Book Review: Schooled in Magic, by Christopher G. Nuttall

Emily is a teenage girl pulled from our world into a world of magic and mystery by a necromancer who intends to sacrifice her to the dark gods. Rescued in the nick of time by an enigmatic sorcerer, she discovers that she possesses magical powers and must go to Whitehall School to learn how to master them. There, she learns the locals believe that she is a “Child of Destiny,” someone whose choices might save or damn their world … a title that earns her both friends and enemies. A stranger in a very strange land, she may never fit into her new world …

…and the necromancer is still hunting her. If Emily can’t stop him, he might bring about the end of days.” — Schooled in Magic, from Goodreads

 

Schooled in Magic is the first book in Christopher G. Nuttall’s series by the same name, and it follows the main character, Emily, as she tries to adjust to the medieval magical world she’s been kidnapped into. She’s being hunted by a necromancer named Shadye, who wants to sacrifice her to the Harrowing, because he believes she is a Child of Destiny and her death would be a powerful offering. It’s a very classic, world domination plot, and the necromancers are the current Big Bad, with the faeries being the background, Ye Olden Days Big Bad. Before Shadye could go through with the murdering, Emily is rescued by a sorcerer named Void. After the rescue, it’s discovered that Emily has powers herself, and is promptly enrolled in the–impenetrable from everything but plot–magical school of Whitehall.

Okay, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. Yes, it comes across as a story that borrows heavily from Harry Potter. In fact, if I had to give a brief description, I’d say it’s all seven Harry Potter books with their major highlights pulled out and rolled into one. We start with, “Yer a sorceress and the Chosen One, Emily,” and finish with the, “Battle of Hogwarts, er, Whitehall.”

We have the one loyal friend from the beginning (Ron/Imaiqah), and the bossy friend who was befriended through a harrowing experience, (Alassa/Hermione). Though, the intelligence level of the characters is swapped, the parallels are there and incredibly obvious, as are all the other ones: History of Magic, the McGonagall character, a Dumbledore character, a Defense against the Dark Arts type class, Care of Magical Creatures type class, Alchemy (Potions), Charms, and so on. The author also makes no bones about his incredulity of how other fantasy novels of similar ilk portray their worlds. However, he should keep in mind to not bite the hands of those who helped make fantasy more mainstream.

That said, here are my pros and cons, which include **SPOILERS** so reader beware:

Pros:

  • Because the main character was kidnapped at a more mature age, and wasn’t cloistered away for most of her life like Harry, there’s more real-world comparisons between the magical world and her own. She compares the writing of spells to computer coding, which, as someone who writes scripts, resonated with me.
    • In the same vein as above, because she’s put in a medieval world instead of a magical world hidden within our own, there’s more opportunity for her to try and introduce real-world concepts, (bookkeeping practices, Arabic number systems, stirrups, and a few more), into this world. She theorizes that development is stunted through a combination of magic, and a medieval class system, and she’s probably correct. It’s interesting to watch the waves she creates by introducing these things.
  • The magical system was laid out more in-depth. It gave us a more technical look into how the magic system works, and was like putting icing on an otherwise delicious, but barren, cake (Harry Potter world). Such things are explored in Fan Fiction of J.K. Rowling’s works, but the author herself didn’t touch too much on how magic functions. To be fair to Rowling, though, her target audience in the beginning was much younger than Nuttall’s, which means he had more leeway with attention-span for such details than she did.
  • It was interesting, for me, to draw comparisons between Harry Potter, both obvious and not, and see how Nuttall interpreted or changed those references. And there’s no doubt that, despite the low level of scorn displayed by the main character for unbelievable aspects of other fantasy novels at certain points, the book played on the nostalgia of people who enjoyed Harry Potter.
  • I enjoyed that their History of Magic was an actual discussion on the topic, rather than memorizing and spitting out facts. More history classes need to be taught like this, to be honest.
  • The main character is relatable, in that her reactions make sense given her new environment, and likeable enough for a teenager.

Cons:

  • I had a couple of main grievances, one being Emily supposedly introducing the concept of bras to the world. That one had me going, “Oh, come on!” While the modern concept of the bra we know today was introduced in the early 1900s, women have been binding their breasts as far back as ancient Greece, or farther. Is he trying to tell me that a woman never stopped to think, “Gee, it’s really uncomfortable to walk around like this, guess I’ll not try anything to make myself more comfortable.” I’d believe there was an alternate world with magic in it, before I believed any species with breasts went thousands of years and didn’t think to give themselves some support.
  • My other main grievance: the numbers don’t add up. What I mean by this, is we’re told by Void that necromancers outnumber sorcerers. We are also told that a necromancer functions by using murder to gain massive amounts of power. “Drain the mana, then drain the soul.” (Mana is the magic of the world.) It’s this massive amount of power being channeled through their minds that drives them mad, and they end up destroying themselves. However, one of the linchpin moments in the end is Emily being forced by Shadye to sacrifice someone to make her a necromancer, but the person has no mana, so it doesn’t work. Maybe I missed something, but here are my issues with this:
    • If regular humans don’t work, and sorcerers are in short supply, how in the world are these necromancers even a threat? Who are they sacrificing in massive amounts to gain enough power to be a threat to the allied lands?
    • We’re told in a story from one of the teachers that the necromancers were sacrificing people by the thousands, and rulers were sending shipments of people to be sacrificed in an attempt to bargain with the necromancers. As I said, the numbers and plot point don’t add up in the slightest.
    • All they’d have to do to win is put everyone with significant mana behind wards like in Whitehall, and let the necromancers tire themselves trying to get in and access the only sources of power they can use.
    • It could just be the population is half-magicless and half-mana capable, but not enough to utilize it. However, I don’t think that’s ever stated, leaving this plot hole wide open.
  • In the beginning we’re told a General Kip is in charge of Combat Magic, but later, when the character is in said class, no one of that name is there. Instead, we have two Drill Sergeants: Harkin and Miles. It’s another point to a lack of consistency that occasionally crops up.
  • The author seemingly uses a lot of terms interchangeably, like elves/faerie/Fair Folk, sorceress/witch/sorcerer/wizard, and so on. For the latter, I’m assuming it’s sort of a power structure, as Imaiqah states she’s a magician which is less powerful than a sorceress. However, since it isn’t really explained, it created a somewhat jarring, and less than smooth transition when giving the history of things.
  • The overall technical aspect of the writing left something to be desired, and more rigorous editing was needed. There were grammar mistakes, homophone mix-ups (knew instead of new), and a lack of consistency with capitalization of certain things, like goblins/Goblins. While even the best editing can leave a few flaws, and I don’t tend to nitpick to this level, there were enough to be rather noticeable.
  • The secondary characters have, well, character, but most feel as though they fall just short of being three dimensional.

CONCLUSION

I want to give it 3.8 out of 5, but the number system doesn’t work that way, so we’ll round up to 4/5.

The book was enjoyable for what it was: a play on Harry Potter’s popularity, but beginning with a little more maturity and critical thinking, as well as more depth with the magic.

The later books have higher ratings, and from what I’ve read in other reviews Nuttall’s technical writing gets better as it goes on. Given the fact that he has seemingly written 17 books in this series in a span of 5 years, while also writing other series concurrently, my only thought is that his man is either a magical machine, or a beast that never sleeps.

In the end, I’d recommend this book to anyone who won’t be offended by the obvious Harry Potter similarities, won’t get too hung up on the technical writing, and enjoys a reasonably good book about a magical school and saving the world. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but I do think I’ll be purchasing more books in the series, so there’s that.

Enjoy!

Slimy Pet Crystal Farm Coords & Screenshots

If you’re not familiar with the Slimy Pets, Hazelnutty did a wonderful, comprehensive YouTube video on it here.

All I’m adding is my farming/feeding route I take for the Prismatic Crystals & Slimes. If all you want to do is go in, feed your slimes, and get out, this route will take 5-7 minutes. This will depend on how many crystals you come across, and whether or not you hit the extra two spawn points between Slime #3 & #4.

Here are the Slime locations:

I’ve also added screenshots just in case you need a little extra help on finding them.

All Coords:

Start at Slime:

/way 32.82, 39.58 (Slime)

/way 29.41, 40.30

/way 29.97, 35.99

/way 29.56, 36.16

/way 32.16, 32.98

/way 45.62, 24.14 (Slime)

/way 44.08, 21.62

/way 43.12, 19.44

/way 42.19, 18.02

/way 38.71, 18.25

/way 38.33, 18.27

/way 44.74, 21.20 (Potentially 2 Crystals)

/way 47.82, 27.73

/way 48.20, 28.05

/way 49.04, 27.70

/way 70.28, 24.72

/way 71.95, 22.59

/way 71.78, 25.76 (Slime & Crystal)

/way 71.30, 31.50

If you’re good on Crystals, skip down to the next Slime coord. If not, there’s a couple more points to check.

