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Category: Short Stories

Giants

Author’s Notes – Good morning (or whatever time it is where you are when you are reading this). The following is a small micro-fiction I wrote on my phone after taking a little picture during lunch. I just had the idea and thought it was a fun exercise in trying to find inspiration in the little things. I hope you enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think!

This was a land of giants, a land his mothers had long warned him against traveling. The lure of plentiful food had drawn him here though, with red-backed prey abundant and without much cover. And the giants had not walked these lands in ages – if they were even real. He had followed the prey that day, from the great green wilds across the sunbaked rocks of the gray flats and to that giants’ tower. The tower let off heat, baked in the sun but protected by the shade of the legendary palaces beyond. He climbed the tower to make his nest. This would be his hunting grounds and a place he could make his home. 
 
But in the days after he arrived, something changed. There came a great shadow that blocked the sun. Shade fell on the tower, and it’s very form twisted and turned. In fear, he leaped free of the soft branches of the towers and down to it’s central tier where the black webs wove a great disc. There he saw them. There were the giants. 
 
He had not believed the elders, but their stories did not do them credit. They were nearly as large as the tower. They came to with booming voices. He sought a place to hide and his legs carried him swiftly across the black rock webs towards the core of the tower. But there he met a giant up close. One had reached out and taken hold of the tower. It’s hand was massive. It wrapped about the tower – which had stood here for generations – and with one motion the being uprooted it and the landmark was moved. 
 
He had found a place to hide for a time, but knew it was best to escape. Along the central tier he moved, hoping to avoid the gaze and the anger they would feel at his taking of their hunting ground. But one saw him. It reached out towards him, a massive digit moving to crush the little thing. He scurried away. It was no use. He could not hope to flee such a creature and in fear he froze.
 
The digit descended. He felt fear and little else. Then a brush against his leg. Though the creature was massive, it did not crush him. Instead it merely brushed him. It was another soft touch. It ushered him off the web and to the safety of the edge of the disk. The massive creature looked at him and for a moment they locked eyes. Then it moved away from him. It went back to what it was doing. It had changed the tower but had kept him safe. When the giants moved on they left the tower for the him.
 
Perhaps the stories were wrong. There was nothing monstrous about them. Possibly, even, they had hoped he would watch over the tower and it’s changes while they were away. And so he would – as long as he could.
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The Old Mother

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

Author’s Notes: Hello all. This story is my first unfinished part of the Bestiaries that I am posting up. I’ve had trouble with writing lately, partially due to all the things going on in the world at current – partially due to general struggles with this story. The idea is about half written, and I intend on finishing it. I think it will end up being about two thousand words, so consider this a preview. I couldn’t let myself continue to struggle on this piece and hold up my writing, so I’m going to take a break from this story.

               The nightmares that had plagued her had been near endless. Every night her dreams were invaded by a whisper. She could never make out the voice, but each night it seemed to find her. The whispers woke her up in a cold sweat. It wasn’t a small uncomfortable sweat, but rather one indicative of someone coming down from a run. She lay covered in a small layer of sweat that had cooled as she rose out of her dozing state. Her legs ached as if some travel had occurred, but her bed showed no sign of her having left during the night. Still, each time she heard the whispers, she felt as if a chase had only just ended, and awaking was the escape.

               On this night, nothing was different. She sat panting as she woke, moments going by ever so slowly as she regained her breath. Her hands rested lightly on the feather stuffed mattress; her gaze fixed on her knees as she waited for the calm to return to her. She hoped that it would be swift, but it wasn’t. There was slight nausea as adrenaline calmed throughout her system. Her throat burned as she breathed, cold midnight air on rough flesh within.

               For nearly an hour, she sat in the dark, alone and trying to determine what the whispers had said or meant. She could never understand them, or at least when she awoke, she never understood them. She finally gave up and pushed her covers off her form. Her head fell to rest in her hands, and she gave a long, sad sigh as a sense of failure pushed into her mind, replacing much of the earlier fear that had overwhelmed her.

               She eventually swung heavy legs over the edge of her bed and felt the cold dirt floor of her family roundhouse. Nothing was moving in the house, not her parents or the rest of her siblings in the room. She could hear no animals braying out in the fields and no bugs chirping in the fresh night air. It was all silent. She carefully stepped away from the bed. Even her light movements made one of her sisters stir somewhat, but no one awoke.

               She took careful steps away from each. Her footfalls were soft, nearly silent, and it was a common enough occurrence that few would wake even if she made an errant step. Still, she did not want to wake anyone. Her mind was still reeling. The whispers had felt intensely alien to her. They were something that in and of themselves sent a cold shiver down her spine, but she could not place a finger on why. There was no tone to the whispers, nor were their words or inclinations. There were no growls or other sounds, but she could feel a sort of anger and pressure building each time the dream came to her. Every time it had gotten worse, and it had been so frequent lately, she felt a sort of unease when thinking of going to sleep.

               The young lady found her way outside. There she stepped into the nearly frozen mud of their farm and walked in the dark out to her favorite spot. She had found a secluded line of trees, just a few minutes’ walk from her home. It had been this grove that she always found herself going to when she needed some time to think. It was something she had learned from her mother, a place they shared as a spot where they could find calm. So, it was here that she decided to calm down from the nightmares.

               There was a pleasant silence to the early, crisp morning air. The dew settling on the trees gave a familiar and pleasant scent. What little wind there was this time of day was distant and gentle, rustling leaves and moving on without a care. For what short time she had alone in a family like hers, these moments of respite came too few but lasted a good while once they did. Mornings were a time of solitude, a time when she could feel alone – like dreams should have been. This morning was different though.

               She realized after some time that the wind had stopped. She felt no more bristling of the cold morning breeze, the leaves no longer waved in the distance, and there was no more dripping of disturbed dew from overhead within her grove. Instead, the was stillness – but the sound of the wind remained. The realization caused her a moment of pause and confusion. She didn’t know why that had happened until she listened close. The wind must have dissipated some time ago, instead replaced by the whispers that haunted her dreams each night.

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The Caryatid Grove

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               If one travels beyond the great city-states, north along the coast for a few weeks times, where towns give way to villages, and villages to hamlets, one will come upon the foothills of the high black mountains. Once within the foothills, if one stays near the within sight of the coast, they will eventually see what remains of old quarry cranes in the distance. Thick slabs of wood held together by long rusted iron bolts rise from the hills, partially reclaimed creeping and climbing vines and weeds. The weather of a shoreline cut them down, and few remain standing as tall as they once did. The remnants of fallen beams litter the approach to the hill. For the keen-eyed, an old cobblestone road stretches down the hill and towards the coast, but no docks mark the shore any longer. Only a few scattered stone foundations and pillars remain, long rounded by the constant wind and mist of the seas just feet beyond.

               Finding the overgrown road leads to the sea sprayed quarry. The veritable mine drills down in stepped layers. Each carved from the surrounding earth. Each flattened where stone blocks were once hauled free of their home before being taken to faraway lands. The sharp, uncut marble lines the walkways, chisel marks from generations ago still perfectly visible. So too were the tools abandoned. Rusted hammer and pick heads litter some areas of the mine, and rotten crates falling to dust and grime sit as reminders of a once-thriving economic powerhouse of a place. There were luxuries here, once, for those who spent their lives and bodies cutting luxury from the earth for others.

               It would be wise to stop one’s explorations here on these first steps of the mine. Those who have come this far, though, will have seen the grove. At the bottom of the mine lies a new ecosystem. A small pond of stagnant seawater has given rise to all manner of flora one would tend to overlook – but the colors are vibrant. Deep greens and pearlescent white and gray mark the blooming plants and flowers. Another circle around the quarry and another step lower, and one begins to feel the weight of the place. Something in the air is heavy, and it burdens the breaths taken. Each step towards the goal is more of a struggle. Each is an acknowledgment that going further is taking a choice into your own hands and accepting the dangers below.

               For those that travel this far, it is almost always wanderlust that drives them. None come here in search of treasure, or fame, or fortune. Whatever lies at the heart of this place takes none of that and wishes nothing but solitude, but its mere presence and existence beg the curious to come forward and venture deeper.

               The scent joins one the third step of the quarry, accompanying the sight below. There is nothing quite like it, except to say that it smells almost like a port. Rotting flesh in stagnant water mixing with the ample salt creates a particularly potent cocktail of scents, even before being stewed in a natural stone pot warmed by the grace of an unblocked sun. The mix of ancient dirt unearthed by mortal avarice and its reclamation by the earth is potent. It isn’t only the quarry itself that the soil has reclaimed, however.

               Hidden among the white and gray of the marble are the bones of the miners. While once they likely lay open to the sun, the rains that eroded the base rocks away brought a thin layer of silt to cover them and hid them away. Deeper still in the mine, as one approaches the mire of its bottom, there is a change. The birds and other beasts of the region have not traveled here. They have not pushed this deep. There are no hissing of bugs, chirping birds, and no croaking of toads. The hallmarks of a wetland are missing, despite ample plumage from the plants that have taken up residence here. Then the reason becomes clear.

