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3
Jun

“A Question of Dominion”: Writing Challenge, Week 20

A Question of Dominion

by H. M. Snow

 

Standing at the top of the steps that led downward into the gate, Ciar held perfectly still for as long as it took for him to draw several long breaths. Then he raised his hands high, clenched them into fists and brought them swiftly down to his sides.

A soft cloud of dust rose under the impact of two bodies materializing at Ciar’s feet. To his left appeared a young man barely more than a boy still; to his right, a slender ascetic approaching middle age. The young man raked both hands through long blood-red hair with the exclamation, “What!” The ascetic merely took in his surroundings with a cool glance, stood and dusted himself off with thin hands decorated with the distinctive blue flame markings of the king of air. “Really, Ciar,” this one said, “what are you doing? I have a full schedule today.”

“I assure you,” Ciar replied, “I do not want you here either.” He descended the steps through the gate without another word.

Halfway down the underground corridor, the young man said, “Uh-oh.”

The ascetic answered him, “Come, now– she is our mother. As such, she’s owed some measure of duty. Stop lagging behind and behave like a man.”

Ciar ignored them both as he led them into the luminous fountain cavern. There a low table, gilded and empty, was laid for a feast, lacking only the food. “Mother,” he said to the lady who occupied the foot of the table, “here they are.”

“Ciro.” Their mother reached out her hand for him to kiss. “Still only duty, as always.” Then she held out her hand commandingly toward the younger. “Caius. Here. Now.” Before he could take her hand, she lowered it to point at the place to her left. “Sit. I’m deeply displeased with you.”

Because Ciar had taken the head of the table as his rightful place, Ciro the eldest son lowered himself into the seat at the only empty side of the table, at his mother’s right hand. “What was so urgent that you had Ciar yank us out of our domains like this, Mother? It doesn’t seem to be an emergency, not if this is what we are summoned to find.” He swept his bony hand over the feast table.

“It is far more important than you think.” She did not speak further.

Caius squirmed in his place. He picked up the goblet in front of him, cast a glance inside its empty depths, sighed a dissatisfied sigh. “I’m thirsty. I was in the middle of hunting. I see the promise of a feast– where is it?”

“In good time,” said his mother.

This did not suit Caius’ nature. He rose to his feet abruptly. “Well, I’m thirsty,” he said again as he headed toward the fountain.

“I don’t recommend it.” Ciar’s deep, harsh voice was enough to stop the youngest brother in the process of lowering his empty goblet into the water.

“You are such a fool,” Ciro added with a short laugh. “You don’t recognize a fountain of dominion when you see one! It raises an interesting question, though: what would happen if the lord of one domain drank from the fountain of another domain? Would earth be subject to under earth? Would it have any effect at all?” His voice was mocking, directed at Caius as the youngest settled himself back at the table.

“I have a better question for the three of you,” said their mother, “if you wish to test your wisdoms. There once lived a child who drank of all three fountains: the first, driven by fear of another’s greed; the second, compelled by a sense of duty for the sake of another’s arrogance; and the third, led by ignorance through the compassion of another. To which domain did the child belong then?”

Caius had a ready answer. “Every race goes to the swiftest. The reason doesn’t matter; the first always wins. The child belongs to the first domain he drank of the water in.”

His eldest brother shot a contemptuous look across the table. “Fear is an illogical reason. If the water was not drunk by choice, then there can be no true loyalty. Besides, duty is a higher impetus than either fear or ignorance. Duty is the perfection of the human will. Obviously the second domain would hold sway, regardless of sequence.”

Their mother gazed from youngest to eldest with flat eyes. “Neither answer surprises me. This is what you two call wisdom– choosing whatever appeals to you most. What is your answer, Ciar? Which holds dominion over the child?”

The middle son was slow to answer his mother’s prompting. When at last he spoke, he did so slowly as well. “The child, as I see it, is in a pitiable state. He belongs to all and none at the same time. The water of dominion is absolute. It gives everyone who drinks of it the freedom of the domain. The child would be free to travel in any of the three domains, but cannot rest in any one domain, being pulled toward the other two at all times. There is no such thing as one fountain overriding or replacing another’s dominion. This means the child must serve three masters, which is impossible for anyone– let alone for someone with three such masters as we are.” He did not look at either of his brothers when he said this. “Such a child is likely to be torn to pieces instead of finding a home in any domain.”

“Then by all means,” said Caius, “tear the child in three and let’s be done with the question. A situation like that is impossible anyway.”

“As you say,” their mother replied, “a child like that must be quite impossible.” She smiled a little at Ciar across the table and repeated, “Quite impossible. Let’s eat together, before it is too late. Call them in, Ciar.”

Ciar held out his hand, palm-upward. A wisp of black smoke streaked from his hand toward the darker recesses of the cavern, where the inmost gate was concealed in a cleft of the rock. In another moment, two figures approached from the cleft. Foremost was Des, carrying the smaller of two trays laden with platters and tureens. Her gaze sought Ciar’s. Her complexion was a little gray and her posture rigid as she dropped to one knee to present the tray before him.

“When did you get yourself one of these? She doesn’t look dead.” Caius extended his left hand, tattooed all around with blood red flames, on a straight line toward Des’ backside.

Ciar’s black-flame tattooed fist shot out on an intersecting line.

The young king of earth yelped. He cradled his hand against his chest. “You! You’ve broken my fingers! I’m sure they’re broken.”

“You’ll get worse if you move in that direction again.” The king under earth shifted the tray so that it rested on the table. Then he led Des around to his other side, making room so that she had a place beside him. He went so far as to serve her from the tray first before taking any food for himself. With a fingertip, he pushed the tray toward his elder brother when he had finished helping himself to its contents.

The other server had taken his tray to the far end. No one gave him a glance until he sat down beside the kings’ mother. Even then, Ciro and Caius were too preoccupied with the scene featuring Des to do more than note the fourth man’s presence until the fourth man offered a platter of cut fruits and said, “Do you still have a taste for fruit, Ciro?”

“Yes, thank–” Ciro, king of air, opened wide his blue eyes. “Father?”

“Father!” Caius echoed in amazement.

“I was beginning to wonder if either of you would take note of me.”

“But… you… died,” said the eldest with painstaking enunciation.

“You weren’t always this slow on the uptake,” said the former king, Ciceran. “Where are we, Ciro? In which domain?”

His youngest son hooted with raucous disdain. “And you mocked me for the fountain!”

Ciceran ignored this interjection and said patiently, “Instead of holding dominion, I am now part of this domain. I asked Ciar for his consent as king under earth so that I could meet with you on this decisive day.”

“What makes today so important?” asked Ciro. “Mother said something like that when we arrived, and now you. I can’t see how today is any different from any other day.”

Ciceran and his consort shared a sidelong look. Their lack of response weighed heavily on the conversation, suppressing any other remarks. Fortunately there was food to distract the eldest and youngest, whose self-confidence and appetite was far heartier than any misgivings that their parents’ silence may have engendered. At the other end of the table, Ciar stared at his food in gloom. Des spoke softly to him, too softly for anyone to hear. Under the influence of her whispers, Ciar sampled a little food.

Food still remained, though considerably less of it, when a faraway rush of waters began to resound in the fountain cavern. Ciar heard it first and hushed Des so that he could listen. The youngest brother, Caius, was slowest to catch on that something was happening, but even he fell silent eventually. The rush became a thunder that echoed from every facet of the dome. Ciro covered his ears, wincing. Caius tried to shout over it, but no one could tell what he said over the ceaseless thunder. Des gripped the back of Ciar’s shirt as he tried to shelter her from whatever powerful force approached.

Then the waves appeared from nowhere, rising higher than the fountain itself. They seemed as though they would crash down, drowning everyone trapped in the cavern, but when they fell they engulfed only the three brothers. Ciar was torn from Des’ grip. The water lifted the three brothers from the cavern floor, swirling around them in spheres. Caius flailed uselessly against the water prison, while Ciro made arcane gestures as if attempting to summon some power with which to fight. The pressure within the cavern was immense, even for those not trapped within the living water. Ciceran was on his knees, and his consort surrounded him with her particles like a shield. Likewise, Des knelt at the far end of the table, but far from bowing beneath the pressure, she refused to tear her gaze away from Ciar’s pliant silhouette in its prison.

As fast as they had come, the strange waters receded and left the cavern perfectly dry. The only sound remaining was the dainty trickle of the fountain. The waters left all three brothers flat on the floor, panting. Caius was the first to sit up, but he was no longer the same young man who had entered the fountain cavern. His hair was a plain dun brown, and all the flame markings had disappeared from his sun-freckled skin. “I feel sick,” he groaned. “Ciro… Ciro, what’s wrong with you? You look different.”

The eldest brother rolled onto his side. His voice came raggedly. “What happened?”

Their father rose and crossed the chamber to kneel between them. He picked up two slender tapered sticks of pale wood. Each had a flame symbol engraved into the end. “When dominion is bestowed, it is conditional. One thousand days were granted you, in which you showed your quality as king of your specific domain. On the thousand and first day, you would then undergo a test. If you passed the test, your dominion would be strengthened; if not, it would be lifted from you.” He showed them the two sticks. “Don’t you recognize these?”

Ciro reached for the stick engraved with the flame of air. With a harsh cry he jerked his hand back from it as if burned.

“Do you see now? You have failed the test.” Ciceran gazed across at Ciar. “They aren’t listening, are they?” He smiled gently at the sight of the attendant Des helping her lord sit upright, steadying him until he regained his equilibrium, speaking privately in anxious tones.

“That isn’t fair,” said Caius. “You never warned us. How were we supposed to know?”

“I taught you,” his father said in a harder tone, “that dominion was a burden for you to bear. I taught you that, above all, you were never to become a burden to your domain. But you showed your quality. You showed your quality,” he repeated, deadly calm. “Your mother and I brought you all together here so that you wouldn’t display our family’s disgrace publically on such an important day, but you have displayed it for one thousand days already. There is no way to conceal your quality— a womanizer and a glutton, a despot and a murderer. And you.” He turned his attentions on his eldest. “Sanctimonious, dogmatic and cold-hearted autocrat that you are, you did no better than your littlest brother, only you forced all your executions onto the consciences of others. You worship duty while twisting your own obligations to suit yourself. Keep silent,” Ciceran commanded. “Hold your tongues, and it might be credited to you as wisdom. I am finished with you. This is beyond my control.”

“Then what are we supposed to do now?” blurted Caius.

Their mother solidified behind Ciceran, a towering figure of a woman. She grasped eldest and youngest by their collars. “We have trespassed in a sacred place too long. You are my offspring. I will deal with you now in a different place, a profane place more suited to you. Until next time, Ciar,” she said. Her voice echoed with strength. Her expression was matter-of-fact when she added, “If you cannot present me with another generation of offspring from that girl, then you’re no son of mine.” She dragged her other two sons from the cavern.

Ciar stared after her. Beneath the black flame markings of his domain, his skin burned pink. “She says whatever she pleases, as always.”

His father laughed. “And you’ve found another like her, at least in that regard. Didn’t you notice, Ciar? You’re the only one blushing.”

Ciar turned his head to stare at Des’ face, but Des was her usual bright-eyed self. “Did you think I’d turn back because of something like that, lord? It’s your mother’s wish for you. If it’s also what you wish for yourself, then I need nothing more to decide me.”

“But you– you– you don’t lo–”

Des covered his mouth with her hand. “Lord, it isn’t fitting for the king under earth to stutter like that. I couldn’t serve you as I do if I didn’t love you. Didn’t you know? If I had the honor of presenting my lord with a son or daughter, I would be more pleased than I can say. But lord, I think your father has something more to say.” She nudged Ciar to return his attention to the former king.

Ciceran held up the two domain symbols. “It’s your choice, Ciar. It’s a burden, a dreadfully heavy burden for one man to bear, but I think you can do it.”

Ciar stared at the offered sticks. He held out his hand, palm-upward. “For the next generation. I will keep them safe until then.”

His father laid the two sticks across Ciar’s palm. They vanished, and everything that marked Ciar as king under earth changed in a second: the tattoo markings and his hair turned white. His eyes turned as blue as a cloudless sky. The skin of one arm, beneath the white tattoos, turned blood red and the skin of the other, coal black.

“You remind me of myself when I was young,” said Ciceran. He bowed with his forehead touching the cavern floor. “No longer will anyone say ‘under earth’ or ‘air’ or ‘earth,’ because there is only one king and only one domain again.” Then he rose. “I’ll return now, with your consent.”

When they were alone once more, Ciar said to Des, “I can summon you to my side, no matter which part of the domain I’m in. You won’t be bound here alone.”

“Well…” With reluctance, Des said, “Technically, I think I was never bound here. I heard the question your mother asked you earlier. That child in the question… that was me. I’ve drunk from all three fountains, though that was never my ambition.”

“Why did you never say anything?”

“Because of what you said: I couldn’t serve three masters. I didn’t want to serve the other two. I wanted to belong to your domain alone, to stay at your side. I thought you knew that already, lord. How much more do I need to do to prove it to you?” She gave him a wry smile. Her eyes twinkled. “How many offspring will it take? Choose any number; I’m ready to give it my best effort.” She laughed when he coughed in embarrassment. “Whatever the need may be, I want only to remain at your side, whatever domain you visit. I know you’ll do well, and I’ll be proud to be of help to you however I can. So…” Des leaned her forehead against the side of Ciar’s head. “Your new domains await you, lord. Shall we go?”

He stood and lifted her to her feet with him. “Yes, let’s.”

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26
May

Writing Challenge: Week 19

Under Earth Hunt

by H. M. Snow

 

Des rolled onto her side, facing away from Ciar, as she choked on the mouthful of water. Several seconds passed with much coughing and spitting before she could speak. “Lord?”

The king under earth patted her between the shoulder blades. “Are you all right? You lost consciousness.”

“I had a dream,” said Des. She sat up with his assistance and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “I haven’t dreamed at all since coming here. I haven’t slept either, now that I think about it. Is it normal?”

“No. This is a realm between life and death. Apart from the one who holds dominion here, living humans aren’t supposed to be here. There is nothing ‘normal’ about your situation.”

Dismissing this bit of pessimism, Des took up the bowl of water that Ciar had set aside. She drained it in one long swallow. “It was such a strange dream. I thought it was my aunt Mattie I was talking to at first, but then I saw her dissolving around the edges. Even then, I thought maybe that’s normal for the spirits of the dead, but then she asked me how she died, as if she didn’t know. I thought, that can’t be right. As it happened, it didn’t matter because I started choking and woke up.”

Ciar bowed his head pensively. “It is possible,” he said after a time, “that you encountered a plathein. Your description fits.”

“What is it?”

“Platheins are a race of shapeshifters. They are particulate creatures, able to rearrange their particles so as to resemble other beings. The stronger among them can expand the range of their particles quite a distance. If any creature absorbs one of these particles, it becomes possible for the plathein to communicate with that creature. It may be that you picked up a stray particle. There are platheins nearby.”

Des gazed around at the mist. “How can you tell?”

“I can sense them. Moreover, there’s a hunt ranging near, and the platheins never can resist a hunt.”

“Hunt?” Des gazed around. “The gate is shut.”

Ciar stood so that he towered above her. “A precaution. It’s my responsibility to make sure the hunt doesn’t touch those under the mountain. I was readying myself when I found you. I can’t afford to delay any longer.”

“Yes, lord.” Des was at his side immediately, not helping him don his armor but donning her own.

“It would be better for you to stay here by the gate,” Ciar noted.

“But it isn’t about what’s better for me,” Des said. “If my lord is carrying out his duties, how can I stay idle here?” She took up one of the many broad-bladed daggers from the king’s stores. “Of course I’ll attend you, as I always do. I’m trained for this work too.” She took her stand before him, bright eyes turned upward to his face with relentless good cheer.

No one is trained for this kind of hunt.” Ciar tightened the straps that bound his shield to his forearm. “But since I’ve learned it’s useless to argue with you, then come, if you wish. You’ll need a horse.” He whistled long and loud.

The ubiquitous mists gathered and swirled into a dense mass that split in two. Each half took on the figure of a horse, one a normal size and the other nearly twice as big. Ciar caught hold of the smaller one by the mane. When he led the mist-horse to Des, however, he waited a short while for her to recall herself to the task. She was staring out over the landscape revealed by the gathering of the mist: a cinder-colored vista that sloped gently downward away from the king’s camp. Giant spikes protruded from the ground, as if iron nails with the girth of redwoods had been driven from below. Nothing grew in such a landscape, neither flora nor fauna. Ciar said softly, “Are you still determined to come with me?”

Des’ instant response was to fall onto her knees at his feet. She seized his gauntlet-clad hand and kissed it. “Over all this you hold dominion, lord? You’re greater than I first thought!” Then she regained her feet. She stroked the mist-horse’s flank. “It feels real. Will it hold me?”

“If I so desire,” replied the king. “You aren’t afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

Ciar sighed. “I don’t understand you.” He lent her his hand so that she could mount her mist-horse. Then he swung himself onto the back of the greater horse. As they rode, he spoke of what lay ahead. “The sonji are restless monsters. Now and then I must drive them back to the depths. What they want is to feed on the darkness in human souls, to cause insanity among humans and thereby cause bloodshed. If left unchecked, they would invade the city under the mountain, climb up to the domain of earth– even to the domain of air. They are entirely destructive.”

“Why do those platheins come out during the hunt?”

“I’m not sure. I can only assume it’s due to a spirit of fair play. They–” Ciar fell silent. “There’s a sonji now.” He unslung his axe.

“What is it meant to be? Apart from hideous, that is to say.” Des brandished not only the wide dagger but also a slender short sword. “Does it need quite so many arms?”

“Stay here and don’t let any that escape me get past you. Don’t let any touch you,” Ciar warned. Then he swept forward on his great warhorse and, with one swing of the axe, split the foremost monster in half.

The cloven halves continued squirming until the bubbling froth that spilled from its guts dissolved the remains. Even the hard cinders underneath warped from the acid. Des paused alongside the mess, watching with inquisitive calm until the fizzing stopped. By that point, Ciar had plunged into the next knot of sonji. Des followed him with her eyes until she noticed a line of onlookers beyond him. There was something of a genteel picnic gaiety about them, although their shapes blurred when she looked too long at any one of them. Ladies wearing frothy pale gowns and gentlemen in long cream-white tail coats, all gathered at a distance on higher ground to watch the action below. Occasionally an incongruous shape would appear among them: a sparkling catherine’s-wheel firework, a leaping rabbit five feet high at the ears, once even an empty coat tree, to name a few. These forms lasted only a few seconds before reverting to humanoid. Watching the fluctuations in shape was like listening to half a conversation, trying to guess what had caused each response.

A smattering of applause from the platheins brought Des back around to face the hunt in time to see half a sonji fly through the air, its raw end a fountain of acid. Ciar plunged boldly into the midst of the monsters. His axe flew back and forth, around and down, over and over again in mesmerizing dance of slaughter.

Being thus distracted by the hunt, Des never noticed when one of the platheins separated from its group. Her first intimation that she was not alone came in the figure of a woman, tall and curiously thin, that loomed at her left hand. This woman’s burning black eyes ensnared Des and held her in place. “You did not finish answering my question earlier.” Then the woman broke apart into a multicolored cloud of specks that swept Des skyward in a tight cyclone.

Ciar wheeled around in the midst of the hunt. He charged his great mist-horse toward the spinning cloud, but at the very moment he reached the cyclone, Des shot high through the air with a trailing cry of alarm. The king under earth slewed his mount around to chase after Des. With apparent leisure, the cyclone reformed into the lady and the lady made no hurried movement. She reached out to slip her arms around Ciar’s neck from behind, and that was all. He was forced to stop moving, though the difference in physical strength between them should have been all in his favor. “Watch,” said the lady in his ear.

“But she–!”

“Only watch,” the lady reiterated.

All Ciar could do was gesture for the smaller mist-horse to leap high beneath Des and catch her on her descent. The horse’s hooves hadn’t touched ground when Des vaulted from its back to a safe landing, a weapon gripped in each hand. Her fierce, “Ha!” rang through the deadened air as she drove her short sword through the head of a sonji, pinning it to the hard ground so that she could fillet its sides with her dagger. Acid flew in two thin streams from the tips of her blades as she turned to behead another of the monsters. Acid splashed her clothes, but the euphoria of battle raised her above pain for the moment. She slashed her way through sonji after sonji, deaf to the cheers and applause of the plathein audience.

The last sonji was the wiliest. It had enough wit to use its many limbs to scuttle away from Des no matter from which direction she launched her attack. After a few failed attempts, Des remembered to summon the mist-horse. She proved a deft rider, cutting off the sonji’s every escape. When she had the monster confused, Des hooked an arm around the mist-horse’s neck and leaned down to deliver the death-blow with her short sword. She left the frothing, dissolving carcass behind without a glance, choosing to ride at once to where Ciar waited. “That’s the last of them, lord. No need to worry about them until the next hunt. How long is it, I should ask, between one hunt and the next?”

Ciar stared at her. “I don’t understand you. Was it not you who struggled so deeply over serving as swordbearer that you shattered the sword of the air rather than commit an act of violence?”

“What– that?” Des waved her hand as if waving the question away. “That was a different matter. If it’s just hunting a monstrous pestilence like those beasts to spare you the trouble of doing it, lord, then it’s no trouble at all to me. It gives me opportunity to make good use of my training.”

The plathein lady, now fully solidified as riding side-saddle behind Ciar, laughed aloud as she watched Des from over Ciar’s shoulder. “She is a rare child. I’ve searched for one like her since your father laid aside all dominion. She has told me all I needed to know.” The lady slid off the horse’s back; her feet solidified on the ground, then her ankles, and so forth, until she stood looking up at Ciar. “Go back to the gate and prepare a feast. Summon your brothers to dine with you.” Then she dissolved into a multihued cloud of specks and swept away like a breeze.

In her wake, Des asked, “Is the lady a close friend of yours, lord?”

