Archive for Writing and Publishing

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.”

Goyle Country Update: dogs ain’t people

Hey, here’s a new Goyle Country update (at 2489 words, no less). In which dogs aren’t people, even though some people think they think they are (and that wasn’t a typo). And a plan is put in motion!

 

<A temple indeed,> Hevak intoned, the deep rumble of his words translated once again by the Spirits. <A temple to the hubris and arrogance of the ones who came before.>

Katherine took a moment to look around at all that was displayed on the walls. “I’m surprised you keep it around.”

The Speaker turned to face her, head tilted slightly. <Whatever else they did, whatever else they were, we cannot forget they created us. We keep this to remind ourselves of the good they did, and of all the good they could have done. And above all, to ensure we do not become like them. The last is a lesson some of my people have sadly forgotten.>

“Why bring us here?” Lonesome asked. It was that he didn’t see it as interesting. Far from it, in fact. Once things died down he hoped the goyles would let him in here to study everything in more detail. But what they needed now wasn’t a history lesson, it was a way to stop a demigod.

<Because here is where you will find the weapon you need to fight the Returned.> Hevak held forth one hand. <Open the vault, please. I have need of its contents.>

For a moment Katherine was confused. She saw no vault in the large chamber. But Hevak had not been talking to her. His words had been directed elsewhere, and merely translated with all the rest. Moments after his request, the floor began to shift. Katherine and Lonesome stepped back in surprise as a circular portion of the room seemed to drop away beneath their feet, collapsing down into a spiral staircase that led down into the bowels of the earth.

Hevak thanked the Spirits and motioned for his guests to follow as he led the way down. Katherine half expected it to be dark and foreboding, but the vault was just as well lit as the chamber above. Short columns sporting fist sized crystals were spaced at even intervals, and here and there was a statue like the ones above, if somewhat smaller. But here there were no murals. Instead, shelves lined the walls of the space, and expansive stone tables that seemed to have grown from the living rock occupied the center.

“What sort of weapon are we talking, Hevak?” Katherine asked. She gave the room a thorough looking over, but failed to see anything weaponlike. “Personally I’d settle for a ton or two of dynamite.”

Hevak loomed over one of the tables, it’s surface covered in what must have been truly ancient books and parchments. <The weapon I speak of is knowledge, Arbiter. The Returned is vulnerable, as his people were when they attempted their blasphemy to make themselves Spirits. And it was my people, the Gargoyles, who created their weakness.>

“You betrayed your own creators?” Lonesome asked, surprise ringing clear in his voice.

<Indeed, Lonely One. My people knew the true cost of their ascension, and could not let it come to pass. Here, in this vault, is the secret to that weakness.>

“I don’t mean to ruin the moment of revelation,” Katherine said cautiously, “But if you already have what you need to stop this, why do you need us?”

<An astute question, Arbiter. We are still our maker’s creation, and some things even time cannot undo. We cannot assail them ourselves, only serve. But you… you are free to act against the Returned as needed. We may act through you, as we acted in concert with the Spirits so long ago.>

“Is that why you couldn’t fight the other goyles?” she asked. “Because you’re somehow prevented from it?”

<Our hesitation to harm our brethren was a purely philosophical choice, Arbiter. Now that they have chosen their path, we must do what must be done. When the time comes, we will keep them at bay. By whatever means necessary. Shall we begin?>

 

**********

 

Clem sat beside Clayton, watching as a Gargoyle loomed over him, poking and prodding and muttering to the Spirits. The questions it asked were many and varied, and some of them she had no frame of reference for. She wished she could hear how the Spirits replied, but such was the way of Talking – only those the Spirits spoke to could hear them, even if you did have the talent.

<How’s he look?> she asked.

The goyle, who’d introduced itself as Kasik the Healer, snorted. <He is wrong.>

Clem let her gaze rest on Clayton, once again unconscious. “Yeah, we guessed. Wrong how?”

<He is not what he should be. There is something else there, something wrong. It writhes and squirms within him, evading the Spirits that seek to cleanse it.>

<We ran into something out there, in the ruins of the city. One of the people who came before, now returned. It took part of Clayton’s arm. Could whatever’s in him have something to do with that?>

<Gravik the Longspear explained this to me,> Kasik told her. It looked down at Clayton, studying him thoughtfully. <This is not what I would expect the Returned to feel like. The Spirits agree. This is something else. Something from beyond, where they imprisoned those who came before.>

<Great,> Clem sighed. <As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. Do you think the Spirits can heal him?>

<They are trying,> Kasik shrugged. <All we can do is wait for them to do their work.>

Both Spirit Talker and Gargoyle jumped in surprise as Clayton sat bolt upright. Though his eyes were open they showed only the whites, and it was clear by the way he waved his arms around that he wasn’t really awake. Kasik was faster to recover than Clem, and quickly pushed him onto his back with one massive hand. The impact seemed to rouse him from whatever strange dream he’d been having. His eyes went back to normal and focused on Clem, wide with fright.

“Don’t let them take me,” he whispered, speaking normally.

“It’s alright Clayton,” she said as soothingly as possible. “I’m here.”

