We Never Heard Them Coming

Deep inside the twisting wood, there is a house, in a gully.  And beneath the house, spreading into the earth like the ancient roots of the wood above, there are tunnels that end in caves and rockfalls and inky blackness that leads nowhere.  Papa told us to stay away from the blackness and the rockfalls, but let us play in the caves, where we clambered from ledge to ledge for hours at a time.

Each cave was a different world to us.  There was the King’s Cave, where I ruled my siblings from the stone seat high on the wall, and they plotted to overthrow me.  The Sea Cave, its floor covered in shallow water, was the site of many naval battles.  My favorite was the Scorched Cavern with its burned walls and cracked floors.  It was the battlefield on which we fought the creatures from the blackness.

One day, tired of defending our home, little brother suggested we take the fight to the creatures.  I was unsure at first—father had forbidden it—but he and little sister painted such vivid scenes of glory and adventure that I caved.  We pocketed stones, tucked sticks into our underarms, and began our quest.

The blackness was well named, and it swallowed us whole.  I could feel little sister’s sweaty palm in mine as we marched forward, feeling blindly for the walls with our wooden weapons.

We never saw a light at the end of the tunnel, growing stronger and brighter as we neared it.  One minute we were in the darkness, and the next we weren’t.  We were standing beneath long skies the color of little brother’s eyes.  Beneath our feet sifted ash the color of little sister’s hair.  It was better than the caves; this ashen meadow was truly another world.

We never heard them coming.  Dark beasts the color of night that moved without form or focus.  We could not see them truly, we saw only patches of darkness, as if Papa had spilled ink across the dining room table.  They matched the birthmarks that marred his chest and arms.

They didn’t hurt us.  They consumed us, swallowing us into a dark limbo where everything floated and nothing was known.  Our quest had failed, now I knew it could never had succeeded.  How can you fight darkness itself?

I didn’t weep for our failure, though I could hear from somewhere in the darkness that little brother did.  I didn’t feel like crying, I felt like sleeping.

Outside, three specks of ash fell gently to the ground.  Silence blanketed the meadow.

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.

The Titan

My first real attempt at a poem.  I tried to play around with the internal rhyming, and had some fun doing it.  Let me know what you think!

The titan ignites bright lights in the night and

Starts wars and fights everything in his sight then

What catches his eye?

Ten knights who hold high ten swords forged from diamond.

 

Shouts fill the great silence as they the beast frightens.

They duck his rope’s flight as they hope to smite him.

 

The titan ties ten knights then,

And when his great might starts the cord to tighten,

From great height he asks, “Are you ready to die men?”

WHO THE FUCK IS MY DND CHARACTER?

This week, Chuck  over at terribleminds challenged us to use this site to get a character to write about.  I chose to ignore all instructions, so I chose four:

A thoughful halfling barbarian from a broken home who is writing an autobiography.

A positive tiefling rogue from the salt flats who wants to become a famous singer.

An adventurous half-orc rogue from a boarding school for the children of middle-class wizards who is in way too deep with the wrong sort of people.

And a boisterous dwarf bard from a quaint little village on a hill who has anger problems.

Here we go:

The group caught my attention as soon as they stepped through the archway.  We didn’t get many foreigners in the Lofty Ladle, or in the Faelin Forest at all.

The other elves in the inn all looked up in surprise a moment after I had, noticing the odd party as they took their seats at the corner table.

“Get to work.”  A swift kick to the shins sent me hustling off the take the group’s order.  I didn’t even have to check who it was—Laithen, the owner of the inn, was fond of handing out kicks to his workers.

Up close, the party was even more unusual than they had seemed from behind the bar.

Cramped up against the druidcrafted wall of the inn, a large half-orc was trying to sit comfortably.  The tree had been shaped into elf-sized seats, and his bulging muscles stuck out into his neighbor’s space.

Luckily for him, his neighbor was a halfling who was too small and too engrossed in a book to care.  Propped up against the halfling’s seat was an axe nearly his height.

“Would you mind putting your axe elsewhere, sir?  We don’t want to damage the tree.”  I directed the question to the half-orc, which I thought was perfectly reasonable.

The orc seemed to agree, as he leaned over the halfling to grab the axe, but the third member of the group, a fire-haired dwarf, leaped to his feet.  His height didn’t change noticeably as he left his feet.