               At the bottom of the quarry, where the earth was opened for deeper veins and to wash away excess water, there stands a figure of marble. She sits on her knees, her face looking up slightly with her hands raised to protect herself. Her clothes are draped across her, even appearing wet and clinging near her knees. Every curve, every wrinkle, was painstakingly preserved in stone. No stray chisel marks exist, no stray hammer falls to cause even a single blemish. This point is as far as most will ever go. This statue, in all its lifelike quality, is the thing of legends. Tales of the monster within the quarry are many.

               Our lady statue’s last gaze is frozen in time, so lifelike that she must be real. She must have been a person at one point. At least, this is the legend. Stories of a weeping woman seen deep in the quarry, near the statue, are told by local farmers tending their flocks nearby. A landwyrm preys on the beasts nearby, according to local hunters. So, one must venture deeper to know what monster on which one may stumble. One has.

               Within the mine, there is little but death. Whatever took residence there, did so with great anger and violence, and it has not left. Deep in that mine lies the reservoir of water collected over the years, a deep underground lake, and near that lake stand a dozen statues. Each statue is of the same woman, perfectly replicated to exacting details, and all stand watching the entrance of the mine for their maker. There is no growth of the natural here; no animals or plants have overtaken these statues or this lake. Beyond these statues, though, the old mine is long forgotten. None of have ventured past here and survived. The only one who has tried came back a broken man, mumbling about the stone maidens, but never finishing his tale before he would panic and escape the conversation through guile, or breaking down into a weeping mess of a man.

               There have been a few others who tried to venture into the quarry, who attempted to investigate the mine. Those wise enough stopped at the stench. Those with experience stopped at the first statue. Those that ventured deeper never returned. For whatever has taken the quarry, only one thing remains, the drive to create and maintain the Caryatid Grove.

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Dragonslayer

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               For whatever reason, he had agreed to this particular job. He had a reputation to uphold, he supposed, but each one of these was trying his luck. He had found his way to a cave system were reports of a dragon sighting had originated. They told stories of fire bathing the farms outside of town, great wings blackening the sky, and a roar that could throw men off their feet. All of it sounded rather harrowing when you heard them say it. All of it seemed as if the town was at the edge of its rope. They desperately sought a hero. Of all the towns he had to wander into – theirs happened upon him at the wrong time.

               His spelunking into a cave gave him ample time to think and put together what he had heard from the townsfolk. It was mostly outlying farms that were attacked. Very little was killed in the attacks, primarily beasts and often only single beasts. This dragon in the wilds had been picking off livestock one at a time.  None of the townsfolk could give him a good description of the dragon himself, but he could see the damage. Outbuildings burned, fields turned to ash, and livestock lay slain. But only a few people were killed. Only three or four townsfolk died overall.

               When he found the lair, his suspicions were confirmed. Townsfolk were superstitious folks and people that didn’t have the experience needed to identify monsters. Peasants knew only a hand full. All undead were zombies or skeletons, all apparitions were ghosts, all otherworldly beings were demons – and all great lizards were dragons. Of course, how they had mistaken this thing for a great lizard was beyond him. He had spotted what it was from the cave entrance. Well, that was a bit braggartly. It had been evident to him as he walked through the caves. There were burn marks along the wall, from where this thing had brushed up against them. All along the walls and floors and ceilings. It was something else entirely – something that dripped fire.

               The thoughts lifted when he arrived in a large chamber. His hooded lantern had cast just a dim light around the corner as he entered, but as soon as it breached the chamber, there was a flickering glimmer that rose from the ground. Then the color became clear. Silver and gold lay strewn about, piled next to a thick wooden chest marred and eaten away by the supposed fire of the beast within the caves. With that realization, he felt a smile cross his face. He was not disappointed. Foolish common folk thought a gift of coin would sate a great serpent like a dragon.

               Then his heart sank. It even skipped a beat. There, tethered to the chest by manacle, was a young woman. She was unconscious it seemed, and it was clear that she had been left down here as part of the sacrifice to sate the dragon and stop the terror that had been rocking their township. He moved closer to her and watched her in the silent and dimly lit cave. Her chest rose and fell. She was breathing, at least. That gave him some hope that he wasn’t too late. His relieved sigh fell on her face, though, causing her to stir just slightly.

               Her eyes crept open and met his for a split second. She was tired, frightened, broken by her experience of being cast aside until she saw his face. He saw the light of life flash in her eyes. He knew the realization that she had just made before she said it, but he could not react quickly enough to stop her from saying something.

               “They sent a hero to save me?” She spoke; the woman’s voice a whisper at first, but the excitement of being saved grew. As it did, so too did the volume of her voice. “You, noble dragonslayer,” The adventurer shook his head, mouthing the words ‘no’ and ‘quiet’ to her as she continued, she either ignored him or couldn’t see them. “have my eternal thanks.”

               “Be quiet,” The adventurer whispered harshly, pressing a gloved finger against her lips, “Don’t say anything.”

               “But you are a dragonslayer, sent to rescue me. Surely you do not fear,” The woman spoke slightly muffled through his finger.

               “Shut. Up.” He cut her off by putting his palm on her mouth as she spoke. It warranted a little squeal from her, surprised, and suddenly unsure what was happening. There was a hint of an echo of the noise that reverberated in the room. He kept his palm pressed hard on her mouth. He could feel his palms beginning to sweat under the leather and cloth, and his mind drifted from her to listen for any sound he could.

               Aside, of course, from her mumbling under his palm. He listened close for a minute before he heard nothing that alarmed him, and then he gave a slight nod to her. He raised his other hand, still holding the lantern, to his mouth and shushed her again. Then he slowly moved his hand from her mouth.

“Did you not kill the dragon?” She seemed to realize something was wrong, but at least she wasn’t talking loudly now. She was whispering at least to the best of her abilities.

“There is no dragon,”

“Then why are we being quiet?”

“Because there is a monster. So. Shush,” He said before setting the lantern next to her. He moved over to where the manacles met the chest and set the lamp down next to them. He paused and took a breath before a hand reached one of the many pouches on his belt, and he pulled a small thin, and well-worn lockpick from the pack. He fidgeted, working the lock as a seasoned professional, and it seemed as if he had barely started before he finished, and the lock popped open.

“If it is not a dragon, what is it?”

“What part of shush don’t you understand?” He all but hissed back at her. He pulled the lock pick slowly back and released the manacles from the chest they had been attached to and turned back to face her. Of course, as soon as he had released the lock, she moved forward, dragging the iron manacles across the cold stone cave floor with a loud clanking sound. “Fucking really?” He hissed at her action. She stopped as soon as she realized what was happening.

“Sorry,”

“Just shut…” He paused midway through the statement. Something had caught his ear. It sounded almost like a struggling breath, a quick hiss of air. Then there was a crack. Creaking claws against the stone of the cave. The woman backed slowly away from the sounds, while the adventurer cursed repetitively under his breath. The sound was still distant, but it was growing closer, and while she might not have realized it, it was clear to him that they were caught in its lair now. He finally snapped into action, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Look at me,”

She did what he said and turned to face him. “I…”

“Just listen. In a few seconds, one or two giant beetles are going to come through the entrance. Whatever happens, don’t get close to them. Don’t touch them, don’t be near them. Even if one attacks you directly, keep moving,”

“What?”

“Trust me. Tearing your own skin off to get away from it is better than getting the fire on you,”

“Fire?”

“More like burning oil. Doesn’t come off,” The adventurer reached to his back and pulled the crossbow from between his back and backpack. “Have you ever used one of these?”

“No,”

“It’s idiot-proof. Perfect for you,” He grabbed the charging handle and pulled back the bow, yanking a bolt from its quiver on his belt and balancing it against the string. “Take it. Keep it flat. When you see the monster, press in this lever,” He tapped the lever at the bottom of the bow lightly. “Aim for the big ass of the thing. Not it’s head. Just the bulbous ass. Got it?”

She nodded quickly.

“Okay. Wait until I say loose. You’ve got one shot,” The adventurer said before bounding over towards the cave entrance. The sounds were getting closer, a deep rumbling hum growing ever louder, echoing through the cave – like a growling and rising roar. He worked diligently, while the woman stood frozen in place, shivering in fear.

He poured out pouches of something on the floor – sand or dust in a long repeating line between the sounds and the lair. He tossed the bag in the middle of the lines and twisted his arms to let his backpack fall to the ground behind him. He pulled a handaxe off the side of the bag and leaned his lantern against it, facing the hole where the monster would be appearing. Then he took a breath and steadied himself. He pulled back and stretched, preparing to throw the ax.

