Friday Flash: Shadow Pilgrim

So, I’m doing something a little different, this week, for T.S. Bazelli’s Author Aerobics: I’m telling a story set in the same world as the story I wrote last week.  It’s not a direct continuation, but the two tales are related.  Here was this week’s challenge:

Write a story (1000 words or less) that involves multiple layers of conflict. This week’s theme: “shadows”.

At 1,262 words, this one is longer than the first story set in this world.  And as with last week, this week I still feel like I’m touching on something that could be good, but I didn’t quite grasp it.  Anyway, I’ll let you all be the judge of:

Shadow Pilgrim

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

Marobi descended the dimly lit stairs into the heart of the Kaimbodi Shadow Shrine.  His bare feet flapped against the damp paving stones set loosely in the wet soil.  He reached out his hands to steady himself, brushing the earthen walls formed by the deep roots of Kaimbodi, the brightwood tree that sheltered the shadow shrine.  At irregular intervals the roots glowed faintly with a warm, yellow light that threw strange shadows down the long, narrow stairs.  Continue reading

Friday Flash: Kathryn’s Child

This week, T.S. Bazelli’s “Author Aerobics” challenge is on internal monologues.  Here it is:

This week’s challenge: Write a piece of fiction (1000 words or less) that includes moments of internal dialogue. The theme: “fireworks”.

Well, after two straight epic-fantasy stories and a contemporary fantasy story, last week I decided I’d put up something a little more sci-fi for my next short story.  And thus, this story.  At first, I didn’t have any particular purpose to this story, but as I wrote it, I decided I wanted to set it in the space opera-themed world I had created several years ago that I called, at the time, “The Alchemist” (and that I don’t currently call anything, yet).  How this story fits in with that setting, I’m unsure.  Several elements in this story didn’t appear in my original write-ups.  Anyway, I’ll get out of the way, now, and let you read.  It’s a tiny bit shorter than what I’ve been doing lately – only 1,066 words – and I’m calling it:

Kathryn’s Child

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

“Time for the fireworks to begin.”  Kathryn gazed through the wide window at the tiny red, yellow and brown orb suspended in a sea of blackness beneath her.   In the distance, a pale red light glimmered, the shell of a dying star.  Doctor Vanwick shuffled his feet on the deck beside her. Continue reading

Sundry Stories & Links

Because of the way things are for the next few weeks… today’s post is a bit on the content-free side.  Rather than me talking about interesting and cool things and you being compelled to reply to my thoughts in the comments, I’ll offer a short dose of links:

First, have you, dear reader, read and commented on some of my recent “flash” stories I’ve posted here.  If not… know that I crave comments – even negative criticism is helpful and useful to me as a writer (especially if I plan to take any of these and polish them into perfect little gems).  Therefore, go and read, if you have not already, these recent stories:

After the Quest is Done: The quest of Cadoc the Paladin is at an end, and the hero at last can rest… But what if he has no home to return to?

From that Eternal Summer Isle: Mark didn’t believe in god, or the afterlife… He also didn’t believe he could die, until he did…

The Steed and the Page Boy: In the aftermath of a terrible battle, two survivors find hope in each other – while the title leaves something to be desired, I happen to think this is one of the better stories I’ve posted here.

Okay… so now that you’ve sampled a few stories I have to offer here, I invite you to go and read the stories of others:

Dragon Shells: Aidan Fritz nominated me for the “One Lovely Blogger” award, and penned this dragon-inspired tale as a result: a knight and a priest prepare to infiltrate the dragon’s layer, seeking a treasure more precious than gold to save their ailing queen.

Glass Half-empty: T.S. Bazelli’s 3-part Steampunk Noir crossover flash miniseries magnum opus: Detective Claude Russo is engaged by an unexpected client to investigate the dalliances of the preternaturally handsome Duke Elroy, who will soon be holding a masked ball on his airship!

Red: Another Bazelli favorite.  Here’s the part of Red Riding Hood’s story that they didn’t tell you in grade-school… Rosalyn knows her father won’t accept her love for Tom… but there has to be a way for them to be together.