“Friend?” Ciar sighed. “Worse than that. She’s my mother.”

14
May

Writing Challenge: Week 18

Under Earth Emissary

by H. M. Snow

 

In the luminous fountain chamber, Des stooped to splash water on her face. “So refreshing,” she declared. Then she took the bowl she had brought, swirled water in it, and filled it almost to the brim. Her tread was necessarily measured on her return to the gate that led out into the mist-swirled gray light of the domain under earth. She managed to step over a pair of tussling death hound pups without spilling her cargo, but she nearly came to grief when a colossal shadow loomed up before her in the very gateway. “Lord!” she exclaimed.

Ciar, king under earth, stared down at her with intent black eyes. His stare didn’t shift away from her face until he accepted the bowl from her. Even then, he merely took on a look of slight perplexity.

“You haven’t gone to drink at the fountain for some time,” Des explained, “so I brought water to you, lord, to refresh you.”

He drank silently.

Des waited until he had drained the bowl’s contents. Then she held out her hands to take the bowl from him. “Do you want more? I can go back for more.”

“That was enough.” After a pause, he added, “Thank you.”

“Lord,” replied Des a little reproachfully, “haven’t I said there’s no need to thank me for doing something as small as this? It isn’t as if I’ve done anything much even now.” She carried the bowl back to the niche where the king under earth kept his meager belongings. After a few moments of gratuitous tidying, she turned her attention to his pavilion, trying to rearrange it to better effect. The longer she worked, the deeper her frown grew.

Ciar returned to his foundry to build up the furnace. A crucible half-full of coinage sat to one side until the fire was sufficiently hot for Ciar to transfer the vessel into the flames. Each step of the refining process was punctuated by glances toward his self-proclaimed servant. By the time he unmolded a small, gleaming gold tablet and plunged it into the crystalline stream that flowed past his forge, Ciar radiated uneasiness. He scarcely took the time to set the cooled tablet onto the anvil before he strode across the clearing to where Des knelt with unseeing eyes outside the pavilion. Ciar pressed his hand against her forehead.

Des tipped over backward with a startled exclamation. “Lord?”

He studied her even more closely than before. “It is not possible for a living human to flourish in such an environment as this. I expected as much. You lose track of yourself often. You may be fading.”

It took Des a few seconds to absorb these words. Then she said, “Oh! I see… did you think I wasn’t feeling well?”

“You’ve grown quieter.”

Des shook her head with grave determination. “I’ve been thinking. How long have you had those trousers?”

“Trousers?”

“One like you shouldn’t wear such worn and shabby garments, lord. That’s what’s been on my mind these days. If you wear them for working at the forge, that’s one thing– but you have nothing else to change into after you bathe! It isn’t right.” Des waved her hands in an overflow of indignation, and her eyes shone. “But I don’t know how to put it right. I’m experienced with sewing and other household skills– bless my aunt Mattie for teaching me– but where am I to get the materials? And your pavilion barely merits the name! It ought to be a place where my lord can rest from his labors, but instead it’s little more than a changing-room. I want to serve, lord, but I’m afraid I’m no use to you at all.”

CIar crouched back on his heels. “Trousers. All this started from trousers?”

“I’m not a fragile creature,” said Des merrily. “Did you expect me to fade away when there’s so much to be done? But I don’t want to be useless to you. I didn’t want to trouble you with something so trivial.”

“The way you speak,” the king under earth replied, “it doesn’t sound trivial to me. If this is your will, I can send you for supplies. I’ve grown used to living simply on my own. You are right: now that you’re here, more is needed than this gray domain supplies. Here, stand up and follow me.” He brought her to the foundry, to the shelves where he stacked his work. “The hounds I can summon and send because they naturally are part of this domain. If you wear my emblem, I can do the same for you.” He girded pieces of light armor onto her as if he were the squire and she the lord. Lastly he belted a sheathed blade at her waist.

Des raised her forearm before her eyes to admire the black flames that adorned her vambrace. Then, stiffly, she bowed. “I’m honored, lord.”

“Take this with you.” From another shelf he took a canvas sack not large but very heavy for its size. “It should be enough for whatever you need to buy.”

One of the death hounds poked its head out through the gate, hearing the unwonted activity. It loped across the ground to lean against Ciar.

“He wants to go out,” said the king under earth. “He’s grown attached to you.”

Des regarded the death hound with a leery half-smile. “I shouldn’t have talked to him when he was chasing me, I suppose. Is it a good idea?”

“He can be a companion for you and protect you.” Ciar snapped his fingers.

The hound left his side and circled around Des instead.

Des gave the hound a reluctant pat. “How does this work?”

“I will send you out; where you end up depends on your own intention. You only need to think about where you wish to go. It will work the same on your return: simply focus on returning here, and the summons will activate.” Ciar rested his large hand on top of Des’ head. Phantom black fire swirled around her.

The gray domain under earth vanished, replaced by blinding sunlight and a brisk breeze. Des found herself on the road outside Aerinya, city of the domain of air. Its towering white walls made her squint after the subdued light of Ciar’s domain, but Des did not hesitate. She knew her way to the currency exchange.

As soon as the hound squeezed through the door of the exchange at her side, the money changers went into a panic. Those not near enough a window to bail out of the long chamber scrambled up onto their tables, kicking coinage to the floor in their haste. Des herself caused an additional stir by emptying the sack of small gold tablets onto one money changer’s table. “Hurry and get down here to your business,” she said. “I won’t keep my lord waiting.” She banged the flat of her hand on the tabletop and leaned.

The changer made no effort to hide his fear of the hound beside Des, but he was too old and shrewd a businessman to turn away such a rich commission. He weighed the gold pieces and quoted a price, marked up by a small percentage for fees. With Des and the death hound staring at him, he reduced the percentage without protest and measured out the local currency into the bag Des had brought. Not a breath sounded in the exchange chamber until Des and the hound departed.

A similar greeting awaited Des on the way to the drygoods store. Streets emptied of all but the echoes of shrieks ahead of the death hound, although the hound stuck close to Des’ side and paid no heed to any of the people fleeing before it. Only the storekeeper showed no such reaction, being elderly and nearly blind. She leaned heavily on her knobbed stick and peered at the death hound. “If you bring your animal in here,” she snapped, “you take responsibility for any damages, understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Des began listing off her requirements.

It was fairly amazing to watch the little shopkeeper scoot along the aisles by memory rather than sight, pulling bolts of cloth from shelves and counting out buttons and buckles by touch. In the meanwhile, the death hound sank onto its haunches and leaned its head against Des’ side, utterly relaxed. Its scanty brush of a tail made lazy sweeps along the wooden floor, flipping out of the way whenever the shopkeeper threatened to tread on it.

Des was only two-thirds through her list when the shop door burst open to admit half a dozen armed men. “You, rogue! Stand down at once–!”

Des turned and held a hand before her own mouth to shush them. Even the death hound turned its massive head to gaze at them in reproach. Its tongue lolled between the black spikes that were its teeth as it panted in contentment.

“I couldn’t hear you,” the shopkeeper said, “on account of those shouting fools. How much gold braid?”

“Four yards, please.”

The armed men stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot just inside the doorway, until the shopkeeper started wrapping Des’ purchases into brown paper parcels. At that point, another armed man joined them. The death hound’s ears twitched forward, because this newcomer brandished the sword of the domain of air.

When Des took all this in, she spoke hastily. “Outside,” she ordered the newcomer, “now!” just before the death hound launched itself at the man. She set the bag of coins on the counter and told the shopkeeper, “I have a little business outside. Settle the bill and I’ll be back in for my things.” Then she chased the commotion out into the street, only to find the hound playfully charging at the new swordbearer. The hound was quicker and more nimble than the man, so Des approached from behind. With swift, strong hands she wrenched the sword from the bearer’s hand. “Fetch!” she yelled as she threw the blade like a spear.

The death hound was ecstatic as it seized the sword between its jaws, did a little roundabout dance and vanished in a curl of black smoke.

“What have you–?” The new swordbearer’s verbal explosion halted when Des held up her hand to shush him. He tried again: “Who do you–!” But Des made the same gesture more emphatically. She watched the spot where the hound had disappeared.

Within moments, the hound reappeared, tail tucked low and head bowed, bringing the sword back to lay it at Des’ feet. Des took it, wiped it clean, and returned it to its new bearer. “Cast aside the sword, escape the hound: that was my lord’s first lesson to me.”

The bearer gaped at Des. “Who are you?”

Des gave him a wry smile. “My name’s Des. I was the swordbearer before you. I failed.” That made her laugh softly. “I broke the sword– no, to be honest I shattered it beyond common repair. Now I serve the king under earth. The hound and the sword alike are part of his domain. This one,” here she patted the hound’s lowered head, “is under orders to accompany me. He’s been scolded by my lord for playing around too much… haven’t you?” she addressed the death hound.

It lowered its head still farther, until it lay almost flat on its belly.

“All right. You did well to bring it straight back to us.” Des petted the hound until some of the light returned to its eyes. Then she turned her attention back to the gawking swordbearer. “My lord forged that sword. If ever you need to repair it, my lord is the only one who can. I mustn’t keep him waiting much longer, though.” She hurried back inside the shop.

The little shopkeeper handed back the coin bag, much lightened, but Des refused it. “I have no need of this in my lord’s domain. Keep it on account for me. I’ll come again.” She gave the shopkeeper her name and signed the account receipt. Some of the parcels fit in the duffle bag Des had purchased. The rest she piled high in her arms. Returning to the street, she whistled for the hound to join her. “I’ll go,” she said to the lingering swordbearer. “This one has caused enough of a commotion for one day. If you see another of these hounds, keep in mind the lesson I taught you. It may turn out to be your salvation. I wish you well.” She closed her eyes, and vanished, leaving just a curl of black smoke in her place.

6
May

Writing Challenge: Week 17

Dominion Under Earth

by H. M. Snow

 

Swordbearer and death hound eyed one another, both panting, both worn out by the chase. From up in the tree, the swordbearer addressed the hound: “Good evening to you. I’m Des– not that you’re interested, I guess.”

The hound threw its lean weight against the base of the tree’s trunk. Even the thickest tree branches trembled at the impact. Des the swordbearer clutched for a more secure handhold. “Right. Enough with pleasantries, then. So this is what they call a stalemate. I won’t come down from here, and you won’t leave from there. Now that I look at you, you’re the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. The sound of your breath when you’re chasing me is pretty scary too.” Des peered among the branches. With another glance down at the panting hound, the swordbearer inched along the sturdy branch to an intersecting branch of a neighboring tree. The ancient branches had grown against one another so as to form a bridge. Extending first a foot to test the stability of the path, then scooting forward to reach another length of branch, Des completed the journey to the next tree.

Below, the death hound was puzzled but watchful. It was far from stupid, as it proved when Des attempted the next crossing. At the most tenuous point of the crossing, the death hound threw itself at the tree toward which the swordbearer headed, nearly jarring Des out of the heights. Only Des’ hastily renewed grip pulled the moment back from catastrophe.

Two trees later, Des reached an impasse: the ground dropped into mist-veiled depths at the very roots of the tree, so that a downward glance made the swordbearer giddy for a moment. Des clung to the supporting branch until the dizziness passed. Then the tree quaked. The death hound had not only rammed its weight against the tree trunk, but had raised itself up onto its hind legs to claw higher and higher up the trunk, like some gaunt and deformed grizzly. The scraping claws gouged deep into the bark.

“Hold on,” blurted Des. “Don’t!” But the futile exclamation came too late. Between the weight of the swordbearer aloft in its branches and of the hound leaning hard against its trunk, the poorly-anchored tree gave a heart-pounding lurch toward the canyon edge– more than enough to jar Des into tumbling freefall.

“No!” Des had no time for more than that one terrified syllable before the ground appeared. The hard landing forced another cry from the swordbearer, who rolled and bounced across sand before losing momentum.

A dark shadow loomed against the mist. A callused, powerful hand grasped Des and tore away the sword, scabbard and all, from the bearer’s back as if the leather harness that bound it there meant nothing. A mere glimmer in the mist, the sword flew end-over-end through the air until the death hound dropped out of nowhere to catch it in slavering jaws. For several moments the hound worried the sword like a pup with a stick. When it tired of this, the hound carried the sword back to the solid shadow that still gripped the back of Des’ coat. “Cast away the sword,” a deep voice growled, “and escape the hound.” The hand released Des abruptly.

Facing the shadow fully for the first time, Des sucked in a long breath. A pattern like rising smoke coiled black around the man’s bare arms and chest, up his neck and into his hairline. His long black hair, tied back with a strip of rawhide, matched his flat black eyes. Des fell face-down on the ground.

“You know me, then?” That deep voice grated against the ear. “How do they tell the story these days? Speak.”

Breathless, Des spoke without stirring from that same prostrate position. “There was once only one king– that’s how the old ones begin it– whose domain encompassed air, earth, and under-earth. When he came to the end of his strength, he called his three sons to him. He held up three sticks with a different symbol carved on the broad end of each. To his first son he offered first choice, and this eldest took from him the stick bearing the symbol of air. ‘I will govern the domain of air,’ said the high-minded eldest, ‘and will not let it fall into ruin.’ To his middle son the old king held out the remaining two sticks, but the impulsive youngest grabbed first. ‘Earth for me!’ was his cry as he ran away with his spoils. The middle gazed at the remaining stick, the symbol for under-earth. ‘Always I have been beneath my brothers,’ he said, ‘so little will change.’ But the old king shook his head. ‘Between them you have been, and between them you remain.’ He would not explain his meaning, but when the middle son reached out to take the stick, the stick dissolved into black smoke that embraced him and marked him with its pattern, the symbol of under-earth. He and the old king both disappeared. No one has seen either since. To this day, only the king of under-earth knows where the old king lies buried, but his domain is not easily escaped, so none who seek him return to bear report of him.”

“Someone taught you well. But why do you lie?”

“Lord, I did not lie; that is how the story was told me!”

“Not the story.” The brawny king of under-earth waved away the words. “Your clothes, your manner, your words– you lie with each breath. Why? You are female.”

Des knelt open-mouthed with astonishment. “How did you know?”

“Death reveals many secrets. Since death has been my study, I see everything with different eyes. You are swordbearer to the domain of air, yet you would not slay the hound.”

“I couldn’t do it.” Des gazed desperately at the sheathed sword gripped in the strange king’s fist.

“You never tried– that’s what you mean, so say it clearly.”

“No, Lord, I couldn’t. The sword… I broke it.”

The under-earth king pulled the hilt free. Two inches of jagged metal remained of the blade. With an interrogative noise, the king carried the sword to an impossibly large anvil and poured all the pieces onto its flat surface. “I have never seen it in such a condition,” he said at length. “Your conflict was acute, then. How could you become swordbearer with your spirit in such a state? Ciro was never such a fool before, to choose someone so unsuited to the role.”

Des blinked in shock. “You call the king– of course,” she said, arresting her own blurted remark. “Brothers.”

“At least you didn’t complete your first statement.” The king of under-earth arranged the fragments of the sword with a fingertip. “I must begin anew. Not all the pieces are here. It will take time. Do as you please while you wait, but beware of venturing any deeper under the earth.”

This strange injunction made Des come fully upright on her knees like a sleeper awakened. She leaned forward to brace her hands against the sand and bowed more formally. “Forgive my impudence so far, Lord.” When her apology was ignored, she turned to look at her surroundings more closely. At her back, a rugged canyon wall vanished upward into the mists. The facade of a city was graven on the lower reaches of that wall, false windows carved intaglio into the stone and broad concourses standing inaccessible from within or without. Only one gate, low and wide, opened the side of the mountain. Shallow steps descended into utter darkness through that gate. Such a gaping unknown at her back made Des uneasy. She shifted her position so that she could see the gate out of the corner of her eye without turning her back on that domain’s king.

The death hound sprawled on the sand, tongue lolling. It paid Des no attention, a fact she found so unnerving that she ventured to ask the under-earth king, “Why?”

“Balance,” said the blackened monarch. He had wakened a fire behind the anvil and was preparing to begin a smith’s work. “The domain of air has the sword, which needs a bearer to be useful. Ciro can never use it, so he is made reliant on a champion. The domain of earth has the death hound, which will submit to Caius only once before it flees and must be recaptured. What neither realizes is that both belong to me. I forged the sword; I raise the hounds. Once a hound is set against the swordbearer, it will not rest until it has brought the sword back to me. Once it has done so, it is… mostly… harmless.” His was a ferocious grin, fully as alarming as the death hound’s bared teeth. “Both are naturally instruments of death, subjects of my domain.”

He ignored Des once he began working. Like something mechanical he swung his hammer, filling the air with the din of metal on metal. The mist had a strange, deadening quality that made the hammering dull, and the rhythm was as regular as a clock’s second hand. Weary already, Des fell into an almost hypnotic daze until her feet started to tingle from being knelt on for such a long time. She tipped onto her side, grimacing from the pain, only noticing after a while that the hammering had stopped. The forge’s fire had burned low. Its master, the king of under earth, reclined with his back to the anvil. He appeared to sleep soundly, with the death hound’s huge gaunt head resting on his leg.

From the mist, another death hound dropped noiselessly to the sand. This one was larger than the one sleeping alongside the king. It dragged with it the carcass of an elk. For all the attention it paid her, Des might not have existed at all. The death hound dragged the elk carcass down the shallow steps and through the gate into the darkness under the earth.

Now that the hound had drawn her attention in that direction, Des could barely look away from the gate. She wondered aloud, “Who needs a warning not to enter there?” But she walked almost on tiptoe to the gate to look within. From the depths, a curious chorus of squeaks and yips echoed back for a few moments. More distantly, a man’s voice called. It sounded miles away. Des leaned into the gateway to hear better. “Key… something,” she said. “I wonder what it means.” She glanced backward, but the king of under earth still slept. She took a step over the gate’s threshold. The rending of flesh closer at hand nearly turned her back, but as her eyesight adjusted to the darkness, she realized that the gate opened into a cavernous antechamber. Cracked and gnawed animal bones littered the stone floor. The shadowy movements beyond suggested several death hounds gathered around the carcass brought by the most recent arrival. Des trod carefully, but her passage did not distract the hounds from their meal. Tumbling and squeaking around the carcass, a handful of pups snapped at the scraps dropped by their elders.

Contrary to expectations, the tunnel under the earth grew brighter as Des proceeded deeper into it. She entered a domed chamber that felt spacious after the dark tunnel. A fountain and pool dominated the space. Thirsty all at once, Des sat on the raised lip of the pool and drank until satisfied. The fountain sparkled, although the bright chamber had no apparent light source to reflect off its cascades.

The voice Des had heard earlier called again, this time startlingly near at hand. “Key-aar!” From another arched gateway Des had not yet noticed, a man emerged into the chamber carrying a platter of food. He stopped short when he noticed Des.

Des leaped to her feet. Something in his face stopped her from blurting out whatever came first to her mind.

“Welcome,” the man said. He was older, but his exact age was difficult to ascertain: clean-shaven, tall, strongly-built and kind-eyed. “You’ve just arrived. No need to linger in here. Come deeper in.”

Des shook her head. “He warned me not to venture too deep… I shouldn’t be here.”

“He spoke to you? That’s unusual. There’s usually no reason to stop a passing spirit and converse.”

Again Des shook her head. “I’m not a spirit. I don’t think I’m a spirit,” she added, “but it has been a strange day. Maybe I am and I never noticed.”

The man studied her more closely. “No,” he said after a while, “there’s something different about you. How did you come?”

So Des recounted the chase of the death hound, her fall from the dominion of earth, and her meeting with the king of under earth. As she spoke, the man began to smile. “I forget sometimes,” he said. “Ciar has a sly streak to him. Told you not to venture too deep under earth, did he, and then fell sound asleep? Young Des, Ciar is king under earth. His dominion is death; he doesn’t need to sleep. He was offering you the choice, to see what you would do. You’re obviously not suited to be swordbearer for Ciro, but you could have chosen to attempt the climb back up. Had you chosen even to take the sword into your hands again, Ciar would have sent you back. He must have seen something in you.”

“He is king under earth,” Des said, “yet you speak of him so familiarly.”

“He’s my son.”

“Ah!” Des dropped to her knees.

The man stopped her. “Not necessary, I assure you. I have relinquished all dominion and taken my place here. King Ciceran no longer exists. Here I am only Ciceran. So, young Des, what will you do now? You came as far as this. You can come farther and see the wonders this dominion holds. It is nothing you have ever imagined,” he added. “Yet here you wait. He won’t follow you here, either to welcome or to scold you. Ciar is bound at the entrance. If he comes this far, it is only to refresh himself for a minute at the fountain and then return to his duties.”

Des said suddenly, “Is the story true? Was this all that was left for him?”

The old king nodded, a little sadly. “It was all that his brothers left him, but in all honesty only Ciar could have taken up the dominion under earth. Ciro is too self-important; Caius is too self-indulgent. Ciar alone had the character necessary to surrender every hope for himself and bind himself between the realms as he did. I had feared this, when I chose to divide the dominions between them. When I held all three, I was able to cross from one dominion to another without trouble, but for one man to hold all three at once is a terrible burden. We aren’t strong enough creatures to endure it. So while his brothers live as kings in their respective cities, Ciar stands as solitary gatekeeper to wonders he cannot share.”

“I understand that, I think.” Des bowed her head. “You called for him.”

“Yes, I was perplexed why he didn’t answer me, but you’ve answered that mystery for me. I sometimes bring him dinner. He doesn’t really need it, but it makes a change for him. I can’t venture out through the gate, being bound as a subject to this dominion now, but he can hear me calling and come as far as this to take it from me.”

The swordbearer’s features changed subtly. “I can take it to him. I haven’t gone too deep, have I? I can still go back to the gate?”

“You can,” said the old king, “but you’ve drunk from the fountain now. I doubt you can go back easily to air or earth.”

