Long Stories: Rose Knight (3)

Aed and some of his band wait for her in the city, and they find her before she’s made it two streets. Her first inkling is the crossbow bolt as it flies past her nose and embeds itself in the wall next to her. She takes a step out of the alleyway to find the street almost entirely deserted. Aed has three friends now, not simply one, and stares at her. Among his friends he counts two mercenaries with crossbows (one of whom rewinds his) and a man holding a sword easily as large as Rose.

She mentally measures the distance to the nearest unlocked door– the library. With their crossbows and their speed they could catch and kill her before she made it, she’s fairly certain, and they stand between her and the temple district.

Rose sags. “And me, without my armor,” she mutters. “Good day, Aed. You have my attention. Whose did I attract today?” Continue reading

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Long Story: Rose Knight (2)

“I’m not well versed in the ways of women, especially not noblewomen,” the smith, whose name is Ith and surname is Sol, says quietly. “And well, Sandrys is a foreigner.”

Rose nods thoughtfully. “She is.”

Truth be told, no one in the city knows exactly where Sandrys was born. Rose knows that she was raised here in the city. A few years back, she’d told Rose that her old home had been horrible. Continue reading

Long Story: Rose Knight (1)

Her sword is strapped to her back, not in a sheath as most knights would carry it. It makes it vulnerable to rust and to rain, to dulling and stains, but to the woman who bears it, it matters little. Despite strapping it to her armor, she has never once drawn it in the months she has worn it. Continue reading

Story Challenge #8: Lion’s Heart

The main gate is so heavily defended I’m certain my father will never get through. It has all manner of knights in that black armor, thralls standing stock still, with battle-axes at the ready, and one or two dark-cloaked vampires. No one could break past it, I feel certain.

My latest conquest lies on the bed, gasping for breath still, while I, wearing naught but a sheet, look down over the forces he deployed. What is this thrill, that rises up in my belly? What is this lovely, wonderful warmth?

Continue reading

Short Story #7: Beast of the Farlands

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there was a creature so deadly and terrible that none could ever defeat it in combat. It roared and stamped with claws like iron tillers, its tail a lion’s, long and lashing, its breath was fire, its scales terrible burnished gold, its eyes like rolling, deep dark pits that swallowed the soul of whoever gazed upon them.

 

No man could face it without immediately falling prey to these horrible advantages, no matter what courage they had, its eyes would paralyze them. No matter what weaponry they carried, its scales would turn it aside. No matter what armor they wore, nothing could turn aside flame. It seemed as though the countryside would forever be torn asunder by the terrible paws and claws of this great beast, and decades went by with no true solution. Sacrifices never appeased it. There was no stopping it from taking what it wanted of the fields and the cattle of the people.

 

There came a time when, of his own accord, a champion went out to meet it when all champions were long thought dead. No, to call him a champion would be too generous; though cloaked he was in finest wool, he had with him no apparent weaponry. Though hooded and fair of voice– fair as could be asked of any maiden, even– he seemed to have no assets with which he planned to slay the creature. More like to call this man suicidal.

 

Yet he went out to it, this great savage beast, went out, stood before it as it feasted on caught cattle, and hailed it thus: “Good day!”

 

It ignored him til he had called out thrice more.

 

“Good day! Good day, I say!”

 

Finally it turned to regard him with eyes, eyes that surely would paralyze. The townsfolk that watched, they watched from afar, worried and sure that this man would be gobbled up in an instant. They dared not hope for any better.

 

“Who is it who speaks? Who is it who addresses me so, in so sweet a voice? Another fine human to rend and to eat? Was the last of your kind not enough of a treat?”

 

The cloaked, hooded figure sways not from his course. “It is I who spake thus,” he says, quite plain. “It is I who would talk not once, but again.”

 

“There shall be no ‘again’, you miserable louse. I am the cat, and you are the mouse.”

 

With that the beast pounces and bites and gnaws. At first it seems that it has him in claws, hooked here or there through the parts of his cloak which before seemed imposing, now shred, fabric broke.

 

It leaves but a maiden, standing with earthen hair, her skin shaded first with blue and then red, dyes that run over her skin– even head! Tattoos seem to cover her from head to toe, and bare though she is it doesn’t seem to show.

 

“What manner of human-like witchery is this?” The beast utters first, clearly most miffed. Its eyes dart here, or there over her form.

 

The maiden folds across her chest two lithe arms, gazes back up with eyes like twin storms, of blue and of green, they crackle as she stands.

 

With inner strength bold and courage so bright, she faces down the creature until on comes the night. Her tattoos glow then, even in dark, shining, transfixing until the call of the lark. The beast seems to snap from its cold reverie, shaking its mane once, and then twice.

 

“I could but crush you with the flick of a paw,” it growls down at her, baring its jaw filled with teeth to cut her to shreds. “If you answer falsely I’ll do it, I will, so be still little human while I have my fill- of information from you or your next of kin, should I kill you the same, in a fit.”

 

“Ask away,” she murmurs shyly, her smile so bright. It eclipses her tattoos and turns back the night.

 

“How is it you resist the power of my stare? What drives you to push it all back?”

 

“Not how, dear beast, but what is the answer– and simple I think, for one such as I. I am a witch, empowered and strong, and that is that, true as true- can be. As to what drives me to confront you here– the land here is near to me, near and dear– I’d sooner tear out my own heart in your stead then sit and and suffer with the land and its dead.”

 

“Why have you not come forth before, if exception to my actions you took?” The beast’s voice is soft now, to match the little witch, soft and yet deadly inside. Its eyes search for the source of her power, sure that within her it hides.

 

“I was born but yesterday, out and away in the Mother’s good arms. I took to my own as soon as I could but I still needed time to grow; twice and again I’ve sought you since then and now I’ve come to show you.”

“What will you show?” the beast asks sharply, curious despite its urges- to seize and destroy her with teeth tongue and flame is all that lurks in its head. Without her tattoos it’s sure she would lose, that it would rend her instead.

 

“A simple enough trick, for one such as you- I propose a game.”

 

It scoffs and sighs, but in her eyes the beast reads no sign of jest. “Fine, little witch. Command as you wish, and I shall put it to test.”

 

“Be forewarned that when this game is through, I will have put you to rest.”

 

“We shall see,” it growls and swishes that lion’s tail it has. The witch then smiles, as if sure of her wiles, and holds a hand up to her head. She mutters a phrase, cold as black days, and changes to the Dragon Father’s child.

Her form is great, as great as the sea, with scales at least half as blue. Her grin razor sharp, she laughs in the dark as the clouds spill into the sky

to shroud it.

 

The beast unimpressed, stretches and yawns, grinning back with eyes cold as space. “You frighten me not, maiden fair as you were, for the Father of Dragons is agape. Take back your shape if your hide you do value, or soon he shall come and be wroth– vengeance then wrought, he’ll nail what you sought out of spite for those you now seek

To protect.”

 

With a rumbling, the maid sways not, she stares it back down with a snort of cold flame, lips peeled back to reveal, unashamed, her teeth like daggers. “I fear not the father of worms such as you, or the shape that I take or the threat of a scaly stew! I ask you once and ask no more: take a form greater or leave this tilled floor

Alone.”

 

The beast laughs out loud, a hideous sound, snaps its foreclaws and in a flash is all bound up in fiery chains that snap and obscure its devilish form from sight. When they again lift its form is in shift, growing massive, greater even than the maiden’s new height.

“How do you find me?” its breath is a roar, its voice thunders forth in such force that it doubles and redoubles o’er the world, bouncing, echoing and rumbling again

and again.

The maid seems afraid as she looks, up at its devilish features. The burnished gold scales of its twin writhing tails and the fur that line their tips look like spines now so large is the beast before her. She seems to tremble–

–but lets out a giggle

a giggle that turns into a full-throated laugh. The maid-dragon sighs and in a flash dries the earth all ‘round her to ash. Magic bursts forth, wild and terrible, covering her head toes and claws. Her body rolls and rocks and shifts, squirms and writhes and grows to a size ne’er broached before. Now it is the beast’s turn, small as a kitten by comparison to a tiger, sitting before her and mewling in a whisper, a whimper of a voice before her. From the maiden’s eyes comes a pitiless glare that paralyzes the creature where it stands.

 

The villagers shout! Is victory not near? Surely she’s beaten this terrible beast! With the creature struck down and its influence profoundly

driven away

they will prosper again.

 

Abruptly it ends, this victory cry. What is she doing now? The maiden in size shrinks down to her former self, her body loses all of its scales. Tattoos dot her again, covering her head to toe. Her eyes are calm though the village can’t see it, her eyes are as calm as the sea.

She smiles as the creature reaches down to swipe for her, and stops its paw with a hand, effortlessly.

“Come now beast,” she whispers soft. “Is this all you truly can muster?”

It roars its frustration and drawing in breath, lets it out in thunder

clouds

of black rolling

smoky

thunder.

Fire leaps high, high towards the sky as the plains around her catch fire, but the maid just laughs, laughs and laughs, welcoming the heat with a smile. Her eyes are bright and burning ash gleams in her grin, on her teeth and on those razor thin lips of hers.

 

The beast stares down at her, paw raised once more, as if to dash her to pieces,

but the maid will not move

she will not move

she does not move

anymore.

she stands where she is, her palm held out

to block a second roar

it never comes

no the beast never roars

again in anger or spite

it sits there instead

to be walked or led

about town under cover of night.

 

Under cover of night, the maid leads it forth

To the center of the town square.

 

To the villagers around as the morning is crowned

With the sun’s bright beams so gay

Her eyes flash gold and, with her story told

A party they do array

When celebration ends and the night descends

They fall over themselves

in bidding this maid to stay

 

“On one condition will I stay here with you,”

She says to them before the sun fully sets

“To guard forever and always. Let my husband be

This beast you see

Who set fire to your fields but previously

A day, or less ago.”

 

The villagers are distraught

At first

Then confused

This beast she means not to slay?

Its terror struck even the bravest of men!

Its breath was unweatherable! Its rage terrorized the village– all villages!– for miles upon miles while the nobles did nothing!

 

Now such a strumpet says it must live?

 

But the villagers know should she wish she could grow, she could tower above them and strike them to ash, each and every one with but the threat of a glance.

 

So silent they are, as silent as they can, their eyes all wide as she makes clear her demand.

 

“I wish there be room for this beast to sleep; for the first six days and more we shall bed, and then I shall release it to the wild instead. Tamed and mine in heart and soul, the beast will guard you, brave and bold. Let me have this or I shall go, and the things  I have done will mean

nothing.”

 

They don’t dare refuse her, so the beast then stays, and in a stable the pair of them sleep.

 

The first of the days the beast wakes up in ways it never imagined before. The maid by its side, its thick golden hide is replaced by skin of the same hue, but soft and comfortable to lie in and on.

 

Its mouth opens and shuts, and the maid she does stir, so it thinks better of attempting escape. What has this girl done to its scales so sweet, to the metal that once covered it in sheets? It does not know but cares not to find out, and in its head it hatches plans of retreat. It’ll dart off in the night as it sure must be right, to find some more knights to eat. It’ll grow a new hide to polish its stride and assist in protecting its skin.

 

The chance never comes as the day goes by, the maid leads it everywhere you see– she has fashioned a lead made from leather and reed and tied it to the edges and frays

of its mane.

 

“Such a strange girl,” a villager says, to another standing by the main way. “Where are her thoughts of marriage and devoted

fertility–

instead there are tattoos

of war?”

“She is the one who tamed the Calthrax and I’ll bet she has spellbound its heart; no earthly magic could sunder the will the way that she has done with this one. I’ll wager divinity lurks in her step, in her stride hides the will of the gods.”

“Foolish talk! A tramp who sleeps with beasts,

to make them stop their attacks

what honor is there in this woman

what honor is there in that?

The voice rings out at last from the crowd who parted to let her through, and up stands a man garbed all in silk, his eyes a ruddy red hue.

“Let me speak,” the fair maiden says as he makes his intrusion. “Let me speak and I shall clear your head of all confusion.”

The man’s silk robes flow in the wind as upon her form he stares, then he laughs and throws back his head, laughs as a man with airs.

“Foolish girl,” he says with a sigh, still chuckling to his own little tune. “Your charms won’t work on a wizard as old as I. Go back to your vale in the cool and the pale where the shadows and monsters lie– return to your grove little nymph, little witch, I’ll have no truck with you- not here in this village that the beast tried to pillage while away on a trip I was due.”

“Due what?” she asks, unperturbed by his voice, staring him down once more. The beast behind her makes a low little rumble, a sound both of the magi ignore. “Trip where o’ wizard, who hails from the city out away by his estate? I came and I saw and I saved your town, and in return you treat me with hate?

“Equate not dislike for you and your ilk for ingratitude, little witch. I am indebted despite all I’ve said and I mean to repay by the stitch. But when I have paid and the debt is then gone I demand that you are gone also; every moment you stay here defies my will and the look of you strains me

moreso.”

“Flee I’ll do when I’m dead, old man, if for you my image is grating- I bid you away or turn quick your head, for my stay will never be abating. This village I claim as my own new vale, I can never return where I was. Away with you, wizard, your ways do not scare me, away and be done with your threats! This village is not yours to do with as you please, no matter your papers- or hateful epithets.”

“Little witch,” says he, the wizard so-called, with a start and a step forward sharp. “You cut me so, to say to me

What you do.

I ask again and again now only,

Go home to the grove you once knew.

The patience I have, while boundless at heart

Will bear not the tone

Of your wily whim or the fear

A fight

Would start.”

A pause and then, with manner wrought of silk and spiderwebs, the maiden answers the wizard and in her heart

there seems to be

dread.

“So this is how

A wizard doth truly

Repay all

His debts,” The maiden fair says, quietly and lowly as the smallest of mice might squeak.

Her eyes are downcast, manner demure as she stares then down at her feet. Whatever rage or fire within her seems to have reached a peak

Or a crest

Or a boiling pitch

And fallen back down on itself.

The wizard and his smile

Filled up with guile,

Stand there waiting for her

To leave.

When she does not he grows impatient, stamping his own foot.

“When will thou go?” he snaps in rage, those eyes of his they flare.

“Never did I say I would leave!” she cries, plainly surprised at his tone. “When will I go? When won’t I go? Ask me that then fair wizard! Should not a maid do just as she pleases and go where she should in her mind? If thou art so sure that thy own self is pure, I tell thee to cast all thy stones. Hurl thy magic and smite me down, if thy pointy shoes are so clean!”