It took a few seconds before the lantern’s light revealed the oncoming beast. It was massive, with an ashen chitinous hide. It stood twice the size of a horse, with rapid beating wings rising from its back and beating like a hummingbird – giving the nature of the sound of the roar. From its form, slick oils dripped to the ground with sizzling hisses as each hit the ground. Short moments of light would appear as the oils melted the rock, for split seconds, the heating rock glowing from the sudden hits.

“Now?” The girl sputtered with the panic in her voice rising. The beast turned its head towards her. Its massive mandibles clicked and dripped bile to the ground below, ready to launch after this newest threat.

“No, beasty,” The adventurer barked at it, and let the ax fly. His entire body moved. Every ounce of strength he had pivoted on his hip, his arm arching wide to let loose the shaft. It spun across the cave room and stuck hard into the beast’s side. It pierced the hide, chitin crumbling away from the impact point, and thick oily blood oozing from the wound. As the blood covered the blade, it began to glow, to warm. The handle burst into flame, and the beast itself had a new target. It turned away from the woman and rushed towards the adventurer instead. He cursed under his breath and twisted to one side, running away from the thing but watching its position closely. Once it hovered over the dust he had laid, he called out to the woman. “Now! Loose!”

She pressed the crossbow lever quickly, aiming to the best of her ability. Her eyes locked on the bulbous backside of that creature, where the glowing ax-head still rested. It gave her something to concentrate on – somewhere to focus her shot. The crossbow let off a resounding twang. The bolt flew from the crossbow. There was a sickening thud, and the creature let out an agonized hiss, and it crashed to the ground where he had laid his trap. Then it twitched, its wings falling silent, and its hissing stopped.

The adventurer stopped running. He turned back towards her and barked, “What the hell? I told you don’t aim at the head! If you had…”

“I was aiming at the backside.”

“Oh,” He said, his tone calming from the earlier anger, “Good deal. Good miss. You are lucky as they come,” He said with a deep breath. He stepped over towards the beast, just a pace or two. He held a hand out towards her, motioning for her to stay still. “Let’s make sure it’s…” As he spoke, a drip of the creature’s fiery oil hit the dust. There was a flash of fire and light, and a loud thunderous noise before the dust erupted into a burst of fire around it and engulfed the creature. Parts were torn away from its body by the force of the blast. The oil-like blood and viscera rained across the cave floor. “Dead. Good. That went way better than planned.” He clapped.

She lowered the crossbow and looked over to him. He gathered up his bag and lantern and moved over towards the chest. “What now?”

“Well,” He spoke as he pressed up against the chest and opened it. There was a shimmer of gold and silver from within. “Normally, I’d worry about a second one. But they didn’t hunt enough for two, so this was a young one still looking for a mate.”

“That was a young one?” She squealed. “It’s enormous,”

“I said young, not small. They grow fast.” He put gold and silver into his bag without looking at her – as much as he could fit.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking payment?”

“From the town’s offering? Not satisfied with what they offered you?”

               He paused and shook his head, “No, not really. They did not pay well.”

               “Then… you came to?”

               “No. I didn’t know you were here.”

               “Then, why did you come?” She asked.

               “Because they admitted they gave an offering to the dragon,” He said with a sigh.

               “So, you’re going to steal it?”

               “Yes.”

               “How could you even?”

               “Look, before you get all high and mighty,” He said, turning around towards her, “There are monsters out here. And they sacrificed you to try to appease them, so,” He shrugged, “You can go back there and always know that they left you out here to die. Or,” He pointed to the gold and silver,” You can stuff your pockets full of coin and make your way in life. Find somewhere safe and away from idiots. Your choice,” He said with a wave towards the coinage before he moved back to collecting some for himself.

               That realization sank in swiftly. The woman didn’t know what they had thought that would accomplish now that she was thinking about the idea. She had felt that she was protecting the town. Even if it had been a dragon, how would leaving her have done anything but give it a snack? She swallowed and steeled herself a bit. Maybe he was right.

               “And where will I go?”

               “I don’t know. What can you do?”

               “Nothing. Cook. Clean.”

               “Well, there is a tavern in every town. I’m sure you can find work,”

               She paused, “What about following you?”

               “No. Not an option.”

               “Just to the next town.”

               He sighed, “No. I don’t do charity,”

               She paused for a moment, and then gave an option, “I can carry more gold for you if you take me.”

               He perked up at that thought – and so began their partnership.

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An Imaginary Friend

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               When I was a child, we lived in a village on the edge of the forest. I suppose it is more accurate to say we lived in the woods outside the village, though. My father was a woodsman and my mother a fletcher, so it was only natural for them to be out in the wilds, and they took us with them. I enjoyed my time in the wild if I am honest. It was quiet and calm, and if you knew and respected the natural, it was even rather safe. Nothing was outstanding or special about those years, to my memory – though at the time, I did not write everything down as I do now, so I may have missed something.

               This story, though, is not about my life there. As much as I would like to discuss that, you asked of my experience with monsters, and the mundane details of the life of a woodsman’s children aren’t what you sought. What is necessary is an understanding of who we were, though. We were not educated folk, at least at the time. My skill for memory and aptitude for learning eventually allowed my parents to secure me a spot as a scribe’s apprentice, but it was nothing less than exceptional that they were able to do so. It was, in all descriptions, a changing of stars for me. This did lead to some unwelcome changes.

               I had been blessed to have a younger sibling, a sister. She was a few seasons younger than me, and well and proper followed in our parents’ footsteps. From an early age, she enjoyed exploring the woodlands. She learned bow craft while working as a fletcher, and she learned to hunt while following my father in the woods. Even though she was young, she was skilled – and she enjoyed the wilds. She loved nothing more than run in the wilds.

               It was a lonely life for her, I imagine. There were few children her age, and I was almost always busy with my studies and the constant need to practice script. She played alone for much of her life, as did I, I suppose. But I always had my studies on which to focus my attention. I believed then that loneliness engaged her imagination. She found a way to deal with that on her own. She began telling us stories of Eremurus.

From her descriptions, he was a young boy about her age. The other details, as they so often do with children, tended to change. His appearance or his demeanor often seemed to change based on her whims for that evening when telling the story. At first, it was harmless fun. It was just a girl who needed a friend creating one for her own. She told stories and tales of their adventures out in the wilderness. These were stories of fun, of jumping creeks and running through briars. These were things that friends did in this village, silly and pointless fun. It was healthy for children to play, and so my parents and I wrote it off. It was the same as anyone would have done.

But it became odder. Her descriptions over time became clearer, and they became less friendly. It was clear that her friend had an unhealthy streak. At first, it was only small things. Items were misplaced, things moved to strange locations in the night. Whenever my sister was confronted, she would deny it, and say that it was Eremurus. She was adamant, regardless of the minor punishments that were doled out to her. She never hesitated to claim her innocence and fought our parents’ accusations in earnest.

Things did grow worse and worse. More things disappeared, and anytime my sister would be blamed, it seemed that she would act out. She would fight back, crying, and wailing that she hadn’t done anything. It eventually became unbearable. Finally, one evening, a fire was set in the house – and again, my parents blamed my sister, though I believed her when she said it wasn’t her. Her blaming Eremurus was almost with a tone of defeat in her voice. She was sad, almost betrayed in a way. After a few weeks, the events stopped.

Then, if I am telling the truth, I don’t remember her speaking of Eremurus much. I believe she mentioned him from time to time, but for the most part, his name was no longer mentioned as far as I remember. We grew up, and while the occasional misplacement remained, the stories of the boy in the woods faded to memory.

Things were not good, though. It was in those years that the war came to our little village. Conscripts were sought out, and the men of the village were called to service. I was lucky. I was a scribe. I was given the role of a messenger, given a horse, and spent much of the war riding back and forth with messages for commanders. It allowed me to send letters home rather often. I spoke to my sister and mother often enough in this way. The letters were short and often abrupt.

A year into the war, these letters stopped. I would hear soon after that our village had fallen to you and your kind. I often wondered what happened to my father, and when. At least with my mother and sister, I know when something happened to them. When I returned here, I found many people had been killed, including my mother and sister. Such is war, unfortunately. So many of us ended up orphans.

I supposed when your forces dragged me here that it was for something military-related. I would never have expected you to want me here for more superstitious reasons. I was even more curious when your men wouldn’t follow me. They walked me to the edge of town and told me to walk to the home in the forest – my home. And so, I did. I had every intention of fleeing when I arrived there. But I saw my house burned down, and I felt a grief I’ve never felt before. You had taken everything from me, and there was a moment, a few moments, really, of overwhelming vulnerability and loss. I was alone, for the first time in my life, truly alone.

But I had been listening to the troops you brought with you. I listened to the superstitions. I heard them worrying about the pranks, the misplaced and missing items, and I suddenly remembered his name. Eremurus. Was that what you had found? Was that what was causing you trouble? I asked him. It was a foolish thing. There was no one in the woods, so asking an imaginary friend to come out was nonsensical. A foolish prayer from a lonely spirit to another.

