Tag Archive for Short Fiction

Short Fiction: The Skull

Det' by Streycat on Deviantart

Det’ by Streycat on Deviantart

 

It was a dark night, but not an  unpleasant one. The cool temperature only warranted her favorite striped hoodie. Though there was no moon the sky was clear, and the stars provided some light to see by. Klair knew the way through the woods by heart these days, and as she clambered over fallen trees or pushed through underbrush she made sure to keep a firm hold on the bundle she carried.

It was truly precious cargo. After all she’d gone through to get it Klair wasn’t about to lose it in the dark of the woods. She was almost to her destination – a low hill covered in trees, brush, and tall weeds. If you didn’t know where to look you never would have found the small hole that served as an entrance.

When she was younger Klair would have been able to shimmy through it with no trouble at all. Now, year after year, she found she had to keep widening it. Little by little it was becoming a proper door, and harder to hide. Not that anybody came out here if they could help it, but you never knew when somebody might go wandering the deep woods.

The hill was a barrow, an ancient tomb of stone covered over in countless years of dirt. She crawled through the hole into the barrow, bundle pushed ahead of her. Once inside she dusted herself off. A soft glow lit the space, welcoming and inviting as it always was when she visited. Three stone sarcophagi filled the center of the space, and a small altar took up the far wall.

Klair carefully removed the linen wrapping of her package. It fell away to reveal the gleaming white of ancient bone, round and smooth.

“I found your skull,” she said. The words echoed through the crypt, careening from damp wall to damp wall before settling into the dirt floor.

“Ah,” the answer was a gurgling sigh, as if the breath that fed it was drawn through lungs thick with mucus. But there was no mucus. There were no lungs. There was no breath. Klair wondered if her mentor affected the sound because it was the way he sounded when last he could remember, or if there was some other reason.

She set the skull atop the center sarcophagus, next to a collection of other bones. So far she’d managed to recover a full left leg (toes and all), part of a right arm (with assorted fingers), and eight ribs. Because The Enemy couldn’t have just kept the torso all in one place. No, that would have been too easy.

There was a moment of profound silence, as if the very possibility of sound had been sucked from the air. Her ears popped, and all was back to normal.

“Good,” the voice gurgled. It came from everywhere at once, as if it had soaked into the very stones that made the walls. “It is correct. Thank you, Klair. You did well. The jaw?”

“Separated from the skull, of course,” she sighed. “And I’m probably going to have to track down each individual tooth. They did want to make it as hard as possible, didn’t they?”

“Indeed they did. Whatever else their sins, you cannot fault them for their diligence.”

“Not so diligent these days.” Klair ran a hand through her raven hair and rolled her amber eyes. “The clues they left themselves are so buried in dogma and allegory they don’t even know what I’m after when I steal a tome or relic. They know they’re protecting something, but the what and why?” She shook her head sadly. “It makes me wonder. If they knew, would they even agree with their ancestors? Or would they help me? Sometimes I’m tempted to try and explain it to them. You could do so much for the world, if only they weren’t so afraid. If only they knew you like I do.”

“As much as I applaud the sentiment, I must disagree. While they are oblivious we have the advantage. Explain to them their true purpose and they may blindly move to protect those parts of my body that remain unclaimed. More than making your task more difficult it could place you in further danger, and I will not have that.”

“Pfft.” Klair sat down with her back against a sarcophagus and looked up at the ceiling. “You worry too much.”

“What is that you’re wearing?”

Klair touched the ring of thorny vines that wrapped around her right wrist. A matching tangle encircled her neck, like some ancient necklace. She’d almost forgotten they were there. “Druidic charms,” she explained. “Would you believe there was a cursed forest between your noggin and the rest of the world?”

“The cursed forest is no surprise. My enemies would go to any length to keep my remains isolated. But Druids… I didn’t expect any would remain.”

“That’s a yes, no, sort of, tricky kinda question,” Klair replied. “They weren’t exactly alive. In fact, they were kind of the curse. But we worked it out.”

“And you came to no harm?”

“A few scrapes and bruises, that’s all. Hey, I’ve got a line on your other leg. Well, part of it. The upper bit. Think I’ll head out in a couple days. This one might take a while.”

“There is no need to rush. I’ve waited this long already, and impatience was never in my nature.”

“Maybe not yours,” Klair muttered. “The sooner I put you back together, the sooner you can come back and make things right.”

Short Fiction: Geruth the Debt Collector

Art by Anton Marrast

Art by Anton Marrast

 

“Come downstairs, Marie.”

“I’m not coming down, Geruth. Go away.”

“You can’t stay up there forever. I, on the other hand, can stay down here indefinitely.”

“You’ll get bored and go away.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe I’ll pretend to go away. Maybe I’ll just go a little way down the street and hide. You’ll come down eventually. When you think it’s safe.”

“Hide?” Marie laughed, and the high pitched sound echoed down the stairs at Geruth. “Then you’ll really get bored. I bet you’ll get bored faster than if you stayed standing there.”

“Perhaps you’ll run out of food before I get bored.”

“Perhaps,” she mocked Geruth’s use of the word, “I’ll get someone else to bring me food. Or maybe I squirreled away enough that I can outlast you. If you want me so badly why don’t you just come up and get me?” she teased.

“Funny,” Geruth replied dryly. “The ward on the building was a good idea, I’ll give you that. But you must know you can’t stay in there forever. You have debts that need paying. It won’t be all that bad, you know.”

There followed a silence that stretched from seconds into minutes, and when Geruth had counted ten of them he huffed a little. “I know you’re still there, Marie. I can smell you.”

“Had you worried, didn’t I? I bet you thought I’d snuck out somehow. What if I’d taken a shower and left a bunch of dirty, smelly clothes up here? Then you’d smell them and not me. I’d smell shower fresh!”

“You know it doesn’t work that way. It’s your soul I smell, not your body odor. Besides, even when you smell bad you still smell like flowers. The bodywash you use lingers.”

“Flatterer. Sweet talking won’t get me down there any faster, you know.”

“I lose nothing by being polite. Marie, why do I smell nightsbane? Are you working magic up there?”

“I’m a practitioner, Geruth. Of course I’m working magic.”

“To what end?”

