There’s a light outside my window that waxes and wanes as wind breathes motion through the branches and the leaves, shadows cast by its light play across the walls and through the open pane the whisper can be heard, that faint susurrus of whistling, night-time breeze and swaying tree, broken only by the sudden, intermittent fall of acorn from branch, the sturdy oak out back shedding its seed, knowing that soon summer will breath its last, as an autumn chill takes to the cloudless, midnight skies and season gives way to season.
He’s taken to falling down the stairs of late, just to let himself know that he’s alive. The twisted joints and over-stretched muscles a jolting reminder throughout his week as boredom becomes tedium becomes rote, mind-numbing madness. The bruises and abrasions a point of conversation with fellow drones, as vapid and world-worn as he, desperately grasping for some source of distraction from the monotony of their tumbledown lives. At least this I can feel, he says, as foot trips over ankle and he comes crashing down upon his face, but he mostly just does it for the surprise, a secret, coward’s hope that tomorrow’s fall will be last.
Rey de los Caballos (2,000 words)
It was a fine day, like most round these parts. The sun had peaked in the sky and was making its slow descent to the west, out across the plains and to the mountains beyond. The air, warm and fresh against the old man’s cheek, smelt of grass and of animals, and carried with it the sounds of people busy at a day’s work. An eagle shrieked its cry high above and he watched its path as it effortlessly glided and soared, reading the currents of the wind, before dropping sharply to swoop onto some unsuspecting prey. His ageing eyes centred on a thick trail of dust in the near distance. He raised his hand to shield the sun from his eyes and smiled at what he saw. The old man stood slowly, feeling every year laid upon his tired joints, and rested on his cane to watch her come on in. She was pushing her beautiful dappled grey mare hard and he could see the lather on its neck as she slowed to a trot. He almost gasped as he saw the beast she led behind her, shaking his head in disbelief, he couldn’t help but grin. She gave the reigns of her mare over to a stable boy and led her new acquisition into the corral, before striding over to the old man, a satisfied look on her face.
"Well, what’s his breed?" she asked, brimming with excitement.
The old man took his time with his answer, peering over the girl’s shoulder to look at the beast tramping about the corral. Its black coat glistened in the afternoon light as it surveyed its surroundings.
"Rey de los Caballos." he replied at last. "Not pure, mind."
"Is that rare?"
"Well, his name means ‘King of Horses’. Sounds pretty rare, but there’s a whole mess of them up beyond the mountains."
The horse reared up in the corral, as if its ears were burning.
"He don’t like us talking about him." the old man laughed. "Don’t like being penned in either, best set him free."
"Set him free? No, sir. I roped him, I’m gonna break him in."
The old man had to laugh at that, which turned into a wheeze, which set him coughing. He tottered back to his bench and motioned the girl to follow.
"Come sit a spell, girl. I’ll tell you why you ain’t ever breaking that horse."
"When I was but a boy, back when this town had nothing but a dirt track and a few rickety houses to its name, the mayor had some grand ideas about putting our little corner of the frontier on the map. Once such idea, more of a dream, really, was to breed horses. Folks always have need of horses out here, as well you know. Now, they mayor, being a man of wealth, set about acquiring the finest breeding stock money could buy. He even went as far to send for a prize stallion from the old country and for months and months was crowing about the fame and fortune the animal, the king of horses, would bring the town when it arrived. Well, he was right about that, but not in the way he had planned."
"The horse arrived late that following summer, just as we were preparing for the harvest. The whole town poured out once the news spread. The courier handed the reigns direct over to the mayor, along with an envelope containing the deed of sale that listed ‘Rey de los Caballos’ as the horse’s name. Well, they mayor was as pleased as punch as he led the horse over to that there very corral. But his mood darkened over the coming days and weeks as it became clear that, as special as this horse may have been, there was no chance in hell of us taming him. No man could break him, he even killed one of the stable hands with a vicious kick when the boy foolishly approached him from behind. It soon got that no man wanted to try and tame him."
"No woman, either." he said pointedly in response the girl’s raised eyebrow. "The mayor was mad with rage, felt the whole town was laughing at him and his uncontrollable horse, until a funny thing started to happen. People began showing up from all over, looking for a chance to quell this fearsome beast. Word had spread and, well, sure enough, the mayor saw gold. He took out adverts in the national papers, sent flyers to every town within a few hundred miles. Come tame the untameable Devil Horse! We had a genuine tourist attraction on our hands and the fortunes of the town were on the rise. Soon, people took to calling the horse Chomper, on account of the number of fingers foolish hopefuls had lost to the beast. Dozens of riders fell beneath its hooves and, suffice to say, there was more than one fatality, but that never diminished the interest in the horse, nor cut short the number willing to try their luck."
"Then, one day, a wiry looking man strode on into town. Said his name was Silas and he was here looking for a horse. He wasn’t much of nothing to look at and seemed to rub folk the wrong way as he dismissively examined the stock in the stables. Then he set eyes on Chomper. ‘How much is that horse?’, he asked, only to be told that the horse wasn’t for sale and, besides, there was no way he could ever break him. Well, Silas looked the mayor in the eye and said to him ‘Mister, I got a way with horses. They speak to me and if I break that horse, you’re gonna give him to me for free’. To that, the mayor agreed and the whole town gathered to watch Silas undoubtedly fail like so many others had before."
"He did it, didn’t he?" the girl asked.
"Hush now, have some patience, girl." the old man scolded, before continuing on with his story.
"Silas stood alone in the corral, seemingly unperturbed by the challenge he was about to face. They brought out Chomper, two stable boys struggling to control the animal, who had become more and more crazed since the day he arrived. The stable boys closed the gate and Silas was left alone with Chomper. At first, he did nothing, save for spitting a glob of tobacco juice onto the ground before him. Then, he started to slowly circle the beast, their eyes locked together. This went on for some time and people began to jeer, but Silas carried on staring until, slowly, he paced forwards, always keeping his eyes on Chomper’s."