“So you think every half-orc is a axe-toting savage, do you?”  His face was almost as red as his hair.  “Gromsk over here is a rogue, and a refined one at that!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered.  The dwarf’s reaction was extreme.  Sure, I had made an assumption, but it had been an innocent one.

“And you think that Arren can’t wield an axe?  My halfling friend is one of the most feared warriors this side of the Westernach!”

“Leave the poor boy alone, Eberk.”  A tiefling woman, the final member of the party, stepped in front of the fiery dwarf, quelling his tirade.  She flashed me a winning smile, her teeth stars against her purple skin.

“You must forgive Eberk,” she said, “he often gets quite agitated over the smallest of things.  The unfamiliarity of your city has him quite on edge.  Dwarves, generally speaking, stay away from trees.”

“’Cause they’re usually full of birds, bugs and elves, “ Eberk muttered.  “Nasty buggers, the lot.”

Gromsk kicked him under the table.

“Ignore the dwarf.”  The tiefling extended her hand.  “My name is Larinea.”

She shook my hand as I offered it, and then took her seat.  Eberk was grumbling to Gromsk as Arren continued to write in his small book.  His axe now sat across his knees, I noticed appreciatively.

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  “Is there any way I can help you?  Food?  Drinks?  Lodging?”

“We would like all three,” Larinea said, “but we lack the coin for any of them.”

“Then I’m afraid I cannot offer you any of them.”

She held up a hand.  “We would like to make a trade.  Eberk here a preeminent dwarven bard, and I am a passable singer myself.  A performance should bring you business enough to cover our cost.”

“I’d have to check with the owner,” I said, skeptical.  I didn’t even know dwarves had bards, and one performance was unlikely to cover the costs of four rooms and meals, especially if Gromsk ate as much as I thought he might.

“Please do,” Larinea said, “and tell them if we fail to impress, we will pay double with scullery work.”

***

Laithen had grudgingly agreed to Larinea’s proposal, and after grumbling around the kitchen about “beggars”, he sent me around town to tell the other elves about the performance.

Now, I sat with Gromsk and Arren at the corner table.  I had joined them when my shift ended.

“What are you writing?” I asked the halfling.  Throughout our meal, he had stayed focused on his small book while Gromsk and I talked.

Arren draped a small ribbon over his page and closed the small book.  “It’s an account of my journey,” he said.  “I hope that one day my children and my children’s children will know my life and the lessons it has given me.”

Gromsk laughed.  “And that the humans in the Westernach will print it for you,” he said; then to me, “He wants to be famous as much as Larinea does.”

“And how much is that?” I asked.

“Enough to pretend not to have coin for the chance to perform at every inn we come across.”

I nearly choked on my mutton.

Arren pointed to a small raised stage across the room where Larinea and Eberk stood.  “It would be a shame to miss the performance after all that.”

Eberk set a small drum on the stage and tapped a very particular beat on it.  As he did, it began to glow, and expanded into a large array of different drums.

“I stole that from a carnival for him,” Gromsk said proudly.

Eberk began to play his strange drum array, hitting them with long wooden sticks and using a contraption down near his feet.  He beat out a slow, rolling rhythm as Larinea began to sing.

She had a beautiful voice, one more suited for a hall than a tavern, and it swept through the room.  The patrons all turned to listen, many forgetting their meals as they were ensnared by the soaring voice and mesmerizing drums.

As the performance continued, Eberk upped his energy, switching to a driving, intense beat.  At one point he even left his drums behind, instead jumping onto tables and pounding any flat surface with his sticks.

It was during this part of the act, when the tavern was full and the patrons were cheering loudly, that six men stepped quietly through the door.  I would never have noticed them if not for Gromsk, who gasped and tensed up as the entered.

They looked like trouble, with black armor and long blades, but Gromsk calmly handed Arren his axe.  “Carten Vong,” he whispered.  “Six at the door.”

“Blend in,” the halfling said.  “I’ll greet them.”

Gromsk shrunk back against the foliage of the wall, his grey-green skin masking him in the darkness, and Arren strode towards the door.

“What is going on?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“I may or may not owe the Carten Vong a bit of money.”  Gromsk’s face was indistinguishable among the shadow.

“How much is a bit?”

“A few hundred gold.”

Across the room, Arren was talking to the leader of the Vong.  Their conversation seemed to rise in tension until the armored man drew his sword and tried to stab him.

“Big mistake,” Gromsk muttered.