The wizard on his pointy shoes doth rise, fire in his eyes now, fire in his eyes.

“The cheek!” he roars, and rolls up his sleeves. “Take thy place, girl, on your knees.”

The last word with magic inside doth seethe, it rolls forward and out and plays to keep,

the maiden on her toes, lashing here and lashing there, like fire, like a whip that snaps, aims to snare.

The maiden is on her toes, she dances ‘round once,

she dances ‘round again, avoiding that word like a plague

or a spark

laughing like lightning

laughing in sparks and flames

that twirl

and dance through the air

in her eyes

in her heart

 

The beast behind her snorts and rears, barely containing itself

Its baleful gaze descends

on wizard and witch

both

 

“What ill will bear you to me

What terrible thing have I done?”

 

The words, out of place on the witch’s lips seem

But the words voice curiosity

Shared by

Everyone.

 

“Stand still and die, little witch, little nymph. You do not deserve to know! I will not, shall not, cannot tell you

and there’s nothing for me to show to you

but hatred.”

 

Sickened at heart

With eyes still aflame

The maid turns once

and turns yet again, whirling in place to let fly with vines that snake from her arms in ink and in lines

Traced from tattoos that writhe on her skin, alive and snake-like and seeking their kin

in the veins of the wizard who gasps in rage and flings forth his power to send to the grave

this nymph who defies him, who taunts his thoughts

who lingers in his heart

and has hooks inside him

whose snakes bite and strike– he snaps out.

The power snaps out and lashes a side– the Beast who in anger between them did stride, ignoring the collar closed tight ‘round its neck, ignoring the pain from the blow it’d been struck, ignoring the pain that inside it is stuck, rebound and coiling ‘tween skin and scale, where insides and nerves and organs do quail.

Never in all of its life has a pain

Like this one been dealt to it

and in a vain

a terrible

a monstrous

moment of rage, its tail whips forth

to break the wizard

in twain.

 

Its tail rebounds from a shield of some make

Of force and of magic and frail hope– which breaks

as the wizard’s power fails as he stumbles on back, as he looks on aghast at the beast’s spiny back

at the monster before him

at the spines and the skin

the golden and bronze

the golden skin.

 

The wizard snaps out at the nymph yet again, lashing with power drawn from no ken

of man or of beast, both would have died

but the creature before him impeding the stride

of his magic

is in waves

upon the ground

and breaking

the earth

around.

 

A quake in the village builds as the creature lashes out in time

Each writhing twisting, flailing limb

dredging up swaths of the earth

and rime from the mist

clinging

to the ground.

Tormented stone and cobbles break

The wizard and nymph alike are pelted

Their forms aghast with fright as the form of the creature

is melted

 

It falls away, disappearing

Like morning mist

In a breeze

Leaving

Scared

and weak

and terrified

A woman

on her knees.

 

Mortified

By turns yet curious

The both of them are

Wizard and nymph stand side by side

To regard the girl from afar

 

Both of them move

At once and in unison

Both of them move right away

The nymph to comfort

The wizard to study

But both sure to have their way.

 

“Gentler, fool, she’s been through much,” the nymph hisses over shoulder and bareness of back.

“You’ll break her with your cold tack,” she snaps.

“Break her? Hardly! My lust for knowledge

Knows well its bounds.

I merely think an enchantment so steep

Must be studied and kept, so to speak

Too dangerous outside where that ‘chantment

Might ride

Another soul

Near to its peak.”

The wizard is cool and calm and collected, for all that inside terror burns. What great magic forced a girl to wear a form like that? This, then, a shadow confirms.

A shadow so great, so colossally huge, that it blots out the sun from the sky. Wings stretch out mightily, a monster shakes a head

like a cave, with jaws open wide.

The silhouette fades with a tremendous crash, with a shriek like the sun cleaved in twain. The King of all Dragons, his honor besmirched, comes only to avenge

the dishonor done.

A fear drives through her, the maid and the girl, as they stare up to the creature above. Its eyes are stars and its breath is fire

hot enough

to burn

underwater.

The wizard himself seems unafraid, unabashed, as he stands there brazen as day.

The Dragon King, his grin–

like the surface

of the sun–

would never

let him have

his way.

 

“SO THESE ARE THE MORTALS WHO DARE DEFY ME!” 

The Terrible King doth roar.

“A NYMPH, A WIZARD, A BROKEN LITTLE GIRL MAKES THREE. IS A HUNDRED LESS OR MORE?”

The nymph responds not, the girl frozen as well, her whole form rigid with fear. The wizard, clever and crafty as ever, is the one to talk now, and it’s the effort in his voice that’s near

to courage.

Any can see that his legs quake and shake, any can see how afraid he must be.

He opens his palms in a gesture of peace, and makes quick with what he needs

must say.

 

“Great Dragon King, we wished you no harm, though yesterday the nymph stole your form. Pray take from us anything just, and leave our lives to their norm. With all respect due we can pay back in time, for the pride of the King of all wyrms. Please, o lord, leave us our bodies that the debt to be paid is fair.”

“WHAT COULD BE FAIRER THAN LIFE FOR LIFE? YOU STOLE A PORTION OF MINE; IF WHEN, IN PAYING, I TAKE ONE OF YOURS, SHOULD NOT THAT BE IN GOOD TIME,

AND GOOD PLACE?

HERE AND NOW, I SAY, AND ‘JUST’ AS JUST CAN BE– GIVE ME THE NYMPH, THE BLESSED LITTLE WITCH, AND I SWEAR I SHALL LEAVE YOU ALL AS YOU ARE,

AND ALL AS YOU BE.”

The wizard steps aside, but the beast steps up, in the form of the girl as she is. She shakes and shivers, plainly confused about what

and where she is.

Still she speaks, once and again, as around her the world dims and blurs. The attention on her is too much, not enough, and her eyes are filled with tears

she doesn’t

understand.

“You-!” she calls, unsure and unright with the way that her words fall out. “You can’t take her, she’s mine to keep! I fought and for her as well! If beaten in combat by any but me, these feelings I’d never be able

to quell.

Back to your lair, lord o’ the wyrms! Back and trouble me no more! Show your tail, turn and run, leave this place like the one

that you found

before ire

found you.”

The King of the Dragons, with massive, great snout, with a lazy and terrible grin, says one thing in response to the girl-from-beast, says one thing nice and slow:

NO. STEP ASIDE LITTLE GIRL, UNLESS YOU WISH AS WELL TO BE

A MEAL IN MY LAIR 

OR A SNACK

BETWEEN MY TEETH.”

The girl shakes and whimpers where she stands between the two, the maiden who challenged her beast-self and the Dragon who defies her desire.

Still uncowed, amazed of herself, she stands strong before the nymph who beat her, glaring up at her foe, arms spread wide.

“Breathe your flames or

Make your threats

I shall not stand aside.

She is mine and mine alone

To eat-

Or keep

As I like!”

The Dragon King, old as the sky, stares down at the defiant beast turned girl, and laughs

laughs

laughs.

A heartbeat passes, many, many more.

The Dragon King rears onto his haunches all at once,

his eyes flashing red like the heart of the sun

his scales flashing blue like the deepest of seas

the groaning of dragonskin

scraping together

is the only sound heard

apart from the shaking

of mortal knees.

YOUR DEVOTION IS TOUCHING,” he says with a smile, a serpentine grin.

BUT STILL I WILL WIN. IF YOU WON’T STEP ASIDE YOU’LL BE LOST IN THE DIN

OF MY FLAMES.”

The thought of the fiery, terrible breath turning them all to ash

still does not

put the beast in her place

still does not

make her step

to one side

or the other. Her eyes are determined and her stance is strong

though her body shakes like the leaves

in a storm

on trees

too young to weather

it.

A hand on her shoulder makes her stop and turn,

a hand makes her turn in her place

to regard the nymph

with a pale

ashen face

and a quivering form,

her eyes flashing anger

and weary

pain.

“Why do you suffer all this for me, beast I beat and struck aside? Why do you move to help? Let me go with him and meet my own fate- you’re nothing more than a whelp.”

“‘Please yourself’ is what I would say, if I thought I could push it aside. You thwarted me though, you struck me down, and it is for this reason

I will not hide.

I will not save you for any new oath

but the one which i lay down:

if anyone eats you

maid of the grove

it’ll be me, not some

Dragon-like mound.”

The beast shrugs off the nymph’s placating hand, shrugs it off and stares with intent

at the leader of all flying wyrms.

“Go home, scaled one,” she says with a flat

but true steel edge to her voice. “I’m not frightened of you or the things you might do

I fear not the touch of your fire. Fly free and fast, away from this place, or suffer the might of my ire.”

As the King of Dragons’s eyes turn sharp, as they narrow with sudden hate,

the beast of the farlands shrugs off her curse,

her human form starts to abate.

Golden in skin, sleek as a tiger, larger than mountains could warrant,

she grows to a height to match one she’d taken

when battling the nymph of the grove.

Her claws launch forth and out from her fingers, she stands on four and then six legs at once. Her eyes blaze in fire, her heart with desire

for victory?

the spoils?

even she

couldn’t say.

this beast from the farlands

drives humanity

away

from herself.

It sheds in a cloud of sparkling fire, it rushes away in a wave. With a ripple and a sigh, she stands higher than high, an equal

to the King

of the Dragons.

Crouched cat-like

in her tiger’d shape

with claws extended and threatening

she stares at the Dragon King

where his teeth

form a smile

and his wings form a gale

as they beat once

and twice.

“GO HOME, WYRM,” her voice lashes out, terrible to hear, terrible to behold.

“GOLD SKINNED BEAST, COME AND FIGHT FOR YOUR FEAST!”

The Dragon King replies as his laughter dies, caught in a throat filled now

with rage.

 

With a leap and a snarl

that hurls earth like blood

into the air

to cloud it so thickly

the beast from the farlands

meets the king of serpentkind

in a blur

of tooth

and of claw.

“Blood and b-brimstone!” the wizard stammers out, staggering back from the force

of their clash. “What madness

solvable easily

by sacrifice!

One maiden, for this

is the world to end?”

 

Claws rend scales.

Teeth rend skin. Fire washes over and glows through

everything

as blood like molten

bronze flows down

over gold and blueish

skin and scales.

 

Titans push and twist and writhe– the beast’s lashing tail draws furrows in the ground, the dragon’s sharp claws carve tracks.

with every tremendous

terrible

crash

scales

and skin

and fire within

patter

and spatter the torn

and rent earth.

 

thunder sounds

as scales wrenched apart

make noises like dying

stars.

the nymph stands rapt

her heart in her throat

to see

both of them clash

and fight

to see the beast-turned-girl-turned-beast

claw

and bleed

and stagger and twist

and writhe

with the king of wyrms

 

no clear victor arises from the mess

of scales and ragged

strips of gold flesh

no clear winning stumbles away

on that fateful day

that red day

that raw and red and bloody day

not until

that is

with guile, the dragon king rises

laughing all the while

a hideous

choking

coughing noise

from a throat that seems to be patched

or comprised

of naught but scale

bone

and blood

that runs thick and green

down his sides.

VICTORY!” he snarls, then chokes again

and again, coughing blood to the ground

to soak the already

muddy

earth.

 

He rears back his head, so soaked in his own

blood

and draws in a ragged, shuddering breath. His intent is plain– to incinerate the remains

of the village his thrashing

had demolished.

 

A claw

like blood and nightmares

both

bursts forth from the dragon king’s

throat like lightning

like blood red lightning

that patters the ground

in a flood or a torrent

and silence

reigns

supreme.

Over the lord of the wyrms and the drakes

over the lord of the sleeping and wake

over the king of the dragons

over those who watch him

over the beast, who slams him down

snout-first

into

the dust.

 

Poised over

the great dragon’s body

dragonflames still licking her form

the beast of the farlands stands firm in her place

staring down at the fallen wyrm.

Its shape still twists

and turns

and writhes

feebly

helplessly now

 

the beast from the farlands turns to the nymph

and in her eyes

shines something dark

 

rather than shy

away from her fate

she rushes to meet it head on

the maid running up to the great beast’s

side

tucking herself close as can be

 

for a moment

heard stark in silence

is a growl that might be a purr

 

emanating forth

from the beast where it stands

then this too fades

and all that is left

 

is the sound

of the beast’s breathing

is the sound

of the maid’s breathing

and the beast-turned-girl, who stands on two legs instead of four, who wraps torn arms around the maiden- tight

who holds her close

two and one

as blood

thickens

clots

flows

on golden skin

and fire

burning once bright

and now softly

fades behind mischief-worn eyes

 

the beast

her heart slowing,

her breath coming short

holds the nymph as best she can

and held in those arms

she dies.

 

or does she truly?

though breath stops

it is her voice that lifts

to wake the beast from tragedy

as the beautiful grieving creature of the nymph

between her ragged sobs of confused

pain

or perhaps

relief

raises her head

she sees that once more life beats

in the breast

of the girl

who was once

a beast.

No grievous wounds are openly running

with blood like crimson tears.

no terrible flames crack skin like scales

open to the freezing airs

no, all of them close like magic

proposed

by the thoughts of a nymph

distraught.

 

They embrace and more

in sight of the mage

who stands with both arms crossed

and mouth set firmly

agape

 

“Shame upon both of you,” says he who sat back during all of the attack, says the wizard with eyes glowing red. “Shame and more shame! Truly the devils of sickness have caught you-

To touch another woman

as you might touch a man

to feel familiarity of that sort

with all but those

of a manly nature

is nothing more than foolishness

or dalliance

at best.”

 

The nymph flicks a hand

and the wizard is covered

strand by silken

strand

wrapped from head to toe

in vines and roots that grow

from the ground around his feet

before he utters but a word

in defense

he is but meat

angry meat

with eyebrows arched

and face so white with rage

but just meat

and bone

and blood

and skin

without a spell

or a chance to win

his way free

 

he fumes there

silently

while the beast girl and nymph

standing one with the other

tamed

and tamer than

the wild, shadow’d sky

(though not by much)

gaze into one another’s eyes

as like they just met

or

as like they had known one another

would know one another

the rest

of their beautiful

lives.

——-

 

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

——

 

So how long does a poem story hafta be before it’s considered an epic? Longer than this, right? I don’t care. Enjoy, guys. It took me simply FOREVER, but it’s done.

