Writing Prompt ~~ Optimism

 

Artist Unkown

 

The music drifted out of the club like a vibrating pulse. I could feel it in my bones. The night was alive with possibility. I could even imagine myself finding a date.

My, aren’t we feeling ambitious? A pompous, scathing voice raked like claws across my thoughts.

My insides shrank, like a flower withering under the first bite of frost. I slunk in through the door after flashing my ID to the bouncer, whose muscles had muscles. His bald head shone with sweat from the humid heat of the night, but I shivered beneath my jacket. I headed straight for the bar and ordered a drink: “Whatever tastes good.”

It was just a thought. I frowned, and fidgeted with my drink, taking a small sip. It probably had some ridiculous name I would never remember, even if I’d asked, and the sweetness of it sat heavy on my tongue.

Optimism doesn’t suit you.

No, I argued, it doesn’t suit you. It suits me just fine. I jutted my chin out and tilted my head back, throwing the rest of the drink down my throat. It might be sweet, but it still burned. Thankfully, no one could hear me cough over the music.

Yes, which is why you’re currently housing a Wraith, because we just feed off positivity. Did you think I could last this long if I was house with a soul bathed in Light? Or that this would have ever happened if you weren’t of the dark?

The question raised the fine hairs on my body, and I shuddered, curling in on myself. Believe me, I didn’t mean to capture you, Wros, it was an accident.

Wros harrumphed. Yes, and what a happy accident it’s been, he said, voice dripping with venom.

D-did you just quote Bob Ross? I sat up, and my eyes went wide. Before Wros answered, one of the bartenders had taken my sudden movement as a signal to come over.

His eyes were a jewel-bright green, and his hair was cut short on the sides, a little longer on top, and had that, ‘I just rolled out of bed,’ tousled touch. It was dyed aquamarine, and went with the mermaids and bubbles theme the club had gone with. His lips curled into a smirk at my shocked look.

“See something you like?” he asked.

I blushed, hard, while the heat from the alcohol coursed through me. “May I have some water, please?” I managed to stammer out.

His smirk transformed into a full-on smile as he poured me a glass. “One water,” he said, and slid the glass toward me.

I thanked him, and took a sip. The cool water was a near nauseating contrast to the fire in my blood, and I had to swallow a couple more times after drinking to keep the water down.

The bartender chuckled and shook his head. “Let me know if you need anything else,” he said, and winked.

It was roguish, unexpected, and it made me blush again.

I like that one, Wros said, his voice a low growl rumbling through my mind.

I winced, and tilted my head down. My long, curly, dark copper hair shifted and fell forward, hiding the right side of my face. It was a habit I’d had since childhood, and something I’d never managed to grow out of.

Of course you do. I sighed, and my shoulders slumped.

Then I sat up, tucked my hair behind an ear, waved the bartender back over, and ordered another drink.

 

 

****

 

The park wasn’t far from the club, and was better than a seedy alley any day of the week, but especially on a Saturday night. Most of them had been occupied.

A soft moan floated through the night, and my head snapped around to see if anyone heard. We were alone, save for the breeze rustling the leaves in trees, and the occasional distant siren. My heart raced at each small noise, and I licked my lips, nervous.

I’ll never get used to this.  My chest was tight. I straddled the bartender’s—Gabriel’s—waist, and looked down at his recumbent form. The only way this could have been worse was if we were naked.

You’d be shocked what you can get used to given enough incentive, Wros said, ever the pragmatist.

What, like not dying?  I asked, the bitterness of my words and the aftertaste of Gabriel’s soul resting on my tongue like dark chocolate. I wanted to roll my tongue over it, like hard candy, even though there was nothing physical the soul left in my mouth. I wanted to savor it, and spit it out at the same time.

Precisely, Wros crooned. He rolled in my mind, like a content, fat cat. Our current predicament meant that if we didn’t consume souls, we’d both die. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a martyr.

Gabriel’s brows were pinched, as though in pain, and he likely was. I’d only taken part of his soul when I’d kissed him, causing him to lose consciousness. Wros really needed to pick smaller targets, because Gabriel had almost brained himself when I barely caught him as he fell to the ground.

I laughed at the thought, the sound brittle like shattered Christmas ornaments. Such concern for a man I was about to kill. I smoothed a finger across his brow, willing it to relax, and brushing his bright hair from his forehead. He moaned again, but his face relaxed, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding

If it makes you feel any better, he’s a bit of a womanizer, Wros said, trying to throw me a balm to soothe my conscience.

“It doesn’t,” I said out loud. Yet, I bent over him again, my hair creating a curtain around us. An illusion of privacy, seeing as how Wros was ever-present in my mind and seeing everything through my eyes.

At the thought I closed my eyes, and pressed my lips into his again. Wros stretched out through me, like fog rolling through a midnight graveyard in the middle of winter, and took over my movements as I surrendered control. I did this when I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish what I started. I was not only a killer, but a coward to boot.

Wros moved my hands to cup the sides of Gabriel’s face, and his power unfurled like a poisonous flower from my lips, sucking at what remained of the man’s soul. He coaxed it out gently, like a monster under the bed convincing a child to leave the safety of their covers.

The grass withered beneath us as Wros’ power spread, and then drew back as all of Gabriel’s soul was pulled into us. Wros withdrew into my mind as I sat up, and Gabriel’s head lolled to the side, his bangs just long enough to fall over his closed eyes. All that remained was the physical body, and it would expire in three days’ time without the return of his soul. Even if we did return it, it would be damaged, as Wros had already started the process of ‘digesting’ it.

I stood, my legs wobbly, and I stumbled away. Like a junkie leaving the spot they shot up at. As the breeze blew through the park and I shuffled off to my car, I frowned at the cold feeling on my face. I brushed my cheeks to find them wet, and my eyes widened as I realized they were tears.

“Tears are the silent language of grief,” I whispered, my voice hoarse.

Leonardo da Vinci, Wros commented idly from his spot in my mind.

I stopped in my tracks and clenched my fists.

Don’t! Wros growled, trying to lurch through me to take over as the thought in my mind sent my body into action.

I shrugged off his control. Too late.

 

 

****

 

Another Friday was here, but instead of lurking outside the clubs, I was outside the hospital. It was difficult to not look suspicious when you’re hanging around outside all day, but I couldn’t move.

I’d chewed my lips and nails into oblivion, and my stomach rumbled from hunger. Wros wasn’t speaking with me at the moment, but I considered that a side bonus to the situation. I had a sharp pain my shoulders, because every time the front entrance to the hospital opened, I tensed up.

This time, though, I saw what I was waiting for, and I let out a shaky sigh.

You know you’ve doomed him to a life of feeling perpetually unfulfilled, Wros said, and narrowed his eyes at the sight of Gabriel through mine.

He was gaunt, and his shoulders were hunched a little, as though he were fragile and barely holding himself together. Then someone appeared from behind him—an older woman who had his elegant nose and soft smile. Gabriel smiled in return, and though it was a ghost of the one from last Friday, it eased something in my chest.

He might heal.

Wros rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. You are the worst necromancer I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing.

I stood up from the bench, and slipped away.

We still have to eat, you know, Wros said, softly and not unkindly.

My hands were shaking as I opened my car door. I know.

Then why? What made him different from the others? Wros pressed.

That, I don’t know. Maybe you just suck at picking targets, I said, trying for humor.

Wros shook his head and scoffed, disgusted.

As I pulled away from the curb I mulled over the question. It wasn’t a line I hadn’t already crossed before Gabriel, many times at that, but whatever it was about him wouldn’t let me follow through that night.

Usually, Wros telling me of their misdeeds as he read their souls was enough to get me through, but who was I to judge? I killed people to keep an undead terror and myself alive.

Saving him doesn’t make up for the others. Though, admittedly, the others were a lot worse in character than that one. Wros pondered for a moment. I’ll try to find someone worse. Would that be better?

I sighed. No, but until we find a solution that’ll have to do.

Like I said, optimism doesn’t suit you.

Writing Prompt ~~ Fear

Until that day, fear had been an idea, a concept. Now it was real: a feeling I would carry inside me for the rest of my life. The day began innocently enough, with me taking my usual route to school. There was no indication, or foreshadowing, or fate reaching out to yank on my attention chain to indicate anything about today was different.

Then I saw the neighborhood bullies drag Ford into the woods behind the bus stop. Ford was a nerdy slip of a kid, and it was almost too cliché that they picked on him. Of course, in a small town everything was a cliché.