/way 72.36, 47.66

/way 73.40, 50.44

/way 54.98, 48.72 (Slime. For this one, I keep a /tar Aquafly macro on my action bar)

/way 52.94, 52.72

/way 52.26, 51.87

/way 50.96, 51.39

/way 46.79, 52.09

/way 45.47, 53.65

/way 43.42, 55.48

/way 39.70, 59.46

/way 39.08, 59.49

All done! Hopefully you now have plenty of Prismatic Crystals for your Slimy Pet farm.

In addition to the route above, here are some additional reported spawn points. Special thank you to Corgi for sending me their screenshots and cords!

/way 47.28, 69.06

/way 47.61, 85.47

/way 48.39, 86.25

/way 40.64, 71.20

/way 40.70, 65.99

/way 26.27, 30.96

/way 45.82, 38.04

/way 45.77, 42.36

/way 45.60, 40.59

/way 51.53, 73.19

/way 44.69, 72.94 (Potentially 2 Crystals)

/way 50.57, 69.39

Best of luck, and happy battling to you!

32.82, 39.58 (Slime)
29.41, 40.30
29.97, 35.99
29.56, 36.16
32.16, 32.98
45.62, 24.14 (Slime)
44.08, 21.62
43.12, 19.44
42.19, 18.02
38.71, 18.25
38.33, 18.27
44.74, 21.20 (Potentially 2 Crystals)
47.82, 27.73
48.20, 28.05
49.04, 27.70
70.28, 24.72
71.95, 22.59
71.78, 25.76 (Slime & Crystal)
71.30, 31.50
72.36, 47.66
73.40, 50.44
54.98, 48.72 (Slime. For this one, I keep a /tar Aquafly macro on my action bar)
52.94, 52.72
52.26, 51.87
50.96, 51.39
46.79, 52.09
45.47, 53.65
43.42, 55.48
39.70, 59.46
39.08, 59.49

 

Additional Spawns:

/way 47.28, 69.06
/way 47.61, 85.47
/way 48.39, 86.25
/way 40.64, 71.20
/way 40.70, 65.99
/way 26.27, 30.96
/way 45.82, 38.04
/way 45.77, 42.36
/way 45.60, 40.59
/way 51.53, 73.19
/way 44.69, 72.94 (Potentially 2 Crystals)
/way 50.57, 69.39

World of Warcraft: Safe Haven Observations & Sylvanas Windrunner Theories

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining me for some fun theorycrafting and observations! I’ll preface this by saying: this is LONG. There were so many hints pointing toward certain things, that I needed to give some background information and some extra here and there. It also doesn’t help that, perhaps, I can be long-winded. Ehehe.

Anyway, buckle up and I hope you enjoy!

 

Safe Haven, and the Implications

With the release of a new cinematic short, Safe Haven, we’ve had yet another nail driven into the proverbial coffin of Lady Sylvanas Windrunner, Warchief of the Horde. As High Overlord Varok Saurfang is talking with Thrall, they’re attacked by two Forsaken rogues. The attackers are quickly dispatched, and Thrall accuses Saurfang of being followed. To which Saurfang replied; “I followed them.”

 

Now, there’s nothing to indicate Saurfang is lying about this. In fact, when Thrall declares this place is; “Home. And family,” Saurfang looks around, somewhat wary, and asks; “And where are they?” To which Thrall replies; “Not far.” Some might say this is just to make sure Thrall’s family doesn’t hear Saurfang accuse Thrall of being absent in the face of what Sylvanas has done to the Horde. It can also be said that he was making sure Thrall’s family wouldn’t get in the crosshairs of the attack from the rogues he was following.

On the other hand, Sylvanas declared to your character in Queen’s Favor: “Let me be perfectly clear. You will find the traitor Saurfang. You will deliver him to me. And you will not fail me again.” In this, she might have dispatched more subtle forces than Dark Rangers and Deathguards, like rogues. A couple of points that might indicate Saurfang was simply turning a situation to his advantage are this: Why wait to kill Thrall until Saurfang is there? And, Saurfang was in the Swamp of Sorrows when Lyana and your character encounter him, which feeds directly into the Blasted Lands and the Dark Portal. Indicating Saurfang was probably already heading in that direction, and the rogues simply followed him

Rogues operate on subtlety, and would know that attacking when both orcs are there would put them at a disadvantage despite Saurfang having no weapon. If Thrall is truly the target, chances are they’d have just killed him and left. However, if they were following Saurfang, and heard the High Overlord trying to convince the former Warchief to fight for the Horde again, they may have felt obligated to take both of them out. They couldn’t take the chance of both orcs leaving there, united in their efforts to overthrow their Queen.

Plus, who is Thrall more likely to believe here? An honored war veteran, or Sylvanas? The rogues certainly can’t dispute what he’s said. I really don’t want to doubt Saurfang, and would love to take his words at face value, but at this point Saurfang may be willing to do whatever it takes to convince Thrall to fight for the Horde. Including luring two rogues he knows were following him right to Thrall’s door. The wariness we see when Saurfang asks about Thrall’s family, may have also been him making sure his actions wouldn’t end up with Thrall’s family dead.

We’ll have to wait and see, but at the moment I’m going to say that Saurfang manipulated the situation to his advantage. Either way, this does not reflect well on the Banshee Queen.

Is Sylvanas going to be Garrosh 2.0?

 

So, this question has been answered by Michael Bybee at Gamescon, stating that she won’t, but as her actions become ever more warmongering some players are struggling to believe this. However, I’m inclined to put my faith in the writers at Blizzard and I have a few reasons for this.

  1. Vol’jin, the loa, and hunting shadows

At the very beginning of Legion, Vol’jin is struck down by a demon and Sylvanas calls for the Horde to retreat to try and save the Warchief. Unfortunately, Vol’jin was beyond saving, but before he died he stated he’d been granted a vision:

Now, this decision has had major consequences for Horde and Alliance alike. And, until recently, we believed that the loa wanted Sylvanas in power for some reason or another.

However, in Battle for Azeroth and Tides of Vengeance specifically, we find out that this is 100% not the case. Vol’jin is summoned by Baine, Talanji, and company to hear who it was that told Vol’jin to make Sylvanas Warchief. However, Vol’jin’s memory is muddled, and you go back through his final hours to see if it will jog his memory:

Now, what I find most interesting about the above is two things. Vol’jin has declared his death was no accident, and he was, and still is, cut off from the loa. And there was a power lurking in the shadows. It took him somewhere to see this vision, but he can’t remember what this power is, or where they took him.

As a little side-note, one of the shades being fought says; “We tried…to spare you…the truth.” It might seem small, but this could be a huge part in some of the theory I’ll get down to below.

Having declared that he thinks it might not be the loa who granted him the vision, there’s only one thing left to do: visit a loa. Specifically, Bwonsamdi.

Bwonsamdi states he can’t hear Vol’jin either, and that he wasn’t the one who sent the vision. He cites ‘the balance’ as to why he would never suggest Sylvanas, because she, ‘tips the scales too far.’ Now, this isn’t the first you’ve heard of the Balance, as we get it, ad nauseum, from druids and anyone in touch with nature. However, this is another potential arrow pointing to who, or what, did send the vision.

However, that’s for later.

Moving on from here, Bwonsamdi tells us that he might know a couple different ‘people’ we should talk to, to see if it was them. His competitors, if you will, who deal in the dying and the dead.

So, first stop is Icecrown:

What I find so incredibly amusing is that even the Lich King says the Banshee Queen is too extra, and again we hear someone bring up ‘the balance’. We also get our next clue that something has gone awry with Vol’jin’s afterlife. That Vol’jin has been changed ‘more than you know.’

Then, in the true spirit of Lich King hospitality, he sics some ghouls after you, and tells you to remain with him forever or kick rocks.

Having fled Icecrown, we make our way back to the Broken Isles to visit Eyir:

Eyir gives us an interesting piece of information, that whoever has elevated Vol’jin beyond a ‘mere spirit’ is ‘a hand of valor’. She also indicated that such a force would not be interested in schemes for mortal thrones. We’ll get to that little tidbit later, because while I think that is factually true in letter, it is not true in spirit. See what I did there? Eh? Eh?

Yeah, okay, moving on.

So, here we’ve established that whoever granted the vision is not the same entity that elevated Vol’jin to…well, whatever he is. Bwonsamdi has no claim to him, the Lich King states he is not Undead or Damned, and Eyir says whatever has elevated him is beyond even her power. And, oh boy, this is getting good!

After Eyir says she knows what the thing probably is, but she won’t tell us, she also tells us to kick rocks. Man, these immortal beings are freaking rude! Anywho, we then hear this from Vol’jin:

Having established how little we know, Vol’jin says that he’s going to continue searching for answers, and that he’s going to hunt the potential new enemy before it’s hunting us. Which I think is going to bring a whole new facet to the title of Shadow Hunter for Vol’jin.