"He got within a foot and reached out. The crowd let out an involuntary gasp, waiting for the moment when Chomper would live up to his name and liberate Silas of his fingers. But the moment never came. Silas stroked the beasts mane and leaned in close, whispering into its ear. Shock washed over the crowd as they could visibly see the beast calm, then, with one hand on the back of Chomper’s neck, Silas launched himself up onto the horse’s back. Another gasp from the crowd, followed by pandemonium as Silas sat straight and brought Chomper to a trot, doing laps of the corral with that stupid grin plastered on his face."
"The people were cheering now, while the mayor just starred in disbelief. ‘Deals a deal’, yelled Silas, before sticking his spurs into Chomper’s flanks and making for the fence, Chomper clearing it easily in one giant leap. The mayor was crestfallen and had to be helped back to his house, but years that followed he cursed bitterly the day he ever bought that horse, right up until the day he died."
"So what happened?" the girl asked, interrupting the wistful silence the old man had lapsed into.
"Oh, yes. Well, rightly that’s a different tale altogether, but I’ll give you the abridged version. Next spring, word got back to us of an outlaw terrorizing communities throughout the frontier. They said he rode a fearsome black horse with a mean streak a mile wide, one that out-paced any who gave chase. For years more we heard tales of their misadventures. They turned over more banks and stagecoaches than you could keep track of, robbing and killing any who got in their way, and it wasn’t long before their special brand of trouble came riding back in our direction. But, it was only a flying visit. A blur of mean-tempered, black coated madness, tearing through town with a whoop and a holler, a posse of twenty or more lawman hot on their heels."
"Seems Silas had made some powerful enemies, as you are like to do if you make a habit of robbing rich folk, and the best thief takers from across the frontier had banded together to track Silas down. They drove him mercilessly until, left with nowhere else to run, they had him trapped between their guns and the hundred feet drop down into Gulch’s canyon. Silas knew he was done for, so he spiked his spurs hard into Chomper’s side and made for the canyon. The lawmen gave chase, ready for any trick Silas might have up his sleeve, and watched on as, urging Chomper faster, Silas approached the canyon’s edge. ‘Well, I guess it’s you and me until the bitter end, Chomp. So long, fellas!’ Silas called, pulling hard on the reigns to make his mount jump."
"But Chomper didn’t jump. He bucked, hard, and down Silas fell into the canyon’s depths with an angry cry, all alone. One of the lawmen managed to get his fingers ahold of Chomper’s reigns, but he bit the man’s hand clean off at the wrist. The lawmen fired their guns, but Chomper was too quick, galloping away as fast as the winds. He made for the mountains and that was the last we ever saw of Chomper. But, a few years later, we increasingly started to see young horses on the far plains and beyond the mountain passes, horses with dark black coats and as fast as the wind. That there is one such horse, my girl. A Rey de los Caballos." the old man said, pointing to the beast that was now pacing angrily in the corral.
"You see girl, as good as you are with horses, you’ll never tame that stallion. Oh, you might get him to cooperate for a while, like Silas did, but he’ll never be truly tamed and he’ll never truly be yours. A creature like that belongs only to itself and Silas made the mistake of thinking he was in control."
"I’ll break him, you’ll see." the girl said. "Just think of how valuable he could be if we got him put to stud. Hell, he’s near twice the height and size of most of the nags round these parts."
"That value’s worth little if he kicks you from the saddle and you break your neck. I’m telling you girl, let this one go." the old man implored, rising to his feet.
"I’m sorry, but you know I’ve got to try."
"Hmmph, well, if we’re lucky he’ll only damage your pride." the old man snapped, more harshly than he’d intended, but he feared for her.
They advanced towards the corral, the horse staring at them all the while. They approached the gate and the horse came to meet them. Suddenly, it reared up and sounded its displeasure. The old man stumbled backwards and fell hard to the dirt, while the girl tried to soothe the beast. It reared again, turned and, in one clean leap, cleared the corral fence and galloped off. The girl helped the old man to his feet and they watched as the horse sped out of town, across the plains and on, towards the distant mountains, soon becoming little more than a trail of dust on the horizon.
Drawn softly in the first rays of light, dancing wild steps to ward off the night
as flowers bloom beneath her feet, through snaking cracks in broken streets
and buildings come alive with ivy and grass, a shroud over the mistakes of the past,
vibrant orchids hang from every sill and frame, vine and branch sprouting from pipe and drain,
the scant survivors awaken to a world renewed, blanketing the city that they once knew,
and with unfaltering steps, nature dances on, flowers blooming as she sings her summer song.
Like a gaping mouth, the wound shifts with every breath
pulled raggedly from tired lungs, that bubble and wheeze
as blood seeps from exposed depths to pool beneath the dying wreck,
the twisted, broken frame of what once was man,
but now is little more than a bundle of mangled flesh and bone,
bleeding out in the baking sun, the contorted remains
that, even now, still quiver in pain. A moan escapes,
as mashed lips feebly attempt to form words that god only knows,
yet their message is clear, all the same.
Afraid and alone, blood flecked and trampled,
dying slowly, painfully, beneath these bright and sunny skies,
that belie the carnage wrought below, the fields of horror,
painted viscera red, the trails of carnage and crushed bone.
He begs for death, in the end, but when the last breath comes,
that halting, incomplete intake, the sudden shudders
that pull and twist his form, making these final moments
ones of an agony indescribable. The pain is searing and white,
but as it fades, as he feels his body and mind slowly slip away,
all that remains is the deep, overwhelming blackness,
as death silently takes his fill.
The Thaw (951 words)
Winter came in full force that year, the wind howling down through the mountain passes and bringing with it deep flurries of snow that clung tight to the land. Huddled in their houses, the people waited. They had become adept at waiting. Waiting for the winds to die down, the snows to falter, the ice to melt. When not under winter’s grasp their whole year was spent in preparation for the winter to come and, when the winter innexorably arrived, they waited to start it all over again. It was a hard life, cold and harsh the year round, isolated to the extreme and matching well the demeanour of the men who lived it.
One such man sat staring at his hearth, wrapped tight in a bundle of furs. His fingers worked the ornate carvings on the hilt of an axe, ancient and worn, that had been passed down between father and son for generations. Though winter had barely set in, he waited for the Thaw with a dark anticipation, the anger building in him as the temperature dropped. It was a matter of honour and Agamar could bear no more slights. Tevan was too stubborn by far, that had always been his problem, and it blinded him to the realities of his situation.
