to do about it.

As exhaustion and fatigue claimed her in an attempt to stave off the threat of madness, a message found her, some missive sent to her by the man that had brought her so low.

I’m sorry I wasn’t going anywhere good. I love you a lot. You know that.” A handful of seconds later another followed. “I didn’t mean to be reactive. You’re irreplaceable to me and I want you to be happy.”

She laughed until blackness claimed her, until senselessness rescued her from the hysteria that had overwhelmed her. When she awoke the carriage was gone, everything was gone. She lay on a mountaintop close to her home, an empty place coated by snow and invaded by her body and the gaurn that she was cradling.

Veskur pushed herself up on bleeding arms, looked up at a sun that gave light and no heat and knew it was empty as she felt. She was shaking as she remembered everything, every last detail playing out in excruciating detail.

I want you to be happy. Some people wished for things that would make them happy, Veskur knew. Some people wished for things and she had never thought much about what she would wish for if given the chance, but right them she knew with absolute certainty.

Veskur Wyrd woke up and wished that she were dead.

 

Click here to read the next part. If you like the artwork, why not go and thank Meghan Duffy at duffyartdesign.com? She’s cool people.

Read article

271

Fiction – Love is War 03:00:03:04

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

March 24, 2017

Click here to read the previous entry.  

There were moments, so many small moments, where Endrall missed Veskur.

He didn’t understand why the woman just couldn’t keep her mouth shut and accept whatever treatment he chose to give her. Didn’t she understand that her every moment with him was a gift that no one else anywhere in Midgard could give her? He stood outside her keep one night, scared of knocking on the door, terrified of being turned away. Finally, he screamed at the woman he had abandoned.

I don’t think you’re a rapist!” he cried, again and again. He saw Veskur appear on the battlements and so he pressed on. “I never thought you were a rapist and I already apologized but you’re never going to accept that apology, are you? You want me to crawl. You want to make me small. What do you want me to do? Beg to be in your life? Everything you have was given to you, I was given to you!”

The silhouette of her vanished and was gone. No matter what he said or how he called, she did not return. Her manservant came out eventually and told him to leave. He felt like stabbing the man, ending his life and entering the place that had felt like home for so long, but in the end, he shouldered his coat and walked away. The healers of House Suwilo had never tried to be fighters and he didn’t even have a levl, only a dryw. The other man would have torn him apart.

Dejected, Endrall went home. In his talks with everyone else, he took to referring to Veskur as the dryw, refusing to address her by any other name or title. His father merely looked at him and said nothing. His mocking smile and wise glances spoke volumes in and of themselves. Veskur had never had many friends or allies and Endrall was charming, the heir to House Sahr. It didn’t take much effort to poison the hearts of everyone else against her.

Soon, people that had never met or even seen the woman were speaking against her and Endrall found some comfort in that – but in the darkest hours of morning, when he was alone and he could not hear even the heartbeats of anyone else, he would hold the gaurn that she had made him and rock back and forth. Why had she rejected him? He couldn’t understand it. It was infuriating. How dare she? How dare she?

Sotaas had finally re-emerged from whichever hole he had gone to hide in. Endrall had sent him letters, not bothering to try and look for him or even enter the lands held by House Ygg. He had liked some of the people there and the things they did for him, sometimes comparing Sotaas to members of his House and telling the scout how he came up short.

There were things that Endrall had left with Sotaas and things that Sotaas had left with Endrall in turn. The wanderer of Ygg came to House Suwilo alone to collect what was his. Endrall tried to speak with him about Veskur and all that had happened, getting nothing more than half-hearted monosyllables in return to his witticisms and soothsaying. Sotaas said something about how he had done the bare politic minimum to contact him during his long absence and that he was well aware of this.

Don’t you know my efforts, no matter how slight, are equal to the greatest efforts of anyone else?”

Sotaas did not respond to this truth. It was probably too large a concept for his feeble and empty mind, Endrall thought. Glancing at the gaurn on his hand, however, Endrall said nothing more. For all that Sotaas was more feral than rational, the man still had access to the ethcinos and Endrall had never learned what it was, exactly, that Sotaas Ygg was capable of.