So, what, might you ask, does that incredibly long bit of exposition have to do with Sylvanas not being Garrosh? This leads me to #2.

2. New Powers that Probably Aren’t so New

One of the things you’ll notice with almost all the big bads we face in WoW, is that they tend to pull from ye olde days. They’re bad guys we’ve either faced in the past, or the beings of Azeroth have faced in the past in the RTSs and Lore:

  • The Old Gods (Vanilla, War of the Ancients, and more)
  • The Burning Legion & Illidan (Burning Crusade, War of the Ancients, The Opening of the Dark Portal)
  • The Scourge and the Lich King (Wrath of the Lich King, The Scourge, Warcraft III)
  • Cataclysm & Deathwing (Cycling back to Old God influence, and Deathwing seemed to have his fingers in a lot of pies)
  • Sha & Garrosh (Old Gods…Again. Sensing a theme, yet? The Sha were spawned from Old God essence. Garrosh brings us back around to the original sentiment of Orcs vs. Humans)
  • Warlords of Draenor…eh, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. But really, it’s just more Through the Dark Portal-esque stuff, right?
  • Legion (The Burning Legion again)
  • Battle for Azeroth (We’re still angry at each other, Azshara the Sunderer, and the old gods are still trying to kill everyone)

Now, after the original game and seven expansions, all featuring heavily with themes and bad guys from the past, what’s on the horizon?

Fresh blood.

Every franchise needs an infusion of fresh types of enemies to face to keep a storyline going. You can only re-use the same baddies so much before it gets stale. Now, Blizzard knows this, and I think they’ve been leaving hints along our storyline paths for what kind of fight we can expect post-N’Zoth.

Light versus Shadow and…More?

Okay, this isn’t a new concept completely, I mean, we’ve had paladins since day one, right? But I think it goes deeper than that.

When you see enemies like Old Gods, Titans, the Burning Legion, and so on, do you go toe-to-toe with them, or do you do the smart thing and work in the background and try to take them down through proxies? Like, you know, heroic adventurers? Demi-gods? You would also use these proxies to enforce your will.

Now, let’s get something clear: the Light is not ‘good’ and the Shadow is not ‘bad’…”but such concepts do not apply to the Light and the Void, they are simply primal forces with their morality characterized by how they are wielded” — Gamepedia ‘Light’

This is getting well into theory, but there are a few hints that I think support this:

  • Going back to Legion with the disastrous Xe’ra versus Illidan encounter, we get to see what kinds of lengths the Light is willing to go to. Khadgar has theorized that, during the great ordering of the cosmos or the ordering of Shadow and Light, Xe’ra was created by Elune. Xe’ra, and other Naaru, are agents of the Light. Illidan is known as the Child of Light and Shadows, but we see him forsake this birthright when he kills Xe’ra and remains at the Seat of the Pantheon. So, the Light is looking for new ‘Champions’.
  • We sort of see this happen with Calia Menethil, an undead brought back by the Light. Who may be put in place to battle Sylvanas once she’s deposed? (Because, trust me, if she’s not dead by the conclusion of certain events, she will likely be banished).
  • Vol’jin was shown a vision by something in the Shadows, maybe not the Shadows itself, but elevated in status by the Light, and will become a true ‘Shadow Hunter’.
  • Sylvanas becoming Warchief at the will of something, but I’m not so sure it’s the Shadow, or Void. We see the Void essence in Alleria warning her about Sylavans; “This one is dangerous. She is a threat and must be ended. Beware this one. She seeks the death of all things…All possibilities.” This is likely the Void trying to keep the balance.
  • Alleria is created as an agent of the Void by another agent of the Void, the Locus-Walker.
  • Night Warriors created by Elune.

I’m sure I could dig up more examples, but this’ll do for now.

So, coming back around to Sylvanas, how does this create a storyline different from Garrosh’s?

3. Destroying the Balance

Because, ultimately, I think this is what whoever gave Vol’jin the vision is going for. We’ve had three heavy hitters–Bwonsamdi, The Lich King, Eyir–stating how bad Sylvanas is for the Balance. This also implies that these beings work to keep the Balance, or maybe they are even bound by the tennets of Balance.

The Light and Shadow or ‘Void’ might be bound by these same rules, or they have to follow those rules when exerting their will in our world. Not totally sure. This brings me back around to Eyir’s comment about the hand of valor not scheming for thrones, which might be true in the strictest sense, but it sure tries to influence things behind thrones. *cough* Boy Wonder himself, Anduin. *cough*

The Void is no different. However, what these two shimmering seas of energy situated outside the barriers of reality share is this: they aren’t overt. They influence from behind the scenes. They whisper. They guide the hands of their proxies toward the outcome that suits them best. They do not orchestrate the death of a Warchief, kidnap his spirit to show him a vision, and force the appointment of the Warchief that would suit them best.

That’s where our third party comes in: The Gray. While the reason behind why The Gray would want the Balance thrown out of whack at best, or at worst destroyed, is unknown, we can see that’s what they want. And who, you may ask, are the first beings we encounter that were likely agents of The Gray? I’d have to say the Scourge Val’kyr all the way back at the end of Wrath, when Sylvanas kills herself from jumping off the top of ICC.

They show Sylvanas a vision of what would happen to the Forsaken if she truly died. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Val’kyr are known for having visions. Who is? The Gray.

This has me asking so many questions:

  • Is the Balance bad for us? The Light and Void manipulate us to their own ends, and we can see in certain cases (Illidan) that they don’t care about the people, as long as their goals are met. Perhaps The Gray is doing us a favor by trying to shatter that balance through Sylvanas.
  • Maybe The Gray are simply a faction of the Void unhappy with the Balance, and are seeking to destroy it? We’ve seen other examples of beings going rogue from their faction, like Kairoz from the Bronze Dragonflight when he helped Garrosh.
  • What has The Gray Seen that has compelled them to take these actions? Is keeping the Balance going to cause more harm than good? Is shattering it the only way we keep ourselves from annihilation?

4. Who Else has The Gray Influenced?

I think we get this answer in that amazing trio of cinematic shorts: The Warbringers, Sylvanas, Azshara, & Jaina.

Yes, even Jaina.

Azshara: The female voice that whispers to her when she looks at the fish isn’t male, like N’Zoths. Also, who has been seen to control spirits, like the ones she sees accusing her? The Gray. It isn’t until she shouts about a ‘deal’ that we hear from N’Zoth. The Gray knows it can prod Azshara’s pride into taking N’Zoth’s deal.

Jaina: Again, we see spirit manipulation with Jaina’s father, forcing her back into the confrontation when she’s been absent from it for so long. She even says, ‘I’m listening now, Father’, which might not be her father at all, but The Gray.

Sylvanas: Destroying the home of the Night Elves, as a result of much plotting from various sources like Elegy, A Good War, and Before the Storm, is a major attack on the Balance, since the Night Elves are agents of Elune. Agents of the Balance.

Remember, it isn’t trying to make all of those it’s influencing work together. In fact, the more war they bring, the more likely it is that the Balance will suffer.

Conclusion:

First off, I have to tip my hat to the team at Blizzard. I have never been so invested in the lore of the game, and it has been amazing to join them for this ride. I am truly looking forward to each new addition as we go along.

Many thanks to you all.

As for The Gray, I could be totally wrong on all points. If that’s the case I’ve just wasted hours of my life, and maybe ten-ish minutes of yours, from this whole thing. If that turns out to be true I apologize profusely, but I had fun, and I have no one to discuss this with so you were all stuck with this post, heh.

I do think, with the harping on about the Balance, that is what will be under threat and Sylvanas is that threat in physical form. Now, if it turns out The Gray has set her up to destroy the Balance because it’s the only way we’ll be saved from annihilation, then do her actions justify that end? We had that question with Illidan: do you justify the murder of the few to save the many?

Or, is The Gray doing this to gain an upper hand, consequences be damned?

I have to think it’s the first, to be honest, and one of the reasons is shown from earlier, when Vol’jin is making his way back through his final hour. The shade said; “We tried…to spare you…the truth.” That doesn’t sound like something a being would care about if they just wanted mayhem and murder.

With that being my guess, I had my own sort of ‘vision’:

At the conclusion, when the Balance has been shattered for their benefit, Sylvanas is confronted by all the leaders. They see why she did it, because in the end it was the only way to save the most people, but as Vol’jin stated as he was dying: “Many will not understand.” And they don’t. Some will want her true death. Some will want to grant her mercy. All acknowledge that she cannot continue as Warchief, and will likely have to step down as queen of the Forsaken.

In some ways, I see her returning to ICC, and staring down from the top. Trying to decide if she will end her Undeath there as she had those many years ago. Perhaps the Lich King is still there, and offers for her to stay there forever, as he did for your player in the cut scene.