<3s,

Eris

Short Story Challenge #3: Runtime

I can feel him out there, just out of sight in the fog. I can hear his footsteps– the clank of his plated boots as they strike the stone of the courtyard. Crouched behind the bush, kitchen knife hidden under a fold of skirt, eyes shut tight, I can hear him approach. The fog is too thick for him to see me directly, but he is a seer of the Nemesis family line, and an adept one at that. There is no conceivable way he doesn’t know where I am.

I cover my mouth and shut my eyes tight as I hear his footsteps pass me by.

That much is a trick, surely. I cannot imagine he would be so– well, so nonchalant, so careless in his searching. Still, I step back around the side of the statue at the shrubbery’s side. I can hear screams coming from the manor and it sounds positively ghastly. I am certain that my family is dead or dying, and oddly enough it gives me a little thrill to think of their sour faces and forms strewn across the floor.

My little dose of delight is nearly completely negated– I am also certain I will be dead soon. I have no desire to die. I have no desire for the filthy Nemesis house warriors to find me. The thought of their hands on me, even if only to kill me, is enough to send an involuntary shiver down my spine.

Footsteps again, muffled by the fog. Is the seer coming back? Did one of his visions reveal me to him…?

Yes! One of his hands, rough and calloused, reaches out of the fog and gropes for me against the statue, fingers spider-like as they stretch and then pull away. I hear his voice, speaking in that tongue, alien and unfamiliar as can be. The syllables twist and turn serpentine, and I realize he must be working a magic.

I duck back around the statue completely, as quietly as I can, hugging my knees. The fog, though, parts in a rush, dissipating to reveal the sun above, incongruous to, oblivious to the black smoke that rises, that I can see even over the tall bronze head of our house statue– of Karevus Dame, raising his blade in defiance.

It is to the fore of the statue that I am pulled as one of those spider-like hands steals me away from the metal, yanks me into plain sight– before the plaque at the statue’s broad granite base.

“There you are,” the seer hisses. “Look, can we talk?”

I stare at him incredulously.

“Your mom is worried sick about you.” he continues on, and even though the language is my own there is something terribly wrong with the way he is phrasing things. “How many lives have you gone through this time, Damien? How many runs have you done? I know you’re upset, but that’s no reason to bury yourself.”

Damien… it sounds like a butchering of my family name. It is familiar, though, and for a moment a queer, terrifying feeling washes over me.

Then my connection is cut.

***

I awake, shivering, covered in sweat, staring up at the ceiling of a dull, damp room. It feels as though it is deep under the earth.

As old English fades from my head and is replaced by memories from before my time connected to Nex, the quantum computer responsible for creating the Run, I feel as though my mind is being strained through a broken glass filter.

I remember what glass is. I remember what a quantum computer is. I am Damien. I am not the character I played as in my most recent Run in Nex. I am not connected right now. This is real.

I go to pinch myself to make sure, but then remember that it wouldn’t work. Nex properly simulates pain receptors, at least to a degree far above any pinch.

Why am I lying down, then? Where am I?

No, I’m in the basement of my house. I am in the basement of my house.

I clutch the sheets of my mattress for a moment, take in a deep breath. It is then, and only then, that I notice Naomi standing above me and staring down at me with her cool, blue eyes.

“You’re awake,” she says flatly. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“What?” I ask, and my voice is hoarse. “What do you mean?”

“Damien– you’ve been down here for five turns. Do you have any idea how many runs that is? Do you have any idea how worried your mother has been? She can’t snap you back, you know she doesn’t have an account. She can’t complain to Nex because you know how it treats free will. If you don’t want to come back it can’t make you, she can’t make you, and I’m the only one who knows where to find you. I’m not perfect either, though. There are over a trillion servers being run simultaneously. How would I find you in that?”

I blink up at her. The memories are coming back slowly. Nex is coaxing them into my brain. Somehow it’s managing to be gentle when it usually has, as Naomi says, a trillion servers to run. It isn’t even the most efficient quantum manager in the station.

Five turns, though… had I stuck myself with an IV? I feel my wrist to make sure. It doesn’t seem like it.

“How am I still alive?” I croak, and then wince. “Thank you, by the way.”

“You may not be thanking me when the overload hits,” she replies grimly. “You didn’t remember while you were in there, but if a run takes a little under a standard second, and a turn is about one thousand seconds…”

I stare at her. “Five thousand runs?” I ask weakly. “I just did five thousand runs? Why didn’t Nex pop me back out?”

She pauses, and then her eyes narrow. “Nex.”

A holographic representation of the station’s cybernetic manager appears, crackling into existence so suddenly that it makes me jump.

It doesn’t speak to us using the normal auditory channels, but nods its silvery head and broadcasts to both of us through our chips.

We heard you. We did not remove Damien from the network because we did not deem it necessary to do so.

“He could have died!” Naomi snaps. “When would you have deemed it necessary?”

Damien was not in danger of dying, the quantum computer broadcasts sulkily. We are fully aware of the time it takes for a human body to cease to function from malnutrition.

“So if you were aware–“

We would not let Damien die, Nex transmits, cutting her off mid-thought. Its holographic projection vanishes with a hissing crackle that seems the equivalent of a digital raspberry.

“Nex!” Naomi shouts, and the cellar’s deafening silence shouts back.

I hear her sigh in frustration. I still don’t feel up to sitting, so I stay on my back, staring at the basement ceiling. I wonder at the dampness of it. It must be raining outside.

“That thing is getting more and more belligerent,” I hear Naomi say after a while. “We should really have it decommissioned.”

“About the same time we get a utility ship out here, right?” I ask ruefully. “And get more supplies so we’re not always growing our own food?”

“Ever the optimist,” she sighs, and then groans as she stretches out. I can tell she hasn’t moved in at least half as many turns as I’ve been here. “Get up, Damien. Time to face your mother.”

I shudder. It definitely isn’t something I’m looking forward to.

***

My entire body aches. Everything from the soles of my feet to the tips of my fingers burns as I step up the long, winding stairway to the upper part of the station. The biosphere surrounding the station is transparent right now, since the white sun is below the horizon. The irradiated surface of the rock our ’sphere sits on is glowing– well, phosphorescing– with white fungus. The harvest is getting mature now. We’ll have to go out and collect it before another turn or a flare burns it all to a crisp. This, of course, assumes that I’ll still be able to move properly after my mom finishes with me.

Naomi leads me up the stairs, waiting impatiently at every landing, checking back to make sure that I’m following. She needn’t bother. It’s not like I’m going to connect again. Not after that.

Moving in this body is… weird. It’s no more strenuous than moving in Nex’s servers. There is some sort of oddness to it, all the same, something I can’t quite put my finger on.

Then, halfway up the stairs, I remember why I ran to Nex in the first place. The memory hits suddenly, out of nowhere. Her staring, accusing eyes.

I stop, staring up after Naomi. She turns, and I can see the look in her eyes– she knows what I’m thinking. I see her lips open.

“Mom is dead,” I say flatly. “Isn’t she.”

Wordlessly, slowly, treating me as if I might be a bomb to be set off by a glance, she nods.

I continue up the stairs, and after a moment she moves on as well. Silence reigns again, but for the tap of our bare feet on the soft stepped path. I think back to the most recent run in Hereditary, in Nex’s fantasy world. I think back to the way I’d grown up there, to the cruel mother I’d had and the parental figures. Not flat or two dimensional, like you’d expect from a game. No. Nex is something of a genius– even for a quantum computer– at mimicking emotions and feelings. Why had I locked myself into ‘hardcore’ mode? Why had I turned off external memory?

I hadn’t wanted to remember my mom being dead. I’d wanted to bury myself. Nex, respecting my free will, had let me. Now I ache.

“We’re alone now,” I whisper.

Naomi nods once, shortly. Then shakes her head as we reach the top of the stairwell. “Lights,” she says quietly. They turn on with a flicker, illuminating a spotless, sterile lobby and tunnels leading to the Library, Acropolis and Jungle, as well as the secondary airlock.  Next to the wall by the airlock there’s a rack holding a trio of well maintained Hazardous Environment Harnesses.

I see silver glimmer in the air behind her a moment before Nex’s holographic projection appears.

It seems almost shy, demure in appearance, silvery ‘hair’ waving in a virtual breeze. Close to its chest it hugs a pair of synthbooks, and with a shock I realize that they are real, not merely projections– they aren’t transparent at all.

“Nex?” I ask, after a moment stretches on.

Naomi whirls, and for a moment I see the flash of a grudge in her eyes, but it seems to fade when she sees the books that Nex’s projection carries. Her voice, though, is no less stern for it, but that’s Naomi. She overdoes everything.

“What are you doing?” she demands.

We believed that these documents would be of use to you both. Were we mistaken? Nex queries. Its voice in my head seems diffident.

It drops the synthbooks and then, before Naomi or I can react, it disappears again. The books make a telltale clack as they strike the warm tile floor.

Naomi reaches them a little too late. I pick one up, staring at its title.

“‘Theories on Capital Starship Repair‘,” I read slowly. “‘by Nexus of Freeform Thought.’ It wrote these?”

“Look at the publishing date,” Naomi says quietly.

I turn the book around to see. The synth material glows, forming pattern of standard numerals representing today. And why shouldn’t it be able to write a book and run a trillion servers all at once? It has effectively infinite RAM.

I wonder at that, though, and not for the first time. If we’re really alone on this colony and there are no other people for parsecs, how are we able to communicate with the other players of ‘Heriditary’?

As if reading my thoughts, I hear Nex in my head.

We are projecting from your room, Damien. When you have the harvest, come find us.

The message is downright uncharacteristic. I have never heard Nex sound so serious, and never heard it broadcast to me and me alone. It must be to me, though. Naomi is still looking through the book she picked up.

She looks up after a while. “We should get the harvest in.”

I nod.

***

Taking off the harness, later, after Naomi takes the baskets we used– first to Decontamination and then to the cellar, where we usually sleep– I make my way to my ‘official’ quarters, dodging overgrown vines in the Jungle, admiring the high stairway leading to the forbidden Acropolis.

By the time I reach my room, I’m exhausted.

When I open the door, a projection of Nex stands there. Something is wrong, though. Its arms are folded, its eyes are stern, its silvery hair does not wave.

“Hi, Nex,” I say with a sigh.

The corners of its projected mouth turn upwards slightly. Hello, it transmits. It steps aside. Come in.

I step into the room heavily. Nex closes the door behind me.

I walk to the edge of the bed and sit down, gazing at Nex’s projection. It faces me, arms still folded, staring ceaselessly with eyes it doesn’t need.

“Why did you tell me to come here?” I ask.

I’m met with silence.

I know without looking that the door is probably locked. I’m in no real danger– Nex shouldn’t be capable of physical projection, and even if it was it would not hurt me. Still, my heart beats a little faster.

“What do you want?” I try again. “Are you angry with me?”

I see no flicker of emotion in its expressionless silver eyes. Only the play of its lips and its stance hints at its mood– frustrated. Finally, after what feels like forever, it answers.

No. I am not angry with you, Damien.

“Then what-”

You are depressed. I am attempting to help.

For the first time, I realize that Nex has been using ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ since I stepped into the room. Suddenly suspicious, I rise from the bed and advance on it.

Nex’s projection raises a hand. I feel a sudden tingle, and the next thing I know I am completely naked in front of it. My clothes simply disappear, the air left in their wake snapping into place with a sharp crack.

As I struggle to cover my chest and crotch, a furious blush and a tight lipped scowl crossing my face at the same time, I hear Nex speaking to my mind again.

You are out of touch with your physical body, Damien; have you not noticed that you spend your time here in a body which is male?

“Why are you bringing this up now?” I snap. “Give me my clothes back.”

If you wish it, I cannot disobey.

They appear again with hardly a sound. They are warm and freshly pressed, too, which is downright impossible. No system should be capable of it. As I look again, I realize that no system is capable of it. Nex simply gave me a different set of clothing.

It fades away as I watch, too, with the same stern look on its face.

I look over my clothes ruefully. Why had I bothered to come here? Nex clad me in a short, utilitarian skirt that I recognize came from Naomi’s wardrobe. It also gave me a blouse which doesn’t really fit well.

It’s awkward at first, as I sit back down in them, these clothes. I should take them off, I should go and get the clothes I’m used to again. I’m sure that Nex simply put them in the washer cycle, and that’s fine, but I can’t face Naomi like this.

I sit there in them, the blouse and the skirt, trying to understand what has happened to me, to understand this feeling creeping up inside of me. It starts slowly, and then quickly, rising to the forefront of my mind in a hot wave that sends a tingling shiver down my spine as I realize what it is.

This warmth, this heat, isn’t embarrassed. It isn’t a tentative, shy thing, but a roaring tiger of an emotion.

Stunned by it, staring at nothing, I let it wash down through my arms and legs and toes, this feeling, this queer, complex feeling. Sad and joyous at the same time, without a hint of shame. Here I am, dressed in Naomi’s blouse and skirt, staring at the door and praying with all that I am that she doesn’t come barging in any second. Here I am, in Naomi’s clothes, stock still on my bed, wondering at why it doesn’t feel wrong for the right reasons.

It feels wrong because my body feels wrong. It feels wrong because I am not the right shape, not because the clothes are wrong. What an odd feeling! What a wonderfully terrible feeling!

I realize it, slowly, sitting there with a blank expression on my face. Why does it feel wrong to be a boy?

I don’t think it’s the radiation, I don’t think I’ve lived here too long. I don’t feel as if I was raised wrong. What could it be, then? What haunts me to this degree?

Thinking on it, wondering about it, the worst happens.

Naomi opens the door.

Nex patches me through to Hereditary without my permission.

As my body slumps back, I have enough time to register Naomi’s expression of shock.

***

Suddenly, I stand before a massive, twisting hallway, one that I’ve never seen in all the runs I’ve played in Hereditary. It seems to have been carved almost entirely from marble. Its entrance contains two symbols– the classic symbol for Mars, and the classic symbol for Venus, interlocking, intertwined.

A non-player character, tall, well built, with red hair and a massive two-handed sword strapped to his back, waits by the entrance, arms folded, eyes fixed on me. Then, without a word, he unsheaths his blade, drawing it out from the baldric and stabbing it into the dirt before him.

“Four keys,” he says sharply. “Four and four again.”

