Dreams of Death

A Flash Fiction Challenge from the blog of Chuck Wendig.  The prompt: “A necromancer believes it is her destiny to poison dreaming.”

 

The idea came to Zytheria in a dream, borne on the rotting lips of an undead phantom.  The realm of dreams, a celestial haven from the horrors of nighttime, could no longer exist as a refuge for the tortured.  Zytheria knew that a necromancer of her abilities would be able to poison dreams, and make people’s sleeping hours as terrible as their waking ones.

“Have you had any dreams lately?”  Zytheria asked Janet over coffee.

Janet looked up from her drink, confused.  She and Zytheria had just come from a yoga class, so they both wore workout clothes.  Zytheria’s blonde friend was dressed in short neon yellow shorts and a bright pink sports bra.  Zytheria herself wore long black yoga pants and a black dry-fit shirt.  They weren’t her dark, billowing necromancer robes, but they would have to do.

“Weird that you would ask,” Janet said.  “I had one just last night.

“About what?” Zytheria kept herself from leaning forward and rubbing her hands together, but couldn’t hide the excitement in her voice.

“Don’t get too excited, you weirdo.”  Janet sipped at her coffee before explaining her visions.  “It was just a weird dream about skeletons.  They were dancing in tuxedos.  What is this for anyways; one of your divination classes again?  Are you still keeping a dream journal?”

Zytheria nodded, not wanting to admit to her dark designs.  Magic users were frowned upon in Seattle—necromancers most of all.  “My teacher told me that our auras interact with those of our friends, so there is knowledge to be divined from their dreams as well.”

“If you can divine anything from dancing skeletons, be my guest.”

Zytheria set aside her still-full beverage.  “Speaking of guests, are Sarah and Josh still staying with you.”

“Yeah, they are,” Janet said.  “Sorry, I guess that means we can’t go to that midnight barbeque tonight.  Sarah is a pretty militant vegan, and I wouldn’t want them to ruin it.”

“That’s fine,”

Zytheria said.  “Be a good host.  I’ll find something to entertain myself.”  In reality, she was glad that Janet had cancelled their plans.  She now had the entire night to perfect her dream-poisoning ritual.  The skeletons in Janet’s dream meant that it had partially worked, but the undead should not have been dancing.

Hours later, while Janet was dining on tofu and asparagus with her friends, Zytheria was weaving a web of spells around her room.  She had arranged candles around her in a dodecahedron, and a black crystal hovered above each stick of wax.  Energy from the crystals darkened the flickering flames, and a low thrumming could be heard as she chanted.  Zytheria didn’t stop chanting until the candles were depleted and the crystals dropped into the quickly-hardening wax.  When she was satisfied that dreams had been poisoned, she lowered herself into her silken sheets and cursed the lights out.

That night, she dreamed, finding herself on a barren plain beneath purple storming skies, surrounded by a horde of skeletons.  Rotting flesh still hung from their bleached white bones, and their frames rattled with movement.  At the sight of them, Zytheria began to cackle.  Her ritual had worked.

“Go forth, my undead army,” she cried.  “Invade all dreams and destroy that which is peaceful.  Replace contentment with strife, and bring hell to sleep.”

At Zytheria’s command, the army began to move, but not into other dreams.  The corpses began to shamble towards her, grasping sharpened ribs in their bony hands.

“What are you doing,” Zytheria screamed as they closed in.  “Go the other way!”  But for once in her life, the undead were not at her command.

When the first skeleton reached her, it grabbed her shoulder and stabbed her with its own rib.  When Zytheria tried to pull away, the corpse pulled her closer, further impaling her.  All around her, she felt more bones pierce her body, but she couldn’t see them, for her vision was obscured by the first skeleton.

Its gaping maw yawned before her, jaw barely hanging on.  Death and decay, normally such pleasant aromas, stank on its graveyard breath.  Out of control, Zytheria was falling from power.  Death was no fun when you couldn’t control it.

Screaming, she shot up in bed, sweating ice.

Duel

Pholius Primus, barefoot in a loose fitting tunic and long trousers, stepped calmly from the airlock of the Queen Comet into the cold vacuum of space. Staring into the inky blackness of the void, he reached with an outstretched hand and called it to him. The darkness began to coalesce around his chiseled body, slowly forming pauldrons, greaves, a cuirass, until Pholius was fully incased in midnight armor.  From the glow of a distant star, Pholius created a shining blade, six feet long and sharp as light.