Yes, it was true that the land Agamar owned had once belonged to Tevan’s line, that it was among some of the most fertile land in the valley, but it had come fairly to Agamar’s father’s father over a hundred cycles ago. It was Agamar’s now by right, yet still Tevan lusted over what he felt should be his, though he would never say it. No, instead all Agamar received were poisoned looks and the whispers of his fellows behind his back. They all knew that, thanks to land gained two generations past, Agamar ate better than the rest, that Agamar’s larders were stocked against even the hardest of winters, and they hated him for it.
Tevan’s land was mean and impoverished, more rock and oozing bog than field or pasture, and Agamar had at last come to the end of his patience with the way his neighbours looked down upon him, in spite of the honour his line and land should accord. So, upon advice from his brothers, he went to Tevan’s hold with open arms, towing sleighs of provisions in his wake. But Tevan wanted no charity and would not even let Agamar into his hall, naming him thief and honourless. Agamar had to be held back from cutting the man down there and then and doing Tevan’s family a favour. He stalked off back to his own hall, leaving the sleighs where they lay.
The snow had covered them now, too. Three indistinct humps sitting untouched when the blizzards came. Agamar again cursed Taven’s stubborness. It was he who was forcing Agamar’s hand here, he who could not see the confrontation he provoked. It was a matter of pride, a matter of honour and one that could no longer be settled with words. So, with dark thoughts playing across his troubled brow, Agamar waited, as they all did in the valley. Waiting for the Thaw and, for Agamar, the day he would regain the respect and honour he so rightfully deserved.
When the Thaw came at last to the valley and the winds died down and the snows faltered and the ice melted, the people wearily crept out from their halls and began the rituals and routines innexorably linked to this time of year. First and foremost, they checked up on their neighbours, some out of kindness, others out of curiosity. It wasn’t uncommon for death to silently take his fill during the winter sleep, or for dark deeds to transpire behind doors locked on the inside, snow-bound without. Arguements often boiled in the confined and cramped halls.
Agamar had only one thing on his mind, however, as he stalked through the melting slush, down the hill towards Tevan’s hall. The oaken doors remained steadfastly shut, Agamar’s sleighs still sitting, fully laden, outside. He brandished his axe and slammed the hilt three times to the door. There was no answer from inside. A crowd had begun to gather and Agamar rousted the men into helping him force the doors. After much crashing, the bar finally gave way and the door swung inward.
As cold as it was outside, it was colder still within. The next thing Agamar noticed was the stench and with that his anger seemed to fade away. There, by a long-extinguished hearth, huddled together for warmth, was Tevan and his family. His wife, his mother and his daughters, all clutching tight to their father and husband and son who sat, crosslegged, with his own father’s axe across his lap. Agamar still despised the man, still despised his rigidity and stubborness, but he had not wanted things to end like this.
He took up Tevan’s axe and tied the loop to his belt, before stepping weakly from the hall. All around him were staring faces, uncaring, incriminating eyes that screamed “you did this”. They hated him, he knew. They would always hate him, for he had prospered from his forefather’s deeds more than his own and, when at last pushed to sympathy, it was more from a desire to see his rival subdued and in his debt. He would always be a small man to them, while, in death, Tevan was larger than life. A true man of the valley, who sacrificed his line for a sense of honour. Agamar spat at the thought and, with one last glare to the assembled masses, stalked home to his halls, bereft of any warmth.
In the Eyes
He had never known that someone could express so much through their eyes, before that moment. Oh, he’d lost himself in a beautiful girl’s stare before, or been enchanted by the twinkling, cinematic gaze of a film star, but he had never before experienced a moment where words weren’t enough, or more precisely, where words were beyond reach. The first time he’d been to see her, he broke down and had to leave the room. The tubes, the machines, the intrusive disinfectant smell and, most importantly, her. Lying there, broken. It had all been too much to handle, but even when he got over the sight and mustered up the courage to re-enter the room, he couldn’t keep the tears at bay, try as he might. It felt weak of him, and he felt that he had to be strong, but when she came to all his strength melted away. It turned out that she was strong enough for the both of them, as she silently gave what little comfort she could, while he sat there, crying warm tears upon the hand of hers he fervently clutched. After a while the tears dried and he began to talk about news from the outside. The new neighbours had moved in. An elderly couple from up north, with two cats and a little dog. And the council finally got around the fixing the street light outside no. 70, but the bin collection was a day late this week. He started to talk about how things would be back to normal, once she was out of here, but her silencing glance stopped him in his tracks. Doctors came and gave injections, removed tubes, replaced tubes and bags and, as the days passed, he felt himself falling into the routine.
He wanted to keep things calm. For her, he said to himself, but for him, he knew in his heart of hearts. So he avoided the uncomfortable subjects and kept his one-sided conversation to lighter topics. But, as the days wore on and her condition worsened, it became harder and harder to put it out of his mind. The pain, oh god. The pure, unbridled pain and suffering that burned like a fire in those eyes was too much to bear. The morphine helped and she swam for a while amid the waters of semi-conciousness, but even then the effectiveness lessened and the doctors refused to up the dosage much further. They would make her as comfortable as possible, they assured him, and so he retreated once more to that room, to that chair beside that bed, to hold her hand while she writhed inwardly, constant pain wrought upon those eyes. His furtive bouts of sleep that night left him with dark and troubled thoughts and, as he entered the room once more, he felt suddenly sure of what he should do. She was awake, her eyes rolling as her chest raggedly rose and fell. He went to her and told her how difficult it was to see her like this, how he wished he could ease her pain and then, in that moment, her eyes focussed on him with such intensity, such longing and need. Tears streamed down her face and he felt himself let out a bitter sob. It took him three more days to work up the courage. Three more days to convince himself that he was doing the right thing. That, if he truly had any love for her, his life meant little next to easing her pain. He held her hand as the machines and tubes let out protests at having their functions interrupted until, at last, her grip slackened and her fingers left his as nurses and doctors swarmed into the room and he felt himself being roughly snatched from her dying grasp.