Imagine my surprise when he answered. He looked like my sister described. He was constantly shifting his form, not sure which to be. He was an animal, a boy, something in between – all at once. He was so excited to see me. So happy one of the family came. And he excitedly asked if I would play with him if I had brought my sister. It took me some time to explain to him what had happened, to explain the concept of death and war.

He struggled to understand, at least at first. I had to find a way to explain to a nature spirit the concept of pointless violence, inflicted upon the less fortunate by the selfish. It took me time to find the words, but once I had succeeded, I returned to your guards to tell you what I had discovered. The thing that has been haunting you was a playful spirit, looking for his friend. But listen closely. You’ve only heard my words for the past few minutes. Aside from my speaking, there has only been silence. Do you hear it now?

That’s what happens when you anger a nature spirit. The forest itself has turned on you – but, I could only explain war to it one way. It was simpler than I expected, once I found the word.

Wildfire.

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A Young Fisherman

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               From time to time, there comes a story of lost ships being found just out of sight of the shore. The stories were all similar; lost ships devoid of its crew but otherwise no signs of distress to be found. Stories varied on what had happened. Most were ships found long after they had left port, and madness offered as the most common explanation, but those of piracy, starvation, and storm sometimes arose as well. The dangers of the sea were many, and any long journey would prove to be a perilous one even for experienced sailors.

               One such ship, though, was found on a calm afternoon by a local fishing vessel. The ship had left the harbor only the day before. There had been no foul weather and no sign of danger. Fishing vessels had been out in the region that day, and there had been no reports recently of things such as raiders or privateers. And yet, the ship was found adrift.

               When the fishermen drew their boat up against the ship, they were able to climb aboard. The ship’s hull was undamaged. Its deck was undisturbed, with all the ropes, sails, and tools each in their proper locations. Further exploration by the fisherman revealed much the same across all sections of the ship. There were tables set with meals, half-drunk mugs of ale, and games of card and chance left unfinished. Throughout the ship, nothing was distressed. Most things were still as if members of this ship’s crew had vanished.

               Despite this, under the bright sun and calm winds, the ship felt peaceful. There was no feeling of ill will or danger. It seemed that everyone had just vanished. The exploration was slow but thorough. They sought every possible hiding place and looked for any given clue. When they found only the ship’s stock, they gathered back on the deck of the ship and discussed what could have happened. It was as if every member of the ship’s crew had just disappeared. But they left behind riches. There was a hold full of goods; steel, fur, and silver for trade. It was a wealth unseen before by any of them. Now it was theirs.

               There was a discussion on what to do. The crew sat around the deck and spoke to one another for a time. The youngest of the fisherman, who was still a new member of the team, was less comfortable than the others. He didn’t know them well, and as they talked about what to do, he merely watched. He could not put names to the suggestions being made, nor could he keep up with the variety of ideas put forward. The fishermen believed that they had found an abandoned ship, one that could easily lead them to more wealth than a life of fishing would bring them. There was some disagreement between them, though. Return to the harbor, collect the reward for the ship, take what they wanted; all came to the deck as a possibility.

               Then a man from their crew spoke up – despite all that he could, the young man could not remember his name or place his face, but he was familiar. He was one of them. Why not take the ship? It lay abandoned, but it was stocked well for a long journey. They could sail to a nearby port as traders, and there they would find their wealth. There, they could start anew.  

               They discussed their options for a time. They debated. The debate never grew genuinely heated, though, at times, voices did become louder. It was all on minutia, though. How would the wealth be split? How would they chose and treat new lives? Would they stay a crew or go their separate ways? After all, this was piracy in a way. They were considering taking the ship of the dead for their benefit. There was no sign of a crew though, not even notes or logs from the captain and crew remained. It was a blessing adrift.

               There was some debate on taking the ship just back to the harbor from which they had left. Each time it came up, the truth came that the ship would be confiscated if discovered. The fishermen would be without their prize. So, they made their choice. They would take the ship to a nearby port, sell the goods, and start over.

               Despite his youth and relatively new position with this crew, the young man did speak up. But he did not do so boldly. He meekly disguised his question as one about what would happen to the old fishing boat. The question seemed to perturb them. Why did it matter? But he pressed the matter, again and again. They relented. He would take the fishing boat back, let the harbor know that they were trying to salvage a ship. When they did not return, he could come looking for them to get his part of the treasure.

               The young man left the ship, took the fishing boat, and returned to port. His conscience got the better of him, though, and he reported the situation to the authorities. With the information, he was taken into custody and brought aboard another ship. That ship would take him to the Capital, eventually. First, it stopped by the planned destination of the fishermen. And he waited.

               No ship had come to port.

               When the navy searched nearby ports, no ship matching that description was found.

               The young man served several short conscription terms for his dealings. He lived a life of little substance, struggling to make ends meet. He always listened to the rumors, but the ship and the fishermen were never heard from again.

               That was, at least, until he was very old. A stranger came to town, seeking the young man who spoke of a lonely ship – only to find a wizened old man ravaged by the passing of ages. The visitor asked him about the ship he had seen of the story from that day. He asked if anyone had believed him. The old man, of course, said no. No one had, despite the story remaining the same throughout his life. The visitor was enthralled by the story and thanked the old man for sharing it. He asked the man if he had gotten what he wanted in life.

               The old man shook his head. He had not. He avoided the fate of his crew, but another fate had followed him.

               The visitor needed to return to his ship, and he asked the old man if he would walk with him and share stories of his life. The old man agreed. That was all he wanted – for someone to believe him. The stranger was happy with that and admitted he believed every word.

               After all, the old man was the only one to get away from him that day.

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The Baker and the Widow

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               There was a Baker who owned a small shop in a small village on the edge of a small gray creek that fed into a small, slow-moving river. There was nothing special about this Baker or his shop. Nor was there anything special about the village or the creek, nor the river that it fed. The village was a simple place, off the beaten path, but large enough to have built a community of families. It was a small friendly place, not known for danger or excitement – and there was little that happened that would throw off the routine of the place.

               That was until the Smith got sick. A healthy man who supplied the town with all its iron needs, the Smith came down with an illness rather suddenly. He had recently married, and his new wife tended to him dutifully. Being that she wasn’t from the town originally, though, rumors were quick to spread as they do in small communities. She was a stranger, and as she wasn’t one of them, she couldn’t be trusted.

               As the Smith grew weaker, the rumors only grew more vicious. The Baker heard rumors of her in his shop; she was a poisoner, her goal was to take his wealth, or she only came here to spread illness. None of this was true, he knew. No one else grew sick, despite the Smith’s Apprentice and family visiting to assist her in taking care of the ailing man. The Smith was no rich man, and frankly, the Baker had seen her coin from the city more often than the Smith’s trade since they wed. As for poisoning her husband, that just felt like a stretch made up by frightened minds.

               Eventually, at the edge of winter, the Smith passed away. Like so many in the village, the Smith would find his final resting place in the town cemetery. The once strong man had withered away, and his family wept. His Widow was inconsolable, though. While she tried to appear strong, she could not do it. She wept at his graveside for days and nights, only coaxed into leaving his side when tiredness overtook her, and the Smith’s family was able to carry her back home. Then she disappeared into their home. The Smith’s family left for their own homes to prepare for the depth of winter.

               The Widow rarely left their home, but the rumors stopped for a time. She gave the Smithy’s shops and all its contents over to the Apprentice, keeping only their home for herself. There she stayed alone for the season, only ever venturing out to purchase much-needed food and drink. She was a broken woman in those days. Her once beautiful smile and bright eyes had faded to a distant and unmoving stare. There was a nothingness that had taken her husband from her, and her eyes had locked onto it. She barely spoke, whispers only answering questions pressed to her, and once she had what she needed, she would return to her home.

               For that first winter, the Baker believed that she would die of heartbreak. She could not have taken care of herself in a way that any would survive. The chimney of her home rarely smoked despite the cold, the food she bought was a bare minimum, and she abandoned all hope of socializing. He couldn’t let that happen. He took it upon himself to visit from time to time, to bring her fresh bread, and to check on her. She rarely spoke to him for more than a moment. She would greet him at the door and pay him for the bread. When he asked if she was okay, if she needed anything, she would shake her head and go back into the building.

               This habit became a routine through even the spring, until one day she seemed in better spirits. She met him at the door, and for the first time, he saw a small smile on her lips. She spoke to him and told him that the Amarant was blooming. It had been her husband’s favorite flower, she explained. The Baker just returned the smile, knowing for the first time she might recover.

               As the summer continued, she tended to her Amarant around the house. She began to act more like she once had. He still chose to drop by and see her from time to time to check up on her. As fall approached, she even ventured out into the village and brought him much of her harvested grain from her gardens. They traded amicably, and he then watched from afar as she turned the fields behind the old house into a small farm. She tended it with a couple of the other widows of the town. She worked with diligence and purpose that he hadn’t seen of her since before her husband had died, and it warmed his heart to see.