Veskur’s birthday came and Endrall knew better than most how often people forgot that day, knew how much the Good Lady tried to pretend that the lack of well-wishers didn’t bother her. He used Science to contact the woman, wishing her joy in the coming year. It didn’t surprise him when Veskur responded, her words not entirely hostile. They spoke a little longer but never in person – always through intermediaries or through the Sciences that the Lady had developed, refined, and perfected.

They spoke like that for some small time, Endrall taking the time to feel the Good Lady out and get a handle on her fractured psyche. She was still weak, still wounded, still nothing more than a pet. She mentioned how angry she was at how she had been treated but told Endrall again and again that she loved him and would do anything for him.

She was lying, of course.

His father was the only person that would ever love him.

Even knowing that, however, Endrall felt that there was still some use to be taken from the Lady Wyrd. He played along with her game, dismissing her complaints and ignoring the lies of her pain. He knew she wasn’t really real, wasn’t a real person. She was just a toy, a pet, something to be used – and when she remembered her place she made him feel better, sang his fears away and eased away his doubts. He would ride her and tease her again, he knew, and though he would be sated, he would never sate her and she would thank him for it. He was certain of it; certain he could make her see things the way he wanted her to.

When he proposed that they meet somewhere neutral she agreed to do so, the feel of her so very eager. He made the arrangements, picking a spot not too far afield from the seat of Suwilo influence. They had not seen one another in five full passings of the seasons.

Lady Veskur Wyrd was much as Endrall remembered her – unkempt hair and ruffled clothing, eyes maddened from far too little sleep and far too much energy. She stepped out of her carriage and ran a hand through her hair, walked into the inn that he had told her to go to, people that believed the lies he had told them looking at her with narrowed eyes. Veskur didn’t notice them, took a seat, ordered something to drink, sat and began to mull things over; Endrall watched over her for a time. He had arrived hours previously but he affected being late, going so far as to apologize for it before wrapping her in his arms.

He felt her stiffen and he smiled as he felt her resolve slowly vanish, the scent and presence of him overwhelming her pathetic need to stand apart. She told him she had brought him a gift once they had parted and showed her what had been wrought; an offering of power, a draught of the liquefied life-force of Midgard herself. Endrall eyed it and smiled, the two of them settling in to eat as she stumbled her way through a conversation. She was trying so very hard.

They talked at length about many things; why Figo had left her and what had happened to him since, about Endrall’s heated affair with Hekro. It secretly pleased him to know that Veskur had not been with anyone since he had left her to rot in the northern wastes, but that very leaving was an event that had stuck in her craw, a lack she felt the need to hold against him.

You left me,” Veskur said, holding one knee against her breast at the table, staring at him with eyes that held far too much to be real. “You were an absence in my life in every way. I couldn’t get a hold of you. You clearly didn’t want me anywhere near you. So why am I here now?”

This is why you can’t be trusted. I don’t owe you anything for this,” Endrall said, waving one hand in casual dismissal, taking the tone of an adult speaking with a difficult child. “I was angry with you. I hate you. I don’t trust you. It’s perfectly okay for me to not be in your life when I’m angry with you.”

You could have let me know.”

Endrall shrugged. They moved on to other topics.

Endrall told her about what he’d done with his time since escaping Jesam the First, how he had returned home to a hero’s welcome and how even his father had been there to greet him. Veskur listened with rapt affection, asking the occasional question as Endrall waxed about his accomplishments in the field of healing. Already he was beginning to eclipse the works of his father; his theories were bearing fruit in every field of medicine that House Suwilo practiced and many felt it was only a matter of time before his works dominated the studies of every noble in his House.

He asked Veskur what she thought of that but the woman was not gushing enough in her praise, so he interrupted her, speaking for her. He knew from long experience that anything that she had to say would just anger him – he told her this, looking into her eyes.

It’s not just what you have to say,” he told her. “It’s how you say it.”

She started whining about being spoken to in such a way, so he paid for his own food and left the inn, staring in the window as the woman sat there dumbly, staring at the gift that he had neglected to take and the emptiness that was where he had been. Eventually, she struggled to her feet, dropped some gold for her meal with the innkeeper and shuffled out after him.

You speak with too much flair,” Endrall told her. “What you say, what you feel, it isn’t that important and it certainly isn’t as deep as you make it sound.” She said nothing, merely following him as he walked away from the city and into the woods surrounding it.

She said nothing, merely following him as he walked away from the city and into the woods surrounding it.