There’s something familiar about him, but I already know that he must be being controlled by Nex- or at least a subroutine.

“Who are you?” I ask. If Nex were human I’d ask it to stop playing tricks. Nex is not human. Nex is an extremely powerful quantum computer with access to my memories– the originals, the backups, and the external backups beyond those. It doesn’t play tricks. It doesn’t need to play tricks.

“The first key,” he replies flatly. “I open the way forward.”

With a start, I realize that I am in the end of the first campaign, the first story ever created within the Hereditary framework. I try to take stock of my abilities, try to bring up a menu, but quickly realize that I am an unclassified level of an unclassified character with no documented abilities to speak of. I am a completely unknown character. Worse than that, I can’t see what base stats I might have.

I don’t have to look at my opponent to understand that his abilities are entirely beyond my own. I am naked before him, but at the least I am still able to gauge the first guardian’s abilities. It’s a situation that I’ve been in once before– I played through the first campaign more than once, when Nex first made it available to Naomi and me.

“Unformed one,” he says slowly. “Four and four again. Fight me if you dare.”

I can hear Naomi laughing at me. I’ve never been a fighter. In all the runs I’ve been in I can think of fewer than three times when I have actually been something other than a commoner, archer or wizard.

I don’t feel as if I have any magic ability now. I don’t have a bow. I don’t even have a commoner’s charm.

Looking at myself , I seem to be a completely undefined model– I can’t see my face, but I don’t appear to even have lips. My entire body is unformed, as the guardian had said. I suspect I know what that is– the party rule means that one is incapable of forming a character without first having a player to play with or against. Without that, I’m nothing more than an idea. Perhaps not even that.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask the open air. “Nex?”

It’s the red-haired man who answers. “Challenge accepted. Defend yourself!”

The sword flashes, faster than I can credit, and dirt flies into my face, stinging and blinding me.

I stagger back, trip and fall flat. That, as I see, is all that saves me from being cloven through– the sword arcs overhead with a hiss.

Instinct urges me not to roll, but I fake it, feinting to the right, stopping dead as the blade slams down, rolling left instead. Instinct screams to move then, and I listen this time as the edge of the blade drags back and pulls up again. Moving away, rolling, buys me a few seconds as a foot slams into the dirt where I had been.

I scramble to my feet, moving up and away, dancing out of reach of the massive weapon. The very tip of it whistles just beyond the bridge of my nose. Still blinking away stinging grit, I dart back, again avoiding the blade’s wicked curve by a mere inch.

“Beg for mercy, wench,” he snarls. It startles me just long enough that my step is too short and his too long.

The edge of the blade is at my throat.

I don’t remember this part of the challenge. Shouldn’t he be killing me?

“On your knees,” he says quietly.

I find my legs folding under me, my heart racing.

He steps towards me, then, and in one smooth motion clasps an iron collar around my neck. Attached is a chain of iron rings, the largest of which is at its end. He drives his sword through that last one, deep into the ground to the hilt.

I don’t bother tugging because I already know it’s futile.

The scent of him is metal and sweat.

I have hair when he reaches out to grab it, and dimly I’m aware of my shape changing, as he drags me up next to him with rough fingers, as he holds me there, burning pain spiking through the top of my head.

In a flash, I realize I must be one of my characters. In a flash, I understand what it means.

I have stats, abilities, spells– all sorts of things I couldn’t feel before. I can feel them bubbling up within me, feel the urge to let my power free. As that hand forces my head down and then slams my face into the dirt, the burning urge to resist is replaced with the panicked realization that I can’t breathe or cast spells with my mouth full of mud. I don’t know why I changed, why my character’s body is mine again, but I do know that it won’t mean a thing if I can’t breathe.

“Let her go,” A deep, sharp voice says flatly. It’s distinct, even over the pounding in my ears.

“It is no business of yours what I do with my slaves,” the First Key replies slowly. My lungs burn and my vision, clouded by its proximity to the ground, starts to fade to grey and black. “Unless you mean to challenge me, be off with you.”

“I do challenge you,” I hear the voice reply. “Defend yourself!”

The hand immediately releases me. I raise my head, spitting out mud, gasping, sucking in air, trying not to cry but finding tears in my eyes already. I feel helplessly weak- the iron around my neck might have something to do with that. Despite normally having access to spells, I realize that this is my old sorceress, and one who in Hereditary canon is incapable of using magic when subjected to the touch of cold metal.

A man stands before the Key Bearer– he must be a player, whoever he is, but I don’t recognize the character. A quick glance at his stats tells me he hasn’t a chance, but I let hope rise in my chest. Even if this ended at the end of a run and I were to go back to the real world– if Nex let me–, there’s no telling how long that would leave me to the guardian’s whim. One run may pass like a second in the real world, but it can take years and years, here. The hope is desperate and foolish, but it is there.

The man is a monk class- I can tell by the way he holds himself. His fists are his weapons- of that I have no doubt

His stance is stable and centered. He holds his fists steady before him, gazing at the guardian with piercing blue eyes that seem strangely familiar.

The non-player character attacks first, charging plainly intending to rely on brute strength to lay the player low– he definitely isn’t a monk class, he must be raw fighter, but the speed of his blows, and the measured strength in each strike is enough to make the air ripple.

The player, for his part, stares and, calmly, almost imperceptibly, moves to dodge each attack as it comes. I barely see him move- and not because of his speed, but because he doesn’t. Every motion he makes, every fist he confronts is faced down with that same collected, easy stare, and he makes every effort not to expend any more energy than is necessary to avoid the blow.

The guardian doesn’t have the ghost of a chance. The player monk waits until exactly the right moment, just after a heavy swing– which, to a normal player would offer only the barest breath of an opening– and then strikes his foe directly in the throat. There is a resounding crack, simultaneous with the collar around my throat snapping in two. The Key Bearer’s head snaps back at a sickening angle. He gurgles as he falls over, his eyes rolling back into his head.

I let my head slump back into the dirt, amazed at the warmth of the tears running down my cheeks.

“Up.”

The voice is gruff and unfamiliar. I don’t want to move yet.

A hand on my shoulder, then under it, pulls me up whether I want to let it or not. It’s rough as the one that had recently been in my hair, but its grip is much gentler as it lifts me to my feet and brushes off the dust on my back, sending an odd tingle down my spine.

It whirls me around to face my rescuer.

I stare into the man’s deep blue eyes, and for just one moment I see a fiery, blazing hot passion emanating from them. Then it is replaced with a soft smile. It seems almost incongruous on his rough features, his chiseled chin. His broad shoulders and long arms and legs are packed with muscle.

“Don’t recognize me, girl?”

I shake my head. It isn’t a character I’ve seen before. If Nex wanted me to face these challenges on my own, though, he’d make sure this was a private server, and if it IS a private server, than this character could only be Naomi. Something about the way he holds himself is strikingly familiar, but I can’t place it, and it couldn’t be Naomi because she only ever plays characters from the Nemesis family line.

“Well, I expect you will, given time. Come on, then,” he grunts. “There are three more Keys left to defeat.”

With that, he stalks off into the dark of the hallway, past the broken body of the first Key Bearer.

Not quite understanding why he would attempt to help me at all, I hesitate.

“Come!” comes the gruff call. “I saved your life. You at least owe me that debt, and I cannot face magic alone.”

Still confused, dazed from the dive into the dirt I had recently been forced into, I follow after him, making my way over the sand and onto the flat marble tile floor, feeling exposed and vulnerable in a way that is both familiar to me and alien– in all the lives I’ve lived, this is the first one here, the first run, where I can also remember the things I have already done here, remember the type of people there are in this world.

The walls are made of sandstone, smooth and sturdy. The man, whose name I haven’t yet learned, continues inward until it opens up to a vast, foreboding do me this of limestone. The ceiling is dotted with stalactites of calcareous rock, and impossible veins of shining crystal run through it, glowing red and lighting up the entirety of the interior. It casts a sickly glow over the shape of my unnamed rescuer and his bare, unbloodied fists.

He stops in the center, and across from him, I see a tall statue made of shining, crystalline gold. It must be at least eight feet tall, towering over both the man and me. It also appears to have hinges on its arms and legs and at the center of its forehead, sticking out like a horn, there is a single spike of iron.

Out from around it steps a tall, dangerous woman I recognize immediately.

Inceri is one of the deadliest alchemists in the entire history of Hereditary. One of the greatest honors of any player is to have their character immortalized and set down as a challenger in the Hall of the Key Bearers– Inceri is one of those characters. Canonically she is long since dead- it is her soul which is one of the choices for Second Key in the hall, and it is she who steps between us and the golem standing behind her.

I don’t know what I expect, but it isn’t what comes from her mouth.

“You will not pass,” she states simply, confidently. “If you think that I will let you take the second key from me here, Avery, you are very much mistaken.”

Avery? Avery Nemesis? He is Naomi. What is more, the man I’ve been following is the Nemesis house leader. Shocked– no, stunned— by this revelation, I waver on my feet. Avery- Naomi- stands strong, eyes locked with Inceria’s.

“Girl,” he says quietly. “You’re of the Dame house. I’ll let you deal with her. Last I heard it, she struck down two of your kinsmen, some years back.”

It is distinctly odd, but I do remember the foolish players who went after Inceria, even if my sorceress, Helen, doesn’t remember them at all. To keep in character more than anything else, I shake my head, and then shrug, stepping to the fore. My heart is pounding in my chest, but this time I know my spells like the back of my hand. If by defeating the four Key Bearers I will be able to talk to Nex, I am

The alchemist Inceri wears a long, heavily runed robe, and her golem is famous for being nearly completely indestructible. I watch it warily, waiting for its first move.

“Do you challenge me, Helen of the Dame house?” Her voice is steely, cold and unfeeling.

“I do,” I answer, hiding the quaver in my voice with false determination.

“I accept your challenge,” she snaps. “Come and fight me, if you dare!”

A formula springs to my lips unbidden, fey and familiar, and dances out into the open air in a string of elegant, sibilant syllables– they hang before me, gathering into a cloak, then a cocoon of gossamer light-strands. I push my arms and legs through, and then truly stand in the center of my energy armor. A tweak to the formula teleports a familiar whip-thin sword to my grip. Straight and true, it has no give to it, light as a feather, single-edged, an old friend in my fingers. It has nearly perfect balance.

I take a moment to become accustomed to flicking it through the air– it feels as though it has been ages since I practiced with it.

I have no real time to learn it again– Inceri has used her time well, drawn a slim wand from nothingness– a slim, ivory white wand, curled and re-curled like a unicorn horn. Perhaps it’s made of one.

I try to remember what her abilities are said to be, but all I know of Inceri is that her strength as an alchemist is unrivaled. My knowledge of the guild of Alchemists is limited as well. Their members are secretive, even when caught out of character, in chat lobbies.

“Idiot!” Avery bellows from behind me, and through him I can almost hear Naomi’s voice. “MOVE! I know that wand!”

As I turn my head, I see her flick her wrist, and with it the tip of her chosen weapon towards me.

Barely visible, and only for a split second, there is a ripple moving through the air. In the next moment, my limbs are on fire. Not just my limbs, either, but every part of my body from ears to toes screams as I do, pain arcing through me wildly. My armor is nothing- nothing- nothing.

Through the haze, I can see Inceri laughing, if not hear her. My ears feel as if they’ve split open. Something sticky is running down over my belly, under the cascading armor of light.

“You think that knowing my wand’s power can save you? You think that you can dodge energy like this? Really?

“It’s a disintegration wand, Helen,” Avery growls. “Move next time, or you will die.”

Half of my hitpoints are gone. I was only bruised when I lost to the last Key Bearer. This time, half of my real hitpoints are gone. I’m bleeding.

Eras Simorian, Keryx Alerion, Koju Tyfan,” I murmur. “Founders of magic, grant me speed. Haste.”

An extra action. The world around me slows down to a crawl as I watch Inceri raise the wand again. I put it to use. “Kera Fyrewind’s pride and joy,” I hiss, and let the syllables of the spell flow before finishing. “Reflect.

The wand finishes its short arc, and this time I see the ripple- at its center a bead of red- as it hurtles towards me. I feel barely a tingle as it bounces upon my invisible shield and turns back towards Inceri. Something happens to it, though. Instead of striking her directly and causing her to burst like a swollen melon, the bead of light and the ripple are sucked into the golem standing directly beside her.

To say the resulting sound is is like a ‘bang’ would be akin to calling the sound of nails scratching down glass ‘an unpleasant experience’. The golem’s chest cracks with a hideous screech, stumbles forward onto its knees, flakes of it falling down to the ground silently.

As I watch, it slowly sinks forward onto its knees, collapsing, groaning terribly. Gold shouldn’t crack like that- surely it would bend before it broke. It does, though. Every piece of it seems almost to dissolve slowly as the disintegration magic tears it apart atom by atom.

Inceri’s mouth opens in a snarl, but she doesn’t flick her wand again. “Wretched little witch. You will pay dearly for this, in blood and bone.”

“I’m bleeding,” I say steadily. “Come collect it.”

Inceri is not laughing, and her smile is fell and monstrous. She draws free a gem from thin air, pulling it out of nowhere as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Her hand is closed in a fist around a gemstone probably an eighth-span around- an inch and three quarters.

She taps it once with her wand, and it bursts into brilliant flame and floats in the air before her.

A second tap sets it into a tight spin.

“Seek,” she hisses, voice tight with fury. “Slay.”

The gemstone, shedding flame like water in an ever-constant, rippling stream, spins towards me rapidly. It eats up the distance between us, heat making the air around it appear hazy.

I have plenty of warning, then, when its center flares a brilliant white and a streak of molten rock appears in front of me, when magic tingles as it strikes and rebounds from the shield I created around myself. My heart is pounding suddenly.

Again the flash, and again it rebounds from my shield and melts stone around me. A fleck jumps and burns my cheek– my shield is against magic, not physical force!

Ignoring the hiss and the smell of my own burnt flesh, I leap over the nearest puddle of molten floor– just as the ground I had been standing on but a moment previous bursts into flames.

The gemstone is relentless– every time I stop, it seems to flare, and it gets closer and closer. Its strikes glance again and again from my shield, but that doesn’t seem to discourage it.

“You’ll run out of floor before it runs out of power, girl!” I hear Naomi/Avery shout. “Stop dancing around and deal with it! You’re a magic user, aren’t you?”