Perhaps The Gray offers her an alternative to the damned afterlife she saw when she jumped from ICC after Arthas’ death.

Either way, the only thing I see Sylvanas sharing with Garrosh, is that after this storyline comes to its end, she will come to hers in the game. One way, or another.

Flash Fiction ~~ Lost

The woman across from him was as old and weathered as her shack near the sea, and her cold eyes were the same stormy green as the chill waters washing along the shore. Her mouth was set in a perpetual frown, but her words were warmer than her countenance.

“Ye’ll drive yerself mad if ye do this,” she said, her voice gruff from disuse, but her tone soft. Knowing.

“If there’s a chance, then I have to find her. I won’t lose her this way,” he insisted. He didn’t raise his voice, but the resolve there was firm. He leaned on the table, and his tan, work-roughened hands supported his solid weight.

“She were lost long before she sought the sea,” the woman replied, softening further, but never turning away from the desperate grief shining in his honey brown eyes.

He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last to seek her here, and she made a point to never turn away from the pain of those who sought her out. She could do no less, but no more, either.  

Just like the others, he ignored her words and asked; “How did you make it back without going insane?” He looked to the large conch shell sitting high on a shelf.

Her eyes followed his. Even in the low light offered by the overcast day, it gleamed, and the dark red lines on the shell were like runnels of blood spiraling against the pearl white.

 Her very bones ached with the question, and as she turned back to meet this stranger’s eyes, she wondered if it was time. There was a strength in him that had little to do with his stature, and more to do with the fire she saw in him. His soul burning bright through his eyes. Such a soul just might have the strength needed.

He barely heard her over the wind off the sea when she whispered; “I made a deal.”

“A deal?” he asked, his voice losing its frenzied edge as it gave way to confusion.

She didn’t answer him as she stood from the table and hobbled over to the shelf. Her hands shook as she extended her arms to their limit to take the shell down. When her fingers had barely brushed it the wind picked up, whistling through gaps in the wood and howling around the shack.

“What deal?” he asked again, a heaviness settling into his gut like an anchor hitting the seabed.

Her back was to him, hunched, but not from age. More like she was folded tight around the shell. Then, even though her words this time were not loud, they found their way to his ears all the same.

“An exchange. Do ye still wish to find her?” she asked.

The weight in his stomach grew heavier, but he swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth before he answered; “Yes. With everything I am.”

She turned to him then, her mouth set in a soft, mournful smile. Her eyes were full of sorrow, and like the little shells on the beach that held tiny pools of the sea, the tide was more than they could hold, and tears spilled down her cheeks. When the first drop hit the wood of the floor, the wind shrieked its warning, but it fell on deaf ears. He was lost in the endless depths of her eyes.

“Good. Because that is what it will take,” she said. Then, faster than he’d imagined she could move, she smashed the shell on the floor.

It was later, when he woke, hungry, cold, and alone in the shack, that he finally understood. His eyes were grainy as he opened them, and the coarseness of the dried saltwater along his skin was rubbing it raw. Seaweed green eyes looked across the floor of the shack, but the shattered conch was gone. As was the old woman. His humorless exhale of a laugh ended in a shudder. He curled in on himself, cradling his own shell protectively with his shivering form.

The conch was an all-over pale pink color, like the roses his wife would lovingly tend in their garden, while the underside of the flat portion was the gleaming porcelain of her skin.

“I’ll never leave you again,” he whispered, the words raspy from his dry throat.

The shell pulsed with warmth in his hands, and he held on even tighter to it as the sea of grief washing along the shores of his mind drew back. Even if only for these few moments.

For right now, though, those moments were enough.

Short Story ~~ Come Away

0 for 4 on the contests, but such is life.

