From your friends at Stories:
We hope you have an amazing holiday season!
From your friends at Stories:
We hope you have an amazing holiday season!
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!
From Dave McGrath (Via Submissions Page), I hope you enjoy.
He snapped his underwear band two times, Becky knew the code, and a romantic night was ahead.
She smiled at him and said, “You know how terribly cheezy that is, right?”
He looked over at her, his blue eyes sparkling in the firelight. “First, if I snapped my fingers, it would be degrading even if it is my desire to see you get all flushed. Second, you purchased these for me and I thought you liked my appreciation of them?”
When the last word left his lips, he stood up, and she could see that he was very excited to see her get all flushed.
As she stood there biting her lip waiting for him to approach her, she couldn’t help but think how lucky she was that such a gorgeous man found her alluring.
He came up and wrapped his arms around her. Pulling her to him, close. She could feel his eagerness and her lips parted to meet his.
At first his lips were quite gentle, and then there was an urgency to them. His taste was intoxicating. His tongue moved with hers as her fingers played with his hair. Then suddenly he lifted her up by her bottom. A small squeak escaped her lips as he smiled at her again.
“I believe you are flushed, Ms. Jones,” he said with a small growl.
He moved her to the counter in the small kitchen of the cabin they had rented for the event. She laid back, legs still wrapped around him, letting him pull her top and bra off, slowly admiring every inch of her. She loved the way he looked at her.
Then he unwound her legs from his carefully so he could remove her shorts and panties. Using her toes, she pulled down the red boxer-briefs she had given him on Valentine’s day.
As his hands moved her into position, she felt his desire as she looked at the man who had stolen her heart.
Then just as he was about to slide in, there was a noise. Before she could figure out what it was, the door in the kitchen opened and her mother and grandmother walked in carrying a platter.
“Hey Shelly, we thought…” Her mother’s words were cut off as both of her relatives were now staring at her erotic moment.
For Stephan M. – a continuation…
The stillness that permeates the deep dark misleads you.
The deep voice that uttered the warning faded away as if carried off by the wind, leaving Lyra with a single question…What did he mean? She tucked her long red hair behind her ear and continued along the path even though the journey through the mountains had borne no answers, yet it was where the same voice had directed her. Lyra thought back to her village and the emptiness that greeted her upon her return from K’Daan, the kingdom of healers. She had completed her training and was eager to rejoin her family and offer her services, but when she arrived, there was no one. The village seemed to be devoid of all life. No laughter, no barking from the numerous dogs, no birds chirping, even the leaves of the trees no longer rustled. All that was left were the remnants of activity, the embers of cooking fires were warm, steam spiraled up from soup bowls, the smell of freshly cut herbs still hung in the air. It was as if everyone and everything disappeared in the blink of an eye, and an uneasy feeling crept over Lyra’s skin.
With nowhere else to go, Lyra remained in the village, in her family’s home. Her room was how she had left it, a small bed tucked in the corner under the window, her mortar and pestle sitting on the shelves on the far wall, and her brother’s framed landscape stood on the window sill. The only difference was the soothing flames that burned brightly in the fire place…her family had prepared for her arrival. The thoughtfulness created a feeling of warmth, which was quickly overtaken by one of worry and confusion at their disappearance. Lyra had passed an uneasy night and had woken to the same disembodied voice urging her to venture west to the mountains, and it had promised answers.
It must have been another mile before she found herself at the mouth of a cave. Ravens flew above, which only accentuated the darkness that seemed to spill out its entrance. Every logical thought urged her to turn around, but all her other senses told her this was the way forward. Lyra approached the cave with caution and examined the rocks and shrubs that guarded it. Among the shrubs, she found a substantial branch that she could use to fashion a torch. She pulled strips of cloth for bandages, from the satchel that rested against her side, wrapped them around it, then set them alight. Lyra took one last look around. All seemed normal, except for the disconcerting cawing of the black birds above.