A Gift for Mother: The last of the Bazelli links for today, a sci-fi with a very human heart: Simon has always been cared for by Mother, the central computer on a ship hurtling through space…

The End of an Endless Ladder: J.P. Cabit tells a tale of yearning for something more: There’s a ladder that stretches from the Moon to the Earth… it hasn’t been used in ages.  But what really lies at its other end?

Happy Birthday, Facebook Friend: Eric J. Krause tells a creepy tale for a digital age: Crystal only recently started using Facebook, and now she’s started receiving strangely personal posts from someone she doesn’t remember friending.

Bite: Harry Markov takes on a classic fairy-tale: Snow White awakens at the “kiss” of her prince to a world that’s very unlike the one she lived in before the apple.

The Defeated: Melissa Webb weaves patriotism and zombies in this surreal tale: “America never dies…”

May I Come In: Another by Melissa Webb, about the stories grandfathers tell: Tom doesn’t believe the story grandpa spins about knocking before entering…

And that’s all for today.  There are many more great little flash snippets out there on the old internets, but I’ve not  had time to read them all nor to dig them up and link them here.  In the meantime: enjoy.

Flash Fantasy: From That Eternal Summer Isle

Okay, the theme of Bazelli’s “Author Aerobics” this week was a tad too irresistable.  As soon as I read her post, I had an opening line in mind.  Shortly thereafter followed the main character.  It took only a little longer to come up with the situation.  I’m still really busy with school and related challenges, so this is kind of cheating.   But the idea stuck, so here we are.

The challenge was thus:

“Show, don’t tell.” You hear it over and over again. It’s one of the most often quoted ‘rules of writing’, but pick any novel off your shelf, and you’ll find that the authors do not just show, they also tell. Perhaps the reason that we’re encouraged to “show” is because, in unskilled hands, telling can be badly done.

This week’s challenge: Write a piece of short fiction (1000 words or less) that involves ‘good’ telling. The theme for this week: “afterlife.”

That being the case, I present to you another little fantasy flash piece, clocking in at 1,076 words, entitled:

From That Eternal Summer Isle

By: Stephen Watkins

The sky was blue on the day I died.  That came as some surprise.  Not so much that the sky was blue, but that I died.  Or that I was able to remark on the color of the sky at all.

I’ve never  been one to believe in the afterlife.  Nor in the gods, or any of that other claptrap.  Maybe I’ve spent too much time with the humans. Continue reading

A Flash Fantasy: After the Quest is Done

Another Friday, another of fellow-writer T.S. Bazelli’s “Author Aerobics” challenges answered. Honestly, I didn’t think I would be able to do this one. Between school and career obligations, and not feeling terribly inspired this week, I wasn’t sure I had a new story in me this week.

I was partly wrong. It’s not an original premise, but I think it’s a half-decent little story. It’s a little longer, at about 1,180 words. This week’s challenge was to:

Write a story (1000 words or less) that incorporates a variety of pacing. The theme for this week, “red”.

I thought, if I was going to succeed at this, I wanted to begin in medias res. Which, for some reason, meant an explosion, to me. Okay, so there was an explosion. Now what? The next question was “will it be a fantasy or a science fiction?”

I’ll let you be the judge of that. I call this little piece of flash fiction:

After the Quest is Done

By: Stephen Watkins

The explosion ripped through tree and rock, shearing shards into deadly shrapnel.  Fire rained on the trampled brown grass, catching it ablaze.  The concussive force knocked Cadoc back.  He hit the ground with a thud, and he knew his arm was broken.  Pain shot through his left side.  He was still surprised every time at just how bad it really hurt.  He rolled to his right side and pushed himself up.  He caught the scent of sulfur just in time to avoid another blast.  He dodged left and right.  Streams of flame and lances of light fell around him.  The air gleamed with the energy of powerful magicks.

Cadoc dove behind a large outcropping of rock.  His chest heaved with the exertion.  He only had a moment, so he quickly checked his stats.  Damn.  His HP were almost exhausted.  And he only had enough MP left for one final assault.  He was down to his last healing potion.