               Through winter, he baked bread and took it to her as he had the previous year, though it was a bit rarer an event. She would greet him with some excitement. They would speak for a short time, most often about the bread and how he was finding ways to use the grain of the Amarant to extend the wheat supplies he had. By spring, it was clear the two had become friends.

               In the summer, when the Amarant bloomed, she would come to the Baker with fresh stocks. Now with hectares of the plant growing in her home, she had more than just seeds to share. The two began to dream up new recipes and treats with the plant. It made his shop a rather popular stop in the village, almost overnight. While the new bread became rapidly popular in the village, it came with rumors of the Widow and Baker. 

               Others had noticed their friendship. Others noticed them working together at odd times. Others noticed the way the Widow smiled more when the Baker was around. Rumors swirled of an affair, an affair that did not exist and that the Baker had never sought. Though as the rumors reached him, as people asked how long he and she had been falling for one another, he realized something. The rumors had found a truth that he hadn’t been able to admit.

               For nearly two years, he had visited her often. She had become one of his closest friends. Her smile filled him with warmth, and he felt more comfortable and calmer around her. The rumors, he realized, were true. He had been falling for her in the past years. There was a pang of guilt that came along with that realization. It was a sort of sense of betrayal to the memory of the Smith. It was a feeling that at first he could not shake off.

               One night near harvest, the two had met to exchange one last batch of the Amarant seeds before winter. When she arrived, they set to work in roasting them in his shop and chatted about the harvests and upcoming festivals. Small things, those that require no deep conversation, they were those that could fill the air and keep him from admitting anything deeper.

               Still, he found himself glancing at her. He found himself watching her when she wasn’t looking. She was beautiful. She always had been. These past years, though, as they grew closer and closer, he knew he noticed more and more. The way her smiles wrinkled the edge of lips, and seemed to even to reach to her eyes, the way she constantly readjusted her hair to keep it in place, the warmth of color in her skin from working with her plants, she never seemed to appear to him different than she had the first time they spoke as beautiful as ever – all of it must have entered his mind many times before. Now, it was stuck there, gnawing at him. But that night, she caught him staring.

               She asked why he stared, and her nerves caused her to brush her hair away from her face.  

               The Baker paused. He hesitated a moment. The flickering light of the fires of his kilns baking away filled the room with the smell of soon to be fresh flour, and in that moment of seeing her in the light of a fire, he could not stop himself. He admitted that she was beautiful, that he found himself falling for her.

               She now hesitated and gave a weak smile. Her voice whispered a short thanks, but there was a quaking there, a palpable unease. Then she said the words the Baker feared she would. She admitted she was not ready for a new lover, and with the sentiment, she ended the night. She stood up to leave. But, in a moment of weakness, he reached out and caught her hand. Her hand was warm, much as his was. Both were nervous. The Baker admitted that he needed her to know his feelings, but he had no desire to betray her feelings for her husband.

               The Widow waited a moment before answering. Her hand gave a squeeze before she pulled away. She spoke that now she knew his feelings. With that, she left.

               Winter fell, and the Baker felt that he had ruined something great. Each evening, it ate away at him. He would sit and watch the fires of his bakery, and he regretted ever saying anything to her. Then, he would wonder if it was anything but lust that had driven him. Midwinter, he decided to apologize again.

               From time to time, he would visit her home and drop off some fresh bread. She would greet him at the door and accept kindly. When the topic began to fall from his lips, though, she would end it and reenter the home. She shut him out night after night, time after time.

               Finally, one night the snow fell hard, and he stood at her door. He offered her bread when she greeted him, as always. She accepted, and he asked her if she would let him say his piece one last time.

               She protested, she refused, but she slipped up in her refusal. For a split second, a single word slipped out and revealed her truth to the Baker. She felt the same way. She could not, though. She would not let herself fall in love with him.

               There the two stood silently as the snow fell, watching one another quietly. Neither spoke a word. Finally, the Widow apologized. She asked the Baker not to return, and she closed the door.

               The Baker took a long walk back to his shop. There, crestfallen, he threw himself into his work. The snowstorm continued to build up around the village, but with his heartbroken, he paid little attention to that. Travel in the village stopped for a time. He gave in to despair, and one night the snow piled high on his home and ice packed against the chimney. When the warmth of the kilns melted just enough, there was a small collapse. Thatch fell from the ceiling to the fires. The villagers were not able to react quickly. The night was dark, the village covered with high snow, and no one noticed the building slowly catch aflame.

               No one except the Widow.

               The Baker awoke in the night to the flames, cutting him off from any escape. On the second story, above the source of the fires, he felt himself burning. The fires reached him in his bedroom, the heat of the fires lighting the walls and raising from the stairwell. He coughed, unable to breathe. He knew this was the end, and he was afraid.

               Then, in the fires, he saw her – the Widow.

               She stood at the top of the stairs, flame jumping around her form. The fire had burned away her clothes, and the Baker saw her truly for the first time. She stepped toward him. Her form was untouched by the fire. Time then was slow. Despite the fire, he felt cold. He could barely keep his eyes open as she approached, his life force dwindling as his lungs desperately sought a breath in the smoke-filled room. When she reached him, she leaned in, placed her lips against his. He felt nothing else. A moment of bliss and then silence.

               He awoke in her home, days later. The fire had taken from him much of his strength. His strength would never return, and slowly but surely, the Baker faded away. Still, the two had one more year together. For that last year of his life, he lived with the Widow. The rumors swirled once again; the two were lovers, the Widow had set the fire, the Widow had walked through fire to save him, she stood unburned – some were true, no doubt. Yet, the two were happy, for those short seasons, and when the Baker finally died, the Widow was inconsolable. She lived there for another year or two before she left the village.

               The Amarant still grows there as an ever-present reminder of the Widow’s love, renewed each season. All through the lands, the same story still is whispered by superstitious townsfolk. Many villages have a small home with Amarant growing in its garden – and with some there lie a single lonely grave, tear-stained by the cursed Widow that like her favorite plant, is made new with each fallen love.

 

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The Lady of the Lowlands

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

CONTENT WARNING

Author’s Note: Hello all, Museless Bard here. This short story is darker than my usual fare, and you should continue with caution. This particular story is about a dark, forbidden area, and a woman being lost there. It contains some violent scenes and content. This story is a horror story. If any of those are something you are uncomfortable with, please navigate away.


“Dark things begat by dark deeds haunt the lowlands, and it is best that you stay away from them lest you be caught up in their troubles, children…”

There was no fairy tale rhyme to ward children away from the lowlands. Rather the warning was painted in black and white for them. Travel from the village and stay in the lowlands after dark, and you would never return. The town would never find your body because they would never seek it out. It was too dangerous. It wasn’t just children that didn’t return from this place. Others who wandered into the morass found themselves lost. Those up to no good would venture close enough to dispose of evidence, knowing that the dark things beyond would destroy any signs of the atrocity they had committed.

Here in the muck lay one such case, half-buried in the cold, wet mud of the lowlands. She was alone. While she lived, it was clear that there was not much soul left in her. Her face was bruised and torn, and her body faired little better. Her open wounds would fester in the mud, tattered remnants of her clothes offering scant protection from the things unseen that would twist and poison her blood. Yet, as the sun set beyond the horizon, she began to stir. Little by little, she summoned the strength to endure. She crawled in the muck at first, dragging her body towards the distant setting light.

As the evening grew dim, she raised to her knees, finding a tree to help pull her form up and out of the mud. She trudged towards higher ground, knowing that her time was short. She was determined, unwavering.  If she stayed in this place, she knew she would die. Perhaps more importantly, she would be forgotten, and crimes committed against her would never be known. She was too weak to make good headway, though. Her legs pushed her as far as they could before dark. Each step dragged muck with her, the very ground holding her as if trying to pull her back and under the darkened and damp earth of the lowlands. Her blood loss made her sluggish. She had little energy, and her will could not overcome that simple physical truth.

She heard movement. The wet footfalls of something following her. She tried to pick up her speed as those wet thuds came closer and closer. They grew louder and louder. Soon, it moved from one pair of closing footfalls to two, and then three. She heard the noises begin between her and her distant goal of the border of the lowlands. She attempted to adjust her direction. Twisting to one side and going where the sounds were the quietest. Still, they persisted. They grew closer and closer.

Ravenous snarls were soon enough finding her ears. Whatever harried her had found her scent through all this muck and grime. It had no trouble tracking every change in direction she made. She knew that if she stopped, she would be overtaken. Her only option was to keep moving, to keep stumbling through the mud and the dark. She fought through the pain and weakness to keep herself going. If she failed, she would be killed – but she wasn’t faster than her hunters.

After a few moments, as the noises grew loud and close, there was a scent. It was the putrid scent of decay, the very essence of death itself. It forewarned of their arrival, and despite her desire to gag and cough, she kept from it. Any extra noise would have helped them hone in on her, and that was something she could not have. Every extra second counted. If only she could buy a little more time, she might be able to make it to the edge. She might be able to escape.