“I don’t want to be light enough,” he all but whined, one hand grabbing desperately at her arm. “I saw it. I saw where they take you. I don’t want to go, Clem. Don’t let them take me. It’s full of…” he groaned and relaxed, hand barely clinging to Clem’s arm. “It’s all full of them,” he whispered, eyes unfocused. With one last shuddering breath he was unconscious again.

Clem  held his hand in hers and felt an incredible sense of unease. <That didn’t sound good,> she told Kasik. <Not good at all.>

 

**********

 

“This is insane,” Carter groused, pacing irritably along the length of the room.

“Oh?” Hawkins asked, arching an eyebrow. “Which part? The one where an ancient evil got summoned back to the world and ate Clayton’s arm as an appetizer before grabbing Dorean as the main course, or the one where we’re going to try and kill it?”

“All of it,” Carter grumbled. “Every damn bit of it.”

“Good to know where we stand, then.”

Walsh watched the two of them from where he sat idly holding his rifle. The goyles had let him keep it, and it provided a much needed sense of security. He still couldn’t get used to the fact that they were in the middle of a Gargoyle hive. Everytime he saw one walk past he tensed up.

“Are you not in the least bit worried about this?” Carter demanded, turning on Hawkins angrily.

Hawkins frowned at the other man’s tone. “Of course I’m worried. And of course this is all gods damned insane. Merciful mother, we’re working with Gargoyles! But what the hell are we going to do about it? We can’t just run away and let that thing do whatever it wants. Not after seeing what it did to Dorean. And that means we’ve got to work with the goyles, no matter how much it makes my head spin.”

“That’s where you’re wrong! We can just run away. Now that the goyles aren’t trying to kill us anymore we can just hightail it back to civilization. If we go fast enough we might outrun that thing, maybe get somewhere far enough away that someone else’ll stop it before it gets to us.”

“And how many people will die in the meantime?” Walsh joined in.

“As long as it ain’t us, who cares?”

“I do!”

“Yeah?” Carter asked. “Well, he don’t.” He jerked a thumb at Hawkins. “And don’t you try to tell me you’re doing this out of some kind of do good heroism.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hawkins demanded.

“It means you’re on Haversham and Bloody Black’s payroll,” Carter accused with a sneer. “You boys don’t do anything without the head office’s say so, ain’t it?”

“I think the circumstances are out of the ordinary,” Hawkins said defensively. “Besides, if this thing gets loose it’ll only hurt the company. And you’re only out here because you were willing to take Haversham & Black money as a reward anyway, so I’d watch where you’re throwing accusations.”

“Look, let’s all just calm down a bit,” Walsh tried to inject some reason into the situation. “Carter… if you want to leave, no one’s going to stop you. We can’t make you fight that thing. But just because these goyles don’t want to kill you right now doesn’t mean the others will hold to that if they find you. And, I hate to say it, but once you’re not helping them they might decided you’re fair game again.”

Carter opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again with a vicious frown. Without looking at the other two he sat against the wall and stared at the floor. “I ain’t gonna let that thing eat me,” he muttered.

“Don’t let him get to you,” the deputy added in a soft aside to Hawkins. “I know you care if innocent people die in this. The company didn’t order you out here. Lonesome told me you insisted on coming along.”

“Yeah.” Hawkins drummed up a friendly smile. “Thanks, Aaron.”

 

**********

 

The posse met outside the butte the next morning. After spending time in the tunnels they all needed fresh air, sky above their heads, and a lack of goyles looking over their shoulders. Katherine presided over the meeting. She perched on a boulder, more kneeling than sitting, letting the breeze tug at her hair as she held her hat in hand. Lonesome stood beside her, looking tired.

“The goyles think they’ve got themselves a plan,” Katherine told the group. “When the old people planned their transformation into gods they meant for it to be just like Spirits – no messy physical bodies to deal with. I won’t bore you with the details, but it turns out the only way for the one that came back to get out of prison was to put itself back into just such a body. That’s why it needed the bones, why it took Clayton’s arm, and why it… did what it did… to Dorean. This presents us with an opportunity. Lonesome?”

“Right now that thing is more or less a Spirit living in a great big chunk of meat and bone,” the Spirit Talker explained. “Being a Spirit requires it to follow certain rules. One of those, we hope, is that it’ll have to listen to the language of command the old people used. It’s like First Words, but… different. The goyles are willing to teach us certain phrases that might be helpful. Phrases we can use to weaken that thing, maybe even bind it. What it won’t do is let us destroy it, but that’s where the second part of their plan comes in.”

“We can send it back where it came from,” Katherine told them.

“The goyles think the ritual the old people used before could work again. If we can force this thing to make the transition, the Spirits can step in like they did the first time. They can capture it and put it back in the hole they’re keeping all the rest of them in. The ritual isn’t easy, but it’s doable.”

“And, unfortunately, it has a significant drawback,” Katherine said grimly. “The ritual has to take place at a fixed location, and that thing has got to be there when we do it.”

“We’re going to have to lure it in,” Hawkins guessed.

“And keep the not so friendly goyles from screwing it up,” Clem added.