Rather than answering with words, I choose a spell formula, pausing and trying not to blink as the expected flash and bubbling hiss turns a patch of limestone next to my feet to vapor. An unexpected gust of wind– wind! In a cave? – forever rids my character Helen of the need to shave her legs as it blows the freshly boiled stone against my calves.

The formula falters for but a moment in my mind, but it’s enough to provoke a miscast, and the next thing I know I lie on my back, head cracked, dizzied and dazed and burned. Poor Helen never did have much endurance, and I know I must be near her limit. My limit. Pain is flowing along my limbs, arcing from nerve to nerve– but especially along my legs.

From my vantage point on the ground, though, I watch a vast creature rise up from the ground where Inceri once stood. Constructed first of rock, and then something closer to chitinous flesh, it is without a doubt the ugliest monster I have ever seen. It is a massive crawler, like one might find after overturning a stone on Hereditary’s surface. I have no true life memories of them– having spent my entire life either at the station or on a starship– but I do remember what they look like here.

Its pincers drip poison, and its mouth is a gaping wound filled with human teeth. A hundred legs seem to writhe at once at its sides, tipped with sharp points that, as they scratch the stone under them, seem to be honed to nano-edges.

Instantly, effortlessly, with barely a shrug of its carapace, it transmutes the ground beneath it to grass and soil. The monumental effort of such an alchemical feat would have killed any lesser mortal, but the creature doesn’t even pause as it digs into the new earth and scuttles towards me.

Inceri. She changed herself! Using magic!

I can’t fathom the increase in stats. I can’t fathom the gemstone either, hovering above me. How could any sorceress fight this woman alone?

A flicker of motion. A leap. Near to tears in panic, vision blurred with them, I watch Avery Nemesis land a kick to the gemstone– one solid kick that causes it to fly down from the air and shatter to a million shards when it strikes the ground.

The monstrosity that used to be Inceri rears up as Avery lands in front of me and turns to face it.

It doesn’t gloat. Despite its human teeth, I doubt it can speak. I doubt it is capable of reasoning, either.

Its pincers descend on Avery like lightning, that mouth open to bite with those awful, perfect teeth.

Avery, with the same sureness that helped him avoid the First Keybearer, stands there and faces it. Those pincers come down with a clack, but Avery- Naomi- pushes both hands out to the sides and, as a terrible crack splits the air, breaks away both pincers.

It happens so quickly that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind it. One moment he stands with his arms at his sides– vulnerable, watching Inceri press those pincers around him– in the next, both halves of the abomination’s mandibles are stuck in the dirt. Those teeth, then, only close on air as Avery steps back, calmly, surely. The Inceri/crawler lets out a groan that chills my blood.

I still manage to push myself up to my feet, if only barely. I can feel each bruise acutely, feel the cuts and the blood trickling from them, feel the burned, raw skin on my legs.

“Helen,” Avery Nemesis says quietly. “Our houses may not be allied, but I need you to-”

Without any warning at all, Inceri lunges forward, propelling herself– itself– in a leap that even Avery has no time to avoid. All of those legs, that terrifyingly human mouth, those bulbous, compound eyes, rush forward in an unstoppable wave.

At the same moment those legs begin tearing Avery to pieces, Nex cuts my connection and I black out.

***

I resume my fall onto the bed and my head connects, not with cushion as I had hoped, but with the steel headboard. Stars flash before my eyes, my eyes cross, and pain paints a gaudy pattern over my nerves.

Naomi is already screaming, hugging herself and screaming, gasping for breath, eyes slowly coming back into focus, brain registering the change from Hereditary’s vivid feeling-space to reality. I curl up into a fetal position on the bed, tears in my eyes. Vivid rage, left over in my system from when Nex had first started to patch me through, burns renewed.

For a while, there is no speech– only pain, shared between us, Naomi and me. Then, as my eyes clear, as my heart stops its pounding, as my vision slowly returns to normal, I push myself up onto my hands and knees. Something sticky is wetting the back of my neck. I suppose without the hair that I have in Hereditary it must be blood. My head aches.

Naomi’s eyes meet mine then. She isn’t crying, but there’s something understood between us.

“Nex is rampant,” she says quietly.

I nod my head, causing the world to spin briefly. “Yeah.”

“I guess we can’t stay here anymore.”

“Yeah,” I repeat. I feel as though I’ve lost something, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.

“Should we turn it off?” she asks flatly.

I shrug. I’m not really at a point where I care.

I stand and manage to totter my way off of the bed.

It shocks me a little, but Nex is standing there- or at least a projection of it. It stands in the doorway, arms folded, face unreadable. Its eyes, though, are cracked and red and, as I watch, drip tears.

I didn’t think robots could even express sadness.

It blocks my path to the door, and as I watch, reaches out, as if to touch me.

I take a half-step back, staring at it.

Help.

It disintegrates before my eyes, and for a moment I’m struck dumb.

The moment fades, and I whirl to look at Naomi.

She shrugs and doesn’t look at me. “If it’s dying, maybe it’s time we let it die.”

“If it goes, the entire station could stop running!” I reply fiercely. “Don’t you care about that?”

“Mom is gone,” she says flatly. “Mom is gone, dad is dead. What are we doing out here, Damien? Are we just playing games? What are we? I feel more at home in Hereditary than I’ve ever felt here, but what can we do? Are we just going to stay here forever, playing stupid games with a decaying computer? Are we just going to keep eating fungus that barely grows on a planet that any day now might be flash-vaped by a solar flare?”

I stare at her for a while. I don’t have an answer to that, so instead I turn and walk out into the corridor, and as soon as I’m out of sight I run.

***

The skirt is awkward to run in, but I don’t care about that. My head aches and pounds, and I don’t care about that either. There’s still anger in my gut, at Naomi and Nex, but there’s something else roiling within me.

I hop down the short ladder-space separating the living quarters from the main parts of the station and dash off towards the Crossroads, where the airlock and the path to the Acropolis lie.

When I arrive, the lights go out.

I am plunged into pitch darkness, and I come to a sudden stop. The only light comes from the airlock’s red emergency glow. The dying star this planet orbits is currently eclipsed by  the bulk of our home’s surface.

It is absolutely, completely, totally silent. There isn’t even a hum.

Standing in the dark, my heart pounding senselessly (what is there to be afraid of?), my eyes straining to see in the black, I hear nothing but my own breathing, nothing but the sound of silence.

For as long as I can remember, there have been lights in this station. For as long as I can remember, there have been lights on in this station. Always, always, always.

I feel a tremble run up through me, feel my body freeze up. Inside, I’m calm, I can understand it, I can force myself to move in my mind. My body won’t move, though. Shrouded in black, the glow of the airlock’s emergency light is fell, demonic, terrible. The world before me swims, the blackness flows and shifts, and my mouth feels dry.

This irrational fear renders me utterly inert.

There could be anything here. There is nothing here. I am alone in this station. Naomi is the only one with me in this station. Naomi and Nex.

I tremble again. Why can’t I move?

Is this the way it will end? Naomi frozen by apathy, Damien frozen by fear?

If I were Helen, what would I do? Even my little girl character, even the last real run I did, even she would be brave enough to face a little dark. She was about to be captured by the Nemesis House Seer, and she was still brave! What would a little darkness be to her?

I can feel stupid, hot tears running down my cheeks. I am not going to be undone by something like this.

Fighting back the terror gripping my body takes all of my will.

Fighting it away robs me of my strength, and when I finally do move it’s a shaking, single step, away from the airlock. When I turn, I can see a tiny circle of light at the far end of the path to my immediate right. That must be the Jungle. It’s a green light that falls there. That means life support isn’t off yet.

To the left of me is more blackness, but I know for absolute certain that in that black is the path, the hallway to the Acropolis.

When I was very small, Mom used to warn us of demons and other creatures lurking in the Acropolis. Things to scare small children, she later admitted. Stories.

High city. That’s what it means. I don’t know my way around there. This station is large enough to get lost in.

I realize, though that I can see, just the tiniest bit, by the large window and the stars. The atmosphere of Ythma has always been red, and so it casts odd shadows that somehow manage to fill my heart with even more dread than before. Swallowing it down, I start towards the blackness and the pathway to the Acropolis.

***

My fingers touch the wall and my heart touches the bottom of my throat. I don’t know how long I have been walking. I don’t know how far away the Acropolis is.

The only noise I can register is my heartbeat, and the starlight is weak and only intermittent. The red glare it occasionally casts against the floor is less a comfort and more a terror. My heart jumps with every step, and I don’t know how much more I can stand. What’s worse, twice now I have seen holes in the floor only after near stepping in them. The wires exposed there are jagged strips of old metal, and even with the power out I am sure they would cut my bare feet to ribbons.

I keep a hand on the wall now as I move forward, and eventually, heart still leaping wildly in my chest, I come to an opening and, as soon as I set foot in it, lights burst on and into brilliance.

It’s a tiny room.

The Acropolis is a tiny room.

It’s circular in nature, domed at the top, and all around are panels and other things I can’t quite understand. A chair sits at its center, turned away from me, and the far wall has a sealed door like you might find leading to an airlock. The plating here is rough with age, and I step carefully as I move forward, worried that the floor might give way at any moment. The way it creaks at me is not encouraging.

Before the chair I can see a massive bank of screens and above those, the words ‘Acropolis’ shine redly where they’re set into the wall.

The lights flicker for a few moments, reminding me of my time limit.

At first I don’t know what to do, but logic dictates that if there is a place where Nex can be fixed from, it would be here.

I take another few tentative steps forward, reaching the chair. It’s set in a swivel base, so I gently turn it around.

It takes all of my willpower again, this time not to shriek. Mom is sitting in the chair, eyes blank and glazed, fingers set and stiff as though still at the controls. Carefully, slowly I pull her away from the chair and, gently as I can, try to set her down on the floor. The artificial gravity of the station is almost as strong as it ever was on the starship, so she doesn’t exactly float to the ground.

It doesn’t smell like a corpse, though, and it occurs to me that Nex must have been running filters in here nonstop to take away the stench.

Numbly, I climb into the chair where my mother must have always been sitting. I stare down at the controls.

They stare back up at me.

This time I do shriek, heart thudding wildly, as Nex rises from the control panel like a vengeful ghost. Inadvertently, I push off, kick off from the platform and the chair falls backwards with a crash– vision blurred with sudden tears and stabbing pain, I hear a second, third, fourth crash and feel warmth all around me.

My gaze returns to normal and, dreading what I’ll see, I look downward. It nearly makes me sick- a jagged, rusted edge of the floor– it had given way under the chair!– has been thrust, driven into my foot so far that its tip pierces the top, pinning it in place.

Below that there is nothing. A black, dark void greets my sight, and I realize that I’m floating. All around me I feel warmth, incongruous with the terrible burning now running up and down my leg.

“Ah,” I say quietly. “N-Nex?”

A silvered hand reaches out impossibly long and, with the precision of a laser, melts through the base of the floor edge stuck in my foot. It returns to the greater cloud and the managerial AI carries me and sets me down, supporting my injured foot at the heel as red slips down over the semi-solid surface of its projection. Slips over it and drips on the floor in a steady trickle.

I don’t have time to think. I look at the screens.

An AI is not allowed to debug itself. It isn’t allowed to fix itself no matter how dire the situation.

Two switches show on the keypad before me- or at least, two switches that I actually recognize.

One is labeled ‘Quantum Memory Control’ and the other is labeled ‘Reboot from Last Backup’. I haven’t the faintest idea which one I should flick, or if either of them needs flicking at all.

A soft tapping noise, above the drip of my blood on the floor and the hum of the computer bank, sounds from behind me. I turn slightly and let out a soft, weak sigh of relief. “Naomi!”

She smiles very briefly, winces as she limps a step forward and I see that she is leaving a trail of blood behind her. I cover my mouth and shut my eyes, unable to properly drag my eyes away from the mess of bleeding cuts marring her bare right foot.

Slowly though, so slowly, she reaches the computer bank with me and plops down a heavy synthbook I recognize. It’s the starship repair book.

The lights dim, flicker, and for a few moments at least, go out. They come back on barely a moment later, but I realize we have no time to lose.

“I brought it along, but I don’t know how it’ll… uh… help,” Naomi mutters flatly. “Nex is not a starship.”

“Nex was on a starship,” I point out. “I’ll look through it.”

“You’ve never touched a synthbook in your life,” Naomi growls.

“I’ve had more than one life to learn to read,” I reply grimly. “Remember? Five thousand of them at the least.”

She nods faintly, obviously in excruciating pain. “Right.”

I open the book to the first page, quickly looking through the table of contents to find the section on AI repair. As soon as I find the section on quantum computers, I read through it and Naomi gets to work.

Within fifteen minutes, we restore power to the lights. Within the next fifteen, Naomi falls unconscious.

It’s not a sudden thing. Her eyes droop and her movements grow faint. Twice I remind her that she needs to focus, twice she nods vaguely and then, as she collapses, smacks the big red ‘engage airlock’ button, something I now recognize after what feels like an age of poring over the thick synthbook.

The airlock opens, on the far side, the door sealing it cycling outwards as if opening a vault, as if a secret door in Hereditary. It slides away like magic and reveals a short hallway. The synthbook projection flickers and disappears as Naomi slumps and, barely able to support her weight myself, I still catch her and hold her upright.

We took the liberty of waking up the rest of the station, Nex broadcasts.

I blink as the lights come back on full force. The hallway is still unlit. I swear I see shapes moving in it, though.

You both have done enough work for me to repair myself the rest of the way. All we need is your authorization.

I stare at Nex’s projection, reflected in the screen where it stands behind us, supporting me and Naomi both.

I touch the button authorizing AI self-repair, blue and glowing bright on the keypad. It whirs and clicks for a moment, lights flickering for a heart-stopping breath, and then they flick on and stay that way, and the newly illuminated hall shines bright. The sign above it flickers into life as well: Greater Quarters – Colony Central – To Acropolis.

From it steps a elder man, wide-eyed and owlish, blinking in the light. His gaze catches on mine, flicks from me to the body of my mother, to my foot, pierced through with metal. It travels to Naomi’s unconscious form and my expressionless face, my clothing.

