Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 4

Week four already! Goodness, how quickly this is going. I just wanted to remark, before this week’s story begins, that these characters will probably turn up again. When I say ‘probably,’ I actually mean ‘most certainly.’ Some things take on a life of their own…


Walter and the Children of the Day

by H. M. Snow

There is a certain tone in a child’s scream that wakens the parental instinct in even the most nonparental of adults, especially at an elementary school during recess. When that particular scream ricocheted from the walls of Tenney Elementary School, every adult within earshot sprang upright. On the playground, staff members ran to the corner where an ashen-faced boy still screamed without ceasing. Tall oaks overshadowed him so that his pallor stood out boldly. He lay sprawled on his back, facing the depths of the trees’ shadow. The heels of his sneakers dug shallow grooves in the hard-packed ground as the boy tried weakly to retreat. He struggled against the adults who clustered around him. None of their proffered comforts distracted his gaze from the empty shadows or stopped him from screaming.

One of the teachers who arrived with the second wave insinuated herself through the concerned crowd so that she knelt at the boy’s back and dragged him backwards into the sunlight. From her pocket she took a small mirror. Without speaking to the boy, she held out the mirror from behind him so that the sunlight reflected into the shadows. The mirror’s convex surface scattered the shadows. “See?” the teacher whispered in the boy’s ear. “They’ve gone.”

He calmed enough to stop screaming, though his body trembled mightily.

The surrounding staff members relaxed. One of them said, “That’s Miss Brown for you!” and the others chimed in with their agreement, as though affirming Miss Brown’s mysterious ability to calm the most agitated of children. They began to drift back to their stations around the playground, except for a compactly-built black man in a fine gray suit. Suit notwithstanding, he crouched down to study the boy. “You aren’t a student here, are you?” he said pleasantly. “Or is this your first day?”

When the boy averted his face and refused to speak, Miss Brown spoke instead. “You have a good eye for faces, Dr. Wade. He doesn’t go here. He appears to be in considerable trouble.” She leaned forward again to speak in the boy’s ear. “If you want, I can help you, but I need to know your name first. Will you tell me your name?”

He grabbed her hand, the one holding the mirror, and raised it until the reflection illuminated the shade once again.

Dr. Wade started to speak, but Miss Brown intervened with a question– not for the boy, but for the principal. “Dr. Wade, do I have your trust?”

“Faina Brown, if I couldn’t trust you, I couldn’t trust anyone. Why?”

“I know how to help him, but it means taking him somewhere else. I can’t explain.”

“I’ll let Maggie know to find coverage for your class.”

Miss Brown smiled. A faint blush touched her high Slavic cheekbones. “Thank you.”

“We depend on you, Miss Brown. I hope you know you can depend on us in return.” Having said that, Dr. Wade stood up and returned to the school building.

“Quickly,” said Faina Brown to the boy. She raised him to his feet with surprising ease for a lean frame such as hers. Then she towed him by the hand to the parking lot. One of the keys dangling from her lanyard let them into a little gray BMW roadster. Miss Brown started the engine and pulled out of the school parking lot. “Let’s see where they went,” she remarked aloud. “They won’t have gone far.” She drove the perimeter of the school grounds at a leisurely pace. “I knew it. There they are.”

The boy shrank down into the passenger seat with a shuddery moan.

“Don’t be afraid anymore,” said Miss Brown. “We need them to follow us away from the school, or who knows what kind of troubles they’ll cause. They won’t catch us in this car, though, so cheer up. I still don’t know your name. Are you ready to tell me? My name is Faina Brown. The kids all call me Miss Brown, but I’ll let you call me Faina, since you’ve seen them.”

“Walter,” the boy whispered. “I’m Walter.”

“How do you do, Walter? That’s a nice name. It sounds very grown-up.” As she pulled onto the freeway entrance ramp, Faina opened the convertible roof. “Let us fill ourselves with the sun while it shines!” Then her foot lowered on the accelerator and the wind filled their ears.

They traveled the freeway for a good hour under the afternoon sun before Faina exited in favor of a rural two-lane highway. She kept to that highway for almost another hour, then made a left turn onto a smaller highway that turned into gravel after twenty miles. From there, their route consisted of increasingly narrower country lanes, until Faina made a right turn onto what appeared to be a path of leaves under a low canopy of birch and aspen. Then she raised the convertible roof. The rumble of tires over rutted tracks made her raise her voice a little. “Take a look in the side mirror, Walter. Can you see them?”

Walter leaned forward to check. He shrank back into his seat almost at once, shuddering.

“They’re ugly when they aren’t trying to take shape, aren’t they? Not to fear, Walter. I’ll give you this to hold. It will keep them away from you.” Without removing her gaze from the rough track ahead of her vehicle, Faina took the small mirror again from her pocket and gave it to the boy. “Have you seen what they really looked like before now?”

Walter shook his head.