She laughed at him again, a playful mocking sound. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I would, actually. That’s why I asked. Hmm. Cinnabar? And… was that a Harpy feather?”

“Oh, you’re good. Yes on both.”

“Where on earth did you get a Harpy feather?”

“A Harpy,” Marie answered coyly.

“I seriously doubt you could deprive a Harpy of even a single feather.”

“How do you know? Maybe I made friends with one and she gave it to me as a gift?”

“I… suppose that’s technically possible,” he said skeptically. “Did you?”

“Don’t be silly, Harpies hate everyone. Now be silent, I have to chant.”

Geruth waited patiently until the even tempo of her chant had ended. “I think you missed a couple of syllables and mispronounced eigzath.”

“Don’t you start, I did not!”

“It’s pronounced eye-guh-zath, not eeg-zath.”

“It is not.” Geruth waited patiently to the sound of pages furiously turning. A book thumped shut. “Shit. You’re right.”

“I hope that wasn’t your only Harpy feather.”

“Heavens no, I have a whole bucket.”

“Ready to come downstairs yet?”

At last Marie appeared at the top of the stairs, breath puffed petulantly into one cheek. She blew it out between her lips to produce a purposefully obnoxious noise and sat looking down at Geruth. “I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve, you know.”

“Craftily hidden under the sleeves your tank top does not have, I see.”

Marie narrowed her eyes. “Hush, it’s an expression.”

“My apologies,” Geruth smirked. “Please, proceed.”

Marie chewed her lip and looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve still got plenty of juice in a couple of crystals. A bit short on ingredients, but… I could maybe swing a teleport.”

“I’ve got a counterspell going,” Geruth shot down the idea. “First thing I did, actually. Besides, where would you go? You know I’d just catch up eventually.”

“Hmm. I could try to dispell you.”

“There’s a reason it’s dispell and not destroy. I’d come back. I always do. And when I did you’d be at the top of my list. And not my regular list, either. My very special list. The one you really don’t want to be on.”

Marie leaned forward and smiled a wicked smile. “Maybe I’ll trap you, then. Bind you to something horrible – like a toilet!”

“I’d make it so terrifying no one would dare use it,” Geruth countered. “And once word of that got out you know they’d be by to unbind me in short order. Now quit stalling. You and I both know there’s only one way this is going to end.”

“You’ve never let anyone go?” Marie asked. “No one at all, in the untold eons you’ve been around?”

“For one, I’m not that old. For another, no. I take my duty very seriously. You have debts, I collect. No matter how much I like the one who owes them. It’s what I do.”

At last Marie heaved a sigh of resignation. “Alright, alright.” She stood and threw her arms wide. “Take me Geruth, I’m yours!”

“You still need to leave the building, Marie.”

“Huh. You mean the ward actually worked? I thought you were just playing along.”

“Not this time, no. You did good.”

“I told you… nah, I’ve already given up. Flatter me all you like.” She grinned and skipped down the stairs. She paused deliberately in front of the door, then slid through with style.

Geruth turned into a cloud of darkness that enveloped her completely. A second later he was reforming, turning from cloud to large and shadowy and vaguely kanine. “I’ve brought Marie Veledar to settle her debt,” he said, addressing a stern faced old man who stood behind a mahogany desk.

The old man frowned at her. “Overdue library book,” he intoned. “One dollar.”

She dug into her pocket, produced the dollar, and handed it over. As she left the library she grinned back over her shoulder. “See you next week, Geruth!”

Short Fiction: Ironclads

Snow Attack by James Reekie

Snow Attack by James Reekie

 

In the good old days war tended to stop in the winter. Nobody liked dying in the cold and snow, especially when it was the elements that were killing you and instead of the enemy. These days, when trains could carry troops and supplies alike, it was a year round proposition. It was a much slower, more carefully considered proposition, and the people on the front lines still didn’t like it, but it was doable.

Today Cody was lucky enough to be headed away from the front lines. Unfortunately that didn’t mean he was headed away from the war. Instead he was just headed to a quieter part of it – Fort Piston. Piston was as close to secret as the Union could make it, nestled in the middle of mountainous nowhere and connected to the outside world by one lonely stretch of train tracks. Among those few who knew about Fort Piston, even fewer knew what actually went on there.

Cody and his men were about to have the dubious honor of finding out. They’d been on the train for nearly a week, slowly winding its way through the Rocky Mountains. Many of them were getting bored and restless, but Cody himself was enjoying the break. He sat in the dining car with Garrett, one of the technical personnel being transported to the fort.

“A lot of the men are on loan from the First Nation Army,” Cody was explaining. “They’re not actually Union soldiers, so they’re free to dress how they like. Unofficially that extends to all of us. Not much sense wearing a uniform when you’re crawling around behind Confederate lines, eh?”

“Makes sense,” Garrett nodded.

“Alright,” Cody sat back. “My turn. What’s up with the extra security? You don’t usually have the Special Irregulars ride this train back and forth. What’s so special about it this time?”

“You seen all those big boxes in the freight car?”

“Yeah, I saw them get loaded on.”

“Well,” Garrett leaned forward conspiratorially, “There’s a whole Ironclad in those boxes, in bits and pieces. We’re gonna put it all together at Piston and test it out. If it works like we hope the greybacks are in for a hell of a surprise come summer.”

There was a screech of brakes, and the entire car shifted. “The hell are we stopping for out here?” Cody wondered. A quick glance out the window told him the train was slowing down fast, not a single sign of civilization in sight.

“Might be rocks on the track,” Garrett suggested. “Or maybe an avalanche of snow.”

“Hmm,” Cody considered the possibility. “Could be. Excuse me, would you? I’m going to go have a look up front.”

He ran into Lone Hawk on the way to the locomotive. “Trouble?” the First Nation warrior asked.

“Isn’t it usually?”

Lone Hawk gave him a terse not. “Good thing I brought this,” he added, holding forth Cody’s rifle. “Should I get the others?”

“Not just yet. Let’s you and me go have a look up front.”

The snow was starting to pick up as they reached the engineer, heavy wet flakes driven by wind that threatened to turn into a righteous blizzard. A tight faced man in overalls was carefully wrapping a few pieces of dynamite together with string. He glanced up when they entered and shook his head to preempt their questions.