Katherine nodded. “Right on both. If we can get that thing where we want we might be able to bind it in place until the ritual is finished. Gravik and those goyles willing to help us will keep their fellows busy until it’s done. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. Now,” she shifted the focus to Clem, “I hear you’ve got something to tell us about Clayton.”

Clem nodded and gave Clayton, who sat next to her, a sympathetic look. “The goyles worked through the night to figure out what was wrong with him. Best they can figure, he’s got something inside him that won’t come out. It’s like…” she grasped for words, one hand waving in the air as if she could fish out or catch an appropriate explanation. “It’s a Spirit, but not,” she settled on. “I think the best way to describe the difference is like comparing a dog to a person. They’re both smart, in their way, and we’re both living things, but you know a dog ain’t a person. The Spirits tried their best to fish it out of him but it sounds like they only drove it to cling harder. It isn’t causing him any purposeful harm, and we know it ain’t the work of the Returned. Best the goyles and Spirits can figure, it’s some low kind of Spirit that lives in the prison and came out alongside the Returned. By accident or purpose they don’t know.”

“So we can’t get it out?” Katherine asked.

Clem shrugged. “We might, but there’s no way to tell how much harm it would do to Clayton, and right now we just don’t have the time.”

“I feel alright,” Clayton spoke up. “I’ve stopped talking in First Words, and all I did was try to wander off. I want to help.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Clem promised.

Katherine considered for a moment, then nodded. “We’re not so flush with manpower I can afford to turn down someone who wants to help,” she said. “Even if he is a little off. You just do me a favor, Clayton. The moment something seems wrong you go to Clem or Lonesome, you hear?”

“I will,” he promised.

“Good. Now let’s all make sure we’re ready to head out. We’ve got a little more planning to do with the goyles, but they think they’ve found us a location. As soon as we’re finished with them we’re heading out.”

 

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!”

Goyle Country Update: In which secret chambers!

Hey. So. In (apparently) keeping with my putting things up late, here’s a Goyle Country update from last week. Well, and a little bit from tonight, because I could. It’s about 2k words, and weird things are happening because apparently the story has a mind of its own now. I’m… not really sure where this is going. Such is the joy of a first draft. At least I got almost to the end before things decided to go off the rails and wandering about.

 

“No need to worry about that,” Clem assured him. “They… oh. Arbiter, Spirits tell me we’ve got company coming.”

“What sort of company?”

“The goyles you wanted to talk to, if the Spirits did like I told ‘em.”

“Let’s hope they did, for all our sakes. Would it be possible for you to spell Lonesome there? No offense, but I’d rather he talk for me than you.”

“No offense taken,” Clem sighed. “I’ll see where he’s at. If I can, I’ll send him over.”

“Everyone get ready,” Katherine spoke loudly enough for all the others to hear, “There’s goyles coming, and I don’t want to get caught flat footed if they’re not the friendly sort.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Minutes after Clem had given her warning the first Goyle appeared from behind a rock formation, spear held almost lazily over one shoulder. If it wasn’t Gravik, Katherine would eat her hat. She holstered her pistol and walked forward with a friendly smile. Gravik swung the spear down and and planted the tip in the dirt, leaving the weapon behind. The goyle’s face split into a terrifying grimace. Katherine took it for a smile.

“Gravik,” she put her hands on her hips and, knowing full well the goyle couldn’t understand her, said, “We’re in a heap of shit here, friend.”

Lonesome translated the greeting from behind her, which was a bit of a surprise, but at least it wasn’t Clem. The Spirit Talker stood beside her, listening intently as Gravik spoke.

“They know something’s come back,” Lonesome interpreted. “The Spirits are all having a fit about it. Seems to have kicked off some sort of internal fighting. Some of their elders want to go to war and destroy it, some want to protect it, and others want to stay neutral. Gravik’s band want it stopped. Sounds like Hevak thought we were dead.”

“We just about were,” Katherine nodded. “Fill him in, Lonesome. Let him know we still want to help, but we can’t do it alone.”

He did, taking Gravik through the entire encounter with Dorean and the results of the meeting. Katherine could almost following along, marking when Lonesome got the part about Clayton losing his arm by the way the Goyle looked over at the former bandit.

“Our friend here says he can help,” Lonesome translated as Gravik began to speak again. “Hevak the Speaker has a plan.”

“Good,” Katherine was glad to hear it. “I like plans. Until they fall apart, anyway. So what is it?”

“We’ll have to meet with Hevak. He won’t say more than that.”

“Fair enough,” Katherine allowed. “But the more time we waste the less optimistic I am about us all living through this. Can Clayton get moved?”

“Not until the Spirits are finished.”

“How much longer?”

“Should be ready to go by tomorrow morning. I know it’s a while to wait, but…”

“We’ll risk it,” Katherine decided. “Is Gravik willing to stick around?”

“They’ll guard the perimeter,” Lonesome relayed after a quick exchange. “Make sure none of their wrong headed friends get too close.”

 

**********

 

Clayton woke in the middle of the night feeling parched and achy. The stars burned bright above him, undimmed by campfire or lanterns. A cool breeze swept through the Bandlands, and it carried soft whispers to Clayton’s ears. The rest of the posse lay around him, curled under blankets and lost in the embrace of sleep while they could.