Through cold and bitter, frost shrouded streets we wearily trudge,
leavings our nests early in hopes of beating the morning rush,
herded like cattle through gate and pen, in an all too familiar reprise
with calls of “mind the gap” and “move up the platform, please”,
as, with numb, shuffling steps, we patiently await the train’s presence,
only to despair as the tannoy announces “signal failure at Mornington Crescent”.
Alimar (1510 words)
It was an auspicious night, The Archer ascendant in a clear night sky. The full moon shone fat and yellow, casting its pallid glow across a slumbering land of forests and fields, of grand country estates and sleepy, picturesque villages, smoke rising in silvery tendrils from chimney stacks and glowing braziers, burning brightly to ward off the chill of the night. In the distant hills, winding an inexorable, fate foretold path, a wagon trundled on. At the reins an old man dozed, while behind him, in the darkness of the wagon, a faint, arcane glow shone.
The book was handed down through the generations, its cover inscribed with runes of a long dead language that none, save for the seventh sons of the Kings of Alimar, had the knowledge to decipher. Its mysteries had long been coveted by all manner of dark and nefarious covens, cabals, clans and cults, which made its current whereabouts all the more suspicious. Such a dread, dangerous tome, talked of only in hushed whispers, to be travelling unguarded by no more than a decrepit old man and his weary mules.
But, long were the days since Alimar had shone with a glory so intense that it had burned the heavens, long and almost forgotten amid the mists of history, a history penned by victors of a war that toppled a kingdom as old as time itself. All that remained of Alimar were the devoted few, those heretics, those heathens, those sorcerous rogues, shunned and feared by all who knew of that for which their order stood. The Knights of Alimar, it was they who were tasked to guard the book. A book that they themselves could not read, trusting only to prophecy that, one day, the stars would align and mark a path toward Alimar’s reascension.
The old man had failed to raise the innkeeper when his wagon trundled into town, so with weary, creaking limbs, he stabled the mules and bedded down in the back of his wagon, falling swiftly asleep, bathed in a faint, luminous glow. Morning brought with it a chill, as silken folds of fog draped themselves across the dirt streets and up into the hills from whence he had came. He found the innkeeper tiredly opening up for the day and placed an order for breakfast, as well as purchasing some hay for his mules, before returning to his wagon to make sure everything was ready for what would come.
If the stars were right, this time at last the long journey of his order would be complete, and he, one of the last remaining few, would have the honour of restoring balance to the world. A world infected, deep set with rot and corruption, a world that practically cried out to be taken by the hand and led back to civilisation. It would be his greatest accomplishment, the fulfilment of a life’s work. Which made the next few hours all the more important. The boy had to truly believe, had to feel the blood that coursed through his veins, the blood that, fates willing, would allow him to peer through the mists of time and take command of that which was lost.
But there was so little time. The old man felt the icy fingers of death drawing closer with each passing day, draining the warmth from his bones and sapping the strength from his limbs. With each and every sunrise the chances of him finding a seventh son became slimmer and slimmer, and there already were so few of his brothers left. If they failed to bring about the prophecy’s fulfilment, then the world would never awaken from the darkness that had gripped it like a vice since Alimar’s fall. If not now, then when? The boy had to listen, he had to.
The derision was written on the boy’s face, plain for the old man to see. His words faltered in the face of the youthful arrogance of the brash blacksmith’s apprentice, the old man’s hopes dashed and beaten just like the metal the boy worked upon the anvil. He didn’t believe. No one did, not any more. That was the real problem. There was no magic left in the world, no sense of wonder. The cloud of corruption had settled, seeping into every pore and burying it’s vile touch deeper than the old man and his brothers could reach.
Alimar was but a but a scrap of half-forgotten legend to these people, shrouded in folklore and song, and though the light it had shone upon the world still glimmered, it was a faint candle flame amid an impenetrable fog of darkness. He remembered when he was young, when his words had cut through the darkness like a scythe, when the truth had illuminated and inspired those poor, failed hopefuls. When the order had not had to resort to methods that reflected the very darkness they fought.
It could not be helped, that was the sad reality of the situation. For too long they had struggled and sacrificed to bring back that which was lost, and as their numbers dwindled and the remains of Alimar faded further into history, their need had become too great to let prospective seventh sons slip through their fingers. It was with regret that the old man decided once again upon this course as he trudged angrily back to the inn where his wagon waited and inside, the book and its eerie, arcane glow.
The boy’s eyes no longer held derision, but only anger and a hint of fear. The old man sympathised, he really did. “If only you had listened”, he assured the boy. “If only you could imagine the future that fate has in store for you” he said, as he prepared the instruments he would need for the ritual, and then “You’ll thank me in the end”, although that one was more to comfort himself than the boy. With trembling hands he lit the candles and placed them carefully about the clearing far from town where his wagon now sat.
The moon was obscured, its light visible only as a halo wanly shining through the thick bands of cloud that stalked the starless, ink black sky. In a few hours the sun would rise over the town and someone would notice that the boy was gone, but not before the ritual was complete, and by then he would be beyond the concerns of his past life, in one way or another. The old man glanced sadly over at the boy, still straining futilely against his bonds. The boy had not suspected that the old man, dishevelled and wild eyed, could ever pose him a threat, as his legs canted a drunken course home from the inn.
So now he sat, trussed and gagged, awaiting his fate with less than good grace. The preparations complete, the old man returned to the wagon and retrieved the book. Its glow lent a sinister hue to the clearing, turning the orange yellow candle light green and lengthening the shadows that snapped and clawed as wind fluttered flame. The old man placed the book before the boy and opened it to the first page, the arcane runes that were unreadable to him writhed upon the crackled parchment. The boy looked at him with hatred, and then fear as the old man produced a blade from the folds of his cloak. Wielding the knife with care, the old man nicked the goose prickled flesh on the boys neck.
Blood dripped slowly, steadily onto the open page, falling upon darker, older stains of those hopefuls who had come before. The old man waited, while the boy glared, and then, with a painful familiarity, the boy shuddered. It started with the eyes, the capillaries bursting, letting blood free until the sockets of his skull welled up and overflowed. A vile blackness spider-webbed through the boy’s veins, reaching his fingertips that shrivelled and crumbled at its touch. The old man staggered back with the book in trembling fingers, desperate not to get any of the corrupted blood on himself. His hands pressed to his ears as his futilely tried to block out the disturbing gurgles emanating from the convulsing body.