“How did you first meet them? Can you tell me?”

Walter gripped the mirror between his hands and stared dully at it. After a time, he said, “Come to the door one night, man in a hat. Said he’d make us rich.”

“They do that. Who said yes to him?”

“Mom. Her boyfriend just dumped her an’ took his cash with him. She wanted lots of cash.”

“Is she still okay?”

Walter shook his head vehemently.

“Do you have any other family you can stay with?”

Again he shook his head. “Just Mom.” He started to tremble.

Faina reached over to rest her hand on his disheveled head. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll help you. Would you like to know what they are?” When his head bobbed under her hand, she went on, “I was born in Russia, where they tell the story of Goryshche the twelve-headed dragon and Dobrynya Nikitich who slew her along with her many offspring, and the Chudo-Yudo of many heads slain by Ivan Buikovich. Russia likes her monsters many-headed,” Faina added fondly. “This is one like those, but different in certain aspects. We do not name them; we call them ‘enemy’ and leave it at that. ‘They’ are many and yet one, with a single body hidden somewhere deep under the earth, many heads roaming the world, and many more offspring that swarm any human careless enough to invite them into the home. You know what that means.” She rubbed his head. “You’re blessed, Walter, did you know that? It was one of the heads who came to your mother’s door, and yet you escaped. We won’t let that go to waste.”

The tunnel of trees thickened as they followed it. Walter uttered an involuntary shriek when Faina veered left into the unbroken darkness of the mountainside. Her headlights showed the rugged walls of a cave tunnel just wide enough to admit two vehicles abreast. The long darkness brought a change to Faina’s expression, but Walter was in no position to notice. He was gazing raptly at the mirror he clutched between his hands. From the convex glass a faint amber-tinted light glowed, illuminating his young face. The amber light glinted from the semi-precious stones set into the mirror’s frame.

The convertible surged out of the tunnel’s exit onto a plateau and skidded to a halt. People came running from the assortment of buildings. Walter, still mesmerized by the glowing mirror, paid them no attention, but Faina jumped out of the convertible to greet them all with one terse statement: “We have a head approaching, attended by at least four dozen offspring.”

Those words sent everyone scattering, not in a panic but in practiced maneuvers to take up battle stations. The only one who did not turn back was an elderly man, tall and spare with sloped shoulders, who was still approaching from the chalet that dominated the plateau. His unyielding gaze swept Faina in one rapid assessment before taking in the boy Walter. Not satisfied by a look, the old man reached into the car and lifted Walter into the air at arm’s length, staring hard at the boy.

“You’re frightening an already frightened Walter, Eirian,” said Faina gently. “They didn’t touch him. I made sure before I approached him.”

“Yet a shadow covers him.” Eirian’s voice was as harsh as his features. “Why must you take such foolish risks, Faina?”

Faina circled around the car. “Stealing their prey from them and leading them away from humans in a strategic retreat counts as a more foolish risk than fighting them on my own? This is the first I’ve heard of it.” She waited for the old man to set Walter down. Then she clasped her hands behind her back and pivoted back and forth like a coquettish young girl. “I missed you very much, Eirian. Did you miss me at all?”

“Everyone missed you.”

“Boo.” Faina made a wry face. “That isn’t what I asked.” Then she abandoned restraint and threw her arms around Eirian’s neck. “There’s no use in my going away if you don’t miss me.”

“You are wasting your efforts, Faina.”

“And I shall go on doing so until you give in and accept me as your wife,” Faina replied sweetly. “I’ll give you a gold star for stamina, though. I was so sure you would have started your renewal cycle by now. Why are you so stubborn? I’m not speaking about my own interests now, Eirian. It isn’t good for you, dragging things out this way.”

“Now is not the time for your frivolity. The enemy head is near. Guard this human child.”

“His name is Walter.”

The old man pulled free of Faina’s embrace. Taking a knee stiffly beside Walter, Eirian spoke to him as sternly as to an adult. “You must watch what happens. You have seen the strength of them, and it has left on you a dark shadow. Now you will see the weakness of them. I will show you it, to take the shadow from you.”

Faina sighed. “I’m sure it’s no use to tell you that, developmentally speaking, this is a highly inappropriate amount of emotional trauma for a boy his age.” She whistled sharply. “Peter! Change places with me, please.”

“Faina…” Eirian’s gruff voice took on a warning tone.

“Peter may be my elder by a generation, but his latest renewal is still in its early stages. I am strong enough to stand at your side, Eirian. I will not be turned away from finishing what I started.” Faina stood with her fists propped on her hips and met Eirian’s scowl with a dancing devilry in her eyes.

Eirian exhaled audibly. “So be it.” A pure amber radiance enveloped him, first as a second skin and then expanding until it took ethereal shape as leaves of light. “They are here.”

Faina snatched at one of the leaves.

Despite himself, Eirian flinched. “A little warning would be more seemly.”