The tree he was sitting against was incredibly uncomfortable. The bark bit into the skin of his back through his shirt, but that was nothing compared to the insanity inducing itchy fire that consumed his arm. Oh… his arm. He remembered seeing the flesh seemingly melt away from the bone, leaving the appendage stripped almost bare.

He raised his arm in front of his face in the dark, examining it closely. Everything seemed to be there, fleshy fingers and all. When he poked the palm with another finger he found the skin was as tender as if he’d scrubbed at it with lye and a bristle brush. But hey, it was there, and that was the important part.

He was halfway to standing before he realized that’s what the whispers were telling him to do. Stand up. Walk away. Go into the Badlands. Leave the others behind.

Only, that was a bad idea wasn’t it? The last time he’d heard those whispers they made him touch the bones in the box. He’d lost an arm… only, now it was back?

Others whispers joined in, asking him where he was going, why was he leaving, he should go back. Go back? Clayton stopped walking. He didn’t remember having started. He blinked and looked around. He was far from the tree, headed away from camp and out into the Badlands.

“Where are you going?” A solid voice, not a whispers, asked from the night.

“I don’t… I’m not sure. They told me to go?”

“Who told you?”

Clayton squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at the sides of his head. “The, uh. The whispers. Can you hear them?”

“I can. Don’t listen to them.”

“Erg. I don’t… I can’t…”

“Look at me.”

Clayton turned, trying to see who was speaking to him. He saw nothing, until a shape moved in the night. A large, hulking shape. It took another step closer, and Clayton could clearly make out a Gargoyle.

“Look at me,” it told him. “You should go back. If they tell you to leave, do not listen. It is dangerous.”

“How?” Clayton asked, aghast. “Why can I understand you?”

“That,” Clementine spoke from behind him, “Is a very good question.” Clayton turned, and Clem’s fist put him back into quiet unconsciousness.

Katherine looked down at Clayton in the light of the morning sun. “He was what?”

“Talking to a goyle out there,” she repeated, gesturing to the open expanse of the Badlands. “One of yours, thankfully. Speaking perfect First Words.”

“First of all,” Katherine corrected her, “They’re not mine. They just happen to be on our side right now. Either of you ever hear of somebody just up and learning how to speak to Spirits like that?”

Lonesome raised his eyebrows. “Overnight? No, never.”

“It’s not like Spirit Talking is something you just know how to do,” Clem added. “It takes time to learn, and the Spirits are the ones doing the teaching.”

“Which makes this a might worrisome,” Katherine mused. “The goyle he was talking to said it was the Spirits calling Clayton out into the Badlands. What if, when they were fixing his arm, they did something else to him? Made it so he could hear and understand them?”

“Not saying it isn’t possible,” Lonesome told her, “But I just don’t see why they would. They’ve got two Talkers right here who can understand them.”

Hawkins ambled over to where the three of them stood in a small circle. “Arbiter? He’s awake. He tried to say something, but I don’t understand a bit of it.”

They were keeping Clayton under close watch now. Deputy Walsh sat across from him, rifle on his knees. The moment Clayton saw them he started babbling. Katherine had been around Lonesome long enough to recognize First Words when she heard them.

“Merciful Mother,” Lonesome breathed.

“He’s talking like he was born to it,” Clem added. “Sounds just like… aw hell.”

“What?” Katherine asked, frowning.

“Sounds just like a Spirit,” Lonesome provided.

“Worse than that,” Clem told him. “He sounds just like the thing that killed Dorean. When we talked to it in it’s prison it spoke First Words, but with an accent. One just like he’s got.”

“Yeah,” Lonesome nodded. “I hear it now.”

“Are you telling me,” Katherine asked, “That the thing we need to kill is talking through him?”

Lonesome and Clem shared a thoughtful look. “No,” Clem said at last. “I mean, I don’t think that’s what this is.”

“But who knows what sort of side effects there are for getting chewed on by some ascended evil God Spirit.”

Katherine looked to Clayton, who had stopped trying to talk to them while they had their discussion. “Is he dangerous?” she asked.

“In that he can ask the Spirits to do things, like we can,” Lonesome answered. “But there’s a difference between knowing the words and knowing how to use them. Just cause he can speak the language doesn’t mean he’s all that persuasive, and the Spirits can be particular about how they’re spoken to.”

“So we don’t need to gag him,” Katherine followed up.

“Wouldn’t call it necessary,” Lonesome decided. “Still two of us and one of him, after all.”

“All right then,” Katherine said. “So what’s he saying?”

“For starters it sounds like knows exactly know much trouble he’s in here,” Clem said. “And it sounds like he can still understand us just fine. Ain’t that right, Clayton?”

Clayton took his cue and rattled off some more words Katherine couldn’t understand.

“Yup,” Clem confirmed. “He just can’t talk in anything other than First Words.”

Katherine considered the situation. “All right, we’ve wasted too much time here as it is. If he’s no danger then let’s get moving. Lonesome, keep an eye on him. Don’t take any chances.”

