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.)

A Sample of “Southern Gothic Horror”

So, I don’t generally do “horror” – it’s my least favorite of the various “Speculative Fiction” genre categories.  I don’t have anything strong against it, but “fear” is not one of the primary emotions missing from my life.  (I’m afraid of lots of things in real life, so I don’t get as much of a thrill from being scared in fantasy life.)  Still, I thought I’d share this one example of my hand at horror.  Here’s the story of what happened.

I wrote this about 5 years ago in response on a forum on the site RPG.net as a writing exercise.  The exercise called for a short (under 1,200 words) vignette to the theme of “Southern Gothic Horror” that would be an introductory story in a hypothetical role-playing game set in the same genre.  So… I live in the South, I figured, even if I’m an “outsider” here, so why not give it a shot.  The result is a story that clocked in at about 1,150 words.  It’s really more like a vaguely Lovecraftian tale set in a Southern Gothic setting, as opposed to a true “Southern Gothic Horror“, but I still think it’s an almost-decent bit of writing.  Almost.  (And there are bits that hint at and allude to themes consistent with the Southern Gothic genre.)  Still, I think it could be cleaned up (and probably lengthened in the process to make it flow better) to make it more serviceable.  Except that I don’t generally do horror in the first place, and so this is likely to sit on the shelf where it stands.  Anyway, without further ado, I present to you:

Dispatch from the Harpston Herald

By: Stephen Watkins

Jeffrey remembered the first time he met the Right Honorable Reverend Lucas Shepherd, almost two years ago.  The Divine Grace Episcopal Church was the center of Harpston, Mississippi, and the Reverend was the holder of the keys.  The descendent of carpetbaggers who’d settled in the Atlanta area shortly after the First World War, Jeffrey Dobson had just graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism when he chanced across an obscure posting on a jobs website looking for a new editor for the Harpston Herald.  He hadn’t expected to land an editor’s job fresh out of college so he was surprised when he got a letter offering him the position.

 Harpston was one of those towns in the proverbial “middle of nowhere” except that, in Harpston’s case, it really was.  It was fifteen minutes to the nearest state road—and anything resembling cell coverage—and another hour to any town sizeable enough to make a blip on the map.  With a population of maybe a thousand, the first man that Jeffrey had met was the Reverend Lucas Shepherd.

 “Harpston, Mis’sippi, Mr. Dobson,” the Reverend had said, “In’t like other towns.  Folks ‘round here are private people, quiet people.  Don’t do nothing ta rouse or rile them, an’ you’ll do just fine.”

 If Jeffrey had just listened to him, maybe he wouldn’t be here, sneaking around the old Marwood Plantation.  Maybe he wouldn’t even still be in Harpston.  Careful for chiggers, Jeffrey pulled at a clump of Spanish moss that was threatening to tangle itself in his hair and crept forward, feeling his hand along the crumbling, moss-covered stone wall that marked the boundaries of Marwood Plantation.  He sniffed to himself, the smell of fresh-turned dirt filling his nostrils.

 Jeffrey thought he’d figured out soon enough what the Reverend had meant that first day.  Few people were willing to talk to him, and it was a tough job filling even a single sheet of newsprint with newsworthy stories.  But Jeffrey grew used to it.  That was, until the sweltering heat of summer set in. 

 It was July last year when he’d first heard it.  A sound, like someone—a little girl, perhaps—screaming in the distance pulled him from a light slumber.  He thought, at first, that maybe it was a hawk hunting its prey.  Except that hawks aren’t generally nocturnal.  He’d asked around town about it the next day, but all he’d got for his efforts were quickly averted eyes, sometimes followed by a mumbled “didn’t hear nothin’”.  It was the sort of attention he’d come to expect.  So, he chalked it up to a fever-dream, and he would’ve been content to leave it at that if he hadn’t heard it again three weeks later.  This time he knew he wasn’t dreaming, because it came earlier in the evening, while he was still working on the layout of the next week’s edition.  Not ten minutes later, he saw through the window a procession of old, dented pickups, an El Camino, and a rusty Olds Delta Royale heading in the direction of the Marwood Plantation.  Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, he didn’t look into it.

