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.

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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.

Short Story ~~ Between

This was written for a writing contest that had a 7k word limit–I finished this with 6990. Sadly, I did not place, but that doesn’t mean I can’t post it here for all you lovely people to enjoy!

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Happy endings aren’t real. This might seem obvious to some, but it bears a comment because, all too often, people pine away for something that can never happen. Even if you live a full life, what happens? You die. That’s not a happy ending, it’s just an end.

Even worse are people who try to chase that perfect fairytale life peddled in modern re-tellings. I’ve read the original The Little Mermaid, and through the marvels of modern technology I was able to see the movie. The latter is wishful thinking to the extreme. I’d call it crap, but it’s for kids and not adults. The first is closer to the truth, but still off. Of course, stories were funny that way, especially ones no one believed to be true.

“Mornin’ Lykke!” The voice boomed over the docks, like someone beating one of those big drums in an orchestra. A large, walrus-like man waved at me from the end of the last dock for the little town of Haven Cove. His characteristic bright yellow bib overalls were like the light of a lighthouse, guiding fisherman safely in.

“Morning, Jeff,” I said, and waved back. My voice was rough from lack of use, but when you lived alone there wasn’t much conversation going on.

“How’s the bite?” he asked, once my boat was flush with the dock.

I tossed him the bow and stern lines, one after the other, to tie up the Sea Witch, but didn’t disembark.

“Active east past Acker’s Rock.”

Jeff whistled, a high, ear-piercing shriek that tore into my ear drums, and I flinched. He gestured for a couple of the dock workers to hop aboard and unload the catch.

“You don’t say? Mind if I pass it along? Been a slow day for some of the guys.”

“Sure, but I’m not sure how good it’ll be now,” I warned.

Jeff let out a great bellow of a laugh, and his belly shook with chuckle tremors afterward.

“Fished it out, eh?”

“Something like that,” I hedged. I may be in exile from my kin, but I still had my magic, and I could call upon the Sea and Her bounty. Granted, I did so sparingly, and I never took more than I needed. There was no telling Jeff that, though. He’d just look at me like I was crazier than he already thought I was.

“Well, thanks anyway.” He ran a seasoned eye over my trawler. “You know, I never see the Witch in dry dock, and yet she’s always lookin’ dandy, and never needs repairs,” he observed with a glint in his eye.  “I’d really love to get in contact with whoever does the work.”

“I’ve told you before, Jeff, I can’t tell you. Even if I did, he’d never help you, and then he’d abandon me. What would I do then?” I scolded, and put my hands on my hips.

Just like humans, the Sea Folk came in all shapes and sizes, though we had the distinction of varying in species as well. In our human form most of us were all lean muscle and slender, so I didn’t have much to put my hands on. My most striking features were my–you guessed it–ruby red hair, and eyes the blue of the Mediterranean.

“Alright, alright,” Jeff said, holding his hands up in surrender. Then he tucked his thumbs behind the straps of his overalls, and gave me a giant grin, showing off one of his missing molars in the back. “You can’t blame a man for trying.”

I harrumphed, and we both waited for the dock workers to finish their offload. Jeff wrote the receipt out, and handed it to one of the workers. He was young, but not as young as the other one. Though, all humans seemed young to someone who was born around when the Romans invented plumbing. The breeze coming off the ocean ruffled hair as dark as the deepest ocean depths, and what looked to be a natural tan was darkening from time on the docks. His eyes were the dark gray of thunderclouds roiling over the ocean, and watched me in a calculating yet wary manner. Like one predator sizing up another.

“Go and fetch the lady’s funds,” Jeff said with a growl, “and I’ll be countin’ it once it comes back.”

The worker mumbled something and shuffled off, shoulders bunched and hands shoved in the pockets of his olive-green overalls.

“Problems?” I asked, watching him walk away.

I wouldn’t deny that all Sea Folk were attracted to pretty things, though the obsession differed from one to another. Like many of my kin, there was something that sparked my hunger with humans. This human hit that desire in me like a punch to gut that left me breathless and dizzy. I gritted my teeth against the sensation, and willed myself to not stagger.

“Nah, he’s a good lad,” Jeff reassured, incorrectly interpreting my reaction. “Strong back, just doesn’t always mind his manners around temptation. Hired him as part of a probation program. Judge seems to think hard work and the threat of smelling like fish guts forever will keep them from re-offending.”

I couldn’t help a small chuckle. “The judge might be on to something there.”

“Why can’t she turn in her own hand receipt?” asked the other worker, piping up for the first time, as though the question burst from him when he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He had that gangly look about him that teens did. The one where they weren’t yet used to their longer limbs. The orange skullcap was pulled low over his brow, so I couldn’t see his hair, but his eyes were a warm brown, and curious.

“None of yours,” Jeff said, the growl this time not as biting, and gave a light cuff on the back of the youth’s head. “Start taking in the haul to Ned.”

The kid fixed his cap, and grabbed the rope attached to the fish bin. He walked away, sneaking glances at me as he went.

I’d put my chilled hands in the pockets of my blue parka, though I could have worn a bikini and not been bothered by the chill October air. I did it for show–for the humans. Nothing outed you as strange like wearing shorts in near-freezing weather. So, I made sure to pay attention to the temperature, and had on my knee-high rubber boots, angler pants, and a knit cap to help tame the hairs not contained by the braid that fell to my lower back.

Jeff didn’t know my story, just that I wouldn’t leave the boat. He chalked it up to some quirk or another, maybe a phobia, though the word was likely beyond Jeff’s ken. He was a simple man, who was willing to work with my eccentricity as long as I brought in the catch.

Little did he know I couldn’t step foot on land, or in the sea, or risk dying.

The other worker came back, and as Jeff said he would, he counted the bills. Jeff boasted arthritis in both knees, and even squatting to hand me the bills would have been too much, so he gave them back to the man to hand to me. I did my best not to let my hand touch his, since touch would only make everything worse, and nearly snatched the money from him. I left out a small sigh of relief when there was no contact, and I avoided looking him in the eye.

I thanked the men, they tossed me the lines, and I puttered my way back out to the ocean to find somewhere to anchor for the night.

It was a little after midnight, and I was sitting on my bed and downing a shot of liquor from a flask given to me by a Shaman friend of mine, when dripping water pattered over the deck.

I sighed and flopped back. “If you’re here to kill me, do it. I’m already bored,” I said, and ditched the shot glass. The flask was supernaturally warm against my lips, and I took a long haul, trying not to lose my cool and sputter.

“Why ever would I do that?” a soft voice asked. “It’s so much more fun to watch you suffer,” he hissed.

I groaned. “You don’t have permission to be on my boat, you slimy sea snake.”

The Beisht Kione hissed at me. I turned my head to the side, and his long, thin form was silhouetted in the doorway against the light of the full moon. Imagine an eel whose head was black, while the rest of him was a murky brown. He was twelve feet long, and his tail remained in the water, dipping in and out as the boat rocked. There were spiked fins along his spine he could collapse, starting at the base of his skull going all the way to the tip of his tail, as well as on the sides of his face. Those were flared out, and his mouth was open, showing off dozens of razor-sharp teeth.

“I may not be able to touch you while you are on this boat,” he spat the word, his phlegm eating through the wood of my small table, “but one day you will slip.”

“Literally? Because I’m pretty sturdy on my feet. I’ve had lots of practice over the years.”

I couldn’t help but poke fun at him, just as he couldn’t help but want to kill me. We were eternally bound, he and I. Both of us doomed to spend our lives alone. He had a couple motivations for murder: I’d killed his brother and his boss, the actual Sea Witch. She’d also originally bound the brothers Beisht to my aura, and they could track it with their eerie, yellow glowing eyes. I’d named the boat after her, because she was the reason I was stuck like this. If I touched the land, I’d turn to dust. If I touched the water, I’d be ripped apart by the Beisht Kione.

And it was all because I didn’t manage to get one lousy kiss. Falling in love with someone who doesn’t love you back is bad. Falling in love with someone who’s engaged to be married to the love of his life a few days after you fell in love with him, and you didn’t know that but the Sea Witch did? That is the epitome of crap with a side of shit.

“I will taste your flesh, Lykke, and we’ll both be free. Do you not grow tired of being confined to this cage?” he crooned, his voice almost as slippery and smooth as his skin.

“Not today I’m not. Now get out of here. You’re ruining my drink,” I said, and held up the flask. “A toast to us, Beisht, for continued health and happiness.” With that heaping dose of sarcasm, I took another gulp to kill the tightening of my throat.

“One day,” he promised. “I’ll join you for that drink, but only after you’re in my belly.” Then he slid noiselessly back into the black waters.

The ocean rocked the boat, and I remained silent. “Not today,” I whispered, closing the flask and tossing it to the floor. It clattered somewhere, and I’d regret having to find it later, but I couldn’t muster a care.

For the first time in days I rolled over and tried to fall asleep, hoping the liquor would grant me dreamless slumber. My regular dream–or rather nightmare–was usually filled with dreamy blue eyes the color of a cloudless summer sky, soft, coal black hair, and a kind voice overlapped by the cackle of an evil woman I’d killed. Tonight, though, the eyes were gray and wary, and my never-lover’s voice was replaced by a longing I hadn’t experienced in almost two-hundred years.

 

<***>

 

The radio weatherman was going on and on about the incoming storm, but I didn’t need a human with faulty science to tell me what was coming. It was big, and it was bad. I hadn’t been out long since my last visit to town, but I turned back and headed in. I could use my powers to calm the waters around my boat, and the Shaman who helped me keep the Witch seaworthy put in some protections, too, but it was better to dock up. I never knew when a rogue wave would come crashing down and destroy the only thing standing between my continued existence and the Beisht.

Most of the fisherman would be out, hauling as much catch as they could in the calm before the storm. Fishing was always better before a storm, and not so great after. I didn’t have the same problems as most fisherman, though, so I could afford to head into town earlier, and maybe have one of the dock workers grab a few supplies for me.

When I made it to the dock there weren’t too many boats tied up. The ones that were, were boats of some of the older fisherman. Their caution was tempered by years on the water, in a way it hadn’t done for the younger generations yet. They’d likely gathered at the local dive bar, drinking their earnings, and lamenting the stupidity of youth. Some things will never change.