Gravik took them to the cave filled butte where Hevak and so many other goyles lived. If the place had reminded Katherine of an insect hive before, it was more so now. Goyles were everywhere, many of them armed with spears and clubs. Word must have reached ahead of the group, though, since none of them looked twice at the group of humans in their midst.

Hevak met them at the entrance to the caves. The Speaker greeted them in goyle speak, this time forgoing whatever trick it had used to allow Katherine to understand last time. Lonesome handled all the speaking while Clem hung back and stayed next to Clayton.

“Don’t you worry,” she told him. “Whatever’s got into you, we can set it right. The goyles know what they’re about.” He just nodded morosely, having decided not to speak unless he needed to.

After introductions and an explanation of the situation Hevak led them all into the butte. They were split into groups and bidden to stay in separate spaces. Clem and Clayton were put into one. Hawkins, Walsh, and Carter were put into another. Lonesome and Katherine were taken together with Hevak. Like before the tunnels twisted and turned so much that Katherine was completely lost, and the only illumination was the soft glow of the strange mineral deposits in the walls.

The air got heavier the further they went, becoming dense and musty. They saw fewer and fewer goyles in the tunnels. Between that and the feel of the air Katherine got the feeling they were going somewhere deep inside the butte, a place even those living here had mostly forgotten about.

When they came to it the first thing Katherine noticed was the door. An actual square door, on hinges, moulded into the rock.The carvings on it reminded her of the door to Dorean’s great hall, and for the first time she wondered if the goyles weren’t the original inhabitants of the space. Hevak opened it for them by placing its formidable claws between the door and the frame and pulling. It was a feat Katherine was certain she could never manage on her own. Given a long enough crowbar, maybe, but definitely not with her bare hands.

She hadn’t thought it possible, but the air beyond the door was even more musty than that of the hallway outside. Air aside, the chamber beyond was simply amazing. The veins of glowing mineral that ran in traces across the walls converged at a single point on the ceiling above, and from that point hung an immense crystalline structure that served as a natural chandelier. Between it and the walls the room was brightly lit, with not a shadow cast.

“It looks like a temple of some kind,” Lonesome observed. Katherine agreed. But if it was a shrine, to what gods? Not any she knew of. Statues rose from floor to ceiling, depicting alien beings with strange proportions eerily similar to the thing she’d seen absorbing Dorean. Between statues the walls were inscribed with murals depicting what must have been what the goyles described as the people who came before. They were shown commanding spirits, using them to build their great city, destroying their enemies, and more. In one she could swear there was a scene that looked like they were creating large, blocky people that slowly became more refined until, at last, they looked like Gargoyles. And as she followed the murals around the room they culminated in what had to have been the ascension – an entire people attempting a jump to godhood. In the mural they succeeded. In reality she knew it had gone somewhat differently.

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?”

 

Short Fiction: The Wyrm

Digital Painting by Alexander Forssberg

Digital Painting by Alexander Forssberg

 

“Is it dead?”

“Looks dead to me. Why else would it just be laying there?”

The it in question was an enormous black wyrm. Two thirds of it was partially submerged in the lake. The rest, the part with the dozens of small chitinous legs as long as a man’s arm, was laid out on the bank. Most drooped limply at the wyrm’s side, but a few stuck up at odd angles.

Tobin and Rorke had discovered it while on patrol. Thankfully they’d seen it from a distance and only gotten closer once they’d watched for a while, to make sure it wasn’t moving. Stumbling upon it up close without warning might have scared one or both of them to death.

Tobin took a step closer to the motionless wyrm, hand on the pommel of his sword as it rested in its scabbard. “Who do you think killed it, then?”

There was plenty evidence of the fight – a great many arrows and broken spears peppered the wyrm’s leathery black hide. But whatever happened hadn’t been by the lake. The grass was undisturbed, even around the creature itself. And surely, whoever brought down a creature like this one would have wanted to take some part of it as a trophy.

“Dunno.” Rorke was keeping his distance, crossbow loaded and at the ready. He looked as if he expected the wyrm to spring to life at any moment. “There’s a river that feeds the lake,” he pointed out. “Who knows where it goes? Anyone between here and where it starts could’ve had a go at this thing.”

“Looks like it took some doing,” Tobin mused. He reached out and took hold of a spear. The haft was made from a wood so dark as to be black, the end capped with what looked to be silver. Slightly raised carvings wound around it like very long, thin snakes. The weapon was slick and wet in his grip, as if it had only come out of the water a short time ago. The harder he gripped the more it seemed to want to squirm out of his grasp. He even imagined he could feel the carved snakes writhing under his fingers. It made the hair on his arm stand on end.

“Yeah, well, you’ve heard the stories. Things like this don’t go down easy. Takes whole armies, sometimes.”

“Good thing we’ve got one nearby, eh?” Tobin chuckled, as if the sentiment were a joke, but in truth it was a reassuring thought.

Rorke nodded grim agreement.

Halfhearted chuckle dying out as a clearing of his throat, Tobin returned his attention to the spear. “Ever seen anything like this? Seems pretty fancy to go sticking in monsters, you ask me.”

