Tag Archive for Short Fiction

Short Fiction: The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead by Mike Azevedo

 

The room stank of tallow candles mixed with a pungent incense, no doubt meant to cover the smell of the candles. Karina wrinkled her nose and tried to breathe through her mouth as she entered. Her eyes swept across the hooded figures gathered there, pausing to glare at each one in turn. Why her father felt the need to keep these mystics and charlatans in his inner circle she would never understand. But he was the King, and thus free to indulge his eccentricities. There seemed to be ever more of them these days, if the rumors were anything to judge by. She wouldn’t know, of course. Not these days. She’d been out in the field leading her father’s troops against the Farrow in the east.

Looking back, it should have been her first clue that something was wrong. She’d pestered her father for years to let her take a more active role in the kingdom’s military affairs, preferably by leading men against their enemies. He’d rebuffed her time and again, claiming not that it was unladylike, but that as his only child he dared not put her in harm’s way. That changed when she started questioning his choice in advisors, their strange rituals, and demanding to know their secret business. Suddenly her request was granted, and she was sent out into the field. She’d taken well to the task, earning the respect of her troops and enemies alike. She’d even gained a souvenir to remember it by – a scar across the bridge of her nose. Not too large, but definitely visible.

Perhaps she’d been too involved. Wanting to show her father he hadn’t made the wrong decision, wanting to make him proud, she’d thrown herself into it with everything she had. Maybe that was why she hadn’t noticed his letters getting more rambling and unfocused, his handwriting beginning to waver. Why she’d ignored the fact that by the end they were arriving fewer and farther between. She’d had time to think about all that on the way back.

The order to return had come suddenly, with no forewarning, during the endgame of the Farrow campaign. It hadn’t even been her father to write the letter, but his chief advisor Marcellus. She’d started worrying, then. She worried that he was ill, maybe dying. The trip back from the front had been shockingly educational. Returning to civilization she found the citizens spoke of her father, their king, as if he were something from a fairytale. They spoke of his strange appetites, told stories of people who went to the king’s castle never to return, whispered of arcane magics practiced by his inner circle. Some doubted he was still sane, clearly not realizing they spoke within earshot of their ruler’s own daughter.

So here she was, home again, and her father hadn’t even met her at the gates. “This had better be good, Marcellus,” she warned her father’s advisor.

“Ah, yes,” the cloaked mystic shuffled forward with a conciliatory gesture. “I realize your military campaign is in a sensitive stage. I apologize for tearing you away at such a time.”

Karina stared at him. He thought she cared more for her campaign than for her father? That she was upset about coming home, rather than concerned by her father’s absence?

Another of the advisors spoke, “We waited as long as we could, hoping your campaign would conclude. But we could wait no longer.”

“Nor can I,” Karina told them flatly. “I came here to see my father. Where is he?”

They exchanged glances. “How to put this delicately,” Marcellus murmured, as if to himself. “My lady, your father is… no longer fit to rule.”

Anger flared within her. “How dare you,” she snarled. “Who are you to pass judgement on my father’s ability to rule?”

“We’re in a better position to judge than you,” another robed advisor told her.

“Tolmey,” Marcellus warned him sternly, but the jab had already hit home. Karina ground her teeth, but couldn’t deny the truth of it.

“I will see my father,” she insisted.

“You cannot,” Marcellus told her softly. “It is unwise,” he added quickly. “He is… not himself.”

“What game is this?” she took them all in with a glance. “You say he is unfit to rule, and I should take your word for it? You say I should not see him, why? To spare my feelings? Would you depose him and have the gall to ask for my support? Do you intend to bribe me with my own birthright, to make me queen?”

“I told you this would end poorly,” a unseen advisor sighed.

“And so it has,” she snapped. With one quick motion she whirled and made to storm out of the room. “I’ll find my father if I have to break down every door in the castle,” she threatened.

“My lady, wait,” Marcellus implored her. “The reason you cannot see your father, the reason he is unfit to rule, is… my lady, your father is dead. The king is dead.”

