Archive for Short Fiction

Short Fiction: Oh… hello

Art by Alexander Forssberg

Art by Alexander Forssberg

 

Dragon lairs were notoriously hard to get to. Mostly they nested in the mountains, but every once in a while they’d choose to take over the remains of an abandoned castle or an island in the middle of a lake somewhere. The one Cara was after had chosen, by all the signs she could find, to settle into a series of maze-like canyons the locals called Garth’s Folley. She had no idea who Garth was or why the canyons were named after him, and she honestly hadn’t cared enough to delve into it. All that mattered was she’d found her dragon.

Finding it was, of course, the easy part. Those dragon hunters that lived long enough to develop a strategy usually preferred a slow, careful approach. The longer you stayed hidden, the closer you could get, the better your odds. Rushing in with sword drawn and hollering a battle cry was a sure way to crispy, crunchy death. So it was with some trepidation that Cara simply walked into Garth’s Folley with little preparation and no real plan.

Oh, she wasn’t completely unprepared. She had armor… sort of. Second hand shoulder pauldrons, a beaten up breastplate under a threadbare tabard, and there were a few square pieces of metal that might generously be called bracers strapped to her forearms. Her leather pants were more suited to travel by horseback than combat, but she told herself it would be better than simple cloth. She did have a sword, though it hadn’t come with a shield. In hindsight, a shield seemed rather important when it came to facing down fire breathing dragons. Well, live and learn. Hopefully.

Most importantly, the dragon she’d tracked down was a young one. She hoped its relative inexperience in eating dragon hunters would give her the opportunity she needed. Otherwise… she tried not to dwell on whether it would be crunchy or crispy, because neither sounded particularly appealing.

Cara had been wandering the canyon for almost three days, and was starting to worry she hadn’t brought enough food, when she first caught sight of her quarry. At first it was a shadow moving across the canyon floor, something she mistook as a cloud moving across the sun. But clouds didn’t let out bowl clenching shrieks like the one that came a second later. Startled, she turned her gaze skyward.

Up above the great winged beast lazily circled overhead, giving Cara the impression of a hawk with its eye on a field mouse. The mouse, of course, was probably her. She pushed back against the rough rock of the canyon wall, hoping it hadn’t seen her after all. If it decided to swoop down on her there wouldn’t be any chance of self defense.

Luckily it either hadn’t seen her, or had its eye on a different mouse, for when it tucked its wings and dove it disappeared into another part of the canyon. She saw it several times after that, always in the sky, and from those brief glimpses she guessed at what must be the direction of its lair.

Even then, finding her way towards it through the labyrinth of rock was a difficult task. At last, with food dangerously low, she found signs that she was on the right track. First was a bone from an animal she couldn’t place, cracked and pitted with teeth marks. The further she went the more bones there were, scattered carelessly across the canyon floor, occasionally in small piles. More telling were the scales. She’d heard about how dragons molted, and knew good condition scales could sell for a nice price in some places.

But now wasn’t the time for treasure hunting. The real prize was close. If this was where the dragon ate, where it kept its hoard would be close by. And if the dragon was home it would be with its hoard.

Creeping slowly through the bones she heard a deep, rumbling snort, and froze in her tracks. It had come from a turn in the canyon just up ahead. It was here, just like she wanted. Brandishing the sword in front of her, Cara swallowed hard and continued on, using the sound of what she now believed to the dragon’s snores to mask her footsteps. She took one more steadying breath, clenched her teeth, and turned the corner to see… nothing.

No dragon. No hoard, even. The canyon simply ended in a dusty, empty dead end. And yet the sound had definitely come from here, she was sure of it. She walked further in, curiously looking around for somewhere the dragon could be hiding. A hidden cave entrance maybe, or… or maybe this was a trap. The realization hit her like a punch in the gut. The dragon noises had stopped. If it had been here – she looked up to the sky, wondering if it was above her, waiting to pounce.

“Shit,” she breathed. “Where are you? You had to have gone somewhere!”

“Looking for me?” A low, thickly accented voice rumbled from behind her.

Cara spun to face the dragon, sword raised in a token gesture of defense. How had it gotten behind her, and without making a noise? “Oh,” she croaked weakly, “Hello…”

It stalked slowly forward, a menacing growl issuing from the back of its throat. She retreated until there was nowhere left to go, and pressed her back into the wall. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Not at all. The dragon’s nose was almost close enough to touch the tip of her sword. It was not impressed. Not at all. But she wasn’t dead yet, and that gave her an opportunity.