This was for a contest with the prompt: New Beginnings

Word Limit: 2500

 

~~~~

 

Come Away

 

If you’d asked Thomas right then what had woken him, he wouldn’t be able to put his finger on exactly what it had been. All he knew was the air was still. Like that moment of anticipation in a movie theatre, between the previews ending and the movie beginning, when everything’s dark and everyone’s holding their breath. Except this was endless, like someone had hit the pause button on the world at just the right moment.

Thomas held still, too; something wasn’t right. Heart hammering, he opened his eyes to a slit, revealing nothing more than the ceiling of his room. After a long, tense moment, he slowly moved his head to look around. Moonlight streamed in through the window, illuminating familiar sights, like his desk and dresser, while throwing others into sinister shadows.

He closed his eyes, and breathed in slow and deep. He was ten now, and being afraid of the dark wasn’t okay anymore. Plus, his mom had warned him he’d never be allowed to watch a scary movie ever again if he had nightmares. She’d let him stay up late and watch one with her after Paige went to bed, since it was Halloween and a Friday night. He couldn’t remember getting to the end of the movie, so his mom must have put him to bed.

When nothing pounced on him from the dark, he sat up, and then he heard a stifled laugh from down the hall. He rolled his eyes and sighed.

That must have been what woke me up. Paige is playing in her room, he thought, and shook his head. Annoyance flashed through him like lightning, for his little sister and at himself. Paige, for being up, and himself for being scared over a six year-old.

Thomas threw his covers back, and quietly padded to his door. When he grabbed the knob, he gripped it tight, and slowly turned it to minimize the noise. He opened the door just enough to slide through the gap, to avoid the squeak that happened a few more inches beyond that.

He didn’t want to wake his mom. She’d worked all day, then took them trick-or-treating, and ended the night watching the movie with him after he’d begged for it. He didn’t need to wake her just to tell Paige to go back to sleep.

His socks made no noise on the hardwood floor as he moved two doors down from his room. He frowned as he approached, though, because her door was already ajar, so he pushed it all the way open.

Paige’s room looked like someone threw up one of their aunt’s bridesmaids’ dresses all over the room. Everything was pink and lacy, and Thomas usually had to repress a shudder at the sight. Tonight, though, something was missing: Paige.

A giggle floated on the air, but this time from downstairs.

Maybe she needed some water, he reasoned. He glanced behind him at his mother’s door, but pursed his lips and turned towards the stairs instead. When he made it to the bottom, he headed left toward the kitchen, but she wasn’t there. It was when he went to the end of the counter, toward the dining room, that he saw the open sliding glass door.

His heart stopped. Their mom had been worried about Paige opening the back door and getting lost in the woods behind the house. Mom called Paige her, ‘Mischievous Rugrat,’ to which Paige would usually laugh, her green eyes sparkling. Their mom had put in one of those locks that bolted at the top of the door, specifically so Paige couldn’t reach it, even with a chair.

Yet, the door was open.

More giggles floated in through the open door, and then through the sheer curtain in dining room he saw her: curly brown hair bounced as she skipped, her bunny slippers kicking up sticks in her wake, and her white and pale pink onesie pajamas glowing in the moonlight.

There were no thoughts going through his mind when he rushed out the back door, only stopping long enough to shove his feet into his slide sandals. Then he took off across the back yard, the dead leaves and sticks barely crunching beneath his feet as he ran as fast as he could. His breath was coming in heavy pants, and his arms pumped as he broke through the tree line where he saw Paige last. She couldn’t have been far, but with each moment he didn’t see her, his panic rose in him like a bath filling, until he thought he might drown in it.

He stopped to take a look around, wild-eyed, as his blood pounded in his ears like an urgent drum.

“Paige!” he called, the woods silent.

“Thomas?” Paige said, surprised.

Her voice came from Thomas’ left, not too far away, and he started in that direction. He didn’t run, since he didn’t want to pass her by accident, but he wasn’t being a slow poke, either. After a few minutes, he was close enough to hear her having a conversation, but not what was being said. It stopped him dead in his tracks. He clenched his fists and grit his teeth.

She’s not alone. This was turning into a much bigger mess than just putting his little sister back to bed. He was torn between running back to the house, or to keep going to try and get Paige.

“Come on, Thomas! Come meet my friends!” Paige said, her words bright and excited.

Thomas’ stomach clenched. Friends. As in more than one. He didn’t have much choice, though; they knew he was here.

He crept forward, pushing low-hanging branches and brush out of the way, until he entered a clearing. It wasn’t large, but it was almost the size of their backyard. It was the stones that caught his attention, though.

Some were short, coming up to his knees, while others were eye-level with him. They were all gray and smooth, and shaped like eggs with the bottoms in the ground. Each of the tops had a hole, and it went from one side to the other. The smaller ones he could probably barely fit a pinky finger through, while the larger ones were big enough for his fist. The stones formed a perfect circle around the clearing, with six or so feet of clearance between them and the tree line. In the center of the circle was Paige.

“Thomas!” she said, and jumped up, waving at him. “Did you come for the tea party, too?”

“Tea party?” he asked, gaping at her as he moved closer. Then he saw the low, round table, covered with a white lace tablecloth, and the fanciest tea set he’d ever seen outside of one of Paige’s princess books. The small plates at each setting had equally little cakes. Page’s wide grin was dusted with powdered sugar, and the cake at her place setting had a neat little bite taken out of it.

“Paige,” he said, disbelieving, “please tell me you didn’t eat anything a stranger gave you.”

She just laughed. “They aren’t strangers, silly; they’re my friends! We’ve been talking for days and days. So, do you want some cake?” she asked, and started to turn toward the table.

He wanted nothing more than to jump the circle, grab her hand, and run with her back to the house. But there was something about that ring that set his teeth on edge, and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Each time he tried to step forward, his brain screamed; “No!

“No, I do not want any cake!” he said, scowling and clenching his fists. “I want you to get over here so we can go home!” By the time he finished the sentence he was almost shouting.

Paige’s eyes had gone wide, and her lower lip trembled. “You’re being mean, Thomas,” she accused, and a small sob escaped her.

“Oh, don’t mind the boy, little one. He just doesn’t understand.”

Thomas’ body jerked in surprise. The voice was coming from right next to Paige, but there was no one there. Also, it sounded strange. High-pitched and buzzing, like a bee was trying to speak after breathing in helium.

“Who’s there?” Thomas demanded, voice trembling.

Paige’s eyes went wide, and were shiny with unshed tears. “It’s like you said, Novus. He can’t see you!”

“No, little one, he can’t,” Novus said, as though mournful about the fact. To Thomas, though, there was something disingenuous about the way they said it. Like when a bully has to apologize to a kid they beat up.

“Paige, please. Let’s go home,” Thomas begged, deciding to ignore the voice. Whoever they were, they didn’t sound very big, and he’d rather take his chances than talk to them anymore.

“We can’t leave yet. Novus promised I’d get to meet Herne!” she said, and stamped her foot.

“I don’t care, Paige! We need to get back before mom wakes up and worries about us!” Thomas said, shouting again.

“She will not wake until all has finished here. Worry not.” There was a pause. “In fact, you should not have woken either, naughty boy. Perhaps there is some belief in you, yet.” Then a tinkling laugh, like broken glass falling on metal, caused Thomas to shiver. “Or there will be after tonight.”

“He comes!” a chorus of voices called, similar to Novus.

Thomas jumped at that, but before he could call for Paige to run, something came out of the tree line across the clearing from him. Thomas’ jaw dropped.

The man—if that’s even what he was—was huge, and not just because he was riding the biggest deer ever seen. Most of his face was hidden by a deer skull mask, with antlers that were more like towering branches. Though it wasn’t quite right, because the eyes of the skull were set in a more human way, and there were no eyes, only darkness. The nose portion covered down to his chin, so he couldn’t see a mouth, but his cheeks were left bare. His skin was a dusky purple, his upper body muscular, and he wore nothing but a forest green cloak, with pants and boots to match. He also had a longbow sitting across his back, and Thomas swallowed at the sight of the weapon.

The deer snorted and stamped its hooves when it reached the stone circle, chewing the bit of its bridle.

“Has she partaken of the food and drink?” the man asked, his voice rumbling across the clearing like thunder.

“She has, Lord Herne!” the voices chorused out again.

Thomas’ eyes jerked away from the man to his sister, who was still, her head tilted back to look up at the man.

“Then it is time. Bring her,” he said, and held out a hand.

“Wait! You can’t just take my sister!” Thomas yelled, breaking out of his stunned trance.

Everyone went still at his words, and then the man turned his gaze to Thomas.

“I can, child. She has eaten our food, and drank the water from our spring. She is ours.”

Thomas’ head was spinning. None of it made any sense. He opened his mouth to yell at the man again, but something fluttered in his face. He jerked back to get away, but before he could, something cool brushed across his forehead.

It was as though a curtain was pulled back, revealing everything. A small form hovered in front of his face, its wings beating so fast he couldn’t see them properly. Bits of leaves covered their body, almost like scales, and thorns and flowers were tangled in their hair. The eyes were a liquid silver, like a faceless coin in water, and its mouth was pulled back in a cruel grin, revealing sharp teeth that would do a shark proud.

“A gift,” the buzzing voice said, but the pronouncement came across as more of a curse. “From Novus.”

Novus floated away, back toward Paige, and he realized there were at least twenty of these things, all floating around her. She turned, just enough to meet his gaze, and smiled wide, as though all her dreams had come true. Then she turned, and started walking toward the man.

“Paige! No!” he yelled, and grabbed the stone closest to him to launch himself over it. Before he could complete the movement, Novus was in his face again, throwing some kind of powder at him.

“Shh,” Novus said, holding a finger to its lips. “Sleep and peace, Thomas,” it continued, the words sing-song.

Thomas’ eyes drooped, and his legs grew weak beneath him. He tightened his grip on the stone, struggling to remain upright and awake, but it was no use. The last thing he saw before falling asleep was his sister taking hold of the man’s hand.

 

<***>

 

Giggling woke Thomas with a start, and his eyes flew open. Everything from the night before crashed through his mind, and he scrambled to get out of bed, nearly falling as his sheets tangled around his feet. When he jerked open his door, indistinct voices were coming from downstairs. Thomas dashed from his room and down the stairs, slipping dangerously in his socks over the smooth floor.

When he burst into the kitchen, his mom was at the stove making breakfast, and Paige was sitting at the table. He gaped at her, as she happily munched on pancakes.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. Your pancakes are on the table,” his mom said, gracing him with her smile, before turning back to the stove.

He couldn’t move, though. There’s no way that was a dream! But there she was. He scowled, and cautiously made his way over to the table. Paige didn’t pay him any mind, and hummed a happy tune as she ate.

Thomas sat down, but didn’t eat. He just kept staring at Paige.

“Are you okay?” his mom asked, from right next to his shoulder.

Thomas nearly jumped out of his skin, and yelped.

His mother frowned, and then raised an eyebrow. “I think we’ll hold off on anymore scary movies until you’re older,” his mom said, and made her way to sit down and eat.

His cheeks burned, and he dropped his eyes to stare at his pancakes.

“Can I have more milk?” Paige piped up, holding out her cup before their mom could sit.

“Oh, of course, honey,” she said, and grabbed the cup.

Once their mom walked away, Paige’s giggle caught his attention and he looked at her.

Instead of green, liquid silver eyes stared back at him, and a cruel grin full of sharp teeth made him let out a small gasp. Then it put a finger to its lips in a sign for quiet, and when Thomas blinked, the face was Paige’s again.

“We’re going to have so much fun, Thomas,” Novus said, and giggled.

Short Story ~~ Love Thy Neighbor

Written for a contest. 3k word limit

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The steady creak of the rocking chair on the worn floorboards of the porch mixed with the rustle of dead leaves across the yard. The breeze was cool and gentle, calling for no more than a light jacket and jeans. It blew the occasional strands of auburn hair across her face, tickling her until she tucked them behind an ear.

The sun was low on the horizon, and by Faye’s reckoning it was getting on to five. She had a pot of stew on the stove that’d be ready soon, and the scent of it drifted out the window to wind around her like a needy cat.

Despite the idyllic country scenery, perfect fall weather, and her mawmaw’s famous stew cooking on the stove, Faye was downright ornery.

“You’re just riling yourself up. No good will come of this,” Holt said. He came to stand next to her chair, which, like the small house, was built by her granddaddy.

“So says you,” Faye countered, and jutted her chin up, refusing to look at him.

“I just think you’re being stubborn about something that’ll likely amount to nothing,” he reasoned, and shrugged, the fabric of his long-sleeved, plaid shirt rustling.

“I just don’t like it,” she said, the words near to a growl.

Holt huffed. “You don’t say.”

She turned to look at him then, and angry hazel eyes met calm brown ones. The color was the same as the rich earth deep in the woods that were twenty steps from the back of her house. The acres of land had been in her family for over two-hundred years.