Ford might not appreciate being rescued by a girl, as I assumed most guys wouldn’t, but I couldn’t stand by and let them kick the shit out of him. Again. The bullies—Dane, Hunter, and Seth—were all large, bumbling oafs who spent more time ogling guns, boobs, and inappropriate magazines than they did on their schoolwork. Ford was the classic, 4.0, full ride scholarship, soft-spoken, glasses-wearing, game playing geek. The boys picking on Ford was as expected as the sun rising in the east, and the adults were next to useless. Ford and I were distant neighbors, and not friends, but it didn’t sit right with me that the boys were assholes to him.

I tended to keep to myself, as did Ford, and maybe it was in that mutual weirdness I felt an obligation to help, even though my instincts screamed against it.

They’re bigger than you!

You know they have no problems hitting girls; just ask Kelly Jean and her black eye.

I let out a soft growl of frustration and pushed all those thoughts to the side. As I followed them into the woods, the distant taunting was smothered by the towering trees and low-hanging mist. They were still moving away, but I was gaining on them. It wasn’t easy navigating in the pre-dawn darkness, but I’d been in and out of these woods since kindergarten—the bus stop was the same for all grades.

The forest was eerily quiet. Not just the kind when people disturb nature and things pause until we stumble by. It was as though even the trees were holding a breath they didn’t have. It was…anticipation, thick on the air like southern humidity. It unsettled me enough that I picked up a few rocks roughly the size of my palm. I might not be into guns or knives like most of the kids and adults in these parts, but I was the pitcher for the county’s fast-pitch girls’ softball team. My aim was accurate, and potentially deadly if I hit the right body part.

I put a few in the pocket of my Egyptian blue, zip up hoodie, and kept one gripped tight in my right hand. My knuckles were white against the smooth, grey rock, and my heart beat heavily against my ribs. My lips were dry, so I licked them, and tried to take a steadying breath.

As I slipped through the trees, I frowned at how far in we were. It wasn’t a good sign. We were well beyond earshot of anyone that could potentially help us in case something went wrong. These boys didn’t have the brains to know when they’ve gone too far, until they did.

There was a small clearing ahead. Not anything special, just a spot where the uneven, rocky terrain converged with the towering evergreens, and years of dead leaves to create a spot where there was little to no brush or saplings.

I stopped near a familiar tree. It was my usual go-to from my middle school days of spying on my older sister, trying to figure out what it was about the woods that lured her there. Of course, the answer was that it tended to contain one boy or another, and it didn’t take me long to stop said spying, unless I wanted uncomfortable fodder for dinner conversation.

My back rested against the rough bark, and I winced as it caught the material and made a scratching noise. Of course, the boys were being so rowdy I doubt they heard me. I peeked around the side of the tree and sucked in a breath as Dane, their intrepid leader, shoved Ford down to the ground.

“You think you’re better than us, don’t you? You and your little clan are nothing but a dying breed of high-nosed weaklings,” Dane snarled. The absolute loathing in his tone made me flinch back as though I’d been slapped.

“Anyone is better than you disease-ridden mongrels,” Ford said quietly. He got to his feet and brushed off the back of his pants.

Disease-ridden? Did they have STIs or something?  I wrinkled my nose and shuddered. I’d have to let Kelly Jean know. We weren’t friends, but it was the decent thing to do. She wasn’t the only who had dated Dane, but she was the most recent, and she might be able to help me let any of the others know. What an inconsiderate dick.

Dane let out an honest to goodness growl that made my mouth go dry and my heart pound. I rushed around the tree, rock ready to throw, thinking I’d see Dane and the others beating the crap out of Ford, but I was in time to see…three huge dogs leaping toward…a half-dog, half-human with blue fur.

“Wha—“ I started, my eyes wide. The rock slid from my nerveless grip and thunked when it hit the ground.

Four figures froze, and the three bullies crashed into the ground and skidded to a halt with not a few yelps of pain. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so confusing.

Ford turned toward me and glared. He’d managed to get up from the ground between the times I’d looked around the tree. Yep, not a fan of being, er, ‘rescued’ by a girl.

“You never did use your brain,” he said, his voice colder than Ryder Creek in winter.

I jerked back as though he’d struck me. “I was just trying to make sure they didn’t beat you up! Again!” I half-shouted at him, the words flying from my mouth before I could stop them.

He scoffed in disgust and shook his head. The blue fur along his body receded, like watching the reversal of plants growing. It was…unsettling, swift, and my skin crawled watching it.

“Humans are such a pain in the ass,” Dane growled in annoyance as he got to his feet. His reversal was jankier, was the best I could describe it. Clunky, in a way. His joints spasmed this way and that, while his neck cracked as his chin jerked from his right to his left. It looked decidedly painful, and the other two boys were going through something similar.

Good.

My wide-eyed gaze narrowed. “I’m a pain in the ass? You’re the ones acting like children, running off into the woods, and getting into senseless fights!” I protested. Then I glared at them all in turn. None of them had the good sense God gave a goose to look the least bit ashamed. “Apparently, no matter what you are, you’re all still boys!”

I turned on my heel, not waiting for a response, and stormed my way out of the woods. I was still grumbling and glaring when the bus driver got to our stop. The boys were still nowhere to be seen, and I couldn’t care if they missed the bus and had to walk to school.

I was still mulling everything over when I climbed the steps to get on the bus. The bus driver looked over my shoulder.

“You boys sure are quick. I didn’t see you when I pulled up,” he joked.

The blood froze in my veins, but I didn’t stop moving. I hadn’t even heard them approach, and their breathing wasn’t labored in the least from what I could tell. I went to my usual seat in the front row, right side, and next to the window. I’d sat there since kindergarten. We didn’t have many kids on the bus, so there wasn’t much competition for preferred seating. I was hoping we were going to go with the; ‘I’ll keep my mouth shut, and I never saw anything,’ mob route as far as the morning’s event went.

If only I was so lucky.

Ford slid in the seat behind me, and I shrank down into my seat, trying to avoid the stares of everyone but Dane and his crew as Ford broke from his usual routine to sit behind me.

There was a pause from the bus driver, as though this startled him, too, but after a moment he closed the door and we were on our way. The noise of the bus kept everyone else from hearing anything, but a voice spoke from the crack between the seat and the window:

“We need to talk.”

Writing Prompt ~~ Gatherers of the Dark

 

 

 

This was a world where the vilest creatures came to roost. Even her mother, Rowna, always so brave, wouldn’t dare utter its name. This was a world where the snow fell black. Fayne turned her ash covered face up toward the sky. Even though there were no clouds, and it wasn’t the season for the cursed black snow, there was still a perpetual haze leaving the sunlight weak and unable to warm the chill in the air.

Fayne shivered, but not because of the temperature. Her heavy, black, fur-lined leggings and coat with its hood up kept the cold at bay. They were the same color as the landscape to help her blend in, and everyone who ventured here wore the same outfit for that reason. No, it was something else in the air that left her mouth dry and sent her heart racing, like a sickness trying to settle in. She shook her head to clear it; this was not the time or place for nervousness. She was here as a full-fledged gatherer for the first time, and she couldn’t afford to screw this up.

Here, in this ugly, bleak world, was the only place the most powerful healing herb, ayerel, grew. One of her teachers liked to go on and on about how something so good and useful had to grow from something so evil and miserable. That such things can only thrive in opposition. Indeed—any attempt to grow the herb outside the dark world failed. In fact, a king once nearly bankrupted his kingdom in such an endeavor, stating that the gatherer’s fees were too outrageous to justify.

When he made a foray into the world and his soldiers came back mangled, if at all, he brought his fury down on their clan. Imprisoning, or outright killing men, women, and children alike. His rage was insatiable, and it was nearly the end for the already small clan. Rowna saved some of them. Though, she lamented, not nearly enough, or even the best. Worst of all, they lost their clan leader, Tyce, when he went as part of an envoy to negotiate peace and save the clan. Mother had begged father not to go, and mother was not the begging sort, but he insisted the king was a man of reason. As their answer, they killed him.

Then they came for their clansland. Dun Kiskeem, the last ancestral fort and land of her people, was razed. Then the Saewyth witches, in employ to the king, cast a salting curse on the surrounding croplands. There would be no going back for at least five generations. The blackened, tumbled stones were grave markers for their dead clans-mates and land.

