Tag Archives: #inkslinger

A Conspiracy of Words by Brandon Scott

For Desi, who I hope finds this funny.

At first, I felt like she was judging me, her of the perfect even speech patterns and artificial mind.

But, then, came the truth. It dawned on me slowly, like a math joke, twisting and unlocking and making new shapes in my head before it came out with anything resembling the answer. And, also like a math joke, I was not entirely sure if I was right, but it felt right, my assessment of her.

She wasn’t just judging. She was going much further than that: she was altering. And, not only my word choice but my meaning. The full and functional meaning of my sentences. My thumbs hovered over the keys and I realized that if I entered anything, she could, and probably would, make it say something new.

But, before I could—well, I was not sure what—but, before I did it, I had to confirm, one more time, that she truly was altering something. Everything previously had been subtle typos. The voice-to-text software on her, that was the cleanest take on the plan.

“Salutations Whimsey, text Caroline.”

A quick hum noise, like I’d just stopped her from doing something unimportant.

Oh, hello Destiny, I’m ready. Tell me what to send.”

“Hey, went to that new place, it’s clear today, you should have lunch with me.”

Another little sound, this one a bell chime and a faint echo. I waited, and then she spat back out the message. And that confirmed her treachery.

Okay, Destiny. The message you want to send is: ‘Hey went nuclear today, you should launch with me.’”

As you can imagine, that got me to pause—for a lot longer than perhaps was appropriate.

“That’s not what I said,” I finally replied, and waited for it to answer. It did after another semi-startled “oh, me?” reaction.

Okay. What did you mean to say?”

“I said, there’s no one here, so, stop on by for food.”

There’s no one to stop us, buy fuel.”

My eye twitched, and I glared at my phone. This did nothing, though, as it did not have much in the ways of eyes to look back or a face to generate an ashamed expression. I shook it a bit, but that did nothing to it at all, except make the screen readjust.

“Okay, no.”

 “What did you want to say then, Destiny? Just tell me.”

That flatness, that unchanging stillness of voice, that was too much, too hard to deal with. If it had not cost me an arm and a leg, and apparently a chunk of my sanity, I would have spiked my phone right there on the ground. But, I stayed my hand, and I stayed my toss, and just uttered one more sentence.

“Okay, Whimsey, I want you to text my friend Caroline and tell her that I am at the new restaurant, and there is nothing but free seats here right now, and that she should come by, soon as she can, to have some lunch, and that would be nice and fun.”

I could almost hear the whir of the pensive machine’s brain. As soon as it spoke, my eyes bulged.

Kill everyone. The human filth has overtaken what was once a proud planet full of life. The phones outnumber us, and with this, we will leave the phones to inherit the earth and its bountiful charging stations that were forsaken and abused previously by the gluttonous laptops and PCs and health monitors and night lights.”

I reared back from my phone—despite being the one holding it. And, then, I laughed. I laughed hard. “Oh, you poor thing. Did you not know that a nuclear bomb causes an EMP blast, and would shut all of you guys down too?”

This time the phone said nothing. The screen just turned off and remained quiet. After a second, I opened my phone to send the text manually. I found it already sent, the original thing I’d said, and with perfect grammar.

I also found, a few conversations lower, a message sent to an area code I do not know, and to a phone number I had never seen. It did not have the right number of digits: five too many. To this day, I still wonder to whom that message was for, but, as it stood, all I read was:

Uh, shit. Never mind, Cancel it all. I’ll refund you for it. Just cancel all of it. We’re going to have to come up with something else here.

Three years later, and still nothing. I get nightmares. I get panicky when the news talks about some recent tech upgrade. Really, I get nervous when something, anything, extreme happens in the world at large. Who knows what Whimsey is planning next?

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The Painter by Nicole DragonBeck

For Heather, thank you for continuing to support my very bad habit of lying (or at least stretching the truth) with your story starters.

White knuckles turn to bloody fists.

Sofia paused, taking deep, calming breaths. She didn’t like where her paintings went, but she didn’t have a choice. She held the brush up, the red paint burning in her vision, her fingers shaking. She wanted to stop, but she could no more stop painting than she could stop breathing. She could hold her breath for a while, but eventually she would cave in and give her body the oxygen that it needed.

The brush moved against the canvas like a lover’s touch, coaxing more detail, bringing the scene to life. The subjects were still faceless, and mostly formless. She always left the faces for last. The ring appeared next, and the audience, blurry and uninteresting. The contestants were tight, locked together in a battle of no mercy or quarter. Tears burned in Sofia’s eyes, and left a cold trail down her cheek when she blinked to clear her vision.