“Must’ve been made for someone special. King’s guard, maybe?”

“Gods,” Tobin considered the idea. “You think it tried to eat a king?”

“Around here, who knows?” Rorke shrugged. “What I hear about these people, it wouldn’t surprise me if they hunted something like this for fun. Crazy bastards.”

“Yeah, well, whoever it belonged to it’s mine now.”

“Is that so?” Rorke arched a curious eyebrow.

“Yup. It’s a souvenir of war. We’ll have to report this thing, you know. And then what? The officer’s will be all over it. You think they won’t pluck these out for themselves?”

“Fair point,” Rorke allowed.

Set in his task, Tobin grasped the spear with both hands and pulled. There was a slight sucking noise, and the spear moved ever so slightly. “Ugh,” he grunted. “It’s stuck in good.” He planted his feet and strained. Though the wood felt like it would slip away he gripped it tightly, and with a wet noise the point pulled free.

The end was longer than Tobin had expected, a short broad blade in and of itself, serrated and etched with strange symbols that dripped black ichor. He whistled softly. “Fancy.”

The wyrm moved, and both men jumped back in surprise. The creatures’s chitinous legs spasmed, curled closed to the body, then stretched slowly outward again. A dozen eyes, once nothing more than slightly raised bumps at the creature’s front, snapped open. Red globes with red pupils, they looked in all directions at once before dividing their attention between the two men.

Rorke raised his crossbow, aiming for one of the eyes. “Back up nice and easy,” he ordered. “Move slow and it might not try to eat us.”

Tobin nodded and raised the spear defensively. The wyrm’s baleful red eyes, attention once split, focused exclusively on the spear. A deep rumble escaped from the depths of the wyrm, reminding Tobin unpleasantly of a glutton at a feast who was belching to make room for more.

Like an enormous snake the front of it lifted from the bank, slowly and menacingly arching to tower over the two men. “Begadon’s Spear,” the wyrm rumbled, speaking without any apparent need to move its mouth. In fact, it sounded as if the words were coming from deep within the creature’s innards. Even so, it was clear who it addressed.

“Yes?” Tobin asked. “What? Oh, this?” he looked down at the spear. “I, um… is it then?”

“You removed it,” the wyrm rumbled. The parts of it still in the water moved sinuously just beneath the surface. “Ah, freedom. I had not thought to awaken after that cursed, troublesome man lanced me with it. He and his damnable magic. I savored the crushing of his bones as my last act, certain his followers would finish what he had begun. And yet… you are not they.”

“Um,” Tobin and Rorke shared a confused glance. “No?”

“I must have escaped somehow. Hmm. You have my thanks for waking me,” the wyrm rumbled. “And I will let you live another day.” Without further hesitation it turned and swept quickly into the lake, leaving only fading ripples where it had once been.

“Rorke? Did we just do a bad thing?”

“Not we, Tobin. You.”

 

Short Fiction: Iver and the Dragon

Dragon Slayer by Toby Lewin

Dragon Slayer by Toby Lewin

 

The wind howled across the mountain valley, raw and biting. Driven by it was an incessant barrage of snowflakes. No mere romantic fluffs of white powder, these snowflakes were the hard, frozen teeth of winter. Where they pitted and compacted themselves against Iver’s armor there formed a sheen of ice, and they stung the unprotected skin on his face.

The storm alone would have been enough to keep any sane man indoors if he could help it. Fewer still would have pressed on had they known what lay at the end of the valley. Iver knew, and still he pressed on. There, across the open fields Iver imagined to be quite picturesque had they not been in the grip of a blizzard, was a dragon’s lair.

It was a beast of the old breed, ancient and fierce. And cunning, too, if the stories told a truthful tale. Few like it remained in the world, and they were not predisposed to company. The reason was simple. Once humans learned where a dragon nested it wasn’t long before hunters like Iver arrived. Sometimes they came alone, and died. Sometimes they came with armies, and the dragon died. Either way the dragon didn’t stay.

A shadow moved amid the snow, large and sinuous. Iver stopped to listen. Ears burning from the cold he strained to hear. Dragons were said to be graceful in the air, but it wouldn’t be flying in weather like this, and such a large beast was far from silent on the ground. It was hard to tell through the howl of the wind, but he thought he could hear the sound of its movement. A deep, menacing growl like the sound of a distant avalanche underscored Iver’s suspicion. The dragon knew he was here. More, it was already sizing him up.

“Ho, dragon!” he called into the wind, shouting as loud as he could to be heard above the storm. “Show yourself!”

There was another avalanche, this one behind him. Iver turned in time to see the dragon oblige his request. It emerged from the storm some distance away, perching atop an isolated rocky outcropping that marred the otherwise meadow-like atmosphere of the valley. Wings outstretched, seemingly unperturbed by the violence of the storm, it regarded him with dark eyes.

Iver met those eyes as best he could with snow blowing in his face. Breaking the crust of ice which joined scabbard to hilt, he pulled his blade free and held it to the side, point angled down. The dragon watched impassively. Perhaps it had fought lone hunters before, and knew that one man was no match for a creature of its age and power.