“Got a load of shit on the tracks ahead,” he told them. He spared a hand to tap the binoculars that hung around his neck. “Nothing a little bit of TNT can’t handle. Blow most of it away – mind the tracks – then slowly push ahead and let the plow do the rest. Done it before. Nothing to get worried over.”

“How long?” Cody asked.

“Not too long at all. You boys stay here and mind the engine for me if you like, I’ll be back in a bit.” He grabbed a heavy fur coat from one corner, tucked the dynamite under his arm, and clambered out of the cab into the snow.

“Maybe not trouble after all,” Lone Hawk commented. A minute later the crack of gunfire pierced the drifting snow.

“You just had to say it,” Cody growled. “We-”

A hail of bullets interrupted him, peppering the cab and engine. Seconds later gunfire issued forth from the passenger cars in response – the Special Irregulars, doing their job.

“This ain’t right,” Cody muttered. “We’re too close to Piston for a Confederate ambush.”

“Yet here they are,” Lone Hawk observed, peering carefully out a window. “Definitely greybacks.”

A heavy wud-wud-wud rose above the crackle of small arms fire. Starting from the furthest car back and slowly walking forward towards the engine, the wood and metal sides of the train began to splinter violently, as if they were being hit by small cannon balls rather than bullets. Cody’s eyes went wide. “Ironclad!” he shouted. “Move!”

Without hesitation he and Lone Hawk turned and jumped from the cab, putting the train between themselves and the Ironclad. The cab erupted into shrapnel as they leapt, and as they hit the snow the locomotive itself tore apart in a conflagration of steam and fire.

Cody tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t obey. Lone Hawk grabbed him around the shoulders and started dragging him away up the side of the mountain. He noted, in a detached sort of way, that there was an awful lot of blood in the snow where he’d landed.

“I think I’m hit,” he told Lone Hawk.

“Only a flesh wound,” the brave told him. There was a muted thump nearby, like a pile of wet snow falling off a roof, and Lone Hawk stopped pulling him. Cody rolled his head to one side and saw another Ironclad approaching through the blowing snow, coming right at them.

Without a word Lone Hawk dropped him in the snow and ran. Over the blowing snow, Cody heard a heavy wud-wud-wud.

Short Fiction: Wormholes

Third Nature (artist currently unknown)

Time-0 by elreviae.deviantart.com

 

Sol Gate Control to transport Calypso, you’ve been granted access to the wormhole. Proceed to marker one five three and hold position. We’ve got a Worm coming through and you don’t want to be in the way. Once she’s through you’re number three in the queue.

Tack flipped the transmit switch on his control board. “Roger that, Gate Control. Proceeding to one five three and holding position. Hey Control, where’s that Worm headed?”

Wild space, just like always. I hear they’re trying to put another arm off the Baldur gate, like the place isn’t busy enough already.

“Never enough room in the galaxy, is there?”

Ain’t that the truth. She’s headed through in a couple minutes. You should be able to get a visual on the gate from your marker. Enjoy the show.

Tack’s fingers danced over his control board, dialing in a magnified visual of the Sol Gate. A massive ship was lumbering towards it at an almost painfully slow speed. He could understand why they’d want to be cautious, of course.

Terminus Ships, or Worms as they were colloquially known, were some of the biggest vessels ever made. Inside their massive frames they carried the equipment needed to create an artificial wormhole terminus and all the basic pieces of a gate with which to stabilize it. Despite hundreds of years of research nothing smaller was capable of such a feat, and all that mass didn’t exactly turn on a dime.

For as long as it took the Worm to get to the gate it was worth the show. Wormholes, once connected from one terminus to another, were always there. They were always open, tunneled through spacetime, just waiting for someone to go through. But the termeni themselves were invisible, at least to the naked eye, until a ship went through. Then something magical happened.

It was happening to the Worm right now. What had once been dark empty space in and around the gate began to glow with a soft blue light. Tendrils of what looked very much like lightening spiraled out from the center, forming what would look like a tunnel from the perspective of the Worm. As it crossed the threshold of the terminus the colossal ship seemed to stretch, elongating as if it were made of putty. He saw the front end pull all the way through the gate while the rear seemed to stay in place.

In the blink of an eye the ship’s aft rushed towards the front, like a taught spring released, and the behemoth disappeared in a flash of light.

It was the Calypso’s turn soon enough. Andy, Tack’s copilot, came up to the cockpit for the jump. He got the green light on his board and fired the engines. The gate began to luminesce before them. It took a moment for Tack to realize something was wrong. He checked his instruments. Sure enough, they were too far away for it to be lighting up yet.

Andy saw it too. “Control, this Calypso. We’re reading an early activation of the terminus. Something we should know?”

We see it too, Calypso. All the other gates confirm that no ships have entered the wormhole, and we’re not getting any IFF or transponder pings on our instruments. You’re clear to proceed. But, ah, be careful.

Andy and Tack shared a concerned look. “Roger that Control,” Andy acknowledged. “Proceeding with caution.”

A proximity sensor alarm went off. A huge, ragged chunk of warped metal appeared from the terminus. Tack pushed hard on the controls. The metal sailed past, barely missing them… and then they snapped forward into the wormhole. More chunks of metal swept towards them, illuminated like lightning rods by the tendrils of energy that lashed out to strike them from the sides of the wormhole.

“What the hell?!” Andy demanded of no one in particular. “Look out!”

The source of the debris swept into view. It was clearly the forward section of a ship, and larger than the Calypso all on its own. “Is that a Worm?” Tack wondered aloud as he navigated around it.

“Definitely not. Look,” Any opened a sub window on their visuals and enlarged a portion of the wreckage as it sailed past. “That’s not any language I know.”

They didn’t have time to consider it further. “Coming up on terminus exit,” Tack announced. There was another flash of light, and they were back in normal spacetime.

“Well, shit.” Andy drew out the words. “This isn’t Andromeda.”

“Sure as hell isn’t,” Tack confirmed. He wasn’t getting any IFF or transponder signals, not even from the gate, yet his panel was alight with sensor contacts. They were all behind the Calypso, so he fired the thrusters and spun the ship in a flat circle. The view that came around was not at all what he expected.

Every wormhole gate he’d ever seen had one ring. The one he saw before him had at least five, maybe more, and it looked to be in orbit of a planet. Nobody put wormhole gates near planets. Definitely not five of them. That was just insane.