“A little warning, and you would deny me again.” Faina began to radiate light herself. Hers was a piercing silver-white. She plucked one of her own ephemeral leaves from the emerging cloud. Running to the chalet, she called out, “Marta! These are for new mirrors. Would you blend them together?”

The lean middle-aged woman who answered her call accepted the leaves dubiously. “This is enough for two mirrors.”

“Exactly. Two mirrors, his and hers style, but make sure they’re blended.” Faina loped back to where she had left Eirian. Faina redoubled her radiance until she cast shadows from every blade of grass and small rock on the plateau. “Walter! Be sure to watch and not be afraid. This is why we live, after all.” Her silver leaves spread out beyond their original cagelike framework and flew all around and above her. White light in the shape of eagles began to swoop around Faina.

Her radiance revealed an oily mass flowing over the lip of the plateau. When the mass stopped flowing, it congealed into one central mound of viscosity, surrounded by dozens of smaller droplets. The central bulk of it rose up into a column. Whiplike feelers stretched out on all sides, and the surrounding droplets grew small wings. As the column grew increasingly slender, its smaller offspring orbited through its chaotic storm of whipping feelers.

With a clatter the shutters of the surrounding buildings flew open to reveal an array of broad convex mirrors. Faina’s light in particular, when reflected from these mirrors, flashed like lightning. She called out in challenge to the enemy, “I am one of the children of the day. I will drive you from this world.”

A voice drifted from the black whips of the column. “I am the third head of the Yugra. I will not be driven from a world that is mine by right.”

“We shall see.” Faina’s blinding radiance could not disguise the mischief in her voice. “Whatever happens, I won’t let you go near Walter again.” The lightning that flashed from the mirrors behind her lit up the heights of the mountain. All around her, the other combatants under Eirian’s command cast their radiance to erase even the smallest shadows surrounding the enemy. Then Faina sped forward to attack, leaving the rest of the children of the day to rush after her with their battle cries echoing like untamed music through the skies.


Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 3

Of The Old Well

by H. M. Snow

I wish I could remember how long I’ve been down here. When I lift my hand to touch the mud-crusted wall, I feel deep gouges in a row. So many tally-marks to count the days, but I can’t tell how many. My fingers are numb, coated with cold mud from the bottom of this old well. I tried to keep count by the daylight at first. The sky is overcast now, and has been for a long time. Without noon’s light, the darkness here at the bottom never abates.

Why can I not remember? I might have been here months or years. No, not that long. I went to school longer than the rest and learned much. Corporeal man can endure long weeks without food, but water is essential. The body dies within only a few days without water. I remember that. I remember the moment when, half-mad with thirst, I filled my mouth with the watery mud at the bottom of this old well. It felt as though I began to rot from within from that moment onward.

It is dark, so dark down here. Too many times I have discovered my weak hands roaming the filthy walls, tracing the gouged tally-marks and the crude scratched words. There is nothing else to do down here– except to yield and die. When the sun shone, I read the words. It is strange that, though I can see almost nothing, I know these etchings as if reading them even now. Just above the pooled mud, the faintest of them read, Mama did not save me. Why? Why? The words curve downward and lose themselves in the mud, as if the writer lay prone while scratching each letter into the filth. I am sure I could not have written them myself, first because I have never called my mother ‘Mama’ like one of the common village urchins might. I was taught better than that. Second, I could not have written them because I would have drowned before I finished. The well must have been drier then, or the writer even more petite than I.

If I lift my face toward the mouth of the well, I can see a disc of gray above me. Higher than I can reach, more words arrest my gaze every time I look upward: large words, wrathful words, deeply carved words. Rage drove the hand that gouged those letters into the stone. A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. Uneducated, then, to believe in superstitions like curses, and strong enough to drive the words so deeply into the stone. It cannot have been my doing, but a man’s, a laborer’s.

I am not the first. How long have the innocent perished down here? And why? I wish I could remember the circumstances under which I came to be in this foul hole. When I cast my thoughts back, my memories differ each time. Sometimes I am certain that they came by night, secretly, and seized me from my bed. At other times my memories conjure up a lurid dawn sky and a remote pasture, when the crowds came to overpower me. Noon, evening, tea time: the only commonality to these memories is the horror of the faceless mob. They cannot all be true memories, but they are equally fearful to me. The days I lived before that day are faint now. I cling to what little I remember with certainty. I came to the village to teach. The villagers were polite, distant, clannish, like all rural people with little concept of society beyond their own. I taught their children during the day and returned to my rented cottage to prepare my lessons.

How long ago was that life mine? For that matter, how many days have passed since I heard a human voice? There was no disused well in the village. I am sure there was none. No one, not even a shadow of a human presence, passes overhead here. Silence weighs upon me, rings in my ears. Even in the solitude of my rented cottage, there was never this silence. Always the noisy children played at a distance and the village adults greeted one another in that gregarious way of country folk. Never was there any silence. An outsider myself, I knew so little about the ways of the village, but even I sensed the pockets of emptiness appearing in their ranks from time to time. I assumed that a few had chosen to seek a world of wider society and greater opportunity, but suppose they were…?