See, here’s the thing with you, Veskur. You make it sound like you’re so much more than you are by speaking in terms of poetry and philosophy, but we both know you’re little more than an empty shell. You whine and moan about being so tired, so lonely. You talk about how Figo abandoned you but we both know you never cared about Figo; you just liked having him around to boost your own ego. If you had cared about him, well, you never would have done what you did.

But you did do what you did. And, no, I don’t have to apologize for what I said then. I don’t think you’re a rapist and I never said that but I do think that you’re a monster. You’re incapable of even the most basic kindness without expecting something in return, you like putting people in your debt. It’s why I don’t trust you, why we’re not friends, but it is simply who and what you are. You should be hated for it, but you know what? I love you anyway. I love you because I’m kind, because I’m great, because I’m the one of us that’s worthy.

I don’t trust you, Veskur. You talk about yourself too much, the things you feel and the things you think, and you talk about them as if either of them matter. Yes, you can hold me. Do so now. I’ll tell you everything important, share with you all my deepest secrets. I’ll rely on you, take comfort in you, be supported by you, but you must remember that you are not worthy of the trust that I have chosen to give you. We are not friends. You understand this? We are not friends.

I read your missives and they were all poetry, all asking which of us had it worse. It’s you that does, a thousand times you, and do you know why? Because, in the end, I have my father’s love. I have Figo and Hekro and I’ve had Sotaas in ways you never will. I touched their hearts in ways that you’re not capable of. And look at you, all alone, rotting away in the wastes that your parents gave you.

My father loves me, supports me, but he never gave me my own keep. He never really gave me very much beyond love and support. So, you see, I’m better than you. I’ve built everything I am while you just accept everything that comes your way. You suffer the abuses that you do because you think you deserve it and you are absolutely correct in that thought.

And you love me, right? You love me. Say it. Say it. Say it.”

I love you.”

Of course you do.”

He held her, drew her into his arms, and he knew in that moment that everything would be alright for the people that mattered.

 

You can read the next chapter by clicking here. If you like the artwork, why not go and thank Meghan Duffy at duffyartdesign.com? She’s cool people.

Read article

519

Fiction – Love is War 03-00-03-02

Books & Writing, Culture, Projects, Short Fictions

December 28, 2015

Every week, we’re going to post some new fiction for you to devour and read, with original art as a header, and then a collected version for purchase from our store when the book is complete. Questions? Comments? The writers are right here, and they’ll respond as they’re able. 

***

Click here to read previous entry.

***

– 03:00:03:02 –

“Are you doing okay?” Risue asked, looking at the ragged woman that stood beside him.

“I’m fine,” Veskur whispered. “Fine.”

Risue was polite enough to say nothing.

He knew all about Veskur and Endrall’s falling out. He had heard the story from both sides, but tended to favor Endrall; he was prettier, better spoken, and more fun to be around. Veskur was, at best, a lunatic that meant well. An idiot savant – someone to be used, perhaps liked or even appreciated, but never fully trusted; the insanity that threatened to overtake her was so much more promise than threat.

“Did I tell you I’ve been talking with Figo?” Veskur asked for what felt like the ninth time. “I was tired and contacted him on a whim nine days ago. We’ve been in pretty much constant contact since then, talking about all kinds of things. Silly things. Light things.”

That degree of happiness was something that Risue was not used to hearing in this woman’s voice and he was not certain what to make of it, or of her.

She’d shown him some of those missives, hastily scrawled on both their parts, paper passed back and forth through scientific means long since established. He wondered how the Ethcinos she was blathering on about would effect such tried and true sciences, but he bit his tongue and read the single sentence responses. There was more wit than he’d expected from with party, even if he did not know the particulars of what they were discussing, but Risue had met Figo enough times to know that if he didn’t want this conversation then he would not be having it.

If the circumstances surrounding this conversation had been reversed, however, Risue was not so certain that Veskur would have had the presence or wherewithal to entertain no as an answer.

The Coeecians had stepped up their aggression in recent months, Jesam the First hammering his Vanir betters with a series of hit and run assaults that had forced the nobility back and back and back again. None of the other leaders had been able to pick out a pattern to the onslaught, but he had been acting as a go between for Hekro and Veskur. Those two had taken to drawing the strikes out on a map, weighing the days and patterns and distances that lay between one attack and the next. The two of them theorized that there was a pattern, just one they could not see.

Risue stared, his eyes going wide.