The leather of Fayne’s gloves groaned in protest as she clenched her fists, the rage still as fresh a year later as though it happened yesterday. Her electric blue eyes, the same color as the flower of the ayerel, burned with unshed tears. There were none left in her, but even if there were, crying would only mean she’d have to reapply the protective ash covering her face, and the ash was time-consuming and costly to make. She could picture her mother’s cold gaze in response to explaining why she had to use more than was necessary. Tears were not an acceptable reason, especially not over something that was over and could not be changed, as her mother would point out.

But Fayne remembered the devastation her father’s death wrought in the clan. How her mother kept everything running as smooth as possible while the clan was on the run, living more in the dark world than Strathaven, their home kingdom. It was a dangerous gamble, keeping them more in the dark world. Of course, the chance of death was high no matter which side of the Waerdstone they were on. On one side were beasts of varying sizes, ready to rip them apart, and the other was a bloodthirsty king ready to run them through on pikes and swords.

Eventually, though, the king’s heir fell ill. It was rumored he tried everything across the land, and even hired healers from other lands for a cure. Nothing worked. He was told, by them all, that only one thing would be able to cure his son: ayerel. No one had any left, though, because he’d killed most of the gatherers and sent the rest into exile.

While crawling might be too strong of a word, King Darmad sought the clan’s help. In an effort to prevent future bloodshed, bolster the clan’s influence, and keep the clan from going extinct, Rowna, in a moment of pure reptilian pragmatism struck a deal: marriage. One heir to another.

Fayne spat on the charcoal colored rocks that were so jagged they could nearly slice flesh just by gazing at them. Even the terrain was deadly in this world.

“Fayne!” a gruff whisper broke through the anger, and she startled at the reprimand.

She looked over to find one of her teachers, Bryden, scowling at her. Thankfully, the ash covered her blush, but Bryden likely knew she’d done it. She’d been learning at what was left of his knee since she could walk. He was the clan’s lorekeeper, an honor he’d been ‘bestowed’ with after his forced retirement, when a creature with scythes for arms had removed his left leg at the knee. He grumbled about having to teach the ‘whelps’, but some part of him must have enjoyed it, since he never passed the mantle on as candidates for the position became available.

Yet their numbers were so few now, Bryden had to come out of retirement. Not that he’d ever complain, but the man was nearing seventy, and as part of her training as a gatherer she was taught to identify weakness in her clan-mates. Bryden’s arthritis was tempered by a devil’s claw salve, and he kept a jar on his person at all times. It wasn’t the best solution, but it was the only one without a strong odor that might attract the creatures. As Bryden had said, “It will have to do.”

Though the clan was best known for gathering ayerel, it wasn’t all they gathered. It was one of the reasons losing their clansland was so devastating. Hundreds of years of sowing magic and blood into the land made it perfect for all variety of herbs for the herb witches of the clan: the Coven of the Silver Garden. Fayne had been tested, as they were all tested at the age of five, and she had no inclination for the fine and fickle healing magic. She was meant for gathering, but even after losing everything—father, family, friends, and land—that would be taken from her, too.

Despite Bryden’s admonishment to focus, she scowled and clenched her teeth as bitterness clutched at her heart like a winter’s chill on the cold stone of an unlit hearth. This was her first and last foray into the dark world as a full-fledged gatherer. Tomorrow would see her whisked off to Strathaven to be married off to some pansy prince. Maybe she’d get lucky and something would eat her today.

She smiled, though it wasn’t a happy one, and Bryden’s scowl deepened.

“Get yer head out of yer arse, girl,” he said, his brogue thick, with his speech a mixture of lowland and highland clans. It was uniquely Bryden. “Today isn’t only yer day, and I’ll be damned if yer gonna—“

“I know, Bryden,” Fayne interrupted, and scanned the area, identifying everyone else in their party at the mention of the others.

One of her friends, Sanne, a fledgling herb witch, was paired with a defender—someone trained to protect everyone as they went about gathering. Though everyone learned each aspect—gathering, defending, and herb witchery—to gain a well-rounded understanding of the inner-workings of the clans, everyone went on to specialize in one particular branch. If none were chosen, they ended up as general laborers and workers for the clan.

Seeing Sanne made her seek out Sitas, Sanne’s twin, who was training to become a defender. Where Fayne’s hair was wavy, and the black of the void between the stars, (an oddity, but not unheard of in her lineage), the twins had the wild, curly, fire red hair that was typical in the lowland clans. Sitas kept his hair cut in the traditional style of the defenders: shaved on the sides and back, and longer on top. Having just become a defender he didn’t have the warriors’ braid of the veterans, but his quiet determination and unwavering commitment to his calling would see him with one soon enough.

Sanne was the opposite of her brother in personality. He was a quiet field in winter on a moonless night, and she was the bustle of the town in the morning during the middle of summer. A perfect balance. Their identical, jewel-bright green eyes strayed across the barren, rocky field, met, shared some moment of understanding they could never explain to Fayne, and then went back to their respective tasks.

Fayne was paired with Bryden, likely because her mother caught some hint of her fool thoughts this morning. Or maybe he was the only one she trusted with Fayne’s life. Either way, she wasn’t exactly disappointed, but if she were honest she had wished for a pairing with Sitas. She wasn’t the only one, as most of the new witches and gatherers had hoped to be paired with him, and it was likely the new defenders would have liked that as well, but that wasn’t how the pairings worked. Not only was this a training exercise, but they were trying to find the right pairings for everyone. Who would work best together, and so on.

It was a passing fancy for everyone, as Sitas had never expressed much interest in anyone or anything beyond his training. She’d come to terms with that, but was it too much to hope her only gather would be pleasant and she be paired with him?

This wasn’t the first time any of them had been in the dark world, of course, but it was their first time away from the Waerdstone location. As they made their way toward the forest, as quietly as they could with such a large group, Fayne’s attention zeroed back in. In a normal situation, being in the barren between the stone and the forest would seem like the most dangerous area, but that wasn’t the case here. At least here the creatures had nowhere to hide. In the forest that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t much chatter beforehand, but the closer they got to the forest, the quieter it became.

Usually, gathers happened with four pairings, and they traveled in a wedge formation. Two defenders with bows and/or crossbows as their primary weapon in the back-outside positions to cover everyone. The back-middle had a spear, while the lead had a sword and shield. The ranged fighters would provide cover, the defender with the sword would battle in the front, moving in and out of combat so the spearman could skewer the creature. Sitas was a swordsman in one of the four gathers they had, and Bryden was an archer.

Each group had two gatherers and two witches. Gatherers were trained with short swords and daggers, oftentimes dual-wielding, to help protect the ranged fighters in close combat. As for the witches, some coated rocks in poison, aiming them at eyes or gaping maws and launching them with slingshots. Others wielded living whips of smilax, a sticky, hooked-thorn vine. The weapons of the witches were as varied as the witches themselves. However, each of the witches had a ball, roughly the size of their palm, which was saved for the worst of the creatures: the Dreamwings.

The dreadpaws, vexvines, mourncats, sorrowlings, cinderserpents, and dreadtooths were all fearsome, to name a few. But it was the dreamwings that brought certain death with them. No one in recent memory had seen one, as they were, luckily, rare. However, the texts handed down through the clan lorekeepers were detailed in their descriptions. Mostly humanoid, they were sexless, and their faces were made of nothing but over-large, jagged teeth. Their tongues were that of serpents, their tails like that of the scorpions hailing from the faraway deserts, and their four wings were blacker than the pits of the underworld. They were called dreamwings, because they circle you with their wings, making you think you’d suddenly fallen asleep when the light is blocked out. Then they scoop you into their mouths.

Fayne shuddered. The pictures were…graphic.

They were now within an easy stone’s throw away from the forest, and something reached up through the soles of her feet and rooted her to the spot. Her heart was in her throat, and the blood rushed in her ears, but there was nothing to indicate why she stopped. Bryden, having taken a couple steps without her, stopped too, and let out a low whistle, almost an exact imitation of the way the wind whistled in the castle at Dun Kiskeem. The other gathers stopped.

“Fayne?” he questioned.

Fayne moved her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. She turned her face to look at Bryden, her eyes wide. He frowned, scanned the area carefully, lingering on the forest, before he turned his sky blue eyes back to her.

“Talk to me, girl,” he whispered.

“What’s wrong?” a voice asked, concerned. It was Sitas. Of course it was Sitas, Fayne groaned in her mind.