There was a time when he would’ve thrown caution to the wind.  If he failed, there was always next time, right?  But things change.  Getting ghosted had become more than just an inconvenience.

Cadoc glanced over the rock.  The dragon was still raging, but his teammates had its attention.  Marlock’s spells glowed as meteorites pelted the dragon’s adamantine skin.  Artemia’s enchanted arrows detonated with each strike.  But still the dragon had a massive amount of HP left.   There was no help for it.  The only hope was a critical strike.  Cadoc nodded and downed the last potion in his inventory.

The enchanted sword, The Glittering Retribution of the Seventeen Saints, appeared in Cadoc’s hand.  “Buff!” he shouted, knowing his teammates would hear him, even if he couldn’t hear them above the din and roar of the dragon’s fury.

He launched himself around the boulder, holding the Glittering Retribution aloft.  He roared as he rushed the dragon.  He felt the healing warmth of the potion take effect.  There was no time to check, but he sensed the boost in stats provided by Peregrine’s spells.

“Hold the dragon’s attention!” Cadoc yelled.  “I need to get close for a critical strike!”

Artemia triggered her Rain of Hail Fire ability, trying to pull the dragon’s aggression toward her.  A dozen burning, freezing arrows struck the beast at once.

Cadoc’s sword glowed bright.  Sparks of energy trailed as he ran.  He danced in and out of the rain of hail and fire, rolled beneath a blast of blue and yellow light.  The dragon roared angry defiance.  Claws flashed in the air, and teeth ripped through the sparking ghosts of light.  Cadoc’s ears thundered, sweat streamed from his brow.  He leaped.   He was on the dragon’s back.  The monster’s tail lashed at him like a whip.  His HP were dropping like rocks in a pond.  There were only seconds left.  He had to hold on!  The dragon’s HP weren’t low enough for the strike to finish it off, yet.  He didn’t know if he had enough to pull through.

The dragon reared back, and the air around Cadoc crystallized into a glowing red aura.  Damn!  It was the Uttermost Immolation defense.  Cadoc winced as he raised the Glittering Retribution above his head.  He drained his remaining MP into the blade.  He swung with all his might.  He had only a split second to pray to the gods of chance that he rendered a critical strike.

The sword plunged deep into the dragon’s hide, sparking the Uttermost Immolation.  Everything became fire.  Cadoc’s world became searing heat and blinding pain.  He felt separated from his body.

In that moment, he was dimly aware of Artemia and Marlock moving in to deal the final blow to the weakened beast.  He felt, or saw, his body dashed against the nearby boulders.  The dragon’s body imploded.  Its long neck slammed against the ground, sending up plumes of dust and ash.  Its head lay still, then it shimmered, and the whole creature was gone.  Peregrine was standing over Cadoc’s body.

And then the pain happened again, in reverse.  Every part of Cadoc’s body was run through with knives.  He hated this part.  It all went black.

Cadoc opened his eyes to the grinning of his teammates.

“You did it!” Artemia beamed.  “You made the critical strike.  It was easy to finish it after that!”

“You should see the loot this thing dropped!” Marlock agreed.  “There’s enough gold in my share to buy that new Comet Storm spell I’ve been wanting!”

Peregrine clapped Cadoc on the back.  “Your deeds were brave this day, Cadoc.  Songs will be sung of our victory.  We have indeed fulfilled this part of the quest.  But the dark grip of Mezmar still holds these lands.  Our journey is not yet done.”

Cadoc grinned in spite of himself.  In spite of all he’d been through, the praise of his friends still made it worth it all.  Even getting ghosted.

The group took to divvying up the loot.   Cadoc claimed a Great Helm of the Emperor-on-the-Sea.  Besides having a great armor rating, it would boost his MP stats.  He could afford a few more uses of the Glittering Retribution in combat with that extra MP.

“So, what’s next?” he asked.