Arren ducked the thrust and brought his axe in a sweeping crescent, decapitating the man instantly.  He leaped among the group, yelling at the top of his tiny lungs, and laid about with his axe, shearing through skin and sinew.

Some of the patrons began to take notice of the fight, but Eberk leaped onto the bar and began drumming on the bottles of ale while shaking his ass at Laithen.  Naturally, the refocused their attention.

Arren dispatched all six of the Carten Vong with ease, and Gromsk appeared at his side to help him clean up.  That shocked me, as I hadn’t even noticed the big half-orc leave the table.

They slunk back to the table just as Eberk returned to his drums and the inn erupted into applause.

“Do you think your boss will charge us for that little fiasco?” Gromsk asked.

I shook my head.  “He’ll be happy to overlook it—especially after you drummed up all this business.”  I raised an eyebrow in expectation.

Arren groaned and shook his head in disgust.  “Let’s all agree to leave the puns to the bard, please.”

Vacation

I reclined softly in a cushioned deck chair, gazing out at white foam waves lapping at a white sand beach, and all that I could think of was how little I wanted to be there.

“Stop feeling so sorry for yourself.”  Kya pushed a full wine glass into my hand and took her seat next to me.  “You just got sent to the Isle free of charge.  How could even you find a problem with that?”

“You already said why.  I was sent here.”  I drank deeply, but the wine tasted chalky, so I dumped the rest off of the deck.  “Captain Rikards thought that I would get in the way of his investigation, so he sent me away.”

Kya stepped from the wooden planks of the deck and kicked sand over the purple stain of my wine, restoring the beach to its pristine shape.  She moved effortlessly, like the tide.  How irritating.

“You would have gotten in the way, Mott, and you know it.”  She glided back to her chair and lounged on her side, facing me.  “The case was too personal.  They’re investigating your father’s murder, for god’s sake.”

The problem was, I knew she was right—I knew that if I found the man who killed my father I would beat him until his bones were a fine powder.  I knew that I would be nothing but a liability if had stayed in Haven and I hunted down that murderous sorcerer.  But I also knew that every part of me wanted to do just that.  I stared in frustration at the clenched fists in my lap.

Kya reached out with her soft hands and touched my chin, gently raising my gaze from my hands and directing it towards the waves.  “I know you don’t want to be here, but try to enjoy it.  Revenge won’t bring your—”

I leaped to my feet in the middle of her sentence, drawing a yelp of surprise.  There was something on the water, something hurtling across the waves at breakneck speed.  A human, too far away to make out a face, but I could recognize that blood-red cloak anywhere.

I had last seen it disappearing around the corner of the dark alley where my father had died.

I summoned all of my power and focused it on the small figure on the ocean, my mind utterly consumed with the desire to wipe it from existence.  An inhuman yell tore itself from my throat, and with it came a beam of burning light that raced across the beach, carving furrows in the sand as it raced towards my target.

The beam hit the wave that he was riding on and combusted, spewing forth a salty spray and flinging the other sorcerer through the air.  He landed with a sharp crack on the beach.

As I moved forward with murder in my mind, I felt hands clutch at me.  Kya.  I raged against her grasp, fighting towards my enemy.

Another pair of hands joined hers.

Who dared to try to keep me from my revenge?  I didn’t even think about why anyone else would be on this secluded beach, I just surged forward with straining muscle and gnashing teeth.

A hand left my arm and appeared in front of my face.  It was rough and scarred—definitely not Kya’s

“Sleep, Mott.”

An inky darkness blossomed from the palm and consumed my vision.

***

I awoke in a familiar metal chair at a familiar oaken desk.  My vision was swimming, but the ripples soon subsided into a calm pool.

I sat across from the stern, weathered face of Captain Rikard.  The man’s gaze was fiercely unapologetic.

“Bait!” I yelled at him.  “I was Bait?”

He calmly wiped my spittle from his brow.  “And damn good bait, too.”  An infuriating grin spread across his face.  “You complained to nearly everyone in Haven about your little vacation.  He would’ve had trouble not finding you.”

“And where is he now?”

“Locked up, and as far away from your crazy ass as possible.”  Rickard leaned in over my desk, losing his self-satisfied smirk.  “My advice to you: move on.  Revenge won’t fix anything—hell, it won’t even make you feel better.”  He fingered the gold wedding bands on his left hand.  I had never really noticed them before, but they were clearly a pair.  “Take it from someone who knows.”