“The little princess has first gather jitters,” the other archer, Cian said, his tone as grating as his nasally voice.

Bryden bared his teeth, but ignored the man.

“We can’t stay here. We’re vulnerable,” Sitas said, not unsympathetic.

Something withered inside of Fayne as though all her insides dried up at once. Embarrassment, some distant corner of her mind noted. In addition to not being able to talk, her breathing was difficult. The edges of her vision were starting to grow dark and her legs were getting weak. Bryden saw Fayne’s eyes start to go glassy, and he pulled his arm back to give her a good slap.

When his hand reached the pinnacle to swing down, whatever had hold of Fayne snapped. Air slammed back into her lungs with an involuntary gasp and she staggered, collapsing into a heap on the ground. Even with the protective spells woven into the leather, the jagged rocks bit through the material from the force of hitting them. She’d have bruises there later. The glove on her right hand slipped a little, exposing the skin on the bottom of her palm, and the rocks sliced the flesh as easily as a hot knife through butter. Blood flowed, and the ground drank it in like a man dying of thirst drank water.

It doesn’t even hurt, Fayne idly noted.

Someone’s hand gripped her shoulders, while the other hand took a firm hold on her chin and, gently, tilted it back to look at them. She was looking into Sitas’ eyes, and though it was silly, the concern there caused a warmth to spread through her chest.

Then, like an arrow loosed from a bow, an alien thought shot through her mind, and her mouth formed the words:

“It comes.”

Then the sky was filled by dark wings.

Writing Prompt ~~ Turning the Tide

The darkness was thick and suffocating, like a heavy blanket had been thrown on the world. He had to get over the wall, had to get across the border before they caught up with him. Beyond the border there was shelter and safety, but more importantly she was there. Of course, he had to get through the blockade of dark magical energies slowly draining the life from the area. But what was life without a few life or death challenges not and again?

“Do you see him?” one of the creatures pursuing him hissed. They were an unholy combination of boars and snakes. Every time he thought he’d seen the ugliest of them, he was proven wrong, as each was never magically twisted exactly the same. Deven called them Gurks, since that was the noise most people made the first time they saw the abominations and tried to not throw up at the sight.

They’d all known Casior was a little on the odd side, but the creatures were a true testament to the dark pit of hell that was his imagination. And that the Queen’s brother had truly fallen in with the worst sort of crowd. Like, apocalypse bad.

Deven froze behind a gnarled, magically drained tree. Even his slight frame was almost too wide for the blackened husk that remained, but he stilled his body and held his breath. His nose was already dead to the smell of ash, death, and the acrid taste that black magic left in the back of one’s throat, but he still his best not to sneeze. The landscape was dead and eerily quiet.

“No,” another one said, with a deeper voice. Then there was an odd snuffling, like something with a large, boar-like nose was sniffing the air.

Shit, Deven cursed inwardly. He prayed the scent-blocking charm was working, but he put little stock in magic. Oh, he knew it worked; the land around them was testament to that. However, it destroyed more than it helped, in his opinion.

Minion number two let out a frustrated growl.

It must be working. Then the clumping of hooved feet started his way. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from accidentally stumbling across my hiding spot.

Anger, more than fear, caused him to squeeze the hilt of his dagger. A whole hell of good it would do him against the creatures, despite it being spelled to pierce their thick hides. A sword would be better, but they tended to clank and get in the way of stealth missions.

Here he was, stuck on this gods-forsaken spit of land cursed by the second-in-line to the throne brat with daddy issues, carrying a multitude of magical items he didn’t trust, and in possession of the only thing that could break the dark wizard’s hold on the land.

Add the fact that the fate of the kingdom rested on the shoulders of a convicted thief, and he’d piss himself laughing at the irony later on if he lived.

He was going to have to make a run for it and hope for the best. Which never worked in anyone’s favor, ever, but what else did he have?

Just as he tensed to sprint, a brilliant flash of light, like a star exploding, illuminated the sky to the east—his left. He nearly fell on his face in shock, and the only thing that saved his eyesight was the fact he’d been concentrating on the ground and mapping out where he was going to run. From the pain-filled squeals his pursuers let out, they had been facing that way. Fueled by pain and anger, the thudding of their hooves made toward the distraction.

As Deven slipped away, he knew that was exactly what it was.

I’ll have to give Blaize a kiss for that one. Deven pictured the discomfort of the wizard as he dashed in the opposite direction, and a smile broke across his face. It was fun messing with the pure as the driven snow, straighter than the ruler the Sisters beat Deven with as a child, stick in the mud that was Blaize.

When he reached the border of the cursed land, he slowed. The border itself was easy enough to see: on one side the grass was green in the flatlands bordering the city, while on the side he was on was like a fire had burned out of control. Even as he watched, the grass on the edge of the other side withered as the border slowly made its way toward the city. They were living in borrowed moments as long as this was allowed to continue. Deven wasn’t the hero type, but he didn’t fancy dying, either.

The Queen had advised that this would be the gauntlet of the whole operation—the moment the object passed the border there was going to be hell to pay, literally. There was still a mile of land for Deven to get across between the cursed land and the magically warded wall of Lightbourne. A mile can seem about five times that distance if you have an army of evil creatures nipping at your heels.

Well, there was nothing for it. Deven took a breath and sprinted from the darkness and was nearly blinded by the sudden onslaught of sunlight. He didn’t stop, though he did stumble a few steps, trying to blink away the tears.

She wasn’t wrong—the effect was immediate. A great howling like an injured beast came from behind him, and rose the small hairs on the back of his neck. A sudden wind whipped around him, and he dared a look behind him. Grey clouds boiled in an angry storm, roiling across the sky like a seething mass of sea creatures heading right toward him. Something clattered in front of and to his right, and his eyes widened at the arrow.

“Piss!” Deven cursed out loud this time. They were shooting at him! They could at least have the decency to run him through with swords like proper evil minions. Of course, they wouldn’t be evil minions if they didn’t try to kill him in the easiest and quickest manner possible. Damn their efficient black hearts to the pit of hell they deserved.

He pumped his legs as hard as he could, but from the consistency of arrows sparking off the magical shield provided by the metal band at his wrist, and the thunder rumbling the ground beneath his feet they were gaining on him. Of course, the shield was only temporary, and wouldn’t last long against the onslaught of arrows, which was made evident by the one that buried itself in his right shoulder.

He stumbled forward and barely caught himself as his shoulder burned with the pain. It wasn’t the worst wound he’d ever gotten—the leather of his armor had taken the brunt of it. However, it was leather against the strength of the Gurks, which was formidable. The head of the arrow had gone in, and from the feel he could tell it was barbed.

I am beyond fucked, he growled in his thoughts. Worst. Plan. Ever.

Who had come up with this clusterfucked gem of a plan? Oh, yeah. Him. The Sisters did tell you your cockiness would get you killed some day, he mused as he tried to ignore the pain and continue to run, but he was slowing.

Then just as quickly as the Gurks were gaining on him, there was another flash that sizzled right over the top of his head and struck the grass, sending large chunks of earth flying everything.  The Gurks stopped, growling and hissing in frustration. Or at least the ones that weren’t raining down in pieces with the grass.

“You’re such a pain in the ass,” a voice said, and snatched Deven up by the back of his collar and threw him over the neck of a horse.

Deven laughed weakly. “Shut up, Blaize, you know you love me.”

A sound like someone was trying to strangle and throat punch Blaize came from the large man. Now he looked and acted like the typical hero in Deven’s opinion: tall, muscular, flowing blond locks that brushed his mid-back in a flawless braid, eyes the color of the bluest skies, and all the other things ladies swooned over. Not to mention that air of aloof jerk he exuded like some expensive cologne. Women, and not a small number of men, fell over themselves for Blaize. He didn’t care for such things, and Deven found that apart from his uncomfortable reaction to same-gender displays of affection, this was a sure way to get under his skin.

Deven was the exact opposite, the darkness to Blaize’s light, in morals and looks. Black hair instead of blond, lanky instead of muscular, eyes the color of steel, and so on.

“May the gods strike me dead if such a thing ever came to pass,” he prayed, and followed it up with an eye roll for good measure.

Deven could feel Blaize’s eyes scrutinizing him from head to toe. “You don’t appear too worse for wear.”

“Yes, minus the inconvenient arrow in my shoulder.”

Blaize scoffed. “You have had worse,” he said, echoing Deven’s own thoughts from earlier.