 At least not publicly.  Careful not to ask direct questions, quietly he began his own investigation.  He stopped by the small town library and Clerk’s office to go through old records and checked through old file copies of the Herald to see if there was anything about the Marwoods.  He turned up surprisingly few little, except for one tantalizing hint in an article dated from July of 1893.  It told of Robert Lee Marwood, the oldest Marwood son, and Mabel Thomlin, his wife of three days, who were both found dead on the family plot behind Marwood Manor in an apparent double-suicide.  He didn’t know what it meant, but he never mentioned what he found.

 That had been a year ago.  He hadn’t heard the scream again after that.  Until tonight.  Once again it was an unmistakable piercing cry that tore him roughly from his sleep.  The moon was half-full, partially obscured by the branches of heavy-laden oaks towering over his little bungalow so that only a sliver of light streamed in through the tiny window in his room.  He threw off his sweat-soaked sheets and rushed to open the window, hoping to catch some clue as to what was making the sound.  The scream came again, echoing through the fens of live oaks.  It was coming from the east, in the direction of the Marwood Plantation. 

 He raced to the door, and peered out into the gathering gloom.  As expected, a procession of rusted, ill-maintained vehicles materialized in the sweltering mists, pulling off of dirt roads and onto the one-lane paved highway that wound through town.  He waited for the cars to pass before creeping out into the night.  He followed their softly glowing lights as they faded into the summer mist like will-o’-the-wisps.  It was almost an hour later before he happened across the stone wall that marked the boundaries of the Plantation.

 So here he was, slinking through the brush toward the rusted wrought-iron gate where a dirt road drifted its way onto the Marwood Plantation.  He stopped suddenly as he heard voices carrying over the stone wall, whispering loudly, and harshly, to each other.  A breeze played at the iron gate, making it groan.  Jeffrey peeked around the edge of the wall through the gate at two men carrying shovels moving swiftly down a wide avenue lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.  At the end of the avenue lay the decaying remains of Marwood Manor.

 Jeffrey followed them, careful to stay behind the oaks and out of sight.  When they reached the Manor, they cut off to the left to go around behind the old building.  Jeffrey paused at the foot of the old house.  He glanced up at the graying columns, their once-white paint peeling away, supporting the sagging portico.  It was sad to think the descendents of the Marwoods still lived here to this day.  He crept around the side of the house to the old family plot out back.  There was the sound of digging; the argument continued.

 “You know, Clyde, this won’t do.  He needs a fresh body.  This here worm food won’t do no more.” 

 The digging stopped.

 “Well what you want me to do Billy?  Who you gonna get?”

 “I dunno Clyde.  But you heard what he said…”

 Jeffrey didn’t hear the rest of the conversation.  The flat side of a shovel slammed into the back of his head, dropping him to the ground.  The Reverend Lucas Shepherd loomed over his unconscious body.  “Never mind, boys,” He called,  “Problem solved.”  He looked down at the oozing wound in Jeffrey’s head.  “Didn’t I warn you, Mr. Dobson?  Folks round here are quiet folks, private folks.”

The End.

A Taste of Fantasy

I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to participate in these Author Aerobics exercises being posted by T. S. Bazelli on her blog, but I decided to participate this week, at least.  (I say I’m not sure because the situation on the home-front may evolve such that I might need to take a short break from regular daily blog updates, for a little while, to focus my attention on things there or for school.)

Anyway, this week’s challenge was a dialogue punctuation excercise, asking us to utilize a number of different dialogue tags and punctuation.  Which means, of course, that the story would largely involve a lot of talking.  Oh, and we were asked to touch on the theme of “spring” (with the sly suggestion at the end that this could mean “the season” or “the coil”… or something else, entirely).  I decided to pass on another shot at a steampunk (it’s too soon), as much as I enjoyed the last one, and go straight for a little mythology-inspired fantasy that actually arose from pondering both the word “Niflheim” and the antecedent of spring: winter.

So, a couple notes: yes the dialog is a little archaic and stilted.  It reflects the mood I was in after reading a few wikipedia entries on norse mythology.  I also struggled with adding “The End”, because this doesn’t really feel like the end of a story, but the end of a chapter.  I contemplated using the phrase “The End?” with a question mark, but decided that was a little silly looking.  I contemplated not putting “The End” at the end.  Ultimately, though, I’ve no idea if I’ll ever return to the world described in this short tale, so for now “The End” is appropriate.