There was no way around it though, so with a deep breath to steel her for whatever she might encounter within, she stepped inside. The fear and trepidation that were her companions moments before disappeared and a sense of calm took their place. Lyra felt a peace take root, one that begged her to remain engulfed in the soothing blackness of the cave. She felt a strong urge to lay down and sleep. A far-off voice seemed to be singing a soothing lullaby, each note making her limbs feel heavier. As she found herself succumbing, she heard a familiar voice warn, “The stillness that permeates the deep dark misleads you.” It snapped her to attention and the far-off voice that, moments ago, seemed to be singing a lullaby, turned into blood curdling screams. The burst of adrenaline broke the spell of the cave and Lyra found herself running forward. “Hang on,” she yelled out into the blackness. Her voice reverberating against the walls.
“Help me!” the man’s voice called back frantically.
A few feet more and Lyra found herself at the edge of a pool of water and a man tied to the wall, the water level just below his mouth. She scrambled to the man, her feet slipping on the damp rock. She pulled a knife from her satchel and cut him loose from his bonds that were made of vines and helped pull him up to safety. “Thank you,” he coughed, water having passed his lips right before she had finished cutting him loose. By the light of the torch, she could see his soulful brown eyes and a lock of his thick black hair fell into his face. “You saved my life,” he continued still regaining his breath, then asked, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Lyra,” she answered.
“Jorin,” he replied.
For Gabby – miss you!
Take me to the ocean; let me lie there awhile.
The voice echoed through the ether, gentle and soothing, but to Kalima, it rang through her head, torturing her like nails on a chalkboard. The disembodied voice had started following her about a week ago and steadily worsened over the following days.
She rubbed at her temple, gritting her teeth.
Under the bridge, the troll awaits. Go to him not, for your heart he will eat.
Kalima groaned. Nothing it said made any sense, and any time she tried to think about it only made her head hurt worse. Perhaps it was time to see the Healer. It took several more nonsensical chants throughout that day to convince her, and it was by the light of the night-torches that she made her way to the Healer’s premises, her head bowed to avoid being recognized.
She knocked at the simple wooden door and waited impatiently, looking around for any witnesses. When the door swung open, she stepped inside and almost bowled the young Healer over in her haste.
“Kalima!” he exclaimed as he regained his balance and closed the door behind her. “It’s a…it’s a pleasure, as always.”
Kalima rolled her eyes, though her back was to him, so he couldn’t see. She was recalcitrant and uncooperative and rarely followed through with his prescribed remedies.
“What troubles you at this hour?” he said. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“Yes, and no,” Kalima said, rubbing her temples. The water takes you where you’ll go, the golden eye where the west-wind blows.
“Ah. A headache, then.”
“Yes, and no.”
His silence prompted her to look up at him. He was looking at her with an extremely patient expression which made her feel like she was being scolded for taking up too much of his time.
“I have a headache, and I’ve been having trouble sleeping for the past few nights, but that isn’t what I’ve come to see you about.”
“Right,” he said. “I’ll make some tea, and we can sit and you can tell me what is really ailing you.”
Kalima sat on the low cushioned bench in front of the hearth. The fireplace was empty at this time of year, and in a few short weeks, the palm fronds in the corner would be needed to stir the oppressive heat to something bearable.
“Thank you, Healer,” Kalima said, taking the cup of tea he handed her.
“Please, call me Doland,” he said.
Kalima frowned. “The Healer always preferred to be spoken to with the deference befitting his station.”
“Yes, but you may notice that I am not he. His hair was quite a bit whiter, I recall, and liver spots claimed most of his skin, while mine is still unmarked by age,” the young man said, his voice even.
“Of course,” Kalima said, shifting uncomfortably at the slight rebuke, and scalded her tongue on the gulp of tea she took to hide her discomfort. “I’m sorry. You must feel his loss quite sharply.”
“I manage,” Doland said, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiled at her. “Now, tell me of the purpose for your visit.”
“It’s very strange,” Kalima began, stalling for time. “I’m afraid you’ll think I’m going mad.”
“Why don’t you tell me what it is, and I can judge whether or not your sanity is in question?” he suggested.
Kalima took a deep breath. “I’m hearing voices. Well, actually, just one voice.”
“I see. What does it say?”
“Everything. And nothing at all. It makes up childish rhymes. Or chilling statements that have nothing to do with anything going on around me. Sometimes it gives me riddles with no answer,” Kalima told him, the floodgates now open. “Mostly it gives me orders that I have no idea how to follow, such as the water takes you where you’ll go, the golden eye where the west-wind blows or under the bridge, the troll awaits. Go to him not, for your heart he will eat.” She shuddered. “There haven’t been trolls here for a hundred years.”