“I’ve tried talking to him, Holt, and he was having none of it. What else was I supposed to do?” she asked, her hands gripping the arms of the chair so tight her knuckles were white and the wood groaned.

“Oh, I don’t know. Let it go?” he asked, his sarcasm creeping in as it inevitably did. The corner of his mouth quirked up at her responding scowl, and she turned away from his teasing.

“You know I can’t do that, and you know why.”

Before he said anything else, a truck crested the hill off in the distance. The weather was unusually dry for this time of year, so the vehicle kicked up a cloud of dust from the dirt road in its wake.

Holt sighed. “I don’t need to be here for this,” he said, resigned, heading inside.

It wasn’t long after that the sheriff’s tires crunched over the gravel on her driveway. Faye stood from the rocking chair, and stepped down from the porch as a bear of a man unfolded from the vehicle. Barrel-chested, and with a laugh that boomed from him like a canon, there was hardly a soul that didn’t get along with Sheriff Clyde Gresham.

“Faye Lynn,” he greeted, and nodded at her as she approached.

“Sheriff Gresham,” she replied, and tilted her head back to look up him.

“Now, Tammy told me you called in about your new neighbor. Said something about him spyin’ on you?” Gresham asked, voice rumbling, reading from a notepad he’d pulled from his jacket pocket.

She pursed her lips and crossed her arms. “He’s setting up a bunch of cameras, and I think some are pointed at my house. I don’t appreciate that, Gresham,” she said, voice low.

He nodded. “I understand that, Faye. Have you spoken to him?”

“I surely did. He told me to mind my own business. I didn’t want to go over there in the first place, because people these days are downright crazy, but I didn’t want to bother you if I didn’t have to,” she said, her eyes straying to the neighbor’s house every so often as she spoke.

Gresham leveled a look at her. “Is that all?”

She scowled at him. “What are you implying, Sheriff?” she asked, shifting her weight to one foot and gritting her teeth.

“Come on, Faye Lynn. I haven’t met a single person in a fifty-mile radius that hasn’t been on the wrong end of your bad temper and sharp tongue a time, or two. Were you truly being neighborly, or were you your usual, charming self?” he asked, and raised an eyebrow.

Faye harrumphed. “I was neighborly enough for me, I suppose. But it still don’t give him the right to do all that.”

He sighed and closed his notebook. “I’ll go and talk to him, but I won’t be happy if I have to come back out here because you’re harassing the man.”

Faye’s jaw dropped. “Me? He’s the one setting up cameras pointed at my property!”

“Which I will address, but if I don’t find any problems, I don’t need you taking matters into your own hands,” he said, keeping eye contact.

Their eyes remained locked for a few heartbeats, until she finally dropped hers first.

“Just get him to stop invading my privacy, and there won’t be a need for that, now will there?” she said

Gresham shook his head, but said nothing else. He made his way over to the neighbor’s house, which, despite the amount of land the properties had, wasn’t terribly far away from Faye’s. The other house had once belonged to another branch of her family. Cousins on her father’s side. The houses weren’t so close that you could carry on a conversation, but not so far that you could leave your curtains open without someone being able to see your business.

She waited there, halfway between the sheriff’s truck and her porch, but Gresham’s comments combined with Holt’s wormed their way through her mind. All too soon, in her opinion, the sheriff was making his way back to her. She tensed, and waited for the words of dismissal.

He didn’t disappoint.

“I checked his cameras, Faye, and none are pointed at your house,” Gresham said, trying for reassuring.

Faye’s expression darkened like the clouds of a thunderstorm on the horizon. “And what about the back of the property?” she asked.

Gresham frowned. “You mean the woods?”

She nodded, and he raised an eyebrow. “Unless you’re running around your woods naked, Faye, I can’t see how that would matter.”

“So he does have one pointed there,” she accused.

Gresham studied her for a long moment, and something passed through his eyes. A flicker of thought she couldn’t readily identify, but suspicion sat heavy in the air between them.

“He’s trying to find what killed his brother, and I can’t fault the man for that. We never caught the bear that tore the poor man apart. You have some information about that you haven’t shared with us?” Gresham asked.

Her scowl stayed in place, not letting on to the thrill of fear that shot through her. “What information could I have about a rabid bear? Does it look like I have it for a pet running around here?” she asked, and gestured toward her house.

“Then what does it matter if he has a camera pointed at the woods?” he asked. When she didn’t answer, he continued; “In fact, I was happy for it, and told him to let us know if he catches it on camera. Something like that ain’t good for any of us. ‘Course, with the small arsenal he has in that house, I doubt he’d take the time to let us know before going after it.” They both looked at the house at that proclamation. “Can’t say I’d do any different.”

Holt was right; this wasn’t helpful at all.

“Well, thank you for coming out, Gresham. I appreciate it,” she said, doing her best to make the words sound genuine.

Gresham snorted. “Right. At least try to be sympathetic, Faye. The man lost his brother, and we don’t need you pulling out your crazy and waving it in a grieving man’s face.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Again, thank you, Sheriff.”

He just shook his head one last time, and headed to his truck. She watched him back out of the drive, and head back up the dirt road toward town. As she turned to go back to her porch, though, her new neighbor was making his way toward the wood fence separating the property.

It was inevitable since she’d called the sheriff, but she didn’t want to talk to him again.

“You didn’t have to call the sheriff, you know,” Jeremiah Chastain said when they met at the fence. His thick eyebrows were knotted in a frown, and his jaw was tense, as though trying to hold back less polite words. The setting sun shone against his black hair, and made his forest green eyes glow.

You told me to mind my own business, and cameras pointed at my property are my business,” she insisted, holding her ground, arms still crossed.

He mimicked her posture, crossing muscular arms over a well-defined chest. “They aren’t pointed at your house, just at the tree line.”

“I don’t want any of them pointed at any of my property.”

“The sheriff told me I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’m just trying to see if that bear is still around. I’ll be heading into the woods soon, but figured I’d put the cameras up first. He was killed in the backyard, and anything that bold might strike again.”

Her eyes widened and her breath hitched. “What do you mean, you’re going into the woods? You need to stay out of there. It’s not safe.”

He raised an eyebrow, and amusement quirked the corner of his mouth in a small smile. “Concerned for me?”

She growled and dropped her arms to her sides, hands clenched into fists. “No. I just don’t want police crawling all over my property again, or dealing with yet another new neighbor when you get eaten, too.”

The mirth fled from him as quickly as it came. “My brother and I were raised in the woods near our home, we’re both accomplished hunters, and we both served in the military. I refuse to believe any rabid bear could catch him off guard. He was too cautious for that. I will get to the bottom of this, and bag that animal,” he said, his voice low and with conviction.

“No good will come of this,” she said, echoing Holt’s words from earlier, and put a note of pleading in them.

He searched her face, though she didn’t know what he was looking for. Whatever it was, he didn’t find it, and stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shrugged.

“Even so, I have to do this,” he said. Then he nodded, and turned on the heel of his boot and headed back to his house.

Faye’s hands clenched as she stomped her way back to her house, boots thudding ominously against the porch. She jerked open the screen door, and went inside to find Holt at the two-seater kitchen table, waiting.

“Well?” he asked, trying for relaxed, but failing miserably.

Now that she was in her house and away from the stubborn man, her shoulders slumped, and that was all Holt needed.

He closed his eyes and the corners of his mouth curved downward as he sighed. “That’s it, then,” he said, and drew in a shuddering breath.

“I can’t make any guarantees, Holt, but I’ll do my best to make sure he doesn’t get hurt,” she said quietly, and set about putting the stew away. She wouldn’t be eating it tonight.

Holt didn’t say anything in return.

 

<***>

 

“Damn that stubborn woman,” Jeremiah muttered, and glared at the microwave. It was bad enough his brother was dead, and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a crazy neighbor, but there was no takeout here to boot. He was a terrible cook on a good day, but at least back home he had access to pizza, curry, and egg rolls. There was nothing here but microwave dinners, and being subjected to the delicious smells of his neighbor’s cooking was near to torture.

The microwave beeped, and he sighed in resignation as he grabbed the food and headed for his laptop. He couldn’t wait to finish up here and get back home. Not that there was much there except takeout, but at least that was something. His brother was all he’d had, and some stupid fucking animal had taken that from him.

He put the food down and opened the laptop. The camera feeds came up on the screen, but before he could pick up his food and settle in for the night, something moved on the outer edge of the camera pointed toward the neighbor’s tree line.

“Damn it!” he said, and slammed a fist on the table, rattling his fork. A small, upright form was headed into the woods.

His chair scraped loudly across the floor as he pushed back from the table, and set about grabbing what he needed. He burst through the back door, and headed toward the part of the woods he’d seen the fool woman heading into. He jumped the fence easily enough, and in no time was at the edge of the trees. It didn’t take long to find the path she’d taken. It was worn, but small, and not easily noticeable unless someone was looking for it.

He kept the rifle barrel low, and pointed at the ground, his finger off the trigger. She couldn’t be too far ahead of him, and with his much longer strides he should have caught up to her by now. There was a clearing up ahead, so he slowed his pace, and crouched at the edge. A quick sweep didn’t yield anything, but it was dark and difficult to tell.

Just as he twitched to start forward again, something stirred on the other side. It made no sound, but it moved like shadows given life. Two eyes appeared, yellow, along with a feral snarl of sharp teeth, and then the largest, black wolf Jeremiah had ever seen stepped into the clearing.

Two things flashed through his mind then: there wasn’t currently a confirmed wolf population in Tennessee—he’d researched potential predators when he knew he’d be coming in the woods here—and that he was upwind. In those precious few seconds it took his brain to catch up, the wolf had already crossed the clearing.

Jeremiah fell back and tried to bring his rifle to bear on the animal, but the best he was able to do was hold the weapon horizontal against its neck. Jaws snapped inches from his face, as it growled and thrashed. He tried to push it back and butt-stroke it to get breathing room, but when he pushed and twisted, the wolf pulled back enough that Jeremiah missed. Then it lunged forward again and bit deep into his arm.

Searing pain raced up his limb as though he’d stuck it straight into a fire. He screamed and dropped his weapon, trying to punch the wolf’s nose with his free hand. It connected, and the wolf reared back, shaking its head. The reprieve was only momentary, and it came at him again, jaws open wide to finish him off. Then it was gone in a flash of red, followed by yelps and snarls.

He didn’t have any time to think about it, though, as his eyes rolled back in his head. Darkness and agony ate the edge of his thoughts, and he passed out.

 

<***>

 

Sunlight stabbed through his eyelids, and he groaned. He went to lift his arm to cover his eyes, but something was on it, stopping him. He cracked an eye open and looked to his right. Panic shot through him like a rabbit flushed from the brush, and he jerked away from the naked, sleeping form of his neighbor. The motion caused her to stir, and when she rolled over to face him, dried blood coated her from her chin on down.

“What the—” he started, and tried to scramble further away, but pain lanced through his hand. He collapsed with a gasp, and then brought his shaking hand up to look at it. It was red, swollen, and torn from the wolf’s attack. Memories from last night slammed into him, and his breath left him in a rush.

A small movement caught his attention, and his eyes darted up to see Faye crawling to him. She stopped just beyond his reach.

“I’m so sorry, Jeremiah,” she whispered, eyes mournful. “I tried to keep you out of the woods. My granddaddy has been sick for a long time, and you and your brother paid the price. But he won’t hurt anyone else, I promise.” Her breath hitched at that, and her eyes shone with unshed tears.

Granddaddy? He frowned, brain trying to catch up. It was a wolf that attacked, not a person. Jeremiah opened his mouth to speak, but something over her shoulder made it fall all the way open.

“H-Holt?” he whispered, voice strangled. His brother stood not five feet from him.

“Hey, little brother, good to see you,” Holt said, and a lopsided grin graced his face for a moment before it faded. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he continued, voice as sad as Faye’s eyes.

“Why?” Jeremiah demanded, trying to grasp for something solid in the whirlpool of emotions dragging him under.

“Werewolves can see ghosts,” Faye explained, her voice tight.

“Werewolves?” he repeated, the word weak and disbelieving. He looked from his brother to her, trying to find the joke, but their grim expressions sent his heart racing. “Then…”

Faye drew in a shuddering breath, and locked eyes with him. “Welcome to the Pack.”

His silence was thunderous in the quiet woods. It was a long, tense time before he sighed, his pragmatism winning as his stomach grumbled. “Does this mean I at least get some of that stew?”

It took a moment for her shock to wear off, and her chuckle was weak, but she nodded. “Absolutely. Let’s head home.”

Short Story ~~ Nine

Well, another contest, another loss. C’est la vie.

But, you know what that means: I get to post it here for you all to enjoy!

***Warning***

This story describes torture and implications of sexual violence. If you are sensitive to such material, it’s recommended you refrain from reading this story.