There, a fleeting sunbeam descended and then vanished so swiftly! The words it illuminated for that moment burn in my weakened vision: A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. How are they carved so deeply? Liquid mud surrounds me, inches deep. Beneath it, compacted mud forms a floor for the well. There is nothing that could be made into a tool for carving stone, I am sure. My numbed hands searching the liquid mud encounter only slick solid mud, smooth as though polished except around the perimeter. There I can feel something, but barely. If I work at it, I can free it from its mud bed. It is narrow, as long as my hand, jagged at one end and pointed at the other. Hollow as well. I know what it was at first, and what it became. I ought to be horrified, as any civilized woman ought, but I am not. Perhaps I knew all along that the gouges in the well wall could not have been etched by anything else. It feels wrong to hold it so casually like this, as if I had desecrated a grave. If I let it sink back into the mud, the mud will receive it back.

The mud receives everything in the end. I knew it, hid from it, but I acknowledge it now. The mud will receive me soon enough. I believe I knew it from the moment I succumbed to thirst and drank this putrid liquid. From that moment, I imbibed the essence of the ones who came to this dreadful end before me. These memories– if I can no longer discern between my own and theirs, then maybe the mud has received me already. When I lift my hand, I see only a lump of mud. Not even individual fingers, but a mass of filth. I wonder if my fingers have rotted away. Will I end like this, just like the rest?

Another shaft of light pierces the darkness of the old well. This time, the light is so strong and so pure that I reach toward it instinctively. My clumsy, insensate hand slaps the wall where the gouged tally-marks stand out like the scars of frantic claws. I can see all the marks of the prior victims for just a few seconds. I am reaching, reaching, ever higher toward the light, driven by a longing to live. Now I can feel the full desperation of those who succumbed to the mud before me. Their misery pushes me forward. I reach higher still, touching that forgotten man’s bitter curse and higher even than that. When did my arm grow so long? It rises like a column of soft mud. It seems ready to collapse under its own weight, but it does not. Like the piercing light that even now fades back into gray, I feel the exquisite certainty that I can reach to the mouth of the well– not only reach, but pull myself out of the stagnant reek and into the light of the living world. I can. We can. We will.

Here now, I lay draped over the brink of my prison, clinging to the grass as a cloudburst drops its burden of rain on me. The rain cannot wash away the mud, but the mud absorbs the rain and spreads. My arm now is as thick as a man’s waist, swelled with the strength of fresh water. I feel my lower extremities dripping back down into the well. I am not strong enough to hold this new body together yet, but as the old well fills with rainwater, the rest of our body will soon reunite with me. A moment, a moment more, only a moment more and we will be free of the old well, free to seek the answers that we were denied. The rain turns all earth to mud, and all mud belongs to us now. We who were too weak to save ourselves, now our strength will know no limit. We will find out the reason why we were sacrificed in such a cruel way. We will stop this terrible injustice from happening ever again, even if we must turn the entire village to mud so that they feel our sorrow and our bitterness alongside us in this body.

Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 2

War of the Firefly Child

When Master Malcolm returned from the battlefield at sundown, the household assembled to welcome him. He rode surrounded by his elite warriors, and at his side rode the priest who tended the master’s sacred relic. Among these hulking men in armor, the petite figure riding in the saddle before the priest went virtually unnoticed. She too wore armor sized to her delicate frame and so needed help dismounting to the cobbled courtyard. The master himself reached up for her; the priest had slid down without a glance at her. She clutched a flat polished wooden case to her chest.

Master Malcolm called out to the chief of his guard, “The line holds firm; the foe weakens. Tomorrow we route the accursed invaders for good.”

The assembled servants scattered to their posts with alacrity, leaving the master’s wife and her children to greet Master Malcolm. In contrast to their swarming, the master’s petite attendant stood motionless and mute until the master addressed her. “Put the relics up, Lucy, and attend me at table.” Then she turned away from the boisterous familial scene. Her deadened gaze made it impossible to tell whether she felt any awareness of the contrast.

Lucy made her solitary way to the chapel at the center of the castle. She laid the wooden case on its pedestal among the golden candle stands, whose candles were never allowed to burn out beneath the gaze of the wooden crucifix that dominated the wall. Her armor she unbuckled and put away in the far corner. Behind the linen partitions was her humble chamber, consisting of a cot, a basin and pitcher, and a basket that held all she could call her own. She stripped, washed, and dressed in a fresh version of what she had worn beneath her armor: a plain peasant gown in muslin, belted with a worn length of ribbon.