“Yes, but perhaps it doesn’t know that,” Doland said. “What does it sound like? A woman? A man?”
“A woman,” Kalima said without hesitation. “A young woman, almost a girl.”
“And do you always understand the words?”
Kalmia nodded. “It is always in a language I understand, yes.”
Doland stared into his cup with a pensive expression, then glanced up at her. “One moment.”
He left the room, and was gone for some moments, which Kalima spent in agony thinking of the horrible diagnosis he would come up with, and the worse remedy. I’m probably going to die, she thought, and blinked back tears that sprung up at the notion. I’m too young to die.
She was brought from her morbid imaginings of flesh rotting off as her mind slowly and painfully disintegration by the Healer reentering the room. He had a large, forbidding tome in his hands, with blood-red pages, and a moth-eaten ribbon to mark the place.
“From what you’ve described, and what I can decipher from this book, what you have is called the Zephyr,” Doland said, frowning.
Kalima didn’t like his words or his expression. “What is that?”
“It’s like a third eye or a sixth sense,” Doland explained, his frown deepening. “But you shouldn’t have it.”
“And why not?” Kalmia asked.
“It disappeared with the witches. Around the same time as the trolls,” he added.
“So you’re saying I’m a witch?” Kalima blinked. “I’m not going to die?”
“Well, you might, if you were tied to a stake and set alight, but short of that, I think it’s safe to say you’ll live to see the morning at least,” Doland said.
“This is not a joking matter,” Kalima said, with great effort to keep her voice below a shriek.
“I wasn’t joking,” Doland told her and closed the book with a snap. “You’ll have to go to the Maribondi.”
“The what?” Kalima said.
“The Wise Women of the Sea,” he said. “They may be able to help you.”
“You can’t give me anything? Or recommend something?” Kalima asked, flutterings of panic in her chest. Leaving was almost as bad as dying in her estimation.
“I just recommended something: going to see the Maribondi,” he said.
“I meant like a tea or a bedtime prayer,” she said.
“I can give you something to help calm your nerves,” Doland said. “But I doubt it will do anything for the voice in your head.”
The sachet he handed her at the door was fragrant with orange and chamomile, but it did little to soothe her nerves. Kalima left the Healer’s with the Zephyr reverberating in her head. Down the river, swift and true, beware the one with three faces, and the words of two.
She knelt before her king, trembling with exhaustion, yet exhilarated at the knowledge that this kind man would finally take his rightful place at the throne.
How long had she waited for this moment? How many nights had she dreamed of his return to claim his birthright? It seemed that she had thought of nothing else for so very long.
She heard the monks beginning their chant again, signalling that the moment of silence was ended, and she stood up again, back straight and proud as she stood to the right of her sovereign. She surveyed the crowd of suddenly loyal subjects, their finery glinting in the afternoon sun as they showed off their best jewels, their family crests, their wealth and comfort, especially now that this business of the true monarch was resolved.
And it was resolved. Anyone else who had the slimmest claim to the throne had been eliminated. There was no one else who could rise from the ranks to stake a claim.
As she looked around the room, she noticed how people’s gaze slid away from hers. They were afraid of her. And rightfully so. She hadn’t assured her king’s return without getting her hands dirty. Sometimes, these things had to be done.
Of course, the king knew nothing of what she had done. He would be appalled. But sometimes, a person had to be willing to soil a soul for the sake of the greater good. Sometimes, a person had to break the rules to ensure a better future for everyone. Looking around now, it seemed that the promised future had finally arrived. There would be no more threats. No more late night missions. No more coded instructions. No more secret exploits, deep intrigues, last minute reprieves.
As she considered the future, her face clouded. What was she going to do with herself now that the task was accomplished? She looked down at her hands, calloused from close acquaintance with her weapons, her forearms strong from hours spent in physical exertion. What could she do with her skills now? It wasn’t like anyone here would need her. The people left in this room were loyal subjects, eager to please their lord, but not eager to take his place, not after what had happened to those other contenders.
She looked down at her hands again. Maybe she could take up knitting or something.