He turns his head back towards the corridor behind him. “Jenkins, run and get in touch with Medical right now.” He turns back and then rushes in. I’m about to warn him about the rusty floor, but my mouth won’t work. It doesn’t seem to matter. His boots glow as they strike the metal, and he doesn’t seem to touch the floor so much as skim over it. Anti-gravity, perhaps.

He looks around at the place briefly, as if checking it for danger, and then looks me over once, twice. I wince. I’m still wearing Naomi’s clothes…

“Are you alright, girl?” he asks quietly. “That foot looks bad- here.”

A ripping noise. He tears through the fabric of his shirt. His gloves pulse red- strength enhancing, perhaps.

I realize he was talking to me only after he takes my foot into his hands.

“Deal with Naomi first,” I manage weakly. “Please.”

“You need it more. There is a rusted metal object in your foot. This is going to hurt,” he says gently. “Brace yourself.”

Tears well up in my eyes.

I don’t care.

We’re not alone anymore.

We’re not alone.

———–

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

———–

More on this one in a later post. I’m too tired to even tag this much.

Enjoy.

-Eris

Short Story Challenge #2: Pipes

Trees race by while I stand still, and they leave me bare in the plains beyond them, bare and shivering as the humans on their great steeds surround me. Plated in scales no Pan could touch, the other-dwellers drop from their mounts, iron fangs drawn and pointed at me in unison. I’m not hurt by my capture as much as by the forest’s betrayal.

“Beautiful as it is dangerous. Fetch a net. A year back a young faun killed Marco.”

“Aye, oi remember.”

Their voices are alien, foreign to my ears, and though I know what they say I can’t communicate with them. Humans speak a variant of the sylvan tongue, but cannot understand the main branch.

I twist in the circle of their points, crouching, staring. I can see no way out past them. Perhaps under them? I bring the panpipes up to my lips, taking in a breath. I let the air flow over and into the topmost pipe.

“Spell! Argus- counter- we need it back alive!”

The note is so piercing it even makes me wince, but the response is near instant. The ground beneath me opens up, slams together again as I drop. The earth muffles shouts and curses and traps one iron fang as it closes above my head.

“Rithma’s staff-!”

“Spread out- it’ll-“

Whatever they say, I don’t hear. The root pulls me away too quickly.

The world blurs as the twining thing, wrapped around my legs, whisks me away faster than a blink.

It drags me down the tunnel and then releases me suddenly, leaving me on my back, aching all over, alone in the near pitch blackness under the earth. The only light is from a light-touched spore-tree, glowing just enough to hide the shadows beyond. It had been guesswork– if I had been plunged into the earth without a tunnel here, I’m sure it would have been much worse.

I look at the pipes sadly- I can feel the broken edges. Ten pipes they had been, all in a line. Now they are five. The rest must be lost somewhere along in the darkness.

I push myself up to my hooves. Thankful for the fey tunnel I’d been dragged into, but apprehensive about what lies ahead, I suck in a breath and continue into the dark.

 

I come to a wall– a solid mass of thick tree roots bars my way.

I can still hear the a set of plated boots above me. I think it must belong to a human thread-twister and one of the Scaled, but there’s no way to know. When I pause, they pause. When I stop, they stop. When I lean against the root wall before me, they bicker.

“It can’t have gone into the tree.”

“She stopped, and here it is.”

 

Earthfather’s child, warmed in the sun

Your leaves I search for, the humans I run

From.

Part your roots and let me through

Only this I ask of you.

 

It works– I feel the roots part before my fingers. I duck into the gap and it closes behind me. The footsteps do not follow me.

More roots hang down before me, touching, feeling for me as I pass. The voice of this earthchild is strong and very much awake.

Child of the forest’s sin, go you where and back again?

I shiver. The voice itself is… sick somehow. Wrong in ways I can’t begin to fathom.

I can crush those humans for you, grind their bones and break their hearts.

Shall I take and batter their scales, soak them in the ancient art?

Their skull’s soft dust will feed my roots, their eyes will burst and nourish my bark….

I reach the edge of the child’s rootcircle, only to find that another wall of roots bars my path as surely as the darkness blocks my sight.

Shouts from above me, a cry and a crack. The hissing, whistling sound of branches moving, creaking in wind. Then silence. Then heavy, muffled breathing, a noise like a cry or a whimper, a wounded animal.

“Oh gods Argus oh gods it killed him oh-“

I freeze under the earth. A root is twining around my neck.

Slowly, carefully, I bring the pipes to my lips. Its roots must go on and on.

Another root plays against my hand, another drifts down my back and curls around my short tail- it is all I can do not to panic, my heart is beating so loudly I know the whole tunnel knows it.

“Gods no, gods- why, why did it do that, the tree moved, the whole tree moved-“

I draw in a breath, inching the pipe over to the second longest reed.

Air escapes my lungs in a squeak as a root viciously encircles and constricts my chest.

You think I am blind, little faun, but under the earth I feel your intent.

Put it out of your mind, put it out of your hands. Drop the pipes, little faun, drop them now or I will squeeze until your mind is raw.

Choking, I let the pipes slip from my fingers, a dull, terrible feeling growing in my stomach. They thud wetly in the earth. The ceiling above me opens, and the root pulls me upward into the sun. I’m left blinking and blind for a few moments, bare and feeling terribly exposed.

The price is paid, little human. Take your faun, take the forest sinchild and go.

There is a man here, as my vision clears. A human dressed in plate. At his feet another man, dressed in withered earthchildren woven together so tight you couldn’t see the join between them. They’re painted a lurid red, but the red isn’t as bright and sick as the pool around his skull, broken open to show the white of bone, gleaming in the light of the sun.

The root releases me, and my hooves clack on the stone-hard bark near the base of the wicked, ancient, sky-touching earthchild. Its branches sway and hiss menacingly, and another shudder goes through me. I haven’t my pipes, so I am well and truly defenseless.

I stand there, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, as the human straightens, walks over to me on shaking legs and, grasping my arm roughly, drags me after him.

The touch of his hand is leather, not iron, and its like being handled by the dead, but I let him pull me away from that terrible earthchild– because I know that if I try to run, the wicked creature will kill me for certain. I walk with him meekly as I can, ready to bolt once we’re out of the tree’s range.

To my horror, however, we only walk a short while before we reach his den– a short, thin-walled tent, like that made by a worm- but much smaller.

He pulls me with him and throws me into the tent. I scramble away from him, surprised at first by the spaciousness, and then by the unmistakable tingle of filthy human magic. For a few moments, at least, my body ignores my pleas to move, and he capitalizes on the moment to clasp bands around my wrists and just above my hooves.

“Hah. There,” he says. His voice is shaking. He seems frightened, continually glances back towards the massive earthchild, still visible, its thick trunk towering above the ground, its many boughs curled and deceptively tranquil.

“I can’t believe the Captain risked us for you,” he murmurs darkly. “You can’t be more than twenty years come and gone, and here he’s willing to sacrifice the lot of us.”

The magic fades, and I kick out at him once.

“Stop trying to attack me.”

The filthy tingle is back. Suddenly I can’t think of striking at him. Attempting to move my leg for another kick results in a hot, sick wave of pain.

I glare at him, but can do nothing else.

“Whatever. I don’t know where the Captain and his squad are, but we aren’t going anywhere until he gets here.”

I don’t say anything. Why should I bother? He can’t understand me. Even if he could, humans hate fauns. They hate panii in general.

To myself, I mutter, “Mud-drinking human. I’ll be gone long before your Captain arrives.”

His eyes open wide, and then narrow. “Fauns speak Sylvan?”

I quickly shut my mouth and turn away, but it’s too late. “Tell me.”

Pain lances through my lips and forces them apart, searing fire moves my tongue for me. “Y-Yes! Of course we speak Sylvan!”

It fades as soon as it came.

A pause as both of us stare at one another. My heart is pounding again, and I know my fingers are curled against the floor. The human feels too close. The burning touch of his scaled plate makes me want to squirm away, but I’m afraid if I draw attention to it he’ll order me to stay close. Humans are sick creatures like that–

“I never knew,” he whispers, and sits back. He stares at me. “I never- I never knew…”

Silence passes between us for a while, awkward and thick.

You speak Sylvan?” I ask, curious despite myself.

He removes his helmet, gazing at me steadily. It is only then that I notice his tapered, rounded ears.

“Yes,” he replies. “I do.”

“You’re– earthblooded!” is what escapes me. “Why are you with them-?”

He shakes his head ruefully. “My mother was a feywolf and my father a mercenary. She was his slave. I signed on to the military when I was younger.”

Now the feyblood doesn’t meet my eyes. His, I notice, are a deep silvery grey, mirrors to mine.

“Why did you try to run?” he asks sadly. “Argus is dead because you ran.”

“You would run as well if you were hunted down by the most dangerous predators in all the forests combined. You capture fauns and eat them. Or… the humans do.”

He actually laughs, and for a moment fear stabs at my heart. I listen, all the same.

“We never eat fauns. We’re preserving them. We try to catch as many as we can from the groves we schedule to be cut down.”

I shrink away as he reaches out to me, but it’s only to pull a long metal stick from behind me. It isn’t an earthmetal. I know it’s likely some worked human abomination, but the colors are a soft green, and almost pretty.

He brings the tip just before his lips and speaks again. It takes me only a moment to realize what it is. The fact that he again speaks his human branch of Sylvan is a help.

“I’ve found her…. Argus is dead. Massive rooted wood-walker here too. Killed Argus. Probably not the faun’s fault. Pitched the tent. Awaiting orders.”

A voice comes back through the rod.

“Remain where you are. The Captain will be back from his hunting foray and we will pick you up. That is an order.”

“Understood,” the half-man replies sharply, and looks up at me again.

I shiver under the force of that gaze, not meeting his eyes. “You do mean to take me with you.”

“There will be more fauns where we are going,” he says softly. “Take comfort in that.”

“I take no comfort in false promises,” I snap. “You captured me. You are betraying your kind.”

“And if I sided with you, I would be betraying my kind as well.”

“I am not a human,” I point out. “I am not one of the humans.”

“Is that meant to be persuasive? I’ve lived most of my life with humans. Why should I care whether you are a human or not?”

“Because you’ve lived most of your life with humans,” I respond, and look him in the eyes. I take a deep breath, take a chance, twining some of the magic of the panii into my voice. “You want to learn about your sylvan family too. You are curious.”

He frowns. “I may be curious, but I can learn all I need to about the fey from the library in the citadel.”

I sigh, then, pushing myself up into a sitting position, glaring at him. “And what will you do with me?”

His grin is downright frightening. “Whatever I wish.”

 

As it turns out, he wishes to comb through the fur on my legs with his fingers, as though a bird preening feathers. As it turns out, he is searching for bite-flies and the little white eggs they occasionally leave behind. I let him, because resisting is pointless. I don’t know what form of magic he has me under, what form of human sorcery it is, but it binds me fast whenever I attempt to disobey him.

His hands touch on a lump in my left leg. I wince, kick reflexively, but thankfully don’t manage to hurt him.

“When did this happen?” he asks softly. “When did you hurt your leg?”

“Months ago. I couldn’t move it. I fell and couldn’t move it. It’s better now.”

Well, I hadn’t fallen, really. But he doesn’t need to know that.

He frowns. “The bone never set properly.”

“What?” I ask blankly. What does he mean?

“It healed wrong. Look, it’s out of place here. Your other leg isn’t like that. Does it hurt when I press on it?” he does so, pushing. His fingers feel like razorpine and his palm like coarse sand wrapped in bark and scraped slowly against an open wound.

A squeal escapes without my meaning it. I try to tug my leg away, but his grip is firm and the pain is too much.

“Yes it hurts! Stop!” I snap. “Why do you care?”

He shrugs, looking up at me with serious eyes. “I’m sure you wouldn’t understand why I care.”

I turn away from his gaze. “There’s nothing wrong with my leg.”

“Here,” he says quietly. “I’ll show you what’s wrong with your leg. You haven’t the slightest idea.”

He reaches out, but I grab his wrist as his hand moves towards my head. “What are you doing?” I snarl. “Keep your hand-“

A chilly, sickish, tingly feeling spreads outward from his wrist into me. It trickles up my back and settles in my mind like a gentle, soft weight. Suddenly, I know.

The bone in my leg is splintered and fused together in five different ways. The bump on my leg is where the broken shaft is protruding out into the skin surrounding it. I have a clear image in my head of what the bone looks like– a stick split in the center, the edges of it surrounded by lumps of flesh formed around to cushion them. The knowledge of the way the bone mended wrong, how instead of fusing along the seam, muscle formed a wedge between the cracks in the bone and slowly began to push it apart.

Just as quickly as the feeling came, it vanishes, leaving me with foreign knowledge in my head- knowledge without understanding. Seam? Muscle? Fused?

They are human words! How did he fill my head with human words?

I have an ache centered in the front of my head and it stings as I move my leg. It hadn’t stung before I knew what was happening. Did he magic my leg like this?

It looks the same as before, though, so I resist the urge to aim a kick at him.

“What did you do to me?” I ask.

“Showed you what was wrong with your leg,” he says dryly. “I told you that I would.”

“What is a seam?” I ask again, feeling lost. “Why do I know of- muscle and… fused? Why are those words in my head?”

“Sylvan doesn’t have those words. A seam is stitching, but here it means… like a crack. Where the bone should be joined together. Muscle is what you use to move. Fusing or fused things are… things that are… together? Pushed together or held together.”

I shake my head, still uncomprehending, but he sighs, lifts his shoulders, drops them again. “When the Captain gets here, I’ll have the healer take a look at it.”

I close my eyes as he finishes picking through my fur. Now that he’s groomed me I know what will come next.

“Is this your first time?”

His voice interrupts my train of thought, but only slightly. I stare at him and narrow my eyes. “What do you mean?”

He stands, stretches in the not-so-cramped confines of the surprisingly spacious den. A bed of woven plants and iron sits in the corner of it. To my surprise, he walks over to it and sits on the edge.

“Is this your first time being captured?” he asks. “Have you been caught by humans before?”

“Mud-drinkers twice, orcs once. I almost prefer the company of orcs,” I say flatly.

“Why?”

“There are usually fewer of them.”

“…Ah.”

There is silence between us for a moment. I don’t feel like talking to him now anyway. In fact, I haven’t a clue why I started up conversation in the first place. He is a monster, like most other humans. He may have given me information, but he invaded my mind to do it. He may have helped me escape the clutches of that earthchild, but he did it for his own gain.