Master Malcolm was in good spirits at that night’s feast, setting the mood for the rest. His freeborn warriors boasted of all their master’s accomplishments on the field of battle that day, each regaling the household with stories of how the master had commanded the sacred relic skillfully against the enemy invaders. Among those who had returned from battle, only Lucy spoke no word. In the shadow of Master Malcolm’s ornate chair she stood and waited, as pale and remote as a statue.

Their feast lasted almost two hours, until the children were given over to the care of their nurses. Then Master Malcolm’s brow furrowed. “Bring Alistair before me.”

This dampened the mood. Two of his men left the great hall to bring the prisoner from his room. To the rest, Master Malcolm said heavily, “I know now what must be done. The lad has grown too sly. His ambition is clear, yet he denies it at every turn. He cannot be trusted. He is a serpent in our midst.”

The two warriors returned. Ahead of them, unrestrained by any physical bond, strode a comely youth of seventeen. “Welcome home, Father.” Alistair dropped to one knee

“Could an angel speak crooked words, so would he sound,” murmured the master. He raised his voice so that all could hear him. “Yes, I return unharmed. I doubt not but that it disappoints you, boy.”

“By no means, Father. I am pleased, very pleased. While you yet live, there is hope for your soul.”

Malcolm turned to his wife. “What do you make of our son, Euphemia?”

But his wife averted her face from Alistair and replied, “He was never mine, my lord.”

“Yes. He was the death of his mother as he entered this world,” Malcolm said, “and he would do the same to his father if offered the chance. Enough!” he shouted as Alistair opened his mouth to speak. “Too long have I endured your prattle, boy, knowing the malice that lies behind it. I will hear no more! You are no son of mine. I declare that you shall no more be welcome within my realms. Any man who shelters you does so as an act of war against me.” Master Malcolm calmed himself. “But I will show you this mercy: because you were my son, no man shall raise a hand against you until you act openly against me.” He nodded to the guards standing to either side of Alistair. “Take him to the chapel and bind him. He may have the night to pray for his soul. Then, at dawn, cast him out. See to it that he does not stop until he reaches the border, whatever direction he chooses.”

At a gesture from the master, the remainder of the household dispersed for the night. Malcolm’s wife Euphemia stretched out her hand to him. He kissed it but then released it and turned from her, so she went alone to her own chambers. Only Lucy followed him to the recesses of his apartment. She took from him his outer garments and laid them out for the servants to collect. When the master was ensconced in his feather bed, he reached out awkwardly to Lucy like an imitation of his wife’s earlier gesture to him.

Lucy remained glacial. Even her breathing was imperceptible.

Malcolm dropped his hand to his side. “If you will not help me, then leave me.” He watched her departure in the wavering candlelight.

Lucy passed through the castle as its inhabitants settled in for the night. She made her way to the servants’ quarters and thence to the kitchen, where a door still stood open to allow the cool garden breeze passage. There in the high-fenced garden, the fireflies were beginning to bob among the shadows. Several of them veered to investigate her as she stood in the doorway. Lucy stiffened. She gazed upward at the sky with eyes suddenly open wide. On light feet she ran to the stream where it entered through the fence. What she sought was not there, so she let herself out through the wicket gate and followed the stream to a massive grate in the castle wall. Trailing her fingertips in the water, Lucy watched the reflections left by the fireflies on the surface of the stream. A ripple disturbed the glassy stream. After a sharp splash, the water settled back into its regular flow.

This proved enough for Lucy. She ran back to the garden, through the kitchen, and straight to the chapel, where Alistair lay prostrate before the altar. Lucy knelt beside him and touched his back.

Alistair raised his face. “Lusierna, what can I do? He won’t hear me.”

She closed her fingers around his arm. Though her fingers were small and slender and did not encompass even half the girth of his forearm, her grip forced him to rise to his knees. Then she stood so that their eyes were at a level. Deliberately she turned from him to take the relic case from its pedestal.

“No,” said Alistair. “I do not seek to supplant Father, truly. I hoped you would believe, even if no one else did.”

But Lucy remained before him, holding the case out toward him.

“What do you want from me?” Alistair gazed at the depthless eyes bent upon him. “Yes… as long as I remember, you were with me. I understand. I will trust you as I did then.” He extended both hands toward her. The thick chains on his wrists clinked.

Lucy laid the relic case on top of Alistair’s bound hands. The shackles fizzed at the touch of the polished wood. In another instant, the iron dissolved to powder, leaving Alistair freed and shaken. Lucy did not release the case until Alistair’s fingers closed around it. Then she looked up. A solitary firefly bumbled along the ceiling. Lucy grasped Alistair by the wrist and pulled him back along the path from which she had just come, back to the grate in the castle wall. Again she trailed her fingertips in the water, but this time she raised her hand afterward to trace a cross on Alistair’s forehead.

Alistair gave her a last, long stare. “If there is no hope for my father…” He laid his large hand atop the relic case. After a deep sigh, he lowered that hand into the water.