A short distance away Pholius's opponent had created a set of plate and an axe from the orange light of the sun beyond. Behind him, like the one behind Pholius, was a massive battleship, the Supernova.  Both ships were in rough shape, heavily scarred across their hulls by extensive laser blasts.

"Pholius."  The other knight nodded in greeting as he floated close, using his sorcery to transmit his words mentally. Space remained silent.

"Gallun."  Pholius returned the nod.

"Why have you called this parlay?" Gallun asked.

"You seem to have taken extensive damage."

"And you have not?"  Gallun glanced back and forth between the two ships.  "It seems to me that our vessels are equal in their wounds."

"And if we continue as we are, they will be equal piles of junk."

"So, what do you propose?" Gallun asked warily.

"Should we fight this battle to its end, both of us will die, as even the victor's ship will be too damaged to reach port. Even now that may be beyond our capabilities."

"Get to the point, primus."

"The two of us will fight. The victor will take the other's crew captive and enough parts for a safe journey."

"Why would I do that, when I can continue to pummel you with my cannons?"

"Are you listening?  In the time it will take you, my crew can render you incapable of space travel."  Pholius raised his gaze to the bridge of the Supernova, where Gallun's crew stood watching the discussion.

"Very well," Gallun said. "Let us fight."  He roared, and his armor blazed bright. The light lanced towards Pholius's eyes, but his black helm lowered a thin film across the visor for protection.

Gallun , expecting Pholius to be blinded, shot forward with his axe held high for a vicious blow. But eyes covered, Pholius saw only Gallun's unprotected chest, and he thrust his blade at it. The strike failed to pierce Gallun's blazing armor, but sent him spinning away.

Yelling telepathically, Gallun advanced again, this time holding his axe ahead in a low guard. As soon as he neared, Pholius danced forward with a flurry of strikes, his starlight blade flaring with Gallun's axe as they collided.

From the bridge of the Queen Comet, Pholius's crew watched nervously as the two knights filled the space between ships with their battle. Gallun, in his flaming armor, flew around making wild sweeps with his axe, which trailed fire as it went. As a counterpoint, Pholius was nearly invisible in his black armor, so the crew had to look for his bright blade. He allowed Gallun to soar around him, keeping up a patient defense.

The two titans struggled back and forth until suddenly, almost imperceptibly, a mistake was made. Gallun over exaggerated an overhead swing, and Pholius had time to deliver a thrust to his hand. The axe flew from hand and slowly dissipated into embers. Unarmed and overmatched, Gallun could do nothing as Pholius stabbed him through the chest. His flaming armor flickered and faded, leaving his mortal body impaled on a blade of starlight.

Pholius pushed Gallun's body from his sword and let the blade fade from existence. The silence of space was punctured only by his labored breathing.

Seeing the battle was won, the Queen Comet enabled their thrusters, moving to make its conquest of the Supernova. Pholius took his place in front of it, looking every inch the conqueror in his midnight armor with his battleship at his back.

The Supernova lowered its remaining shielding, ready to accept the victors. Gallun would have telepathically informed them of the duel's stakes. The Queen Comet did away with her shields as well, and began extending a bridge to the other vessel's airlock.

The bridge was only halfway across the intervening space when Pholius noticed something wrong. A nearly invisible sheen covered the Supernova. Her shields were back up!  Gallun must have told his crew to attack whether he won or lost. Pholius tried to mentally shout to the officers in his bridge, but he was too late. The cannons on the Supernova blazed to life, and beams lanced through space into the unprotected side of the Queen Comet.

Pholius felt a burst of hot pain and was sent hurtling backwards. Looking down as he spiraled through space, he saw that a laser had sheared through his armor. Cold was already seeping through the wound.

As the Queen Comet was torn apart above him, Pholius stared into dark space, and drew power  from it. As he held the dark energy, he gazed back and forth between his ship and the hole in his armor. He only had so much power to use.

Should he use it to destroy the Supernova?  Even if he did, his men would die a slow, stranded death–their ships was irreparably damaged.  Turning away from the battle above, Pholius touched a black gauntlet to his broken side, and saved himself.

Hunting Heathens

“You shouldn’t be here.”  The words came from behind me, and I froze upon hearing them.  How had I, nervous as I was, not heard anyone approach me?  Fear rose in my chest. If Thul’s minions had found me, then he had found the others, and everything was lost.