Soon, it was over, and the old man, bitter tears streaking his face, collected the tools of the ritual. The book he placed reverently back in the wagon, trying not to feel sickened by the sight of the green light that glinted from the blood-stained tome. With one last glance at his latest failure, the old man spurred the mules into action and left the clearing behind, his thoughts already leaving the corpse of the boy and turning towards the next hopeful. He shuddered against the chill night wind, feeling once more the touch of his own impending doom, and wept. Not for his own soul, nor for the poor blacksmith’s apprentice, but his tears were for Alimar. For what had befallen the land of his ancestors, and what had become of its children.
Long thought lost,
The Ship (555 words)
The ship screamed its angry protests in every creak and groan of every worn and weathered timber, as the wind buffeted and blustered from all sides, whipping the sea into a frenzy, and sending airborne the cold, salty spray that chilled him to the bone. Hands gripped fervently on the tiller, he wrestled against the weight of the waves, eyes locked upon the dull, vague haze at the edge of the horizon that marked his destination and his journeys end, if only he could see the storm through. And, as if sensing his thoughts, the wind then redoubled its efforts, returning with a renewed vigour to rip at his sails, and to pierce his sodden body with its icicle-laden fingers, that burned their mark on shivering flesh with every touch. There was no shelter in the little skiff, no galley to stow himself in and wait for the storm to pass him by, just the tiller and the mast, and the billowing sails that afforded little shelter from the wind’s malevolent disregard. He cursed his luck, to be caught among this squall like a fish in a net, his own catch released back into the waves as the storm bore down on his heavily-laden boat, forcing him to abandon that which he had risked the storm for in the first place. It’s not a night to be sailing, the old fishermen had said, but fear is for the old and the weak, he had replied, and began to boast of the haul he would draw from the ocean depths. And what a haul it had been, the deck near overflowing with fish that flapped and gasped ankle deep upon the deck.
The sky had been clear, unnaturally so, and the moon hung low and fat, illuminating the sparkling waters to such a degree that he could see the shoals swimming beneath the surface. An ill omen, such a night was, the old men had said, but he laughed at their words as, time and time again, he dangled his net over the side and hauled it out with a cargo full of fish. But, he should have listened, should have hearkened to the old men’s warnings. Tonight was no night to set sail, and their whispered words rang harshly in his frozen ears, as another wave, looming tall before him like some great beast, came crashing down upon the little boat. With gasping breaths he surfaced, bobbing in the water like a lure on the end of a fishing line, and of his boat there was no sign. No timbers or cloth, nor any remnant was left above sea, the wave had swallowed it whole, pausing only to spit him back out as if the waters found him distasteful. He vainly tried to regain sight of the horizon, to see a speck of land he could focus on and head towards, but his vision was a wall of salty water and frothing haze, painting a vivid tableau against the ink black night sky, now laden heavily with cloud. He cried out his frustration, but served only to draw in salty death that caused him to splutter and flail, panic setting in as his limbs grew heavy and, inexorably, as if gripping him with unseen fingers, the sea dragged him below, down into the briny depths.
Grasped at, with fingers flailing,
like twine cast upon the wind,
the memory, soft and ailing,
at the torn corners, dimmed,
as peoples faces faded on,
and conversation passed by,
distinction and detail long gone,
the memory had begun to die,
until that one burning moment
was, alone, all which remained,
thought upon in dull pauses spent
wistfully dreaming of lives lived again,
free from mistakes you failed to prevent.
The Mask (2159 words)
Deep within the maze of fog choked streets known as the Warrens, the oldest and rankest part of the Many Shadowed City of Shaual, past seedy whore houses and wine sinks, crumbling hovels, rickety lean-to’s and innumerable vague and impoverished shrines to little, nameless gods, sat a tavern of ill-repute. Those who lived near its soot-coated walls never ventured inside, nor wasted a moment more than necessary outside of its doors. For the tavern in question, The Gaudy Gull, bore with it a palpable sense of danger, reflected in the menacing stares of the patrons, such as they were. And at the Gull congregated the worst Shaual had to offer, spending blood stained coin to drink their fill between quest, contract, writ or assignation.
One such man stood alone, propping up the bar, his dark mood plain for all to see. None bothered him. They all knew better. For he too bore a grave reputation, and was quick to anger.
"Piss and thunder!" Aarald roared, slamming his fist on the bar and rousing Peck, the landlord, from a lazy slumber. "Just hand it over Peck, I’m done waiting!"
"Now, now…er, Aarald. Peace, my friend" the fat landlord stammered. "I got two down for this one, and we wait ‘til mid-eve before calling it, you knows the rules."
Aarald just stared, while Peck shrank from his gaze, back to absent-mindedly wiping down the bar, dirty rag clutched tight in trembling fingers. He willed the other to arrive with every fibre of his being. Anything to get Aarald gone. The man more than scared him, Peck was not afraid to admit. His wishes did not go long unanswered, as at ten to mid-eve, the door slammed open, letting in the cold night air and sending lamp flames a-gutter. Silhouetted by the night, stood a man with four legs. Peck rubbed his eyes in disbelief, Aarald just groaned.
"It had to be you, didn’t it?" he muttered.
"Who else, my dear, irascible friend?" the man declaimed, stepping awkwardly into the light, hobbling with one leg cast and crutches gripped under his arms. "Who else, but I?" he gestured grandly to the assembled crowd, "The marvel of magicks most foul and arcane, the eradicator of beasts most terrible and occult, from the sunny isles of the Painted Lands to the accursed, blackened shores of Old Asahn, I have seen it all. So I ask you again. Who else, but I?"
"They say the mask is tainted with the black touch of the magae who sought to bridge the gulf between life and death." Aarald replied, his calm tone belying the irritation and anger that frothed beneath the surface.
"Pah! Mummer’s tales, fit only to scare babes fresh from their mother’s breast. Wood and bronze, my friend. That’s all the mask is. Wood and bronze, aged and worn and largely worthless, but for lingering tales of it’s otherworldly past piquing the interest of certain money-laden collectors. Thank the gods for fools and their money, eh?" and at that, the man laughed a hearty bellow of a laugh, clapping a stout hand to Aarald’s shoulder.