The shock of the announcement froze her in her tracks. It shouldn’t have been unexpected. She’d thought about the possibility on her way back. But to hear it uttered, to hear her fear confirmed? She felt tears welling up in her eyes and made no move to wipe them away.

At last she turned back to them. “Dead?” she repeated, blinking out the tears that blurred her vision. They ran down her cheek unchecked. “Yet you spoke as if he lived. That he was not himself. Why the riddles? Why not tell me outright?”

Marcellus licked his lips in a nervous fashion and glanced at his fellow mystics, the dead king’s inner circle. “Because, my lady,” he spoke slowly. “The king is dead, yet he is not gone. He rules still, and that is why we called you back. There is… much we need to explain.”

(Link to Part Two)

Short Fiction: In The Barrow

“Serves Me Right” by Boco
(click to go to his website)

Right then, trying to get back into this regular short fiction thing. This week’s offering runs about a hundred words longer than usual, and was aided by the addition of Guinness.

“Shit.”

The word left Jaxine Flint’s mouth in a puff of moisture, warm breath flash frozen in the cold temperatures of The Barrow. There was a brief buzz as her radio picked up a short lived signal, just a quick burst of noise to punctuate the moment.

Trudging through maze of canyons that made up The Barrow she’d caught sight of two things – a patch of scarlet snow and something that looked very much like a rifle sling or utility belt hanging from a rock outcropping.

What Jax found behind it had elicited the frozen curse. More crimson snow, spent shell casings, and an abandoned rifle slowly being buried by the falling show.

“All right,” more words froze in the frigid air as they left her lips. “This isn’t all bad. Somebody’s around. Wounded, but…” she squinted down at the clues she had to work with. The blood was red enough that it could still be fresh, and judging from the rate of snowfall the rifle hadn’t been laying there for more than a few hours.

She clumsily triggered her radio’s transmitter with one gloved hand. “Check, check. This is Able Three, Blackstar Company. Able Squad, do you copy? Anybody out there?”

There was a soft squelch as she released the transmitter. One puff of icy breath turned into two, then three. There was a buzz of errant signal, but nothing more. When she counted five with no answer Jax triggered the transmitter again. “Check, check. This is Able Three, Blackstar Mercenary Company. I’m calling general distress, extraction needed. Does anybody fucking hear me?”

Another squelch, another five breaths, still no answer. Well, it wasn’t any different than the last three days. Snarling in frustration Jax reached down and plucked the rifle from the snow. As she brushed it off she could clearly see the Blackstar logo emblazoned on the stock. Brow furrowed she quickly checked for a number. Seven. The rifle was assigned to Able Seven. That would have been Talbot. Flipping it over she found the ammunition counter. It read zero, which explained why the weapon had been abandoned.

It landed with a dull thud in the snow when she dropped it. Jax squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus. Talbot had been here. He’d fought something and come away bleeding. Why hadn’t she heard the gunshots? No, wrong question. The vagaries of the canyons could explain that. The real question was, what did he fight and was it still a threat?

A quick survey of the area turned up  nothing but the bioluminescent fungi that dominated The Barrow’s ecology. As far as she knew, those didn’t eat people. Still, she made sure to unsling her own rifle and hold it at the ready. An impulsive check of the ammunition counter momentarily surprised her.

“Half?” she asked aloud. Had it been that many? The ambush had been quick and brutal, and admittedly the adrenaline rush of a firefight made the details blurry. Still, it seemed like a lot. She shook off the concern and focused on the blood in the snow. Though it was slowly being covered over by freshly fallen powder she could still make out the direction it headed, and even a few depressions that might be footprints.

“Hang on Talbot,” she breathed, “I’m coming for you.”