“This is Bloodblade territory, and you, my friend, are not a member.”  My assailant pressed his knife firmly into my back.  “The way I see it,” he said, “you have two options. You can hand over some gold for temporary membership, or I can gut you here and now.”

Well, that was a relief. He wasn’t one of Thul’s, and that meant that the knife digging into my back was mortal iron.

“I’m not going to take the first option, so if you would like to gut me, by all means, feel free.”  I turned to face him and he panicked, thrusting the knife deep into my side. The blade slipped through layers of skin and muscle.

“What are you?” he asked. I suppose he was right to ask, but the question surprised me at the time; I had forgotten how mortals reacted to my kind.

“What do you think I am?”

His expression changed from one of fear to one of terror as my flesh, quickly knitting itself back together, expelled his knife from my body. It clattered to the cobblestones, and he stumbled back. Without giving an answer, the would-be thief turned tail and ran.

I put a hand to my side and felt around for a wound. My fingers passed over smooth skin. Normally I would never have checked, but nerves were getting the better of me. Keeping my wits about me, I continued on towards the tavern.

The Brass Bear was a squat, ugly building smashed in between a brothel and a butcher’s, yet I hurried towards it like it was the Gate of Heaven. I kept my head in a swivel as I approached the door. The encounter with the thief had rattled me; not because he had posed a real threat, but because he had been able to sneak up on me. I reached the door without incident.

The taproom was quiet. The patrons had finished their drunken shouting and fallen into an inebriated slumber. The only unimpaired eyes were in the far corner, and they were on me as soon as I stepped into the room. Six pairs, all full of fear and worry and anger.

“There you are, Althis,” Caliun said. The goddess gestured impatiently for me to sit. “We were worried something had happened to you.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“So there was something?” Opin asked. He was nervous and twitchy, as he had been since we had been expelled from Heaven. “Thul’s minions? Are they here? Do they know about us?”

I raised a hand to cut him off. “We’re safe here. It was only a thief from one of the local gangs.”

Opin sighed, but didn’t really relax.

“Did he recognize you?” Caliun asked.

I shook my head.

“Then we should be safe.”

“And we can begin to plan our revenge on the being who cast us from Heaven.” The new speaker was Davir, the largest and angriest among us. “Thul must suffer for what he did to us.”

“He will,” Caliun said.  “I have something in mind.”

Whatever she had in mind I never got to hear, because as she leaned in to tell us the tavern door burst open and ten men in black armor stormed in. After a quick scan of the drinker patrons, they approached our table.

“I heard quite the tall tale from a member of a local gang,” said the leader of the group. “He told me that he just met a man who could walk away from a knife in the gut. Have you seen anyone like that?”

Caliun opened her mouth to deny it, but Opin’s reaction was faster. He squeaked and shot a look at me, terrified.

The armored man noted the reaction. “That’s what I thought,” he said, and plunged his sword in Calium’s breast.

I sat there, stunned as Caliun fell to the floor. I was dimly aware of Davir exploding with anger around me, and the other three gods and goddesses leaping into action. All I could focus on was the sword buried to the hilt in Caliun. How was it still there?  Why wasn’t she healing?  Then I noticed the dark metal it had been forged from. Thul had given his men godsteel.

“Get up Althis.”  Davir pulled me to my feet. “Leave Caliun. We have to go.”

The tavern was leveled around us. The floor was littered with dead bodies and the ceiling was nowhere in sight. Eyes locked on Caliun’s body, I allowed Davir to drag me away.

My Palms Are Sweaty

My palms, slick with sweat, slipped on the leather hilt of my knife.  I went to wipe them on the black cotton of my tunic, and as I passed the knife to my left hand, it slid free and clattered to the cobblestones.  The striking of metal was a shout in the silent streets of Armoede.

Bending over to pick up my weapon, I noticed that my hands were shaking badly.  I scooped the blade from the street and tucked it into my belt, not trusting myself to hold it firmly.

The moon, which had been clouded over earlier, had emerged, cast a ghostly light over the run down houses and poorly cobbled streets.  By its brightness I picked my way through winding alleys.  Alden had agreed to meet me when the moon reached its peak, and it had already begun its descent.  I needed to hurry, but could only force my legs to move slowly.

My heart beat like a war drum, and I shivered in the warm night.

When I finally reached Alden, he was turning back and forth in the alley we had chosen to meet in, flicking his eyes from side to side in nervous glances.