As I pulled up to the last dock, the kid from yesterday was there to greet me. I tossed the bow line up to the kid, who tied it down to the cleat. He was concentrating hard on doing the knot correctly while I tossed the fenders over and headed to the stern line. This time, though, I also tossed up the spring lines, since I’d be here for more than just an offload.

“Got another load?” the boy eagerly asked once his task was complete.

While I ran a practiced eye over the knots, I shook my head. “No, didn’t want to chance getting caught in the storm.” When I was sure the knots were good, I looked up to meet his gaze. He’d deflated a bit at hearing there was nothing here for him to do, but I waved him onto the boat. “Come here. I need to give you my tie-up fee, and maybe you can run some errands for me.”

He jumped at my words, literally, and landed with a loud thud on the deck of the Witch. His boots were loud on the deck following my quieter steps, and I headed into my kitchen area. I grabbed a tin from one of the cabinets, and grabbed some money.

I turned back to him and held up the money. “I’m going to write a list. Whatever’s left after you’ve gotten everything on the list is yours,” I said, and handed him the cash.

He nodded, but it was hesitant. I smiled a little at that. Good, the kid was smart enough to realize that his take would depend on my list. I jotted down what I needed, as well as a couple of splurges. I was a sucker for red liquorice, and the handmade shampoo and conditioner from a woman in town. I’d never met her, but I’d be forever grateful to her husband, one of the seasonal dock workers, for introducing me to it.

When I handed over the list, the kid looked from the list to the money, and his eyes went wide.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his hesitance for a completely different reason.

I smiled. “Yes, I’m sure. Now, go and hand in the tie-up fee to Jeff, and if you can’t run the errands yet, let me know, and get to it when you can. Deal?”

He gave me a hesitant smile, but nodded. “Deal.” Then he was off like a shot, and the quick beat of his feet on the dock faded as he ran to Jeff’s office.

I’d planned on starting a pot roast and sitting down with one of my new books, but something about the coming storm was making me itch below my skin where I couldn’t scratch. Instead, I put the nervous energy to good use and started cleaning everything. Even though I kept a tidy boat, there was always something to clean.

As I worked, the sky grew prematurely dark, and the wind picked up at a steady pace. It didn’t take long for the rain to join in, and by that point the other boats were pulling in to the docks. Once it really started coming down, I headed in to cook dinner. With the weather turning foul as quick as it did, I supposed the kid probably headed home. Hopefully I didn’t put my trust in a thief, but I hadn’t gotten that vibe from him.

The wind was howling, and I’d just pulled out some veggies to cut when the door to my kitchen and bunk area was yanked open. I dropped into a crouch and held the knife in front of me to ward off whatever was coming through my door. Unfortunately, the only thing my paranoia was warding off was a wet, bedraggled teenager, whose eyes were wide and breathing so ragged I thought he’d pass out.

“Wh—”

“You’ve got to help Brandon!”

I slowly stood and put the knife down on the counter. “Who’s Brandon?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The guy on the dock with me and Jeff the other day,” he said, his voice going thin and impatient.

My stomach clenched and a sick chill ran down my spine. I walked behind the boy and closed the door, pushed him down into one of the two chairs at the small table, and pulled the wet skull cap from his head. His hair was dark from rainwater, but dry it was probably the same color as his eyes.

“Stop, you—”

“—have to help Brandon, I know. But right now your lips are blue, and your teeth are chattering so hard you might bite your tongue off. Having you go into some kind of hypothermic shock isn’t going to help anyone, so sit down, shut up for a moment, and let me get you warm,” I commanded, pushing him back down when he’d tried to stand up again.

He remained seated that time. I snatched the blanket from my bunk and threw it over his shoulders. I grabbed my electric kettle and set it to heat some water, and grabbed some of my instant hot chocolate. It’s not as good as the real stuff, but it works in a pinch. While it heated, I grabbed a towel and dried his hair as best I could. He was shaking so bad he couldn’t even stop me from doing it. Once that was done, I grabbed one of my skull caps and pulled it down on his head.

By the time he was getting restless the water was boiling, so I made the hot chocolate. I also added some milk to cool it down just enough that he didn’t scald himself when drinking it, but left out the marshmallows. I doubt he’d be amused.

After he took three gulps, and some of the color returned to his lips and cheeks, I sat down in the other chair.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong,” I said.

“Brandon started working the docks a few weeks ago, but he wanted to make more money. Jeff didn’t see any problems with him working more, since it was accomplishing what the judge wanted. He’s been going out with a couple of boats Jeff recommended, and he was really enjoying it. It’s the happiest I’ve seen him since he started here.

“But today he and Jeff got into a big fight because Brandon was asked to go out with a boat, and Jeff knew a storm was coming. Jeff told him if he wanted to die right as he started to live his life the way he should, to go ahead and get on that boat. The boat he got on, the Whistler, is the only one not back yet!”

The words had tumbled from him with quick desperation, and he slowly leaned toward me as he spoke.

“Did you tell Jeff?” I asked.

“Yes, and he told the Coast Guard, but they can’t do anything until the storm passes! I once heard Jeff say you were the best, and that you helped save some people during a storm a few years ago,” he said, the declaration its own request.

I frowned, and cursed inwardly at Jeff putting such a fool idea in the kid’s head. This storm—hurricane, really—was going to make the one a few years ago look like a spring shower. Every so often, nature hungered for death the same way as the Titans of old. This one had that same savageness about it. It wouldn’t be content unless it left utter destruction in its wake.

When I met his gaze, though, the anguish there left me with little choice, and I sighed. What immortal wanted to live forever, anyway?

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Gavin,” he said. Hope shone in his eyes like sunlight reflecting off the water, and I knew I was doomed.

“Alright, Gavin, I want you to head back home—”

“No!” he said, too quick, and put the hot chocolate down with a hard thump on the table.

There was something more there than the desire to help a fellow worker, and it raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Look, I can’t take you out with me. I’m sure your parents will be worried.”

“I’m an orphan, no one will care, and I want to help save Brandon,” he said, setting his jaw and glaring at me. “Brandon is the only one who cares, and we don’t have time to waste arguing. I’m going,” he declared.

That would explain the reaction. If this guy is the only person he thinks cares about him…

Still, I just stared at him. “And you think Brandon would want you out in that storm?”

He snorted. “Like he’d be one to point a finger. He went out into the storm,” he pointed out.

“So you want to do the same stupid thing? No. You need to leave,” I said, putting a hand on my hip and pointing to the door.

He gripped the edges of the chair, wrapped his legs around the chair’s legs, and clenched all his muscles. “No, and you can’t make me.”

Actually, I could, you little snot. I wanted to verbalize the thought, but if I bodily removed him from the boat it’d open a can of worms I’d never be able to close again. Fisherwomen were strong, there was no doubt, but they weren’t, lift-a-full-grown-teenage-boy-off-a-boat-and-onto-the-dock strong. It was ten years too soon for me to move on to a new location, which was always an ordeal.

After a couple of heartbeats, I growled at him. “Fine, but you won’t tell anyone I took you out, least of all Jeff. He’d have my hide if he knew,” I said, and opened to door to head up to the wheelhouse. “Get the lines, and be happy I don’t hit the throttle before you can jump back on,” I said.

He jumped up quick to obey, and soon we were on our way. He’d tried to finagle staying in the wheelhouse with me. In response, I’d shot him a look full of pure venom, and he retreated to the kitchen to get out from beneath my withering gaze.

Once we were away from the docks, I headed down and poked my head into the kitchen. The kid was looking a little green around the gills, but my sympathy meter was at zero.

“Did they say where they were headed?” I asked.

“Acker’s Rock, just like you suggested the other day,” he said, and then bolted for the bathroom.

I left him to his business and went back up to set our course. It was rough going, even for me. Between the magic imbued in the boat and my personal magic, it was still far too dangerous for anyone, Sea Folk or human, to be out here. Thankfully, unlike humans, I didn’t need fancy electronics to find another boat. I could just ask the Sea.

Many believed, thanks to a fairytale, that Sea Folk had no souls. It was a silly idea, but humans tended to perpetuate the concept that nothing on Earth was as special as them, hence why nothing else could possibly have a soul. But I did. In fact, there was a small part of said soul that was eternally connected to the ocean, like a calming presence always in the background.

This was what I reached for now, submerging my mind in it, like dipping into a comforting, warm bath.

Where are they? I asked Her.

The answers were never in words, but pictures, sensations, and feelings.

Fear slammed into me like a tsunami, and it was all I could do to remain standing. I gripped the wheel until my fingers were bloodless, and grit my teeth so hard the grinding of them almost drowned out the blood pounding in my ears like drums.

Where? I asked again, pushing the fear away. It retreated, like a wave pulling back to the ocean. An image of Acker’s Rock floated into view, but it was the scattered wreckage in the water surrounding it that sent my heart pounding.

Then, as a wave crested and fell, there was a large piece of wreckage, and a person clinging to it. I couldn’t tell who it was, but I had to hope for the best. I retreated from the connection, and continued on toward the Rock.

Time stretched out in front of me, as though I was running toward a finish line that grew further away instead of closer. With each moment that went by, the weather worsened. By the time I was able to see the wreckage and the Rock, the only thing keeping my boat from being destroyed by the storm was pure magic.

I set the boat to idle, but couldn’t get any closer to the Rock without risking my boat, too. Magic could only do so much. I also didn’t want the boat to crash into any survivors. I caught sight of the person floating on the wreckage, and this time I was close enough to see it was Brandon. My heartrate picked up again.

There was no way he’d be able to hear me shout for him in this mess, so I blew the horn in the hopes he’d hear me. His head whipped around, and I saw his mouth moving as though he was trying to speak. He twisted his body and the wreckage to face the boat. The panic in his body language was almost palpable across the distance, but I swallowed against my own that tried to rise in response to his.

I left the wheelhouse, and was almost blown overboard by the wind, but just managed to keep my feet underneath me. I staggered over to the railing, and grabbed the life preserver. When I tossed it out toward him, the throw came up short, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve. Using the boat as a conduit to the water I couldn’t touch, I put my hand on the metal of the bulwark and closed my eyes.