They were fast approaching the wall, and anyone with the magical sense given a grain of wheat could feel the wards built into it right down through the marrow of their bones.

“You are not incorrect there, friend, but,”—Deven paused to cough, and then his throat suddenly caught fire and ants started crawling over his body, stinging as they went. Not for real, of course, but the panic that sent him into a fit sure made it feel that way.

“What are—“ Blaize started, and then his eyes widened. “Deven!” he shouted and stopped his horse short of the safety of the wall.

It was the last thing Deven heard before all turned to black. I just left the darkness…he complained before it swallowed him whole.

 

* * * * *

 

“–good thing you stopped before entering the wall, or it would have been worse for him,” a voice said.

“Worse than feeling like someone set my insides on fire and sent ants across my skin?” he queried, his voice no more than a croak.

Someone pushed, not ungently, the edge of a cup to his lips. Deven drank the liquid greedily, happy to find it was water and not some healer’s nasty idea of a ‘healing’ potion. How can something heal you if it tastes like rotted rat’s piss?

“Yes, actually,” a young woman’s voice quipped.

Deven cracked open an eye to find he was attended by the Queen herself. Someone with a more elegant bearing would likely be honored, but for Deven it just gave him the start of a headache.

She almost literally shone with such goodness, hope, and optimism it made his teeth hurt. How her and Casior were related, let alone twins, was anyone’s guess. But Queen Caezal was born first, and thus was the rightful ruler of the throne, which never ceased to reassure the citizens of the kingdom every time Casior had a tantrum.

Still, he had an eye for the woman, with her hair like spun moonlight, sun-kissed skin, amethyst eyes large in her delicate featured face, small waist, and curving hips that his hands fairly itched to grab and pull her in to see if those full, pink lips were as soft as they looked. Of course, Deven had a knack for always wanting something he’d never be able to have. It was one of the things that made him such an excellent thief.

He groaned and closed his eyes again, to protect them from being blinded by her bright smile.

“The arrow was coated in a poison that was designed to react with Lighbourne’s wards. If Blaze had brought you through, you would have melted from the inside out,” the raspy voice of the old healer said. “But you’ll be fine,” she finished, leaving the unsaid, ‘Unfortunately,’ hanging in the air as she left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

Blaize, in agreement with the healer, must have muttered something under his breath to the effects of, ‘Should have just kept going,’ because the Queen gasped and said, “Blaize!”

Blaize cleared his throat and managed to choke out a half-hearted apology.

Deven opened his eyes again to see the Queen shaking her head. “He risked his life to save us—“

“You mean himself, since he would have eventually died like the rest of us.”

“—and I won’t have you badmouth him in front of me,” she finished sternly, ignoring the interruption.

Blaize sighed, and rolled his eyes at the Queen’s attitude toward Deven. Deven agreed with Blaize, but he wasn’t one to pass up a good ego-stroke.

“Yes, dearest Blaize, if you haven’t anything nice to say—“

“Say it out of the Queen’s presence. Yes, I quite agree,” Blaize finished for him.

The Queen sighed in disappointment. “Any way, were you able to recover the item?” she asked.

“Yes, I did. Though I don’t know how this will help,” Deven said, and struggled to sit up.

The healer and Blaize ended up helping him sit, and Deven fumbled with the pouch at his waist. Blaize couldn’t take it anymore after a good minute of this, and batted his hand away.

“Honestly,” he grumbled, and managed to undo the string with a couple of tugs.

“Remind me to double-knot the laces on my breeches when you’re around, Blaize,” Deven said. He managed to make both Blaize and the Queen turn very interesting shades of scarlet. Deven broke into a wide grin.

“Disgraceful,” the healer said in a disgusted tone at the same time as Blaize saying, “Incorrigible.”

Deven shrugged, unrepentant, and continued to smile.

Blaize opened the pouch, and a puzzled expression crossed his face.

“It is smaller than I expected,” he said, and pulled something maybe twice the size of a marble from the pouch.

It glowed with a soft, cold, white light. It seemed as though some kind of mist was trapped inside, and thought the glass ball had felt sturdy to his experienced, thieving fingers, he’d still had some base instinct screaming to be careful.

“Yes,” the Queen murmured. “Maybe, after all that’s happened, there wasn’t enough to fill a traditional vessel?” she wondered aloud, to no one in particular. Her eyes filled with tears at whatever thoughts were moving through her mind, and Deven grimaced. He’d never been very good with crying females.

“You cannot hold yourself accountable,” Blaize said, firmly, and to Deven’s ears it wasn’t the first time he’d said such a thing to her.

“So you say, but—“

Blaize cut her off with the slash of his hand. “There are no buts here. No one is responsible for his actions but himself,” Blaize growled.

The tension was thick and melancholy, but Deven still had a question, and they had refused to answer until he recovered the item.

“So, now that it’s here you promised you’d tell me what it is,” Deven said.

The Queen took the item from Blaize, and cupped both hands around the glass ball. It brightened at her touch, and she turned a small, sad smile Deven’s way.

“This is all that is left of my brother’s soul,” she whispered, the words barely able to pass her lips.

Deven’s eyes widened. “I thought it was going to be some kind of weapon. But you’re telling me that sad excuse for a soul is what’s going to stop the war?” Deven asked, incredulous.

A tear slid down her face, and she turned away from him.

Piss, he cursed. He hadn’t meant to make her cry. Blaize sent an unfriendly glare his way.

“We’re going to force his soul back into him,” she said after a few moments passed, her voice thick with grief.

“From what we know, it’s been a very long time since it’s actually been inside him,” Blaize said grimly.

“How long is very long?” Deven asked.

“Since he was eight,” the Queen said, deadpan. Deven had never heard her so defeated, and it was unnerving. Even more unnerving was the fact that an eight year-old had lost possession of his soul.

“How?” Deven asked.

“We’re not sure,” she said haltingly. “But it was right around then that his famous tantrums began,” she said, and looked over to Blaize.

“Well,” said Deven, still somewhat flabbergasted. “I could see why you’d question him being responsible for his actions. Hard to care if you’re doing evil things if you have no soul.” The Queen turned around and gave him wide, disbelieving eyes. He shrugged in response, uncomfortable in the face of her gratitude for his understanding.

“Then what’s your excuse?” Blaize asked, surly.

Deven let a slow, devilish smile grace his lips. “I might walk the opposite side of the law as you, and yes, maybe my morals are looser than the teeth of the old men down at the docks, but I’ve never murdered entire villages to try and take a crown from my sister.”

Blaize opened his mouth, but closed it on whatever he was going to say. Instead, he simply went with, “Fair enough,” and let the matter drop.

The Queen shook her head and muttered something about men not making any sense.

“So, we’re going to do a return-to-owner on his soul, and then, what? He repents?” Deven asked.

The Queen shook her head. “His soul is, as best as we can tell, undeveloped. It will either overwhelm him, shattering his sanity, or kill him. Those are our most likely and worst-case scenario,” she said, still at war with the decision in her mind.

“And best case?” he asked, because he knew there was some sliver of hope inside her.

“Best case, he gets it back, can handle the sudden onslaught of twenty years of emotions and conscience that he’s been void of, and I get my brother back,” she finished.

If Deven had more emotional range than a dead fish, he’d have more empathy, sympathy, or whatever. But he didn’t, and he was a man of action.

“Well then, what are we waiting for?” Deven asked. “Let’s give your brother a proverbial kick in the ass, or rather the soul, and end this war. I can’t enjoy my freedom in a city under siege,” he said.

Blaize scoffed. “It’s not that easy.”

Deven scowled at this. “Of course not,” he said, and flopped back down.

Magic is such a pain in the ass.

Writing Prompt: Be Careful What You Wish For

It flashed through the sky and then was gone. Lucy was sure she had seen a UFO and was equally sure aliens were here to secretly make contact with a human being. Maybe they would choose her. Maybe she would get to visit their ship. Maybe she just didn’t realize humans had no need to look beyond good ol’ planet Earth to find a movie-grade monster.

It was amazing what humans were capable of glossing over—like their neighbor’s illicit magical practices—while at the same time believing in little green men.

Of course, Lucy had every reason to hope for an alien abduction, (of all the silly things). With her mother passing away in childbirth, it left her with a father who was an abusive drunk of the worst sort; robbing her of every innocence afforded a child.

Which is where I came in.