I call this 1,004-word taste of fantasy (woohoo, almost in the word-limit!):

From the Farthest North

By: Stephen Watkins

“No,” he said.  “The law is the law.  I will not allow it to be broken, not even by you.”  Ingurd turned away from his impetuous son to gaze out at the thick banks of snow visible in the pale moonlight.

Hulfur Ingurdson would not be deterred.  “Do you want our village to die, father!  Our food will not last.  The spring has abandoned us, and we will all perish unless we do something!”

Ingurd turned on his son, a fire in his eye.  “Do not lecture me, boy!  Our laws have kept us safe for generations.  You cannot conceive of what is out there, of what I’ve—“

“Peace, Ingurd,” Snorri interrupted, holding his hand up in a gesture of conciliation.  “Allow me to speak to the boy, to explain again our law, so that he can understand.  The winter,” he said, turning his attention to Hulfur, “has always come.  And it has always ended.  And with the coming of the winter, there have always been the Niflurmur, who feed on men’s souls.  You have thought that they were legends, but there was a time when their attacks on Holdur Thyul were relentless. 

“That was before we built the wall.  And that was before the Law of Winter.  None can go outside the walls, as long as Winter’s claw grips the land.  Any who goes out is Lost, for we cannot risk the touch of the Worms of Nifhel here in Holdur Thyul.  When the spring thaw melts the mantel of winter, then we are safe, for the Niflurmur always retreat to Niflhimor with the retreat of winter.”

“But what if the winter will not retreat?” Hulfur pressed.  “It has been six turns of the moon since Deepwinter’s Night.  The spring is past due by at least two turns.  This winter…” He cast his glance over the wall toward the heavy drifts of snow, ghostly in the pallid light.  A raven settled at the peak of the wooden palisade and squawked once.  “This winter will not end…”

Ingurd turned again from his son, scowling, and shooed the raven away.  Snorri frowned momentarily before answering Hulfur.  “The winter always ends, Hulfur.  The spring always comes.  It has been thus ever since our people came out of Mitlhimor to this northern land.  The spring comes, and then we will plant.”

Hulfur sighed.  Snorri was a skaald.  He was the keeper of the history and the laws of Holdur Thyul.  These were things he would know.  He glanced at Ingurd, who kept stoic watch over the winter-gripped forest beyond the palisade walls of Holdur Thyul.

“You would be wise to listen to the boy.” 

Ingurd started at the sudden voice.  He gazed over the heavy drifts, from which the voice had sounded.  “Who… who dares—“

A figure stepped from the shadows of the woods, covered in a long dark cloak and a wide-brimmed hat.  Ingurd swore a curse.  “By the din of Vyolnir!”  He turned to sound the alarm.

The stranger raised his hand in a gesture of peace, striding toward the walls.  “Hold your alarm, I am no Worm of Nifhel.”

Ingurd growled. “Hold yourself, stranger.  Whether you be Niflurmur or no, I cannot tell, but you’ll not cross the gates of Holdur Thyul this night.”

The stranger smiled, and his hand disappeared into his cloak.  “I will wait here, then, in the shadows of your walls, until my message is heard.”

“What message is worth hearing in the cold of winter?”

“You fool, Ingurd Baldurson.  You cower behind your wall as the reach of Nifhel grows longer and tighter over Mitlhimor.  Do you think your walls can hold back the ravages of winter?  Do you think that you can hide from Nifhel’s gaze here, at the very steps to Nifhel’s Gate?  The boy is right.  The time for bold action has come.”

Ingurd eyed the stranger, wondering how the man knew his name.  “Who are you, stranger, that you come here and speak so, that you walk about in the depths of winter as though you have no fear of Nifhel?”

The raven settled on the stranger’s left shoulder as he produced a deep chuckle.  “A fool only has no fear of Nifhel’s might, but a fool also who goes about in winter unequipped to deal with Nifhel’s minions.”   The raven on his shoulder squawked again.  “I am called Gylfar, and I will deliver my message.

“Know this, Ingurd Baldurson, and Snorri Sturlungson, and all you of Holdur Thyul: the Twilight is at hand, and the Ashur move again in the Middle Realms.  The Bane of Turun stirs in the deep, and the Fell Fang is abroad, wreaking death and havoc.  You, Snorri, know that these are the signs of the Twilight. 

“But the Lords of the Ashur, the Ragna, will not let the long night fall without sending their might against Lukur and his consort, Nifhel.  The call has gone forth to gather the armies of men against that dark day.  Vyolnir, the Hammer of Turun, has been raised in the city of Fallsgard.  There, the princes of all of Mitlhimor wait for the sound of the horn, and for the Nine to come down from the Farthest North.”