My magic wasn’t infinite, and I was already approaching my limit by keeping the boat from being destroyed by the storm, but there was nothing for it. I pulled harder on my magic, and moved it through the metal into the water. Sea Folk magic had a tendency to behave like water, and it tries to spread out to fill all available space. This is problematic when using it in the ocean, because, as you can imagine, the ocean is vast. You’d probably pass out or die before accomplishing that. One of the first lessons in using magic was focus, and forming the magic into a shape in your mind to fit what you were trying to accomplish.

I formed the magic into an extension of my arm, and reached toward the life preserver. I grabbed it, and began pushing it as quick as possible toward Brandon. I was panting with the effort of focusing my magic in two directions at once, and my sweat combined with the rain to soak my clothing inside and out.

When the life preserver was within reach, something surged through the water and snatched it from me. The sudden movement jerked me forward, and I almost fell face-first onto the deck. I staggered to my feet, and a familiar form swam ominously through the waves. The Beisht’s head dipped above the water, and he bared his teeth at me. Daring me.

I cursed and clenched my fists.

“What the hell is that?” Gavin shouted next to me.

I jumped and almost fell over again. I was about to yell at him to get back inside, but a thought occurred to me. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but it was the only one I had at the moment. Looked like it was going to be a can of worms situation, whether I liked it, or not.

I ignored the question. “Do you have a knife?” I asked, shouting to be heard over the storm.

His brows furrowed, but he nodded, and pulled his knife from the sheath on his belt. It was a simple fileting knife, and would probably do nothing against the Beisht, but it was better than nothing.

“I need you to do what I say, no matter what you see. Can you do that?” I asked, leveling a deadly serious look his way.

After only a moment, he nodded again.

“Good. When I get close to Brandon, throw the other preserver and haul him in once he has hold of it. Then, even if I’m not back in the boat, you two get out of here. Do you understand me?”

His eyebrows shot up, and his mouth hung open. “We can’t leave you!”

I grabbed the front of his overalls and brought him close to my face. “Do you understand me?”

He frowned and swallowed, but nodded. I let him go, and undressed. His concern turned to shock as his eyes went wide again, and his cheeks flushed red.

“Wh—”

“Give me your knife,” I interrupted.

He limply handed me the knife without another word. I took one last, shaky breath, and dove into the water, trying to stay as close to the boat as possible.

There was nothing quite like changing from one form to another, especially since I hadn’t been in this one in so long. Magic washed over me, and from one moment to the next, my human form was gone. Most humans depicted mermaids as having brightly colored scales, and clam shell bras, but the truth was far more practical.

My particular species was not unlike a Shortfin Mako shark. The scales along the back of my arms, back, and fin were an indigo blue, while my sides and underside all the way up and around my mouth was white. Five gills slits, from below my earlobe to just above where my shoulder met my neck, moved as I pulled in water through my mouth. My teeth were slender and sharp, and my nails matched. I had all the same fins as the shark, with the only difference being the pectoral fins were shorter, and further back. My nose flattened into nothing but slits, and my eyes were large and black. My hair changed color to match my back, and the strands not in the braid floated freely in the water.

Even though my transformation was fast, I still tensed, and expected an attack from the Beisht. After a moment, none came, and my mouth set in a grim line. He wanted to play. However, I didn’t have time to waste. I took off for Brandon, and braced for the attack I knew would come when I got within range of him. Being as fast as I was, it didn’t take me long to get close, and I put my hand out of the water to signal to Gavin when I was about ten feet away.

The same moment the life preserver hit the water, the Beisht came from below and tried to slam into me. I twisted away at the last second, and made a grab for the life preserver. His teeth and slimy skin grazed my side, and I grimaced at the burning that raced along my nerves. The problem with the Beishts didn’t just come from their teeth, but the poison their skin and saliva secreted.

I put on another burst of speed, and managed to get the life preserver to Brandon. I surfaced for just a moment to make sure he grabbed it, and paralyzing fear radiated from him like heat from the sun.

“Grab it!” I yelled, the words slightly garbled from the water in my mouth.

That was when the Beisht attacked again, grabbing right above my caudal fin with its teeth. I screamed as he dragged me under. I twisted, and bent over to try and stab at him with the knife. I managed to get a good strike in near his gills, but instead of letting go he thrashed and tore into my muscles. My next strike went for the eye closest to me, and that time he let go. He darted away into the dark waters, but now that he was bleeding and I wasn’t trying to get a life preserver to Brandon, I could focus on him.

Unfortunately, his next target wasn’t me.

Brandon had managed to grab the life preserver, despite being scared out of his wits, and Gavin looked to be pulling him in as fast as he could. The Beisht was faster. I put on a burst of speed to intercept him, but with my injury I barely made it in time. I hit Brandon’s legs with my body, but he managed to cling on.

Again and again, the Beisht went for him, and I couldn’t keep every hit from Brandon. I could smell his blood in the water. It was on the last attack before Brandon made it to the boat, I miscalculated, and my arm ended up in the Beisht’s jaws. This time, before I could stab him, he wrapped his body around mine like a snake, and began to squeeze.

Dark spots danced in my vision, and my struggles grew weaker with each passing moment as I started to pass out. Then, all of a sudden, he let go of my arm and unwound from my body. I sucked in a deep gulp of water, and pushed back from where he coiled and roiled.

Need some help? A friendly, chipper voice asked, and water surrounded me like a reverse bubble.

I went limp with relief as I was lifted from the water. Once I cleared the railing, the bubble burst, and I flopped down onto my deck. The impact wasn’t gentle, and it sent shocks of pain radiating out from every injury. I couldn’t help a small whine. Water spirits weren’t always kind creatures, and this one had never really liked me, anyway.

“Brandon!” Gavin’s voice was anguished, and it jerked my attention to the two of them a few feet away.

Brandon was lying on the deck, and there was a stillness about him that was less unconscious, and more like death. My heart clenched at the sight, and I dragged myself over to him.

“Please,” Gavin begged, “I don’t know what you are, but you have to help him!”

“She’s not a healer, kid,” said a drawling, overly affable voice from the rail.

The two of us turned to look over, and my heart leapt.

“I can’t, but you can, Devin,” I said.

Devin’s long, black hair was pulled back in a braid that snaked down his back, and rain slicked over his dark skin, soaking his t-shirt and jeans. His dark eyes held a perpetual spark of humor, and not even this situation could diminish that. He was crouched on the railing, remaining there with the help of whatever elemental spirits he was connected with at the moment. They were likely how he made it out here with no boat, too. Devin was the shaman who kept the Witch ship shape.

He huffed out a laugh. “Divination is more my thing, but I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and hopped down to the deck, landing gracefully next to us. Before he went to Brandon’s side, though, he leveled a look my way, the humor retreating momentarily. “You owe me,” he said.

I didn’t even hesitate before nodding. Devin might fall into the chaotic neutral side of things, but he wasn’t evil. I might not like whatever he’d have me do, but I doubted I needed to fear whatever it was.

“Agreed,” I said.

“So be it,” he replied, the humor flooding back into his eyes like a dam breaking.

Devin shooed Gavin out of the way, and sat, cross-legged, next to Brandon. He put one hand over Brandon’s heart, the other over his forehead, and closed his eyes. Devin’s magic rose in the air and shimmered, like heat waves were coming from Brandon’s body. After a moment, his brows furrowed.

“His body I can heal, but his spirit has wandered a little too far. Unless we can coax it back, there’s nothing I can do,” Devin said, though he didn’t move. His magic crawled over my skin as he poured more and more into the healing.

I pursed my lips, and my heart pounded. I looked from Devin to Gavin, whose face was pale and tight with worry.

“How well do you know Brandon?” I asked.

“I-I don’t know. He’s worked at the docks for a few weeks; we started at the same time. He’s been really great to me, and even made sure I got enough to eat when my foster parents only gave me scraps,” he said, the last few words tight and frustrated.

Anger surged through me at the kid’s plight, but now wasn’t the time.

“Saving him will come at a price: he’ll be bound to me, forever. He’ll never be able to leave my side for any great distance, or time. Only my death or his will free him, and trust me when I say, I’m rather difficult to kill,” I said, and bared my teeth. “Do you think he’d agree if he were awake?”

I didn’t think it possible, but Gavin paled further. “I don’t know,” he admitted, again, but then he drew in a deep breath. “But I think he’d rather live by your side than die here,” he finished.

I nodded, and turned back to Gavin. Not all Sea Folk kill the humans they lure to them. Most used their magic to send out what amounted to an invitation, and those that answered were compatible with that particular Sea Folk. When such a human is found a soul-bond is created, tying them together. The arrangements aren’t always romantic. Humans can be useful when the Sea Folk wish to mingle with humans, or spend extended time on the surface. There was no way for me to see if what I experienced the other day with Brandon was mutual, but we’d just have to pray.

I closed my eyes, and sent my mind down into the center of my being. The same place the connection with the Sea existed. I gently grabbed a small piece of what made me, me. There was a sharp tug, like someone had pinched my heart, and I gasped. Gradually, the pain faded, and when I opened my eyes there was a small glowing orb in my hand no bigger than a marble.

“Open his mouth,” I said, my voice no more than a whisper.

Gavin moved closer to Brandon’s head, and pushed on his chin to open his mouth. I dropped the piece of my soul into his mouth, and motioned for Gavin to close his mouth again.

For a few heartbeats, nothing happened, then; “He’s coming back,” Devin said.

Color flushed through Brandon, as though his blood had finally decided to start flowing again, and he stirred with a groan, but remained unconscious.

“Is there something wrong? Shouldn’t he wake up?” Gavin said, panic rising in his voice with each word.

Devin finally opened his eyes, and smiled at Gavin. “Magic isn’t like in the movies, kid. He’ll need a few days to recover, and he’ll be wobbly for a couple weeks, but after that he should be right as rain.”

Gavin and I both sighed in relief. I looked toward the ocean, still raging around us. “Were there any other survivors?” I asked.

Devin shook his head. “No, though I don’t know how long the Beisht will be out of commission. He’s a slippery one.” He paused a moment, eyes sparkling. “Now that you finally managed to bond with a human, maybe that means the curse is broken and you can set foot on land?” Devin looked down at Brandon. “What’s with you and pretty boys you barely know?”