Des reached for the platter. She met the old king’s wry smile with one of her own. “Death reveals secrets, right? I expect it still does, even after you lay down the dominion of it.”

Ciceran laid a large hand on her head in blessing. “We’ll meet again.”

Carrying the platter high in front of her, Des ran along the tunnel back toward the outermost gate. She jumped over the death hound pups that tumbled across her path in a tussle over a stripped bone. When she emerged into the dull light outside, she nearly ran into the king of under earth. With a squeak not unlike the pups’, she veered to save the dinner.

“What are you…?”

Des recovered her poise. She held out the platter. “Lord,” she said.

He accepted the meal from her. After a few more seconds of staring at Des, the king under earth took his dinner to the anvil. “I sent the sword back.”

“Thank you. It’s for the best.”

He continued to glance at her from time to time while he ate, but he never spoke his thoughts until he had emptied the platter, washed it under a small cascade in an alcove beyond the forge, and set it on a shelf with another. Then he turned his full attention to tidying the forge.

Patiently Des waited and watched him.

“What do you seek of me?” the king under earth asked at last.

“Nothing, Lord.”

“Then why did you come back from the depths?”

They stood facing one another over the anvil. Des lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug. “I was born under the domain of earth, but my brothers angered our lord there. He set the death hound against us, and only I of my whole family survived. When I was recovered, I climbed the spire path to the domain of air, looking for a home and a reason. I thought protecting others from the hounds would be enough reason for me, but becoming swordbearer wasn’t at all what I expected. What was left to me? I had no place in earth or air, being too dull to amuse Lord Caius on the one hand and too queasy to serve as Lord Ciro’s glorified executioner on the other. I struggled so fiercely within myself that, the first time I drew the sword, it shattered.” She met the intensity of his stare with a wry smile like the one she had offered his father. “I have nowhere to belong to, nowhere to return to. Is there a lord better suited for such a one as I to serve?” Once again she dropped to her knees and, hands braced on the sand, bowed deeply before him.

“I don’t need a servant.”

“I will wait until you have a use for me, lord.”

“Living on a doorstep is uncomfortable.”

“If my lord can endure it, I can.”

“There is only the forge and the hounds.”

“I’m sturdy enough for the work, lord.”

“Lift your head. Stop calling me ‘lord.’ I’m Ciar.”

Des sat upright. Her gaze was bright with anticipation. “Yes, Lord Ciar.”

Ciar raised an eyebrow at her. “I said…” Then he sighed. “Never mind for now. You’re quite welcome into the dominion under earth. It should be less dull now, with someone to talk to. Why are you smiling like that?”

“I’m already useful to my lord. Why shouldn’t that make me smile?”

He sighed again. “You’re strange.” When Des laughed at that, the king under earth could not help but smile a little in response. “Very strange.”

29
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 16

The Weight of a Village

By H. M. Snow

 

Zuri pedaled his bike along the main street just before the evening shadows engulfed the eastern cliffs. The village lamplighter, Kiran, waved to him as they passed one another: Zuri toward the village square, Kiran toward the outskirts where the lamps were still dark. The flock of children who followed Kiran on his evening rounds also waved to Zuri. He checked their faces, but his sister was not among them. He was not surprised.

At the square, he found the company he sought. “Evening, Freddy. Evening, Dwyn.”

“Let’s see,” said Dwyn. Her pallid face stood out ghostly in the dusk, framed by her tangled black dreadlocks and the hood she wore regardless of the weather.

Zuri rolled up his sleeves to bare both arms.

“You’ve gotten stronger. Good.”

“You can’t see any change from one day to the next,” Zuri scoffed.

“But I can,” replied the ex-renegade. “Your right bicep is approximately one millimeter thicker in diameter than yesterday, your left half a millimeter. Moreover, you’ve lost three centimeters around the waist since I arrived. Are you eating enough?”

That made Zuri laugh. “This from the woman who hardly ever eats? How can you see these things?”

Her hollowed black eyes gazed at him with a suggestion of amusement. “I find I pay closer attention to life since I arrived here.”

“Yes,” Zuri retorted, “but do you ever plan to join it? You always sit to one side, watching. People wouldn’t be as nervous around you if they knew you better.”

“My magic is all about destruction,” Dwyn said. “If I cannot forget that, how can they?”

“That’s what you always say!”

Silent up to that point, the third member of the party cleared his throat. “I’ll be off, then.” The village peacekeeper, Freddy, rose to his feet from the stone bench where he had sat beside Dwyn the ex-renegade. He nodded to Zuri and turned to look down at Dwyn. After a lengthy wordless moment he strolled away toward the other end of the village.

“As talkative as ever,” said Dwyn wryly. She gazed after the peacekeeper. “He’s uneasy today.”

“How can you tell? He looks like he always does. No, don’t bother saying it again. ‘I pay closer attention to life,’ blah blah blah.” Zuri grinned. “You pay really close attention to Freddy, though.”

This brought a pale smile to Dwyn’s lips. “Of course I do. I wouldn’t be here but for him. I wouldn’t treasure life as I do now but for him.”

Zuri dropped down into Freddy’s abandoned spot on the bench. “You like him, right?”

“I love him… as far as one like I can.”

Her frankness took Zuri aback a little. He laughed, but his laugh faded quickly. “I don’t understand you. I know you used to be one of the renegades. I’m sure you did really terrible things for them, but you’re one of us now. Why do you hang onto what you were? You’ve got a chance at a new life here, if you’d just break free from the hold your past has on you. People would forget. They would,” he insisted. “If you gave them a chance to get to know you, they’d forget you were ever not one of us. You’re a good soul. You do everything manually, without resorting to your magic, no matter how inconvenient it is. Why does your past have to hold you back?”

Dwyn was silent after this rush of persuasion. When she spoke, it was to say, “How much can you lift now? Show me.”

Unfazed, Zuri reached out a hand toward one of the other stone benches several feet away from theirs. Without speech, he made it rise a foot above the ground, drift its full length to the left, and settle back into the grass with only a muted thud upon its landing.

“See? I told you that you’ve gotten stronger.” That same pale smile touched Dwyn’s lips again. “I asked Freddy what it was about you that makes me so glad to see you get stronger and more skilled. He said I was probably growing fond of you. You were one of the first to speak to me when I came, after all. You argue with me every day. You’re a good kid, Zuri. A very good kid. I hope I can see you come of age and do all the good things your people do. My past…” She stopped. “There are things in the world I hope you never have to face, Zuri. I’m glad to see you grow, but in a way I wish I could keep you as you are now. So pure-hearted… you have no way to know, no need to know what I have seen.” After a moment of dead silence, she said, “Your sister’s magic is developing in a strange way.”

Zuri accepted this new change of topic easily. “I’m not sure what to do about Kimi. She’s almost as bad as you are about hanging around the edges of things. A kid her age should have friends and run around and play, right?”

“Kimi is special. I didn’t mean that her magic was developing in a bad way. She passed this way not long before you came home from work.”

“Was she with Granny?”

“No,” said Dwyn, “she was alone. And she was not touching the ground.”

“At all?”

“At all. Not even a toe.”

“Everybody in our family has kinesthetic magic,” said Zuri, “but I don’t know of anybody in our family history who was able to use it to move themselves like she can.”

“It’s probable that her abilities in that area are connected to her habit of retreating into her mind the way she does. She’s lucky to have a big brother who takes such good care of her.”

Zuri shrugged off the praise. “Except for Granny and Papa, Kimi and I only have each other.”

“You should go find her and bring her home out of the night air.” Dwyn gazed at the darkening sky. “If Freddy is anxious, then it isn’t a good night to be out late.”

“Won’t you come for supper tonight?”

Dwyn declined. “Thank you, but I will stay and hear what Freddy has to tell after his rounds.”

“You can’t keep saying no forever,” said Zuri as he retrieved his bike from where he had propped it against a nearby tree trunk. “Granny and Papa would love to have you for a guest. No? Someday, Dwyn. Someday!” He swung his leg over the crossbar and pedaled out of the square in the direction the ex-renegade had indicated as his sister’s last known path.

The greengrocer Phin was taking down his awning as Zuri coasted past him. “Hold on, Zuri!”

Zuri slowed. “What is it?”

Phin picked up a lettuce. In the palm of his hand, the wilted green head firmed up into crisp freshness. “I promised your Granny salad greens, but I’ve been rushed off my feet all day. Take this to her with my compliments, will you?”

“Sure,” said Zuri. “Thanks!” He tucked the lettuce under his arm and continued on his way.

He nearly biked past his sister in the gloaming. Kimi was hardly hiding, but as she was floating at a level with the bird’s nest in the second branch of one of the birches that lined the side lane, Zuri coasted right beneath her before her presence registered in his awareness. “Kimi!”

His surprised exclamation made the eight-year-old flinch. She dropped like a rock with a shriek.

Zuri lifted a hand to slow her fall into a more controlled descent. Others from the nearby houses came running to catch her and set her on her feet. “What were you doing up so high?” Zuri asked.

She opened her hands like flower petals opening to reveal a fledgling bird nested on her palms.

“Kimi,” said her brother. He did not follow through with the rest of the rebuke in so many words, but his gaze made the little girl shrink into herself a little more.

“Now, Zuri.” This maternal tone came from An, the postmistress. “No harm done, right? We’ll call for Emlinne, and she’ll have a look at the little birdie. It’ll be all right, Kimi. She’ll see that it gets back to its nest without alarming the parents. See? There’s Emlinne now.”

Another woman from the growing crowd came forward to take the chick from Kimi’s hands. “He’s in good health,” she assured Kimi. “You picked him up before anything happened to him. I’ll put him back. Don’t worry about it.” She took from the basket carrier at her side a raccoon. Laying a fingertip atop the raccoon’s head, she said, “Jojo, you know what to do. I’ll give you other food, so leave the bird alone, right?”

The raccoon stared up at her with its bright black eyes. Then it took the chick between its clever little hands for an instant.

“Gently,” said Emlinne, “like your own babies.”

At this direction, the raccoon took the chick in delicate jaws and began the climb up the birch to the nest. Everyone watched as the omnivore deposited its natural prey safely in its nest and scampered back down to Emlinne again. She offered Jojo a treat from her hand and lifted it into the carrier. “See? I’ll wait here for the parents to come back and see they don’t reject the poor thing. It’ll be all right, Kimi.”

Zuri gave the lettuce to his little sister before lifting her onto the bike in front of him. “Time to go home for supper,” he told her. To the rest, he nodded his thanks.

Their paternal grandmother waited in the open door for them. “There you are,” she said as she took Kimi from Zuri’s hold. “I was starting to worry.”

As they sat together at the dinner table, Zuri told his grandparents the substance of his conversation with the ex-renegade Dwyn. His grandfather listened gravely. At the end of Zuri’s account, he spoke. “Her feelings toward Freddy are common knowledge. The day she came, I saw it in her face. She’s a hard woman to read, but I’ve come to trust her, regardless of her curious ways.”

“She never sets foot indoors,” offered Zuri’s granny. “Sleeps out of doors all weather, in a booth made of branches.”

“When the weather gets colder, that’ll need to change,” said Zuri.

Their conversation turned to family talk afterward, lasting longer than the food set before them. At last they cleared the table. Granny took down the tub. “It’s time for your bath, Kimi.” She shooed Papa and Zuri into the front yard. Papa settled into his customary rocking chair and took out his whittling. Zuri was restless. He looked upward at the gathering clouds that covered the stars. “Wind’s picking up,” he noted aloud after a while.

His grandfather grunted agreement.

“Tonight will be chilly for the time of year.”

The rocking chair creaked as Papa waited for Zuri to continue. Indoors, the faint splash of bathwater and muted conversation offered a comfortable homely backdrop.

“I’m going to take an extra blanket to Dwyn.”

“There’s a good one hanging on the line, fresh-washed and sun-dried today.”

Zuri took this as consent and fetched the quilt off the clothes line at the side of the house. His step was light as he strolled back toward the village square. As he had observed, the wind took on a gusty edge. It was a parched wind, despite the rain clouds overhead. Light spatters of rain blew across Zuri’s face and dried almost as suddenly as they had fallen. Dust swirled in sudden devils along the ground in and out of the light of the village lamps, casting twigs and dead leaves into the air. Trees groaned with each gust, and their lesser branches writhed.

“I told you it wasn’t a good night to be out late.” Dwyn’s voice in Zuri’s ear made the boy jump a full stride to the left.

“Where did you pop up from?” Zuri exclaimed.

“You are so trusting; you never look behind you. That is a dangerous habit in these times. Why are you out again? Is it your sister? Has she wandered again?”

“No,” said Zuri, composing himself again. “She’s home. I came out for you this time. Here.” He held out the quilt. “The wind is cold tonight.”

“I don’t feel the cold.”

“Just agree with me for once.” Zuri spread the blanket and, fighting the gusts of wind, draped it around Dwyn’s shoulders. “It’s yours, a gift from my family to you.”

“I wish you had not come out.” Dwyn drew the edges of the quilt around her. “I appreciate the gift, but I truly wish you had not come outdoors tonight. Freddy hasn’t returned.”

“Not yet? That’s strange.”

“Strange and ill-omened. Now that I have you in my sight, stay until he returns. I won’t worry as much if you’re where I can see you.” She sat down on the same stone bench as before.

Zuri sat beside her. “What makes you anxious? It’s just a storm, isn’t it?”

“Not this wind… this dry wind…” Dwyn’s hollow eyes were wide as they searched the darkness. “You know the feeling of another kinetic magic user in the neighborhood, right? In the same way, I know the feeling of a curse user when one comes near. This is a curse storm.”

Despite himself, Zuri shrank a little closer to the ex-renegade. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing good. I begin to feel the weight of this little village. You can feel the weight, if you’ve been through the training. That’s one of the first things they taught us: the weight of life. To take life, you need to know how much of its weight you can carry at one time. In the beginning, they taught us to practice curses on small lives, on insects and vermin. When you learn how to bear it, they teach you to bear heavier weights like the lives of large animals, infants and the elderly next, and then…” Dwyn uttered a soft groan. “One life, two lives, a family of lives, a village. Heavier and heavier, thicker and wetter, the smell of blood and the smell of soil… It’s too much. Freddy, come back…”

Zuri laid a shaky hand on her back. “He’ll come back. He’s been standing for ten years now as peacekeeper. He’s strong.” Though he trembled at each gust of the wind, he patted the ex-renegade’s back in awkward comfort.

“You are still so trusting,” said Dwyn. Her voice was strained. “You know enough now. Why do you stay by my side?”

“Why should I leave?” Zuri challenged her. “I never needed to know the details. What you were and what you are—those are two different things.” He had to raise his voice as the wind howled around them, but he never stopped patting her between the shoulder blades. “You’re one of the lives of the village now.”

“I can never be a life anywhere.” The wind tore Dwyn’s words away.

The ground beneath them convulsed. With a sweep of his hand, Zuri warded off a large branch that threatened to fall on them. The trees groaned and cracked as their foundations shifted. Then the ground collapsed. Zuri fell. Swallowed by darkness that seemed eternal, he fought to shift the rocks that fell with him so that he would not be crushed in the avalanche. One of the boulders rammed him from behind, knocked the breath from his lungs and bruised him all the way from skull to tailbone. He pushed away from it with all the magic he could muster, just before he hit the ground. Panting, he scrambled under the boulder’s shelter as smaller stones rained down. He shouted, but the thunder of rockfall buried his voice. All Zuri could do was to fend off the crushing rain with his magic until no more fell.

When he crawled out of his rough shelter, he rubbed his ringing ears. A white mist rose along the floor of the newly-formed ravine. “Dwyn!” he called. She was nowhere near him, so he clambered over the rubble. High overhead, the clouds dissipated with unnatural speed, allowing the moon to resume its glow. The farther he explored, the heavier his heart grew. Shattered fragments of familiar buildings lay among the rubble. A corner of the greengrocer’s awning fluttered from beneath a slab of mountainside. Nearly blinded by the mist, Zuri crawled over the corner of a house and touched warm, sticky flesh. His stomach heaved. There was hardly any light, but from the feel on his hands he knew there would be no way to identify the remains even in the broad light of noon. He retreated into another such corpse before he fought his way clear of the ruins of Phin’s place.

A long, low wail caught his attention. He turned in that direction by instinct. Even in the dim, misty depths of the massive crevice, the pallor of Dwyn’s face shone. Zuri scrambled toward her. “Dwyn!” Then he exhaled a sob, because the lower half of the ex-renegade was crushed beneath the mass of another stone slab.

She stretched out a hand. “You’re alive… alive…”

“Dwyn,” was all he could say in response.

“Don’t worry about me. I feel no pain.” Her hand was icy when it stroked his cheek. “It has been a long time since I felt cold or heat, pain or pleasure. Listen to me, Zuri. There’s no time. They won’t be far away. Do you see this mist? This is what they came to take, but I won’t let them take it. The weight of your village is in this mist. This is going to be hard for you to hear, but listen carefully. Your enemies prepare soldiers from their own numbers in order to destroy large quantities of lives and to steal the magic from their fresh bodies. There are always two of these soldiers together, one to kill and the other to steal. They will not be open to reason. They can’t reason. They can hardly think. They’re dead, reanimated by a complex curse, and only by releasing that curse on others can they themselves be released from living death. Zuri, Zuri— I am one of those soldiers. I have been dead a long time, but I can’t be free until I use the curse that’s stored inside me. No, don’t speak. I still feel the weight, but now I know what needs to be done. Stop up your ears. I won’t have you hear the words of the curse. But before that, promise me that you’ll run from here. Don’t let them catch you. If they catch you, they’ll twist your soul. They commit these atrocities because they want to create a second All-Mage, one they control. They steal the magic of innocent people and collect it inside one body. I don’t want them to take the magic of this village. It carries with it the memory of good people. It’s too good for them. I’ll give it to you instead.” Her eyes were black holes in her pallor. They never veered from Zuri’s face. “I’m sorry that my cursed magic will come with it, but if it’s you, it should do little harm. You were one of those who taught me the true weight of a life.” She took his hand and raised it to the side of his face. “Stop up your ears now. Don’t let the words inside.”

With shaking, numbed hands Zuri covered his ears. His own grip hurt the sides of his head. He watched Dwyn’s bloodless lips move. The mist began to revolve, slowly at first but gaining speed into a cyclone of white with Zuri at its center. At his knee, Dwyn’s face remained visible in the maelstrom. Her lips shaped strange syllables that Zuri did not recognize. With each syllable, her mouth moved more slowly, until Dwyn relaxed entirely. Her hand fell outstretched across Zuri’s knees.

The spinning mist contracted and encompassed Zuri like a skin. It burned as it sank deeper into his body. With it came flashes of vision, faces Zuri had known all his life connected with instincts wholly new to him. When the sizzling pain subsided, he held up his hand as if he had never seen it before that hour. He picked up a broken scrap of wood. It burst into flame. The lamplighter Kiran’s voice echoed in his memory: Time again to bring light into the dark, eh, Zuri? Zuri set the brand atop a flat rock near Dwyn’s face. The sight of her pinched bluish features brought to him an impulse to snap his fingers over her body. As soon as he did so, her body crumbled into ash.

“Cursed magic,” he breathed. A shudder ran up his back.

Stones clattered down from some height at his back. Dwyn’s warning returned to him. Extinguishing the small firebrand, Zuri made his way cautiously along the ravine. The enormity of the sinkhole struck him again and again as he climbed to level ground. Not only had his village fallen, but most of the land surrounding it was gone as well. He found no solid footing until he reached the upper road that led up the east cliff side toward the inland pass. From there he looked down at the gaping destruction of what had been his home. Night hid the worst of it from him, but in the distance the bobbing approach of lights suggested that Dwyn had been wise to warn him. Someone was coming, and Dwyn’s cursed magic told him that he was in real danger.

It wasn’t until he reached the ridge that Zuri noticed the tears streaming down his face. His shoulders bowed, as though the weight of his village had a tangible presence. He turned back one more time to look at the crevice, but he knew there was no reason. He could not return to the village of his birth, but in exchange his people would never leave him. He would carry the weight of their accumulated magic wherever he went.

22
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 15

Puppet Play

By H. M. Snow

 

The small army of puppets carried Dasarre into a long workshop. Their progress rattled like dry bones until they dropped him on the floor. Then they stood at attention around him.

“What are these?” Dasarre prodded one with his fingertip.

“Have you never seen a puppet before?” The puppet’s master, face hidden within the depths of a dark blue hood, followed them into the workshop. His hand was rough and knobby but steady as it pointed toward a little stage set up at the near end of the workshop. “Then you have never seen a puppet play before either. You should watch closely.” He deposited a tiny puppet on the stage and walked to the far end, as if he had nothing more to say.

Dasarre sat cross-legged before the stage. He was tall enough that he needed no chair. Like an obedient child he fixed his eyes on the delicate puppet. “Ah!” he exclaimed as the puppet stood up and dusted off its skirt.

It was a child puppet, round-faced, with long brown hair and wide brown eyes and a tiny cupids-bow mouth. It wore a traditional long dress tied with a wide sash high on the waist. The puppet raised one exquisite hand. Each finger was carved distinct from the rest, with impossibly tiny joints that allowed them to clench into a fist. The puppet knocked in midair, but the gesture created a wooden tapping noise.

“Enter.” The response came from the shadowy side of the stage. Only when it moved was the second puppet visible, though its dark blue hood kept its face concealed. “How may I help you? Is it a toy you seek?”

The girl puppet bowed her head and fidgeted. “No, sir. Are you the one who makes the puppet booths that sit on the street corners?”

“In this neighborhood, I am. Did one of them malfunction? If so, I can refund your coin.”

“No, sir.” The little girl fidgeted some more.

The puppet master paused to look properly at the girl for the first time. “Then why have you come?”

“The booths are amazing,” said the little girl. “I watch them all the time. I watched so many of them—I wanted to find out who made them.”

“And now that you have?”