Sometimes you wish for an alien, but you get me instead. I’d spent centuries giving humans what they wished for, always with a twist, of course. They rarely stop to think of the consequences of their desires, and they usually rushed in without a second thought. I admit, without shame, not a small number have paid for it with their lives in one way or another. There were a cautious few who managed to twist their words to encounter as little fall out as possible, but they are rare.

There is always a price with magic. It is the most unnatural of acts, as people bend physics near to the point of breaking, which causes a backlash. Or, as a famous Englishman once said, it caused an equal and opposite reaction.

Lucy was different. Maybe some Djinn were jaded enough to level their full power and the subsequent consequences on a nine year-old, but call me sentimental and soft. I just couldn’t do it.

She didn’t even know what I was when she made the wish. How could she? Thankfully, the process wasn’t that simple, or the situation would have been grim. I was different from her other neighbors, but people raised by dangerous individuals can sense that danger in others. Even if they don’t realize it. We chatted at first, as her sense of survival screamed against interacting with me. Maybe it was my gardening that threw her off—I was a sucker for a good Hybrid Tea Rose—but soon enough she spilled her stories to me. One at a time.

“I saw something shoot through the sky the other night,” she said by way of greeting. She grabbed the weeding bucket from near the fence as she walked toward me.

I kept a wide variety of flora, but with spring at its peak I naturally gravitated toward my roses if nothing else needed immediate attention. So I was kneeling in front of them when she came in through the gate, with the moist soil cool even through the knees of my dark olive brown gardening overalls.

“A shooting star, perhaps?” I asked.

She chose a bed to start weeding. It wasn’t close, but it wasn’t so far that we were unable talk without raising our voices.

“I think it was aliens.”

I couldn’t help the smile that spread over my face, though she didn’t see because we were concentrating on our tasks. Lucy spoke easier and more freely if I kept eye contact to a minimum. “Why do you think it was aliens?”

I must have let the smile slip into my voice, because her next words were discouraged, if not a little angry; “You think I’m stupid.”

It was something she heard far too often, but never from me.

“Did I say that?”

“No,” she grumbled

“No,” I repeated. “I simply wanted to hear your reasoning.” I kept my eyes focused on the task in front of me.

There was a long pause, as she weighed her words as carefully as one might weigh gold.

“I wish they’d take me away. If they were real, they’d take me away, forever,” she said, her voice as frail as her scrawny frame.

For the first time since she entered my garden, I looked up at her. Stubbornness pressed her mouth into a thin line, but the bruise on her right cheek rested below tired eyes that were far older than her years. Her shoulders bore the heavy weight of resignation that her nightmare would never end.

It wasn’t easy getting someone to believe you when your father is the county’s lead prosecutor. In her mind, as jaded as it was at such a young age, she still held just enough innocence to believe an alien could rescue her. That abduction was her only recourse.

It was that last vestige of hope that spoke to me. As a Djinn I might not have a soul, but I did have a heart.

Less than a week later she stood outside my gate with two smiling adoptive parents. Magic had consequences, even for me. However, when you have hundreds of thousands of years to build fortunes and generate influence, money can make things happen at an almost magical rate.

“Good morning, Lucy,” I said as I approached the gate, and taking off my dirty gardening gloves. She opened it and rushed through, jumping into my arms at a dead run. I dropped the gloves to catch her, and barely managed to keep my feet.

“Lucy, be careful!” the woman urged.

I waved her off. “It’s fine, she’s just happy, right?” I asked.  But it was more than just this moment I was asking about.

She tilted her head back to meet my gaze while tears filled her amber colored eyes. She nodded, understanding the question.

I let a small smile slip and nodded back at her.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and let go of me. She didn’t know how, but some part of her knew I’d had a hand in the situation.

“You are most welcome,” I replied.

I waved them off as they drove away, and I knew I’d never see her again.

Some might say such a small act means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s in the small moments that we truly discover who we are.

Of course, not all stories turn out like Lucy’s. Just remember: be careful what you wish for.

Potato Chip Prompt ~~ For Love

Looking back, it could have gone either way. It didn’t work out, which makes it look like fate, or a stupid decision, or both. But at the time, I did have a few things in my favor. I had the backing of the King which is a heady position to be in. I had a solid plan, solid people, the timing was right, and I had insider knowledge from someone who’d been through this ritual before. Everything was perfect, and with all things magic that should have been the first warning sign that something wasn’t right.

My intentions, to me, were for the greater good. Immortality? No more sickness, death, or hunger? Who would not want that? Of course, hindsight is a lens through which we can analyze the past and speculate where we went wrong. As it stood now, I can only lament the gravity of my actions from the eternal torment those around me and I now suffered.

How was I to know, at the time, the spirit I summoned to guide me through the summoning of the dead and immortality ritual was really a daemon? Or that he would take over my body in a moment of doubt? Could something done for love really be that bad, no matter the outcome?

Those are all just excuses, though, are they not? As the dead run rampant across the kingdom, those not killed at their skeletal hands were captured and tortured by the army of daemons who came through the portal. The portal itself was not open for long, but they were ready on the other side because of my stupidity and arrogance.

Now I cowered in the remnants of my broken soul, having fled from the sight of my undead wife. Her hatred of me burned in her eyes, because her soul had been ripped from the summerlands and ensconced in a half-rotted body.

I would be mad at me, too.

Maybe thinking it could have gone either way was how I consoled myself as the daemon raked its talons through my soul like a cougar sharpening its claws on a tree.

My wife had died of the wasting sickness, and I poured over the books in the old library trying to find the spell I had heard of in legends. A spell to raise the dead. The head sorcerer of the order said I was wasting my time. He was probably just trying to keep me away from something that had, obviously, turned out to be dangerous and beyond my ability.

Through research and countless hours I’d discovered a name, and a simple spirit summoning. Painless, and nearly first level difficulty. Then, after gaining my trust and stringing me along, it spoke of an immortality ritual. A one-two combination to conquer death.

The daemon showed me there were always fates worse than death. Or even a thousand deaths.

On the other hand, the daemon promised I would live forever. In everlasting agony, of course, but forever nonetheless.

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

 

 

As I made my way home, I stopped and grabbed some food for Slies and myself from work. The openers made no comment on my disheveled, exhausted appearance. They merely handed me my food and drinks, and nodded, not willing to engage me in conversation. It was good to see my usual resting bitch face was still enough to strike fear into the hearts of mere mortals—even though it simply made supernaturals laugh.

I’d hit overload. My mind was empty and my body was floaty, as though I was made from nothing more than wisps of a cloud, breaking apart in the face of the rising sun. The drive through town was uneventful, and after I pulled into my parking spot I turned off the car and dropped my head back against the headrest.

Sleepiness made my limbs and eyelids heavy, and I had to yank the latter open before I fell asleep in my car. I grudgingly gathered my things, locked my car, and trudged to my apartment door. With my arms full, I toed my shoes off, and went to kick at the door to get Slies to open it. He opened the door before I could connect with it, and I lurched through the entrance as I met with no resistance.

He deftly side-stepped me as I caught myself just over the threshold before I wrecked myself.

“Oh, good, you brought food,” he said, and took everything from my hands before I could drop it. He took the food inside, leaving me standing near the entrance, blinking against the sleepiness trying to drag me under.

I grumbled something incoherent—even to myself—and grabbed my shoes from outside and put them on the mat just inside the door. I shuffled toward the kitchen and stopped like a deer caught in headlights.

Slies had been a busy boy.

Gone was my futon, replaced by some black leather monstrosity that took up almost the entire tiny room, the rest of which was occupied by a large-ish television screen.

“Um…” I prompted, and gestured languidly toward the living room.

Slies was busy digging in the paper bag and didn’t answer, but he’d heard me, as his ears curled in anticipation for more shrieking. In all honesty I didn’t have the energy, but there was something working its way from the back of my brain, trying to tell me to make an issue of this. I was just too tired to know why.

“So, did ya learn anything new?” he asked, and took a bite out of some kind of sausage breakfast sandwich.

My brain shifted gears at his words. “Yeah, it wasn’t Celinwel,” I said, and started shuffle-stepping toward the bedroom door.

Slies appeared in front of me, crumbs from the sandwich across his mouth, and I almost stepped on him. I jerked to a stop to keep from doing just that, as he finished chewing and swallowed.

His expression was more curious than shocked, as he tilted his head slightly to his right. “Whatcha mean she didn’t do it?”