I snorted, and started to shift back to my human form. I winced at the number of bruises and bite marks that littered my body, but Sea Folk were tough and healed fast. I’d recover, though even for me it’d take a few days.

“I’m not going to jump on land just yet until I’ve confirmed the curse is gone,” I said, ignoring his second question. I laid back on the deck, not caring the boy was blushing again, or that we were in the middle of a storm. “Let’s head in.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories ~~ Warrior

Crald shoved the spade deep into the soil, hitting the root of the stubborn plant for the tenth time.

Whoever said gardening was the path to happiness should be buried alive in their own garden, Crald thought, and growled with bared teeth. After the words crossed his mind, though, he closed his eyes and sighed.

He’d been out here three days, clearing land for a…Well, he wasn’t feeling charitable enough at the moment to call them a friend. It was bad enough the gnome was more stubborn than the large weed in front of him, but that trait was coupled with a perpetual optimism that made Crald’s tusks ache.

That’s the last time I complain to Fixza about being tired of fighting, he grumbled, and stabbed at the root with a little more force.

“Crald! I got the wood, just like you asked!” the squeaky voice rang out over the now bare ground.

Speak of the demon and it shall appear. Crald turned around.

He didn’t know what went into gnomish engineering, or any engineering for that matter, but Fixza was a genius with all the little gizmos. She could craft just about anything from things most would consider junk. Of course, basic things, like raised garden beds, were apparently beyond her.

One of her little robots was pulling the wagon behind it, full of an assortment of wood. Crald wasn’t exactly a master carpenter, but his father, a blacksmith, had taught him how to work with his hands. He glanced over to a pile of assorted metal plates, bolted together in a haphazard manner. Well, I can’t do much worse than that, anyway.

Fixza and Crald had been friends since they were both children, and kept in touch throughout the years via a robot parrot she’d made. She liked to make little recordings for the bird to screech out for all the world to hear. Good thing Crald didn’t give two coppers what the other soldiers thought about him. Though, if anyone were close enough to him when the parrot, Pollary, showed up, they’d catch sight of the green skin on his cheeks darkening from an emerald green to juniper. Crald, on the other hand, simply wrote letters.

Crald held back another sigh. The last letter was what got him into this mess. She’d been talking about starting a garden, since supply lines weren’t reliable at the moment, what with all the war going on. Crald, in turn, had spoken of how his term of enlistment was over, and he was just old enough that no one would look sideways at him not continuing among the ranks of the Horde. So, in typical Fixza fashion, she suggested he stay with her for a while to mull things over.

He got a break from blood, guts, and a glory that tasted more of ash than victory, and she got a garden. Win-win for them both. Crald snorted. That had been the idea, at least.

When he’d arrived at her workshop in the Lower Wilds of Feralas, tucked into the side of a hill just off Wildwind Lake, the place had been in shambles. The metal plates, now in a heap, had been jumbled together, as though all the shelves in a multi-story building had tried to fall into some semblance of garden beds.

“Fixza?” he called. Dread wormed its way through his stomach at the sight. He sent a prayer to whatever being happened to be listening, that she wasn’t at the bottom of this mess.

“Crald!” she called, from the bottom of the mess.

 Crald sighed.

That had been the start of a full two days of dismantling and moving all her ‘hard work’ off to the side, and for Crald to start clearing and leveling the hill above her house. She’d tried to get some of her robots to help, but after the fifth time Crald’s face was hit with a clump of soil and grass, he’d firmly told Fixza the little demon machines had to go. He’d rather deal with the Broken Shore imp infestation again, than have to work with those mechanical monstrosities.

“Good work. Bring them over here,” he said, and motioned to the edge of the cleared ground.

Her eyes, which were the tropical blue of the waters near Booty Bay, widened as she took in all the work he’d done.

“Wow! And you didn’t even need my robots!” she exclaimed, her tiny body seeming to vibrate with suppressed excitement. Even though her robots had likely done most of the heavy lifting, her face and hair were wet with sweat from the humidity. Of course, nothing could keep her hair, which was the pink of a child’s confection and seemingly styled with lightning, from sticking out every which way.

“No, I did not,” Crald agreed. He headed over to her wagon, and shoved the spade deep into the earth to keep it upright. Fixza set the robot to removing the wood from the wagon, and Crald began sorting through it.

“We can either go into one of the nearby outposts, and find a blacksmith willing to make nails for us, or we can just make notches in the boards, and keep them steady with wooden stakes and supports,” Crald said, his mind busy with a making a plan.

Fixza didn’t answer him. That alone should have put his hackles up, but he blamed the heat for his lack of awareness, as well as five days of work not seeing another person or creature around. He’d grown complacent.

“Crald,” Fixza said, her voice strained and squeakier than usual.

That got his attention, and his head snapped up. Fixza’s back was to him, and not far from her was a poison green and shiny black wasp that had no business being outside of Silithus. It was easily four or five times her size, and its stinger matched her height. The low buzzing of its wings finally hit his hearing, and its head twitched side-to-side as it considered the two of them.

Fixza was trembling. One of her greatest fears was made large and put directly in her face. She’d been stung by a whole nest of the much smaller versions when they were kids, and the fear of wasps had been embedded deep in her mind. As a result, one of her first successful inventions had been a bug-swatting robot.

Crald cursed his lax behavior, and the fact that his sword was in the house with the rest of his stuff. He hadn’t thought gardening would be that dangerous. His mistake.

Before Crald could reassure Fixza, the giant bug darted forward, stinger at the ready to impale the tiny gnome. Fixza let loose a shriek that by all rights should have made Crald’s ears bleed, but he didn’t flinch.

He’d already started moving, snatching the shovel up from the dirt, jumping over Fixza’s frozen form, and charging to meet the wasp. He parried the stinger on its body, ducked the ones on its mouth and arms, and swung the shovel upward in a two-handed grip to try and chop its head off. He missed as the wasp darted backward, but one of its arm blades managed to scratch along his forearm. As his blood welled, his vision went red, and he roared at the bug, charging forward again, but this time his swing caught the bug right on a wing joint. Once the flying menace was grounded, it was over. He made quick work of it with the spade, which was dripping with green goo and carapace bits.

He’d have to bury the body nearby if he didn’t want other creatures, or worse, its friends, sniffing around Fixza’s workshop. He blew out a breath at the prospect of more digging, but when he turned to see his still-shaking friend, he found he didn’t mind all that much.

He put the shovel down and knelt in front of her, her eyes still glassy and wide. He put his hands on her shoulders, engulfing them, and gave her a little shake. “Fixza? It’s okay, I killed it,” he said.

She looked up to meet his eyes, and her lower lip trembled. “You were supposed to get away from killing! I ruined it!” she said, and wailed with despair as tears ran down her face.

Crald’s eyebrows went up in surprise, but he pursed his lips before the words, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ left them. She was trying hard to help a friend, and he didn’t want to undermine that. He scratched at the shadow of scraggly black hair on his cheek, and then tugged on the long braid of his beard in thought.

“Bugs don’t count, though,” he said, trying to think quick on how he was going to spin this.

Fixza stopped crying just enough to gasp between sobs; “What—do—you—mean—bugs—don’t—count?”

Crald snorted, and smacked a mosquito that landed on the bare skin of his scalp. “See? Same thing,” he said, and showed her the squashed bug on his palm.

Her lip still trembled, and the look in her eyes told him she wasn’t completely convinced, but her voice was small and hopeful when she said; “Really?”

Crald nodded, internally sighing in relief. “Really.” Then he stood up, brushed some of the carapace bits from his pants, and headed toward the workshop. He’d start burying the body in a moment, but he needed to grab something first. Gardening or not, he wasn’t going to be caught with his proverbial pants down again—his sword would remain within arms reach at all times.

“Where are you going?” Fixza called after him, her voice gaining some of its usual cheer back.

Without turning around, he responded; “Grabbing my bug swatter.”

World of Warcraft Micro-Stories: Demon Hunter

People make so many decisions on any given day, to keep track of such things would court insanity. Other times, decisions are so monumental yet irrational, they are by their very nature insane.

Arlithria would go out on a limb and say that choosing the demon you’d eat the heart of qualified as such. Of course, all choices leading up to the heart consumption were merely stepping stones on the path of madness she was now on. Without one stone, one single decision, the path would have crumbled. But with hindsight comes regret, and she would not entertain such weakness. A lack of conviction in this endeavor would surely lead to death.

So, she chose the demon. She drank the blood. She ate the heart.

Darkness took her.

Then came the visions. The whispers. The fire.

World after world. People after people.

Slaughtered. Burning as her blood burned now. Her screams of agony blended in with their cries of anguish, until the cacophony of it would drive her mad. No matter how loud it became, though, she could still hear it. The voice. As though the demon she’d consumed exhaled its hot breath down the back of her mind, eating away at her thoughts just as the fel did the same to her body.

Your struggle is pointless. Your fear fuels us. This power is unending, unyielding, and it will consume you as surely as it has all those who came before, and all those who come after. None can stand against our might.

She slipped further into herself. Retreating. Trying to find some small spot of solace.

Here, another voice whispered.

She paused. This wasn’t the demon.

Here, it said again, the word like a cool breeze running over her, keeping the fire at bay.

Just for that reason alone, she followed, pursuing any kind of reprieve she might find.

There! In the deepest recess of her being, there was a tiny spot so small, she would have missed it if not for the voice. When she touched it, they began to speak, the words resonating in her like the beating of a drum.

Remember, nothing is forever. We Night Elves learned this harsh lesson when Nordrassil was sacrificed, trading our immortality for the defeat of Archimonde. So, in a way, the Burning Legion has shown us its demise is possible. They say they do not yield, but bending is not breaking. Sway with the power, but do not be swayed by it. Have faith, love. Some day they will fall.

The voice faded, and with it the reprieve from the fel.

This time, though, she was ready. She pulled the fel to her, wrapping it around her, around her soul, and accepting the flames as they burned almost everything that was her to ash. She let it take many things, but she moved with the power, directing it the way she would her nightsaber. As they moved, she slowly banked the flames. Containing them. Letting them cradle the two things she would never give up: that one, small spot, and her conviction to see the end of the Burning Legion.