The blood trail and footprints traced an erratic and seemingly random path through The Barrows. Not that Jax had done much better herself, she reflected grimly. The place was a damn labyrinth. The perpetual gloom of the place gave no clue to how long she trudged onward through the snow. With little in the way of a day/night cycle and constant cloud cover the only real way to tell was to bring a watch, and hers had the display turned off to conserve power. It beeped at her every twenty four hours, but that was all.

As she pursued Talbot she chewed on half of an energy bar, part of her dwindling food supply. Water, at least, wasn’t a problem with all the snow. At last she seemed to catch up. The snow that filled the footsteps became less and less, until it seemed they’d been made just moments before. Alarmingly, the amount of blood also increased. It led into a field of sharply angled boulders just ahead.

She toggled her radio. “Able Seven?” she asked softly. “Talbot… Ricky,” she switched to his first name, “are you out there man?”

Only the soft buzz of an errant radio signal answered her. Jax walked slowly through the jagged rock, rifle always pointed where she looked. The enemy could be out there anywhere. Might even be using Talbot for bait. It paid to be prepared.

The trail led around the backside of a particularly large boulder. Following it around she found Talbot leaned against it, sidearm resting in his lap. “Tal… Ricky?” Jax asked softly, rifle lowering only slightly as she came around to face him directly. Tiny puffs of white breath issues from his mouth at irregular intervals. “Ricky!”

He jerked away, wide eyed and pale, pupils so large they butted up against the whites of his eyes. He took one look at her and raised his sidearm, trembling sights aligned with her center of mass. “No!” he shouted. “Nooooooooo!”

“Ricky, woah!” Jax brought her own weapon up, finger on the trigger. “Stand down man! What the fuck!”

“You’re one of them!” he choked out. “You killed us!”

“What the hell?” She followed the sights of his sidearm, first thinking that he was so delusional he was just drifting off target. Then she realized where it pointed – the glowing fungus she’d wrapped around one shoulder to help her see in the darker canyons.

Before she could say more, his sidearm discharged. The aim was wide, but her finger tightened on the trigger of her own rifle as a matter of reflex. As the noise of the exchanged finished echoing from the canyon walls she stood wide eyed at what she saw.

“Shit,” the word left her mouth in a puff of frozen moisture. “The bastards got Talbot.” Maybe if she’d moved faster, gotten here sooner, she could have saved him.

A fantom signal buzzed from her radio, drawing her attention. A faint transmission? “Must be more survivors,” she muttered. “Someone else from Able must have gotten out.”

With one long last look at Talbot, Jax turned and headed off into The Barrow. “Check, check,” she huffed into her radio, “Able Three, Blackstar Mercenary Company… anyone else from Able out there? Can anybody hear me?”

Short Fiction: Whispers In The Woods

Whispers by Wylie Beckert

Whispers by Wylie Beckert (click image to go to her gallery)

They’d all heard the stories about the Bramblewood. They were the stories told by their mothers to keep children from wandering too far in. Stories told by older siblings just to scare them. Stories told by friends as they dared each other to venture just a little farther from town. The Bramblewood was haunted, they said. Or cursed. Or sometimes both, depending on who was doing the telling.

Terrible specters lived among the trees, the stories went. When the woods were shrouded with fog they called out in melodic voices to their victims, luring them past the line of standing stones never to be seen again. Monsters lived within, too. Werewolves, usually, but sometimes it was elves. They also came at night, but only if there was a full moon, snatching children from their beds and taking them away forever. So many stories, so many terrible things for one forest to hold.

Elsa couldn’t get enough of them. Ever since she’d been old enough to speak she’d been asking questions about the Bramblewood. When she’d heard them all she begged the local priests to teach her how to read. They’d given in, eventually, and armed with her newfound understanding she’d all but lived amid dusty tomes and yellowed parchments for the better part of a year.

The townsfolk, her relatives and neighbors, seemed to be of two minds about her. Some said, mostly when they thought she couldn’t hear, that she was odd. That no boy would take an interest in a girl who knew more about reading than cooking. Others, like Elder Hermann, used words like “scholar” and “historian”, and seemed all too happy to encourage her odd habits. But all Elsa cared about were the mysteries of the forest.