~~~~~~

Nine

 

A groan, half-awake and filled with pain, echoed in the small room. When Carter tried to move his hands to clutch his aching skull, they wouldn’t move. His dove gray eyes shot wide, and his heart immediately began pounding as adrenaline rushed through his system like a spring flood in a small river. Even the low light coming from everywhere and nowhere was too bright, and stabbed through his eyes straight to his brain. With his mouth dry as cotton and hanging open as he pulled in one ragged breath after another, his first thought was that he somehow managed to paralyze himself following his bender the night before. He turned his head to the right, his scalp scraping against something cold and unyielding, and it wasn’t relief that washed through him when he saw the manacle. All the muscles in his body went rigid at once.

His eyes darted to look down the length of his well-muscled and naked chest, but there wasn’t enough give across his shoulders for him to see his legs. He tried to tuck his knees, but the sharp bite of metal at his ankles told him all he needed to know. He was spread-eagle, chained down, and the cool air on his skin pointed to him being totally naked.

“Oh, good. You’re awake.”

His head snapped around at the calm, female voice on his left, but they must have been just out of sight, because he couldn’t see her.

“Who the fuck are you, and where the fuck am I?” he shouted, but his dry throat had the words dissolving into a less than intimidating coughing fit. He tried to swallow what little moisture he had in his mouth to get it to stop, but there was nothing for it. He’d drank way too much last night and was well beyond dehydrated.

Out of nowhere a hand touched his forehead, and he jerked away in response.

“Stay still,” the same voice said, but there was no irritation. In fact, the voice remained level, and there was absolutely no inflection whatsoever.

Two warm, dry hands touched on either side of his face, and this time he didn’t try to get away. He opened his eyes, but despite the dizziness and pounding in his skull, he was able to lock gazes with the owner of the voice. Of course, that was all he could see. A black hood from a hoodie covered everything from above their blond eyebrows up. Everything below their cobalt blue eyes was covered in one of those face masks that bikers or snowboarders wore.

Even weirder than their attire, though, was the fact their eyes matched their voice: cool, calm, and no emotion to be found. That wasn’t to say their eyes were lifeless, like a doll’s. No, there was intelligence and an assessing sort of look. Between the eyes and the manacles, Carter’s heart picked up more speed, and another wave of dizziness caused his stomach to roil. He closed his eyes, and his head involuntarily leaned into one of the hands, as he tried to steady himself.

“Skin cool and dry. Sunken eyes. Dizziness. I’d say you’re severely dehydrated. I have something to help with that,” she said.

Then the warmth was gone from his face, and small, rummaging sounds came from somewhere in the room. Carter tried to lick his cracked lips, but the sharp edges of skin merely scraped along his dry tongue. Maybe they were bringing him water. The small patter of liquid hitting the ground grew closer, and he swallowed in anticipation.

Something wet and rough slapped down over his face, and he went from being dry as a desert to drowning in the blink of an eye. He thrashed as much as the restraints would allow, trying to throw the cloth from his face. Trying to breath. He couldn’t scream out loud, but it echoed in his mind. Nothing helped. There was no escape as she poured an endless stream of water over the cloth. Darkness ate the edge of his thoughts, sending him careening toward blessed unconsciousness. Just as he was about to fall over that edge, the cloth was gone.

This time when he coughed, they were wet, hacking things that burned in his lungs and made his chest ache.

“Better?” the voice asked after his coughing had quieted down.

He squinted his eyes open to see her hovering over him again. He scowled and bared his teeth.

“You crazy fucking bitch!” he screamed, his throat raw and agonizing. He tried to spit at her, but it just dribbled over his lips and onto his chin.

The cloth appeared in his vision again, and his eyes went wide as saucers. He pulled against the manacles, hoping some of the water had wet his skin enough for him to slip free, but no such luck. His skin burned where the metal tore it further, having already scraped most of it away in his struggle from being waterboarded.

Instead of placing it over his face, though, she wiped the spittle from his chin. On instinct, he turned his head to bite at her hand, but his teeth snapped shut on nothing but air.

“You stupid fucking whore! Let me go!” he raged at her when his attack was unsuccessful.

Her eyes appeared over him again, meeting his. Still assessing.

“It’s not time for that yet,” was all she said. Then she was gone again.

His head dropped back down to the smooth stone of the table as he tried to sort through his bewildered thoughts. Nothing made sense. He didn’t know how he got here, who the weird chick was, or why she had him strapped down to an old ass sacrificial altar.

Let me go!

It’s not time for that yet.

Was she going to let him go? Did he just need to tough this out? She came back into his field of vision, staring deep into his eyes again.

“Don’t fight,” she said, and held up a black-handled, double-edged dagger.

Those words, combined with the color of her eyes, and what he assumed was the color of her hair from her eyebrows, sent his heart tripping along. He didn’t know why, but it had nothing to do with the weapon in her hand. That was, until she slowly sliced through the flesh on the inside of his left bicep.

“God damnit! What the fuck do you want?” he screamed, but she didn’t stop.

“I want for nothing here, Carter Moore,” she said, still nothing in her voice as she lifted the knife from the wound. She examined the blood as it dripped along the short length of it, and turned her gaze to him from over the edge. “I am here for the same reason you are here: necessity. You need me, just as much as I need you.”

She knew his name. Giddiness bubbled inside of him and broke out from his throat in a nervous, incredulous laugh.

“I’m stuck with a psycho stalker who thinks we’re soulmates, and she’s going to cut me to little pieces. What kind of fucked up bullshit have I walked into?”

“Soulmates?” she asked, and paused. “Interesting perspective. I suppose, in some way, we are meant to be here together. In this time and place.”

“Oh, God, you’re insane,” he said with a groan, which morphed into a scream when she drew the blade along his skin again. This one was an inch away from the first, and moving toward his elbow.