“The Nine from the Farthest North?” Snorri interrupted.  “All these things are spoken of in the Elder Songs.  But surely you don’t mean—“

“Holdur Thyul,” Gylfar nodded, “is the Farthest North.  The last village of men before the Gates of Nifhel.”  He pulled his hand from the depths of his cloak.  The raven took flight, cawing loudly, as he held up a small, shining object.  “Behold the Eye of Othar!”

Hulfur gazed in awe as the stranger was engulfed in an intense light that made the night as day.  An Ashling!  One who had been touched by the Ashur, and carried their power.  Hulfur turned to his father, who looked humbled by this display. 

The stranger spoke again.  “Eight you must send forth, lead by Hulfur Ingurdson.  I will be the Ninth.”

The End.

Some Steampunk Fiction

Fellow writer-in-training T.S. Bazelli, over on her blog, has started up an occassional fiction writing prompt meant to excercise certain fundamental writing skills that’s called “Author Aerobics”.  I’ve decided to participate when I can, so in accordance with that, here’s the first dose of genuine fiction written by your’s truly.

The assignment was this:

In 1000 words or less, write a piece of fiction that includes all the elements of the 3 act structure, including at least one crisis in the rising action. To make things more interesting use the word “zeppelin” somewhere in the story…

…There’s only one rule: set a time limit.

Throwing the word “zeppelin” up there to get the creative juices rolling got me this little story.  The only problem is that I totally blew the word-count limit (it clocks in at almost exactly 2,000 words), and it took me a bit more than just one lunch break sitting to type it up – more time than I’d set for myself.

It’s a highly flawed piece – the characterization is weak, the ending is not particularly satisfying, and it’s not especially original.  As such, I have no immediate plans to spruce it up into something more publishable.  But, so that you can get a taste of my writing (albeit not at my peak), here is your first sample of my work, a little steampunk tale I call:

The Last Flight of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance

By: Stephen Watkins

Leda watched as Captain Davney Ellory took the telescope from Saxwith and peered through it out the central window of the bridge.  Leda was done fixing the Engine Order Telegraph, but she was still tinkering with the controls, to give her a reason to stay on the bridge.  She liked being on the bridge; this was where the real action was!  Captain Ellory harrumphed, and lowered the telescope.  Leda followed his gaze to the horizon, where three black dots chugged on a course toward the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.  The Lord Winstead’s Vigilance was a dirigible, an aging battlecruiser stationed out on the frontiers of the United Principalities of Alberot, patrolling the demilitarized zone.  It was a rust bucket, yeah, but Leda was proud to serve on it.  It was her rust bucket.

“An armored cruiser,” the captain confirmed, “And two destroyers.  Markovian marks.  They’re no more than a dozen aeronauts from the demilitarized zone.  They’re flirting with breaking the armistice.”

“They’re no match for the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance, sir.” Saxwith pulled herself up haughtily.

“Individually, no, Leftenant Saxwith.  Together, they’d easily overpower us.  Put the ship on alert.” 

Saxwith nodded and  starting barking into the voicetubes, sounding general quarters.

“Captain,” Leftenant Arbery warned, “They’re signaling.”  The Markovian ships were closer, now.  Leda could just make out their profile.  And she could see the flashes of light, blinking in a pattern unknown to her, coming from the lead vessel.

“Take it down, Leftenant Arbery.”

Arbery confirmed the order, and pulled out a sheet of paper and began taking down the complex pattern.  As it began to repeat, he went back and translated, then gasped.

“Captain, they’re demanding our surrender!”

Ellory swore, and swiped up the telescope again.  “Damn, they’ve crossed into the demilitarized zone.”  He glanced back at Saxwith.  “Hold course steady, but ready the guns.”  Saxwith nodded, and grabbed the handle of the Engine Order Telegraph.  At that moment, a whistle sounded from the voice tubes, then a garbled voice.  “Crumwell to bridge.  Trouble in the engine room.  We’ve blown a gasket on the main boiler.  Send Tensbit to engineering, on the double.”