The little girl bowed deeply. “Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I really want to see more of them!” Then, as if pursued, she ran offstage.

The puppet master puppet remained in place for a few seconds, hood turned in the direction of the little girl’s exit, before uttering a perplexed noise and returning to his work.

The little girl returned a few seconds later, but in a different dress and a little taller. She climbed onto a tall stool near the puppet master’s workbench and swung her feet. “What are you making today, Omar?” she asked after watching his work for a few moments.

“A new form of puppet,” replied the master.

The girl clapped her hands together in delight, but she asked no further questions. When the puppet master made his completed work stand up on the workbench, the girl clapped her hands again. “It’s good, very good! Is it for a new booth?”

The puppet master did not answer at first. He waved his hand. The new puppet clattered off the bench and tottered on three legs to a nearby shelf, returning with a hammer for the master.

“Ah! I see,” said the girl, no less delighted. “A shop assistant, right?”

“And nanny.”

The three-legged puppet used one of its four hands to pour a glass of water and carry it to the little girl. It curtsied before her in a genteel manner.

“Thank you,” said the girl to the new assistant, in all seriousness. “Omar, why don’t more people come to see your work?”

“The work I put into the street booths, they come to see. That is enough.”

“But don’t you get lonely here?”

“Quite the contrary,” said the puppet master. “Visitors use up my energies too quickly and interrupt my work. I enjoy being alone in my workshop without noisy and nosy strangers interfering.”

The little girl hopped down from her seat and set aside her glass. Sidling toward the puppet master, she asked in a timid voice, “Have I been troubling you all this time?”

“I have got used to you. You are no trouble.”

She clapped her hands. “I’m so glad. I have such fun when I visit you, Omar.” She lunged at him in an impulsive hug that only reached around his waist. “Thank you!”

This time, when the little girl left the shop, the puppet master set one of his smallest puppets on her trail. It trotted after her to a house full of children. “Mairen’s home at last!” one of the elder boys yelled.

“Good! Now we can eat our dinner.” The one adult in the house, an elderly woman, gathered the children around a long table. The little girl Mairen was smallest among them and sat at the foot of the table. The little spying puppet hid just outside the door and watched.

“Is it really tomorrow?” asked one child.

“Yes,” said the old woman. “Tomorrow is the Festival of the Authority. I hope you’ve all prepared something to impress Master Gisle.”

All together the children started to chatter about what they had prepared, all but little Mairen. She sat and listened to the rest, offering praise to anyone who shared their plans with her. When the meal was over and the dishes cleared away, however, Mairen crept out into the yard to be alone. She drew shapes on the ground with her finger. “What if I don’t have an ability?” she asked herself. “How can I impress the head?” She was so engrossed in these questions that the little tracking puppet came up to stand beside her and patted her on the head before she noticed it. “Oh!” Mairen picked it up. “Did you follow me? I hope Omar isn’t worried about you. I’m not allowed to leave the yard after supper,” she confided in the puppet, “in case the night elves attack. So I can’t take you home until tomorrow. Oh!” Mairen stood frozen for several moments with her mouth open. “That will impress Master Gisle!” She smiled and carried the puppet inside the house.

Swift darkness fell over the scene, only to lift three seconds later to reveal the children of the house lined up along the fence in order of age, Mairen the youngest bringing up the end of the line. All of them stretched forward and craned their necks to gaze intently to their left. A group of adults approached from that direction. Central among them was a man whose face had an ageless beauty almost verging on feminine. In his right hand he carried a heavy walking stick with an ornate scrolled top. His clothes were styled simply, in contrast to the sweeping blue robe he wore over them, and his long fair hair drifted behind him as he walked. At his appearance, all the children stood straight. In a chorus they declared, “Good day, Master Gisle!”

The man stopped before them. “Hello,” he greeted them. “What fine children you are! Do you have something to show to me today?”

The tallest boy among them pursed his mouth and furrowed his brow in concentration. A few seconds passed. Then a starling fluttered down to land at the boy’s feet. Another bird, this one a pigeon, alit on his shoulder. Two dogs chased one another into the yard and frolicked around the boy, startling the starling into finding a safer perch on the boy’s head. Then a cat slunk down out of the tree to join the menagerie. When the boy stopped concentrating so fiercely, he had acquired two frogs, a dragonfly, another pigeon, and a raccoon in addition.

“Good,” said the head, “quite good.” He extended his walking stick so that its scrolled knob rested against the boy’s forehead for an instant.

Child after child, the head of their people observed their skills, praised them and touched their foreheads with the end of his staff, until he came to Mairen. She clutched the puppet master’s doll to her chest and stared up at Gisle with searching eyes. “How do you do, Master Gisle?” Mairen said in a quivery voice.

“I’m very well,” said the man amiably. “How do you do?”

Mairen’s smile was still shaky, but she ran through the gate and around the fence to take the master’s hand. “Come,” she said, tugging at him.

Unbeknownst to her, the doll in her arms turned its head to stare at Gisle, and Gisle stared back in curiosity. “Where are we going?” he asked as he allowed her to lead him by the hand down the street.

“Something to impress you,” was all Mairen said. She was out of breath from nerves and exertion, but her eyes gleamed.

When they reached the puppet master’s tent, a booth stood in the doorway to block their entrance. Dozens of tiny puppets danced and twirled and played on the small stage. Mairen only released the master’s hand so that she could clap her own together. “See?” she said, laughing, “see? Isn’t it impressive?”

“I have always found Omar’s work impressive,” agreed Master Gisle. “His skills and ability increase with the years, it would seem, but his preference for hiding behind his work has not changed. Omar!” He leaned close to the side of the stage. “If you won’t let me enter, then you must come out to meet me.”

“I must come out? But you did not come to see me.” The puppet master’s voice came from just inside the doorway.

“This child,” said Gisle, “is she related to you?”

“No. She comes sometimes to watch me work. That is all.” After a pause, Omar added, “My skills are as they always have been. My ability as well. Whatever change you see is due to her ability.”

Gisle turned to Mairen. “Child, what is your ability?”

Mairen turned her blushing face from him. “I don’t have one, Master Gisle. I’ve never been able to do anything like everybody else.”

“And yet,” said Omar from the shadows, “the range and strength of my ability more than doubles when she is nearby. Strange, is it not, Master Gisle?”

Crouching down, Gisle put himself at Mairen’s eye level. “I had supposed that you were controlling that puppet,” he said, “but it was Omar all along, and from such distance!” He reached out the tip of his staff to touch the girl’s forehead.

Its scrolled knob cracked open with a startling resonance. Mairen leaped backward in alarm.

Gisle broke into a broad smile. “I have found you. What are you called, child?”

“Mairen.”

“Mairen, you are coming to live with me and be my apprentice. Does that please you?”

She blushed even more hotly. “May I still come to see Omar?”

“You may, as often as you please. Or, if it pleases you more, we can move Omar to my house so that you may see him even more often.”

Mairen shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no,” she said, “Omar wouldn’t like that. Too many people.”

“You are a considerate little friend.” Gisle picked her up in his arms. “Let’s complete our tour of the city, and then I will show you where you will live from now on.”

“Omar!” Mairen called out suddenly. “I brought you back your puppet. It followed me.”

“Keep it with you,” the unseen Omar replied. “Let it follow you.”

“Thank you!”

Master Gisle began returning in the direction of Mairen’s house. One among his entourage stopped him with a strong grip on his elbow. “Head— something is approaching the city.” This one lifted his head as if listening. “Sun elves… six… nine of them, moving at speed.”

“Another of their raids?” said Gisle. “Which direction?”

His companion pointed. “They’re scattering. Only two are coming toward us now.”

Gisle turned to another of his companions. “Sound the alarm.”

Every bird, whether at rest or in flight, began to cry out its own warning. Dogs barked; cats yowled. The head’s companions closed ranks around him. Mairen clung around Gisle’s neck.

The first assailant came like a blur, knocking the head’s companions every-which-way. A second landed in their midst. Both shared identical physical characteristics: a narrow torso, lean musculature in the arms, solid thighs, and long bare feet that gripped the ground for traction. Both were impossibly fair in complexion and hair, but one had black eyes and the other blue. The black-eyed sun elf leaped from their midst as soon as he had landed, but the blue-eyed elf locked onto Mairen. “Beautiful.” The elf’s voice was cold and thin. She reached toward Mairen.

Gisle held his cracked staff between the elf and the girl. “Leave her alone.”

“I cannot,” said the elf. “Never have I seen a child so beautiful. She must serve me.” She batted aside the first companion who regained his wits and tried to interpose himself between Gisle and the elf. The attempt did not even disturb her composure. As Gisle backed away, the elf stalked forward.

The ground clattered as wooden feet trampled it. All the puppets from Omar’s booth charged the elf, not to attack her but to interlace themselves around her feet and legs. The elf grabbed one of them, raised it before her eyes quizzically, and then crushed it in her fist.

“Don’t!” Mairen shouted. “Don’t break Omar’s puppets!” In her small earlobe, a white pearl appeared, engulfed in burning light.

With a crackling like fire, the puppets began to grow bigger. Several of them sprouted leaves according to the type of wood from which they were crafted. Double, triple, quadruple in size they grew, until Master Gisle was forced to retreat to an open space farther down the street.

The bulk of the puppets blocked the elf, but she threw them as if they weighed nothing. When she had cleared a path, she sprang forward with a hand outstretched toward Mairen. “I claim her!”

Clutched in Mairen’s arms, forgotten, the doll that Omar had given her began to move. It raised both dainty hands and launched itself from Mairen’s embrace. It landed with both arms around the elf’s long, slender neck and clung there like a strange necklace. The elf grabbed its legs and ripped them from its body, but the puppet went on tightening its hold around her neck. Its arms grew and thickened into sturdy branches that tightened and tightened still more. “What is this?” the elf gasped. She tore at the remains of the puppet, but by that point the puppet’s growth was so rapid that she could only tear off minor branches while the original limbs continued to constrict her throat.

Slow, heavy footsteps like mallet blows to the ground came from behind Gisle. The puppet master had emerged from his workshop in his oversized hood and robes. A breeze pushed his hood back to reveal a face much scarred around the nose and mouth. One eye was patched over. In his earlobe, a single pearl still glowed. He took Mairen from Gisle’s arms and held her close. “You are unhurt?”

Mairen, crying, clung to her friend. “Mm-hm,” she said, “but she broke your puppets.”

Omar patted her back awkwardly. “Those, I can fix. You, I cannot. I am glad you are unhurt.” He bowed his tousled head down to rest it against Mairen’s head.

In the meanwhile, the head’s companions were at last able to subdue the sun elf, who was half-unconscious from lack of breath. “What shall we do with this one?” one of them asked Gisle.

“She is little Mairen’s prisoner,” said Gisle. “The decision rests with you,” he said to the girl.

“Why did she say I’m beautiful?” Mairen asked. “I’m not. I’m plain; everybody says so. Master Gisle is the beautiful one.”

The head’s companions laughed amongst themselves. Gisle said, “Beings like the elves and the devourers have a different way of seeing than we do. It is said that they see souls instead of bodies. What she saw in you was the true Mairen, who is beautiful in her sight.”

Mairen gazed down at the prone elf. Then, to Omar, she said, “May I stand, please?”

Omar set her down on her own feet.

She did not move away immediately, because from that position it was possible for her to see what she had not before: Omar’s legs and feet were crafted of wood, like his puppets. She looked up at him. “What happened to your legs, Omar?”

“I lost them,” he said, “on the night I lost my mother and father. A hunting party of night elves attacked. I was left for dead. When I grew older, I made these for myself so that I could walk.”

“But sun elves are different from night elves,” said Gisle. “They mean no harm. These raids are like games to them.”

“The fright they cause is no game.” Omar’s voice turned savage.

Mairen looked up into Omar’s face. Then she went to stand beside the fallen sun elf. “You can let go now,” she said to no one in particular. She wrapped her fingers around the strangling wooden collar.

It shriveled and shrank until once again it resembled the doll Omar had given her.

Mairen took up the pieces and carried them back to Omar. “You can fix it?”

“Yes.”

She ran back to the elf. “Are you sleeping?” she asked. “Thank you for calling me beautiful. No one has ever called me that before. But I need to stay here. Master Gisle says I must be his apprentice, and that will take a long time.”

The elf opened her blue eyes. She stared at Mairen but made no move to rise. “Beautiful,” she repeated.

“Will you go home now? You’re scaring people. I don’t think you mean to scare anybody, so can’t you please go home?”

“I cannot leave.” Swiftly, the sun elf snatched Mairen into her arms.

Omar snarled. His puppets came running from all directions.

But the elf, rising to her feet with a dexterous bound, swung Mairen around in circles. “I cannot go home without this beautiful child.”

“She isn’t your servant,” Omar barked.

The elf batted away the puppets as they came, but when Omar charged forward to drag Mairen from the elf’s grasp, the elf did not resist.

“Leave her in peace!” Incensed, Omar hastened away from the impromptu battleground with Mairen secure in his protective arms. He glanced backward. “Go! She told you, go home! You will not take this one.”

But the elf followed after them, showing only an intense fascination toward Mairen. She seemed not to hear a word Omar said to dissuade her.

Gisle collected his assortment of guardians. “What a strange child. The era of the next head will most definitely be an interesting one. I only wish I could be here to see it.” He led his companions after Omar, Mairen, and the female sun elf.

The curtains fell closed on the stage, jolting Dasarre back from his entranced viewing. From behind him, clapping hands startled him a second time in quick succession. “Your work is always so clever.” The young head Mairen came forward from the shadows. “But you took a long time with your self-introduction, Omar. Did you need to tell it all?” Her face glowed a becoming rosy color.

“But that wasn’t all,” Dasarre protested. “I wanted to see more!”

“Omar’s puppet plays are always like that. That’s what makes them so good. What are you working on now, Omar? May I see it?” Mairen hurried over to the workbench. “Oh! That’s a good resemblance!” She brought a small puppet over to Dasarre. “See? It’s you! He’s adding you to his plays.”

Dasarre took the small wooden replica of himself gingerly on his palm. For a change, he seemed lost for words as he stared at it. He handed the puppet back to Mairen in the same uncharacteristic silence.

“It’s nearly dinnertime,” Mairen announced as she returned to Omar his newest creation. “Come and you can meet everyone.” She left ahead of them.

The guardian in the billowing robes drew alongside Dasarre. “I hope I can infer from your silence that you take my meaning.” Omar held up the miniature Dasarre. “I am her first guardian. If you bring her to any harm, I will know.” In his hand the head of the Dasarre puppet turned to stare at its original. “Now, let us join Mairen at the table.”

15
Apr

Holy Week Writing Challenge Hiatus

Those of you who know me personally will realize that this is not an excuse: I am involved in enough Easter season events in my local congregation that I must take a week off from my writing challenge. Regular service will resume next Tuesday. I wish for all of you a personal and vivid encounter with the one whose sacrifice and subsequent triumph makes this week holy. Blessings on each of you.

8
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 14

The Festival Incident

by H. M. Snow

 

To say that Eila allowed her son to walk ahead would not be too great a stretch of the truth. Though Dasarre towered over her in height, no one who knew them ever had any doubt which one was in charge. In much the same way, her husband Joss remained beside and slightly behind her. “He’s adapting well,” she said to Joss.

Joss bobbed his head in agreement.

“There’s no fear of losing him in the crowd anyway,” added Eila.

A grin stretched Joss’ closed mouth.

“What has his attention now?” Eila raised herself up on tiptoe but still could not see. “What’s he after? And there he goes,” she commented.

Perhaps it was fortunate for them that Joss bore the cadaverous pallor and slope-shouldered bulk that marked him as half-blood devourer. People had already kept a secure distance from them despite the confines of the narrow lanes. Now that distance enabled the pair to chase after the blaze of shaggy red hair that was their only view of their son above the festival-goers.

He moved quickly enough that they caught up only after he had stopped a young lady and her chaperone. Dasarre gazed down at the girl with unabashed admiration. “I’m Dasarre,” he said to her, “and you are the loveliest girl I have ever seen.”

Eila moved forward immediately. To girl and chaperone alike, she said, “Please excuse my son. He has a habit of saying whatever enters his head. He means no impertinence.”

The chaperone, a stern-faced woman in her prime, seemed unconvinced, but the girl said, “I took no offense, good mother. It is gratifying to be told. I only wondered what he meant by it.”

“I meant only what I said,” Dasarre responded at once. “It would be shame to me if I didn’t praise where praise was due.”

“Yet you keep looking at me.”

“As long as you allow me to look,” he replied with a goodnatured smile. “Loveliness is meant to be seen, is it not?”

“You,” said the chaperone with an edge to her words, “show respect to the young head.”

Several things happened as aftermath to the woman’s announcement. The girl turned to look at her chaperone and said gently, “When will you begin calling me by my name as I asked you, Bryndis?” At the same time, Eila and Joss removed themselves a step backward and bowed their heads in respect. Amid all this, however, Dasarre remained as he had been, except for the astonishment that left his mouth ajar.

“You’re the young head? But you look so young!”

The girl returned her attention to Dasarre. Her lips pressed together. Her right hand grasped at the air and drew from it a heavy wooden staff with an ornate scrollwork knob on top. She lifted the staff and knocked its scrolled knob, not very hard, against Dasarre’s forehead. “I do tire of people saying that,” she explained.

Eila hastened to say, “Please excuse my son again. He is so naturally airheaded that anyone might assume we have taught him nothing. The only excuse for him in this instance is that he met the prior head once when he was a small child, and the encounter left a powerful impression in his mind.”

“Gisle was that sort,” said the young head. Her gray eyes homed in on Eila. “Are you bound any place specific, or are you free to walk with me and tell me your story?”

“We will walk with you, yes, and gladly.”

“I am Mairen.” The girl bowed her head. She released the staff into whatever airy dimension kept it for her. Then she crooked her elbow for Eila to take her arm. Thus linked, girl and matron started down the street.

The chaperone, Bryndis, gripped Dasarre by the arm when he set off after them. “Walk behind with your father.” She released him only to catch up with Mairen, leaving Joss and Dasarre to walk a few strides behind her.

At the head of this procession, Eila had begun her story. “My husband’s father was full-blood devourer of the chameleon type, born of a mother who had developed a taste for her own young. It is thought that Father Ingve survived only because he was clever enough to disguise himself as a stone, so that even with his scent and the blood of birth thick on the ground, his mother could not find him. It was as a stone that friends of my parents discovered him.”

“How did they know him from a stone, if his own mother did not?” asked Mairen.

“By that time, he was groaning with hunger. They fed him porridge from their own table, and he accepted it. Master Reiyo, my father’s friend, had an idea that a devourer might be raised to do good and not attack people. He decided to adopt the infant, and his good wife Onnika consented to be mother to Ingve.”

“So they raised him as their own, as one of guardian race?”

Eila nodded her answer. “They had a daughter, dear Mother Agneta, who was only a year older than Ingve. They grew together, and when they reached adulthood they asked for consent to marry. Joss was their only child. He and I grew up together, as his parents did, and Dasarre is our one and only. We brought him to your halls in hope of finding a place for him in your service. We had no intention of seeking you during the festival– you must be very occupied–”

“Does his early meeting with Gisle have anything to do with your decision?”

“Yes, Lady Mairen. Our people are refuge wanderers, with all that that entails.” Eila glanced at the young head to see that she understood. Assured of this, she continued, “It was the year Dasarre turned five that the party we guarded was ambushed at Vil Crossing. In the fight, Father Ingve… he accidentally tasted blood for the first time. He was never easy in his mind afterward, especially because Master Reiyo was killed during the fight. My father always said that honoring Reiyo gave Father Ingve purpose for his life. It was difficult for us all in the days afterward. Decades of instinct that Father Ingve had bound beneath love for his family awoke in him. His mind… some days he was the Father Ingve we had known. Other days he disappeared, and we all knew he was feeling the pull of his blood. It came to the point where he would gnaw his own fingers so that he would not harm anyone else. He stopped eating altogether after a while rather than risk…” Eila sighed helplessly.

“You sought Gisle’s help?” Mairen prompted her.

This returned Eila’s composure to her. She smiled. “Not us, Lady Mairen. We are wanderers. We never would have thought to inconvenience the head with our private troubles. We sought to do all we could do, and I suppose one of us must have dropped a remark in Dasarre’s hearing, something about only the strength of the head’s authority being enough for Father Ingve. He ran away, the unruly boy, thinking to fetch this strength for his grandfather. As one might expect, he got lost, since he hadn’t the first idea where to look.” She glanced fondly over her shoulder at her beloved Dasarre. “I understand that, in the dark of night, alone and frightened half to death, he sat down and started to cry out for the prior head.”

“And Gisle never overlooked such a thing,” Mairen added. “Never once. No matter how distant or how faint the cry, he would answer.”

“He did, yes. He brought Dasarre home to us. We were terribly shocked. That night was one of Father Ingve’s hardest. He was in his right mind, living alongside the instinct and horrified by it. When he saw the prior head, carrying Dasarre against his chest, Father Ingve begged him for a boon. He begged to die.”

No words passed between the two for the remaining length of the street. Mairen said, “What then? What did Gisle say?”

Eila dashed a tear from her eye with her free hand. “He was very kind. He stood for the longest time, just looking at Father Ingve. I never would have expected such kindness in the eyes of anyone looking at a… at a devourer,” she faltered. “Most fail to look beyond the blood.”

This time it was Mairen who looked back, sweeping her attendant Bryndis with a glance. “I know. It’s a pity and a disgrace in such cases, but understandable.”

“Yes, Lady. The prior head, as I was saying, was so kind. He took his staff, just as you did before us back there, and he laid it across Father Ingve’s body. He promised Father Ingve a place in the celestial halls. That meant so much to Mother Agneta and to us. We’re just wanderers, so there was no way possible for us to express what it meant to us, but Dasarre came up with the answer in his own time. He told us he wanted to serve the head, so here we came when he was ready. It need not be an important post, but it would help ease the fulness of the feelings that words can’t touch,” she ended.