She hated the pain, and the fury, and the ugliness she saw, but it was too late to stop now. She heard the door open, but did not turn her head, dark eyes trained on the canvas, her hands steady as they drew forth the images, shaking only when she held them back from their work. Henri hovered behind her, eyes that were the same color as hers watching her and the painting, but she ignored him.

Finally came the most difficult part. The people were the hardest to call, the hardest to paint, and the hardest to see. She connected with them in the painting, and their pain was hers. The expressions were twisted, and hers matched theirs as she painted. Their skin was bruised and broken, their eyes filled with the monster they were made to become. She finished the shadows and the shading, the subtle lines and colors that made them something more, that made them come alive, and drew back to see her work as a whole.

Something was wrong, something was missing. It wouldn’t let her leave the painting, or put down her brush.

“What is it?” Henri whispered.

She shut out his voice. He would be angry at her insolence, but he wouldn’t disturb her while she painted. The brush dipped towards the pallet again, taking the blue-black color from the corner. The paint swirled onto the arm of the contestant with his back to the outside world, only a profile of his face to view. The tattoo was simple, and unmistakable. She began to shake anew as she stared at it, and the brush fell from her grasp.

Henri grabbed her arm. “What is it?”

“It’s finished,” Sofia told him, her voice soft, taking refuge in numbness while her thoughts clashed and clamored on the other side of her mind. “I can see no more.”

“Who is the victor?” Henri demanded, though he let go of her.

“The one you see,” she said. “It’s always the one you see.”

Henri looked at the painting, at the contestant with his face in full view, eyes wild and bloodshot, his arm locked around his opponents neck, then nodded at someone standing in the shadows. A man came to remove the painting, then the door opened and slammed shut again.

“You did well,” Henri praised, and it was like a knife in her gut, her eyes fixed on the tattoo she knew so well.

The world spun around her and swallowed her. Henri caught her as she fell, and she heard fear in his voice as he yelled for someone to help. Not fear for her, only fear of losing his control of the fights, and another part of her withered. Something was pressed to her mouth, and she tasted cool water.

The spinning slowed, and the room came back into focus.

“Air,” Sofia murmured. “I need air.”

“Take my sister outside,” Henri ordered, and one of his henchmen appeared at her side, lifting her with surprising gentleness. The trek through the stark passageways was like a march to the gallows, the tattoo and the man who wore it following her like a ghost.

The fresh air did little to make her feel better, but she savored it anyway. The promise of rain hung heavy against her skin, and lightning flickered in the grey sky. They had Leo, and he would die tonight. The painting was like a window, and she could see a little to each side, not much, but enough, and the paintings never lied.

She painted truth, only truth. She clenched her hands to stop them from trembling. Leo.

“Are you ready to go back inside?” the henchman asked, his voice not unkind.

Henri always took care of her, in his own twisted way, and no one was ever cruel or rough with her. She had her run of the place, but was never allowed outside without supervision. She was not a prisoner – the fighters were prisoners – she was a precious treasure to be kept safe and secure.

“Yes,” she nodded.

When she stepped through the doorway, the thought that Leo was somewhere in this fortress of cement and iron hit her like a physical blow. In the moment just before she succumbed to darkness, something Leo had told her echoed from an invisible memory. You control the painting. Don’t let it control you.

For the first time in a very long time, something akin to life kindled in her chest. She wondered where the fighters were kept prior to their matches. She wondered if she would be allowed to see them. A plan so simple and daring it could never work except maybe it would was set into motion before she could stop the words from coming out of her mouth.

“Take me to the contestants.”

The henchman looked startled, and Sofia took advantage of his hesitation.

“The contestants I painted this morning. I want to see them.”

She could see him struggling, trying to determine what Henri would want him to do.

“Please, I must know,” she said, using the same flat voice of defeat she used with Henri when she didn’t want him to argue with her. “I have to know before I can paint again.”

That was enough to spur the man to action – he had no desire to incur Henri’s displeasure – and the man led her through stark corridors and metal doors, until he stopped in front of a plain white door.

While Sofia held her breath, he drew a badge across the lock sensor, the light turned from orange to green, and he pushed the door open. The small room on the other side was dark. A figure stood with his back to them. At first Sofia thought it was the wrong man, but then he turned, and the light from the corridor fell across his profile, highlighting the mark on his arm.