As the last lick of fel settled into her, subsumed with her soul, the demon snarled.

No!

It was too late.

When she opened her eyes, with the demon’s howls echoing in her mind, she smiled triumphantly at the demon hunter standing over her.

“When you can stand, we will complete the ritual,” he said, and walked away to inform the others that she was awake.

Every bit of her ached, as though she’d been through a battle in the waking world and not just within herself. She went to move, but pain shot through her like lightning, and her hands clenched against the pain. One of them closed around something that bit into her skin. A fleeting moment of confusion raced through her mind, and she slowly raised her hand to her face. In it was a small pendant, the azure gem glowing like the deep lake waters near her old home. The home destroyed by the Burning Legion.

Her smile softened and she closed her eyes, brining the pendant to rest on her forehead. When she opened them again, for one of the last times before she would complete the ritual, determination glowed in them as surely as the fel.

“We will gift the Legion with their final deaths, love. Azeroth will not fall.”

Writing Prompt ~~ Legacy

It had been more than two weeks since the fire, but the stink of it was still in her hair, on her skin. She took long showers twice a day, but the smell lingered. When she closed her eyes at night, the images came back to her. Images of the flames, of the way the dark varnish on her grandmother’s cuckoo clock, brought over from Germany when she immigrated here, bubbled and popped.

Most of all, though, Amelie remembered the heat.

Each night, she’d woken in a sweat from both the memories and the fear of them. She’d screamed herself raw each time as she clawed her way out of her mind, the thick smoke choking her as her throat constricted, trying to protect itself. It was as though the flames had followed her into the realm of dreams, intent on licking along her body, their tongues burning and pulling all the moisture from her skin as it blistered.

When she woke, though, her skin was pristine if only a little tender. And with each wakening, she’d remember it wasn’t her who’d been swallowed by the flames. When the fog of nightmares lifted and the memories came flooding back, she’d weep. She’d sob until her body convulsed with them and her eyes went gritty and dry.

She’d promised herself fourteen days. A fortnight to grieve in her soul, recover in body, and strengthen her mind. Two weeks for a plan to churn in her subconscious, sitting at the back of her mind like a slowly simmering stew.

When the new moon rose, leaving more shadow than light stretched over the quiet landscape, she left the hideaway. It had been Quinn’s idea to build it, and though she’d been foolishly over-confident enough to scoff at him for such caution, she’d humored him. He’d gone to work on the very back end of their twenty-acre property, making what amounted to a doomsday bunker, though their concern was less apocalypse and far closer to home. What she wouldn’t give to hear him say, ‘I told you so.’

She clamped down on the sob that tried to break through her swollen throat, and swallowed against it. If she started crying now, she might not stop.

Though she didn’t expect anyone to still be at the house, she took her time moving through the familiar woods. She placed her hands on the rough bark of the trees, like touchstones, and with each caress she was more grounded and less insubstantial. Her hold on the world had been tenuous at best these last two weeks, with the loss of so much that was dear to her leaving her adrift. The trees brought some of what made her, her back, like an artist drawing an outline for a character. Amelie was solid again.

At just after midnight she made it back to the clearing just behind what was left of their house. The night was still, and so was she as she assessed the ruin. She hadn’t been in any condition to do so when she fled, and looking at it now, some of the comfort from the forest withered and left her hollow like a rotted tree trunk.

After a time, she made her way to the wreckage, careful to not disturb too much in case someone came snooping around. The single cabin hadn’t been what most folks would consider much, but it had been enough for her and Quinn.

When she came to the back of the house, she knelt and cleared away fire and autumn debris from a small section of otherwise normal looking ground. However, when she worked her fingers into the earth, a small seam appeared and a trapdoor lifted. Not wanting the remainder of the cabin to collapse on her, she pulled out a flashlight and shone it into the dark cellar. As far as she could see, everything was untouched, so she made her way down the steps into the darkness. Once inside, she lit the lamps around the room. They’d never wired electricity down here, just in case someone with more than half a brain had been involved with planning their demise.

When the soft glow illuminated the small work area, everything really was intact, and she let out a small, shaky sigh. Then, when her eyes strayed over to the bookshelf, her breath caught in her throat. Her feet carried her over to the ceiling-high shelves before she could think to do it, and shaking hands grabbed a picture frame.

Dark eyes with a wicked sense of humor and smile to match gazed back at her. His auburn hair was tousled from sweat and hard work while he helped build their cabin, and dirt streaked through his face and trimmed beard. It was her favorite picture of him, and an ache spread through her chest.

“I miss you,” she whispered, and ran a thumb across the picture’s cheek.

This time, instead of a sob, something hardened in her, and she had to put the frame down before she cracked it and the glass when her fists clenched. Her eyes scanned over the books along the shelves, though she knew exactly where the one she wanted was. On the top shelf, high enough that she had to stand on tiptoe to grab it, she pulled down the dusty, dark tome. A cuckoo clock was not the only thing her oma had brought from Germany.

Oma had never shied away from the darker side of their abilities, saying the dark was as much a part of anyone as the light. Amelie, on the other hand, had never been totally comfortable with such things, and after learning them never had cause to use them again. Oma respected her decision on this, saying some witches remained in the light, others steeped in darkness, while most walked in the grey. Amelie had been more than happy to remain on the light side, though she never thought less of her oma for walking a darker path than her. That was just Oma.

Amelie sent a silent prayer to her grandmother on the other side of the veil, asking for guidance. She took the book and the picture over to the small chair in the corner of the room and sat down to read.

Her thoughts were sharp as broken glass, and claws of rage raked through her as she poured over the spells.

It was sometime around dawn when she finally put the book down, her mind whirring with one possibility after another. As the cold, autumn wind shifted small amounts of rubble overhead, she looked at Quinn’s picture.

“They wanted an evil witch, and that’s just what they’ll get.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Hunter

A chill wind blew over the mountain, kicking up little flurries of snow in its wake, and Drekxan was never more aware of how very far from home he was. Or how much he hated the cold. Growing up in the Echo Isles, where the heat was like a living, breathing elemental, meant his appreciation for areas where winter was eternal left him shivering and grumbling.

Bodrer needled him endlessly about it, saying his blue skin was a sign Drekxan was doomed to forever be sent to the coldest regions of Azeroth. Drekxan said he was rather mouthy for someone who couldn’t reach the top shelf without help.

However, the weather wasn’t responsible for the ache deep in his bones or the icy fingers of sorrow clenched around his heart. He was crouched in front of one of the shrines around the back of the Trueshot Lodge. Its were candles perched on an old stump and magicked to remain alight no matter the weather. In front of the stump, within easy reach of his calloused fingers, was his weapon. He ran a hand lovingly over the wood, remembering how it had fashioned itself into a bow at the first moment he touched it. Titanstrike, vessel of the Thunderspark, and a weapon to harness the souls of storms.

Dead.

His hand stilled over the lifeless wood, and a sharp pain lanced through his chest. He grimaced, and curled his fingers into a fist and away from the weapon. A soft whine sounded from next to him, and he looked over to his wolf, Shanzin. His hand went to the animal’s head, running it over the course, white fur that matched Drekxan’s hair perfectly, and offering what comfort he could.

“I know, mon. I know,” Drekxan said, and sighed.

They’d done their part in the war to stop the Legion and the mad Titan, Sargeras, and what did they have to show for it? A big sword stuck right into the heart of their world, and wounds that would never heal that had nothing to do with Silithus.

Shanzin sighed back at him, and nudged the bow with his nose, whining again.

Drekxan was a hunter, and as such he acknowledged the cycle of life and death with the reverence it deserved. This wasn’t his first loss, and it wouldn’t be his last, but some bonds went so far into the soul, recovering seemed impossible beyond their loss.

When Hati had heeled to his hand, the lightning wolf’s sparks running over his arm with warm tingles, he’d been breathless with awe. Being the keeper of Thorim’s wolf was an honor Drekxan never dreamed in a thousand years he’d be bestowed with, and Shanzin had taken to the older, blue wolf like a surf crawler to water.

From one side of the Broken Isles to the other, and even to another world, the three of them had been through thick and thin, and survived. Then, Magni Bronzebeard had called for him once more, and with his words asked Drekxan for something more valuable than his own life: Hati’s.

It wasn’t so much Hati himself, but the power of the Thunderspark, which was needed to drain the death magic from the Titan’s sword before it killed their world. One life for thousands.

And still, he’d hesitated.

He was not ashamed to admit it. What were people he’d never met in comparison with a companion who’d kept him alive through the very worst the Burning Legion had to offer, and more?

In that moment of indecision, Hati had butted Drekxan’s hand with his head. Drekxan looked into the eyes of a creature who understood far beyond what any mortal one could, and realized Hati was telling him it was okay, and to let him do this one, final task.

So, he did. When Drekxan raised Titanstrike toward the sword, Hati faced the cursed blade and lifted his muzzle, howling his defiance toward the heavens. Shanzin followed suit on Drekxan’s right, and their cries intertwined and echoed out across the dunes.

And as the last spark of Hati drained away, leaving the Titankstrike empty in his hands, Shanzin’s howl carried on, alone, lamenting the loss of his friend.

They’d returned to the Trueshot Lodge after that, awaiting further orders from Magni on how to save Azeroth. Drekxan, who was by no means a young troll, was weary. Not only of the cold and endless wars, but of the never-ending death. The cycle was sacred, yes, but looking into Shanzin’s dull eyes that mirrored Drekxan’s feelings, perhaps it was time to leave the Hunt to those younger than him. Those not worn down by constant loss.

“Ach, there you are. Thought I might find you here.” Bodrer’s thick brogue broke through the haze of Drekxan’s thoughts.

Drekxan grunted. “Whatcha want, Bodrer?”

Instead of answering, the old Dwarf looked over Shanzin. “Still?” His question was not condescending, but quiet and pensive.

Drekxan merely nodded, at which Bodrer sighed. “I came to tell you that a message came from Orgrimmar for you, marked urgent.”

Drekxan snorted. “They always be thinkin’ dat their business is urgent.”

“It came directly from your Warchief,” Bodrer said, his voice going low.