“I am Iver Valus,” he told it. “And I have not come here to fight you.” The dragon’s only response was a slow, deliberate blink of it’s eyes. “I know you’re not a mindless, ravening animal. I know you can understand me. And I know you can speak. So speak!”

The dragon’s head drew back and lifted somewhat. Great, scaly lips parted to show rows of spear-like teeth, and the dragon’s snout wrinkled. Was it a snarl? A smile? Something altogether different? Iver had no idea. Yet the reaction told him one thing, at least. The dragon had understood him.

“You,” the dragon spoke at last, “Are a strange little thing.” The words were slow and deliberate, oddly accented as they were forced around jagged teeth and between lips not quite flexible enough to make them. “You say you are not here to fight, yet you come armed. You are a hunter. I know your kind. What would you have me speak of? The many ways I could kill you? Strange little thing.”

And yet, despite the threats it made, the dragon remained perched atop its rock.

“I am – was – a hunter of dragons,” Iver admitted. “But no longer.” Things were going far better than he’d hoped so far. But he needed them to go further, and so he decided to take a risk. With one great effort he drew back the sword and flung it out into the snow, where he lost sight of it.

The dragon pounced immediately, as lightning fast as a cat. It knocked Iver to the ground with a beat of its great wings and then pinned him to the ground with one taloned forepaw. He squirmed, helpless, as the dragon lowered its head and tilted one eye so that it looked directly down at him. “Did you come here to die?” it asked.

“No.”

“I shall eat you anyway.”

“You could,” Iver allowed. “But then you would not hear my offer.”

The dragon snorted and a cloud of hot vapor clung to Iver, where it quickly crystallized into frost the cold. “What would you have to offer me, strange little thing?”

“Justice. Revenge. A greater life than this. You flee from one creche to the next or fight and die. You survive on stolen livestock and wild game, but it was not always so. You were once the stewards of my people, revered and trusted, until we betrayed you.”

“How do you know this?”

“To know my prey I consumed every scrap of lore I could find. I learned truths long buried. The kings of my people, descendants of those who betrayed you, are poised to fall. We have an army, but fear it is not enough. We need more. We need you. In return you would have a place in our kingdoms, provided for and free from being hunted.”

The dragon seemed to consider all Iver had said. “I doubt I alone will be enough to turn the tide,” it said at last.

“You’re not the only dragon. You’re just the first.”

The dragon’s eye narrowed, though it seemed unsurprised he knew of other dragons. “And what is to stop you from betraying us a second time?”

“Well…” Iver stopped, finally run out of answers. “I hadn’t considered that, honestly. Only my word, I suppose. And the knowledge to be wary.”

The dragon snorted again, then was silent for a long time. Iver began to fear he would be eaten after all, after he’d frozen to death. But then, at last, the dragon drew back its talons and folded its wings. “Come back to my lair,” it told him. “Come out of the cold, and tell me more.”

 

In Which The Villain Wins?

Hey there! New update for this week ends on an appropriately ominous note. At 1477 words it brings the story total to 53844. Even as I was writing this update I was noting all the changes I wanted to make when I edit. This whole endgame needs tweaking, I think. Still, not bad. And it’s actually been written, which is the important part. Can’t edit it if you don’t write it in the first place!

 

“Clementine!” Dorean bellowed, pausing his litany of First Words to summon her aid.

“A little busy!” she shouted back from where she was facing off against Lonesome. The two Spirit Talkers had untangled from one another at the bottom of the stairs and entered a stalemate of sorts. Neither was close enough to the sword that they could get to it before the other, and wrestling over a sharp weapon seemed like a decidedly bad idea to everyone involved. That left summoning Spirits for help, which was also something neither of them wanted to happen. Clementine had tried it just after extricating herself from Lonesome, and he’d tackled her again. She’d gotten out of it, if he kept doing that she’d never be able to have a decent conversation with a Spirit. That meant to supernatural assistance, and that in turn left the two of them facing each other down.

“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be, Clem,” he tried reasoning with her again. “Just give yourself up.”

“Ain’t gonna happen, Coop. Why don’t you put away the shiny armor and just throw in with us? You know how this is gonna go. You may as well be on the winning side.”

“I do know how this is gonna go,” he admitted. “But it’s not like you think. You might win this fight, but then what? You get the power of gods? That’s a quick paddle toward a rushin’ waterfall, Clem.”

“Lonesome!” Katherine called from across the room. She and Carter had both gone in separate directions to get away from one of the rock monsters, and she’d been the unlucky one. “Quit your jawing and do something!”

“Better see to it, Coop,” Clementine told him mockingly. “Your girlfriend needs help.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Clem.”

“You tried to throw me down the stairs!” she exclaimed in exasperation.

“And you were gonna stab me,” he retorted, “so let’s call it even.”

“Lonesome!” Katherine shouted, “Jawing!”