"And then there are the guardians, of course. But, I suppose they are mere pilferings compared to the vaunted legend of Calisto, notorious magae rogue of Shaual." Aarald sneered, "Although quite how you intend to clamber up the Dead Peak on one leg is beyond me."
"Oh, my dear Aarald. Obviously, I am in no state to go a-venturing across the wastes.", he chuckled, "No, that would not do at all. I have employed a second, as is my right."
"You pisssing…" Aarald bit back the curse, forcing his anger to dispel. "Well, it matters not. There’s no man in Shaual who is a match for Aarald."
"Maybe, maybe not. Care to make a wager?" and there was that sly smile Aarald despised. "Half the reward to whomever ends up with the mask." Calisto said, extending out his hand to seal the deal.
"Done." Aarald replied, as he shook the magae’s hand. "So, where is he? Your second, I mean."
"Hmm? Oh, it’s a ‘she’. And besides, she left hours ago."
Glaring bloody murder at Calisto, Aarald fished out a handful of coppers, threw them in Peck’s general direction and rushed out of the door, out into the cold, mid-eve streets of Shaual, tendrils of fog grasping about his ankles and the sound of Calisto’s smug laughter ringing in his ears.
Dawn finally broke as Aarald trudged on through the swathes of fetid marshland west of Shaual. Of Calisto’s second there was no sign and the land was still as far as the eye could see, save for a half-dozen hawks that circled hopefully above, keen eyes searching for prey. Far in the distance rose the Dead Peak, a grey, squat blotch of mountain that blended with the pale and dull morning sky. Aarald’s thoughts turned to the mountain and what he would find there. The tales were numerous, but he doubted if more than a tenth of them were true. What he did know was that there was a monastery there. A ruin of a doomed magae sect, and within, the Necri Mask.
As if bidden by his thoughts, a foul wind rose, choking and ridden by the stale smell of death. Aarald covered his mouth and blinked tears from wind-stung eyes. A hawk screeched far above, and Aarald sensed something deathly amiss. He drew his blade and turned, just in time to catch the rusty, crumbling edge of a sword against his own. His eyes travelled down the obviously ancient blade to a set of skeletal fingers, protruding from a swirling mess of pale mist. He recoiled in terror, and with rasping, clacking whispers, the creature emerged from the haze, it’s blade rearing back for another blow.
Aarald struck first, his sword tearing through the rusted blade and connecting with the skeletal form’s collar bone, shattering the monster in twain. It writhed on the floor, and Aarald allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction that quickly turned into dismay as the fog grew and, all around, the clacking of bone on bone could be heard. Aarald broke into a run, foul marsh water splashing round his ankles and his eyes trained on the sun, shining dimly through the fog. After minutes that seemed like hours, he broke from the fog to find himself mere steps from the base of the Dead Peak.
Eager to leave the marsh behind him, he scrambled up the crumbling mountain, the barest hint of a path marking the route the doomed magae once took to their secluded monastery, littered here an there with shards of weathered bone. His eyes were drawn inexorably upwards as he climbed, seeking a glimpse of his destination among the desolate, rocky expanse of the slope before him. Again, hawks shrieked above, but this time no mist rose, nor any skeletal assailants freed from poorly dug graves. The rest of his climb was surprisingly uneventful, as the air thinned and the incline of the mountain grew ever steeper. Sparing a glance behind him, Aarald saw the marshes far below, covered in a blanket of silently undulating grey mist.
Within an hour he had gained the summit, and there, sitting proudly astride the mountaintop, was the ruined monastery. He had to stop himself from just running in there, so eager he was to retrieve the mask and be gone from this eerily still place, but caution was called for, lest any of the skeletal apparitions encountered upon the marshes lurked within. With silent, tentative steps, Aarald stealthily crept through the stone doors, smashed open wide by some long forgotten force. Inside, the place was a maze of low corridors, through which Aarald had to crouch. He drew his blade, even though he’d have little room to swing it in here.
Soon, he spilled from a cramped corridor into the domed hall he had noted outside, afternoon light streaming in through a hole in the ceiling and shining directly upon a pedestal of darkest obsidian. There, the mask sat. Wood, coarse and still bearing it’s bark, with burnished bronzed details that exquisitely caught the light. With a furtive glance about him, Aarald gingerly stepped over to the pedestal, wary of setting off any hidden trap to skewer him, or signal that might rouse more foes from the dead. But as his fingers grasped the mask, and lifted it free; nothing. Aarald barked a laugh, before stowing the mask and making his way back outside.
Rushing out into the daylight, he pulled up short as, there, sitting before him was a hawk. It regarded him with quizzical eyes, before letting free a loud squawk and taking flight. Aarald watched it disappear into the distance, before making his way back down the Dead Peak. But as he carefully descended the slope, a sickening familiar sound arose. A clack, clack, clacking of bone on bone, as all about him skeletal frames rose and assembled. Rejoined fingers taking grasp on half-buried blades. Horrified, Aarald broke into a run, not caring if he broke his neck as he madly sought escape from this accursed peak. He hit the marsh at full pelt, tumbling head over heel and finding himself upended into the stinking, fetid waters.
He slowly rose, but found his progress strangely impeded. Looking down, he saw skeletal hands rising from the depths, clutching tight about his legs. With a cry of revulsion, he lashed out with the flat of his blade at the bony fingers, shedding them like dried mud on leather before scrambling to his feet and running, half stumbling from the marshes, sight turned firmly to the eastern horizon, the sky darkening now in the late afternoon as he hurriedly made for home, with more than a few horrors in his heart as he tried to banish memory of the Dead Peak and the skeletal minions that rose from its accursed corpse.
Peck fretted, and when he fretted, he washed down the bar, trying to avoid the utterly disarming and peculiar gaze of Calisto. He had hobbled in around lunch time, taken a seat at the bar and waited, reading from a book in some funny script Peck didn’t recognise. Said he was “waiting for a delivery”, and Peck could only assume he meant that mask him and Aarald were arguing about. He didn’t fancy having that accursed item in his place if even one of the tales about it were true. Just thinking of it made Peck shudder. At that moment the door slammed open, startling Peck something fierce. Calisto didn’t turn immediately, a wry smile plastered to his lips.