“The terminus jumped,” Andy breathed. “Oh, crap.”

“What?”

“It’s theoretically possible for a wormhole terminus to jump from one location to another. That’s why we use gates, so they don’t drift. I think… I think the Andromeda terminus jumped. No,” he peered at the five ringed gate. “Not just jumped. I think it got hijacked.”

“You saying these guys stole a wormhole?” Tack was astounded. “Why would they do that?”

“I don’t think it was on purpose. If you do something on purpose you make sure you don’t cut your own ships in half.” Andy tapped at his board, and a magnified subwindow appeared. There, near the gate, was the rest of the ship they’d seen inside the wormhole.

Another thought occurred to Tack. In all their exploration humanity had never encountered another species. “What a way to make first contact,” he muttered.

Short Fiction: Roland

Blue from lakehurwitz.deviantart.com

Blue from lakehurwitz.deviantart.com

This short fiction comes to you thanks to a challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s website (terribleminds.com). The challenge was to write a short fiction of 1000 words in ten tiny chapters. So here’s my go at it:

1

“You have died.”

The VR chair disengaged and slowly rose from a reclined position to a sitting one. The lights got brighter. As the neural interface finished disconnecting Roland could feel the usual itchy feeling behind his eyes. He could also still feel the spear that had gone through his gut in the game. It wasn’t pain – dying in VR didn’t hurt – but there was a slight feeling of pressure.

“Well,” Roland sighed. “So much for the fantasy genre. What’s next, ALIS?”

“The next genre in your queue is Cyberpunk Thriller, Roland.”

“Sounds fun. Fire it up.”

2

Two years was a long time to be alone. But even fully automated, AI enhanced supply depots in the ass end of nowhere needed a human to oversee them. A hand of flesh and blood to push the kill switch, call for help, or make repairs. Even AI minds couldn’t think like a human yet. Two years was the standard tour for an overseer like Roland. After that he’d get rotated back into the fleet. Somewhere with actual people to talk to.

Six months to go. Until then there was the VR chair, and there was ALIS.

3

“Roland, according to my logs you’ve exceeded the regulation’s recommended amount of VR time by one hundred and twelve percent.”

“So I’ve got twice the ‘recommended’ time in VR. Who cares? There’s nothing else to do on this rustbucket. The last ship to stop by was four months ago. Besides, you’ll pull me out if you need me.”

“Research indicates extended VR immersion can have long term psychological effects. I am authorized to shut down the chair if I determine you are suffering symptoms.”

“You turn off that chair, ALIS, and I swear I’ll hit your kill switch.”

“I’m only looking out for your wellbeing.”

4

“You have died.”

“Sunova bitch,” Roland pushed out of the chair with a sigh. “And I was that close to…” he paused, thoughts frozen mid flight. “To…”

“Roland? I’m reading elevated stress markers. Are you feeling well?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I just… had a brain fart, that’s all. What was I in just now?”

“Red Noon. Western genre. Roland, perhaps you should spend some time away from the VR chair. Memory loss can be an early sign of psychological damage. I am authorized-”

“No! I mean… yeah. Maybe… maybe you’re right. I’ll just go have a nap.”

5

Staying away from the chair was harder than it had any right to be. The day’s maintenance was done, and by now he would normally be in a VR simulation. Instead he sat in the corridor outside the VR room, flexing his hands. He knew ALIS wasn’t kidding about shutting down the chair if she had to. His threats of shutting her down in return were meaningless in the face of her directives.

So he sat in the corridor feeling antsy, slowly banging his head against the wall.

6

“You have died.”

“Gah!” Roland sat bolt upright, sweat slick on his skin, soaking through his jumpsuit. The lights were too bright, and the tingling behind his eyes bordered on pain. He swallowed hard, waiting for his ragged breathing to calm. “ALIS?”

“Yes, Roland?”

“Why am I in the VR chair?”

“I’m not sure, Roland. I went into maintenance mode, and when I came out you were in the chair. I would have shut it down, but it appeared you may have fallen asleep during the simulation, and disengaging in such a situation carries potential health hazards.”

“Ok. Alright. ALIS, I think… I think you’d better shut down the chair. Just for a little while.”

“Directive confirmed, Roland.”

7

“Are you feeling better, Roland? Your vital signs have calmed significantly over the last week.”

“Better, yeah. Bored as hell though. I wish real life was as interesting as those games. Nothing ever happens here. At least when I was on a warship somebody shot at us from time to time.”

“Would you like me to reactivate the VR chair?”

His guts twisted in a sickening mixture of anticipation and fear. “Yes. But… don’t. Not yet.” Not until he could think about the chair without getting that feeling.

8

Alarm klaxons woke him in the middle of the night. “ALIS! What’s going on?”

“Monitoring systems are registering failures in several systems. Stand by… analysis of sensor data indicates an unidentified object impacted with the station. Origin is unclear.”

“Something hit us? Sonuva bitch. Why didn’t we move?”

“The object only registered on sensors eight seconds before impact. There was not enough time to evade.”

“Prioritize repairs. What’s the worst of it?”

“Stand by… a main oxygen recycling conduit in section three appears to have ruptured. The cutoff valve will not respond to commands. We are venting atmosphere. Estimate forty two minutes before minimum operational levels. I will attempt to lengthen the time by isolating compartments.”

“Can I reach it from inside?”

“Negative.”

“So much for being bored. Prep the airlock, ALIS.”

9

He could see the problem plain as day. The real issue was getting to it without cutting his suit open on the jagged metal that surrounded the hole.

“Please exercise caution, Roland,” ALIS crackled over his suit’s intercom. “Additional sensor scans have detected a buildup of hydrazine gas from a ruptured thruster line. If pressure increases-”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

A little adhesive, one metal patch later, and the station was no longer venting oxygen. Pleased with his work, Roland pulled his arm from the hole. The suit’s articulated metal elbow caught on the ragged edge, holding him in place. He pulled harder, but it refused to budge.

“Roland, the gas pressure is increasing.”

He pulled harder still, risking a ruptured suit in his sudden desperation.

“Roland, I’m reading-”

The gas pocket exploded.

10

“You have died.”