And then, one day, they became more than stories. Her younger brother Gavin disappeared while playing with a group of children near the standing stones. They’d dared each other to go further and further into the trees as the sun went down. His friends claimed they saw a dark shape take him, that he hadn’t simply wandered off and gotten lost. Nobody believed them. Nobody but Elsa.

Her father had been a soldier in the King’s army. The things he’d seen must have scared him, because he’d made it a point to teach Elsa how to hold a sword before he died. That way, he said, she could defend herself and her family if anything happened to him. She told herself he’d be proud of what she was about to do. While her mother wasn’t looking she stole her father’s sword, wrapped a cloak around her shoulders, and headed for the standing stones.

She hadn’t intended to get lost, but then she supposed nobody ever did. It was daylight when she started out, with more than enough time left for her to search the area where Gavin had disappeared. Somehow she’d lost her way, gotten turned around, and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t find anything that looked familiar. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know how to find her way. If the sun was there, the town must be that way. Only it wasn’t.

Darkness descended far too quickly, erasing any hope Elsa had of finding her way back. She tightened her grip on her father’s sword and tried not to panic. She’d just have to wait until morning, that was all. Maybe build a fire and find some moss or leaves to make a bed out of. Not a problem. Neither of those plans worked out as well as she would have hoped, and before long Elsa found herself sitting against the base of a tree with neither fire nor bed.

The specters found her just as she was drifting off to sleep. They appeared as lights from the depths of the forest, bobbing and floating in lazy patterns towards her. At first she thought they might be torches carried by villagers, but it quickly became clear they were something else entirely.

“What is it?” a whisper reached her ears.

“A girl,” the other whispered back.

“Here? At night?”

“She has a sword.”

Elsa brandished the weapon at the two specters as they closed in on her, circling in ever tightening spirals. “Stay back,” she warned.

“A brave one,” the whispering continued.

“Is it?”

“Brave ones never live long.”

Despite her warning they got close enough that she could reach out and touch one if she wanted. “Get back!” she shouted, and the sword swished through the air. Its keen edge passed right through one of the specters with no visible effect. The one she’d tried to wound reached out and put a glowing hand on the weapon as if to push it away.

“Why are you here, brave girl?” it whispered.

“You took my brother,” she told it angrily, throat tightening with emotion. “I want him back.”

“Took?”

“Not us.”

“Then who?” she demanded. “Where is he? Tell me!”

“Hush,” they warned.

“Quietly.”

“Please,” she pleaded. “Tell me where he is.”

“No, it’s too late.”

“Yes, too late.”

“Turn back now and you might live.”

“Leave this cursed place.”

“I’m not leaving without him,” she insisted.

“Stubborn.”

“Should we tell her?”

“Perhaps we should.”

“Follow the moon,” the whispering specters instructed.

“Left at the stream.”

“Up the rocks.”

“In the tunnels.”

“Stay quiet.”

“Very quiet.”

“Wake not the guardian.”

“And girl…”

“Find us when you’re dead.”

Without another word the specters floated away from her, bobbing and weaving through the trees, whispering to each other all the while. Elsa watched them go, sword slowly lowering. “Thank you,” she whispered after them. She looked up at the moon as it arced lazily overhead. “Follow the moon,” she recalled. “Well. Lead the way.”

[A note about this story – the original was over two times this length and in danger of becoming a full blown book in its own right before I realized what I was doing. So I rewrote, cut it down to under a thousand words, and kept the longer version for future consideration. If you’d like to see it some day, let me know!]

Short Fiction: Split Infinity

Sci-fi ship by Wayne Haag(epic oil painting by Wayne Haag)
Security Officer Alice Bryce stood atop a small, sandy hill and surveyed the situation. Survivors were gathering between the two halves of the LFCS Infinity, huddling in the relatively cool shadow of the broken behemoth as the command staff tried to figure out what to do next. Not that you could really call it cool, she reflected. Even in that shadow it was in the mid nineties on the Fahrenheit scale.