"So, it seems that even the high-and-mighty Calisto makes mistakes from time to time" Aarald laughed as he shouldered his way over to the bar. "I saw not a single sign of your second. A poor choice indeed, whoever the unfortunate lass was."
"You should pay more attention, dear friend. She saw you, on at least three occasions." Calisto smiled amiably.
"Ah, but no matter how stealthy, she failed in the end! I have the mask, I’ll have the reward, and I’ll be taking my winnings too, if it pleases you." Aarald was beaming from ear to ear, relishing a rare opportunity to lord it over Calisto.
"Certainly," Calisto replied, "half the reward amount, as agreed." He tossed the coin purse over, still smiling as Aarald judged it’s weight. "Now, the mask please, dear friend"
"What?" Aarald replied with a laugh, "Give it to you, when I’ve yet to collect my reward?"
"But you already have your reward" Calisto said, his smile turning into a predatory grin. Aarald stared uncomprehending.
"Oh dear, do I have to spell it out?" laughed Calisto. "I took out the commission. I put up the reward. I bet you half that, when all is said and done, the mask will be in my hands. So it will be." and there was that grin again.
"You…arrogant…manipulative" Aarald spluttered, at a loss for words. "Piss and thunder! You conniving son of a whore!" he yelled, his face turning purple with rage, before finally breaking into laughter.
"Oh, you’ve played me for a fool! Peck, a drink for me and this devious bastard right here" Aarald demanded, stamping his fist on the bar for emphasis. As the drinks arrived, he slid the mask over to Calisto and the pair walked (and hobbled) from the Gull, beverages in hand, leaving a bemused Peck in their wake. For once, the streets were lit by sunlight, unobscured by layers of soot and fog, and the air smelt fresh and clean, or as clean as it gets in the Warrens
"But there’s one thing I don’t understand…who was this mysterious second of which I saw no sign?" Aarald asked.
"I already said, you met her on three occasions." Calisto grinned, as high above, circling the city of shadows, a hawk screeched her goodbyes.
It’s a wonderful day, despite the breeze. The leisurely roll and curl of the land lends waves to the seas of grass that reaches on to the horizon, set smoothly a-sway by the wind’s breath. Up above, clouds float on an azure tide, their bellies pierced by the tips of pylons that rise from the fields like great grey beasts of spark and metal. In the distance, the faint susurrus of humanity intrudes, but only ever so gently, as cars whoosh on by. Closer still, birds squabble and squawk, bees buzz and bumble and the cicadas rhythmically chirp. A dragonfly hovers into view, its colours vibrant and entrancing under the sun’s shimmering touch, as if its body were made of stained glass. Somewhere, high up above, a plane purposefully wanders, leaving contrails in its wake, while passengers look down upon a sunny patchwork of trees and grass, darkened here and there by the shadows of clouds, thinking nothing much about a stretch of land utterly unremarkable, yet remarkable all the same.
Terra (2000 words)
The ship hummed. A methodical, oscillating hum that perpetually threatened to lull him back to sleep. The final third was always the hardest, and many of the lads were coping badly. It all started friendly enough, but a bit of piss-taking soon turned into spiteful put-downs, and before you knew it, things had turned ugly. But this was his ship, his mission, and he’d been out into the deep more times than he could remember. For many of the lads, this was their first time out, but he’d seen it all before. The deep did something to you. The sheer emptiness and isolation of the crushing blackness bore down on you, forced you inexorably in upon yourself. There was nothing to do other than wait it out, to count the days until the journey’s end.
But, as always, the end was just in fact the beginning. He brought up the video screen and replayed the message. No longer listening to the words he now knew off by heart, he instead just stared at the man on the screen. His greying, immaculately groomed hair. His pale, icy gaze. And that smile. That awful, predatory smile that set off warning signals in the hindquarters of his brain the moment he laid eyes on it eight months ago on Prime. The message was simple enough. Abrupt, to the point and utterly perplexing. Screamed out on a broadwave signal across the stars, the message stated that Terra was up for grabs, the Terrans having left for some unnamed elsewhere. Left the cradle of humanities birth.
So Prime assembled a team, all military, except for a dull and ponderous historian named Wallis, and the lanky merchant navigator Jensen. She had been quite the surprise, and the one highlight he could count in the painfully long journey. Originally from Ceres, she had been closer to Terra than any of them in the cramped ship, by virtue of her birth alone. Even him, the grizzled captain. Veteran of more dives into the deep than most knew possible. Even he hadn’t ever been Sol deep. He’d asked her about Terra, but she didn’t have much to say. Terrans kept to themselves, trade between the planets and the belt carried out through an automated network. She said it was strange, how she’d never seen a Terran, never talked to one, but knew for certain that they hated her, hated all the belters, all the colonists. All those who had left, as the Terrans had now apparently done.
He must have dozed off, as he jolted awake to the penetrating sound of the re-entry alarm, only to be stopped short by the restraints that gripped him tight to the crash pads in his chair. He glanced at the others. Jensen was still, staring dully forward with the calm of a practised diver. Wallis was muttering madly to himself, eyes scrunched shut. The lade weren’t faring much better. Then reality stretched. The effect was like being beneath a strobe light, but underwater. And in slow-motion. It pulled at the soft tissues, contorted the malleable and disrupted every sense. Thankfully, the re-entry never lasted long, as reality snapped back to normal and the ship came to an sharp halt.
The first thing he noticed was the stars. Eight long months of nothing but all-consuming darkness, the stars were always a most welcome sight. Then he noticed the planet wandering into view. Not just any planet. THE planet. Terra. But something was wrong. Terra was half-dark, the side hidden from the sun lacking the tell tale signs of habitation. No lights lit Terra. He openned opened his mouth to tell Jensen to scan for life-forms, but she was ahead of him. No human life, she confirmed. Not anywhere on the planet. No electronic signals of any kind, save for the broadwave beacon, yelling its message continually out into the stars. They traced the signal, and plotted in the course.