A gasp. Bright lights. Itching pain behind his eyes. Skin wet with sweat. “ALIS?” Roland whispered, heart pounding. “Why am I in the VR chair?”

“ALIS, are you there?”

“ALIS?”

 

NaNoWriMo Update Five

Fell a bit further behind today, with only 1155 words. Not in too much trouble yet, especially if I can make it all up on the weekend.

“Found any work yet, Lonesome?” Katherine looked past her boots as the Spirit Talker entered the Wayward Son. She’d made the saloon her unofficial headquarters while she was in town with a room upstairs and a tab at the bar. Currently she had her own table, where she’d made the executive decision to put her feet up despite the owner’s annoyed look. She also had a bottle of whiskey and a cigar that, while not the best, was certainly decent enough smoke.

Lonesome pulled up a chair and Katherine dropped her feet to the floor. “Oh, a bit here and there. Some water dowsing for new wells. Tracked down a lost horse. And there was this pretty little thing that wanted a good luck charm. Did that one for free.”

“I’ve always did say you were a man to make the ladies swoon.” She poured some whiskey into her glass and slid it over to him.

He downed it with only the slightest hesitation as she took her own drink straight from the bottle. After wiping his mouth on his sleeve he gave her a disapproving look. “She was five, Kat.”

“Doesn’t matter if they’re five or fifty,” she grinned. “Hey, you like nicknames. Why don’t we come up with something for the belles to call you other than Lonesome. How about… Heartbreak. Yeah, Heartbreak Cooper. It’s got a ring to it.”

“How much of that have you had?”

“Not so much that I don’t know teasin’ a Spirit Talker ain’t wise, but just enough to think it’s damn funny regardless.” There was the crunch and crinkle of leather as she leaned forward across the table. “You know you love it.”

“Breakin’ hearts requires having ahold of them in the first place, doesn’t it?” He fiddled with one of the charms that hung on his coat. “I only ever did that once. Can’t accuse me of it these days. Keep to myself, or did you forget the monicker you were trying to replace?”

Another swig of whiskey and Katherine followed it with a deep chuckle. “Oh, Lonesome. Don’t you know women love the mysterious types? You keep turning a blind eye and all you have to do is ride through town, they’ll sigh for not being able to have you.” That she followed the statement with a light sigh of her own was enough to make the Spirit Talker take note of just how flushed she was.

He changed the subject. “How long you plan to be in town, Katherine?”

“Oh, a few more days.” The tip of her cigar burned a little brighter as she took another draw from it.  “Then it’s on to the next town. You know how it is.”

“More than most, I’d wager. I hear you gave the sheriff quite the talking to.”

“Better believe I did. If there’s anything I can’t stomach it’s a lawman too afraid to do their damn job. He’ll know better next time, or I’ll make sure he’s out on his ass.”

“And you wonder why I call you Wild Kat.” Before she could respond, Lonesome had pushed to his feet and stepped away from the table. “Thanks for the drink, Arbiter. Do me a favor and go easy on the rest of that. Sleepy little towns like this always are until the next Lee Caswell comes through.”

“I don’t need a lecture on how to do my job, Lonesome.”

“I wouldn’t presume.”

He’d just made it to the door when she called after him, “I’ll see you around, Heartbreak!” He nodded mutely. She hadn’t asked, but he was planning on leaving first thing the next morning. Kormac’s Bluff just didn’t have enough work to make it worth his while. A part of him wanted to stay behind just a little while longer. The rest of him knew better. What he’d said before was true – following Arbiter Bishop around was just more trouble than it was worth, and in more ways than one.

Back in the Wayward Son, Katherine put her feet back up on the table and blew smoke up at the ceiling. She shouldn’t tease Lonesome like that, she knew. He’d never talked about it, but something had happened once upon a time that made him pull away from most human attachment. The closest he’d gotten to an actual friend that she knew of was… well, her. It made her feel a little guilty, but only a little. Whatever else Lonesome was he was tougher on the inside than most people were on the outside. She finished her cigar and went upstairs to her room. The whiskey came with her.

An insistent knocking woke her early the next morning. She growled something about charging the person doing it with disturbing the peace. It had the desired effect. She got dressed quickly and opened the door. “This’d better be good,” she warned.

The young man she found waiting for her was the one from the telegraph office. She couldn’t remember his name, but it hardly mattered. “Sorry Arbiter,” he apologized. “We just got an urgent message for you.”

She took the message and quickly scanned read through it. There had been a train wreck on the line just outside of Blackoak. Somebody had dynamited the tracks, shot a Haversham & Black employee, and stolen company property. If that didn’t count as something that needed an Arbiter’s attention she didn’t know what would.

Lonesome hadn’t made it too far from Kormac’s Bluff when he heard a horse coming up behind him. He was on foot after all, and not in any particular hurry. That someone else was on the road wasn’t much of a surprise either, it was the straightest surest way to the next town over. What surprised him was was who it was.

“Cooper, you sneaky son of a bitch,” Katherine admonished as she pulled her horse alongside him. “Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving town?”

“You didn’t ask,” he shrugged.

“Well, I’m sorry I teased you,” she apologized.

He stopped walking and frowned at her. “No need for that,” he waved it away. “That’s not why I left. Just wasn’t any work to be had.”

“Well then you’re in luck! If you don’t have your heart set on something down the road here, I’ve got a job I could use your help on.”

“What manner of job?”

“The payin’ kind.” She handed him the telegram and waited while he read it. When he’d finished he handed it back. “Usual rate?” he asked.

“That’s right.” From one of her coat pockets she pulled the round silver badge Arbiters gave to those whose help they enlisted. She always had at least one on hand, just in case. With a flick of her wrist she tossed it down to him. “Now get up here. I know you’re no fan of riding, but we don’t have time to walk all the way to Blackoak.”

 

Short Fiction: Lee’s Hollow

Cowboys, Kekai Kotaki

Cowboys, Kekai Kotaki

 

The open plains were a difficult place to track a fugitive on the run. Even more difficult when that fugitive was a known spirit talker, able to sway the plains into concealing all trace of his passing. All trace, that is, aside from the bodies of his victims. Gordon Marrow had gotten sloppy, and now there was a posse on his tail. Were it anyone else Gordon would have been able to lose them, as he’d lost so many others before. But these men were Hunters, that special branch of the US Marshals, and they had a spirit talker of their own. If they caught him he’d be hanged, or worse. Probably worse – Hunters weren’t known for letting their quarry come back again. So, with the clock running out, he rode into the town of Lee’s Hollow with grim determination and one last ditch plan.