At the Trueshot Lodge, there were no allegiances except to honoring the tenants of the Hunt, which the Huntmaster—currently Drekxan—was chosen to uphold. That Sylvanas was calling for him, specifically, did not bode well in Drekxan’s mind, and sat uneasily in his stomach.

There’d been some business Drekxan had stayed well away from, concerning a certain tree, but he knew it was only a matter of time before she’d demand to see him.

“I not be wantin’ ta get tangled in her web. I follow da Hunt. Nothin’ more,” Drekxan said.

Bodrer let out a barely perceptible sigh. “Still, it had news that might interest you,” he said, a small flash of mischief in his eyes.

“Oh? Ya been readin’ my mail again?” Drekxan asked.

Bodrer didn’t even have the grace to look abashed as he shrugged, and a smirk tugged the corner of his mouth. “You don’t read it, so someone should.”

Drekxan harrumphed. “I let ya be readin’ it for me, because gossipin’ makes ya happier than a boar in mud, dwarf,” Drekxan said, amicably.

Bodrer laughed his agreement, but he’d never admit to such out loud. “Any way, it spoke of a new land: Zandalar.”

Drekxan, whose attention had strayed from the dwarf as he pet Shanzin again, jerked his head over to lock on with Bodrer’s warm, brown eyes.

“Truly? Zandalar?”

“Aye, and I hear there’s plenty of land to be explored—warm land. A jungle, swamp, and desert, respectively,” Bodrer said, putting the emphasis on warm, as though he were trying to lure a wounded animal with the promise of something delicious. “Maybe even a few dinos,” he continued, doing his best to cheer his friend up.

It worked. Drekxan perked right up, his eyes shining with life for the first time since he’d come back from helping Magni.

“Dinos, ya say?”

Drekxan’s first pet was a raptor, like all other troll hunters, and though each beast was unique and worthy in their own right, Drekxan would always have a soft spot for dinosaurs. However, when he looked back at Shanzin, who hadn’t perked up one bit since Bodrer had shown up, his excited shriveled like seaweed left too long in the sun.

He sighed and his shoulders slumped, but before he could open his mouth to respond, a small, faint pulse raced along his awareness. His eyes snapped to Titanstrike.

“It cannot be,” he whispered. However, when he looked at Shanzin, he was even more surprised to find the wolf’s head up, ears forward, and eyes trained on the bow.

When Drekxan laid a hand on the weapon, there was still nothing. At first. Then he closed his eyes and focused all his senses until…There! It was distant, like trying to hear someone speak in the middle of a storm on the other side of an island, but it was there.

“What is it?” Bodrer asked, anxious and concerned.

When Drekxan turned back to look at the dwarf, he had a wide, fierce grin on his face.

“A promise from a friend.”

Writing Prompt ~~ Magic Isn’t Real

He had hunted and hiked and led backpacking trips through these woods for twenty years, and he had never seen an animal track like that. At first glance, it resembled wolf tracks, which was impossible given that there hadn’t been wolves in these parts since before Richard was born. One reason his mind had jumped to wolf and not dog, was because they formed a single track instead of staggered. The other reason was the shape, but even that wasn’t exactly correct. The pads were the wrong size and shape for any canid, and the claw marks were too thick. Richard wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but he knew these woods, and there was nothing in it that should make tracks like that. Least of all a wolf.

What he did know, though, was right next to those strange tracks were shoe prints, size 11 ½ youth, with little stars and hearts amidst the swirling tread pattern.

“What’d you find, Rick?” the quiet, rumbling voice of the Sheriff asked from behind him.

Most people tended to whisper or speak in hushed tones in the woods on instinct, but that was just the Sheriff. You wouldn’t catch him raising his voice to break up a bar fight, if it came down to it. Not that it ever did. Sheriff Evans had what folks referred to as presence. The large man moved like a force of nature: you either got out of his way or were taken down in the process.

“Girl’s tracks are here. We’re lucky it rained for a couple days the other day, or I might not have spotted this,” Richard said, and waved a black gloved hand at the muddy forest floor, littered with leaves. He’d never been fond of being called Rick, but people were set in their ways, especially around these parts.

“And?” Sheriff Evans prompted, hearing the unfinished words lingering on Richard’s tongue with the keen perception honed by years of experience.

Richard huffed out a frustrated breath. “And some tracks that don’t fit any animal I’ve ever come across,” he said, and pivoted on the balls of his heavy-booted feet to face the Sheriff.

The man’s ice blue eyes narrowed on Richard, who stilled under the scrutiny. Richard had never broken the law, let alone given police any trouble or reason to distrust him. But it was still there, hovering beneath the surface.

Richard was an outlier in the community. Someone who made his living off the vast woods that most were content to avoid. Sure, people hunted and hiked and so on, but Richard lived and breathed these woods, and there was a wildness about him. It didn’t help that he looked the typical part of someone who spent most of his time in the woods: bearded, rough around the edges, clothes worn and patched, and with his wild black hair usually contained under a knit cap.

That otherness meant he’d never quite moved beyond acquaintance-level with most people. In fact, if they got more than a nod of greeting from Richard it tended to shock the good folk of Pinebrook. Most avoided his ever-present scowl and dark, hooded eyes. Those wanting to traipse about the woods only put up with his standoff-ish demeanor because he was the best around, and those that didn’t want to found someone less qualified.

“Explain,” the Sheriff said, but his wary gaze left Richard’s and began scanning the surrounding trees.

Richard, too, looked around. Though Richard was not a small man himself in weight, he didn’t quite hit the same numbers as the Sheriff who was built like a wall of muscle. When Richard looked back at their walking tracks leading to this point, Richard’s weren’t quite as deep as the Sheriff’s, as was expected. What made Richard’s body tense was the fact the unknown tracks were a depth between the Sheriff and himself. It didn’t bode well.

“I thought at first they were wolf tracks,” Richard started.

The Sheriff snorted at that, though he didn’t stop his surveillance.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Plus, the shape isn’t exactly correct. It’s strange, though. What kind of animal would have the girl walking with it, instead of just, well, eating her?” Richard pondered out loud.

The Sheriff’s head jerked over at Richard’s statement, who just shrugged at the man’s distasteful look.

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Richard challenged, though as respectfully as he could manage. To be honest it wasn’t much, but it was the best Evans was going to get.

Sheriff Evans grunted, then considered the tracks again. “You’re sure they aren’t human?” he asked.

Richard shook his head. “Even if they were wearing something weird on their feet to try and confuse us, the impressions wouldn’t look right. When people are making fake tracks, they either press straight down or don’t walk naturally, and it shows in the tracks,” he said. Then he indicated the sides and depths of the footprints. “This has the natural gate of something that single tracks and walks on four paws, like a wolf.”

Sheriff Evans considered the tracks. “But it’s definitely not a wolf?” The lilt at the end of the sentence indicated the Sheriff was making it more of a question than a statement.

“No, not a wolf, but some kind of animal,” he said, his voice going soft. Whatever it was, he didn’t think it boded very well for the girl.

“Well, we can’t stand here and debate this anymore. You follow the tracks, and I’ll follow you,” Sheriff Evans said.

Richard nodded, and off they went.

They weren’t the only people out looking for Heather Turner, aged six, missing from her home on the edge of town. When her parents called her in from their backyard for lunch, they thought she was playing hide and seek with them. When they couldn’t find her, and instead discovered a place in the fence where the chain links had been pushed aside just enough for a small child to get through, they panicked.

When the initial search led them not far down the road and into the forest, they’d put out the call for volunteers and called in the SAR—Search and Rescue—dogs. They lived on the edge of enough wilderness that they had a couple of full-time trackers. The first real indication that things weren’t quite right was the dogs’ refusals to track. Not just a, ‘I can’t follow the scent/There is no scent,’ situation. This was a tail between their legs, one of them peed themselves, and they refused to budge, type of refusal. These dogs weren’t new, or scared of much of anything, but their behavior had put the SAR team on edge.

That’s when they went to get Richard.

He’d been gearing up to help with the search when the Sheriff himself had pulled up and explained the situation, and what had happened with the dogs. He’d been concerned about that, but not enough to put him off going into the woods to search for a little girl.

Now here they were, following the tracks of Richard didn’t know what, and they were headed to the lake. Not just any lake, but Arrowhead Lake. There were a few bodies of water in these parts, but the one that was the biggest and in the deepest part of the forest was the Arrowhead. Shaped like its namesake, it was where, to put it not-so-delicately, the crazies lived. Mostly they were an assortment of backwoodsman and survivalists, and they guarded their privacy and land jealously. If Richard was barely on the tolerated side of amicable for the townsfolk, the Arrowheaders were the scapegoats and go-to for every which thing that went wrong in these parts.

Richard looked back over his shoulder and locked eyes with the Sheriff. His lips had thinned out and his eyebrows were drawn down in a mighty frown. He knew where they were headed. He motioned for Richard to stop, and called his fellow lawmen over the walkie.

“We’re going to head to the main road and call in to Walt. I don’t want to start some kind of FUBARed fire fight with the Arrowheaders because someone gets pissy we’re on their land,” Sheriff Evans grumbled, and started to head west toward the only road to the lake.

By the time the two men managed to get there, there was a patrol car waiting, with a CB ready to go. No one up here had lines for phones, or likely the patience for them.

Sheriff Evans got Walt on the CB, and he agreed to come out. Probably twenty minutes later the old man came ‘round the bend in his beat up ’55 Chevy, expertly avoiding or going over potholes that were as familiar to him as his own land. Walt was the unofficial spokesperson of the Arrowheaders, which really meant he was the only one willing to talk before he pulled his gun.

By this point, the deputy and Sheriff were chomping at the bit to get moving again. There was a kid missing, and each minute that went by wasn’t doing her any good.

Walt got out of his truck and hobbled on over to the Sheriff, though Richard hung back. While the Arrowheaders weren’t as hostile toward him as they were to law enforcement, they weren’t exactly buddy-buddy, either. He was too wild for the townsfolk, and too tame for Arrowhead.

Walt was like a piece of chewed up old leather leftover from a saddle that was rode hard and put away wet. He’d survived WWII with his body mostly intact, but in mind not so much. Sometimes when people were talking to him, he gets a faraway look in his mud brown eyes. Richard had learned the hard way with a broken nose to never touch him when he’s like that. He had a shaggy white mane, and a beard to match that he could almost tuck into his belt.