I sighed, cast a weary glance at the couch, and headed over to sit down. I sank down into the buttery softness of the cushions, and though they were cool to the touch, they warmed immediately beneath my body heat. I groaned in pleasure and closed my eyes. Slies gave me a few moments, almost long enough for me to fall asleep, before he cleared his throat.

I cracked open one bleary eye. He was in front of me with one eyebrow raised and his arms crossed over his chest. At least he was fully clothed.

I went through the arduous process of recounting the night, from the time I got to work until Celinwel left. Nothing else was of note, really, other than Thea’s warning, which was more for me than anyone else.

“So she was in cahoots with the human, and some guy?” he asked, more to himself than me.

Still, I lolled my head forward in the laziest of nods. “Seems so,” I mumbled, my chin against my chest.

“No mention of who this mystery dude might be?”

“Mm, nope,” I said, making a little popping sound with my mouth with the letter ‘p’.

Slies harrumphed, and his footspes moved away over the carpet. Next thing I knew a blanket was being thrown over me, and I mumbled some form of thanks before drifting off into blissful sleep.

 

***************

 

I awoke with a major crick in my neck and back. The new couch was comfy, I’d just ended up in an odd position. The sun’s last rays of the day streamed in through the line of holes in the apartment blinds. How did I manage to be in a perfect position to have them right across my eyes, like some kind of blinding death ray from a B monster flick? It was just my usual luck.

Luck of the cursed, maybe, Rational Brain noted scathingly.

Coming over to see my side of things, eh? Going all superstitious and paranoid? Primal brain chortled.

In your dreams, Neanderthal.

“Finally up, then?” Slies’ voice cut through the brain chatter.

I groaned in response and sat up, my couch quilt lovingly sewn by my father’s crotchety old grandmother was tangled around my legs. It’d been a gift to my parents on their wedding day with the note; ‘Since your wife can barely keep your house clean, I assumed she doesn’t know how to sew.’ Unsurprisingly, my mother had jumped at the second chance to get it out of her house when I moved out for college. My brother had refused to take it with him.

“It might behoove you to know,” Slies began, and I turned to look over at him as he leaned against the counter, “that Gozuk had Celinwel captured, and the gnome king has stated that if his daughter is not returned within the next three—well, two now—hours, he’ll waste no time waging a war to end all wars,” Slies informed me, in a bored tone, picking at his nails with one of his daggers.

I blew out a sigh. “Well, that sucks for her.” It was difficult for me to sympathize with someone who recently tried to kill me.

He nodded. “Sure does. Of course, it sucks for you, too, because she was supposed to work tonight and you’ll be a person short. Well, I guess if she dies you’ll be short all her shifts. Combine that with being short for all of Stribs’ shifts, and you’re looking at one hell of a week. Probably two or three until you can hire someone else.” He stretched, dagger still in hand, but when his hands came back down to slip inside his pants pockets, the dagger was gone.

I spluttered. “You make it sound like I have a choice.”

Slies smiled a particularly nasty smile that immediately sent a cramp through my belly. I was not going to like this.

“Well, the gnome king has demanded your presence to help establish his daughter’s innocence, as per the conversation you overheard. However, you’re technically under goblin protection at the moment, so he can’t force you to appear without kidnapping you from under us. Gozuk won’t go out of his way to make sure you’re there because he hates Celinwel, and will use any excuse to put her head on a pike—literally.”

“But…” I prompted. I was too damn tired to try and figure out political machinations I couldn’t work my way through if I was awake, and fueled by enough caffeine to power a legion of people trying to get through a 24-hour gaming marathon.

“But,” he continued, not making me work too hard for it, bless his little green soul, “Gozuk never relayed anything about stopping you if you tried to show up on your own.”

“That sounds like a lot of work for someone I don’t particularly like, and who doesn’t like me in return,” I said, weighing which would cause me more work in the long-run.

Ugh, why can’t people just not get themselves killed and have their murderous, yet innocent, girlfriends get captured by goblin kings, Primal Brain muttered.

Do you even comprehend what you’re thinking when you think it? Rational Brain asked.

“True, but she can break down a grill like nobody’s business,” Slies pointed out.

“Fair enough,” I grumbled, and threw the blanket off my legs. I checked the time, and of course I had four-ish hours before I had to be to work. By my estimation—utilizing my limited knowledge of how gnome-goblin hostage situations function—I had enough time to try and save Celinwel. Unfortunately.

I looked down at my work clothes and wrinkled my nose.

“Yeah, these things aren’t formal affairs, but that probably isn’t appropriate,” Slies said, while regarding the grease stains on my shirt and pants.

“Fine, I guess I’ll change, but I don’t have anything more formal than jeans,” I warned.

“Jeans will do,” Slies said.

I grumbled as I stood up, and then I shuffled into the bathroom to get ready for something I was going to regret.

 

*****************

 

About forty minutes later we were back at The Salty Wench. Slies explained it was the closest thing to neutral ground they had, since Dymas would summarily kill anyone who harmed anyone else under his roof. It was an ancient custom to give protection to those who eat and drink in your home, and Dymas considered The Wench as such.  He didn’t care about any of us, one way or the other, he just didn’t want rampaging supernaturals destroying all he worked for. Having neutral ground for the various factions to meet on was Dymas’ compromise to paying property taxes. Apparently, even supernaturals weren’t immune to bureaucracy. Go figure.

Krot was nowhere to be seen, and instead a grumpy goblin guard paired with an equally grumpy gnome guard opened the door and let us in. Both were in run-of-the-mill, medieval, ‘we’re going on a castle raid’ armor. Nothing was visible on them except dark eyes and an air of irritation that wafted off them like stink from garbage.

The door closed behind us, leaving us in the semi-dark of the entry hall.

“For meetings such as this, the kings tend to revert to the old ways, no matter how modern they might be otherwise,” Slies said, not bothering to keep his voice low.

“Just like a goblin to mock tradition,” said a voice in a scornful tone from the main room.

“And just like a gnome to cling to them so fiercely he’d let his own daughter die,” Slies said, and angry silence followed. “Granted,” he continued, apparently unable to help himself, “she is a raging bitch.”

There was a scuffling form the other room, and raised, angry voices all talking over one another. When I looked down at Slies, he had a half smile on his lips, immensely pleased with himself.

“If you get me killed because of your smart mouth, I’ll haunt you,” I said, deadpan.

“You couldn’t haunt your way out of a wet paper bag, let alone enough to make me miserable,” he paused, and chuckled, “but I’ll do my best.”

Hardly reassuring, Rational Brain said.

I simply scowled at him.

He made his way into the main room, and when I was able to take in the whole of it, it looked like an episode of West Side Story meets World of Warcraft. Dymas was sitting on the other side of the bar. He must have grabbed a stool from somewhere, because his feet were propped up on the bar, and he was filing his already wickedly sharp claws.

Not so subtle threat display, Primal Brain noted.

Both sides were a grumbling, seething mass of fury, and all that was missing was a wrestling ring and an easily distracted referee so one king could murder the other and walk away with their hands clean. I recognized the other goblins that had been there when I’d been summoned to view Stribs’ corpse, though only one of them was focused more on his fellow goblins than the gnomes. Brikt, I think his name was, and an apt name it was. He looked like someone who ate gym equipment for breakfast, and gave definition to, ‘more brawn than brain’. His interest was more on Gozuk, and even at a distance, I could see his right eye twitch.

Given the situation, though, his wonky behavior wasn’t what drew my attention. The gnomes were what grabbed that.

Where the goblins were more mafia, the gnomes came off more like the scum of Wall Street. Book smarts versus street smarts. The kind of people that screwed old ladies out of their retirement. I’d like to say I could see the family resemblance between the king and Celinwel, but in all honesty all the gnomes looked alike. Did that make me racist (species-ist)? The biggest difference was the hair style: his was short and spiky, as well as growing out of his ears, and his nose was bulbous and took up most of his face.

My overall nervousness boiled down to the fact that I was surrounded by super-pissed short beings who could slice and dice me with their copious number of blades before I could blink an eye. My only option, as we’d discussed on the way over, was to let Slies be my representative.

Oh, how the not-so-mighty have fallen. I’d gone from hoping I’d make it out of this alive, albeit slightly maimed, to hoping for a quick death instead of evisceration—given the average height of those who wished for said death.

“Slies, why are you here?” Gozuk asked, his voice like the rumbling of the earth before it swallowed you whole.