Coils of clear water rose along the bars of the grate, revolving with ever-increasing speed. The churning of the water was loud in the silence, but at that end of the castle no one stayed awake to hear. When the water receded to its smooth flow once again, the iron bars were but jagged teeth framing a tunnel that led out of the castle.

Alistair waded into the stream, holding the relic case clear of the surface. He turned back only once to look at Lucy. “Will we meet again someday?”

For once, a faint smile came to her face. Lucy curtseyed to him.

“No,” said Alistair insistently, “as friends, as equals.”

She gestured for him to continue on his way.

The young man hesitated only another few seconds before he yielded. His shadow was dark in the shadowed tunnel. Then he was gone.

Lucy passed through the castle to the grand hall and stood in the shadow of the empty throne. Like a carved image she waited, tireless, through the next watches of the night. The castle slept around her, until in the predawn hours the creak of the main gates signaled an arrival. Hooves resounded in the courtyard. Then a distant cry and a clash of metal split the night hush with violence.

The doors to the castle burst open. A jostling, clattering rush of armored men passed through the grand hall, but motionless Lucy went unnoticed. Noises of struggle were short-lived as the castle folk discovered their peril too late. The corridors resounded with the futile resistance of Master Malcolm’s warriors only a little longer. Then the victors began to march the servants into the great hall, some of the men bound hand and foot. One of the invaders wore blood-spattered black armor and a silver eagle on his shield. The others saluted him as he passed.  “One is missing. Where is the old man’s heir?”

Malcolm’s steward was dragged forward. “Young A-Alistair the master disinherited. He— is in chains in the chapel, awaiting his banishment come dawn.”

“And the relic? Where is the relic?”

“Chapel a-also,” the steward said.

The black-armored invader stalked away. Within a few minutes, he returned, wrathful. “You lie, worm. The chapel is empty. Where is the relic?”

“But… but that is impossible. No one can touch the relic but the master—” The steward’s expression was one of bewildered desperation. “And her! There is a girl who can carry the relic; she carries it for the master.”

“Which one is she?”

Gazing around at the faces of his fellow captives, the steward grew more agitated. “She is not there… not there—” His gaze came to the empty throne and the petite shadow standing behind it. “There! That is she!”

The invaders dragged Lucy forward and forced her to her knees before their leader. “I am Thorne de Alban, Viscount Thorinton, now master of these lands. Where is the sacred relic that now comes to me?”

“Lord,” said the steward anxiously, “the girl is mute. She does not speak.”

“On the contrary.” Lucy’s lips barely moved, but her words were clear to all the transfixed onlookers. “I do not speak without cause, so I have not spoken until now. The relic does not come to you. It is no heirloom to be stolen by any man. Even if the relic were here now, it would not accept a rotting heart like yours. Only one who is clean of heart may command the relic. It has passed to a more fitting guardian.”

“This Alistair who fled?” Thorne bared his teeth. “Then I swear by this rotting heart that I will hunt him down and kill him. I will not yield my prize to another!”

“It will not come to you,” repeated Lucy. “Though it were here in my hands, you could not come near enough to brush it with your fingers— not that I would permit you to defile it.”

“You will change your tune.” Thorne drew his sword. Fresh blood dulled its burnished blade. He touched the edge to Lucy’s throat. “Whatever I desire, I will attain.”

“Though you take off my head, my words will not change. Test me and see if I speak truly.”

Thorne broke out in raucous laughter. “A slave speaks thus to me? You have courage!” His eyes narrowed. “Slaves do not need courage.” He swung his sword in a wide arc on a level with Lucy’s chin.

No blood gushed as the blade severed the girl’s head from her body. Rather, her body began to dissolve in a shower of sparks. One of these sparks, much larger than the others, flew upward toward the ceiling. It hovered long enough for the onlookers to see its shape: body humanoid, legs jointed backward, skin translucent with golden veins, wings a slender blur. Then it sped through the open doors out into the night.

“Firefly child…” Thorne stared after it as myriad smaller sparks died out on the floor at his feet. “Explain this!” he demanded, but the steward was too dumbfounded to obey. Then he summoned one of the warriors. “You! You have knowledge of this house, knowledge enough to get us inside. What was that about?”

The warrior bowed. “I do not know, Lord Thorne, but there were whispers. Some believed that Master Malcolm had used the relic to trap one of the naturekind as a pet to please his first wife. My lord, if that is the case, if we pursue the boy Alistair, the naturekind will declare war on us. The firefly children are beloved of the tree folk and the water folk alike. The countryside has eyes, my lord.”

“Yet all naturekind submit to a master of a relic,” mused Thorne. “We must strike quickly and take back the relic. Then they will pose us no threat. Take a company of trackers and pursue that firefly child. She will lead us to the boy Alistair.”

“My lord?” The warrior hesitated.

