Archive for Short Fiction

Short Fiction: Embers

Beneath The Waves by Nanfe

Beneath The Waves by Nanfe

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haven’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image via Elfkin)

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

(Link to Part One)

—–

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

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

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

“Until?” she prompted coldly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

“The crypts below the castle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction: The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead by Mike Azevedo

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will see my father,” she insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Link to Part Two)

Short Fiction: In The Barrow

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

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

“Shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction: The Majestic Unicorn

U5 by snowskadi(image via Snowskadi)

Much had been made of Bretoria’s unicorns. They were said to be noble, graceful creatures, with sleek flanks and long flowing manes that sparkled in the sunlight. Some said the unicorns were magical creatures, that their blood could grant immortality and cure any ill, that their horn could pierce any armor. It was claimed that if someone were pure of heart a unicorn could actually speak to them and grant them wishes.

To the people of Bretoria unicorns were just local wildlife. They weren’t particularly awe inspiring, and they certainly didn’t grant wishes. Bodrie knew that, but he certainly wasn’t about to tell the tourists. Mostly because, as a tour guide, it was his job to take them out into the forest so they could see one.

He did wonder how such wild stories had gotten started. Perhaps the first expedition from the faraway kingdoms to “discover” Bretoria had punched things up a bit to make themselves look better. Or maybe it was just a case of stories that grew more fantastic with each telling.

Either way Bodrie and other like him were making a living off of it. It hadn’t taken them long to figure out that the foreigners wealthy enough to make the trek to Bretoria were also wealthy enough to pay outrageous sums for virtually everything else. And outrageous though the sums were, some days it was just barely enough for Bodrie to put up with his clients.

Today was shaping up to be that sort of day.

“Can’t go out,” he patiently explained to the latest tourist. “It’s mating season.”

“We’re not here to see anything like that,” the man replied. “We’re here to see the unicorns.”

Bodrie sighed. The man, whose name was something like Tabbot, was actually negotiating for a larger group of foreigners. A quick look told him most were servants or, interestingly enough, guards. Which left an older man, his younger wife, and what could only be their adolescent daughter.

“Look,” Bodrie told Tabbot, “I understand that. But we really shouldn’t go out there just now.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Tabbot insisted with a lowered voice. “My employer brought his daughter here to see the unicorns for her birthday. He’s convinced – and has convinced her – that if she meets one it will grant her a wish. He’s not taking no for an answer.”

“Well then he’s going to be mighty disappointed,” Bodrie chuckled, more at the idea of ‘meeting’ a unicorn than anything else.

“Look, eventually we’re going to find someone who’s willing to take us. It can be you, or it can be them, but I’d rather not waste any more time.” Tabbot pursed his lips and glanced back at his employer. “We’ll double your rate,” he offered.

“Eh,” Bodrie made a sceptical noise, but he had to admit the offer was tempting.

“All right, fine,” Tabbot said. “I know the game. There’s plenty of tourists here, only so many guides, and it’s a sacred animal. It’s highway robbery, but we’ll triple your fee.”

For a moment, Bodrie was certain his jaw had hit the floor and he would have to bend over to scoop it up. “Half up front,” he managed to say. Sacred animal? He was going to remember that one.

“Agreed,” Tabbot said easily. “When do we leave?”

The answer, of course, was as soon as possible so the tourists didn’t have a chance to change their minds. And so, just as the sun was rising the next morning, Bodrie led the group into the forest. Most times of the year it would have taken quite a lot of wandering around to find a unicorn. During mating season it was easier – there were a number of glades and clearings where they liked to congregate.

Bodrie set them up atop a hill with a good view of one such clearing. “Right,” he told the group, “Everybody settle down. Stay as still and quiet as you can, and you should have yourselves a unicorn sighting soon.”

And indeed, it didn’t take long. The tourists were all eating the preserved meat and cheese meals they’d brought along as snacks (cooking fires having been prohibited lest they scare away the unicorns), when one of the creatures slowly walked into the clearing below.

“There it is,” Bodrie pointed out. “That’s a female, probably younger from the size of her horn.” In the early morning sunlight, he supposed they did have a majestic quality about them.

And then he saw something move between the clearing and the hill. Something that looked an awful lot like the young girl. He spun around immediately to find the older man and his wife looking on. “What the bloody hell is she doing?” Bodrie demanded of them.

The wife gave him a quizzical look. “She’s going to meet the unicorn, of course.”

“Oh, no.” Bodrie turned and sprinted down the hill after her. Stupid, he should have known.

“What is it?” the older man called from behind him, “What’s wrong?”

Bodrie didn’t bother to answer. Crashing through the underbrush at full speed, he managed to catch up to the girl just short of the clearing. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “You’ll ruin it!”

“Ruin what?” he asked, grabbing her by the arm.

“Daddy said it would give me a wish-”

“Don’t be stupid, unicorns don’t grant wishes.” He became aware of another sound, the thundering of hooves and the rustle of underbrush. Another unicorn burst into view nearby, its eyes locked on them. But this one was no female. It was a large mass of muscle and bone, and it had murder in its eyes. Just what he’d been afraid of.

“Woah,” he tried, holding out a hand. “Easy there… nice murderous beast…”

“What is – is that a unicorn?” the girl asked, clearly confused. “Why is it so big and… and angry?”

“Mating season,” Bodrie sighed. “And we’re too close to its mate.”

Suddenly, triple rate didn’t seem quite as good as it used to.

Short Fiction: Whispers In The Woods

Whispers by Wylie Beckert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A girl,” the other whispered back.

“Here? At night?”

“She has a sword.”

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

“A brave one,” the whispering continued.

“Is it?”

“Brave ones never live long.”

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

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

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

“Took?”

“Not us.”

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

“Hush,” they warned.

“Quietly.”

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

“No, it’s too late.”

“Yes, too late.”

“Turn back now and you might live.”

“Leave this cursed place.”

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

“Stubborn.”

“Should we tell her?”

“Perhaps we should.”

“Follow the moon,” the whispering specters instructed.

“Left at the stream.”

“Up the rocks.”

“In the tunnels.”

“Stay quiet.”

“Very quiet.”

“Wake not the guardian.”

“And girl…”

“Find us when you’re dead.”

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

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

Short Fiction: Split Infinity

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you tell the Captain?” Alice asked.

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

“The First Officer?”

“No ma’am. Only you, and those here.”

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

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

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

“What?”

“Did he tell you anything?” Gavel clarified.

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

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

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

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

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

“I think that’s what he thought.”

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

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

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