Slies made a low, scraping bow, with one hand across his mid-section, and the other with his palm forward and away from his body. “Simply following protocol. Holly decided to attend the meeting, and, as her duly appointed—by you—protector, I simply came along for the ride,” he said, maintaining his position.

Gozuk’s eyebrows were low and knotted over eyes that never wavered from Slies, whose head remained tilted down along with his gaze. His long ears curled, and the green of the tips deepened, which I guessed was the equivalent of human ears reddening. His mouth was a thin, compressed line, and his nostrils flared.

“It’s a little more self-serving than that,” I said, diverting the goblin king’s angry stare before he set Slies on fire from its intensity. My stomach churned as I came under scrutiny, and I did my best not to cower.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked, at the same time the gnome king said, “Typical Ord.”

Despite my desire to remain among the living, my head snapped over to meet the eyes of the gnome king. “Call me Ord again, short stack, and I’ll bury you in a hole so deep, even your earth-dwelling subjects can’t hear you scream,” I growled.

He titled his head back, and looked down his nose at me, which was impressive under the circumstances. His mouth curled on one side, and his lower lip was pushed up, curving his mouth downward.

“So keep your slurs to yourself, and maybe I can help keep your daughter from dying so we don’t have to train a new hire,” I spat.

His eyes narrowed, and though he didn’t nod, he simply turned back to Gozuk, ignoring me. Which was fine, considering my legs had turned to jelly and I was ready to vomit.

“You would protect such a crass creature, Gozuk,” the gnome king said, his eyebrows lifted slightly with disdain, and eyes relaxed and filled with contempt.

“Who I choose to protect is my business, Dakwor.”

Dakwor looked me over from the corner of his eye. “Yes, and her manners suggest she’s just as illegitimate as your business.”

Before my head could explode from the sudden surge in blood pressure and rage I experienced, Slies laughed.

“If you want to talk illegitimate, I have hard-proof of your daughter’s misadventures into the unlicensed pharmaceutical business, which she dragged a few of your cronies into,” Slies said.

The gnome king flushed and his eyes narrowed, but he regained his composure quickly and threw his shoulders back.

“My daughter simply wanted to try her hand at entrepreneurship before settling down to the family business. Where’s my daughter, Gozuk? Or have you already dispatched of her, and are ready to agree on the terms of engagement?” he asked, his fists clenching and unclenching at his side.

I’m assuming they’re not talking about the marriage type of engagement, Primal Brain said.

They’re talking about war, Rational Brain said, tone grave. While I don’t value most humans very highly, this wouldn’t bode well for the ones we actually like.

Not to mention we might lose our job. I mean, two dead employees in just about as many days as we’ve worked there doesn’t look too good, Primal Brain noted.

That too, Rational Brain agreed.

Considering they were rarely in agreement, we were up shit creek without a paddle.

“The little wench is no more dead than your pitiful soul, Dakwor,” Gozuk said, and held his hand up in a lazy, couldn’t give a shit if you paid me, gesture.

The comment didn’t appear to reassure Dakwor, which let me know just how much Dakwor thought of his soul and what he knew of his daughter’s behavior.

The crowd of goblins parted like the green sea, and from their center they dragged a squirming bundle of pissed off Celinwel. Rope bound her entire lower body, except her feet, and her mouth was covered with run-of-the-mill silver duct tape, which would not be a fun experience pulling off later.

When her eyes landed on me, she started trying to yell behind the tape and wriggle toward me. Odds were even between her trying to kill me again and cursing me to the deepest pit of hell, or if she was asking for help. Considering her constant state of nastiness toward me, she’d probably kill me even if it spited her and she wound up dead as a result.

“I want my daughter released, now,” Dakwor growled, and he bared his teeth in a feral snarl. His minions behind him rustled like an angry wind, making their metal armor rattle and leather armor creak.

“Of course, there’s just the matter of clearing up her killing my son, and you can all be off back to your little holes in the ground,” Gozuk said, unconcerned by the angry mob of gnomes.

Slies nudged me, and I started, as I’d been focused on the back and forth between the kings.

“Uh, I’m pretty sure she didn’t kill him,” I said.

Gozuk’s head turned slowly to me, and he did not look happy at my interruption. Dakwor and Celinwel scowled, but I think that was simply because they both hated me.

I held my hands out in front of me. “Don’t get me wrong,” I continued, “she definitely had a plan to do so, but someone else got to him first.”

“Who?” Gozuk asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“See? You’ve got nothing but an overheard conversation, and—“

“Actually,” Dymas interrupted, and everyone in the room froze, having forgotten where they were, “I can confirm that Celinwel came to The Salty Wench during the time Stribs was murdered, because I distinctly remember kicking her out. She was peddling her, ‘entrepreneurship’, and that will not be tolerated at The Wench.”

Gozuk clenched his jaw. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

Dymas shrugged. “You didn’t ask, but I won’t have undue violence unleashed in The Wench, no matter how much the receiver of such a punishment may deserve it,” he finished, and stared Celinwel down.

If she could have sunk through the floor, she probably would have done so, if only to avoid such a stare.

“Also,” he said, and looked at me, “the human may not have much in the way of manners, but she’s telling the truth. Or at least as much of it as she knows. There’s another in the room who knew the truth, and I can smell their fear as surely as rain falls from the sky in winter.”

“Who?” Gozuk and Dakwor asked.

Dymas smiled and enigmatic smile. “Remove the tape from Celinwel’s mouth, and she might just be willing to tell you, if only to save her own skin. The selfishness of a continued existence at the expense of another’s life is an easy choice for someone of her moral caliber.”

Gozuk swung a narrowed gaze to Celinwel, and snapped his fingers. The goblin closest to her—Zeec, the healer—reached down to pull the tape from her mouth, but Brikt jumped forward and punched the other goblin. Brikt then pulled a knife from his belt, raised it in the air, and lunged for Gozuk.

Between one blink and the next, every goblin within reaching distance of Gozuk, plus Slies and Dymas—who had moved too fast for my human sight to follow—had the business end of a blade aimed for every vital spot imaginable on Brikt.

Brikt was breathing heavy, and his eyes were brimming with hate at Gozuk.

“Well, that answers that question,” Dymas purred.

“Why, Brikt?” Gozuk asked. Not in a disappointed tone, or one of puzzlement, sadness, or any other emotion. Gozuk might as well have asked him what he’d eaten for breakfast for all the care he had for the answer. Like when we ask a customer how their day is going; it’s nothing more than forced small talk. In all likelihood, he simply wanted to know what drove Brikt through his horrible decision making process, so he could avoid such a thing again.

“She said if we offed the both of ya’s, we could move in on some of the territory, and she’d share the profit with me. Not to mention, she liked me more than Stribs, anyhow,” he said, belief in his words permeating every word.

What a poor, pitiful fool. She used him like a convenient Kleenex, Rational Brain said.

“Brikt, you well and truly are an idiot,” Slies said, and pulled his blade back. He then motioned for a couple of the goblins to move forward, and they disarmed and bound him.

“I wish I coulda offed that pissant, though. Always callin’ me dumb and laughin’ at me, throwin’ rocks and gettin’ people to beat me up. He deserved what he got; I just wish it woulda been me that did him in,” Brikt said and glowered. “I wouldn’t ta been as nice as them.”

“Get him out of my sight,” Gozuk said, fury as cold as the mountains in winter coating his words.

I moved aside as they hauled him past me, six of them carrying him on their shoulders like pallbearers with a casket, and he caught my eye.

“This is all your fault, you fuckin’ Ord.”

That was the last straw. I was tired, my life was being turned on its head because some dumb goblin went and got himself killed, and this all could have ended if I’d just kept my mouth shut and let Gozuk have Celinwel. So in a way, he was right, and that made me even madder.

I slapped him so hard I thought I’d broken my hand against his thicker-than-a-human’s jaw, and the sound managed to echo in a space it shouldn’t have been possible. It rocked the goblin’s head back, and he cursed at me as the other goblins continued on their way as though nothing had happened.

Laughter bubbled behind me, and I turned to find Slies holding his midsection trying to not laugh while Dymas’ eyes danced with merriment. My hand throbbed, but I refused to acknowledge it, and give them the satisfaction of knowing just how useless the gesture had been. I was pretty sure it hurt me more than Brikt.

Idiot, Rational Brain said, exasperated.

Worth it, Primal Brain countered.

Shut up, both of you, I grumbled.

 

 

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