Saxwith glanced at Leda to ensure she’d heard the command, and Leda nodded before turning to the portside.  Leda raced down the ladder into the engineering hold, in the bowels of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.  As soon as she passed the bulkhead door, she was confronted with a wall of steam, smoke, ash and soot clogging the engine room.  She waded into the thick miasma, coughing and trying to clear her path by waving her arm.  She could see the bright orange glow from the furnace, and there were Haddock and Whir, the stokers, still shoveling coal.

“What in the name of burning Tarshish do you think you’re doing?”  Leda was Engineer’s Assistant, so she could pull rank on the stokers.

“What’s it bloody look like we’re doing?” barked Haddock.  “We shovel coal, that’s our job!”

“Shoveling coal when the main boiler’s blown a gasket?  You want this rig to explode?”

Haddock blinked.  Leda growled, then jerked her hand in a get-thee-behind-me gesture.  “Come on, let’s find Rubet and get this turbine rolling again.”  Leda swam deeper into the Engine room, and found the main shut-off valve on the central boiler.  She could feel the heat from the furnace through her leather work gloves as she grabbed the valve.  It was stuck, but she threw her shoulder into it, and Whir came up to help.  In a moment, they’d thrown the valve, and the steam began to clear.  As it cleared, she could see Rubet Crumwell’s legs sticking out of a hole in the side of the central turbine, wiggling.  He pushed himself up and out of the hole and settled his heavy frame on the deck, tapping the side of his head with a massive wrench.

“About got this problem figured out, no thanks to you, Tensbit.”  He looked back toward the gaping hole, then stuffed his wrench back in.  “You’re late by the way.  You were due back a half hour ago.”

Leda suppressed a blush, but offered no explanation.   “See here,” Crumwell ordered, “Tighten down that clamp on the boiler.  We’ve got to get this turbine spinning, else we’re dead in the air.”

As Leda headed over back to the boiler, the Engine Order Telegraph sounded with three loud rings.  The reader read “All Ahead Full”.

“See now!” Crumwell barked, “Hurry with the gasket on that boiler.  Cap’n wants power!”  Haddock and Whir hopped to help Leda pull out the broken piece of piping and replace the damaged gasket.  Before she got it sealed, the E.O.T. rang again, reading “Back Emergency”.

“Cap’n’s ordering evasive maneuvers!” Crumwell shouted.  “What’s going on up there?”

“Three Markovy ships bearing down on us!” Leda shouted back as she finished tightening the clamps.  She pointed and Haddock and Whir threw open the main valve as Crumwell set the turbine in reverse.    The zeppelin lurched as the turbine roared to life. “Looks bad!  Cap’n says we’re outgunned!” 

To punctuate her remarks, the armored zeppelin began to shake as artillery shells started exploding all around.  Then there was the deafening thump, thump of return fire.  Crumwell swore as the artillery barrage continued.  With each detonation, the engine room rattled.  Loose tools and materials started clanging to the floor, and Leda’s newly replaced gasket groaned.  “We can’t take much of this!” Crumwell yelled, “She’s falling apart!”  The look in his eyes said much more. He’d served on the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance since her maiden voyage.  For all Leda was proud to serve on her, this rig really was Crumwell’s.  But he’d not had the engineering staff he’d needed to maintain the venerable old ship since the armistice.  It was killing him to watch the Lord Winstead suffering so.

Leda ducked in time to dodge the blown rivets as her gasket job shook loose after a near-impact. The engine room began filling with steam again.

Then, as quickly as the barrage began, everything fell silent, except for the straining of the turbine and the whistling of the steam.  Then a voice sounded from outside the hull, in thickly accented Albish, ordering the vessel to prepare for boarding.  A moment later, the Lord Winstead shuddered as the boarding gangplank made contact.

“Hurry,” Crumwell waved Leda, Haddock, and Whir toward the back of the engine room.  “Into the air ducts.  They try to take the Engine, I’ll hold them off, here!”  Leda nodded as she climbed onto the back of an equipment bin and lead Haddock and Whir into the ducts.  As he lowered the vent cover, Leda watched for a moment as Rubet Crumwell dashed back to the furnace and started stoking the coal hot and high.  Leda turned on all fours and lead the way down the duct pipes.

“Where we going?” asked Whir.

“To the armory.”  Said Leda.  “We won’t let them have this ship without a fight!”  There were soldiers on board, of course, but Leda’d be damned if she let them be the only thing standing between the Markovian shock troops and mastery of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.