“Whatchoo doin ‘round here, Evans?” Walt said with his usual ornery tone. His wild, bushy eyebrows were drawn down, and even in his late sixties the man was scrappy as ever.

“There’s a little girl missing, Walt. We’re just trying to find her and get her home,” Sheriff Evans said matter-of-factly, holding his hands out in front of him.

Walt’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“You think we had somethin’ to do with that?” asked another voice from over by the truck as Walt opened his mouth.

The Sheriff’s head snapped over to a boy standing not far from the front-passenger side of the truck. He was your typical, surly teenager: whip-thin, like he’d have a hard time putting any muscle on him, and dark brown hair cut long enough that it fell in his eyes, which were the same brown as Walt’s.

“And you are?” Sheriff Evans asked, suspicion evident in the set of his shoulders and tone of his voice.

“That’s my grandson, Matthew. Now answer the boy’s question,” Walt said, still glaring at the Sheriff.

“We aren’t sure,” Sheriff Evans admitted honestly. “We followed some tracks to the edge of Arrowhead property and stopped to get ahold of you.”

“Whatchoo mean you ain’t sure?” Walt spat. “Either yer here to try and arrest one of us, or yer just causin’ hate and discontent.”

Sheriff Evans glanced back at Richard, who sighed.

“They pulled me in to track when the dogs refused to do it,” Richard said, leveling a significant look Walt’s way.

Walt’s eyebrows shot up. “You mean Tommy’s and Jerry’s dogs?”

Tommy and Jerry were the SAR guys. They didn’t just handle the SAR dogs, they were some of the best trainers around for them.

Richard nodded. “Pissed themselves scared.”

Walt and Matthew exchanged a worried glance. The silent communication after hearing such news might have been expected and natural to the two lawmen, but Richard didn’t miss the something extra that passed between them.

“Whatchoo think it was?” Walt asked, bringing a heavy scowl down on Richard.

“Can’t say; never seen tracks like that. Looked wolf, but wrong, and weighed somewhere between me and the Sheriff,” Richard said, and shrugged.

Though the motion was nonchalant and the words casual, (as though Richard spoke of man-sized beasts roaming their forests every day), his gaze was subtly sharp, watching Matthew. The old man could hide his guilt from St. Peter himself, but the boy was young. He hadn’t learned to hide that well, yet.

And there it was, the small twitch of the kid’s shoulders at the description of the tracks.

“Well, long as you ain’t sayin’ it were one of us, I’ll do the rounds with ya. Boy, you stay here,” Walt said, his words emphatic and brooking no argument.

The boy glowered, and Richard might have guessed it was part of an act if the kid hadn’t been a teenager. Angst came as naturally to them as breathing.

“Deputy, you’re with us. Richard, stay here in case anyone else shows up. Tell them we went to speak to the residents, and to fan out around the Arrowhead border to see if there are any tracks leading out. They are not to go into Arrowheader land. Got me?” Sheriff Evans asked.

The only reason Richard didn’t tell the man he could save his commands for his lawmen and stick his orders where the sun don’t shine, was because a little girl was in danger. Instead, he nodded, and the three of them headed to Walt’s truck. The deputy jumped in the back, and Sheriff Evans got in the front seat with Walt. As the truck was turning around on the narrow road, the boy and Walt exchanged one last, telling, worried look, before heading back toward the lakeside properties.

Once the truck was out of sight, Richard turned to the kid.

“Tell me what you know,” Richard said, his voice low and cutting to the chase.

“I—”

“Shut the hell up, and save your lies. I know you know something, and you’re going to tell me so I can save the little girl. That way her parents won’t have to lower a tiny coffin into the ground,” Richard growled out.

The boy’s eyes went wide at Richard’s morbid words, and he paled.

“It-it’s not what you think!” he blurted out, his hands clenched.

“Then tell me what I should think,” Richard bit out, quickly losing patience. He didn’t have time for Arrowheader bullshit. He hadn’t thought they’d had anything to do with it, but after those looks, he knew they knew something. It was bad enough he was keeping this from the Sheriff, but he’d be damned if their secrecy was going to hurt a little girl.

“Not long ago, a woman moved into Derrick’s old cabin. She’s Russian, just off the boat, and with an accent so thick you can barely understand her on a good day, let alone when she’s riled,” Matthew said.

Richard made the ‘go-on’ gesture, urging the kid to get to the point.

“Well, not long after she moved in, we started noticing strange things. Things would go missing and turn up in weird places, and we’d find weird tracks around cabins after hearing noises at night. Stuff like that.”

“Okay, so you think this woman and this…whatever it is are connected?” Richard asked, just to get the boy to clarify. Because he’d bet his bippy she had something to do with it.

Matthew nodded. “It’s, well, like I said. Not what you think.” Then he looked around the deserted woods and bit his lip, indecision and guilt wringing the kid’s conscience like a wet rag.

“Take me to her,” Richard said.

The boy’s eyebrows shot high and went knotted, while his eyes grew wide as dinner plates. “She’d have my hide, sir! She’s meaner than a mess of hornets with a kicked over nest!”

It shocked him that the kid called him ‘sir’, which he most certainly wasn’t used to, but he didn’t have time for this.

“You’ll think she’s a day-old kitten compared to me if something happens to Heather Turner, boy.”

The kid’s shoulders slumped and he grimaced. “Alright, but I’m hanging you out to dry as sure as the sun rises.”

Richard nodded. “You help me save that little girl, I don’t care if you throw me to a whole pack of hacked off Russian biddies. Now, move,” Richard said, and gave the kid a nudge.

Richard knew, vaguely, the location of all the dwellings around Arrowhead, but he couldn’t remember exactly where Derrick’s place was. He’d died last year, too old to get through another harsh winter up in the woods with minimal supplies. While he wasn’t too keen on taking the kid with him, he needed him as a simultaneous guide and white flag. People would get riled if they saw just Richard, no matter how much more they tolerated him than they did the townsfolk. No, having the kid was like a hall pass in a place the teachers would shoot you if you were caught without one.

After a long walk and many worried glances at the sky from Richard as the sun made its inevitable trip toward the horizon, they finally made it to the cabin. It was in better repair than last he’d glimpsed of it, many years ago, but he didn’t have time to admire the scenery. Search and rescue never boded well in the dark, let alone when some unknown creature was involved, and time waited for no one. Not even missing little girls.

He stalked right up to the cabin and pounded on the door. Before a fourth knock could land, the door was yanked out from under his fist. A scowling, royally ticked-off woman stood there, her pale grey eyes flashing.

“Vat is the meaning of this?” she asked, her accent thick on her tongue like molasses. She had her hands on her generous hips, and the long, thick braid of her chocolate brown hair snaked down over her equally generous chest.

Not the time, he ground out, annoyed with himself.

She barely came up to Richard’s chin, and he met her glower with one of his own.

“We’re looking for a missing girl. Six. And I think you know something about it,” Richard said, his words clipped.

She reared back a bit at this, her eyebrows shooting up. “And vhy vould I know about this girl?”

“Because I found some incredibly strange tracks alongside hers, and I’ve been told that ever since you’ve moved here, people have been finding strange, unidentifiable tracks around their cabins.”

Panic flashed through her eyes like a shooting star: there and gone just as quick. But it had been there, and Richard latched onto that like a hound on a scent.

She’d gone quiet, and her eyes darted behind him to Matthew. When she saw the boy, shuffling his feet like all the guilt in the world had been placed on his shoulders, she sighed.

“You said leetle girl? Six?” she asked. At Richard’s nod, she shook her head and started muttering in Russian, clearly irritated. “It’s not vhat you think,” she said.

“So I’ve been told,” Richard ground out. “Now, take me to her.”

The woman—he realized he hadn’t even asked her name—grabbed her coat from by the door. Richard moved out of the way so she could close it. After doing so, she set off toward the woods on the opposite side from where they came in. Richard followed the sway of her braid down her back as she moved, and the boy brought up the rear. He wasn’t comfortable with two Arrowheaders flanking him, but it couldn’t be helped. There was no way the boy would leave him with one of their own, and he wouldn’t have listened to Richard if he’d tried to tell him to stay.

They weren’t long heading into the forest when the woman came to a halt, and Richard almost ran into her. He hadn’t realized he was following her so close. She inhaled deep, tilted her head to one side, as though listening for something, and changed her direction at a sharp westward angle, heading deeper in. After about the same amount of time she stopped, and this time Richard inhaled with her.

Forests always held smells of growing things, or of wet dirt like now, and sometimes rotting things, but this was a different smell. It was familiar, and not. Like the smell of a cut Christmas tree, even though there were no evergreens here, but it had a bitter edge, like tree sap on your tongue.

Then, she started speaking in Russian. “Vykhodi, Leshi! Vy znayete, chto ne mozhete derzhat’ devushku.”

He was about to tell her to stop, and speak English, when there was a rustling in the brush to their left. What walked through the brush was impossible for his eyes to reconcile with his brain. It looked like it was covered in green fur that wasn’t fur, but instead grass the color of olives. It was tall. Far taller than anyone Richard had met in his fifty years, and its head was decorated with a crown of autumn leaves. Its eyes were intense, and the black of fresh churned, deep forest earth. They bore into Richard as though it could see his very soul, and maybe it could.

“What—” he barely managed, the word strangled.

Before he could finish, though, the creature’s cradled arms moved forward, as though it was offering him something. When he looked down, it was the first time he noticed what the creature carried. It was Heather Turner, fast asleep, a peaceful, content smile on her face.

There was a noise like the groaning of trees and the rustling of leaves in the wind, and it was coming from the creature. Richard couldn’t move. Of all the things he expected, this wasn’t it.

“He says he’s very sorry. He vas lonely, and just looking for someone to play vith. In human years, they aren’t far apart in age,” the woman said, her voice soft and sad.

When Richard turned wide eyes to her, her face was haunted by some memory playing in her mind. It wasn’t too far off how Walt looked during those times it was a bad idea to touch him.

“Take her,” she said, her voice urgent.