“Wait!” she plead. “Don’t eat me yet! I’m not here to kill you or steal your hoard, I swear!”

“Good thing,” the dragon snorted, blowing a gust of hot, fetid breath across her face. “You wouldn’t have succeeded at either. So why are you here, soft one? I’ve been watching you for days as you wandered these canyons. You’re no warrior. You don’t even have a shield. I’ve eaten better warriors than you with one eye closed.”

“Right, I knew I should have gotten a shield. I mean, um…” Cara looked at her sword, then back at the dragon. She only had one chance to get this right. She dropped the sword and tried to stand up straight. “I need your help.”

This, at least, seemed to take the dragon by surprise. “Oh?” it drolled. “How unusual. What could I possibly help you with?”

“Well,” Cara took a breath and made a squinting, sheepish face. “I need you to kidnap a princess…”

The dragon was silent for several seconds. Cara began to worry it would just eat her anyway, but eventually it settled onto its belly on the floor, legs folded underneath, and snapped those terrifying teeth together several times. “How wonderfully cliche,” it said, snapping teeth again. Cara began to suspect this was the dragon version of a laugh. “Why?” it asked.

So she laid it all out. How she had been hired as a tutor to teach the king’s daughter. How they’d fallen in love, how the king had found out and banished her, and how the princess had become betrothed to the prince of another land.

“If we ran,” Cara explained, “The king would know. He’d come after us, chase us to the end of the world to get his daughter back. And to punish me. But if she were taken by a dragon…”

“Ah,” the dragon nodded. “He would think she’d been eaten, or whatever it is dragons are supposed to do with kidnapped princesses.”

“Right,” Cara agreed. “At the very least he wouldn’t think to come after us. I know dragons don’t usually help people… but will you? If you told me what you hoard, I’m sure I could find something to pay you with.”

“Do you know why dragons never help anyone?” it asked, slitted yellow eyes narrowed. “It’s because no one ever asks. And this… this is so wonderfully out of the ordinary I’ll do it for free. Tell me more about this princess of yours…”

 

Short Fiction: The Skull

Det' by Streycat on Deviantart

Det’ by Streycat on Deviantart

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that you’re wearing?”

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

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

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

“And you came to no harm?”

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

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

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

Short Fiction: Geruth the Debt Collector

Art by Anton Marrast

Art by Anton Marrast

 

“Come downstairs, Marie.”

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

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

“You’ll get bored and go away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To what end?”

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

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

“Oh, you’re good. Yes on both.”

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

“A Harpy,” Marie answered coyly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you start, I did not!”

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

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

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

“Heavens no, I have a whole bucket.”

“Ready to come downstairs yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm. I could try to dispell you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not this time, no. You did good.”

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction: Ironclads

Snow Attack by James Reekie

Snow Attack by James Reekie

 

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

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

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

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

“Makes sense,” Garrett nodded.

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

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

“Yeah, I saw them get loaded on.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it usually?”

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

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

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

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

“How long?” Cody asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I’m hit,” he told Lone Hawk.

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

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

Short Fiction: Wormholes

Third Nature (artist currently unknown)

Time-0 by elreviae.deviantart.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction: Roland

Blue from lakehurwitz.deviantart.com

Blue from lakehurwitz.deviantart.com

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

1

“You have died.”

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

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

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

“Sounds fun. Fire it up.”

2

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

4

“You have died.”

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

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

6

“You have died.”

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

“Yes, Roland?”

“Why am I in the VR chair?”

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

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

“Directive confirmed, Roland.”

7

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

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

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

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

8

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I reach it from inside?”

“Negative.”

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

9

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

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

“Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

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

“Roland, the gas pressure is increasing.”

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

“Roland, I’m reading-”

The gas pocket exploded.

10

“You have died.”

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

“ALIS, are you there?”

“ALIS?”

 

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.”

 

Short Fiction: Lee’s Hollow

Cowboys, Kekai Kotaki

Cowboys, Kekai Kotaki

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Less if we ride hard.”

“Then let’s ride hard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction: The Guardian

Fall of Gods by Rasmus Berggreen

Fall of Gods by Rasmus Berggreen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I come seeking the Gods!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is.”

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

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

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

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

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