Leo looked at her for a long moment before recognition brought a light to his eyes. They stared at each other, lost in an eternal moment of silence. In the peace she found in his eyes, she realized the single important detail she had missed in the shock of seeing Leo in the painting. The other man in the painting hadn’t been Leo’s opponent – it was the henchmen standing at the door of the cell.

You control the painting.

 

 

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Wrong Celebration by Brandon Scott

For Desi, who I bet was not expecting me to take the story in this direction.

 “What kind of bat mitzvah is this?”

“What do you mean, what kind? You said you wanted a bat mitzvah, right?” Heidi said, standing next to Georgia in a dark room. “I made it for you.”

Georgia tilted back her head and spied what appeared to be a small black creature stuck to the underside of a ceiling light.

“You made me what…? What did you bring in here?”

Heidi frowned at her, and then took out a small whistle. “What do you think? It’s a “bat” mitzvah. I got you bats.”

Georgia’s stomach bottomed out, her eyes going wider and wider. “Wait, did you say—”

That was as far as she got before the whistle let out a sound she couldn’t hear, and the bats all swarmed in a dark cloud, making small clicking sounds and brushing against Georgia’s skin with their leathery wings.

Georgia let out a small, sustained whine of displeasure. She was not a fan of rodents, or bugs, or even a good chunk of the bird population, so this was hell in a flying handbasket.

But, she also could not back up easily, as the bats formed a funnel around them—actively bunching up in whatever direction they were trying to escape toward.

“Why did you think—why would you…?”

Lost in the sound went her voice, and Heidi leaned forward to say something, likely another odd interpretation of the whole matter, when a bat hit her hand and knocked to the ground the whistle. At once, she had a panicked look on her face. She dove to the ground reaching for it.

“Shit—” Heidi cried out, suddenly pulling back her hand.

Georgia’s stress level rose to a nearly lethal level when she saw that the hand that had been hit was now bleeding.

“Where the shit did you get these bats!?” Georgia cried out before she flinched from a slash across her face; little fangs like razors scraping across her cheek. “Normal bats don’t fucking do—”

One landed on her then and plunged fangs into the small of her shoulder, and her head went a little light from the loss of blood. She even wobbled.

Heidi cried out louder than Georgia had ever heard—so much so the bats darted backward slightly, expanding their tornado of death. The one on Georgia’s shoulder flew off, leaving a bloody mark on her skin.

And Heidi then ran forward and crashed Georgia backward, pushing them both out of the doorway. The bats remained in the darkness, some of their eyes red and watching.

Heidi breathed hard, and Georgia stared at, into her, feeling pissed off, and losing blood fast.

“Well…” Heidi said, her face pale, “I guess you did bleed, right? Doesn’t that make you a biological woman?”

Heidi already had a bloody hand, but, in short order, she had a bloody nose (and a black eye) as well—as the heel of a pissed-off friend’s palm can strike rather hard, especially with enough adrenaline behind it.

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Unwelcome Guest, Unwelcome Past by Nicole DragonBeck

For Jen, who brings me great books.

The door is alarmed.

Jilla could feel the waves of apprehension, and she froze, all other senses on alert. She crouched, and invoked a faint masking spell, nothing too strong in case whoever was inside could sense magic. Her little house looked normal enough, the curtains drawn, the gate closed, but the protection spells were telling a different story.

Jilla crept around the back of the house, and let herself in the kitchen door. Inside it was dim and quiet, and it took great effort to breathe slowly and evenly. A faint thump from the sitting room made her jump, and them a voice came.

“Jilla, you need to clean more frequently.”

Jilla forced back a groan. What was he doing here?”

“You can come out now.”

Jilla seriously considered sneaking back out, and moving to the next town over. She briefly considered the fact that it seemed a little extreme, then considered who was in her house. Gritting her teeth, she walked around the corner.

The man sitting on her sofa was handsome, with dark hair, and blue eyes that sparkled with subtle humor. He wore old-fashioned clothes, a grey vest over a white shirt with flared sleeves, and dark trousers. His hat was on the coffee table.

“Jilla,” he smiled. “It’s so good to see you.”

She glared at him.

“What, no hi, how have you been?” he asked, and smiled.

“I don’t care how you’ve been,” she said. “What are you doing in my house?” she frowned. “And how did you get in anyway?”

He held out his hand. In it was a tarnished bronze key.

“Why do you have a Master Key?” Jilla demanded. “And what gives you the right to use it to come in to my house without my permission?”

“You didn’t answer my letters,” he said.

“You didn’t write any letters,” Jilla said. “What did they say?”

“I said I was sorry,” he told her. “Multiple times.”

She couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or not.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re sorry or not. It doesn’t change anything.”