“We’ve got to take the Dragon’s Spine back to Cantovalia in order to trigger the next part of the quest,” Peregrine replied.  “But the Feast of Baccal isn’t until tomorrow, so there’s no point in taking it back until then.”

“Yeah, there’s a special item being offered to those who bring in their quest flags on the Feastday, right?” Marlock agreed.

“That’s cool,” Artemia said.  “I’ve got to get some laundry done, anyway.”

“If I don’t finish some homework, my mom is going to kill me!” Marlock sighed.

“Then we’ll meet again, tomorrow, in Cantovalia?” Peregrine decided.  The others all nodded agreement.

“Later!” Marlock shimmered and was gone.

“See you tomorrow!” Artemia smiled and winked before she, too, disappeared.

“Well met.” Then Peregrine was gone, too.

One by one, Cadoc watched as his friends went back to their real lives.  Then, he sat on the nearby boulder, and gazed off into the sunset.  The sky turned from the golden glows of soft pinks and fiery oranges into the purple and inky hues of night.  Time moved quickly in Panagaia.   He sighed as he turned away from the deepening sunset, and began the march back to Cantovalia.  He’d need to rest soon to fully restore his HP and MP.   There were often Goblin and Orc Raid parties roaming the wilderness after nightfall.  Pointless level-grinds that dropped useless loot if they dropped any at all.  Sometimes, Cadoc thought, for a moment, that reconciling financial statements, or doing the dishes, or getting stuck in traffic might be a nice break from those long, lonely nights in the wilderness of Panagaia.

Cadoc couldn’t go back.  Theodore the Accountant was dead.  Now, there was only Cadoc the Paladin.  Cadoc the Tank.   He never thought he would miss it.  He held back the tears that brimmed on the edge of his eyes.  Tomorrow was another quest.

The End.

(Note, see more stories [mostly flash-length] here.)

A Dark Fantasy Flash: Defender of the Realm

For the latest “Authors Aerobics“, fellow writer T. S. Bazelli challenged us to pen a scene written in the present tense.  It’s a tough challenge, because past-tense is rather the default-mode for storytelling.  In writing this little piece, I found myself slipping on occasion, mistakenly, back into past tense.

Somehow, present tense just seems to go with the first person voice, which is what happened here.  Bazelli also suggested a theme of “desire”, which I interpretted very loosely.  For this story, I wanted to get into the mind of a villain.  At first, I tried to think of a classic fairy-tale villain from whose perspective I could write.  But none that I thought of excited me, so I created my own villain.  And so, clocking in at 1,049 words, I present to you:

The Defender of the Realm

By: Stephen Watkins

Every man is the hero of his own story.  I’m no different than they.  I’ve done things other men would not, or could not.  But my motives are just, and the results speak for themselves.  That’s why I won’t make excuses for who I am, or what I’ve become.

“My Lord Arctus?”

I look up from my work, where I am recording my memoirs, the truth of my doings, so that all the world may know.  Page Laban is there in the doorway, his head bowed.  Laban will not lift his head to meet my eyes.  None of my servants will.  I suppress a flutter of annoyance.  “Speak, Laban.”

“Page Turban has returned from the Lady Eliza with her response.  And the prisoner is ready.”

My heart begins thumping in my chest.  If Turban has returned, then Eliza had my gift, and the poem I had written her.  “Tell me, Laban, what word is from Lady Eliza?”

Page Laban bows his head even lower.  Obsequious to a fault.  “My Lord, Lady Eliza will not see you.”

My heart stutters, and I close my fist tightly, crumpling the latest page in my book.  It is no matter.  There is little, yet, on that page worthy of note.  I force myself not to frown.  It is of no value for one of the pages to see the pain in my heart.  “Very well,” I reply, and turn my face away for a moment.  I rise from my desk and gaze out the dusky windows of my study into the iron-gray courtyard below.  As soon as I regain my composure, I turn back to Laban.  “Then let us see about the prisoner.”