“I am gratified,” the young head Mairen began to say. She was interrupted by two syllables from Joss at the back of their short procession: “Eila.” As it was the first time he had spoken since their meeting, Mairen stopped and turned toward him.

Eila’s reaction was more abrupt. She drew the young head close to herself. “What is it, Joss? Where is it?”

Bryndis bounded across the suddenly empty lane, switchblade out and open, with Joss close after her. Dasarre herded his mother and Mairen to the scant shelter of the nearest shop’s wall. There, Eila kept her arms around Mairen while Dasarre sheltered them behind his body. A faint rosy glow surrounded Mairen.

The young head whispered, “Refuge barrier in two layers?”

Eila shushed her as if Mairen were her own child.

In the middle of the lane, some paces beyond them, Bryndis and Joss had flushed out the danger: a large chameleon-type devourer that had been lying on the roof of a shop, colored to blend in with the clay roof tiles. It was bigger even than Joss, but Bryndis attacked unafraid. Her switchblade she drove straight and hard at its head, but the wily devourer blocked with one hand. The sight of its own blood pouring from the puncture only made it grin.

“Capture-type half-blood?” Joss demanded of Bryndis. “What guardian ability?”

“Healing,” Bryndis snapped back.

“Heal it, then. Blood frenzy is the last thing we need.” He took advantage of the devourer’s distraction to slip behind and restrain it in a headlock. “Capture!” he yelled at Bryndis.

The devourer stiffened in Joss’ grip. When Joss released it, the creature fell like a log onto the pavement, immobilized by Bryndis’ ability. Bryndis did not miss a beat. Driving her switchblade through the devourer’s skull, she demanded, “What do you mean, ‘blood frenzy’? A devourer doesn’t go mad over the sight of its own blood.”

“That,” Joss nudged the devourer with his foot, “isn’t alone.” He turned in place, scrutinizing his surroundings.

Another devourer, bigger than the first, lost patience with being disguised as a shop sign on the roof above the door and hurled its mass down upon Joss and Bryndis. As their two-against-one struggle roared in the street, Eila and Mairen remained motionless behind Dasarre’s sheltering back. A few grains of brick dust trickled down on them, sliding off the dual refuge barrier. Slowly Mairen raised her face. Nothing showed against the brick front of the shop, but a gouge in the bricks deepened without visible means. Dasarre leaned back, fairly crushing his mother and the young head against the wall. Another gouge appeared in the brick, and another. A tiny chunk of mortar was dislodged from between two bricks. Something was digging its claws into the surface as it made a steady descent toward them.

When the trail of gouges stopped just above Dasarre’s head, the young quarter-blood grabbed something above him. He strained all his muscles to drag the intruder from the wall and, like a wrestler, threw his enemy to the ground. His enemy was visible then for a moment, brick-colored against the gray pavement, as a sinuous devourer. Then it adapted to the changed backdrop and disappeared from sight, but Dasarre would not release it. He began adopting a variety of forms to confuse his enemy as he used his bulk to his advantage, pushing his enemy back. From time to time, parts of the enemy flashed into sight: sharpened nails at the end of grasping rawboned fingers, corpse face with gaping mouth, teeth filed to points and tipped with iron.

Dasarre fought open-handed, slapping the devourer whenever he wasn’t throwing it against the nearest immovable surface. He caught it once by the wrist. A grisly snap followed, and from that point the devourer used only its other hand. It knocked Dasarre sprawling once and made a dash at Mairen, but Dasarre caught it by the ankle, resulting in another snap.

Joss and Bryndis were getting the better of their enemy. Watching from inside the refuge barrier, Eila said, “It’s so hard to get those with devourer blood to cooperate with one another.”

Mairen answered as calmly as if watching a play. “I wondered if it was just a trait Bryndis developed. I’m somewhat glad to know that it’s something more than that.” She had already recalled her staff. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear to reveal a column of glowing earrings from upper curve to lobe. Calm though she appeared, she watched not her attendant but Dasarre in his battle. Then she turned her head, alert to the presence of another. “Lusal! Help him first.”

The new arrival to the battleground, called “Lusal” by the young head, was clearly descended from sun elfkind. She had the impossibly slender torso and smoothly-muscled limbs, as well as the bronze skin and white hair, of her people. This fierce, unnatural beauty dropped from a rooftop to land on her feet behind Dasarre just as he caught his enemy with one arm around its neck and the other pinioning its arms to its body. Lusal’s long hands closed around the devourer’s head and, without effort, wrenched it free of its neck.

Blood shot high in the air like a shower. Eila abandoned the safety of the barrier to run to her husband, while Dasarre flung the remains of his enemy away from him and fled the gory fountain. His mother stretched out an arm to her son. “Come!” she urged.

Mairen spoke sharply. “Lusal! Call the rain!”

With just as little emotion, Lusal took a vial from her belt and pitched it deep into the sky. She called out a few syllables. The sapphire earring in her earlobe shone, and a corresponding sapphire in Mairen’s earlobe burned. Black clouds rolled across the sky, billowing out of nothing. For several surreal minutes, while shafts of evening sunlight shot across the sky, a cloudburst soaked everything for blocks around the battleground and washed the blood down the gutters. By the time the downpour ceased, the street and the rooftops were lined with the young head’s guardians, a mismatched assortment of individuals united only by the pinpoint of light coming from each one’s earring.

“You called us a little late, Mairen,” said one man, swinging his feet from the rooftop.

Eila paid them no mind. She had ne hand on her husband and one on her son, wiping the last traces of blood from their faces. “Are you all right?” she asked them again and again.

Beyond them, Bryndis was wiping her switchblade on the tatters of her shirt. When she dragged off the ruined blouse, everyone could see the bandages wrapping her from bosom to waist. She had no blush to spare for her own exposure. “You!” she said to Joss. “How did you know there were three?”

“Experience,” said Joss. “Chameleon-types hunt in threes.” He too stripped off his soaked shirt to reveal a similar wrapping around his torso. He wrung out his shirt, snapped it in the air, and donned it again. To his wife he said, “All right.”

Then she turned all her attention on Dasarre. “Did you swallow any?”

Her son laughed. “No, Mums, I’m all right. I should ask… are you all right?” He turned his sunny smile toward Mairen. “That’s the real question.”

“Yes,” Mairen answered, “I was never in any danger, thanks to your family. I had no idea it was possible to raise a dual refuge barrier.”

“I can only do it with Dasarre’s help, Lady Mairen,” said Eila. “The second layer is his barrier.”

“But how can that be, when he was fighting so fiercely ten feet away?”

“We’ve taught him barriers since he was old enough to understand, Lady. He ought to know his craft that well by now.” She ruffled Dasarre’s wet tangle of hair into a semblance of order.

Mairen swept her own hair back from her face as well. “Good work,” she told Dasarre.

He uttered an involuntary, bereft yelp. In one long stride he had planted himself in front of the young head and had taken her face between his hands as he turned her face side to side. “So many!” His long face suddenly took on an expression as if he were a child and someone had snatched away his favorite toy.

Eila was almost as quick as her son. She brought her heel down hard on his toes. “What has possessed you? Release the young head at once! I’m so embarrassed, I hardly know where to turn.”

But Mairen had learned already how to take Dasarre’s personality in her stride. “What do you mean, ‘so many’?” she asked with a tiny smile.

“The earrings,” he confessed. “I know I’m not much now, but… to own up to the truth, I did dream of working my way as high as to be one of your chosen guardians one day. But you’ve got so many already…” His dark calf eyes turned toward the ground between his feet.

This brought a chuckle from several of the head’s guardians gathered around them, but even they were startled by the peal of laughter Dasarre’s statement drew from Mairen. “Bend forward,” she said, “and open your mouth.” When Dasarre obeyed, Mairen touched his tongue with one fingertip. “I disagree with you– you have no reason to say you are not much now.”

Dasarre yelped again, this time in startled pain. He grabbed the tip of his tongue with the fingers of both hands and pulled it, as if it were long enough for him to see. For a few more seconds he persisted in trying to see what he could feel: a diamond stud piercing through his tongue. Then, laughing, he ran to show his mother and father.

Eila brushed tears from her eyes. She gazed past Dasarre to the young head. “Thank you.”

“On the contrary– I owe you thanks,” Mairen answered her. Diamond glinted in the shadow of her mouth as she spoke. “You protected me, and you offered up your son to serve me though he is clearly precious to you both. He will do well, I think.” She beckoned to a shadowy form standing well back from the scene. “Would you see him settled into his new place, Omar? You can tell him all he needs to know.”

A marionette puppet lurched out of the shadows on its own. It stopped at Dasarre’s feet and beckoned to him with a jointed forefinger. Once it had his attention, it led him to the mysterious form that awaited him in the mouth of the alley.

Dasarre turned back to call out to his parents, “Goodbye! I’ll send you word when I can–” He was yanked backward into the alley before he could finish.

“Omar,” said Mairen, “is a little shy of strangers. Your son will be looked after very well.”

Eila and Joss exchanged a glance. “If you say so, Lady Mairen,” said Eila. “May we write?”

“Of course you may. When he has finished his training, you may visit him whenever you choose.”

Joss took Eila by the hand. After another long look, Eila said aloud, “It will be quiet without him. He won’t be lonely?”

Bryndis answered from where she knelt. “I can’t see that boy ever slowing down long enough to check if he’s lonely.”

“I suspect it is his parents who will feel lonely,” said Mairen. “You’re welcome to stay.”

But Eila shook her head as she blotted the last of her tears. “Our company depends on us, on Joss especially. We may only be wanderers, but we serve a purpose where we are. I thank you for the offer, though, Lady Mairen.” She tightened her grip on her husband’s hand. “Let’s go back.”

Mairen and her assembled guardians watched the couple leave. “An odd family,” said someone.

“Refuge wanderers,” said another. “A tough breed, the sort that gives up a permanent home and ofttimes their lives to care for wayfaring strangers. The wilds wouldn’t be travelable without their clan.”

“We must take equally good care of their son,” Mairen declared.

Her hand-picked guardians murmured their agreement.

1
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 13

Devourer

by H. M. Snow

After turning the key and pushing the penthouse door open, Bryndis first noticed the subtle resonance of hot tub jets. The hum drifted into the living room from doors leading off to her right. She followed it, only to find a man in his early twenties relaxing in a huge tub. “Who are you?” Bryndis asked, “and what are you doing here?”

His eyelids flew open. “Who are you?” was his response.

“The new owner of this apartment. My question still stands: who are you?”

A door opposite the hot tub opened to emit a billow of steam and the head of a young blonde. She looked from Bryndis to the man, wide-eyed.

The man groped for the towel that lay on the floor beside the hot tub. As he climbed out and wrapped the towel around his waist, he demanded, “What do you mean, ‘new owner’? Where’s Mr. Etienne?”

Bryndis crossed the space between them so that they were eye to eye. She made use of her slightly superior height to lean in and say, “Answer my question before asking your own. I have paid for this apartment; that makes you trespassers here. If I do not get a satisfactory answer from you within the next two minutes, I will have you arrested.”

The blonde emerged from the sauna, bundled in a terrycloth bathrobe, and interposed herself between them. “We’re sorry,” she said, “we didn’t know the apartment had changed hands. Mr. Etienne always told us we could come and use his place whenever we liked. I’m Kate, and this is my boyfriend Josh.” She grabbed her boyfriend’s wrist and steadied him when he would have backed away from Bryndis in his alarm. Though he was her elder by a few years, she was better able to stand up in front of Bryndis’ searching stare.

For some seconds, Bryndis gazed unblinkingly at Kate. Then she appeared to arrive at a decision. “As for your Mr. Etienne, he has died.”

“Died!” Kate and Josh spoke the word in unison. Kate alone continued on to add, “Was he in an accident?”

“Accident?” Bryndis echoed. “I don’t know that I would call it an accident. Suicidally bad judgment, perhaps. Whatever the cause, he died in extreme debt. I offered to purchase this place. I would prefer not to see you turn up whenever you like. I prefer an orderly environment. If you care to come back, I will be available at six this evening. You might bring pizza– I eat only vegetarian,” she added. “I have cleaning to do.”

Though Bryndis did not use a threatening tone, the two young people retreated from the apartment posthaste. Bryndis followed them as far as the living room. There she took out a smartphone, searched for a locksmith, and placed the call. “I have an emergency job… how soon can you be here?” She informed them of the address and the security code for the front door to the highrise building before she hung up and made another call. “I have a report for the– oh,” she faltered, “young head, I hadn’t expected you to answer in person. Yes… yes… it’s just as we anticipated, except I can’t see him running away when he had two sheep fattening here all the while. He will come back for them.” Bryndis listened for a few moments. “Yes, that is my plan. I have arranged for them to return this evening, just after sunset. The man would not be such a great loss to the human race. He had a few unpleasant names to call me, but he lacked the courage to say them aloud, not knowing I heard his thoughts. The girl is different. No, I will attempt to save them both. I am not as contemptible as my prey.” She listened once again. “Thank you, young… Mairen. You are very kind. I will report again afterwards.” Bryndis hung up the phone with a thoughtful look in her eyes and a slight smile softening her stern features.

She shrugged out of her jacket. The kitchen was her first target. Outwardly it looked like any high-class kitchen meant more for prestige than use. The stainless steel refrigerator was full of rotting food and blackening mold, however, and the cupboards were stuffed haphazardly with random objects, many of them bearing no relation to culinary endeavors. Bryndis began filling trash bags, tying them, and setting them aside for removal. By the time she finished emptying the kitchen, she had run out of trash bags and the intercom was buzzing for the locksmith’s admittance.

Her manner changed with this oblivious bystander working there. She hovered near him while he changed the locks. She cast many wary glances down the corridor toward the elevator, and if the lighted elevator numbers showed that someone was ascending, she stood in the lobby outside the penthouse until the upward progress stopped at one of the lower floors. She was quick to pay cash to the locksmith and send him away once he finished his work. Then she locked herself inside the apartment.

With the door secured from outside interference, Bryndis launched a more earnest search through the rooms. She began in the bedroom behind the spa-like bathroom. Like the kitchen, the bedroom was presentable at first glance, only to reveal deposits of filth and mildew in closets and under the bed. Suspicious stains under the rug made Bryndis narrow her eyes. She replaced the rug and took out her smartphone to make a note about tearing out the flooring down to the subfloor. On this bout of searching, Bryndis did not bother cleaning what she found. She examined and made notes to herself and moved onward. Bedroom, office, bath, living room: all showed signs of an attempt at hiding the chaotic impulses of the prior resident. Then she noticed stairs leading upward from the kitchen area. They led her to a loft overlooking the kitchen and living room. Here too the rubbish was heaped thick on the floor, but beneath it she found what she had been searching out: sealed plastic bags containing an assortment of human bones.

Her alert senses brought her upright at the noise of a key in the lock. The lock and the knob rattled a couple times before the person on the other side knocked twice.

“We brought pizza!” said Kate, too cheerfully and quite unnecessarily. She set down the two large pizza boxes on the now-clean kitchen counter. “You’ve been busy!”

Bryndis did not answer at once. She went to the sink to wash her hands. Josh was emptying a canvas shopping bag onto the counter, item by item: a two-liter bottle of cola, two bottled waters, one pack of paper napkins and another of paper plates, and a six-pack of beer. He avoided making eye contact with Bryndis as they passed each other. Meanwhile, Kate kept chattering into the silence. “We got a margherita pizza, since you said you’re vegetarian. Is that okay? I thought about going vegetarian once, but it’s really inconvenient, isn’t it? I just couldn’t give up bacon,” she said with a light laugh. “When did you figure out you didn’t like meat?”

Bryndis took a slice of the meatless pizza. “I did not choose vegetarianism because I dislike meat. Rather, I like meat a little too much.” Her calm gaze made Kate turn away, flustered.

“You never said what your name is,” Josh said.

“I’m Bryndis. Were you well-acquainted with your Mr. Etienne?”

“Sure,” said Josh, “we hung out all the time up here. He let us watch whatever we wanted. He let us use his Jacuzzi even when he wasn’t around. It was like we lived here.”

“But do you know much about him?”

“This is his favorite pizza.” Josh held up a slice of the other pizza, overloaded with an assortment of meats. “He was a great guy, lots of fun—pretty much exactly your opposite.” His eyes challenged Bryndis.

“I am glad to hear it,” she replied. “You may go ahead and turn on the television, if you want. There might not be much time to watch anything, but you should carry on as you have done, if only for a little while.” She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with one of the napkins watching Josh hunt for the remote control.

Kate remained at the kitchen counter, torn between the offer of entertainment and some lurking sense of propriety toward the new owner. “Don’t you want to watch? Mr. Etienne gets all the best channels.”

“No, I have work to do. You may do as you like.”

Still Kate lingered. “I never noticed what a mess this kitchen was. Do you want some help?”

“If you like.”

The roar of cheering crowds erupted from the television. “Great,” said Josh loudly, “the game is only just started. Glad I didn’t miss it.”

Kate threw an impatient glance at her boyfriend. “You could offer to help.”

“This is the playoffs!” he retorted without turning away from the television.

“Men,” said Kate as she came around to the other side of the counter to help Bryndis. “Some of them just can’t think about anything but sports. Um, Bryndis… what did you mean, ‘not much time’? Are you expecting somebody else?”

“In a manner of speaking,” was all Bryndis would say.

They were still scrubbing at the mildew under the sink when the apartment door opened with a bang. Kate bumped her head on the cabinet frame, startled, but Bryndis merely sat back and listened to Josh as he exclaimed, “Etienne! You jerk, they said you were dead!” in a jovial voice.

Kate stood so that she could see over the counter. “Mr. Etienne! You’re alive?” Then she stiffened from head to foot, mouth ajar and eyes wide. Her whole body trembled, but she remained as though rooted in place. Instead of speech, she made a pitiable whimper through her nose.

A visceral squish resounded in the sudden stillness of the apartment. Bryndis stood up, wiping her hands on a towel. She faced the man who stood in front of the sofa. “Good evening.”

Disheveled hints of sophistication still lingered about the one who had called himself Etienne. He seemed unaware of the blood spatter on his creased trousers. “A guest,” he said. “Have we met before?” His dark eyes smoldered in a gaze meant to captivate.

Bryndis left Kate paralyzed in the kitchen and approached Etienne. “No, you would have remembered.” Coming around the sofa, she gazed down on Josh where he sprawled on his back, bloodied from a gaping wound across his abdomen but frozen in place just like Kate. She met his terrified gaze for a moment before addressing Etienne again. “Humanity does not become you, ettin.” She raised her hand toward him.

His dark eyes dulled for a few seconds. His disheveled appearance wavered like a mirage and then disappeared altogether. In its place stood a monstrous figure, deathly white and gaunt except for a distended belly. The skin split vertically down that belly to reveal a gaping mouth full of diseased teeth and lolling tongue. The mouth in the monster’s head said, “You smell familiar. I couldn’t quite place it while I maintained the disguise, but I’m certain I have met you before.”

“Do you have any memory of your meals after you’ve eaten? Do you remember the meals that escaped your grasp? There was one, a girl. You left her until last, and she escaped you.”

“I remember every meal,” said the ettin. “Only one has escaped me.” It drew a breath through narrow nostrils. “You smell so familiar.” Then it brayed with laughter. “You smell like me! Are you one of us? My power has no effect on you, but yours affects me a little.”

“No, I am not one of you. My mother took great pains to see that I did not become one of you.”

“The meal that escaped,” the ettin mused. “You cannot be her, so you must be her half-breed! You must be one of the wanderers, like that one. But how can your pitiful share of my blood affect me? Your people were weak. They even tasted weak.”

Bryndis tucked her hair behind her left ear. There, in the uppermost curve of her ear, an amethyst stud burned purple.

Some of the mockery faded from the ettin’s ghastly face. “You enslaved yourself to the young head.”

“The strength of my abilities comes from the authority she holds. The list of your slaughters is long. The young head has decided that your time must come to an end. She gave me the privilege of carrying out her will because of my detestable connection to you.”

“As if any half-breed controlled by a child can survive against one of the elder ettin in all his strength!”

Bryndis sighed as if bored. “You have no concept of the power of the authority Mairen wields.” Again she stretched out her hand toward the monster. While he stood rigid, fighting the paralysis she imposed on him, she took from her pocket a large switchblade. With the blade open, she hamstrung the monster so that he toppled backward, destroying the coffee table with a crash. Then she took the knife in an overhand grip, braced her other hand against the handle, and drove it between the ettin’s eyes all the way to the hilt. “For the young head and for my mother,” she said over the carcass as if in benediction.

Across the room, Kate collapsed to the floor, sobbing in terror. Hearing this, Bryndis yanked the knife from the ettin’s skull, wiped it clean on Josh’s trouser leg, and put it away. She crouched down beside Josh and pulled the wound closed between her hands. After a minute or so of steady pressure on her part, the edges of the cut remained together and were visibly knitting back together. She kept her left hand a few inches above the wound until only a faint scar was visible. Then she turned from him as if he no longer existed.

Bryndis helped Kate to sit up. “You should go home to your people,” she said. “You were raised well. This experiment in rebellion has not been successful.”

Stammering between sobs, Kate demanded, “What was that… thing?”

“Your Mr. Etienne is nothing but an ettin. It’s an old word that means ‘devourer.’ They are little but an insatiable stomach with a brain, but their abilities enable them to deceive the unwary.”

Kate drew a convulsive breath. “Then… what are you, to be strong enough to kill it?”

“Kill it? No, it isn’t dead.”

Kate stared at her in renewed fear.

“I destroyed the part of its brain that allows it to use its abilities, nothing more. Others will see to the destruction of the whole body. You have not succeeded in changing the subject, Kate. You need to go home to your people. Your judgment of character needs additional development before you try to rely on it again. That ettin would have kept you there, watching it as it dismembered and devoured your wretched boyfriend alive. Then it would have come for you. Perhaps it would have eaten you straightaway; that is the most likely scenario, since it knew we were coming after it. But perhaps not. Ettins are arrogant. It might have believed it had time enough to toy with you first, as it did to my mother.”