Marshal Byron Steel leaned forward in his saddle and casually adjusted the brim of his hat. “What’ve we got, Wolf?”

James “Wolf” Pierce knelt next to his horse, eyes closed. He was a lean and grizzled tracker whose skin was dark and worn from years in the unforgiving sun of the plains. Some said the only way they could tell him from the natives was his face full of wiry black hair. The beard that grew from just below his eyeballs all the day down his neck was one reason for his nickname. The other was the unerring, methodical way way in which he tracked his prey.

Wolf opened his eyes and stood, brushing dirt from his pants. “Spirits say he took a turn northeast. There’s a town a day or so that way.”

There was a rustle of paper as Marshal Danny Fitzpatrick consulted a stained and worn map. “Aye,” he nodded as his horse slowly walked a circle around the others. “Lee’s Hollow, according to this. Never been there myself. Think Marrow knows we’re after him?”

Steel sat up straighter and looked to the northeast. “He’s running too hard and fast for a man who thinks he’s in the clear. He knows.”

“So what do you figure he’s up to?” Fitzpatrick asked as Wolf hauled himself back into the saddle. “He’s passed by the last two towns.”

“Needs something,” Wolf mused. “Food, water, medicine. Maybe he just needs to scratch the itch.”

“Hmm,” Steel frowned. If Marrow had an itch to scratch it wouldn’t be the one most men had. His would mean blood. “A day away?” he prompted Fitzpatrick.

“Less if we ride hard.”

“Then let’s ride hard.”

From a distance Lee’s Hollow looked like any other dusty plains town. There was a handful of buildings all clustered together, private residences along with all the requisites for town life like a general store, church, and a saloon. It likely served as the hub for a number of nearby ranches, any of which Marrow could be holed up in.

“Something about this place seem… off, to you?” Fitzpatrick asked ask they closed in on it.

“Looks empty,” Steel agreed. “Like a ghost town.”

Wolf pulled his horse to a stop. The other Marshals pulled up next to him, waiting for an explanation. “Danny is right,” the spirit talker told them, his eyes squinted at the town. “Something is wrong here. I can feel it.”

“What kind of wrong?” Steel asked. “Did our boy Marrow learn some new tricks?”

“Evil waits in that town,” Wolf asserted. “More than Gordon Marrow brought with him.”

“Is that right?” Fitzpatrick pulled his rifle from its saddle holster and checked to make sure it was loaded. “Well then, why don’t we go clean it up a bit, eh lads?”

They advanced slowly with rifles ready and eyes keen for trouble. The town was as they first surmised – a ghost town, seemingly empty of residents. No one moved on the street. No music played from the saloon. No shadowed figures watched from behind curtained windows. At the very least the local lawman should have been out to greet three armed newcomers, yet he too was absent.

“Search the place,” Steel ordered. They found the church locked from the inside, the unmistakable smell of death escaping through cracks in the frame. Fitzpatrick kicked in the door and the Marshals rushed through to find a macabre scene.

Dead townsfolk hung from the walls and the rafters. The pews had all been pushed aside so that more bodies could be laid flat on the ground. In the middle of it all sat a blood covered Gordon Marrow, naked from the waist up. Strange symbols had been carved into his flesh, and that wasn’t all that was wrong about him. He seemed swollen, like a dead man that had sat out in the sun too long.

“Marshals,” Marrow greeted them in a pained voice. “Y’all took yer time. Now it’s too late.”

Steel advanced on Marrow slowly, rifle pointed at the fugitive’s forehead. “What the hell did you do here, Marrow? What is this?”

“I thought…” Marrow shuddered. “I thought I could bargain with him. I shoulda… shoulda known. Make a deal with the devil, there ain’t no way that ends good. Just lookit me now.”

“Steel,” Wolf warned, “Look. Other bodies… they’re swelling up like him.”

With a cry of anguish, Marrow’s flesh split open. He shed his skin like a snake, and from within him came a large, worm like creature that had one central mouth ringed with curved teeth. The other bodies split open as well, producing five demon worms in all. The Marshals opened fire, but the worms just kept growing. They burst through the walls of the church as the Marshals retreated down the street and hastily mounted their horses.

“What do we do?” Fitzpatrick asked as the demon worms towered ever larger behind them.

“We go get the army,” Steel told him. “And hope they’ve got guns big enough for the job.”

The horses needed no urging and soon the three Marshals were thundering across the plains, monstrously huge worms close behind.

Short Fiction: The Guardian

Fall of Gods by Rasmus Berggreen

Fall of Gods by Rasmus Berggreen

 

Tormin trudged doggedly through the fog. His feet and legs were almost numb from hiking through the rocky terrain, and he stumbled often. But he would not let himself fall. He’d come too far and endured too much to die here. It had not been mere physical hardship he had suffered, though there had been enough of that to last him a lifetime. The hunger, the exhaustion, the wounds yet unhealed – they were not what drove him forward.

He paused at a rocky outcropping and leaned against it for a moment. “As long as one of us carries forward,” he reminded himself. “If just one man finishes the journey, we all succeed.” The last words were a stark reminder of how lonely and desolate the Tortured Path was. Ten of them had begun the trek nearly a year ago. Three days ago Tormin became the last of them to persevere. The wind picked up, whistling and whispering through the rocks. He could almost imagine it sounded like the voices of his dead comrades urging him onward.

From the corner of his eye he caught a movement, a quick flash of something dark and lithe. When he turned to look it disappeared into the fog, the soft padding of feet on stone the only proof that it hadn’t been his imagination. Tormin drew his sword and pushed his back against the rock, eyes searching. A soft growl carried on the wind.

“A wolf?” he breathed. No, nothing natural lived here. Despite the constant moisture not even moss grew in the Path. Where plants couldn’t live nothing else would, which meant this was something worse.

He edged along the rock, keeping his back to it and sorely missing his comrades. All the times they’d fought back to back to get as far as they did, all the times they’d saved each other’s skins… or failed.