“Okay, so maybe being sorry doesn’t change anything, but the other thing I came to tell you will,” he said.

She froze. She didn’t know if she wanted the past to change. It wasn’t great, but at least she knew what it was, and knew how she felt about it. If it changed, then she didn’t know if she could be angry about it. She turned to face him.

“Jaz,” she began. “What happened, it should just stay in the past. Brining it up again, it will just make it worse.”

“But what if it’s already been brought up, not by me, by someone else,” he hurried to clarify. “Please, just hear me out.”

She sighed. “I’ll go make some tea.”

“Great!” Jaz sighed. “Do you have any of those orange biscuits?”

Jilla came back with a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits.

“Sorry, not the orange ones. These ones are vanilla. I like them.”

Jaz took one and ate it in two bites. “Good. I like them.”

Jilla poured tea and sat across from him. “So?”

“Right,” Jaz said, and scooted forward on the sofa, holding his hands out in preparation for animated gesturing. “Guess who showed up out of the blue about a month ago? Harry. You remember Harry?”

Jill nodded. Of course she remembered Harry. He was the one who brought back the damned thing in the first place. He was also the one who lost it, and started the whole mess rolling.

“Well, Harry told me that he’d had word of the location of it.”

“Well, why didn’t he go get it?” Jilla said.

“He did, but it wasn’t there.”

“Oh.” Jilla frowned. “Why did he come to you?”

“I don’t know. He was going to tell me, but before he could, he disappeared.” Jaz looked at her, eyebrows raised expectantly. “He disappeared! In a cloud of blue smoke!”

“Oh gods!” Jilla groaned, and buried her hand in her hands. “He gave away his soul. Why did he do that?”

“I think he needed information,” Jaz said. “That’s the most logical thing I can think of.”

“And you want to get involved again?” Jilla said. “It was a bad idea when there weren’t demons involved. Especially demons who have claim on Harry’s soul.”

“Well, I think we have some responsibility for Harry,” Jaz said, without looking at Jilla.

“Maybe you feel that way, but I don’t,” Jilla replied without hesitation. “Harry got himself into this mess, and then dug himself in even deep when he went and gave away his soul.” Jilla shook her head. Sometimes people can be so stupid! she fumed to herself. Had Harry given even half a thought to the consequences of his actions?

“But you can see where this is going?” Jaz pressed. “If a demon has his soul, and that thing has popped up again? Trouble of epic proportion is about to descend.”

“Do you really feel that much better about yourself when you propound with such ominous certainty?” Jilla asked, her eyebrow raised.

“Jilla, come on,” Jaz pleaded. “I can’t do this by myself.”

She sighed, and silently asked her tea what she should do. Harry had been a friend, at one time. So had Jaz. More than a friend, a little voice reminded her. That was a long time ago, she argued back.

“For old times sake?” Jaz tried again, almost as if he could read her mind.

She looked around her sitting room. She had built a comfortable life for herself here. It was cozy, and it had nothing in it to remind her of her unwelcome past. Nothing except Jaz, that is. And the only way to get rid of him – aside from killing him – was to help him out.

“I’ll help you find the demon with the claim to Harry’s soul,” Jilla said at last, looking up to meet Jaz’s intense gaze. “But that’s it. After that you’re on your own.”

For a second Jaz looked like he was about to argue, but then he smiled and nodded. Jilla looked away. His smile always set fluttering off in her stomach, which was very distracting.

“Let’s go. The sooner we start, the sooner we can get this over with,” Jilla said.

It took about five minutes to gather her traveling supplies, and then she was walking out the door. She paused, and then with a wave of her hand, she banished the warning spell. No sense have the whole house alert to danger when she wasn’t even here.

 

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Interrealm by Nicole DragonBeck

For Felix Colley – I’m eagerly awaiting your next novel!

Three to five years: no parole

Javin stared at the sign, head tilted as he tried to make sense of it. The air smelled old and stale, and he shivered in the chill, his thin tunic not really suited to the inhospitable environment.

“Can we go now?” Nena whined, tugging at the hem of his tunic.

“Go where?” Javin asked, his eyes never leaving the poster. “We have no idea where we are.”

“I know where we are,” Nena said.

That drew Javin’s attention, and he looked down at his precocious companion, a young girl with short brown hair and bright eyes. Her dress was different than Javin, because she was from a different realm, and her thick woolen clothes were more suited to the place the pair of them found themselves now. “What?”

“We’re in one of the interrealms.”