“His pattern is based on a Coeecian folk song,” Risue said.

“Really?” Veskur did not look convinced. “How can you tell?”

Risue walked around the table they had drawn the map upon, humming a tune, hitting the table with an amhr in time with the music. Veskur’s eyes went wide.

“Brilliant. Utterly brilliant.”

Risue smiled, shrugged, and did not mention that she had been the one to introduce that tune to him. She was forgetting more and more these days. He wondered if there was anyone still around her enough to notice it.

Turning back to the map of Midgard and its tributaries, the two nobles plotted out where they thought the next attack would come. It didn’t take them long to figure out – a forested area in the south, flatland with a keep towards the north and east. Risue made certain to send a copy to Hekro, the two of them waiting to see what the Golden Champion with a question.

“Do you know who’s posted there?” Risue had written.

“Figo Jera,” Hekro wrote back.

“I know this,” Veskur said, the excitement in her more infectious than any virus. “I knew I knew this, I knew. He told me this. Figo did. I know how many troops he has, their movements, their arms, when they watch, who goes on patrol, all of it.”

“That’s a lot of information.”

“I know.” Veskur licked her lips.

“We could send a message to Figo, warning him.”

“Or we could go ourselves.”

Veskur looked at him, her eyes burning with an intense mania.

“He did give me all that information, like an invitation,” Veskur pleaded. “This is just an excuse to go there. Besides, if we’re right and Jesam the First does attack, well, we can see that attack firsthand. We could figure out how to counter his raids, take back the parts of Midgard that have been lost.”

It was the idea of seeing the Coeecians’ new formations that got Risue to agree.

They took Risue’s carriage – House Raido had the best transportation technologies in all of Midgard, no disputing that. They rode in comfort, talking over what they had discovered, double-checking the evidence that supported what they now knew.

No one challenged their passage and there was no sign of the horror that they thought was coming so very quickly to this place. Risue was recognized by some of the troops, those soldiers that had fought with him back when he had not needed a cane to walk. He was greeted with smiles and clasped wrists, a greeting of one soldier to another. Most recognized Wyrd, as well, but there were fewer greetings for her. She was known for her strangeness, for her power and her madness, and these three things would always set her apart.

Figo was giving a speech when they arrived, rallying the troops. They found him easily enough. He was a young commander who stood tall and proud, a power and a presence that deserved love, admiration, and respect. On his left hand was a glove similar to the one that Endrall and Veskur both wore, a tool that Risue knew had something to do with Veskur’s invented and advanced Sciences but a tool that he did not yet possess. There was talk of someone having figured out how the gaurn worked and how to make them, but those that had heard those whispers knew better than to repeat them around the Good Lady Wyrd.

03-00-03-02

Figo was in mid-sentence when he noticed Veskur. He paused ever so briefly; staring, he shook his head quickly and resumed his speech as though nothing had happened. Risue caught the moment because he was good at reading people, as good as any of the more politically minded nobles that frequented the courts and not the killing fields. He turned to the woman beside him, wondering if she had noticed the response and saw instantly that she had.

“I shouldn’t have come here,” she whispered.

Then she turned and left.

Risue went to Figo and gave him the warning they had come to give, but he could tell that the other man was not really listening, that he was badly shaken by the appearance of his former lover. He asked a few polite questions and then excused himself, clearly not wanting to be around anyone at that moment, and Risue was kind enough to let the young commander retreat. There was terror in his eyes where there had been none before, a resignation that was terrifying in scope.

He searched for the woman he had come with but she had vanished. No one had seen her and no one seemed to have any idea as to where she might have gone. Risue gave up after some time; Veskur spent much of her time walking in the wild places and was almost as good as an Elhaz at not being found when she did not want to be. He returned instead to the troop formations, leaning heavily on his cane, speaking with the soldiers as they lazed about.

Not one of them believed that the Coeecians were coming. Not one of them was willing to listen to what he had to say to the contrary. Irritated by this lack of respect, Risue retreated to a high point and paused to watch and wait – and when the attack came he was in the perfect position to see everything that happened under the mad leadership of Jesam the First.

It was only his quick thinking and Figo’s leadership that saved the Vanir from being overrun completely.

***

Click here to read the next entry. If you like the artwork, why not go and thank Meghan Duffy at duffyartdesign.com? She’s cool people.

Read article