“Whatever I desire, I will attain. I fear no lusus naturae.”

His worried lackey bowed. “Yes, my lord. I hear and obey.”

Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 1

Here it is, as promised: a short story based on the idea presented by Jacob Baugher: Design a completely original magic system: no alchemy, burning metals, sympathy, name casting, ancient language, spirit casting, elemental casting, or anything else you’ve read. Also the magic is cast out of the wizard’s nose. And so we have Week 1’s entry, “Inauspicious Roots.” I hope you enjoy it.


Inauspicious Roots

By H. M. Snow

Beginnings are often the most difficult stage on the road to greatness. A glance around the waiting room of the Mucinoid Experimentation and Studies Society would not have revealed the presence of one who was to become the face of visceral magic within only a few years. Given the volume of sniffles, gurgles and coughs that echoed back from its vaulted ceiling, any outsider might understandably mistake it for the antechamber of an urgent care clinic rather than the holding area for the most prestigious of entrance exams. A raggedy assemblage of young men and women slumped in the same uncomfortable arm chairs common to every institutional waiting room. Most of the applicants were between the ages of eighteen and thirty, with the arithmetical mean landing somewhere about twenty-two years of age.

The future star of the Society, whose name was one day to be known world-wide, occupied an obscure chair between two hulking kinesthetic scholars. Perhaps this made the boy appear to greater disadvantage than usual. He was, after all, merely twelve years old at the time, barrel-bodied and round-faced with a pallid complexion that would have done any solitary confinement inmate proud. He wore a bowtie at his throat and his fair hair slick against his scalp. Moreover, he sniffed incessantly. Amongst such a din of coughs and snorts, it is a wonder he made himself heard at all, but his two seatmates threw him such irritable glances as might curl the toes of a more sensitive soul. Every prim little sniff from the boy’s nostrils seemed to go straight to their nerves.

All the other applicants showed abundant signs of anxiety. The entrance exams for the Mucinoid Experimentation and Studies Society were both rigorous and secretive. Each applicant sat the exam alone in front of a board of examiners. Pass or fail, the examinees left via a different exit so as to prevent the applicants yet to come from discerning whether their competitors had done well or poorly. The only people who exited from the waiting room entrance were the custodians. The waiting applicants referred to the custodians’ comings and goings as they would a clock. Going in meant another exam was finished and another applicant was soon to enter the lion’s den. Since the custodians went in to clean up after each exam, their movements provided no information about the previous examinees’ performances either.

The tension began to tell on the boy’s seatmates as they watched the custodians come and go. One sniff too many provoked the young man on his left to exclaim, “Look, kid, go wait for your dad somewhere else! I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m not waiting for my dad,” the boy began to explain. He spoke as pedantically as he looked.

“Whatever. Just go sit somewhere else, okay?”

The boy rose without argument. His luck was no better at the next seat he tried, nor at the seat after that. When he was driven away from his fourth choice of seat, the boy wandered the perimeter of the waiting room, coming to a halt near the alcove where three custodians awaited their next summons.

“… and all the Professor says is, ‘There was nothing at all magical about that vomit. Please check out at the receptionist’s desk and reschedule.’ Like he wasn’t wearing puke all down the front of his suit and all!” The elder of the two male custodians laughed under his breath.

The female of the trio laughed also. “Whatever the Professor said, I still say the amount must have been magical. Maybe the guy connected his stomach to one of those pocket dimensions they talk about up on the fourth floor. Nobody has that much stomach capacity by nature.”

“Might have been why the Professor told him to reschedule. Sucks if you’ve got that kind of talent just to fail the entrance exam from nerves.”

The third custodian, whose silence was due entirely to the potato chips he was transferring from bag to mouth in a steady flow, held the bag out to the boy who stood by listening. “Want some? Boring for you, waiting for somebody sitting the exams.”

The boy shook his head. “No, thank you. I’m on a special diet. And I’m not waiting for—” He perked up his ears as the walkie-talkie on the desk beeped.

“Ready for clean-up,” said a crackly voice from the small speaker.

The custodians rose. Custodian number three clipped his bag of chips closed and tucked them into a cubby-hole above the desk. “What’s the next number again?”

“Sixty-one,” said the woman.

“Sixty-one? That’s my number,” the boy remarked. When they gawked at him, he held out the paper to prove it. He straightened each cuff of his dress shirt and took up the clear zippered plastic bag lying at his feet. He shuffled behind the custodians to the exam room door. As it shut behind him, he paused to take in his new environment.

At the front of the tiered lecture hall, six distinguished examiners sat behind a table. They peered at him through a variety of corrective lenses. One leaned over to another and murmured, “This is the one? He doesn’t look like a prodigy.” But his associate shushed him and beckoned to the boy. “What have you brought? They warned you, did they not, that we must examine any supplies brought in from the outside? You were offered use of the Society’s standard-issue supplies for the exam, were you not?”