He kept his eyes locked on Clem, doing his best to ignore Katherine, as much as it tore at him. “Just going by what I’ve seen, Clem. You’ve already got blood on your hands. Dorean has shown he’s willing to kill to get what he wants. Say the two of you get the power you’re after. You think everyone is just going to do what you say? You’re going to need to show you mean business. There’ll be a sea of blood before it all settles out, and you’ll both be bathed in it. There won’t be time to decide who deserves it and who doesn’t, not chance to save someone like Clayton. And once Dorean’s had a taste of it what makes you think he’s gonna stop? What makes you think you will? Working with an Arbiter I’ve seen men who got to enjoy it. To need it. One of them was a Spirit Talker. Is that what you want, Clementine? To be a cure that’s worse than the disease?”

Her expression rapidly transitioned from insulted to angry to horrified as what he’d said sunk in. “I can keep him in check,” she said. “I can keep it from getting out of hand.”

“Take a quick look around,” Lonesome told her. “I think it’s already gotten there.”

She did look, silently taking in the rampaging rock monsters and the posse as it scrambled to stay clear of them, trying in vain to get close enough to Dorean to put him down. After a second she set her jaw. “Sorry Coop, it’s too late for – hey!”

Roots, rough and fibrous, had sprouted from the ground and begun to wrap around her feet. She looked back at Lonesome to see his hand grasping one of his many trinkets, lips moving quickly but silently as he whispered to the spirit who lived within.

With a timbre of desperation in her words she tried to convince it to stop, but it wasn’t in the mood to listen. It knew Lonesome, had lived in the piece of wood he now held for years, and was more inclined to listen to him than Clem. And so, despite her objections, it continued accelerating the growth of the ancient, gnarled roots from below. They wrapped up her legs, trapping her in place, and began working their way up her middle. She called out for another Spirit to help, but they were either too busy working the rock monsters for Dorean or not in the mood to interfere.

“Coop!” she abandoned the Spirits to appeal directly to him. “Don’t do this! You can’t kill me, Coop, it’s not right!”

Though the words brought a worried frown to Lonesome’s face, he didn’t stop speaking. The roots continued their growth until they wrapped around her neck and face, firmly lodging in her mouth so she couldn’t speak. Eyes wide with panic she waited for them to constrict, to crush the life from her in one agonizing moment. But it never came. They stopped growing once her mouth was covered, leaving her free to breathe through her nose.

“Now you just stay right there,” Lonesome told her before turning and heading right for her cavalry saber. After scooping it up from the ground he pivoted smartly and headed for Dorean, speaking aloud to the Spirits that animated the rock monsters in the hopes they’d listen to him and go do something else.

Meanwhile, Clayton had passed through the door behind the throne. Beyond was a corridor that went both left and right. He stopped, unsure of which way to go but nervously not wanting to stay put in case one of Dorean’s rock monsters came after him. He wasn’t entirely certain how it would fit through the door, but it wasn’t something he wanted to find out.

High set windows afforded enough light to see by, and Clayton scrutinized first one way and then another. Footprints in the dust and dirt on the floor provided a clue. The hallway to the right looked more heavily traveled, so that was the direction he set out in.

The corridor opened into many empty, long disused rooms. Many showed signs of at least some activity, as if someone had gone in and poked around, but Clayton spared them little more than a curious glance. He followed the corridor through twists and turns, until at last he arrived at a room that looked as if it had been designed as a temple. The stone door was as carefully balanced as the one that led into the Great Hall and equally covered in carved reliefs. Inside, more elegant columns reached for a ceiling that was domed and decoratively carved itself. And in the middle of the room was a waist high stone platform. On the floor beside it was the lockbox, and atop it’s flat stone surface were the bones that had once occupied the box. Laid out in careful order, they formed the frame of something almost human.

He stared in awe for a moment, then remembered why he was there. There was nothing at hand he could use to crush the bones easily, but maybe that didn’t need to happen just yet. If he scooped them all into the box and brought it back to the fight in the Great Hall, perhaps the simply threat of destruction would be enough. As his hand neared the bones, a strange feeling of unease descended. The hair on his outstretched arm rose, prickly and uncomfortable. When his fingers brushed a femur it was almost as if an electrical current shot up his hand. He jerked back, eyes wide, and a voice began to whisper in his ear.

As one, the rock golems stopped moving. Mid action, the animated earth simply froze into immutable rock once again. And then, as gravity once again embraced them, they began to fall apart.

“Ha!” Katherine shouted into the sound of falling rock. “Good job, Lonesome!” She started towards him, revolver pointed squarely at Dorean, who was slack jawed and wide eyed with surprise. But then she realized Lonesome wore a similar look, and stopped. “Talk to me, Cooper,” she ordered him.

“They’re gone,” he told her, eyes darting around the Great Hall as if searching for something. “The Spirits just… up and left. All of ‘em at once.”

“So, not you?”

“No,” he shook his head. “Definitely not me. Something’s wrong, Kat. Really wrong.”

Dorean began to chuckle. It was a low, throaty sound that bubbled up from his throat and burst into the air with dark merriment. Katherine glared at him, and seriously considered pulling the trigger, but she didn’t have many bullets left and didn’t particularly feel like wasting one just yet. “Something funny?” she demanded.

“It may not look it yet,” he told her with a toothy grin, “But I believe I’ve just won.”