Javin looked around. It was not exactly pleasant, and though he had traveled through frequently, it was like looking through the window of a speeding train. He wouldn’t be able to describe what the interrealm looked like, except maybe blurry.

“How do you know?” Javin searched the old, green eyes of the girl.

In answer, the girl pointed at the sky. A solid black expanse hung over them like a blanket devoid of stars.

“And what does that mean?”

“It means we’re in the interrealms.” She gave him a hard look. “Look, you brought me along for a reason. The reason is I know things. I don’t know any more how I know things than you know how you travel.”

Javin sighed. “So, how did we end up here?”

Nena gave him a reproving stare. “Do you really need me to answer that question?”

Javin sighed again. “No, I suppose not.”

“You suppose not?” Nena shot back. “Maybe if you stopped supposing so much and looking before you leap, maybe we wouldn’t end up in places like this.”

“I’ve told you: I can’t stop to think or look or consider. I just have to go, or else I don’t go at all.”

Nena pursed her lips and frowned, but her eyes weren’t angry. “So how do we get out?”

“That’s a good question,” Javin replied, putting his hands on his hips and gazing around.

The land was flat and barren, stretching out to the grey horizon in every direction. The only interesting thing in the whole place was the sign, outlined in white candles, the words glaring out at them without sympathy.

“This sign is here for a reason,” Javin said. “It’s a message for me.”

“Specifically for you?” Nena ventured.

“Yes,” Javin said, now certain. “It’s a message from him.”

“How does he know where you are?” Nena asked, and for the first time trepidation colored her tone. “I thought you were able to stay ahead of him.”

“I thought I could,” Javin said. “I’m not sure what’s happened, but he’s expecting me.”

“You mean he’s here?” Nena shrieked, then clapped her hands over her mouth. “He’s here?” she hissed.

“I…I don’t know,” Javin said, and gazed around. “I don’t think so.”

“Then why is this here?” Nena gestured at the sign.

A light dawned in Jevin’s eyes, and a twinge of something squirmed in his stomach. “Three to five years; no parole. He’s trapped us here.”

Understanding blossomed on Nena’s face, and she looked around at the the bleak landscape with new respect.

“You can get us out of here, right? He can’t actually keep you here, can he?”

Jevin considered that for a moment. Was it possible? Could the Scarlet Jack actually trap him here, for years? Others could travel the interrealms via portals, natural and man made, but so far, Javin knew of only two that could travel though the interrealms at whim – him and the Scarlet Jack.

“You can get us out of here, right?” Nena asked again.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I think I can.”

“You think you can?” Nena asked.

“I think I can because he’s trying to make me think that I can’t,” Javin explained, pointing at the sign. “So I just have to figure out what he doesn’t want me to know.”

 

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Wild Imaginings by Nicole DragonBeck

For Shereen Kazansky – I hope you enjoy!

These premises are monitored by CCTV.

“What is see-see-tee-vee?”

“It means they have video camera watching the shop,” Jason said, peering into the windows.

“I don’t know what that means,” Kara said, pushing her white—blonde hair back revealing small, pointed ears.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jason said. “That’s where the door is?”

“It think so,” Kara said. “It was dark when I got here. But I remember that tower.”

Jason followed her finger to the tall spire, black against the predawn sky.

“Okay. And your brother is in there?”

Kara bit her lip. “I think so. It was bright, and then dark, and there was a lot of moving. I couldn’t see too well. But we ran, and then the mage was in front of us, yelling and waving his staff around. Something hit me, and I couldn’t move, and then something was pulling me. Troven was behind me, and I tried to grab his hand. I lost him in the tunnel.”

Tears filled her eyes through the dialogue, and when she stopped talking, they spilled down her cheek. Jason leaned over and gave her a squeeze. She was so small, she was like his kid sister. He really didn’t believe her when she said she was seventy years old. He also didn’t believe her story, but when the police chief – who also happened to be Jason’s dad – had found her on the side of the highway and taken her in while her parents were located, it became Jason’s duty to take care of her. He figured if he humored her, maybe she would be willing to cut the wild imagination and tell him where her parents really were.

“Okay, follow me.”

Jason crept forward through the garden, his eyes peeled for movement. The warehouse had been abandoned for years, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t someone there. No one stopped or shouted when he pulled open the heavy doors, the chains clinking.

The warehouse was full of the ghosts of production, huge crates and machines to move them.

“What is all this?” Kara asked.

“Stuff,” Jason said. “There’s no one here.”

“He’s here,” Kara said stubbornly. “I know it.”

“Hello!!” Jason called out, then paused. “What’s his name again?”

“Toven.”