Richard jerked at the words, and his arms automatically went forward to take the sleeping child from the—him. He rustled a bit, and where his grass-like fur touched Richard’s flesh, it was cool, but not so much so that the child would have taken chill in his arms.

Heather scrunched her face a bit as she moved between the two, but quickly settled down. Richard just held her there, still not sure what to say.

“He is the last of his kind—a Leshi. Something you might call a forest spirit, or fairy, that can shapeshift. They vere hunted to the very last. My family has alvays been vith them, protecting and being protected in turn. Ve came here for better life,” she said by way of explanation. “Now…” she trailed off.

Richard realized what she meant. There was almost no way to explain the situation away. Heather never would have made it up this far without some kind of help, and someone would have to take the blame. A thought slowly formed in Richard’s mind.

“Unless she wasn’t found here,” Richard said slowly, his first words to the two Arrowheaders since leaving the cabin.

After a moment, hope lit a joyful fire in her eyes so fierce, it almost made Richard take a step back.

“Of course, we’ll need your friends help,” he said. Richard looked over at the creature, who nodded once, and slow.

Da. Of course!”

It wasn’t too long after that Heather Turner was found, tucked away and asleep in a tricky little hole in her favorite tree in her backyard. Her parents hadn’t even known it was there. When they hugged and kissed and scolded her for not answering when they’d all called for her, she simply told them about the most wonderful dream she had. There was a large wolf in it who changed into a boy, whose skin was made of grass, and they played in the woods. Her parents merely shook their heads, and apologized profusely to all those involved in her search and rescue.

Everyone was just glad she was found safe. No one mentioned the behavior of the dogs. Or the strange tracks walking right next to those of a child who had the exact same shoe type and size as Heather, heading to Arrowhead Lake.

In fact, the only thing that changed was the frequency of Richard visiting Arrowhead. The townsfolk wrote it off as a simple case of a man wooing the first new face to grace the town in a couple of decades. It helped his case that Tatiana’s face was pretty as any to look at. Once you got past her temper, that is.

And if people sometimes spotted a large, green creature that sometimes looked like a man, and other times a wolf, walking in the woods that disappeared like magic in the blink of an eye? Well, it just wasn’t spoken of. They weren’t a town of gossip-mongers like those hippie-dippy types with their Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest. No, they were a private folk, and they kept such things to themselves. And if lost hikers spoke of lights in the forest, like fairy lights in the stories of old, leading them out and to safety, well, they chalked it up to dehydration. Magic wasn’t real; everyone knew that.

 

 

********NOTE************
For anyone who speaks/reads Russian, I apologize ahead of time: I only had Google Translate at my disposal, and I did the best with conveying the accent that I could. This is what Tatiana said in the woods:

“Come out, Leshy! You know you cannot keep the girl.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Rogue

 

This was the last time Kavea took a job from that slimy goblin. He always managed to have her track down the scummiest customers, and the scum tended to accumulate in the seediest, filthiest, and most vermin-infested holes in all of Azeroth.

It didn’t help that her mark—Durrant—seemed content to drink the inn dry instead of go to bed. But there was nothing for it, so Kavea drew her hood further down, sighed, and waited.

***

Just after three in the morning he finally staggered his way up the stairs. Kavea followed after tossing a few coins to the barkeep for her drink, plus a few extra for the potential mess upstairs.

With her steps so light that falling snow was cacophonous in comparison, she made her way to the top of the stairs, and watched him enter the last door on the left. After he went it, she crept down the hall and listened at the door. What sounded like a sack of potatoes landed on the bed with a groan. She waited in the shadowed hallway for her keen blood elf hearing to pick up the steady, deep breathing of sleep before she slipped into the room. He hadn’t even locked the door.

The only reason his attack didn’t catch her off guard was because she’d learned to never trust only one sense, and she’d been scanning the room as she entered. Kavea jumped away from his sword and to the right side of the small room. She had just enough time to draw her daggers and cross them at the hilts to stop his downward swing. He was strong. Stronger than someone who’d been drinking since noon had any right to be, and it sent her to a knee.

“At least Grexo sent someone pretty after me this time. I was getting tired of cutting up the ugly mugs of his enforcers,” Durrant said, his voice like gravel and with a smirk on his face.

Kavea just scowled and turned his sword away. They fought, and at first Kavea tried to keep the ruckus down, but eventually had to give up stealth in exchange for surviving. They each had shallow cuts over various body parts, and Kavea was getting more suspicious by the minute as her poison seemed to have no effect on Durrant. However, she was slowing, and it wasn’t long after that she stumbled. His sword came down, and her eyes widened before everything went black.

***

Kavea had the worst headache, and for a moment she wondered if she’d gotten into her father’s stash of winter ale again. Then she remembered her father was dead, and by all rights she should be, too.

She cracked open an eye to see the face of a worgen sporting black fur with a white muzzle standing over her.

Kavea muttered a curse and scowled. Grexo hadn’t told her Durrant was a worgen. “Well, that explains why my poison wasn’t working.”

Durrant grinned. “It’s a helpful thing when you have rogues constantly trying to kill you.”

“Why am I alive?” she asked, cutting to the chase. She didn’t see the point in bantering with someone who would likely kill her soon.

Durrant shrugged. “Seemed a waste. You lasted the longest against me, and if Grexo didn’t tell you I was a worgen, he meant for you to die. Since he seems to want both of us dead, I thought I’d make you an offer.”

“Oh?” she asked, quirking a pale blonde eyebrow.

“Work with me, and eventually we can both get back at that green greaseball.”

After a moment, Kavea met his wolfish grin with a devious smirk. She didn’t trust the worgen farther than she could throw him, but as they say: the enemy of my enemy is today’s ally, and tomorrow’s prey.

She’d never liked that goblin, anyway.

“Let’s discuss terms.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Priest

 

The dead were numbered beyond count, and many had passed to the Light. Or the Shadowlands. Ashalien shuddered at that thought, and then she pulled a sheet over a face far too young to have met any end, let alone one that left fully half his body charred to the bone.

“Another dead before they even set foot in the tent. Why do they keep bringing them?” Ashalien’s fellow priest, Devonna, asked, more mournful than angry.

“Because they have hope,” Ashalien said, and then closed her eyes to say a prayer over the child soldier. With each word, the impact of the war weighed heavily upon her shoulders like Dwarven plate armor.

Just as she was finishing, there was a commotion at the entrance of the tent.

“No, we can’t take anymore,” Devonna said, her voice firm.

“Please, Priest! All the other tents are full, and you’re the only ones that can help!”

There was such desperation in the voice, Ashalien paused, the final words of the prayer not passing her lips. A flutter of something soft, like the feathers of an infant bird, brushed against her soul.

“Let them in, Devonna,” Ashalien said, before she’d even thought to say it.

She levitated the dead boy’s body off the cot and to the side, freeing the bed. There was no time to change the sheet, if the situation was as dire as it sounded.

The two who came to the cot were covered in mud, blood, and likely worse, with one carrying the other.

“Thank you, Priest; he’s my younger brother,” the one carrying the other said, his voice soft and choked.

He gently laid his burden on the cot. The younger boy—though neither were long beyond their first shave—groaned as he touched the bed.

“Meus—”

“Hush, Zane. We’re with the healer,” the older brother, Meus, consoled.

“Peace, Zane,” Ashalien soothed. Then she sang, her voice soft and airy, weaving the healing and soothing magics of the Light through the Hymn.

Zane’s face relaxed, and a peaceful smile graced his lips as he looked up at her, and made him appear even younger. Instead of grimacing, as she wanted to do because of his age, she smiled back. Even as she saw the fatal wound, cutting him deep across his belly, which was followed closely by the smell of rent bowels, still, she smiled.

Meus sucked in a breath at the sight, his eyes going wide with shock, and filling with tears of bitter hopelessness.

The fluttering was back, but this time more insistent, and the familiar comfort of the Light infused her very being, making her glow.

“Fear not, Meus,” she said, and his eyes snapped up to meet hers.

His jaw dropped open at the sight of her, and his heart thundered in his chest. He did not want to give in to the soaring sensation trying to break free from him like a bird from a cage. That road led only to pain. But with this priest glowing with so much Light, it was as though she’d swallowed the sun…It was difficult not to submit and open that cage.

Her hands hovered over Zane, and the Light moved from her to him.

“For you do not hope in vain.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Druid

 

Pain. Pure, unadulterated pain lanced along her nerves as though every fiber of her body were cut by an infinite number of daggers. She gasped and fell to one knee, digging nails into her chest in an effort to loosen the phantom grip squeezing her heart. Black spots danced in her vision like the devilish Grells, gleefully rejoicing in her torment.

She was not the only one. Other druids in Moonglade were falling as she had, and gritting their teeth against the onslaught of agony, while still more were writhing on the ground or passed out. The lowing of the Tauren was woven in with the growls and howls of the Worgen, as well as the guttural moans of the Trolls and wails of her fellow Night Elves. The screeching of the hippogryphs was so high-pitched it was a wonder her ears did not bleed, and they thrashed about in their nests. Even the dragon, Aronus, was not spared from whatever occurred, having fallen into the small moonwell it hovered over with a roar.

Lynithe Skyshadow’s tears fell to the fertile ground, and when she placed her palm to the dirt, the very earth trembled beneath her hand. Something was wrong. So very wrong. Her first thoughts flew to the giant sword impaling Azeroth in the wasteland of Silithus, but this was something else. Something far closer to home. She snatched her hand back, and for the first time she became a druid she did not want to connect with the earth. Fear thrilled through her as though her blood were turned to ice, and it crushed her throat, making it difficult to breath.

When she managed to stagger to her unsteady feet, she stumbled toward the Shrine of Remulos and the Keeper himself. She and the others could not concentrate enough to shift to their faster travel forms, and instead made their way on foot and en masse down the road, leaving Nighthaven. Lynithe was one of the first to reach the Shrine, but the Keeper held his silence until the last druid managed to lumber their way to the back of the group.

“Keeper!” someone called from the midst of them. “What has happened?”

Lynithe watched as the very grief of the earth poured from his gently glowing green eyes, leaving tracks of tears over his amethyst skin.

“It is Teldrassil,” he said, his rumbling voice full of despair doing nothing to curb the growing horror within the hearts of all present. “It burns.”