I want nothing to do with him. I want to escape.

To that end, I rise to my hooves and step outside of the tent.

He doesn’t say anything, just watches me. I can feel his eyes on my back as I step out into the air.

Little faun….

A series of terrible, violent and obscene images spring into my mind. Sensations like hard oak pistons drive into me from every direction. My legs quake. Little faun. You know what it is I will wreak; back to the tent where the humans stink. Come out again if come out you dare. I can reach you, even there.

The voice sickens me to the point that I feel dizzy, and I stumble back into the tent again, hugging myself and trying to banish the memory of it– like wet, slimy, rotten death, like a tendril of something terrible is worming its way into my mind. As soon as I step into the tent again, it leaves me, and I blink back tears.

“It talked to you.”

I stare at the half-blood.

I nod once, weakly, and turn back to the entrance of the tent, gazing outward.

His voice draws me back again, though. “What does it say? I can hear it but I can’t understand it.”

“It says- it wants to kill us both. And it s-shows me. What it will do to me if I try to escape.” I can feel my voice crack, and I sit down, staring into the bright of the day and the dark of the earthchild’s shadow. “When will your Captain be here?”

“I don’t know,” he replies quietly. “When he does get here, he will take care of the wood-walker.”

Time goes by again, in total silence. Finally, though, I let curiosity get the better of me.

“What is your name?” I ask, curious.

“Yimmer. My surname is Kindleheart. I am a private and a pathfinder for the Aegis legion.”

Silence passes yet again. For a time all is quiet, and then it strikes me.

“You didn’t ask me my name,” I point out.

“Fauns have names?”

I can see him grinning, but it still hurts. “Of course!” I huff, feeling put off. “Everything has a name.”

“What’s your name?” he asks quietly. He is resting on his back now, arms behind his head. “What do other faun ladies call you?”

“My name is Sarah.”

“That’s an odd name,” Yimmer says, after a pause.

“It’s the name I was born with,” I reply shortly.

“It’ll do. I’m sorry we had to meet under such poor circumstances, Sarah.”

Any time I meet a human is automatically under poor circumstance, in my opinion, but I don’t voice it.

I suddenly feel a warm, steady hum in the bands around my arms and legs. Startled, I rise.

Sit down,” comes Yimmer’s command in bastard Sylvan. I find my legs folding under me. The bands begin to glow. Though the humming can’t be described as uncomfortable, it isn’t comforting.

I’m about to say something when I hear voices from outside of the tent.

“This looks to be the tent. It has our insignia.”

“I’m not losing any men to a tent mimic. Ho there! Private Kindleheart!”

Yimmer, sitting up now, calls back.

“It’s me! I’m not a mimic. You can come in!”

“T’would be better served if I cut my own throat! Step out so I might see you for myself, Private.”

With a sigh and a sheepish grin I can’t be sure he means, the half-human stands up and walks towards the entrance of the tent.

Bound by his command and the ever present agony-threat of the bands around my wrists and ankles, I sit there and wait as he ducks out.

“Well, I’ll be! Alive and well, Private Yimmer? A faun can be a wily one- did it escape you?”

“No sir. She’s in the tent. The control bands work a treat.”

I stare at the entrance to the tent I sit in. The silk twitches aside to reveal a human with bright blue eyes and wild silver hair that cascades down its shoulders. It doesn’t seem to be clad in any particular type of iron, but it is wearing dead, dry skin, leather. Studded in each glove is a thick earthstone, glowing green. The blasphemy of Terrus’s tears set amidst dead flesh makes me sick to my stomach in a way iron couldn’t match.

“So you’re the one who killed Argus,” it says softly. I can’t be sure from looks alone whether this human is a man or a woman. “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to catch you.”

I don’t respond. What would be the point? I wouldn’t be understood. I am not the one who killed Argus- that wicked earthchild killed Argus, if Argus was the robed human lying in his own blood.

“On your knees. Wait there until I call you.”

My hesitation causes searing agony to writhe its way up my spine. It’s all I can do not to cry out, but my legs fold themselves under me and I sit on my knees obediently. The burning is slow to fade, and the humiliation lingers even when the pain is gone. I am not by nature proud, but this… taming, if that is what it is, is swiftly shredding even that small inclination towards self-respect.

The human, dressed in its dead skins, leaves. The first to come in after him is a short but wiry human with soft green eyes and a bald head. He wears iron scales for protection and carries a short fang at his belt. He seems more curious than malicious.

He looks directly into my eyes and smiles. I hear his thought-voice in my head.

 

Do not despair. Soon you will be with more of your kind than you have ever seen.

 

I gaze back at him steadily. I can’t answer. He wouldn’t understand me, so what would be the point in trying?

 

I can hear your thoughts, faunling. If you think it, I know it.

 

I don’t know if I believe that. I’m quite sure that if I wanted to keep my thoughts hidden it would be a simple enough thing. I don’t like the intensity of his stare, and I don’t care about joining more of my kind. All I want is freedom.

He straightens, then, nods once, smile fading, and leaves the tent.

“She does not want to be here, Captain.”

Their voices are hard to differentiate, but I recognize the wiry man’s thought-voice in his true voice. The Captain’s tone is familiar as well.

“If our operation relied on its comfort, we’d never have tried to capture it.  Anyone else want to spend some time with the beast? I’ll overlook it as long as there isn’t a mark on its spotted hide when we reach the gardens.”

“What, sleep with a faun?”

Laughter.

“I will,” I hear Yimmer say.

“Fancy yourself a little faerie wife, Kindleheart?”

“About time you started eyeing women though, right?”

I shiver, hugging myself and shutting my eyes. These stupid bands! Were it not for the Captain’s command and these horrible devices I know I would be able to escape.

At least, if I still had my pipes I could escape…

“Set up camp here. There’s room amidst these trees. Mind you don’t settle too close to the wood-walker. I’d rather not fight that thing until I absolutely need to.”

A heartbeat or two later, I hear sounds of movement all around the tent. I quake there, sitting on my knees and trying not to think about what is almost certainly coming. It doesn’t work- trapped as I am on my knees at the Captain’s orders, I stare out into the day and wait, in dread and doubt, for the day to turn to night. After listening to each human pitch their own ideas for Yimmer to hear on how to have me, after being cooped up in the tent for who knows how long, the tent flap twitches aside and Yimmer, golden eyes soft and tired, steps in.

“The Captain says you may move now,” he says dryly. “Do not leave the tent.

I push myself away from him immediately, still hugging myself, eyeing him suspiciously. He ignores me entirely, moving to the woven plant-and-iron nest in the corner, lying on it and staring at the wall of the tent.

For my part, I lean against the farthest wall from him, still hugging my knees- which ache horribly from being in the same position for the entire day. The pain in my leg, where the bone is splintered, was made much worse for me sitting back on it. Now I’m not so certain I could escape even if the bands were away and I had a moment of freedom. I watch Yimmer until he closes his eyes, until the rise and fall of his chest stabilizes, evens, and he seems to be asleep. Eventually I close my eyes as well, and my heartbeat slows down enough that some semblance of rest comes to me.

 

I am awakened, and rudely. A hand is curled tight in my hair. I won’t begin to describe the taste in my mouth or what I see when my eyes open. I will say only that in one moment I am stunned, confused, terrified. I can’t breathe. Something is- blocking my lungs from drawing in air. I scream, shout, bite- around whatever it is in my mouth, but it pinches down on my tongue and forces my mouth open wide.

The noise- from what little I can see around the belly of whoever stuffed their fingers between my lips, wakes up Yimmer who, initially bleary, is near instantaneously furious as he rises to his feet and takes stock of the situation.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing? A man can’t have fun in peace? Want her all to yourself, Yimmer?”

The hand releases me, though, and something in my mouth is withdrawn just as I bite down. I feel a sharp blow to my side and curl in on myself, coughing, gasping.

Yimmer’s voice, when next it comes, is sharp as a fang, and deadlier than ever I have heard.

“Get out.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to- you know… at the same time?”

“Get out of my tent!” comes the answering snarl. From my dazed vantage point on the floor, I see a man calmly drawing up the woven animal-skin over his waist again.

His eyes linger on my prone form as he ducks out, and he leers openly. “Suit yerself. It’s a long trip to the gardens, boy. I’ll get my chance.”

As soon as the tent flap closes behind him, I feel Yimmer’s hand on my arm drawing me up with him.

Without a word, he pushes me into the nest he made for himself and, upon drawing the woven silk sheet over me, walks to the entrance of the tent and, leaning against the wall, closes his eyes again, taking up silent guard.

Shaking uncontrollably, I lie still in the bed, jumping at every footstep. My tongue is sore and bleeding from the man’s nails digging into it, and something in my mouth tastes absolutely foul even with those thick fingers gone. I feel violated in the worst of ways, as though a part of me is now soiled. Inexplicably, I find tears in my eyes, find I’ve lost the strength to hold them back. Alone in the tent but for Yimmer, who only feigns sleep in the corner, I cry until the tears won’t come anymore. When they finally leave me, when my cheeks are drenched with them and my heart aches fit to burst to pieces, I take a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly.

I open my eyes to find Yimmer staring into them, close enough to touch.

Still saying nothing, he brushes a tear from my cheek with the back of his hand. I can’t help but notice the coarseness of his skin– not as rough as the fingers had been, from before. Finally, as he looks at me, as he stares at me, I understand.

“Don’t cry, little faun,” he says, quiet as can be. “I’m here. If that man comes back I will drive this sword into his gut. No one will miss him.”

He isn’t seeing me, not really. Even as he gazes at me, even as I watch him smile, I know it is not me he sees lying before him. Those are the eyes of a pan mad with anger, and to be honest I find them more frightening than anything I have ever seen. How could he care about what happens to me? The moon has not even risen into the sky on the day he found me, the night is not yet at its peak, but he protects me. Why?

“What hurt you, to make you like this?” I ask, and curse myself for my weakness.  I don’t know what drives me to ask in the first place. Some idiotic curiosity spilling over in my heart. “What pushes you to do that for me?”

Yimmer blinks, then shakes his head, as if clearing it, stares at me as if truly seeing me for the first time.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs, and turns away, leaning against the side of the bed of iron and woven plant. “I… I suppose I really don’t. It doesn’t sit well with me. Their treatment of you. Argus didn’t die… just so they could… hurt you, like that.”

It’s alien. Wrong somehow. I didn’t grow up with him. I never sang or played the pipes or danced with him in the forest. I’ve just met him. I’ve only just now begun to understand him.

Why would he help me? There must be some motive beyond me, something that I don’t understand.

“Who was Argus?” I ask, after a time.

He doesn’t answer, and after watching him for a while, I decide he must be asleep.

It isn’t until I lean over to see his face that I can be sure.

Tears are streaking his cheeks, his breaths come in short and clipped, his eyes are shut tightly.

I pull away, lying against the plants. So woven, they don’t really feel like the green friends I know in the forest- they don’t feel alive. I’ve heard humans talk about it once. Cloth perhaps. Silk for what spiders and worms weave.

After a time, I manage to find sleep. Though silent, I can feel Yimmer’s crushing sorrow, and though dreamless, my rest is not restful.

 

“Up.”

The human voice startles me awake. I look into the eyes of the human captain. They are downcast, and after a moment I realize he is staring down at Yimmer, and not at me.

“Private Kindleheart, on your feet.”

“…Captain?”

“We leave. Now.”

“Yessir,” Yimmer replies. Were he full human, I could not read him. Since he has sylvan blood, his emotions are clear as day: He doesn’t want to go. The captain turns to me.

“Faunling. Stand. Follow.”

I find the nearly familiar agony burning in my legs, and quickly rise to my hooves, standing. As the captain steps from the tent, I follow after him, tossing a quick glance back at Yimmer, who rises as well. Then the pain shoots down my legs, followed by a less familiar sharp spike of it along the bone. I cry out without meaning to, but force myself to follow after the human, stepping out into the dawn.

A voice fills my head, and not one I am pleased to feel.

Little faun. You will not escape. The men and their dogs will die.

I’ll wrap you up in a rootfold cape and tear you apart inside.

Say one word to the human fools and you will be first to fall.

Deep in the earth, buried and covered, I will begin to draw.

The marrow from bone will slake my thirst and in blood my seed will grow.

The strength of the images that twisted earthchild sends me chill my blood, chill me to the core. I feel shakes and shivers roll through me. I can’t stop them, and nearly fall when Yimmer notices. He steadies me, a hand on my shoulder, a hand on my back. As the world fades into focus again and I hear those around me, I am aware of muttering.

I realize that Yimmer is holding me, then, that aside from his hand, he has an arm wrapped around me.

“Her leg is broken,” he says to the stares. “She shouldn’t be walking on it in the first place. How are we to deal with the wood-walker?”

“A fair question,” concedes the captain. “We brought torches. I suggest firebrands as a defense at least, to ward it away, and then moving swiftly out of its reach.”

Yimmer glances at me, and I find myself shaking my head. “No,” I whisper. “Fire won’t work. This earthchild is bigger than- at least five of the oldest sleeping earthchildren put together. We can’t fight it with fire.”

I can see your lips moving… I know what you say…

I freeze, trembling. I can feel the vibrations as the earthchild’s roots move underneath me.

“What is your name?” I ask, quietly. “If you are to kill me, tell me your name.”

“What?” Yimmer says sharply. “I’m not going to-“ Then, realization. “Captain! The wood-walker will strike now! We need to mo-“

All around, the ground caves in. All around us, the earth gives way. Wriggling, writhing under it, seething with growth and masses of living, squirming roots, some as thick around as my thighs, some as thin as a hair. Shouts, screams, cries.

The air is thick with the sound of snapping, crunching bone, battered iron scales, broken fangs and rent skin.

Just as abruptly, the air is thick with rain. The sky opens up and pours down rain, heavy as can be, and I hear the earthchild scream in agony, see its flailing roots, bare and smoking as water pours onto them, feel its pain as a palpable wave.

I am astonished, but not for long. On hands and legs both I feel the human magic hiss and drain free, and instantly I understand, instantly I know as I watch the roots stiffen and still.

“Purifying storm,” I whisper. On one leg, then on both I bolt, but I don’t make it far. As I yank myself away from Yimmer, stumble, trip and near fall, I feel his arms around my waist and chest, feel him draw me back hard against him. He should know better.

I smash his toes in with one hoof, stomping hard, and slam the back of my head into his nose. It makes a sickening crunch.