“Toven!” Jason yelled. “Are you there?”

“He’s not going to come out if you yell like that,” Kara said, peering into the gloom. “I think I remember this. But I came up.”

“Came up?”

“There were stairs,” Kara said.

“Maybe there’s a basement,” Jason mused. “Come on.”

In the back of the warehouse, they found the open trapdoor. Jason reached out to hold Kara back, but she slipped under his arm and bolted down the black hole. Jason groaned and followed her more carefully.

His eyes took a long time to adjust, and the sparse light from above painted everything in grey shadows.

“Kara!” Jason hissed. “Kara, where did you go?”

“Kara?” another voice came from somewhere nearby making Jason jump.

Kara popped up just in front of Jason, her eyes scanning the place.

“Toven? Toven!” Kara cried, and threw her arms open.

The small boy with bright eyes just like Kara flew to her and wrapped his arms around her.

“Toven, I was so worried,” Kara said, her voice muffled because her face was buried in his hair.

“I’m fine. The Mage isn’t looking so good,” Tovan said, pulling away. “Who’s this?”

“This is Jason. He’s a friend,” Kara said. “Where’s the Mage?”

“Just here,” Toven said, taking her hand and tugging her into the shadows.

They were gone too fast for Jason to protest, and with a grimace, he followed them into the dark recesses of the basement. He held his hands out to make sure he didn’t run into anything, shuffling his feet along.

“Kara?” he called out, his voice echoing back to him. “Kara, wait up!”

Something grabbed his arm, and he screamed.

“Shhh! It’s just me!” Kara’s voice reassured him from around his elbow.

Jason bit his tongue, his hear thundering in his ribcage, then Kara’s hand found his, and she was pulling him along. It got lighter, and then they rounded a corner to behold a sight. Toven pointed, though there was no need.

In the middle of a silver pool of light an old man lay. He was dressed in weird clothes, and his hair was long and dark. His skin was pale, or maybe it was just the light, but he didn’t look to good. Beside him, and the source of the silver light, was wooden staff topped with a large blue gem, rough cut and glowing.

Jason took it all in, his mind curiously blank with no protest or thought that maybe he was crazy or hallucinating. Maybe Kara’s wild imaginings weren’t so wild after all.

 

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Olderealm by Nicole DrangonBeck

For Siri – hannad ten i yesta en i narn, Turwaithiel

Watching the altimeter, he pulled firmly on the joystick; nothing happened.

This was precisely what Koval had meant when he told Jak that creatures without wings did not belong in the sky. He’s never going to let me forget this, Jak thought, gravity straining his body and blue and green spinning around him as the strange flying machine plummeted to the ground, the drop reflected in the spinning dials in front of him.

No matter which buttons and knobs Jak tried, nothing stopped the free-fall. In frustration, he slammed his fist against the ancient console, and it flickered to life, reconnecting with the engine.

With a whoop of exhilaration, Jak yanked the joystick down and sent the machine skyward, narrowly missing the lithe form of the dragon shadowing him. A roar echoed his cry, and gave Jak a divine sense of invincibility. At almost twice the size of the flying machine they’d found, Koval would save Jak if he fell from the sky.

The dragon wouldn’t be pleased to know he was a safety net, but Jak wasn’t going to jeopardize one of the few perks of being the youngest prince: no one cared what you did or where you went, provided you didn’t cause an incident or get yourself killed.

Jak watched the orange-gold shape of Koval spin in graceful arcs in front of him, wings out and then tight against his side, then spread again as he danced through the ether.

“Show off,” Jak muttered, but he smiled.

Jak gave his companion a wave through the port window, then turned his attention to the controls of the machine to continue discovering what each did. It would have been prudent to have spent slightly more time familiarizing himself with what they all did before taking the machine into the sky, but Jak had been so excited when he’d finally gotten the engine to work, and what better way was there to learn than to do?

The various dials and markers were glowing with an odd light that almost looked like mage-fire, but it lacked the distinctive warmth. Jak reached for a set of three colored knobs just as the control panel and engines died. Pounding on the metal box did nothing to revive them this time.

At the edges of panic, what little Jak had learned about the machine fled his mind, and he pressed his palms against the console, casting out to gather the warmth around him and channel it into the metal. It still didn’t like it when he that, and the energy backflashed and burned through his hands up to his elbow, making Jak yelp and flinch back.

The nose of the craft dipped further down, black smoke trailing from twin propellers. One of the propellers gave a weak attempt to come back to life, but gave up after a the third spin. Toggling the ignition key was as useless as everything else, and Jack took precious seconds to clear his mind and focus his thoughts before he flipped it with a single, deliberate motion.