“Your mother?”

“Were you not listening? The same happened to her when she was young. The ettin took her whole family, paralyzed them, tore them apart while they yet lived, and ate them before her eyes. Then it grew drowsy and stupid from its feast, so it decided to molest her instead and eat her later. She escaped, badly injured, while it slept. She still suffers nightmares.”

“I’m sure I will too,” admitted Kate.

Bryndis set her right hand on Kate’s head. “No… I can prevent that. But you must go home to your people.”

“Home…” Kate dozed off against the kitchen cupboard door.

Leaving her there on the floor, Bryndis made another call on her smartphone. “It is done. The sheep survived… Yes, thank you. I’ll meet them in the lobby. Goodbye.” She hung up and walked to the door to unlock it. She waited a few seconds before opening it. “Welcome.”

In the lobby an assortment of people were appearing as if walking through a door that could not be seen. Each one wore an earring of some sort at a different position in his or her ear. “How many humans?” asked one man.

“Two. The male lives downstairs on the fifth floor; the female must go to her people in a different neighborhood.”

The man who had asked the question lifted Josh as if the young man weighed no more than a loaf of bread. A woman lifted Kate likewise. To this one Bryndis said, “I have already begun the memory alteration process. Her last conscious thought will be of an impulse to return home, nothing more. This is what her home looks like.” She touched the woman’s forehead with her right hand.

“Got it.”

The rest gathered around the ettin. “This one’s a big one,” remarked an older woman. “Elder-sized. Good job, Bryndis.”

“It was my duty,” Bryndis replied. “Thank you for disposing of it.”

“That’s my duty,” said the woman with a smile. “For the sake of the young head.”

Bryndis nodded. “Yes.” She watched them depart, bearing the ettin’s limp body between them. Then she returned to the laborious task of cleansing all traces of the monster’s destructive presence from the apartment.

25
Mar

Writing Challenge, Week 12

Supervised Visitation

by H. M. Snow

 

Sheltered from the crackling gunfire by a bank of file cabinets, two figures sat side-by-side on the floor. The elder, a woman in her mid-forties, said with a sudden hushed laugh, “What do you get when you cross a pitched battle with a pair of adolescent saurian mages?”

The younger, a man just into his thirties, replied dryly, “A bad joke?”

The woman laughed again. “The point goes to you this time, Andrin. Can we pull this off without them, in your opinion?”

“We have no other choice,” was his simple answer. “With their firepower, we could certainly pull it off. He’s a good kid.”

“What about her?”

Andrin shrugged. “I would have thought a woman better equipped to gauge the character of another woman, Talaitha. I know Ariela has reservations about including her in these outings.”

“Ariela has reservations,” said his comrade, “because of just such a situation as we find ourselves in now. Jaella is ruled very much by impulse. Inseparable as they are, it was only natural that her impulse should take her in pursuit of Maurus. It only remains to be seen whether he can and will pull himself together in time to return to us. That is where your judgment comes into play. He is a good kid, as you put it. He has the potential to become as good a man, if not a better one, than his father.”

“I never had the privilege,” said Andrin.

“I knew him only briefly myself. I hope Maurus does pull himself together. Meanwhile…” Talaitha lifted herself enough to peer over the shortest file cabinet. “We might chance it now.”

Crouching low, they ran beneath the sight line of the half-wall that made up the reception desk, halfway deafened by the artillery just above them. Distantly to their left, others of their comrades drew the defenders’ attention away from them until Andrin and Talaitha reached the alcove sheltering three water fountains. Talaitha left Andrin in that scant refuge while she crept toward the swinging doors farther into the corridor. Ignoring the two narrow panes of reinforced glass above her, Talaitha laid the palms of her hands lightly against the doors and murmured half a dozen words. Then she retreated to Andrin’s side. “She’s here, but so are two dozen others at least. We’ll never make it head-on.”

“If that were true, the first line of defense would not be so fierce,” Andrin noted.

“They may be anticipating Maurus and Jaella,” Talaitha countered, still smiling.

“So am I. This way.” He slipped across the corridor to a waiting room that sat vacant. At his entrance, the security camera in the upper east corner fizzed and sparked, and then went dead. “As long as you’ve got a lock on her, we can still do this even if they come too late, but I have a feeling…”

“Save us,” said Talaitha, only half-joking, “if you’ve got a feeling…”

Andrin went to the window that overlooked a drab parking lot. “It feels like Maurus, only–” After one glance out the window, he ran out into the corridor, heedless of the fighting. “Mages in the parking lot!” he bellowed. “Take cover deeper inside!”

Talaitha needed no more than the same single glance: outside in the parking lot stood the two missing saurian mages, Maurus and Jaella, holding hands. The pavement under their feet was cracked in a spiderweb pattern, and Maurus’ translucent atavist body was bigger than ever before, taking completed form as a lizard fully twenty feet tall with a blade-thin tail six feet wide and as long as its body. Such a huge spiritual form obscured both mages. Talaitha pivoted and ran.

She caught up to Andrin a moment before one of the defenders’ ricochets struck him in the shoulder with an angry whine. With unbelievable speed Talaitha’s hand darted forward to grasp the projectile just before the end of it disappeared into the anterior deltoid. “No… you… don’t,” she grunted, pulling back with white-knuckle force.

Andrin’s bronzed face went ashen with the pain. The muscles in his jaw jumped. Maurus’ atavist tail appeared like a barrier of light behind them. It swept the corridor with its heat, slamming into them both before passing swiftly onward. Andrin grunted as Talaitha pulled the projectile free.

On the palm of her hand a burrowing gray worm, about four inches long, lolled as though disoriented by Maurus’ magic. “I consign this to the fires,” said Talaitha. Black fire leaped up from her palm for the space of two seconds before vanishing and taking the worm with it. Then she pressed the same hand over the wound. Before the fire reappeared, she said, “This will hurt, I’m afraid.”

Between clenched teeth, Andrin replied, “Compared to the worm, this feels good.”

The corridor fairly rang with the sudden hush. As soon as his wound was disinfected, Andrin led the way down the hallway, asking directions from his comrade from time to time. For her part, Talaitha steered him verbally, keeping wary watch meanwhile over the prone and disoriented facility staff scattered along their path. They pushed their way deeper into the facility until Talaitha halted them before a set of security doors. “Here.”

“Yes,” said Andrin, “I recognize the face.” He bent over the young woman crawling like a baby on the floor in their way. “Ms Magda Finch, the alleged pacifist and social worker. Yes, we’ve met before.”

“I’ll take care of her. Don’t waste your time.” Talaitha pulled out a stopwatch. She held it up in front of the security camera. “Ready?”

Andrin set his hand on the door handle. “Ready.”

“Time starts… now.”

He pushed open the door.

The room’s sole occupant flinched before raising her pretty head. Her expression transformed to radiance. “Daddy!” She ran to Andrin.

His hug lifted her off her feet. “My dearest girl,” he replied. “Mirela, are you well?”

“Mm.” Tears streaked her radiant face as she lifted it in earnest entreaty. “You’re hurt! What about Mom? Is Mom…?”

“Healing nicely, thanks to friends.”

Mirela clung to him fiercely again. “They kept telling me she died. I didn’t know what to think.”

“No,” her father assured her. “It takes more than heavy artillery to stop your mother.”

Mirela giggled against his chest.

“She went to help Meg’s parents reach their visitation appointment. She sends her love.”

A sharp thump against the reinforced glass of the observation window made Mirela flinch again. The social worker was pressed face-first into the glass with her arms restrained behind her and Talaitha close at her back. Andrin said, “Don’t look at her. Tell me how you are. What do you need?”

So the young teen girl began to talk about her everyday life, about the clothes she was required to wear and the lessons she had to take (“…they said our dancing wasn’t really dancing, and I ought to learn their dancing, so I fit in with the other kids… I just couldn’t do it…”). This led to the overflow of deeper complaints, words of loneliness and frustration and boredom with her lot.

All the while, her father held her close and listened. When she tapered off after about ten minutes, her father gave her a gentle squeeze. “I wish I could make everything better, my dearest girl,” he said at last. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”

“I want to go home with you,” Mirela sobbed.

“And I want to take you home with me, but you know what would happen then.”

She nodded against his chest, ruffling her hair and smearing her tears in the process.

“But you are almost fifteen,” her father continued. “More than that, you are strong for your age. You are your mother’s daughter, so I can’t see how you could escape it,” he added with a touch of forced levity. “It often happens that those who see hard days turn out to be most likely to be granted a glimpse of the Hidden Realms. I believe you will be one of those. So keep your eyes open, Mirela, and remain watchful. You are of the fey, along with your parents and your brothers, and your grandparents and their parents before them. Remain true to that heritage.”

“They said,” she sniffled, “that ‘fey’ means crazy, and we’re crazy.”

Andrin turned so that they could observe the social worker’s face, twisted with rage, through the glass. “If that is what it means to be sane, who wouldn’t rather be crazy?”

Mirela giggled again.

“And one day, we will all be together again– here, or in the Hidden Realm when it is revealed.”

“Ah! Lulu!” Mirela gasped. She waved frantically at the face of her brother in the window.

“Louis came. Danny is traveling and couldn’t make it back in time. He and his Rilla met a family that wanted to be transformed. They can’t be left vulnerable at this point, or he would have come with me as well.”

“Jaella came too– who is that with her?” Mirela grinned at her childhood friend.

“That’s her fiance Maurus,” said Andrin. “Her mother found her another mage to strengthen her. He’s a good kid, of a strong family. You’d like him. If they’ve all come here, that means my time must be up. I knew it,” he added as Talaitha’s hand appeared next to the social worker’s face, gesturing. “Twenty seconds. The time goes too fast,” he complained sadly as he squeezed his daughter in his arms again. “Your mother will come next month. Stay strong until then.”

“Why can’t you stay longer? They don’t keep their own rules– why should you?”

Her father held her at arm’s length. “We will maintain our honor, even if they abandon theirs. We are the fey. Understand?”

Mirela lowered her gaze. “Yes, Dad.”

“Stay watchful.” As Talaitha knocked the remaining count of seconds against the glass, Andrin backed away from his daughter, keeping her in his gaze until the very last.

From the moment he opened the security door to the moment he closed it, the clamor of his comrades brought a smile to Mirela’s face. The rest of the party served as a human wall, gesturing to the lone girl through the window to cheer and distract her as Talaitha and Andrin stepped aside with the social worker. “We kept our appointment,” said Andrin. “My wife will take her turn next month. She will want to have words with you about your behavior last month,” he warned the social worker. “And we have reported your use of heavy artillery, Ms Alleged Noncombatant. According to the laws of your own government, that can cost you your license and put you on the front lines with the rest of your precious Self-Determination Syndicate. Someone like you is not fit to be near children.” He jerked his head at his lieutenant.

Talaitha released the magic that restrained the woman’s hands.

Andrin bowed shortly. “May you become one who finds the way to the Hidden Realms. Goodbye, Ms Finch. Everyone? It’s time.”

As they walked away, the social worker found her voice. “If I ever found your Hidden Realms, I would destroy them! People are meant to rule themselves! We will not rest until we blot out every memory of your imaginary tyrant! Do you hear me?”

Maurus leaned toward Andrin. “Want me to purify her again?”

“It wouldn’t make much difference.” Turning so that he walked backward, Andrin replied to Ms Finch, “To find the way, you would need to be transformed into a person completely different from what you now are… hence my words to you. I hope you do meet the king of the fey. I have a feeling that such an experience would affect more than just you yourself.” He turned to face forward.

“You have a feeling, do you?” said Talaitha.

“I do,” Andrin answered her.

“Save us,” Talaitha sighed. “‘Help him to his supervised visitation,’ they said. ‘Just a simple raid.’ Nothing is ever simple where a heart mage is concerned, is it?”

“Not usually.”

18
Mar

Writing Challenge: Week 11

Scapegoat

by H. M. Snow

So many human bodies enclosed together should have made the meeting house noisy, but the only break in the hush was a shuddering breath here or there. No one dared make a noise louder than breath on this darkest and most sacred of occasions. Even the smallest ones, who should have been asleep with the setting of the sun, kept silent despite the oppressive heat.

One lamp burned, casting its circle of light halo-like around the oracle in their midst. Only near her was there space to move, but no one dared draw nearer as she laid out the hide with mystic markings burned into it. She knelt, and a collective breath made the silence live. Her hand did not tremble as she gathered the carved pebbles into a heap before her and laid a slender bone atop the heap. “We begin.” Her voice had a pleasant roughness to it.

The mother of the youngest babe among them came forward, all a-quiver, to kneel before the oracle. Her arms wound tightly around her child, a girl of only three months.

The oracle scooped up the heap, keeping the bone balanced on top until the last moment when she poured the pebbles through her fingers and let them fall where they would. Then she gazed at the resultant configuration. “Neither,” she said at last.

A quick sob escaped the mother, who hurried to the far end of the meeting house to weep with relief as quietly as she could.

Four of her peers brought their babies, aged from nine months to two years, only to be passed over in like manner. Then came the first child old enough to approach the oracle alone: a boy of seven years. His eyelids sagged with sleep, but with an elder sibling nudging him forward he came before the oracle and was turned aside like the nursing mothers. The next in age was nearly thirteen, old enough to fear the experience. Her narrow face was ashen, almost sickly, as she waited for the pebbles to fall. When the bone rolled to a halt and the oracle took stock of the results, it seemed to take a little longer than the others. The girl lost any hint of nascent womanhood in her features; she was a child, a terrified child faced with more than she could bear. But before she could break down in hysterics, the oracle shook her head. “No.” Then the mothers at the far end stretched out their arms to receive the girl and muffle her weeping against compassionate bosoms.

They were not many in the village, fewer than sixty persons in total, but the ceremony went slowly enough as though they were a hundredfold in number. The oracle cast her pebbles and studied the fall of the bone for every child, ascending in age to the few young men and even fewer young women. Each knelt alone before her, some averting their eyes and others gazing with mesmerized dread like a frog before a water-dragon, facing the judgment of the cast lot. The oracle showed no emotion in the face of such fear. To each who came before her, she gave the same judgment: No.

One knelt before her, eyes closed and head bowed. He was nearly thirty, a comely man in his prime, and the eyes of his people turned to him as if by some natural force. They watched him now as the oracle let the pebbles sift between her fingers. It seemed his lips moved a little as he waited for the clatter of pebbles against hide to finish. The oracle’s long contemplation did nothing to disrupt his calm. He remained acquiescent as the tension seethed around him.

The pebbles all lay blank-side upwards, their symbols hidden. The dry bone lay with one end toward the oracle and the other toward the man in a straight line. For the first time since she had appeared before them, the oracle allowed her voice to waver. “Yes. You are the one.”

As one, the rest of the tribe cried out and wailed, but the chosen man did not. He raised his head and opened his dark eyes with the expression of a man grasping some private triumph.

The oracle lifted both hands and hissed. When she had imposed silence on the others once more, she declared, “It is the law. As soon as the lot was cast, Sun became a dead man. Go, make preparations for the mourning days.” She waited as the rest of the tribe shuffled out of the meeting house, leaving her with the chosen man. “I sensed from the first that we should not have given you such a presumptuous name.”

Sun smiled. “No. If I can bear the guilt of my people away from them, I am pleased.”

“Always you have been the best of our blood.” The oracle braced her hands on the hide and lowered herself onto her face. “Go. You know what you must do.”

He rose to his feet. The lamp swayed as his shoulder brushed against it. At the oracle’s back, leading away from the village, there was a door. Sun lifted the lamp down from its hook and carried it through that door.

Dank air rose from the water flowing sluggishly around the stilts of the meeting house. A mooring post stuck out from the platform, but the moss growth on it proved that no one had used it for many a year. Sun set the lamp on the platform and jumped on nimble feet to the knee of a nearby cypress. From there he bounded over an unseen path with the sureness of a child of the swamps, finding here a spongy rise of earth and there a solid tangle of exposed roots strong enough to bear his weight. Deeper and deeper into the swamp he traveled, until the village was well behind him. Then he sat down in the embrace of more roots.

The swamp knew no silence. Always the murmur of life stirred the air, even in the dead of night. Sun listened to the sounds he knew so well. Moonlight that night shone strongly enough to show the flutter of night-bats in their pursuit of insects, the ripple of small fish beneath the surface of the water, the sway of the reeds disturbed by the ever-hungry white beast seeking small prey. The ripples widened until they lapped against the roots that supported him. Sun shifted onto his knees. “If it is the water-dragon,” he said aloud, “that is to perform the sacrifice, I am ready. The swamp is part of me. I am willing to become part of it in return, if this will ease the guilt of my people.”

From the center of the ripple emerged, not the rough snout of the water-dragon but a slender pointed tip, like the first sprout of grass on the high ground. It rose higher, remaining slender for its entire length. Another appeared a few feet away, and another pair yet a few more feet distant. Sun watched in amazement. When it seemed these outstretched vines would go on forever, the surface of the water broke to reveal needle teeth in the open maws of two great fish. The slender appendages were whiskers of a sort. One of them reached toward Sun, touched his face with a ticklish touch, and then found his ear. The giant fish stretched out its second whisker to his other ear. The tips of each whisker slid into his ear canals.

You do not fear.

Sun spoke aloud to the voice that resonated inside his skull. “What do I need to fear?”

Every one of your kind who came before you feared us. We ate them.

“Let it be so with me, then. I am ready.” Sun bent his head toward the water.

Why do you wish to be devoured?

“So that I may bear the guilt of my people away from them.”

If that is what you desire, then let us make it possible for you. The great fish that held him with its whiskers lunged out of the water, needle teeth bared, and took Sun by the throat. The fish’s teeth sank into the sides of his throat with piercing, crushing force and dragged him head-first into the murky waters.

Blinded by the waters and suffocated by pain, Sun was helpless in the fish’s maw. Then its jaws released him. The whiskers of additional fish coiled around his wrists and towed him at amazing speed through the murk. It took a few moments before Sun realized that he could breathe beneath the surface. The wounds in his throat had become gills.

Black obstacles loomed in the gloom of the water and sped past again before Sun could recognize any of them. The water dragged at his clothes, but the great fish never hesitated in their swift progress. They pulled him along just beneath the surface until the water grew too shallow for their massive bodies to proceed any farther. The other two great fish released his wrists. The whiskers that had never left his ears made the voice of the first resonate once more inside his head: Here you will find what you seek. Then they released him also.

Sun felt the bottom with his feet. He stood, dripping, suffocating until he remembered to return to human methods of breathing, and shaking for the first time that night. His gaze traveled up from the waters lapping around his waist to the stilts before him and upward still, to the house that stood clear of the waters.

A man appeared in the open doorway of this unknown house. He reached down for Sun’s hand. Once Sun stood on the platform, the stranger said, “You came for a purpose.”

“I hardly know anymore,” said Sun.

“None of the others made it this far. Your wish must come from an earnest heart.”

“I believed I was to be devoured,” Sun began in uncertainty.

“But that is not your wish, merely to put an end to your life.”

“No,” Sun said. “I was chosen by the lot to bear away the guilt of my people. To do this, I must die, but the great fish did not eat me.”

“And will that be enough, that you should die? I tell you candidly, it will not. I will show you what I mean.” The stranger laid his left hand on Sun’s shoulder.

The clear, star-punctuated sky above grew murky as the swamp water below. Swirling particles of filth filled the air around Sun and the stranger. They slipped past the stranger but clung to Sun. Within moments he was coated in this heavy, slimy matter. He gazed at his mucky hands. “Is this the guilt of my people?”

“It is a picture of guilt, but not all of the guilt of your people,” the stranger replied. “It is yours only– both the guilt you have felt in your heart and the guilt you have not yet noticed. If I showed you the whole of the guilt, it would destroy your will. If I did not keep my hand on your shoulder, you would collapse just from this much.”

“Then I fail before I begin.” Sun bowed his head, grieved. “What can I do? What can I do?”

The stranger’s grip on his shoulder tightened perceptibly. “That is simple enough: you can ask for my help. Did you not know?” He raised his right hand, which burned with a fierce flame. Where the particulate filth touched the flame, it flared like a moth over a candle, until the flaring fire engulfed the air all around Sun. He wailed aloud, turning childlike in his time of pain and grief. The other man’s words proved true, however: it was the hand weighing lightly on his shoulder that kept him on his feet.

When the sky-filling fire died away, Sun gazed at the man with wide eyes and received a friendly smile in return. “What is your name?” the man asked.

“I do not know anymore.”

“What does that mean?”

Confronted by this blunt question, Sun faltered again. “My mother sang to me of the origin of my name, of one who could dim the sun by his brilliant light. I am not Sun. Now I have seen him, and I am nothing like him.”

The stranger laughed aloud. “Again, a simple enough matter: only ask. Did you suppose I summoned you here without purpose? You have in you the seed of what you desire. Stay with me, and I will teach you. You have nowhere else to go,” he added gently. “You are dead to your people now. Live alongside me. You will come to understand the need of your people that torments your heart. Troublesome days approach your people even now from the world beyond their territory. They can no longer hide in the swamps, compounding their guilt in the pursuit of innocence. Before the time of their sacrifice comes again, you will see my words fulfilled. Will you stay?”

Sun lowered himself to the platform and lay on his face before the stranger. “With your blessing, I can think of no other way for me.”

11
Mar

Writing Challenge: Week 10

Author’s Note: This one took me a long time. It’s the first part of a planned series of short stories, but as it isn’t in my usual area of speculative fiction, I find myself rather uneasy about it. Oh, well. That’s the point of the challenge: to push myself. It’s rather lengthier than the rest so far. Hope you don’t mind.

*

Adelaide House

Phantasmagoria the First:

The Haunting Bed

by H. M. Snow

“Jittery, aren’t you?”