The ducts were like a maze, but Leda’d done enough work on them to know her way.  She’d inspected nearly every inch of them in her time on the Lord Winstead.  Within minutes she’d lead Haddock and Whir to the armory, where she opened the vent and took a glance around.    As she’d hoped, the coast was clear.  The Lord Winsead’s armory was in an unconventional place for an Alberot battlecruiser, she had been drawn up on an experimental design that never caught on during the Albo-Markovy war, so Leda reasoned it would take the Markovian troops a while to find and secure it. She dropped lithely into the armory, followed by the loud klumps of Haddock and Whir.

Leda quickly secured a couple Prowith rifles and armed the stokers, then rummaged around a bit for the proper size shot.  She found a small pistol and tucked in her tool belt.  She grabbed another Prowith for herself, then shouldered up to the armory bulkhead door.  She threw the latch slowly, and peered out into the hall.  She signaled quiet to Haddock and Whir as she caught site of a dozen Markovian troops marching Captain Ellory, his Leftenants, and a few disarmed ship’s guard away from the quarterdeck.  She cocked the rifle, then stepped carefully out into the hall, behind the Markovian soldiers.  She didn’t wait to see if the stokers followed her.  She’d only handled a rifle a few times in her career.  But all hands on an Alberot aeronautical vessel are required to take training in marksmanship, and Leda found the memory of what to do rushing back to her.  She took aim and fired into the backs of the Markovy men.  Honor be damned!  They’d broken the armistice and boarded her ship!

The corridor quickly filled with smoke as Leda and the stokers fired off another round and the surviving Markovians  turned and opened fire.  Leda dropped to the deck floor, pulling out her pistol as the captured Alberot men turned on the Markovian and wrestled their rifles away.

The firefight was over as quickly as it began.  Leda pushed herself up from the deck, then saluted sharply as Ellory broke away from his officers to inspect her and the stokers.

“Fine work, Tensbit.” He complimented her.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m afraid, though, that the Markovians have us at a disadvantage.  We’re heavily damaged, and escape will be difficult, perhaps impossible.”  The look on his face was grave.

“Of course sir.”

Then Ellory grinned fiercely.  “But we’re Alberot people, in His Majesty’s service.  Never let a little thing like certain failure get in the way of our service!  Let’s see if we can regain control of my ship!”

“Yes sir!” Leda smiled as she saluted again then fell in alongside Ellory’s officers.  Ellory lead the way back down the corridor, while Arbery and Saxwith stopped off to gather more rifles at the armory.

The deck groaned as Ellory and Leda marched toward the crew quarters, then a loud crack shook the whole ship.  An explosive boom reverberated against the bulkheads, and the armloads of rifles Arbery and Saxwith had collected clattered to the deck floor.  Another explosion sounded, followed by another crack.  Leda lost her balance and fell as Ellory, Haddock, and Whir collided against the bulkheads.

“No!” shouted Leda.  “By Tarshish!  Rubet’s overstoked the furnace!  He’s going to blow up the whole ship!”

“Damn!” snarled Ellory.  A klaxon warning sounded, and a frank Markovian voice began yelling orders.  Though Leda didn’t speak Markovian, she knew enough to recognize a general order to abandon ship.

Ellory turned about and led the group down a side-hall.  “Looks like the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance is going down.  We’ll make for the escape skiffs.”

They passed another patrol of Markovian troops, but they hurried on without a second glance.  Smaller explosions continued to wrack the body of the dying zeppelin.  Ellory held the hatch as Leda, Saxwith, Arbery, Haddock, Whir, and the guards trundled into the small escape skiff.  Ellory was last to enter the skiff before pulling the hatch closed.  Leda climbed to the aft to start loosing the rigging tying the skiff to the Lord Winstead, while Arbery started loosing the rigging on the bow.  Ellory ordered the aerosail deployed, and in moments the skiff was away from shuddering dirigible.  Leda glanced out the starboard porthole.  The Lord Winstead’s Vigilance was engulfed in flames, and the Markovian ships were now moving to put daylight between them and the burning ship.  Nobody moved to give chase to the escaping skiff.

“That’s that,” sighed Ellory, “So much for the Versadian Accord.  So much for the armistice.”  He turned to the remnants of his crew.  “We’ll land the skiff comfortably in Alberot territory, where we’ll be picked up by His Majesty’s Army.  I want to thank you each for your faithful service on the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.”

The end.