Still placid, the boy brought his zippered plastic luggage to the examiners’ table. He proceeded to lay out its contents, also in sterile clear zippered bags. Each little bag contained a bundle of plain white facial tissues and was labeled with a lengthy chemical formula. “I treated them specially,” he announced as the examiners handled the bags, “according to Magill’s rules. You can check them.”

Having this solemn authorization handed down to them by a child not yet in puberty amused the examiners. They duly checked, glanced at each other with subdued approval, and returned their attentions to the boy. “What have you prepared for us today…” The eldest man among them consulted his clipboard before venturing to add, “Silas Lumkin?”

“You can choose,” said the boy. He sniffed again. “I can do any of them. Do you have any saline spray? I forgot mine.”

The youngest of the examiners went to the supply closet to fetch the needed spray. Meanwhile, the other five whispered together. “I don’t recognize the notation on this bag,” said one aloud. “It appears to be incomplete.”

“No, ma’am,” said the boy Silas, “it’s a sterilizing compound.” He accepted the saline spray from his benefactor and applied a squirt up each nostril. Then he pulled on a pair of examination gloves and withdrew one of the sterile facial tissues from its bag, ensuring that it touched nothing.

The examiners raised clear plastic sneeze shields on the table in front of them.

Before he blew his nose, the boy Silas raised his free hand to his face. He pressed his thumb into the hollow of his right eye socket, just above the tear duct, and massaged the spot six times in tiny circles. He tapped three fingertips against his forehead, pinched his nose, and used his fore- and middle fingers to stroke down and away from each side of his nose in turn. Then he blew his nose with a resounding, elderly honk.

The tissue fizzled and, when Silas held it out, frothed up in odd formations that solidified as a peculiar amalgamation of fur, dust bunnies, and flowers, among other less identifiable textures. The boy Silas laid the mutated tissue on the table for the examiners’ better viewing.

“What,” said the youngest examiner, “on earth is that?”

“I made it myself,” Silas answered. “It’s my allergy test. I discovered that combining Joba’s nasal manipulation arcana with traditional Asian mystical pressure points, in the presence of a specially-sterilized medium such as…” He continued on in this pedantic vein for some time, as oblivious to the examiners as they were to his explanation. He did notice, however, when one of the fascinated examiners began to prod the tissue with the end of a pen. Then Silas’ discourse turned more toward the practical. “By identifying the parts of the allergy test, it is possible to pinpoint the source of the allergy. This part here is cat hair from my mom’s Persian, and this is ragweed—it’s just come into season— and dust— I’m awfully allergic to dust—”

“And you developed this yourself? But how?” said the youngest examiner. When the eldest cut him off with a gesture, he blurted, “But Professor—!”

The Professor folded his hands on the table. “This is a practical exam. We must continue. Please select another type of tissue and display its uses for us.”

Unfazed, the boy Silas opened a different bag of tissues. This time, he squirted saline up each nostril twice and used both hands to massage his temples, the glands beneath his jaw, and the spots in front of his jug ears. Then he laid the tissue on a pedestal table provided for the purpose, hawked violently, plugged one nostril, and from the other nostril exhaled a mass of phlegm that burst into flame on contact with the treated tissue.

“Expertly done,” the Professor said. “It is not our practice to admit minors into the Society, but you have shown enough proficiency to prove that it shall not be a waste of our time.” He marked an emphatic tick on the clipboard before him. “Expect to receive your training schedule by post within a few days, young Mr. Lumkin. We look forward to working with you.”

Small praise, perhaps, for a boy who had just displayed knowledge of mucinoid magic far beyond his age. Silas only said, “Yes, sir. Thank you,” and gathered up his supplies. Such were the inauspicious roots of the greatest nasal mage of our times, Dr. Silas Lumkin, M.M.D., better known to the admiring masses as Silas the Sinus.

New Year’s Day: Well Begun…?

I have had this song running through my mind off and on for the past few days:

Those who know me even slightly will admit I am no optimist, which makes this choice of songs all the more unaccountable. Nevertheless, uncharacteristic or not, I must say that the past several days have been rather lovely. Vacation has a good deal to do with that, and family, so even though I am returning to my day job tomorrow, I find myself in a more-than-usually equable frame of mind.

I have not, mind you, forgotten the challenge I have set for myself. The saying, “Well begun is half-done” seems too optimistic when looking ahead to 52 weeks of short writing pieces. I have ideas for about a tenth of those weeks so far– not a comfortable position from which to begin, I must say. I simply tell myself it wouldn’t be a challenge if I had it all worked out from the very start. I will set a schedule: Tuesdays appear to be the best day for the deadline, according to my other commitments. That means you may look for my first short, a short-short story inspired by an idea donated by Jacob Baugher, on Tuesday, January 7th, 2014. Which means I had better get started writing it, hadn’t I? (See you Tuesday!)