The shuttle burned through the atmosphere, shaking and rattling all the way down, before finally coming to a gentle stop. He led them out, sidearm drawn, and took his first steps on Terran soil. The sun glinted off the buildings and he had to shade his eyes as he glanced up at the crystalline monoliths. He breathed a deep, cold breath, before remembering that the atmosphere was far thinner than on Prime, pulling the breather from his suit and plugging it in his nose, signalling for the others to do likewise. Wallis was staring about wild-eyed at his surroundings, presumably awed by the ancient halls of the Terrans, whose absence stung this place and lent a sense of unease. He pulled out the tracking device, and off they set.
It wasn’t long before they reached their destination. A medical facility, by the looks of things. Strange mechanical devices littered the halls, and Jensen explained that Terrans had automatons to ease every aspect of their lives, with more than a hint of scorn in her voice. They made their way through empty wards lined with empty beds, up empty stairwells to the roof, where, blinking with a dim red glow, the beacon sat. The sole active sign of humanity left of Terra. Jensen began pushing buttons, trying to shut the thing off, but the control circuits were fused. He pulled out his sidearm and Jensen hastily scrambled back as he fired, the beacon exploding in a gout of sparks. They all stood in silence, looking back and forth between him and the ruined beacon, waiting to see if something would happen.
They weren’t left waiting long. It started as a low hum that seemed to reveberate through every atom of the building beneath their feet, the air alive with a sudden charge that had not been present before. Jensen exclaimed in alarm. Signals were popping up from every sector. Activity on a planetary scale. He didn’t waste another second, accessing the terminal in his suit, he remotely ordered the shuttle to head to their location. He ordered everyone to ready their weapons and wait, able to defend against some unknown threat. And then he noticed Wallis was missing. With a curse under his breath, he hit the intercom and yelled for Wallis to confirm his location, but only got screams and mechanical whirings in between the static.
He swore again, loud enough for them all to hear, and set off at a pelting run back down the stairwell and into the medical ward. All around the room, mechanical arms spasmed with chattering motions, crawling across the limp form of Willis in the centre of the floor. He fired a few blasts at the automatons, sending metal and lubricant flying, before making his way over to the stricken historian, hauling him over his shoulder and heading back to the safety of the roof. As he struggled, he felt a short, sharp pain in his leg, looking down to see a robotic arm pulling a hypodermic needle from his body. He kicked out in revulsion, but already felt the effects of whatever he had been injected with.
With awkward lurches, he propelled himself and the increasingly heavy form of Willis up the stairs a step at a time, not daring to look back into the tangle of whirring mechanics grasping after them. He burst out on to the rooftop and saw the shuttle hovering before him, saw one of the lads gesticulating wildly for him to get on board. Mustering up the last of his strength, he threw Willis into the waiting shuttle and began to haul himself up, yelling for Jensen to lift off. But as the shuttle rose, he did not rise with it, arm wrenched from the handhold, sending him crashing back down to he roof while increasingly shrinking faces stared down in alarm. He felt the touch of mechanical fingers upon him, before everything went black.
He awoke in a brightly lit room. Sunlight streamed in through the large windows, a gentle breeze billowing the white curtains. His gaze lowered, and there, sitting before him with that selfsame smile on his face, was the man from the video. He reached instinctively for his sidearm, but the man assured him he wouldn’t be needing it, although he kept his fingers coiled about the stock all the same. Seeing this man in real life, seeing that smile before him, he realised what had so unnerved him about this man in the video. He wasn’t a man at all, but rather an automaton. A fabricated slave to enhance the Terran’s quality of life. Then the thing explained, in it’s disturbingly realistic voice, why it had called all of Terra’s children back to the womb.
To preserve was the automatons goal. To preserve life, human life, at all costs. And so they had preserved the Terran’s, deep beneath the planets surface. Suspended, unchanging, in a mechanical definition of life. A mockery of life. However, there were those that resisted, that rose up against the automatons and tried to free the others from their dreamless slumber. In a desperate, futile attempt, they stormed the automaton’s central preservation facility, but succumbed and were ultimately preserved. The automatons failed to realise their mistake until much later. The last free Terrans on the planet, knowing their situation to be impossible, had infected themselves with a virus. A virus that rampaged through the preservation chambers, infecting swathes of the Terran population in one fell swoop.
The automatons had no answer to this Terran-made disease. Engineered solely for this purpose, it infected every last Terran in a matter of hours, and so, in despair, the automatons called out to Terra’s children, calling them home, so that they might be preserved and might save the Terrans from the fate the machines had tried to forestall. He raised his sidearm and fired. The smile faded, along with the unnatural light in the automaton’s eyes. As he pondered just how he would escape, he heard elevator doors swish open behind him. Turning slowly, not wanting to see what lay in wait, he muttered a curse as his eyes fell on the smiling man standing in the elevator, packed in with his selfsame brothers, all smiling.
He recoiled in horror, and headed quickly to the window. Another curse came as he saw just how high up he was. High enough to make a big mess if he jumped. He turned the sidearm on the smilers and fired indiscriminately. Where one went down, another appeared. It was futile. He unloaded the last blasts of the clip into the smiling mass before stepping back out of the window. Like the Terrans, he too would choose death over a life eternal and unthinking. The wind was knocked out of him as he landed much sooner than he had expected. He looked up. The gleaming buildings streamed past at high speed. A hatch opened and Willis peered out. With a laugh, he hauled himself inside and headed to the cockpit.
As Jensen guided the shuttle higher, he saw for the first time the true scaale of the automaton’s grasp. A writhing mass of soulless metal slowly enveloped the surface, thinking, but uncomprehending all the same, utterly devoted to the preservation of its creators. As they broke out of the atmosphere and away from Terra as fast as the shuttle could carry them, an alarm blared on the console. The beacon had started again, screaming its invitation, broadwave, across the universe. He recorded his own little message, and sent it on its way, telling anyone who would listen to stay the hell away from Terra. Whether anyone would heed his advice, he couldn’t say. But that wasn’t his problem any more he thought grimly, as he sat down in the co-pilots seat and ordered Jensen to prep the eight-month burn back to Prime. Eight months here, eight months back. Only, this time, he doubted that there would be much in the way of complaints, all of them just glad to be homeward bound.