Ian spared his editor a sidelong glance but refrained from taking the bait.

“I doubt she could have figured out what you were up to this evening. We’re not going anywhere near your usual haunts. I didn’t even pick you up at your apartment building. Relax, Ian. I want you focused for this interview. Mrs Hamill-Jefferson doesn’t give interviews often.”

“Why do we need to interview her, Sid?”

His editor shook her head. “Ian, Ian, that’s the wrong question. After I finally found someone who knows something about Adelaide House, you ought to be asking how soon until we interview her. We’re finally getting to the truth about these rumors.”

“But we aren’t a tabloid,” Ian argued, “nor a newspaper. Travel magazines don’t hunt down rumors.”

The sedan swerved a little as Sid threw back her head and guffawed. “You’re just scared,” she said, “because you know if this interview pans out, you’re headed straight to Adelaide House for a stay. I thought kids like you loved haunted houses and scary movies.”

“I haven’t been a kid for a long time,” said Ian with dignity.

“Kids always say that. To an old lady like me, you’re all kids,” was Sid’s retort. “Look, Ian, I know you’re weak against scary. That’s going to make the article you write all the better, right? Places with atmosphere need a special kind of write-up. When it comes to capturing atmosphere, you’re my ace. I need you for this one.”

Ian slumped lower in the passenger seat. When they arrived at the restaurant, he kept quiet while his editor handed over her keys to the valet beneath the awning.

Mrs Blanche Hamill-Jefferson had already arrived. She was smoker-skinny, with a bosom augmented well beyond nature’s limits. Her eye shadow shimmered between blue and green as her eyes blinked heavy false lashes with the rapidity of uneasy nerves.

A waiter brought menus at once, so rather than begin the interview, they spent the first several minutes of their meeting engrossed in the ordering process. As soon as the waiter took away their menus, Mrs Hamill-Jefferson said, “Dewey said you’re writing an article about that awful Adelaide House. That’s right, isn’t it?” Her heavy-lidded eyes turned from Sid to Ian in expectancy.

“We were lucky to find you,” Sid began. “Adelaide House is such an exclusive hotel that we’ve been hard-pressed even to find its location. What can you tell us about it, Mrs Hamill-Jefferson?”

“Call me Blanche.” Her manner of speaking was far more down-to-earth than her appearance. “My friend Sheri recommended it to me. She said the staff were wonderful and the place had a great haunted-house atmosphere. Sheri and me, we been friends since first grade. We still get together on weekends sometimes to watch old horror flicks like we did in high school. I’m a big fan of horror flicks,” she said, “but that Adelaide House was something else. I told Sheri she must have been crazy to send me there.” With a little deft prompting from Sid, she fell into a recital of the facts. “You first pull up to a place that looks like nothing on earth, just a lump of a house with no style. It’s on a whatchamacallit– one of those streets that doesn’t go anywhere, just winds up in a horseshoe at the front door of the house– so there’s no neighbors close by, just that huge dump of a house. The foyer was nice.” Blanche doodled on the tablecloth with a varnished fingernail. “Wide open and bright from all the windows. But it was empty. I had to give a yell before anybody came to help me. Carl, I think his name was. He took me up to a room. The place felt just empty.” She gave a little shiver. “Like I was the only one in it. The floors were all creaky and noisy. I felt like I should run from my room to the dining room. Haven’t felt that way since I was a kid. But the worst, the absolute worst, was at night. You know that feeling? Like somebody’s watching you, but you know you’re alone? This was worse. I was just about asleep, and I turned over in bed and there was somebody beside me!” Blanche gripped the edge of the table in her fervor. “I know there was! But when I opened my eyes, there wasn’t! I couldn’t get to sleep for a long time after that. When I did, I don’t know when it was, but I reached out my hand in my sleep and touched somebody!”

“Who was it?” said Sid.

But there Mrs Hamill-Jefferson became reticent. “There wasn’t anybody there, I tell you. I sat up, awake, and the bed was empty. I’m no chicken, but there’s something not right about that place. You wouldn’t get me back there for any kind of money. And it was expensive too.”

Persuasion on Sid’s part elicited from the woman an address for Adelaide House. Their food arrived shortly thereafter. The rest of the time was spent by Sid prompting Ian to talk about vacation spots he had visited recently on behalf of their magazine. This carried them to the end of their meal. Blanche shook Ian’s hand at the door. “You really have got a talent for making me see the places you talk about, you know? I gotta go out and pick up a copy of your magazine. Maybe we can do this again sometime?”

Sid stepped in to rescue him. “We’ll be sure to contact you if we have any more questions. I’ll send you a copy of the article when it’s out, too. You’ve been very helpful to us. Thanks so much.” She steered Ian out to the valet station. “You do have a gift, Ian,” she said to him when the valet went after her car. “You have a perfect gift for attracting women who are, to use a Victorian turn of phrase, quite unsuitable. You’re too nice and too meek.” She looked him up and down. “It isn’t as if you’re a little guy. A big teddy bear, maybe, but not a weakling. Why do you act so weak, then?”

Ian did not reply, mainly because the valet was bringing Sid’s sedan. “Oh, no.”

As soon as the valet was out of the car, he began apologizing to Sid for the huge orange paint blot on the passenger-side front door. “This has never happened in our lot before–”

Sid waved him off. She went to inspect the damage and plucked a half-slip of paper that fluttered from the side mirror. “‘Stay away from my Ian,’” she read aloud. “Seriously, Ian, you need to get a restraining order against her.” She waved away his apologies as well. “It’s a good thing Adelaide House is so exclusive. Maybe she won’t find you there.”

This was the thought Ian brought with him as he pulled up beneath the awning at the address given him by Mrs Hamill-Jefferson. As advertised, the house sprawled at the end of an empty cul-de-sac. Rather than approach the front door straightaway, Ian strolled along the path that fronted the hotel. On his right, a tall hedge grew through a wrought-iron fence. On his left, tributary paths branched off into a flower garden. Ian took his camera from its bag and began snapping pictures of the lush verdure. He paused for an especially picturesque view of some roses, but when he lifted his camera to his eye to frame the shot Ian felt a faint movement of air like a breath against the back of his neck. He froze in place. Then, forcing himself, he turned and found himself facing a man even taller and more ursine than he himself. His instant impression was of gazing into a distorting mirror, but the man held a pair of gardening shears instead of a camera. In the next moment, Ian’s eyes told him that the man looked nothing like him: Hispanic, mid-forties, with a heavy brow and cautious eyes.

“Can I help you?” Again, unlike Ian, this man had a voice deep enough to match his build.

“Excuse me,” Ian replied. He scraped together what composure he had left. “This is Adelaide House, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Might I ask who recommended you?”

“Mrs Blanche Hamill-Jefferson,” said Ian.

This answer did not please the other man, but neither did it cause the man to turn Ian away. “I thought Mrs Hamill-Jefferson did not enjoy her stay with us.”

Honesty compelled Ian to say, “No, but we– I would like to see for myself. I’m a journalist,” he added by way of explanation.

The man’s heavy brow lowered. “Journalist? We have certain rules about those. First, you may take photos of the garden, but not of the house or anyone in the house. You may not publish any names or even the address of the house. If you can abide by those rules, then you are welcome to stay.”

These terms were delivered with such a forceful stare that Ian blurted, “Yes, okay, I can do that,” without thought. “I’m Ian Navarro-James.” He held out a hand.

The other shifted the garden shears from right hand to left in order to accept Ian’s hand in a brief grip. “I’m Carl. I manage the house. This way, please.” Carl led Ian to the main entrance. Instead of a lobby, the foyer looked like a living room. On the coffee table lay a guest book, which Carl presented for Ian to sign. Leaving Ian standing in the middle of the foyer, Carl walked to a cabinet on the far wall. Opening the cabinet, Carl stared inside it for an expectant few seconds before taking from it a key. “You get the same room Mrs Hamill-Jefferson had– the Haunting Bed room,” he remarked. “Try not to break anything, please.”

“Haunting… bedroom?” Ian echoed. “Do I have to take that room?”

“House rules: you take the room the house assigns,” said Carl cryptically. “I’ll show you the way.”

“My bag…”

“In your car, I assume. I will bring it up later. If you will give me your keys, I can move the car to the carriage house for you also.”

Ian surrendered. Meekly he followed Carl to the room and accepted the wooden key tag in exchange for his car keys. When left alone, he stood just inside the doorway with all the apprehension of a man facing a pit of vipers. Nothing about the room appeared to merit such fear. Its dominant feature was the intricately carved four-poster bed standing isolated in the middle of the floor like an island. The motif of the posts was positively bacchanalian, a riot of human figures twisted and stretched out of proportion. Every figure seemed to be reaching for something beyond human scope. The sight of it made Ian shiver.

That was nothing to the way he leaped when the corner of his suitcase nudged him in the back. The echo of his voice fell dead in the room, leaving him half-turned to face Carl with a panicked expression on his face.

“Is there… anything else I can bring for you?” Carl asked.

Ian pulled himself together. “No, not at all. Is it… are there any house rules about looking around?”

“If there are,” said Carl, “the house will enforce them.”

“And is it really true? Is the room haunted?”

For once, Carl’s expression looked positively human. “There aren’t any ghosts in Adelaide House. Nothing dangerous is allowed in here– unless you brought it with you.” Carl made a quaint bow, a gesture out of the late nineteenth century, before he retreated.

Ian checked his phone for the time. On Sid’s suggestion, he had arrived just before lunchtime so as to have enough time to explore. He left his case unopened by the bed and headed out into the hallways. It was a twisted complexity to the halls of Adelaide house, steps up and down at weird intervals with corners at unexpected points. Altogether the house gave the impression of having been built on a series of whims, changing styles with each change of whim. After whacking his shin for the second time on an unexpected set of steps, Ian sat down on the offending steps and sighed. “Where am I?”

“If you take this hallway,” said a whisper-soft voice behind him, “you’ll find the dining room.”

Ian bounded to his feet. At the top of the steps a pale, thin woman in gauzy floor-length dress faced him. She stood pointing an ominous finger to his left. “Yes?” he asked feebly.

“Lunch today is, I believe, salmon and asparagus, with crêpes for dessert.”

“Sure,” Ian replied. By instinct he turned his gaze in the direction of her pointing finger. When he looked back, the woman had vanished. Ian hurried away.

The hallway he took did lead him straight to a comfortable dining room. Several small tables were scattered around the room. At the far end, a galley kitchen stretched the width of the room. A florid middle-aged woman stood behind the counter. “You must be a guest,” she said with bright cheer. “Hungry? Won’t be another minute and everything will be ready. Pick yourself a seat. I’ll bring it right out to you.”

Ian seated himself near the kitchen. When the woman emerged, she was dressed in the uniform of a waitress from a Fifties diner. She brought him a plate of salmon and asparagus. “Staying with us long? I’m Bets, honey.”

“Thanks. I’m Ian.”

“Eat up. When you’re done, I’ll make dessert. Crêpes won’t wait, you know.” She would not let him leave the dining room until he could hold no more food or coffee.

Ian felt much better after he had eaten. There was something about Bets that made the supernatural seem implausible. He found his way back to the foyer, but Carl was nowhere to be seen. He decided that, for the time being, he would take pictures of the garden. Sid would want something to show for this visit. The afternoon was sunny and wonderfully mundane. Ian enjoyed the feel of it on his shoulders as he prowled the grounds, which turned out far more extensive than he had assumed. There were a few outbuildings scattered in groves of trees, just as eclectic as the interior corridors. He even got a few fine shots of a defunct fountain crusted with moss.

Sunlight slanted obliquely through the trees when Ian decided to return indoors for another go at exploring the hotel’s meandering halls. He thought it strange that he encountered no one in the foyer. For all the noise he could hear, Ian might as well have been alone in the hotel. He soon lost track of himself again, though he found a good many rooms that intrigued him. One open door led him to a two-story library where antique tome and current best-seller could be found nestled comfortably side-by-side. Another open door led him to a gallery of artwork ranging from famous to obscure, Renaissance to pop art, oils to pencil sketches. Ian stumbled upon a games room with a pool table and a climbing wall, and from there almost immediately discovered a little museum of toy trains. Beyond the train museum was a room full of dressmaker’s dummies all draped in vintage female costumes.

Dizzied by the nonstop discoveries, Ian wandered until his phone told him it was past seven in the evening. He began to feel hunger pangs, but try as he might he could not find his way back to the dining room, not even from the juncture where the ghostly woman had directed him earlier. Great was his relief when he turned a corner and saw Carl heading toward him. “Sorry,” Ian said, “but I’ve gotten lost again. Which way to the dining room?”

“The dining room,” said Carl, “has been reserved. I can bring your dinner to your room.” The way he spoke made the word can indistinguishable from will.

“I can’t seem to find that either,” Ian admitted.

Carl guided him to his room and left him there only a short while before returning with a tray. Supper was steak and a baked potato, with a house salad on the side. Ian ate thoughtfully, but always with the peculiar ‘haunting bed’ at the edge of his vision. Then he started his tablet and took down notes for his article. At first he had his headphones on, but as the evening deepened outside his window he became aware of a repetitive creaking in the hallway. It was loud enough to pierce the music barrier, so he turned the music off and removed his headphones to listen more carefully.

It was the noise of an elderly house at first, nothing more. The longer Ian listened, the nearer the creaking came. By the time it drew even with Ian’s door, it was so loud that not even a frame as sturdy as Carl’s could have weighed enough to press on the floor that hard. The wall trembled. Ian felt the tremor under his feet on the far side of the room. Then it creaked past and faded again down the hallway.

He tried to resume his work, but he could no longer focus. His phone gave the time as half past eleven in the evening. Ian shut down his tablet and put it away in his suitcase. “I’m here for the experience,” he told himself sternly as he changed into a t-shirt and a pair of old workout shorts as his pajamas. He stepped into the attached bath to brush his teeth, taking his time. By the time he turned back the covers, he had worked himself into a more adventurous mindset. He propped himself up with the numerous pillows. “Bring it on.”

Of course nothing happened at once. He lay back, listening to the noises of Adelaide House surrounding him. The night breeze through the window had a soothing effect. Ian slowly fell asleep listening to the rustle of leaves.

It was the wind that startled him awake from dreams of children running up and down the aisles of an old country church. His disoriented gaze swung wide, looking toward the door first in an effort to ascertain his location. When comprehension struck him, he stayed on his side for much longer than necessary. The back of his neck prickled. The night breeze had turned gusty, throwing a patter of rain against the half-shut window pane now and then. Deliberately, Ian forced himself to turn onto his back and look to his left.

No one was there.

He exhaled and wiped both hands over his face. “I could’ve sworn…”

A hand closed on his elbow. “Ian…” Rising up beside him from nothing, the figure took shape as the young woman who had lived in the apartment beneath his at his prior address. “Found you!”

With a strangled gasp, Ian rolled out of bed. He scrambled to his feet, only to find the bed empty and tousled. As he stared, he heard the creak beginning to build in the hallway again. It rolled closer and closer, gaining volume as it came, until the whole room vibrated. A scream of anger echoed more distantly. Something shattered with a noise like crystal. Ian edged along the wall away from the door, keeping the bed at the center of his attention, but nothing appeared among the rumpled bedding. In time, the house quieted again. Ian decided to try sleeping again.

No sooner had his attention begun to drift and his eyelids to sag than movement to his left startled him awake. The same figure was crawling over the edge of the mattress toward him. “Ian… you can’t hide from me. We’re meant to be together.”

As soon as he stood on the cool wood floor, Ian could no longer see the figure. When he leaned forward beneath the draped canopy and braced his knee against the edge of the mattress, the figure seeped out of one of the tall bedposts like a ship’s figurehead, arms stretching toward Ian with the same hopeless reach as the carved figures tangled around the posts.

“No!” Ian clenched his fingers around the bedclothes. “I’m not hiding! I’m tired of this. Leave me alone and let me sleep. You have nothing to do with me!”

The figure stopped, still reaching but coming no further toward him.

“I mean it! I don’t even know you! Whatever you think about me, it’s all in your head. None of it is real.” Just irritated enough to be bold, Ian climbed back into bed, pulled the covers up to his chest, and said, “Now good night! I don’t want to see you again.”

The figure retreated back into the bedpost.

Even so, once the irritability faded from him, Ian was too wakeful. The half-open window rattled under the pressure a particularly strong wind gust and slammed shut of its own accord. With the window closed, the restless hotel’s groans became more distinct. Creak, groan, growl, as if Adelaide House were an ill-tempered and arthritic old man. Some of the surges of creaking had the splinter of wood in them. He wondered if the floor might give way. Every so often, Ian was sure he heard someone far away, screaming. And all night through, the hollow eye sockets of the people carved into his bedposts stared at him hungrily.

It was nearly four in the morning when he gave up any pretense of sleeping, stepped into the shower and then dried and dressed for the day. His first plan was to attempt to find the dining room again; failing that, he decided to visit the gardens, if he could find his way to the front door. Wearily he stepped out of his room and realized with some disorientation that somehow his room was at the end of the hallway instead of halfway down it as he remembered from the previous day. He followed the hallway in the only direction available to him: straight ahead. At the intersection, he smelled coffee brewing and turned toward the scent.

“Morning, honey,” Bets called out to him from behind the kitchen counter. “You’re up early. How do pancakes sound?”

Ian smiled weakly. “I’ll eat as many as you can make.”

“Rough night?”

“You’ve got that right.” He gazed over the kitchen layout. A book lay open with its spine raised for inspection at the edge of the counter. “Poe? How can you read Poe in a place like this?”

“I like a good chill up my spine,” said Bets cheerfully. “This is the safest place I’ve ever lived, so why not here? There’s nothing evil in this house, except what you bring in with you.”

“That’s what Carl said.”

“Because that’s what Miss Adelaide says. She said you’d be wanting an early breakfast. You got put in the room with the haunting bed, didn’t you? What did you see?”

Ian leaned his elbows on the table. “There’s this girl. She used to live downstairs from me, but I had to move because she was starting to creep me out. She’d turn up at my door with cookies and meals and flowers, only soon it was vases and pictures and small pieces of furniture and curtains, like she was going to move in. I don’t even know her first name,” he added in disbelief. “The name on her mailbox was ‘Koszewski’ or ‘Kozminski,’ or something Polish like that. After I moved, it only took her two weeks to find me. She got people to let her into the building so she could knock on my door. Just before I came here, she vandalized my editor’s car because Sid took me with her to interview somebody at a restaurant. She turns up everywhere. You know, I wasn’t even surprised when she started coming out of the woodwork– literally– last night,” Ian laughed. “She does it everywhere else.”

Bets set down a plate of pancakes and a bottle of syrup in front of him. “You know why that bed’s called the haunting bed? Anybody who tries to sleep in it gets to face whatever has them tied down inside. The woman who had it before you– some stuck-up woman with an impossible body and a long name, she didn’t talk to me much– she had a worse night than you did, if you’ll believe it.”

“Hamill-Jefferson,” murmured Ian between mouthfuls.

Bets sat down opposite Ian. Propping her chin in one hand, she watched him eat. “I bet you think this is a hotel, don’t you? Most of them do when they come here the first time.”

Ian swallowed hard. “What do you mean? Isn’t it?”

“Not a bit,” Bets laughed. “It’s a private house. It’s Miss Adelaide’s house. She’ll never turn away anyone who needs a place to stay, so the rest of us got used to it. It’s how most of us came here in the first place. She lives like a hermit at the top of the house, but she can’t leave people alone, not if they’ve got something going wrong inside their heads. She’s a shrink of some kind, and a good one. That woman before you, she was the sort who blames everything on everybody else. She held grudges against all kinds of people, and every last one of them turned up in the haunting bed for her to face. Ooh, you should have seen her. She had a total meltdown. If it wasn’t for Miss Adelaide, I don’t know what might have happened.”

“Wait,” said Ian. “If this isn’t a hotel… Mrs Hamill-Jefferson said it was expensive.”

“You’d better believe it was expensive for her. She broke an antique chair, threw it against the wall in a rage and broke it all to pieces! Oh, Carly was mad at her. She broke the mirror in the bathroom too. And if that wasn’t enough, she clawed the doctor right across the face with those painted nails of hers! I’ll say it was expensive. Carly wasn’t going to let her get away without what he calls ‘just reparations.’ Not on your life, he wasn’t! So he sent her the bill. That chair she broke was worth fifteen hundred dollars by itself,” Bets said with a chuckle. “All because she couldn’t face up to her own guilt.” She studied Ian’s face for a moment. “We’ve got another like that one here now. Miss Adelaide’s been dealing with her. From what I hear, she came right after Carly took you up to your room. I hear she claimed you recommended her to come here and tried to get the room next door to yours for herself.”

Ian set down his fork with a clatter. “No. Not her. Not here.”

“Don’t you fret, honey. Didn’t I tell you Miss Adelaide’s been dealing with her? You think you had a rough night… More pancakes?”

Much of Ian’s appetite had faded, but he held out his empty plate anyway so as not to dampen Bets’ good mood. He picked at his second helping. His hand flinched when, much nearer at hand than during the night, a rising scream of horror echoed through the house. “What–?”

Bets was quick out the door, so Ian pursued her to the foyer. There a strange tableau held him shocked motionless: the pale, thin woman whom he had encountered in the hall earlier loomed over a crawling body that hardly seemed human. It was the crawling figure that uttered such chilling screams. A bloodied mouth and chin was all the face that could be seen through hanks of sweat-matted long brunette hair. Bloodied fingertips scratched against the floorboards in a vain effort to propel the figure across the floor. Soon words became intelligible through the screams: “No, no, not him! It isn’t true! It can’t be true! I didn’t eat him! Tell me I didn’t…” The figure wept and howled.

Serene through the grotesque spectacle, the pale woman crouched down so that her gauzy skirts pooled around her feet. “Is it not true in its own way? The dreams you suffered have truth in them.” She spoke evenly, although often her voice was lost beneath the frenzy. “It is your own irrational hunger that frightens you.” Then, lifting her head, she spoke in the same level tone. “Carlos? Have you gotten through yet?”