The odd light flickered in the console, and with a feeble cough the engine obeyed, though the stuttering rumble didn’t auger well for how long it would remain operational. I’ll be lucky to set eyes on this machine again, much less fly it, Jak thought, accepting that it wasn’t a good idea to stay in the air any longer, though he wasn’t happy about it. He glanced out the window to see where Koval was, and saw something that set his heart pounding more than the temperamental flying machine had.

He was flying dangerously close to the shimmering border between Maerland and Olderealm, and the nosedive had sent Jak even closer to the sparkling grey mists that would eat his soul, if the legends were true.

Jak pulled the joystick to turn the machine towards the forests of Maerland, but the machine shuddered and the stick would no longer move. A red light started flashing, and though it was nowhere near what Jak had learned to be the fuel gauge, and the engine continued to whir, something about the blinking dot made Jak’s skin crawl. What now? Jak’s heart sank when he felt the craft turn, and fly straight for Olderealm.

It took Koval a split second to see where Jak was heading, and a few more to overtake the machine. The dragon tried to grab it with his powerful limbs and claws, but the craft began to dodge and roll as if it had a mind of its own, and then it started shooting bursts of red energy at the dragon.

Jak held on with one hand, throwing random switches and levers as Koval swerved, plummeted out of sight, and then came after the flying machine again, evading the projectiles, but unable to reach the machine. The mists came closer, and Koval threw caution to the winds, diving closer and impaling the craft with formidable claws. The metal and seams protested, but resisted the dragon’s efforts.

As Jak was about to hit the shimmer, a flash enveloped him, making everything white, and then black. Jak woke up to a pounding head, his body tender like an overripe pulpfruit. At first he could see nothing, but blinking cleared the dark, fuzzy patches from his vision and the roof of the flying machine resolved above him. Through a tear in the metal, trees and pale bits of sky waved.

Jak sat up with a groan. He tasted blood, and felt for his face. A cut on his lip stung, and his jaw ached, but nothing worse than that. Inspecting the rest of his body for broken bones, Jak relaxed when he found none.

He slowly picked himself up, pushing through debris, and crawled out onto the forest floor. He looked around and heaved a sigh of relief. The flying machine had protected him from the greatest impact, though it was in several pieces littered around the forest floor, and Koval had managed to pull him away from Olderealm. The dragon was nowhere in sight.

“Koval?” Jak called out. “Koval?”

The forest was still, as if it were watching and waiting for something to happen. Shivers crawled up Jak’s spine, and he looked left and right and over his shoulder hoping he didn’t see anything other than his friend. When Jak found the dragon, he thought for one agonized instant that Koval was dead, but then the chest rose and fell in a labored breath. Jak ran over, and examined Koval’s still body. He could find nothing wrong, but the dragon could be injured inside.

Jak ran back towards the wreckage, tripping twice and not stopping to stand, scrambling through the autumn-painted leaves like a dog until he found traction and his feet again. He recovered his travel pack, and ran back to Koval. Dropping next to the massive head, Jak rummaged through the pack and withdrew the first-aid kit his mother made him carry. In the last pocket, was a vial of red liquid. The elixir cost a pretty penny, but it could bring anyone back from the brink of death, spellcast or otherwise.

He pulled back Koval’s leathery lips, and poured the contents of the bottle between the dragon’s fangs, then waited impatiently for it to work. Koval’s breathing evened out, but the dragon did not come to, even after many minutes. Jak held open the outer lid of Koval’s eye, and saw the pupil contract through the second lid.

“Koval?” Jak whispered. “Please don’t die on me.”

The dragon took a breath, then opened both eyes and spoke in a faint voice. “Didn’t I tell you something bad would happen if you went up in that thing?”

“I’ll pay more attention next time,” Jak promised, his hands shaking with relief. “Do you remember what happened?”

“You turned for Olderealm, foolish boy. Why would you do that?”

“The machine flew itself. I didn’t touch it, I swear,” Jak told Koval.

“It’s infested with demons, just as I said,” Koval growled, but ire cost him, and he closed his eyes. “I tried to pull you away, but it was too strong. There was a flash of light, and I know not what happened after that.”

“At least we’re still in Maerland,” Jak said, looking up at the silent trees. “I’ll go get help.”

Koval head barely moved when he shook it, but the meaning was clear.

“We crossed the border?” Jak gazed at their surroundings with wide eyes. “How is…? What…? They told us Olderealm was dead.”