“Great Ano!” he cried when he saw me.  “I was starting to worry.”  He grimaced at the sweat straining my clothes.  “Why are you so sweaty?” he asked.

“I had to run,” I said.  If the drum in my chest had been beating a steady march, it now called for a charge.  It beat so loudly I feared Alden would hear it.

“Shit,” he said, “I know I told you to hurry, but you could have just walked quickly.”

“What did you want to talk about?” I asked.

Alden’s face clouded over.  “The Treasury is putting pressure on me,” he said.  “I don’t know how long I can last before I give them what they want.”

“You know you can’t do that,” I said.  “If you get caught moving assassins for them, it’ll be your head on a stake above Aumont.”

“And if I don’t do it my head will end up in the sewer.  One of their bruisers was in my house last night.  My house!  He slammed me against the wall and threatened to strangle me then and there.  I’m not safe anywhere.”

“They won’t actually hurt you,” I said.  “If anything happens to you, they have to spend time and effort to scare the shit out of the next harbormaster.  Their bruisers are only there to scare you.”  I prayed that Alden would see sense, so I could avoid carrying out my plan.

“Well, they’ve done a damn good job.  I’m scared out of my mind.  I see assassins around every corner.  I can’t resist much longer.”

“You have to!”

“I can’t!”  Alden collapsed into tears.  “What am I going to do?” he asked.

Tears on my face mirrored those streaking down Alden’s.  “It sounds like you’ve already decided.”

For a few moments, only his terrified crying broke the silent night.  Then, he steeled himself.  “I guess I have,” he said.  “I know it isn’t right, but I have to do what they say.”

My heart stopped its frenzied beating and simply fell from my chest.  “I was afraid you would say that.”

“You have to understand.  Lord Jaspin might catch me, but the Treasury will kill me.”

“I understand.”  I pulled Alden into a hug.

“And you’ll forgive me.”

Fighting against the shaking of my hands, I pulled the knife from my belt and slammed it three times into his back.  “No,” I said.  “That I cannot do.”

 

Bleak Bluffs

I stood at the edge of the ledge, cloak pulled tightly around my armored body as the wind screamed past me.

Before me, thirty longships were being pulled from the water below, warriors flooding from their wooden bellies and building massive bonfires on the rocky beach.

Behind me, on our shelf of stone halfway up the cliff, one man sat calmly at a flickering little fire, slowly dragging his whetstone over the blade of his great sword.

The odds were not in our favor.

“This looks like the end of our rebellion,” Joran said, setting aside his sword.  Using a thick branch, he struggled to his feet and limped over to join me at the edge.

“Not how I expected to go out,” I said.

Two days ago, thirty of us had been clustered on the shelf, preparing to make the journey though the soaring peaks at our backs.  Twenty eight bodies now lay rotting in a cave further along the ledge. Among them was the corpse of Vaeron IV, the late emperor.

“You’d think they would give up after we fought of the first two attacks, or after they killed Vaeron.”

“Houd doesn’t think like that.”  I thought I could see him on the beach, the hulking usurper directing his warriors with frantic gestures.  “He won’t rest until everyone loyal to Vaeron is dead.”

Joran limped back to the fire and lowered himself gingerly.  “He’ll be able to rest soon, then.  The two of us—well, the one and a half of us—” he lifted his maimed leg “won’t be able to hold them off.”

“We’ve done all we could.”

Joran snorted.  “We’ve done nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”

“We must have killed two hundred of those damn rebels.  Twenty eight men died!  It counts for something.”

“Those men died so that Vaeron could live, but now he’s feeding the same worms.”  Joran lay back onto the rough stone, setting his blade his chest and his hands on the cross-guard.  “Believe what you wish, if it makes your last night easier.”

He closed his eyes, leaving me to stare bleakly at the men massing below.

“Wake me up when it’s time to die.”

Roots

I stood and watched as the thick roots crept forward, strangling the city with their unstoppable progress.  They crawled inexorably up the sides of buildings and shot quickly down the streets, wrapping up anything in their path.

Hordes of terrified men and women sprinted past me, their eyes wild.

“Run, you dumbass!” one cried.

But I couldn’t.  Jason had told me to wait for him beside the statue of Sherman, had promised to meet me.  He would be here.

He would make it out.  I had been repeating the thought to myself, but as the roots stretched forward, and he remained away, I was becoming less and less certain that he would ever show.

“Move it kid!” another of my fleeing neighbors yelled.  This one, a balding man who I had seen once or twice at the Laundromat, stopped to see what might be wrong with me.