Ian started to find Carl standing near him, phone in hand. He was nodding. “Doctor? It’s Carl up at the house. Miss Adelaide has someone she needs your help with. Yes… yes… thank you, Doctor.” He hung up. “He’s on his way.”

They stood around the feral figure until a car’s tires screeched at the curb outside. A man entered, an older man in scrubs and a white coat. “That didn’t take long,” he said to the pale woman without prelude.

“Because it was not far below the surface in this one,” she replied.

“Let me.” Carl moved her respectfully but firmly to one side and helped the doctor lift their maddened guest in a semi-carry out through the front door.

The pale woman closed the door behind them. Then, as calm as ever, she addressed Ian. “I believe she will not trouble you any longer, Mr Navarro-James.”

“That… that was her? My stalker?” Ian gaped at the woman. “Who are you?”

“I am Adelaide House.”

“What did you do to her? Did you let her stay, just so you could drive her crazy?”

“Drive her crazy?” Adelaide House regarded Ian with patient interest. “No one can do that to another. If I did anything, it was to lift her mental illness out into the open where it could be treated. You yourself know that she was far from healthy. And you? Has your stay ‘driven you crazy,’ as you put it? No. You are a well-balanced, if rather timid young man. When faced with the evil that haunted you, you confronted it openly and refused it dominance over you. Well done,” she added.

“Uh… thank you?” Bewildered, Ian could only watch her walk away.

After a while, the draft from the front door reminded Ian that he was still standing where she had left him. Bets had gone, but Carl was returning from rendering assistance to the doctor. The older man said, as if it had all been perfectly normal, “Were you needing to stay more than just the one night? If you were, Miss Adelaide will make room for you somewhere.”

Ian stammered a bit before he found his wits. “Yes,” he said at last. “I think I do need to stay longer. I don’t understand any of this at all.”

“Then I look forward to seeing where the house takes you,” was Carl’s reply.

4
Mar

Writing Challenge: Week 9

Author’s Note: I blame this one entirely on Allen’s Brain, who has always been something of a bad influence on me. (Yes, the title is a pun, as befits a story inspired by such a fiendish mind.)

**

Betta Noire

by H. M. Snow

I say to people how I can take trouble or leave it alone, but in truth I just can’t leave it alone. Trouble loves me, and who am I to turn away an admirer? This time, trouble came in the shape of a blue-eyed blonde. Funny, isn’t it, how that ends up being the case so often. I should have known the first time I laid eyes on that dame, but I just couldn’t read trouble in her pretty face. When I first saw her, she was walking past the windows, looking in like she wished she was one of us. Now, I’ve known plenty of janes before, most of them in the old country, and all of them shared the same tattered and tawdry glamour and glassy stares, quicker to fight than a two-bit welterweight trying to make a name for himself. This dame was different. My eye caught hers. Next thing I knew, she had her hand pressed to the glass in front of me. She had slender fingers, lightly golden like sunrise over still water. I was hooked.

That’s when the trouble started. Somebody threw a bag over my head. I’m still not sure what happened after that, except to know I was shook up pretty bad by the time they dumped me in a little room, unoccupied but for the blonde and me. I reversed as far from her as possible, not knowing what she meant to do next.

She smiled. Those mesmerizing blues held me in their gaze. “You are a looker,” she said. “I’m glad I picked you. What shall I call you, hm?”

“You can call me a cab out of here,” I snarled. “Now.”

The dame acted like she couldn’t hear or understand me. “Beau. That’s what I’ll call you.” She dug around inside a cheap plastic shopping bag and produced a small cannister wrapped in gaudy colors. I thought I saw a mugshot of a cousin of mine on the side of the cannister, just for a second. The blonde unscrewed the lid. “Are you hungry, Beau?” She shook the cannister above me. Whatever was in it hissed a little.

My brain jumped to, Snake! and sent my body shooting across to the opposite corner of the room. I didn’t feel any easier in my mind when I saw nothing but a couple grains of food floating down toward me. I’d heard stories of dolls who like to slip a little something into a guy’s food. I’m no chump. I stayed away from the food, though my gut was hollow and my mouth couldn’t recall the last time it tasted a morsel.

The blonde kept watching me. After a few minutes, she got bored with that, turned away and set about straightening the rest of the place. That was the first time I gave a thought to what was outside my little cell. It wasn’t a palace, that’s for sure. One cramped closet stood open to reveal clothes on hangers jammed together inside it. A heap of shoes lay at the bottom of the closet. Across from the closet was a bed, covers rumpled. My cell stood on a bedside table, or something like a table, with a potted sansevieria overshadowing me. The wall opposite me had a tiny window, but that was no help to me because of the drawn curtains.

When she was done straightening, the blonde stretched out on her bed. She put in a call to somebody, as if I wasn’t there to overhear. “I did it,” she declared. “I got one. Come over sometime and have a look at him. I named him Beau. He’s cute.”

Cute, eh? I thought with a chuckle. That dame didn’t know what she’d got herself into– me, a fighter from way back, a champion fighter back in the old country. Hadn’t they kept me separate from the rest of my kin, due to all the fights I won? And I won without taking a single scar, except on my forehead where I tackled big Aran head-first that time. ‘Cute’ indeed. The fighting instinct went to my head. I crouched down low, gathered my strength, and shot up as high as I could and as fast as I could. It was easy to clear the surface.

The blonde screamed as I leaped out of my cell and hurtled toward the window. The table was higher than I’d calculated, though, and I fell a long way, fell real bad. The floor hit me like a headbutt to the belly and knocked the wind right out of me. I writhed and fought for breath on the carpet.

“Beau!” The blonde knelt beside me. Her delicate golden-tanned fingers scooped me up and carried me back to the cell, lowered me into the water, lingered in a worried caress. All the while, she crooned over me like I was her only baby. She picked up a pierced metal panel and laid it over the top of my cell. Drying her hands on her thighs, she retrieved the phone from where she had dropped it in her panic. “He jumped! I forgot to put the cover on the tank, and he jumped straight out! I didn’t know bettas could do that! It startled me. He looks okay now, though. I’m glad. Yeah, it was amazing! Straight up and over, like it was nothing to him.”

What a dame. She’s going to take some watching. That’s when I started to think, Maybe this setup isn’t so bad after all. I mean, who am I to say no to trouble? Trouble loves me.

25
Feb

Writing Challenge, Week 8

This week’s experiment in flash fiction was brought to you by PSYCHOLOGY! Everybody’s got it (according to Miss Adelaide).

**

The Personified Subconscious Department

By H. M. Snow

The lights dimmed to practically nothing. At the same time, a giant screen lit with footage of a small apartment bedroom.

“That did it.” Twenty-four grasped the tiny hands clinging around her forehead.

Nine came out of the shadows to help free Twenty-four from the clinging infant. “Strange,” said Nine. “A baby, turning up in one of Herself’s childhood dreams.” He gave a vigorous tug. “You can let go now, Three, you know.”

“It isn’t that simple.” The infant was midway through a transformation from human to a sort of plumber’s putty with a humanoid shape. “This one’s a real strangler. Give my fingers a pry, would you?”

With their combined efforts, they managed to separate Twenty-four and Three so that Three’s transformation could continue to completion. Twenty-four rubbed her forehead. She too was fading back from human to humanoid putty. “How are things going, Two?”

“The Haste is going well. No time for a proper shower, of course, but what can you expect? Herself has to be at work in ten minutes.” Two, as efficient as ever, had nearly completed her transformation, leaving only traces of Herself’s sister still visible in Two’s features. A buzzer sounded at Two’s elbow. She pressed the button. “P.S. Department, Two speaking.” After a few seconds, she pursed her gray lips. “I said P as in Papa, not B as in Bravo, and you know it. You aren’t funny, you know. Now what is it?” She listened again. “That can’t be helped. It’s the Haste. Accidents happen. Just cope with it and stop complaining.” She pressed the button to cut off the conversation. “Sophomoric humerus and his prank calls. I sometimes wish we could cut the nerves to that one and be done with him.”

Other numbers were busily tidying away the props into cabinets around the edge of the room. Nine stood quietly thoughtful in the midst of all the tidying.

“What’s on your mind, Nine?” Twenty-four patted her comrade on the shoulder with some care, avoiding the spiky skeletal underpinnings that stretched Nine’s putty-gray skin. “You’re thinking a lot after this one.”

Nine smiled distantly. “Lucky number Twenty-four,” he remarked. “And when I say ‘lucky,’ you know I simply mean the number that Herself finds most appealing.”

“Naturally.”

“You get to be Herself’s dream self more than any of us. Can you think why a baby might appear in a common childhood dream? The other details were accurate—the wallpaper,” Nine pointed to the pattern fading on the walls. “Exactly the same. The dressers, same.” He stopped one of his fellow numbers in the process of pushing an eight-drawer dresser with tarnished knobs toward one of the storage cabinets. He slid open the top drawer. “Finding her sister’s clothes in her dresser should have produced enough agitation to wake her up for the Haste. It’s a classic ‘threat of appearing in public naked’ dream, with sibling issue overtones.”

Twenty-four nodded. “And?”

“And,” stressed Nine, “what’s a baby doing here? Herself is more or less indifferent to babies. I don’t understand.”

Overhearing from nearby, Three asked, “Must we understand?”

The bustle of numbers tidying came to a sharp halt. A few of them shushed Three. But Twenty-four only said, “It pays to listen to Nine. He’s the one with the skeletal structure, after all. The number Nine isn’t bestowed at random. You know how Herself feels about ‘Nine’—almost like she feels about ‘Twenty-four.’”

“Only completely different,” Three added.

Twenty-four smiled. “We’ll just take the baby under consideration. It might be something emerging, you know, with age. Herself is getting to that point in life.”

This caused a murmuring among the other numbers. It was Nine, however, who said, “It doesn’t seem like Herself at all. Even at her age. That’s why I said it doesn’t make sense.”

“It doesn’t,” admitted Twenty-four. “But we’ll take it under consideration. That’s our job, after all.”

Two called out, “The Haste is at departure stage. Haven’t you got the props tidied away yet? It’s nearly time to process the work experience again, and you know what an ordeal that is.”

“That’s an ‘All hands on deck’ if ever I heard one,” quipped Twenty-four. “Let’s go, everybody. Work stress waits for no number.”

**

Bonus: More of Miss Adelaide’s Psychology, courtesy of YouTube:

18
Feb

Writing Challenge: Week 7 (part 2)

As promised, the sequel to “Help Wanted.”

**

“Workplace Romances Never End Well”

by H. M. Snow

“Steve!”

Once the thunder of Esau’s bellow faded from the room, Steve said, “What’s up?”

The gigantic man of hair pushed a stack of paper scraps into Steve’s hand. “We need you to go shopping. Now.”

“I went yesterday—”

“These are special things,” said Esau. He kept twisting backwards as if looking for someone. “Hard-to-find things. You must go now and find them. Don’t come back until you find them all.”

Steve looked at the different scraps. “Okay. No problem.”

“You must find them all before you come back.” If Esau’s eyes had been visible—Steve still wasn’t sure Esau had eyes, in fact—but if he had them, and if they could be seen, Steve was sure they would have been round and earnest just then.

Leaning away from the mass of hair leaning toward him, Steve said, “I got it. Find them all, then come back. No problem.” He surveyed the lists quickly. “Nixie doesn’t want anything?”

“No!” shouted Esau. Then the giant hair-man collected himself. “I mean, nothing you can handle.”

Once out on the sidewalk under a muggy summer sky, he gave no more thought to Esau’s manner. Steve rarely gave a thought to his coworkers’ eccentricities anymore. Instead, he began to sort through the pages. No one at the Foundation collaborated on shopping lists. Everyone wrote separate lists—even Tom and Banji, the two-sided man—and handed them all to Steve, expecting him to sort through them and make sense of the miscellany. This was the oddest collection of lists he had yet seen, including a little something of everything from an obscure brand of hoof polish for Boroka to unpronounceable electronic components for Marianas Wildemann herself. “Mmm,” Steve remarked to himself. “This might take a little longer.”

It took him just over three hours, in fact. Steve prided himself on knowing just about every shop in the city. He had applied to most of them during his extensive job search. Being thorough rather than brilliant, Steve had researched every business in order to make a good impression during interviews. Though none of his work had succeeded in bringing him gainful employment—as far as that went, the only time he had gone in blind to an interview, he had been hired—the knowledge came in useful now, because no one at the Foundation had yet been able to stump him, not even the most esoteric requests. He preened himself on his way back to the Foundation. “Three hours, fifteen minutes,” he said. “That must be a record or something.” The only hitch was that half of Marianas Wildemann’s components had had to be ordered, and the salesman wouldn’t commit himself on a time frame for the shipment’s arrival.

Steve went to the milking lab first. Ricky’s order was restless inside its opaque plastic bag, and Steve wanted to deliver it before it either stopped squirming or escaped. “Hello?” he called out. One light in the back of the lab still glowed. Ricky was nowhere to be seen. “Weird,” said Steve. He consulted his watch. As he thought, the late afternoon milking session should have been in progress. He found an empty glass tank just as the first fang-puncture stabbed through the plastic bag; once he dropped the bag and its contents into the tank, he had just enough time to fasten the screen over the top before the plastic began to shred and something glossy, green, and angry spilled out. Steve stumbled backwards as a squirt of venom arced through the screen, missing him by a matter of inches.

Nothing else in the shopping bags was alive, so Steve went back to the vault, where he meant to deliver Tom’s and Banji’s orders. The vault was even emptier than the milking lab. This, to Steve’s mind, meant that a staff meeting must have been called while he was away. “Good,” he said, still talking to himself. “I can hand everything out in one place, if I’m in time.”

Still, something didn’t seem right. The lights were on in every corridor, for one thing. The lights never had been on during previous staff meetings, since many staff members were leery of bright light. Not a sound echoed from the rec room either. Thus Steve wasn’t altogether surprised to arrive and find the public areas empty and oddly dank with humidity. Since the handles of the canvas shopping bags were now digging into his fingers, he deposited the shopping in the middle of the room, where no one would trip on it. “Where is everyone?”

A babble of voices resounded in the distance, as if several of his coworkers had decided to answer his question. Steve followed the babble until he could pick out which voice belonged to whom.

“Zis is no joke,” said Bartholomew.

“I never said it was,” Boroka replied, in that tone of voice that meant she also had tossed her black hair and twitched her silky tail in displeasure. “But Esau’s so skittish!”

“Because of vat happened to Isabella last time—”

“I know, you pompous bat, I was there, so don’t lecture me. Does this look like one of your university lecture halls?”

“Enough,” said Marianas. Her voice had that faintly tinny quality that meant she was suited up to go out. “Boroka, do you smell anything yet?”

A long, deep inhale followed, and then a sigh. “Nothing.”

“Then we can be sure Nixie hasn’t thought yet to head for the front door.” A beep—Steve knew that sound as the activation of the intercom system that was wired through Marianas Wildemann’s pressurized suit—resounded just around the corner. “All teams, report. Any sightings yet?”

After a few seconds, Ricky’s voice came over the speaker. “Nothing on the garage side.”

“Nothing on the—” Waldo’s voice broke off in a storm of fizzing and confused shouts. “Found her,” he yelled cheerfully.

“Cafeteria.” A note of urgency entered Bartholomew’s voice. “Zat is not far.”

Esau grunted. “It is a good thing that we sent Steve away in time…” He broke off when Steve rounded the corner.

All four of them stared at him. Steve said, “What?”

“Boroka, Esau,” said Marianas, “take him back upstairs. Do not leave him alone, and do not leave the building. We cannot afford to let Nixie outside. Bartholomew, you’re their advance guard. I’ll turn off the lights so you have a greater range. I’ll find Waldo’s group. Carol can manage, I’m sure, but we can’t run any chances.”

Esau’s burly arm shot out and wrapped around Steve’s torso twice. Then the trio took off running, with Steve dangling in midair between them. He was at Boroka’s eye level, so he said, “What’s up?”

“Nixie, darling. It’s her time of the month.”

“What does that mean?” Steve blushed. “Not that I want to pry if it’s something personal…”

Boroka laughed in such a way that Steve’s blush deepened. “It’s personal to you, darling. Water nymphs go a little crazy when the tides are highest. You are human, her natural prey, and she already likes you. She will come for you. But do not be afraid, little man; we will protect you. If you wish to scream, however, it may inspire me to defend you better.” Her dark eyes mocked him.

“Nixie doesn’t seem so scary,” Steve noted thoughtfully. “She’s always a little crazy.”

Esau’s voice rumbled at his back. “No! You don’t know what she’s like!”

“Esau is afraid of her,” laughed Boroka.

“What if Isabella gets in her way again?”

“Again?” Steve asked. By this point, his voice came out strained from the loops of burly, hairy limb that coiled around his chest. “What happened last time?”

Esau shuddered. “Isabella used to be a fine girl, as tall and strong as I, until she tried to restrain Nixie in her time of the month.”

“You cannot blame Nixie for that,” said Boroka. “It was you and that hair dryer.”

“But Isabella was–”

Ahead of them, Bartholomew interrupted. “Vill you two be silent? I cannot hear my own echolocation vith you two bickering so loudly.”

They emerged into the lobby, where Ricky awaited them. His featureless white face turned instantly in their direction. “She’s headed this way.” He extended a thick, three-fingered hand toward Esau. “Behind me.”

Steve landed hard on the carpet between Ricky and the wall of windows, where Esau dropped him.

The intercom crackled. “She’s in the plumbing! I repeat, Nixie has gone into the plumbing,” reported Marianas Wildemann. “Be aware of any faucets or fountains in your near vicinity.”

All of Steve’s defenders shifted to orient themselves toward the lobby water fountain.

“STEEEEEEVE!” Waldo came sprinting out of the corridor.

At almost the same time, the water fountain exploded off the wall, shooting an indigo geyser to the ceiling. Nixie’s voice, amplified twentyfold, echoed Waldo’s cry in an entirely different tone. Waldo flopped on his face and did not move again, but as Steve gazed upward at the twenty-foot Nixie looming over him, he heard Waldo’s voice close by his ear, saying, “Don’t worry, Steve. I’ve got you covered. Big brother Waldo won’t let her drown you.” Breathing became a struggle. Steve’s vision blurred. He collapsed to his knees. As he ran out of oxygen, Steve saw Nixie dive down toward him , arms eagerly outstretched. A huge brown object crossed his line of sight. Then Steve passed out.

He awoke to the groggy sight of a featureless white face only inches from his own. “Steve? Steve, don’t move.” An oxygen mask covered Steve’s nose and mouth. “Just breathe deeply.”

Beyond Ricky, Marianas Wildemann stood with her many-jointed arm propped against what might have passed as her waist. She spoke to the air in front of her. “So you thought, rather than risk Nixie drowning him, you’d asphyxiate him first, Waldo? You are not breathable. You might have killed him. Now get back in your suit. Ricky will make sure you haven’t left any part of yourself behind.” Her tired exhale resonated inside her helmet.

Ricky lifted the oxygen mask. “Stay still. Just answer my questions for now. What is your name?”

“You just said it,” said Steve. “Twice. My name is Steve.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“In the lobby, on the floor.”

Ricky hesitated. Then, as if in a burst of inspiration, he said, “Where does one purchase the Occidental Freckled Toad Snake?”

“Tickle,” said Steve.

“What?”

“T.C.L.E.,” Steve explained. “Twin Cities Lizard Emporium. Ask for Sal. He sells them at cost from his own private breeding program. The ones you get from Rare Reptile Rescue are twice as expensive and less healthy. Sal says… if he doesn’t sell off one or two every month, they start eating one another and the venom gets too concentrated…” Steve grabbed the oxygen mask for another few breaths.

“I wondered why the quality had gone up,” Ricky replied. Over his shoulder, he called out, “It’s Steve. He’s himself.”

“I’m relieved to hear it.” Their boss came to stand over Steve. “You must be very shaken, Steve.” She reached out her hand to help him sit up.

Still clinging to the oxygen mask and its portable tank, Steve said, “What happened to Nixie? Is she all right now?”

“They’re working on containing her for the moment. When the moon moves out of its current phase, she’ll be back to her usual self again and most relieved to know that she did not harm you. Nixie is very fond of you, you know, Steve.”

Because he was still shaky on his feet, Steve let Ricky and Marianas Wildemann support him on either side. Their feet squelched on the sodden carpet as they followed the trail of water down into the research area. They arrived outside the vault just in time to see the staff sealing up something that looked like a large helium cylinder. Its narrow window was indigo and showed one large and mournful eye. On the floor, a massive hair clog stretched limp across their path.

Izzy hovered next to it, giggling in a manic fashion. “Boroka,” she said, “bring me the hair dryer!”

“Yeah,” said Steve to Marianas Wildemann, “what’s the story about the hair dryer?”

“The same happened to Isabella last year, at Nixie’s strongest tide. She sacrificed herself to stop Nixie from going out into the city to look for humans. Esau was in a panic afterward. He borrowed Boroka’s hair dryer in an attempt to bring Isabella back to herself more quickly. As it turned out, Esau and Isabella are composed of a different type of fiber than human hair. When subjected to a prolonged blast of hot air… oh, dear,” Marianas said as Boroka returned with the hair dryer as requested.

Izzy switched the dryer to its highest setting and, with a drawn-out diabolical cackle, began drying Esau. Wherever the hot air struck, Esau’s mass of hair crinkled and shrank.

“Well, you can see what happens. It has taken Isabella nearly a year to grow back again even to this short length. She snubbed Esau for weeks after it happened, and Esau pined terribly for her. I do hope they reach an understanding after this,” sighed their boss. “These workplace romances…”

Steve glanced back at the industrial cylinder, from which Nixie’s eye kept gazing adoringly at him. “Uh-huh,” was all he could say in reply.

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