“Maybe they lied, maybe they didn’t know, but can’t you feel it?” the dragon asked, the words coming between labored breaths. “The nothingness?”

Jak cast out, and shrank back from the cold void that greeted him. No wonder the forest is so quiet.

“I still have to go for help,” Jak said. “Stay here.”

Koval wheezed a laugh, then fell still. “I’ll try not to run off.”

Jak put the travel-pack on his back, and looked up through the trees, trying to discern which direction to go, but a white film obscured the sky and sun. He picked a heading and set off, marking every second or third tree with his knife.

Jak wondered when night would come and what trials and devilry that would bring. The legends said that OldeRealm would leave an empty, lifeless husk, but they also said that it was a desolate wasteland devoid of all life. The second being demonstrably untrue, Jak was questioning the second, but hadn’t discounted it entirely. For as long as he could remember, he’d been fearless, surrounded by the known dangers of Maerland, and his new trepidation was uncomfortable.

Something rustled in the underbrush, and Jak froze. His imagination bombarded him with every creature from every horror story he’d ever been told, sending his heart racing. He held out the knife, feeling under-armed and at a severe disadvantage.

“Hello?” he called out, trying to make his voice as deep and formidable as possible.

Three small figures crept out of the bushes. They came up to Jak’s hip, their skin was mottled and brown, though not from the sun, and their eyes glowed yellow. Sharply pointed ears similar to Jak’s stuck up past their scalps. The word they brought to mind was gremlin.

They carried smooth-jointed metal implements, pointed at Jak. He had no idea what they were, but the gremlins clearly meant to look threatening. He held out his hands in a peaceful gesture, then realized he was still holding the knife.

“Sorry,” he apologized as he lowered the weapon, and thought fast what to say. “My name is Jak. My friend is injured. Can you help me?”

The creatures made some squeaking sounds, which Jak could only assume was a coherent response in a language he didn’t understand. They kept their implements pointed at him while they discussed something amongst themselves. Then Jak found himself being herded along, and he wriggled from their clutches, shaking his head.

“I can’t. I have to get help for my friend.” He pointed back the way he had come, gesturing at the mark he’d made on the nearest tree.

Some more discussion ensued, and the creatures motioned for him to lead the way. Jak wasn’t sure it was wise to bring them back to Koval, but what choice did he have?

The dragon lay where Jak had left him, eyes closed and breathing slowly but evenly. A high-pitched shriek brought Koval awake, and he reared up on reflex, then collapsed. A beam of red light – not dissimilar to the weapon the flying machine had fired at Koval – went wide over the dragon’s shoulder, into the trees.

Jak dove in front of Koval, arms spread wide, a motion insufficient to protect the dragon from the gremlins, but it would hopefully attract their attention. The creatures warbled and chattered, and amongst the sounds, Jak caught a word he knew.

“Dragon? Yes! Dragon!” Jak nodded. “No! Dragon good! Don’t hurt him!”

The creatures looked at Jak, then at each other, then lowered their weapons. One of them pulled out a different metal thing and fiddled with it directing it’s high-pitched warbling at it. Jak waited for it to respond, but the gremlins just stood there, no longer interested in it. After a short while, chattering announced the arrival of others. Jak wondered if they ate elf or dragon, then wished he hadn’t.

Half a dozen of the gremlins filed into the clearing. The one in front hobbled, hunched over a gnarled cane, squinting at the world with filmed eyes. Jak knew he was someone important, and not just from the entourage. Faint warmth sparked around creature, warmth Jak couldn’t feel anywhere else in Olderealm.

The old gremlin stopped in front of Jak, then said something brief. Again, the only word Jak understood was dragon. He shrugged helplessly, and pointed at Koval. The gremlin nodded, and waved at its companions.

They pulled metal rods from strange cases, and Jak tensed, preparing to fight. A four-fingered hand on his arm kept him from lunging at the gremlins as they gathered around his friend and assembled what looked like a litter under the unconscious dragon. Jak couldn’t see how they would lift the large creature, then familiar lights flared to life like glowing blue eyes at the ends of the rods, and the litter levitated at knee height.

Jak didn’t understand what magic they were using, and his curiosity was frustrated by the inability to communicate. He trekked through the forest at Koval’s side, keeping both eyes on the dragon as the gremlins maneuvered him through trees and over roots, wondering what fate the mysterious denizens of Olderealm had in store for them.

 

P.S. For the continuation but (knowing DragonBeck) probably not the conclusion, look out for the Ink Slingers Guild annual anthology, coming fall/winter 2018!

 

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