The “landing”, as Navigator DuBois liked to call it, had been truly and terrifyingly spectacular. First a misjump, then system failure after system failure as they were pulled into the gravity well, culminating in a mid-atmospheric entry breakup. By some miracle DuBois had been able to not only to maintain control of the aft section of the ship, but tractor the forward section and guide it down alongside the aft. He’d even had the temerity to make a “split infinitive” joke afterward. Only her gratitude for surviving the descent had kept Alice from shooting him on principle.

Not that it mattered in the long run. DuBois was dead, the victim of a freak accident that looked an awful lot like murder. Which was just what she needed in the middle of this disaster. Worst of all, Captain Colier was the most likely suspect.

“All right,” Alice sighed and turned to look at the small group of officers that stood just behind her. Each of them wore a uniform with the Lightspeed Frontiers company logo, just as she did. “Tell me what you know.”

“I know DuBois was either dead or close to it by the time he hit the ground,” Medical Officer Brundice told her. “The fall messed him up pretty badly, but I still found an obvious puncture wound on the torso. Somebody stabbed him before he went over. Without the equipment in the med bay I can’t tell you much about the weapon, but I’m certain it wasn’t just a piece of debris on the way down. Too clean.”

“Did you tell the Captain?” Alice asked.

Brundice looked away from her, to the aft wreckage of the Infinity. It was where the ships command center was, where Captain Colier would be. “No,” he told her.

“The First Officer?”

“No ma’am. Only you, and those here.”

“Lieutenant Novak?” Alice prompted the ship’s Comms Officer.

“Heard him, DuBois that is, arguing with the FO. Couldn’t quite make out what it was. I was hip deep in an access panel at that point. Thought I could get a distress beacon going.” Novak frowned. “Wouldn’t work. Anyway, I heard DuBois say something about telling the Captain. FO said the Captain already knew, and he ought to keep it to himself. DuBois said he’d tell you instead, unless you were in on it. Couldn’t hear the rest after that. I think they walked away.”

“Did he?” Lieutenant Gavel addressed Alice. He was the ship’s current Navigation’s Officer despite the apparent redundancy of the position. He’d worked well and closely with DuBois.

“What?”

“Did he tell you anything?” Gavel clarified.

“No,” she focused her attention on him.”But maybe you can help make things a little clearer. Any idea what he might have wanted to tell me?”

“We talked about things after the crash,” Gavel recalled. “A lot of things. The misjump didn’t feel right to him. The way the jump bubble collapsed like it did? There was no warning, none at all. And then it spits us out right on course for this sun baked sandbox. Convenient, right? All those system failures… one right after another, damn near every system fries but the ones we need to get down in one piece. And the break,” he turned and pointed at the broken edges of the Infinity. “Dubby said it went too clean, like it was meant to break.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Brundice interjected. “Who would want the ship to break up like that, and why?”

“Maybe the Company? Maybe to make sure we don’t lift off again,” Gavel shrugged.

“Am I hearing this right?” Alice asked. “Are you suggesting that DuBois thought all this had happened on purpose? That someone did this to us?”

“I think that’s what he thought.”

“Piss poor planning, if that’s what happened,” Novak snorted. “Maybe if we’d had a load of first wave colonists and some prefab habitats. But we don’t. These people are third wave, ready for a comfy colony to settle into. If we don’t get rescue a lot of them are going to die out here, but from what he says,” Novak hooked a thumb at Gavel, “They wanted us to hit the surface alive.”

Alice ran a hand through her hair and frowned down at the sand. “So DuBois brings it to the FO, only he and the Captain are in on it, so they kill him? I don’t… I have no idea what to think of that. But say it is true,” she pointed at Novak. “Why would they want us here, alive but unable to lift off again?”

“I don’t know,” Brundice frowned deeply. “But if it’s worth killing for I think we’d better find out.” The others nodded in agreement.