A dark figure leaped from the shadows near her. It was a blur to her, but she responded quickly enough to avoid its pounce. For a second, she believed that had been her doing, but that thought was quickly and irrevocably quashed when a second appeared in front of her.

There stood what was once a man, nearly six feet tall. His body was decayed, broken, and torn skin pulled tight against the body. His jaw hung helplessly open and she felt a cold chill break upon her with the mere view of the creature. There was a glow within it, a dim and sickly green that seemed to leak out from thinner patches of skin and muscle. It existed behind its eyes, and as it made a guttural growl towards her, the lights within flared brighter.

She had tried to keep running. She tried to pass it by. With one arm outstretched, it caught her as if she was nothing. Tips of its boney fingers bore into her naked flesh, the tips raking skin and muscle away as its grip tightened around her arm. It pulled hard. Its strength was impossible. It pulled her by her arm and yet was powerful enough to tear her off her feet, and as it did, there was an incredible pain in her shoulder and a deafening pop from inside her arm. Then, she smashed to the ground with the creature atop her. It pressed her hard into the muck and sought to hold her there.

It wasn’t just the one. Another grabbed her and its claws tore into her flesh to hold her down. Yet another found her leg, and she felt teeth sink into her skin and flesh, and the ripping pain of her flesh being torn from the bone. There was a moment of realization, of loss, as the creatures worked to tear her apart. She felt a wave of anger she had never known for those moments. She was unfinished, unwilling to die here, to die now. She wouldn’t. She would get her justice. She would get her chance to see things were made right, that this happened to no one else. She let out a wail; all of her pain made manifest in a single piercing sound that rose through the night.

It was enough. The creatures paused, and they broke away from her. The lights within them flared brightly and they backed away. She had summoned something more dangerous than them, something they feared. She saw him as they parted.

There stood a man in a cloak and a mask. Behind the eyes of the mask was a burning green light where his eyes should have been. His skin was pale, but he was living. She saw him take a breath. She saw his chest rise and fall. In his hand was a gnarled staff of twisted, petrified wood and bone. He stepped closer to her, and the beasts parted and released her. They snarled at him, and with a wave of his hand, they moved further back and away from her. The masked man knelt in the mud next to her, and he offered her a hand.

She instinctively tried to reach for the offered hand, but her main arm had been dislocated. She couldn’t feel it, and she struggled even to bend forward just a bit.

He shushed her as she tried to move. He reached a hand across her and took her other hand. There was a moment of warmth that flowed through her as he gave her hand a small squeeze. He gave a smile, the wrinkles of it visible just beyond his mask. It made her calm. The pain was still there, but the wounds seemed less grievous to her. It had been shocking, unbearable. But now, it felt as if she could deal with it. She sat up slowly but surely, all the while, helped by his guiding hand. Soon enough, she stood with him. He gave her a nod and waited. He didn’t say anything, but instead, he walked with her as she moved. She was cautious at first, slowly watching the shadow creatures that had attacked her. They seemed less interested now. She seemed safe.

With a deep breath, she began her trek back towards the edge of the lowlands. It took her a few minutes, but eventually, she realized that he was guiding her. Once he had discovered her destination, he took the lead. It was just a few steps ahead of her. Despite the time it took to walk through the lowlands that evening, she did not speak to him and he did not speak to her. He only walked in silence for what felt like an hour. She appreciated what he had done for her and despite the wounds that still plagued her, it felt that with him there she held the strength to go on.

Eventually, near the witching hour, they reached the edge of the lowlands. The gentle hills rose out of the muck and towards the forests and fields of her home village. The masked man’s hand rose, and he pointed to a flickering light in the distance. Her eyes followed his point. Could she have been lucky enough that there was a camp nearby? She felt his hand drop hers. He turned to her and gave a single nod. She did not hesitate and quickly stepped up and out of the lowlands. When she looked back to thank him, he was not there. Nor were the things in the dark that had followed them. She was alone.

Cold, she wrapped her arm around herself and began to stumble up the hill. Her wounds still ached, but the hope of finding a way out of here and a second chance made her feel a surge of energy. So, with some speed, she made her way up the hill that night. The campfire came more into view and soon a lone tent and some figures too. She felt her heart swell with excitement and relief as she crested that hill to the camp.

Then it all stopped.

There was a woman, her face frightened and bloodied, her clothes torn. She couldn’t hear her whimpers, but she could see the fear twisting her face and the stains left by her tears. It didn’t take long for her to realize the two men in the camp. These were the same two that had tossed her in the morass just a few hours prior. They had just finished a drink, from the looks of it, and started back towards the woman. They had no intentions worth considering. She couldn’t think of it. She had to stop them, to end this. She was injured, and there was not a lot left in her. Maybe, she thought, she could give the woman a chance to escape. That would be enough for her. With that in mind, she breached the edge of the camp.

She had wanted to yell stop at them, but when her mouth opened, no words came out. There was only a groan. She knew she was frightened and weak, but she had to take action. As they descended on the other woman, she felt that rage return. She would not let them destroy another life out here. Whatever bits of fear she had left her for a moment, and she took a deep breath to scream at them again. As she stepped forward, she let out what she could.

To her surprise, it wasn’t a word. It was a wail. It was the same wail she had let out when attacked by those creatures.

The men were startled and jump up and away from the woman, turning to face this new threat. They reached for whatever weapons they had handy. One found a stick, and the other pulled a knife from his belt. Neither advanced, though. Both panicked and stumbled backward. As she stepped forward, they only moved faster and faster away from her. That rage still boiled. She didn’t understand why they ran, but she wouldn’t let them flee. She felt a surge of energy and rushed forward. One stumbled back and fell, and she raced to take advantage of that.

She saw the fear in his eyes as she was atop him. She let out a yell. Again, it came out a wail, and before her eyes, his body grew old and decayed. The skin on his face tightened, dried, and cracked open His panicked expression must have matched her own and was frozen in time as his breath slowed and stopped, but she did not have time to think about it. His friend launched at her and she raised her arm to defend herself. When his cudgel passed through her arm as if it were mist, everything clicked in her mind.

The realization made her panic.

She let out a terrified wail at his attack. The sound was loud enough, they say, to be heard in the distant village. As the wail faded, the man crumbled to the ground before her, lifeless. His flesh and life torn out of him and blown away like a fire snuffed out by a strong wind. All that remained was a desiccated corpse. Her vision was drawn to the young woman, who lay shaking on the ground, covering her head.

The panicked banshee turned to run back towards the lowlands. Her sight caught a glimpse of the stranger in the mask, standing at the edge of the morass. His hand stretched out and pointed back beyond the camp as she ran towards him. She glanced back, torches from the village riding out to investigate the sound.

The woman would be found. She’d be safe – if scarred.

With the sun starting to peek over the distant horizon when she arrived next to the man, she saw that cracked smile crossed his face again. He offered her a hand as she approached. She hesitated, and after a moment, she took his hand. The sun rose, and she disappeared, only ever to return when dark deeds were dealt near her resting place.

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Short Story – The First Magi

Author’s Notes – This is my second Short Story of the year. However, I think I failed completely at the idea of a short story this time. This feels much more like a prologue. The story here is only hinted at, and I don’t feel like it is a complete story. That all being said, I wanted to post it anyway. Maybe if people enjoy it, I might make it into a full fledged long form. I think there are some fun ideas to play with here, and it is always fun to explore magic systems. Take a look. I hope you enjoy. And next week, I hope to have a story that works much better for actually being a ‘Short Story’.

The First Magi

There was little age on his hands, few wrinkles marking the passage of time, but the tremor in his hand as he gripped a feathered pen was clear. This was a man who had seen time pass into memory for ages uncounted. It was the tiredness in his grip and the weight in his eyes that showed the wearing on his soul much more than anything about his body indicated. He took a long breath. His shoulders rolled to find a more comfortable seated position. His joints cracked just a bit as he sat up a bit straighter.

Those tired eyes drifted across the length of the library he sat within. A crackling fire in an old stone fireplace shone light across the large room, with shadows dancing across the countless tomes and scrolls that lay stacked in endless corridors of bookcases. This was not a flowery description or overly inflated assumptions of the size of the place, it was the truth – or as close to it as a Magi could ever get. The corridors of books twisted in impossible fashions, bending through space and wrapping around one another with no semblance of reliance on the bounds of physics. A corridor may have spiraled over one of the others, disappearing into one of the open spaces in a distant bookcase, and exiting through the back of another on the opposite side of the room.

His eyes caught his apprentice as she approached from a distance. If you had asked him a few years prior, he never would have considered taking an apprentice – but as she searched for a scroll or tome, angled as if she was standing on the wall from his perspective here, he couldn’t imagine having left her behind. The thought let his breath escape for a moment, a sigh. He tapped the pen on his desk and leaned back in his chair.