This continued on, and on. She’d cut, move an inch, and when she ran out of space she moved to the other side of the limb. She avoided any arteries. She also never cut so deep that he bled profusely enough for him to hope he’d bleed to death, and end this nightmare. Not that he wanted to die, of course, but his body was on fire from the shallow-cut nerves, and his mind was a delirious whirlwind of her words.

Each time she moved from one limb to the next, she’d stop, look him in the eyes, and say; “It’s not time for that yet.”

When he struggled, she’d say; “Don’t fight.”

When he’d pause in his screaming and cursing her to the depths of Hell, she’d respond with; “You need this.”

The first statement kept a thread of hope thrumming through him, but with each scream his throat grew rawer, until his voice was too hoarse for them anymore. The times he managed to pass out before she stopped in time to keep it from happening, she’d wake him with a cool cloth to the forehead. After the second waterboarding session, he did his best not to appear dehydrated or thirsty.

By the time she finished both arms, one leg, a foot, and had started on the next, he was shivering uncontrollably. He’d long ago puked up what was left in his stomach from the night before, and what little bile he had. She’d wordlessly cleaned him up.

But it was the other two statements, more than her torture, that left a lingering unease worming its way through his scattered thoughts. They mixed with flashes of blue eyes, and strands of blond hair ghosting between his fingers.

It was at the second cut along the arch of his foot that did it.

“P-please,” he said, teeth chattering, the word barely more than a whisper, and shuddering.

When it fell from his lips, the knife stopped. Even though he couldn’t see her, there was a stillness from where she was. A complete absence of mobility that was more like a void in space, as opposed to a person not moving.

“What did you say?” she asked, her face so close to his foot her breath tickled along his skin.

Tensing all the muscles in his body to stop the shaking for a moment, he forcefully said from between gritted teeth; “Please,” expelling the word in one go. “Stop.”

She stood, her eyes meeting his from down the length of his bloodied body. Unlike the usual, assessing gaze he was accustomed to, this time it held a weight. His chest grew steadily heavier with each passing moment, until his breathing stopped. It was in that moment, when he couldn’t draw another breath, that the final thread of hope withered and burned away in his mind.

Then, from that second to the next, he could breathe again. He sucked in great gulps of air, nearly choking. What little moisture he had went to his eyes as they watered, and he hadn’t thought his chest and lungs could be in any more pain. He’d been wrong.

It was then that someone giggled.

He cracked open one eye to look at the woman, but her eyes were back to their usual, and there was no movement from her face to indicate it’d been her.

“Oh, Sister, you always do such lovely work,” a young voice said behind him, coming from where the woman at his feet initially appeared.

“My work is only possible through you, Sister,” the woman said, inclining her head, and looking beyond him.

Another giggle. “Such flattery.”

“Still, what are you doing here? It’s time for him to move on. He’s been made ready,” she said, and tilted her head.

Then a girl came into view on his left. She was in her late teens, wearing a flowing, green dress accentuating her curves, and could certainly be the sister of the woman. Her curling, blond hair was loose about her shoulders. The only difference was, this girl was full of life. Personality. And at the moment, she was pouting.

“I wanted to send him on his way with you. You know how much I enjoy these ones,” she said, moving closer to the table. Her hips came flush against the stone, right above his arm. She turned her face to him, skin at the corner of her eyes crinkled with mirth and her eyes themselves dancing. She bit her lip.

Something about her raked along his consciousness. It was almost as painful as her nails digging into his arm as she dragged them across the sliced flesh from wrist to upper arm.

“Sister,” the older one admonished as he screamed.

“Who are you people?” He sobbed.

They both went still in the same way the woman had earlier. As though his words were some kind of switch thrown within them.

“Don’t you remember?” the younger one purred. She shifted to face his head, and leaned over.

He gave a small shake of his head, unable to speak, his airway constricted.

She put her mouth to his ear. “Perhaps you want a reminder then,” she teased, and licked his ear lobe. “Come on, Baby, don’t be like that. You know you want it. You need this. Don’t fight,” she whispered.

The phrases rippled through his mind, as though the words were stones and his thoughts a pond.

The girls. The abandoned trestle bridge not far from the old quarry. The shattering of one beer bottle after another on the rocks of the creek’s embankment. Stroking himself to completion as the events with the most recent girl played over and over his mind. Taking her from the parking lot at knife-point, the blade leaving a small, shallow cut through the fabric of her dress and in her skin. Her wide blue eyes. Matted, wet blond hair from his fist holding her beneath the water. Cold, blue lips, forever parted but never again to draw breath.

The new mystery girl moved her face so it was inches from his. Their eyes locked. He fell into her gaze, spiraling, until he wasn’t looking at her face, but his own. He’d recognize that sneer anywhere. Heat filled the other’s eyes, and his own laugh rumbled eerily through the body his mind was trapped in. The other him leaned down, and he struggled to get away, but couldn’t. The other was just too strong.

“You need this, Baby. Don’t fight.”

Carter screamed as every horror he visited upon those girls was paid back in full. From abduction to death. For all nine of them.

Then he was back, gazing up into the younger one’s face. He met her smile with tears and terror.

“Who are you?” he whispered, the words carrying a foreboding that was heavier than lead.

“We’ve been known by many names over the years,” the older one said. “Spirits of vengeance. Maiden, Mother, and Crone…” she trailed off.

“Or Judge,” the younger one whispered, and nuzzled his cheek with hers as he whimpered.

“Jury,” the older one said.

She pulled back the hood, and pulled down the face mask. Every time he blinked, her face changed, cycling from one of Carter’s victims to the next. Not as they were in life, but as they appeared in death.

The older ones were in various stages of rot, all the soft tissue of the face gone because of the carrion feeders. Teeth were exposed with a few missing, caught in an eternal, ghoulish grin, the gums black with decay.

The more recently deceased still held an echo of the ethereal beauty they had in life, but their skin was pale, and they watched him with white, filmy eyes.

“And Executioner,” a new voice rasped, like sawgrass rubbing against itself in the night wind.

Carter shuddered. The new voice penetrated to his core, and his bones ached.

In the wake of that proclamation, a third woman appeared behind Jury. Her spine was bent with age, and the determined thud of her gnarled, wooden staff on the floor echoed as she made her way to the table. Her skin was wrinkled, and her thin-lipped mouth was a severe line across her face. She wore a black cloak, and wisps of white hair lay across her shoulders. There was a black blindfold across her eyes, but Carter knew there was nothing she missed.

“You were taken from the mortal realm by our youngest Sister,” the Crone said.

He looked at the younger one, who grinned and wiggled her fingers at him in a small wave. “I couldn’t wait to meet you, so I took you early! The girls had told us so much about you,” she said, her grin broadening to a manic level.

He grimaced in response, and returned his attention to the Crone.

“We do not generally condone such actions,” the Crone said, admonishing the younger one, “but it was deemed appropriate that you surrender your few remaining months in light of your behavior. A form of expedited karma, if you will.”

She lifted the staff, and when the butt came down thunder rumbled through the chamber. “Your soul has been Judged and found wanting. The Jury has made it ready. It is time, Carter Moore,” she intoned, and leveled the considerable weight of her attention on him. “Choose. Remain here in the care of my Sisters for eternity, for your soul is not fit to reenter the Cycle. Or, surrender yourself to me, and cease your existence forevermore.”

Judge, Jury, and…Executioner.

It’s time.

Don’t fight.

You need this.

There was a fine trembling running through his body, down to what there was of his soul. “Yes,” he whispered to the Crone, “take me.”

This time, she gripped the staff with both hands and lifted it from the ground. “So Mote it Be,” she said, her voice wielding the very essence of Creation and Destruction. Beautiful and terrifying in its power. She brought the staff down, and there was a flash of intense, bright light, followed by a crack. When the light dimmed, the table was broken in half, and Carter Moore was gone.

The younger one pouted. “It’s never fun when they choose to leave.”

“As though we don’t already have plenty to tend to,” the middle one stated, and then sighed.

A warm breeze blew through the room, and her appearance changed, along with that of the younger sister. Between them they were all women, spanning the past, present, and future of the world. When the wind died down, nine women were gathered around the altar, and nine sets of blue eyes were fixed on it.

“The contract is fulfilled,” the younger one said, and this time her smile was bittersweet.

“Balance must be maintained,” the middle one said, her smile as gentle as April rain.

“So Mote it Be,” the Crone said again, but this time the power was tender, and wrapped lovingly around the spirits like a handmade quilt.

The women, no longer rotting and dead, looked up at the three, silent as the tears streaming down their faces. They all nodded, and then were gone, following Carter Moore into oblivion.

The Crone leaned heavily on her staff, and her gaze fell on the cracked altar. “Humanity is rife with darkness, Sister; fear not. There will always be more,” she rasped, and then they, too, were gone.