I lead the way down the hall, my black cloak trailing in a flourish.  Torches flicker, casting a strange glow in the otherwise gloam-filled corridors.  I stalk down the stairs, deep into the heart of my hilltop fortress.  Below the castle lies a network of caverns and warrens, left there by the ancestors of the goblin tribes.  In the deepest of these lie my dungeons, where all my most difficult work is completed.  Laban trails behind me, his head bobbing.   From the warren ahead I see the angry red glow of the furnace.  I duck through the low opening into the cramped chamber, pulling my cloak around me to ward off the stench and heat.

And there is Hurl, standing over some vagrant or peasant stretched out on the rack.  Hurl is excellent at what he does.  But I am the master.  I gaze down on the pitiful wretch who is staring, wild-eyed at the glowing ember held by Hurl’s blackened tongs.  I hold up my hand, urging Hurl to lower the coal back into the furnace.  Hurl bows his head, avoiding my eyes, as all my servants do.

“My Lord Arctus,” he murmurs.  “The prisoner is… resistant.  He welcomes your ministrations.”

“Thank you, Hurl,” my voice is calm but firm.  It is a delicate matter, how to let the prisoners view you before extracting the information they contain.  I turn my attention to the vagrant.

“Welcome to Castle Tarak, young man.”  I flex my right fist.  A black leather glove conceals the burn scars on my hand.   The prisoner’s breathing eases, slightly.  There are burns on his body as well: fresh burns.  I grab a flask of cool water stored nearby, and pour them over the man’s throbbing wounds.  “You will forgive Hurl, of course.  He is enthusiastic, sometimes, about what he does.”

“M- m- m- milord…” the prisoner stutters.  I smile toothily at him.

“Now, what was your name?”

“N- n- n- Natters, milord.”  He can barely say his own name.

“Now, then, Natters.  To the business at hand.  I am informed that you possess certain knowledge or dealings concerning the goblin cell operating in the Palavar Hills to the east of the capital.  You will reveal to me what you know of this goblin cell.”

Natters shakes his head madly, his eyes wide with fear.  “M- m- milord, I know nothing.”

“Nonsense, Natters.  Of course you do.  There are witnesses who will testify that they saw you trading with a couple goblin travelers at the East Gate.  You’re in collusion with the Kaidog Rimfangs in Palavar.  You cannot hide this truth from Lord Arctus, the Defender of the Realm.  I see all truth.  Now, tell me what you know, and save yourself further suffering.”

From the opening of the chamber, I see Laban wince at my words.  The vagrant, Natters, just shakes his head and mumbles.  I sigh.  It is heavy work, what I do.  But the Realm is under siege from goblin revolutionaries and reactionary elements, within our own borders.  The Kaidog Rimfangs operate in a wide-spread network, with cells of ten of fifteen goblins scattered across all the land, operating near each of the major cities.  I have yet to learn how they communicate with one another.  But their coordinated attacks have started to wear my forces thin.

Since I launched my armies to consolidate the nine kingdoms into the Realm, bringing peace and stability, the Kaidog Rimfangs, and other like-minded elements, have been a thorn in my side.  Yet goblins are still allowed to roam freely across the land, trading goods and providing essential manual labor.  Unfortunately, it is one part of the Old Law of the Realm that I have not been able to change.  This gives the Rimfangs ample cover to operate, and to send their goblin brigadiers against the people of my cities.  But I cannot allow this insurgency to continue.

I think longingly of Lady Eliza, for a moment.  Such a beautiful, delicate flower.  Her family once ruled over these parts of the Realms, long ago, and allowed the goblins to colonize in Palavar.  It was a mistake of the past.  I do not blame her for the indiscretions of her fathers.

I gaze sadly down at the poor vagrant.  “I’m sorry you have chosen not to be more cooperative.”   I reach into the pockets of my cloak, and start pulling out several long, supple-bladed instruments and hooks, and laying them out in a perfectly straight line on the table next to Natters.   I pause before laying each one down, allowing Natters to see them.  “Let’s begin again, shall we?”

The End.

(See other stories here.)