Tormin felt the rock drop away behind him and spun around, ready to see some horrifying monster pushing out of a hidden burrow to attack him. Instead he found himself looking at what he first thought to be a skull. Empty eye sockets stared vacantly past him into the fog, but there was no nose hole, no macabre grin of exposed teeth. He took a step backwards and regarded it further. Gradually he realized the rock outcropping he’d been leaning against was in the shape of a giant, empty helmet.

The sound of padded footsteps behind him made his guts clench. Finding nothing when he looked, Tormin decided to adjust the field of battle a little. Sword still clenched in one clammy hand he ascended to helmet and stood atop it, searching all around for some sign of the thing that stalked him.

He found it as the fog itself began to coalesce before him, moving and swirling about until he could see the vague outline of a wolf standing before him – and far above him. The creature was huge. He had to crane his neck to meet its stark white eyes as it stared down at him.

“You have come far, mortal,” a deep voice rumbled through the fog. “You venture where few of your kind have come before.”

“I made it?” Tormin breathed, hardly believing it. “Are you the Guardian?” he addressed the foggy avatar, trying to project his voice so he sounded like something other than a mouse squeaking its last at a cat.

“I am. If you know me, then you know my purpose. Speak – why have you come?”

“I come seeking the Gods!”

A sound like thunder echoed from the rocks. Tormin realized the Guardian was laughing at him. “So do all who come here,” it replied. “Do you come for the same reasons? To seek their wisdom? To challenge them for their place of power? To plead a case for their intervention? Speak!”

Tormin drew a breath to steady himself. The Guardian’s words felt like a hammer on his heart, and the last thing he wanted to do was collapse. Not as he stood at the gates themselves. “It was written long ago that a man journeyed here and found the Gods,” Tormin explained. “That he suffered their trials and sacrificed much to reach them. In reward for his devotion to them, the Gods granted him a gift. I have come in the hope of another such gift.”

“You speak of Naro,” the Guardian mused. “His gift was Wisdom, so that he might help his people. What would yours be? Power? Riches? Immortality?”

“To help the descendants of Naro’s people!” Tormin shouted. “We have been all but utterly destroyed, unaided by the Gods even as we pleaded for their help! I would ask their aide, to somehow preserve my people!”

“A worthy request,” the Guardian acknowledged. “In times past it would have gained you notice. But these are not those times.”

The titan of fog turned as if to leave, and Tormin nearly panicked. “No!” he protested. “You can’t deny me entrance! We came so far! We bled and died and sacrificed, we followed observed every mandate of the texts! We showed our devotion!”

The Guardian turned its head, regarding Tormin with one pale eye. “I have not denied you entrance. You may follow me if you please… but you will find no Gods here to aid you.”

“I… I don’t understand,” he stammered. “This is the Gods’ place?”

“It is.”

“Then… they would hide from me? Is this another challenge?”

“You misunderstand. There are no Gods here to find.”

Tormin clenched his fists. This couldn’t be right. The Gods couldn’t be gone! “You’re a God!” he argued. “You’re here!”

“Am I?” There was another rumble of laughter. “I am merely the Guardian, mortal. Come what may I stand my post. You have your permission to enter. So come. Follow me, and see for yourself.”

The wind whispered to Tormin again, urging him forward. Forward he went.

Short Fiction: Embers

Beneath The Waves by Nanfe

Beneath The Waves by Nanfe

 

Natsuko loomed over me as I lay defeated on the ground, a pale moon large and full behind her. Orange embers blew past on the wind, remnants of the burning town and – I felt sick at the thought – my former comrades. The same winds that lifted their charred remains teased Natsuko’s long white hair and pulled pieces of her own skin away, as if her fingers were smouldering stubs of tree branches right after a forest fire. She waved her hand over me, embers flying from her fingers like swarms of fireflies in the night.

She was toying with me. By rights I should have been dead, along with my fellows. Instead she’d kept me alive. I looked past her hand, up into wide eyes that were aglow with unnatural light. Cracks spread from them, marring her once pristine skin. Now it was the pale alabaster of death, split by ragged tears through which shone with the same fiery light as her eyes. It was as if a monster made of flame were wearing her as a mask. Perhaps, I thought, that wasn’t far from the truth.

“Haru,” she spoke my name with a hint of the fondness we’d once known for each other. “You came for me.”

I could not bring myself to lie. Not to her, not even now. “Yes, Natsuko. I came for you.”

“You came with them,” she accused. The last word was a coldly delivered reference to the dead the littered the field. I used it as an excuse to look to one side, out at the bodies that smoked in the moonlight. My blade was nearby. Maybe if I could roll away fast enough, I could get a hand on it… but no. I would be dead before I could ever bring it to bear.

“Yes,” I looked up at her again, still so beautiful despite the monster she’d become.

“Why?” she asked, as if the answer mattered.

“Many reasons. Because it was ordered. Because it had to be done. Because if anyone was to release you from this world, to save you from this thing you’ve become, it was going to be me. You deserved that much from me, at least.”

“Oh, Haru,” her voice softened though her expression remained fixed and void of emotion. The hand she’d been waving above me lowered. It’s flame died back enough for her to brush at the chaotic web of hair that stuck to my forehead. I could smell the hair burning even as my skin felt sunburned, but the unexpected gesture did not go unnoted. “I deserved so much more from you,” she continued, pulling her hand back. “Where were you when they accused me of blood magic? Where were you when they imprisoned me naked, beat and starved a confession from me? They burned me, Haru. They burned me!

At last some expression passed through the vapid mask she wore, twisting her features in rage. I lowered my head. “I tried, Natsuko. I spoke up for you, said you would never do such things. I tried to have you released into my care, promised I would watch over you. I did all I could.” But even to my own years, the words were a lie. I could have done more. I could have rescued her, even if it meant my own condemnation. “And yet,” I looked up at her again. “Here you are, even after being burned. It was true, wasn’t it? Everything they accused you of, it was true.”

“And what if it was?” Natsuko demanded. “I was content to carry out my experiments in peace, hurting no one… loving you. Do you think I would choose this?”

“Haven’t you?”

“I chose to live, Haru. With what knowledge I had I called on the spirits in my moment of greatest need, and they answered!” She swept her arms wide and sent a fresh burst of hot embers into the wind. “They offered me a way out, and in my desperation I accepted.”