He doesn’t even flinch, even as something warm runs down the back of my neck, something warm and sticky.

“Listen to me, faunling,” he whispers. “Listen to me, Sarah.”

I don’t know why I can’t run. I don’t know what keeps me here. The human magic contained in the bands still wrapped around my legs and wrists is gone. Their foul leash is gone.

“You can’t run. Don’t run.”

Even without magic to tell me not to move, to send pain scything through me, I listen to him. I relax in his grip, half-turn, easing up my hoof from his foot.

“They will kill you if you run. They will track you down now. They think it is panii sorcery and nothing I say will convince them otherwise.” His voice is thick. It doesn’t surprise me, considering his crushed nose.

I can feel his pain bubbling up through his toes. I can feel his heart pounding against my back, even through his leather scales.

“Are you going to run?” he asks quietly. I can barely hear him over the sound of the rain.

I shake my head, aware that my hair is wet with his blood. Terror steals strength from my limbs. Terror and stabbing pain lingering in my leg. I’ve failed again.

“Swear.”

“I will not run,” I say, in a voice that comes out more like a whimper. “I promise. I swear.”

“Do you have her, Kindleheart?”

“I have her. With respect, sir, our division is in disarray. What’s left of our men might take days to reach the Gardens.”

The captain stares at Yimmer for a moment, and then nods. “Go on.”

“Let me take her there. Two will travel much faster than a group like this.”

“Absolutely not, Private. If you split off, what’s to stop it from kicking free and running as soon as it can?”

“The bands, sir,” Kindleheart points out. “The control bands.”

The captain hesitates. Finally, he seems to make up his mind. “I’m coming with you.”

Yimmer’s expression doesn’t change, but I can feel his hope sink away. “Yes sir.”

I turn slightly in his grip, looking at his face- bloody, sylvan features slightly smashed from contact with the back of my skull. I can see the pain in his eyes, but I can’t really understand it.

 

I realize then, walking with him, that my heart is pounding in my chest again. As we pick our way over petrified roots, as we stumble through the forest, following after the captain, I feel excitement rushing through me. He doesn’t know those filthy human bands are magic-less now. He doesn’t know I’m free.

I feel as though my heart could burst in my chest.

Any second now, I know he’ll weaken, I know his grip will weaken, and I will escape.

I know he will.

I’m led down, around and away from the whole of the earthchild. Its roots are still and its branches no longer sway as though alive. Its magic, exposed to the purifying storm, is drained away, just like the evil energy stored in the bands was leeched. The way is twisting and winding- some of the roots are as thick around as whole other earthchildren. Twice I stumble, twice Yimmer is there with his arms around me, to pull me back against him. He could let me fall, but he doesn’t. Twice then, I realize I could bolt. Twice, I let my hooves continue to carry me unhindered and refuse to attempt escape.

I don’t know what comes over me. Even with my heart pounding and my legs trembling  with every step, even though I know the chances I have of escaping shrink with every step I take towards the edge of the forest, I can’t make myself run.

Then, all at once, we stop. A dread rushes through me all at once. Something about the human’s stance seems off. Something about the way he holds himself seems wrong.

“That seems far enough,” the captain says, and then he changes. His eyes turn a sharp red, his fingers lengthen, his whole body twists and then rises. Leather footwear turns to hooves, woven clothes fall away to reveal the lower half of a massive stag and the upper half of a man– he is a pan. Armor fades away to nothing, a glamour I hadn’t even noticed. Naked and massive, he towers over both of us, wild muscle rippling as he stretches out.

He faces me, faces Yimmer, grinning with jagged teeth. His words come in full sylvan.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist, boy. Her song ensnared you, and now you’re both mine.”

Without a word, I can almost feel the half-blood soldier draw free his iron fang, and I do feel him push me gently away.

The pan’s voice is familiar, and almost instantly I place it, even in sylvan base instead of common, like back in the tent. Dimly, I wonder what happened to the real captain of Yimmer’s legion. Dimly, I realize that this must be why the earthchild had not struck him down. It had not sensed him. He is not human.

Dumbly, I stand on my hooves, numb.

Yimmer takes a step between me and the pan, who stares at me with open lust and fiery rage. That gaze focuses on the halfblood next, and even though the twisted pansatyr is without a fang, he stands three heads above Yimmer, just as I stand a head below. He is massive. Even though Yimmer holds iron, I know it is a fight he will not win. The pansatyr’s eyes gleam with hidden magic and craft.

Quaking, I freeze in indecision.

Yimmer’s gaze flicks to me but a moment. “Run, faunling,” he whispers.

On broken leg and shattered hope, I bolt.

 

After crashing through the forest a time, I come to the edge of a thick stream. The water flows past, cold against my fingers as I kneel down and let it run over them. Reeds, spidery and thin, stretch up into the air in the bank, as if begging for rain. I twist my fingers around them, hide among them, ducking, crouching down, listening. In the first few minutes, all I could hear was my heartbeat. Now it still holds true. There is no sound of pursuit. My leg is pulsing agony in hot, sick waves. I can feel the bone where it pierces muscle.

Every instinct tells me I need to run. I can’t scent him– the pan– and I don’t have the scent of Yimmer…

He had just smelled of leather, mostly. Leather and something else. Something familiar and strange at the same time.

Like home, like the groves.

I’m surprised by tears, dripping down my cheeks.

My heart freezes in my chest at the sound, very faint and yet very close, of a stick snapping. I close my eyes, crouched, ready to spring away despite my leg’s protests, fingers curling against my palms. Steadily, crunching noises- squelching noises, sticks crunching under hooves, ground giving way under the weight of something massive. I hear it all, feel it in my bones as it approaches.

“Come out, little faun,” a voice- the voice of the pan, of the fat man from the tent, of the captain. “Come out and see what I’ve done to your friend…”

I can’t move. I can’t breathe.

I left him. It’s my fault. I left him there to fight alone.

“He screamed and screamed… will you scream like he did? He isn’t saying anything anymore, and I’m getting bored….”

I feel my heart grow colder in my chest, colder still. My eyes close and my heart stings it beats so hard. I can smell blood now. He’s upwind of me. I know he is. I can smell him and the scent makes my legs tremble. Thick with wild lust, thick with hunger and rage. It’s a heady scent, something that lingers in my nose and lungs and inundates me like magic. It’s a pressure I can’t stand.

I hear Yimmer’s voice, then, raised in a whimper. I feel terror rooting me to the spot. I can’t move. My heart is racing and I can’t move.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I can hear the footsteps begin to crunch away over sticks and brush.

“Maybe I’ll leave him here, to drown in the muck…”

I hear a splash. A gurgling noise. Suddenly, I can see a shape, struggling, sputtering in the stream, not even two armspans away and still nearly shrouded with reeds. Skin like olive thrashes in the stream. A hoof is barely visible resting atop Yimmer’s back and holding him down. He will drown.

“Come out, faun… don’t you want to save your friend?”

Finally then, my body unfreezes.

I stand, straighten on legs that shake, straighten no more than two spans away from the pansatyr where he stands, one foot on the bank, the other on Yimmer’s slowly weakening body. Instantly I realize that he is already staring at me, has been looking at me the entire time. I can see it in his grin, can see it in his eyes.

“Good girl,” he says softly. “Good little doe, so loyal.”

Flee flee FLEE scream my instincts. Run until you can’t run anymore!

Numbly, barely aware of it, I twist the reeds in my hands.

I twist them and twist them until I realize they’ve taken on a shape– a familiar, wonderfully comforting shape. As the pan steps towards me onto the bank, the dawn catching his features and shining bright, I bring the pipes, formed from hope and eager, friendly reeds, up to my mouth.

Staring at my grinning, jagged-toothed antagonist, feeling his sick intent, I blow into the shortest reed. Energy gathers around me and, at the call of the reed- which splinters into pieces under the pressure, launches itself forth.

The blast ripples outwards in a terrible wave, sings through the air like lightning. It smashes into the pan’s chest with a hideous crack, and he stumbles back into the stream, so shocked he can’t breathe a curse. He makes a tremendous splash as he falls over.

Shaking in terror and relief, legs moving without me willing them, I half-limp half-stagger into the stream after Yimmer. The water is frigid.

My fur is soaked through, but I ignore it. I wade, then hop back onto the bank and, heedless of reeds, roots or otherwise, follow it along the bank. In the light of the dawn though, it does not take long for me to find him.

Find him I do- he lies facedown in the water, spans and spans- countless steps downstream.

I don’t call out. The pansatyr is not dead and I have no wish to draw attention to myself. Instead I lean at the edge of the water and, gripping Yimmer’s hand, I pull him up onto the bank of the creek, pull him up, put my arms under his and manage to drag him into the cover of the reeds. There I sit, holding him in my lap, heart pounding, pipes- sans the lowest- clutched in my hand.

I wait.

I listen.

 

After a time, he stirs, and my heart leaps. Yimmer’s eyes flutter open. His body is caked with blood and mud. He’s shivering uncontrollably and completely naked, though rendered decent– by positioning if not by dirt.

“Sar-!” he starts, but I cover his mouth with a hand desperately.

“Shh,” I hiss. “No words.”

I know my lower half is wet and cold, but he is so freezing it must be an improvement.

I slip my hands down and then up under his rear, pull him up tight against me.  It’s then that I feel it- rather, I feel the lack of it, and I stare into his eyes, bleary, frightened and riddled with guilt. There’s no time to talk, though. As I open my mouth, I hear a familiar crunching noise, of hooves on twigs. I hear harsh breathing, feel an oppressive presence.

“I’m going to eat you, little faun… i’ll eat you right up, swallow you whole… you and your blasted pipes…. I was just going to have fun before… now I’m angry….”

I feel Yimmer freeze- insofar as it’s possible, shaking and cold as he is. His body is cut in a dozen different places, but I don’t think they hurt him. I think he’s too numb for that.

I know songs on the pipe to warm the blood, I know notes to play to put heat in the bones of anyone who listens to them. I dare not, I know not to play those songs now. I can nearly feel the pan. I can hear its heavy breathing as though it stands right next to me, as though those jagged teeth are about to plunge into my neck.

Suddenly, I feel an urgency. If he finds Yimmer…

I can’t defend him like this. I can’t face the pan sitting down.

And I know I must. I know if I don’t face down the satyr here, he’ll regain his strength- his fur will dry, his chest will heal, and he’ll come after me again when I am unaware. Then he’ll kill me. This is not a fight I can run from.

At the least I can draw him away from Yimmer and give him a better chance!

I stand, letting Yimmer rest on the bank. I leap from behind the reeds all in one moment, duck a hairy hand and scramble away into the trees. My leg cries out in pain, my hoof barely supports my weight. It’s a short run.

All at once, before I can steel myself, before I can even scream, the pansatyr is upon me. His thick fingers close tight on my left arm and yank me back so hard that it does something terrible to my shoulder and the pipes drop from my fingers.

Tears of pain dot my face as he bears me down, as one of his hooves crunches the pipes into the grass. He hurls me forward onto the ground, face down. His hands reach for me, grabbing my legs, his breath released in a heavy growl. Those thick fingers dig into my fur and pinch my skin.

Terror takes me- mindless terror. I kick out. His grip slips and my hoof connects with his jaw. His remaining hand doesn’t let go, but he snarls and I know I’m going to die. “Stupid little doe-“

“Drop her,” Yimmer says flatly. I can’t see him, but I hear the pan shift, twist around to face him. He’ll get himself killed!

“You should have stayed down, boy who is not,” the pan says with a low chuckle. “Now I’ll eat you, too.”

“I’m more of a man than you,” Yimmer says, and there’s no fight in his voice at all. He sounds tired and cold. He smells tired and cold. Determined, perhaps- but it won’t protect him. He’s buying me time. “More of a man than a wild, lust-crazed beast. Even Sarah is more man than a monster.”

“Monster?” the pan asks slowly. It drops me, but not before leaving long scratches on my thighs, dirty and stinging. He straightens and turns, he stands and turns and walks towards Yimmer’s voice, one hoof after the other. “Monster?

I scrabble in the mud then, with one hand, ignoring the terrible ache in my leg, tears streaming down my face, gasping in mixed relief and panic. I find the shattered remnants of the pipes and my heart plummets. The world fades to grey and black.

I hear a gasp and a sharp growl, hear Yimmer’s reply. I hear his subsequent whimper of pain, and my vision blurs red. Sharp red, like the splintered pipes in my grip.

Thick pipes, thick reed pipes. Splintered.

Rising, I turn and, walking slowly on grass and dirt, approach behind the pansatyr who, so intent on Yimmer, bent over him, doesn’t notice until I drive one of the splintered, jagged pieces of reed pipe into the back of his neck. I slam it in so hard that its tip bursts from the other side. He rises with a hideous gurgle, turns, swinging, the tips of his long fingernails slicing into my bare chest, clipping me and sending me stumbling backward. He follows after me, tottering forward a step or two. A moment more and the pipetip disappears. There’s a sick squelching noise, and then the pansatyr topples, collapses into a heap on the ground.

For our parts, Yimmer, clutching the jagged piece of reed, stares across at me as I stare back at him. The moment comes, lingers, and then is gone. Tension seeps away from us in a tide.

There are many questions I have– why he would pretend to be a soldier, what drives him to be a man, where we will go– but for once I stifle my curiosity. I’m too weak to move, so it is Yimmer who walks to me and sinks into my arms.

Cold, shaking, but overwhelmed with relief, we hold tight to one another.

As the sun shines down and slowly begins to warm us, I finally understand what it is that drew him to protect me.

“I love you,” I whisper into his ear.

His smile warms me more than the sun ever could.

—-

 

Okay, so I’m a dirty liar. I AM working hard– believe you me, in the last few months I’ve been working harder and writing much more than ever I have before. The caveat of course, is that it takes much longer than I thought to write a short story- I CAN do them in a day, but that would be easiest when I have nothing BUT short stories to write. And hardest, because then I get distracted. I may not be playing competitive games, but there are plenty of other things to distract you when you’re intent on fulfilling a resolution! Well, here it is- after all that work. I have actually done two in the time it usually takes me to make one, but I can’t post the other one, alas.

Anyway. Hope you enjoyed. If it drags on too long this next time I’ll do poetry or something to tide you guys over. (and because I haven’t poeted in a long while)

See ya!

-Eris