Another Story: Shopping for Snow

I’m glad I was able to respond to this week’s Author Aerobics challenge, and this is the first truly short bit that I’m sure qualifies as Flash Fiction.  It’s the shortest piece I’ve put up on this site so far, clocking in at about 580 words.  So, this week’s challenge was:

Write a scene 1000 words or less that shows at least two character who posses very different frames of reference, for example, a mother talking to a child, or a physics teacher talking to a student. This week’s theme? “Apples”

And, as I packed my lunch for work one day this week, pulling an apple from the fruit crisper in the fridge, the inspiration for this story struck me.  It’s a familiar tale, perhaps, but the scene played out amusingly in my mind.  I call it:

Shopping for Snow

By: Stephen Watkins

“Apples!  Poison Apples!  Get your fresh-picked Poison Apples!”  The hawker’s voice rose above the din of the marketplace, catching the ear of Queen Lucrezia.  She stopped to admire the hawker’s wares, stacks of apples of more than a dozen varieties.  Bright red and beautiful, rosy with golden accents, and burnished  green.  She reached out a delicate, long-fingered hand, but stopped short of touching the apples.  Instead, she reached up to tug the hood of her disguise lower over face.  Lucrezia often went about in the marketplace, shopping for gifts for her stepdaughter.  In disguise, of course.  It wouldn’t do for the Queen to be caught mingling with the commoners.

“You like my poison apples, lady?” 

Lucrezia didn’t answer immediately.  “How is it that you sell poison apples in the market?”

“Easy.  I get poison apples from the apple farm, I bring ‘em here and sell ‘em.”

“But, surely you can’t have many customers for poison apples.”

The hawker shrugged.  “I make a living.”

“But… Poison apples?  Why would someone buy a poison apple?”

“Look lady, I’m sure I don’t know what you’d do with a poison apple.  None of my business.  But you want poison apples, I got poison apples.  Otherwise, make room.  I’ve got other customers.”

Lucrezia paused for a moment, about to leave, but then decided to entertain the hawker a little longer.  “Tell me about your apples, sir.”

“Well, I’ve got a find selection here today.  I’m sure your ladyship would fancy a nice Red Delicious.  A single bite is enough to kill a man.”

“Red Delicious?  In my experience, they are anything but delicious.”

“A lady of taste?  These Granny Smiths’ll make you grow old so fast your head’ll spin.  Before you know it, there’s nothing left but dust ‘n bones.”

“But doesn’t a green apple simply scream poison?  Do you have anything a little more… subtle?”

“Ahh, you want the real fine stuff.  You’re in luck, your ladyship.  I’ve got a fine assortment of Rome Beauties and Pink Ladies.  Rome Beauties drive you barking drooling mad, and Pink Ladies drop you right in a coma so deep you’ll never wake up!  These are the best quality poison apples on the market!”

Lucrezia regarded the Rome Beauties and Pink Ladies.  They were fine looking apples.  The Beauties were a luscious red, not so deep as the Red Delicious, spotted with pink and golden flecks.  The Pink Ladies were the color of the morning sky, gentle and warm.

“Is there any cure for the poison on these apples?” she inquired.

The hawker drew himself up, looking insulted.  “Cure?  Cure?  What do I look like to you?  You come here, insulting my wares?  I got paying customers waiting.  I got no time for insults.”

“My apologies, good merchant.  I’m merely a careful consumer.  You can understand, I’m sure, that not every merchant is so conscientious as yourself.  I’m afraid that I’ve spent good coin on faulty products and shoddy workmanship in the past, and I’ve grown wary.”

“Look, lady, these are the best quality poison apples anywhere in the whole kingdom.  You can’t cure poison on apples like these.  I personally guarantee it!”

“How much are they, then?”

“For you, your ladyship, my best price.  Three crowns for a dozen, and my personal money-back guarantee!   These apples’ll poison a Sanabrian Giant, or else you’ll get your money back and three free apples for your trouble.”

Lucrezia smiled.  “Excellent.  I’ll take a dozen.”

The End.

(For other short shorts by yours truly, check out the links on my “Stories and Scribblings” page.)