“And then you killed them all,” I reminded her.

She looked at me with those strange, emotionless eyes, and tilted her head gently to one side. “I dispensed justice. I brought divine judgement down upon them, and did to them what they did to me.”

“And the village after that?” I asked. “And the one after that? When does your justice stop, Natsuko?”

She looked up into the night sky, then. For a moment I dared hope my words had reached her, but a moment later she whispered, “Never.” She looked back down at me, still prone upon the ground, and took a step backward. “It will never end, Haru. Not even after every last village is ash, the last castle ruined, and the last man naught but charred bone. That was the bargain I accepted.”

With a groan I pushed myself up from the ground. As I gained my feet I expected to be struck down at any moment, but Natsuko let me stand. I hobbled over to my blade and picked it up, raising it in one hand as the other hung limply by my side. I turned to face her. “It will end sooner or later,” I told her. “You can stand against ten men, or fifty, or a hundred. But what about thousands? Tens of thousands? What about the Emperor’s sorcerers? You can’t stand against them all, Natsuko.”

In answer, she slowly raised one hand. All around me, dead men began to rouse. Unnatural fire began to glow within them, shining through dead eyes and ragged wounds. “I won’t stand alone,” she said darkly. “And because I love you still, Haru, I give you the choice… stand with me as you are, or stand with me as they do. There is no other option. Which do you choose?”

Short Fiction: The King Is Dead (part two!)

(Image via Elfkin)

This short fiction follows on the last one, because a friend of mine demanded I continue it. So here it is!

(Link to Part One)

—–

Marcellus stared up at the ceiling. “Your father had been obsessed with death for quite some time. I can’t say why or how it started, except that it had something to do with your mother. He carried in him a passion, a fervent and feverish desire to conquer death.” The mystic looked down at Karina, his lips pressed together tightly. “Not only to shed his own mortality, but for you as well. We who you know as his advisors, his inner circle, were invited to his court from far and wide because of two things – our knowledge of alchemy and our experiments with immortality.”

“Alchemy?” Karina asked softly. “Experiments? Did you-?” she took a step forward, her hand rising to grasp at her sword before she checked the impulse. “Did you experiment on my father?”

“No,” Marcellus shook his head firmly. “No. Not until…” he sighed and glanced at his fellow mystics. “We carried out our experiments on animals, or prisoners. Villagers who had died in accidents. Soldiers bodies brought in from the battlefield. Never on the king.”

“Until?” she prompted coldly.

“Until we succeeded,” he said softly. But the words were not the triumph Karina had expected to hear. Instead they were pained, almost guilty. “His obsession with mastery of death had spiralled out of control over the years. We should have known. We must have known. But his obsession paved the way for our work, and so perhaps we ignored it. We found a way to arrest the process of death in an animal. A farmer’s pig, sick from something I can’t recall. It wasn’t cured, yet it didn’t die. We needed more time to study the effects. Were they permenant? Were there consequences? We didn’t know!”

“What does a pig have to do with my father?”

“Somehow the king found out. He demanded we use our method on him. We refused. He insisted. When we continued to refuse, he…” Marcellus took a slow breath and looked Karina in the eyes. “He poisoned himself, child. To force our hand. And it worked. What choice did we have? The poison was fast acting and exotic. Curing it before there was lasting damage would have been nearly impossible. So we did what we had to do. And it worked, or seemed to.”

“Worked?” Karina asked aghast. “You made my father immortal? Kept him from dying?”

“If only that were the case,” Marcellus told her sadly. “That night, your father stopped breathing. His heart stopped beating. He was, for all that we could tell, dead. And yet he spoke to us still. He watched us take our notes with the same keen eye he’d always had. He walked around the room. But as the days wore on the color drained from his skin, and he developed a… strange appetite. Examining the pig gave us some answers. Our method hadn’t granted perpetual life, it had only stopped death. The poor creature hovered somewhere between the two, as the king does now. By feeding the animal the same meals your father demanded, we observed another strange occurrence. Signs of aging and physical imperfections caused by time, up to a point, were undone.”

 Karina took a moment to process what had just been revealed. At last, she looked back towards the door. “I don’t see the problem, Marcellus. My father is not dead, and he is still himself. If those are true, then I will see him.”

“The second of the two is questionable,” Marcellus warned her quickly. “Since that night the king has steadily become colder and more withdrawn. He no longer holds court in the throne room, and he has had his personal effects… relocated.”

“Where?”

“The crypts below the castle.”

Karina spun on her heel and pushed through the door. She paused in the hallway, one hand on the door frame, and looked back at Marcellus. “His appetites… the meals he demands. What are they?”

“It started as raw meat. Then he demanded it freshly killed, still warm. Now… the castle lost three servants before the rest started refusing to go below.”

She would have accused the mystic of malicious lies had he not looked so stricken. Instead, heart pounding in her chest, she asked one last question. “And to what end did you summon me here, Marcellus? What am I to do?”

“See your father, since you will not be dissuaded” he answered. “And then… then do what you feel you must.”

The crypts below the castle had never been a place Karina liked to visit, even when her father insisted they visit her mother’s tomb once a year. Despite the torch she carried they seemed darker now, colder and more damp.

“Father?” she called. The words bounced off of the cold stones, each returning echo imbued with a slightly different timbre until it seemed a chorus of imposters was mocking her. “Father, it’s me, Karina.”

She pressed on until she caught sight of a strange glow amid the tombs, a pale blue light that was as steady as the glow of the moon. Her feet knew the way forward, carrying her toward the glow as her mind slowly caught up. Mother… her mother’s tomb was up ahead.

“Father?” she tried again, shivering involuntarily as the chill of the place leached through her armor.

The torch sputtered and died in her hand. She didn’t bother relighting it – the glow from ahead was more than enough to see by now. She stepped through a stone archway and found the dead king waiting for her. He was as Marcellus had described – pallid colorless skin, darkened eyes that seemed to stare into the distance even as he looked at her, and younger than she remembered him. He still wore his crown.

“Father?” she tried a third time, mindful of the smell of death that pervaded the room.

“Karina,” he answered, voice smooth and strong. “At last. Come, daughter. Your mother and I have been waiting.”