“I can’t,” I said, my gaze fixed on the writhing forest consuming my home.  “Jason is still in there.”

“If he hasn’t gotten out by now, he never will.  The city will be forest by nightfall.”

“He’ll make it.”

The man shook his head, disgusted at me inability to see reason.  “It’s your funeral,” he said, turning to sprint away.

He would make it out.  No.  I was kidding myself.  The mass of roots was moving ever closer—now only twenty yards away.  The smart thing to do would be to turn and run.

I did, but not away.

“I’m coming, Jason,” I called, though there would be no way for him to hear me.

Pushing my way through the fleeing crowd I charged into the expanding roots.

“Jason!” I kept calling his name as I moved deeper into the forest, past gutted cars wrapped in wood and skyscrapers sheathed in the stuff.  Wherever I stepped, thick vines sprouted around my feet, attempting to seize them.  One wrapped all the way around my ankle, but I slipped from my shoe before it could fully tighten.

Less one shoe and stepping lightly, I pressed on.  By the time I reached Costeau Street, sunlight just barely filtered through the vines above.  The only signs that I was even in a city were the cars and stoplights being strangled by the forest. The previously bustling metropolis was dead, choked into an eerie quiet.

“Jason!” I called again.  At this point, I was repeating his name as a comfort to myself.  My words no longer rang true to myself.  He will make it out.  The words were empty, and I knew it.

“Frank!”  The shout rang through the silence and shocked me into stillness long enough for the vines to resume their clutching at my feet.  It was definitely Jason’s voice.

Slipping out of my other shoe, I sprinted after the call, my bare feet strong against smooth bark.

“Frank!”  Terror in his voice made me redouble my efforts.

I finally found him hanging ten feet in the air, rooted to the side of a building.  The shifting vines covered his entire body up to his neck, slowly and unstoppably moving higher.

“It’s too late for me, Frank,” he said, eyes wide with terror as a thick vine wrapped around his head, pulling it harshly to the skyscraper’s wall.

I shifted rapidly from foot to foot, not allowing the roots to take hold.  “It’s never too late,” I said, looking around for anything that could cut him free.  “We can both get out of here.”

There.  A hardware store two doors down.  “I’ll be right back, I promise.”  After shattering the window and shuffling through the tools on display, I found a handsaw and raced back to my brother.

Only his dark brown eyes and a corner of his mouth were visible.  “Save yours—” A vine slipped over his mouth, muffling whatever was to come next.

“No!”  I leapt against the roots and began to climb.  If I could get to Jason before his breathing was cut off, I could free him.

But climbing with a saw in hand was harder than I had thought, and was slow going.  Before I could reach my brother, a root the size of a small tree shot out and wrapped around my left arm, pinning it to the building.  I tried to cut myself free, but the roots and vines moved quickly, as if sensing danger.  They moved across my chest and pulled my right arm to my side, squeezing on the wrist.

The saw fell as my hands went numb.

Weapon gone, I kicked and screamed, but was instantly subdued by my living bonds.  Jason was jut out of reach.

We won’t make it out.

Pyre

I laid her gently down on the rough straw mattress—placed her arms at her sides and closed her eyes.  Seeing her like this, I could almost imagine that I was having another sleepless night; that I had woken to find her sleeping reassuringly by my side.

Moonlight streamed through the open window of our two-room cabin, the bright beam settling on my wife, illuminating her with a ghostly glow.

I had built the house and everything in it.  The hearth that had kept us warm during the merciless winter.  The table that we had sat around—sometimes we ate, other times were talked, and others still we just enjoyed each other’s presence.  And the bed that she now lay lifeless upon.  Here I had built a family and a future.  I had built all that I could.  Sometimes, the only thing left to build is a fire.

The kindling beneath the bed caught quickly.  The flames flickered bright, but I knew they would soon be a pile of smoldering embers.  I planted a final kiss on her cold forehead.  I closed the door for the final time.

My plan had been to walk away, but with each step my resolve faltered.  It would be selfish to abandon her just to spare myself the pain.  She deserved more.  Stopping at the crest of the hill, I looked down into the little valley where her pyre reached for the heavens.  Fully committed, there was nothing to do but wait.

And wait I would, until the final flame had faded to dull ash.

Tears streaked by cheeks as I watched my life burn.  My eyes were moths, drawn to the bright little cabin.  It was full of love and hope and hate and heartbreak, and it was aflame.