The tapping seemed to awaken a nearby piece of paper. It perked up like a curious, sleeping cat. With a small flitter, it lifted off the floor near the desk, and it was picked up by some unseen wind and brought up to the desk. It floated softly to rest just next to the man’s hand. He twisted his hand to place the nib against the parchment, and with a swipe of his fingers, the first trail of ink followed behind.

To the Council of Magi, he wrote.

When we last spoke, I submitted that I would not take another apprentice of the Arts in the future. I found myself unwilling to consider such an event would again present itself to me, but I write to you today to say that I have changed my mind and will be taking an apprentice. His eyes drifted up to the distant girl, who struggled to pull a scroll from its base just out of her reach. He shook his head softly and turned back to his writing, I have found an assistant who exhibits exceptional power in the use of magic. 

There as a clattering which caused him to raise his head. In the distance he could see her standing with a hand outstretched, a single scroll levitating under a silver sparkling wind as a mess of books settled around her on the pathway that spiraled above him. He shook his head.

“Alejandra!” His old voice bellowed out.

“I’m okay,” She squeaked out a startled response, leaning back to look down at him – though it was up from her perspective, and her neck was stretched back as far as possible to look at him.

“The books, Alejandra,” He looked away from her for a moment and to the letter. He rarely second-guessed himself, but this was one of those times.

“Right,” She called back. His eyes returned to watch her for a moment – and that hesitation was gone. She stretched out her hands and her a swirling silver mist raised up around her. Her clothes billowed as if she was in the wind, or perhaps falling a short distance, and all the while, the books rose from their resting points. They rose gently, twisting harmless in the shimmering gray winds summoned by the young woman.

He turned back to his writing shortly, his wrist twisting with the letters as he wrote. Despite everything the Council has ever done, despite everything they have said, her very existence has called me to question our leadership. In the thousands of years we have existed, they have spoken of one single truth. Humans are not able to weave the threads of fate. And yet, here I sit, He paused and glanced back up to view his assistant. A handful of books floated back to their spots in the bookcases as she floated just a few inches above the ground, her clothes and hair tossed around by the mystic winds that followed her hands and the direction they gave to return the books. He continued, watching as she uses magic for the mundane tasks I set upon her, having learned from little more than observing me as I work. 

Her potential is there and yet her existence is threatened by the very people who should be embracing her skills. He took a breath and glanced up again. He couldn’t spot her immediately. She had wandered deeper into the stacks on his task for her. For a moment, he hesitated. You. He wrote finally. He tapped his pen against the parchment for a moment before his resolve returned. He sat up straighter, his mind was made up. This facade ended here. Alejandra is my apprentice, let it be known from this moment forward. She will be the first magi of her kind. 

There was a reason he had steeled himself. Again, hesitation reached him. The line he was about to cross was worth it though. My duty to the threads comes first, and I will fulfill it to the best of my ability. Wrongfully holding back an entire people will not stand. You may hunt her and seek to stop me, but know that I will protect her with every ounce of my power. Any attack on her or her kind on her behalf will be known to me.

So it is written, so shall I take my new apprentice, and when her training is complete, she will stand before the Council.

“Sir,” Her voice broke through the silence of his mind as he wrote. He glanced up from his writing to see the young girl with a hand full of scroll cases, standing a few steps distant from his desk. She was shadowed by the flickering light of the fireplace. She gave him a weak smile. “I’ve gathered the scrolls you asked for.”

He started to speak. He stopped, though, and he nodded to her. “Good,” He said with a trailing of the word as his next question came to the air. “Do you want to be a Magistrix, Alejandra?”

She seemed to draw a blank for a moment, before her head hastily bobbed up and down, “Yes, yes, I would.”

“It won’t be easy. It won’t be safe. The art of magic itself is dangerous, and because of what you are people will try to stop you from succeeding.”

“I understand,” She said sternly. There was a confidence there. “So was life before,”

“This is different than people treating you like a mutt,” He spoke coldly, “Or living on the street. Those things are dangerous to this body,” He reached out a finger and pressed hard into her shoulder. “The dangers I speak of will tear at your soul. A mistake in magic, a lowering of your guard, and the very fabric of the universe will seek to erase you to repair the mistake. Even in success, you may find yourself at odds with powers most of your kind only consider to be mythological. You have seen some of the dangers I have faced.” He raised a finger, “There is no shame in choosing a life away from these dangers. Are you sure you are ready?”

She paused for a moment. There wasn’t an answer for a time, but her shoulders shrugged after a moment, “Of course not,” She nodded to herself, “But you said that you hadn’t seen a magi like me before. Humans weren’t seen as capable of using magic, right. So,” She glanced at him, her hands rubbing and wringing nervously, “It would be wrong not to take advantage of that. I think. So I don’t really have a choice.” She shrugged, again, a nervous tick. “I mean, I want to learn. It’s amazing…”

“Alejandra…”

His voice shook her to a bit of a truer decision. “Yes, I’m ready to learn,” She nodded her head hardily. “I accept the dangers.”

He nodded to her and lifted a finger to point to the scrolls and tomes she collected. “Good,” He smiled, “Those will be your first proper lessons,” He gave a dismissive wave, “Take those with you. Return home, and rest. We’ll begin tomorrow.”

“Are you sure? I don’t feel like I’ve done much today.”

He nodded, “I need to finish up some things here. So, you’ll learn nothing more today,” He looked past her to the entrance to the library, “Besides, some relaxation will make you a better student tomorrow.”

“Okay. Is there anything else you need?”

“No,” Was the only response. Neither said anything else. She stood silently for a moment, but then gave a quick nod and took the scrolls and tomes with her as she headed out. She hesitated from time to time, but eventually, she moved behind him and stepped beyond the threshold marked by large oaken doors. When the doors closed behind her he turned back to his letter. The pen in his hands tapped on the paper again, leaving some errant droplets of ink to stain the parchment. He finally put the nib to the end of the letter.

Justiciar, Magister of the Watch. He signed off. A small flicker of silver flame fell from the pen and onto the ink. It spread across the page and in mere seconds the document had turned to ash. He looked off to the distance, and for a moment there was silence and stillness within the room.

Moments passed before there was a flash of light, a blue flame appearing where the letter had been, and leaving a smoldering remnant that formed into another letter. This letter was different.

Justiciar, It said, You have made your choice. You are hereby relinquished of your council seat, and exiled from Magister society. You have chosen the enemy. We will not suffer a traitor, especially one who has fallen as far as you. Then, signed at the bottom was a simple, So it is written by the Council of Magisters.

He turned his eyes up again looking out to the libraries beyond. One by one the stacks began to spark with that same blue flame. Roaring fires soon engulfed the countless tomes and pathways beyond, riding through until they reached the points where the stacks met the library. There was no heat, there was no sound, only the visual representation of the magic tearing through the cases of books and tomes. Once they had all reached the library where he sat, the fires relented and faded. They left nothing. Unadulterated void stretched beyond, with no sign of the knowledge that had been within moments earlier.

Still. He was happy with his choice. She deserved to have one soul believe in her. He was proud it was him. It was a familiar feeling to be so alone from one’s own kind, and only fitting that she would take his place. She would become the next Justiciar, with or without the Council’s resources. With that thought, he stood and took a breath. He reached out towards the fireplace and slowly closed his fist. The flickering fire was snuffed by a silvered wind, and he turned to head towards those oaken doors.

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Short Story – The Answer

Author’s Notes: This is something a little different for me. I’ve wanted to try to write more short stories, so I’m giving myself a challenge to write one short story a week. This is a weird one, and came from a weird idea I had. I wanted to keep it under 2500 words, so I felt a bit rushed. I’ll get over that as I improve, and hopefully these will get better. Either way, I hope you enjoy my first Short Story in this very random series.

The Answer

The only way to explain the experience of deep space hibernation was to imagine hitting the snooze button on one’s alarm over and over, except instead of buying oneself a few more minutes, one was buying a few more centuries to fade back into the virtual dream they had lived within for so long. Of course, that was the original technology. A person would be put in hibernation, with micro-adjustments allowing them to experience a virtual world in lieu of dreaming. Over the years, the mind was allowed a few scant thoughts. To the person in hibernation, it was a short dreaming sensation, a fun diversion to pass the time. It was impossible to realize that the service was designed to reboot the brain over and over, moments before it faded away entirely.

The body was placed in a sort of coma for as long as possible. The thoughts were given as brain activity drifted dangerously low, and for short moments one was woken up before the body faded – but never brought from the hibernation fully. To the passenger, it was a short nap, but great distances and times had passed. It was the only way to exist in the great vast distances between stars. Connected pods would allow one to have some socialization.

This had not been one of those trips. A lonely night on the edge of a hill watching the stars was the entirety of the virtual experience, interspersed with strange drifting off only to confuse the dream and real life for a moment as the body rebooted. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t designed to be pleasant. It was solemn. It was a view that wouldn’t be seen again.

One dream, a word appeared in the sky. It was a simple digital text that read nonsense. The program had lasted as long as it could. As the garbled words spread across the skyscape, the vision faded to darkness. There was an instinctive deep breath sometime later, and opening of eyes and the slow realization that the dream was over. The real world was all that remained. The voyage, as it was, had come to its end. Waking was always the hard part. Drowsy, heavy eyes begged to stay asleep. Limbs struggled to move. But after a time, after a few long moments, there was movement. There was breath.

The Dreamer woke to the world of their starship. It was a cold place, both figuratively and literally. The temperature was well below comfortable, only enough to keep the life that it held from freezing. The lights were dim, barely illuminating the plain metal bulkheads and accessories of the room. Wires and straps held the dreamer to a bed, where their body had lain for the duration of travel. As they woke, they slowly removed the straps and tubes one by one, and eventually sat up. It was strange to see their body again.

They were younger than they felt, aging slowed by the unnatural coma that guided them safely here. In the dream, the Dreamer had aged as they would have expected. Their body grew and grayed on that hill under the stars, but here, they had remained frozen at the moment they had gone to sleep – give or take a few years from the short restarts. After a few short, unbalanced breaths, they turned to twist. Their hips wobbled on the bed, their hands catching the edge and keeping them from falling but only just. Their legs swung weakly off the side, and with a small push, they tried to lift off.

In a low gravity situation, this was easy. It was lucky, though. The strength in their legs likely wouldn’t have held up their form. They had one goal for now. Every long sleep required a wake-up period. Though they didn’t know how long they had laid there struggling to wake from the dream, they knew what to do after.

On a counter near the bed where they had slept was a small box. It was not labeled and showed no signs of movement for a long time. There in the room, it had been kept in the same brutal stasis they had been.  They opened the box and glanced across the items with a small sigh. It was a series of small tubes and a small syringe to use them. This was the cocktail that would eventually bring them back to the land of the living. The feeling of the vials in their hands, the needle against their skin, the slow sting of something entering their body, all were part of sensation that had been left behind so long ago. Now, suddenly it was back. Their body responded slowly. There was a bit of warmth, a bit of energy, an illusion of health returning. It would be a long time before that strength returned.

Then, they reached out to the counter. They pulled themselves along the counter, floating through the small room towards a sealed door. The console at its side lit up as they approached. The dim blue light was almost brighter than any of the others that had been illuminating the place before. It made a weak chime and with a resounding hiss, the door cracked open. The atmosphere spilled out of the small room and into the others within the ship beyond that door. A loud, droning hum vibrated along the bulkhead walls as the ship lumbered back to life. Faded lights flickered a bit brighter, and for a moment. They were waking up.

They reached out and grabbed one of the many small handholds near the now opened door. This was no massive ship; it seemed to be little more than these two rooms, at least that was accessible. The room they pulled themselves into was the control room, with powered down control panels lining each side, and most importantly the large transparent viewport that looked out into the space around them. In all their years, all their experiences, they had never experienced a view like this, though.

There was nothing. No stars lit the sky beyond. There was no glowing dust lit by dim stars in a distant sky. For the first time, they felt a strange sensation. It was a growing excitement. For a second, the realization that there had been a success with the plan was there. They had made it.

But the realization of success was followed by a growing dread. There was a small red light on the cockpit controls. Their fingers ran across the light, and the machine chimed at the touch. The sound was calm, uncaring. It made the light chime and blink, checking for signals beyond the small room they inhabited.

The waiting for a return signal and despite every technological advance they had, could take some time. For days, they hovered around the room, waiting for a response, hoping for a response. There was nothing to do but wait. There was no science to be done, no tests to be run. The outside, everything beyond the ship was gone. There was hope that they were not the only ones to reach the End.

Time had lost much of its meaning. The grim realization set in that they might have been alone. There was no response. No signal from the others driven to explore this far. There was no sign of life or much of energy out beyond this place. They had reached the end, and for a moment, recorded what had happened.

As time wore on, there were creaks and sounds within the ship. The ancient creation had been running out of time for many thousands of years. Now, beyond the edge of eternity, it felt that the final stage of existence. Even the forces of nature which held it together had begun to decay. They too weakened, the energy of life slowly fading from existence with them. One by one, the systems of the ship shut down. They always strove to keep that single red light on the console powered, a signal beaming out to the world around them that there was still life. There was always hope that someone out there faired better, that they would know others survived and be able to learn from them.

The truth, they had long ago realized, was that they were the last.

When that light in the ship faded away, and the console grew dim, they knew it was over. With a silent resolve, their eyes closed, and they waited to fade away with the rest of the universe.

Then for a time, there was only silence. They let themselves drift away.

Until there was a voice.

“Hello?” The voice was familiar but foreign. They could not place it. Perhaps it was a memory or an amalgam of them. Or so they thought – until it continued. “I let myself in, I hope you don’t mind. Oh,” The voice was paired with a tap on the bulkhead nearby, “Dozing off. Did I get here too late?”

Their eyes drifted open. They were heavy, barely able to move. Seeing the source of the voice would be impossible. There was no light. Though, when they opened their eyes, there it stood holding a flickering light.

The source was an old man. He wore a warm smile, with cheeks rosy from the cold of the ship as its power failed. He had a long, white beard and a head full of white hair. His face was plump, with the rest of his body large. There was nothing about him that looked as if he should have been there. He didn’t wear a spacesuit, instead wearing an old-fashioned fur-lined jacket over stereotypical winter clothes. He leaned against the bulkhead, with his free hand holding an old gas lantern that bathed him in dull light. They could see his breath.

“Not a talkative one, I see,” The man laughed and leaned down. “Mind if I sit with you?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, he sat down next to them, leaning against the bulkhead. They could hear the lantern as it was placed on the deck plating. They heard the man sigh and felt him turn towards them.

They hadn’t spoken in so long, and they struggled to do so. Their voice was weak, barely above a whisper. “You aren’t real…”

“That’s an odd thing to say,” He responded.

“It is impossible for you to be here…”

“I could say the same to you,” The man responded. “You sought and found the end of time, in a machine designed to reconstitute itself over and over, with little more than debris caught falling into the last black holes, and the hawking radiation from their deaths…” He laughed a bit, “It seems we’re both impossible.”

They didn’t say anything for a moment. That was impossible for him to have known, and with no entrance or exit to this craft, it was impossible for him to have entered. Yet, they indulged their delusions, “You’re a figment of my imagination.”

“I hope a comforting one, at least.” The man said as he rested a hand on their shoulder. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t respond. There was no reason to do so. After a few moments of silence, the man opted to continue. “Well, either way… I was surprised to see you made it this far. There shouldn’t have been anything left, but here you were. Your people were always explorers. That’s what I liked about them.”

“You liked that about them?”

“Yes. Think of it… from the moment they began, they sought to explore. First out of the ocean and onto land. Into the trees. Beyond their forests, and into the fields. Across their seas, beyond the livable places in the world. When they couldn’t explore their world, they explored themselves. Eventually, they explored their solar system, then beyond. Their galaxy. The next. They always sought the next exploration. And that drove them to keep exploring. Beyond everything. To the end of everything.”

They heard the voice and shook their head. “You say that like you knew them.”

“I did. Say you are right, and I am a figment of your imagination…” The man spoke. His hands rose and fell with his words, brushing and tapping against them as he looked out into the nothing. “Then, I – like you, I suppose – am of them. I have the memory of everything that came before for your people. I know them because I was born from them. From their explorations, their explorer.”

“Why are you here?” They asked, changing the subject away from the bigger picture.

“I saw there was still a spark where their shouldn’t have been, so I came to investigate.”

“You saw?”

The man nodded, and a smile crept across his face. “Yes. I was shutting everything down. Turning off the last of the lights on this universe, and saw you.”

“Of course,”

“You don’t believe me. That’s fine,” He said with a smirk, “I could be the last neurons in your mind firing as you fade away.”

“That, I believe,” They said quietly.

“What did you hope to accomplish out here?” The man asked quietly.

They turned to face him and paused. Their eyes were weak, and their head shook lightly. “We didn’t know… what happened next. Someone needed to see it.” They put a hand on the bulkhead and tried to push themselves up a bit, but there was no movement. “Someone needed to see what happened.”

“Why?”

“Just…” They paused. The question lingered unanswered in the air. There was no real answer to it, not that they could find at first. Then, it came to them. “Just in case we were wrong…”

The old man smiled. They had never seen such a wide smile. “That’s the perfect answer. And, it sums up why I do it too…” He patted them on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you be for now. You might want to wake up, just for a minute, though. Or you’ll miss the end.”

They no longer felt him there. After a single blink, there was only darkness and silence again. They were alone at the end of time. There was no light, no lantern, no old man. But their view was drawn to the outside world, or where that should have been. They watched for some time but felt themselves struggling to stay awake.

Then, they saw it. They saw the end. It was a single moment that made a warm smile cross their lips, and as that smile crested their eyes closed.

And the world ended.

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