Story — Counting the Days

Day 25.

They make eye contact. She smiles. He pulls out an earbud and leans over. “Do you have a pen I could borrow?”

She shuffles through her bag and hands him one with the same smile. He returns it and thanks her.

Day 26.

“Hey, sorry to ask again. Could I borrow another pen?” he asks, pulling out an earbud.

“Sure,” she says. “No problem.”

Day 30.

They wave to each other when he walks in. She hands him a pen with a knowing smile, and he takes it.

Day 38.

She hands him his pen. He takes it with a smile. She gestures towards her ears, and he takes his earbuds out. “What are you listening to?” she asks.

Singin’ in the Rain showtunes.”

“Really? Can I hear?”

He scoots his seat closer and gives her an earbud. They sit together in silence for a moment as they listen.

Day 50.

She hands him his pen, he hands her half of his earbuds. They listen for a while.

“Have you seen Endgame?” he asks.

“I’m not really much of a moviegoer,” she winces.

“Oh, got it. No problem.”

More silence.

Day 62.

She is sitting in his seat when he gets there. “Somebody was in mine when I got here,” she explains, handing him his pen. He takes it and shrugs.

He hands her an earbud, and she puts it in her ear, but frowns. She takes it back out. “You gave me the wrong ear, let’s swap.”

“We can’t.”

“Why?”

He shrugs, avoiding her gaze. “The right earbud is busted, it doesn’t play anymore.”

Day 68.

“You know,” she starts, holding out the pen. “You can keep it. You obviously need it more than I do.”

“Well, I actually have a confession,” he replies. He takes out a pen of his own. He scribbles a quick note and hands it to her.

She blushes. “Tonight?”

“If you’re free.”

She was.

Day 77.

He walks in, and she hands him a box. He takes his earbuds out.

“Happy birthday!” she says.

“It’s not my birthday,” he replies, taking it.

“But it was. And it will be again.”

He opens it. It’s a new pair of earbuds.

Day 82.

They sit together for a while. She takes the last sip of her cup and frowns.

He looks up. “I have coffee at my place, you know. And it’s free.”

She considers it.

“I also have movies. Those are free too.”

“I do like free,” she says.

“I thought you might.”

They leave.

The same Day 82. Before or after the first.

They make eye contact as he walks in. A curt smile and a subtle nod. He sits down next to her. The only free seat. They sit next to each other for a while but have not met. He thinks about saying something. About asking for a pen. But just as he plans to execute, she packs her things and leaves.

He sits there, pretending to be working, but gets nothing done. Next time, he thinks. Next time will be different.

Story — The Hope Unfounded Treatise

There is a fire that burns at the very core of some of our spirits. A spark of passion that can lead to the fulfillment of any dream—any desire. Some fires rage white hot: determined to achieve those goals at any cost. Some shine like a candle in the dark: barely enough to curb the darkness, but visible nonetheless. When that fire dies, we lose a fundamental piece of who we are. There was a time when we all had such a flame in us.

That’s why they did their best to take it.

They quelled the passionate ones first. The voices that helped fuel the rest of our fires. It was inspiring at first: their martyrdom proved our cause to be righteous; but when every outcry was met with swift and harsh “justice”, soon those that would challenge that justice became scarce.

Still, our fires burned. We knew that some way, somehow, there had to be a way out of the jaws of tyranny. In time, we thought, a new voice with a raging inferno would inspire us all to rise up and burn down their infrastructure.

That voice came. We rose. We fought.

And lost.

In the wake of defeat, they offered us an olive branch. We would be allowed to live. To continue our lives, not unwatched, but unmolested—provided we behaved.

They called it ‘The Hope Unfounded Treatise’. It stated that any indication of our inner fire, as observed by our oppressors, would be met with immediate and merciless action—not to us, but to those around us. The found that by removing the biggest flames, they were simply fueling the other fires, but if they doused the flames around it, they would have no room to grow. Isolation, they found, is as sure to kill fire as suffocation.

Any glimmer of hope was to be snuffed out and destroyed. They planted spies among us, so even quiet whispers could lead to horrifying demonstrations.

It took generations, but they won. Nobody seems to have any sort of fire burning inside them anymore, and even if they did, it was their job to conceal it, lest tragedy befall them, too.

I… I still have my fire. It is a dangerous thing to reveal. There are ears everywhere, and I’ve prayed to every god I could think of to remove it from me. There was a time in which it was the only thing that kept me going, but now, I don’t want it anymore. There is a satisfaction in acceptance—one I have never tasted.

No, I don’t think there is any way out of this mess. We are stuck here, lying in the ruins of our predecessors’ defeat. My hope is not for me or anyone I know. But I know that my fire is not the only one left. It is impossible to guess who else has theirs, but I know they exist. I can’t shake this feeling that one day, we will rise up again.

And that time, we will be victorious.

Story — The Tiny Great Big One

Zollo hadn’t exploded today, and for once, he was disappointed. It had taken him weeks to convince the rest of the council that it was a side effect of his magic. He had told them he had accidentally eaten something with a glyph on it, and instead of digesting it it just kept making him explode. No big deal. The Athaxi are a resilient race. Very good at unexploding. “The explodings will stop eventually,” he assured them.

Athaxi were dumb. It was a good thing that Zollo wasn’t dumb. Like the other Athaxi.

But what he didn’t plan for was the Ritual of Bigness. With the other council members convinced he wouldn’t explode, and with Zollo being one of the most bestest glyph-ers in the tribe, he was obligated to attend. It was a stupid, boring ritual, really. The entire council had to stand on some pillars watching the entire tribe give offerings to the Great Big One. One by one, in the hopes that they, too, might become the next Great Big One.

Zollo knew the truth now. The Athaxi didn’t ever get Big. He knew because he had a Great Big One. Only, it wasn’t Big. Or Great, for that matter. Even now he could feel it on his waist, tucked away just above his tail. It was sleeping, but warm. Zollo’s secret, Tiny Great Big One.

That was where the explodings came from, of course. Sometimes convenient, but more often than not, exploding was unpleasant. Often he considered telling the council the truth. But no, he had no idea how they would react. Or how his Tiny Great Big One would react, for that matter. It exploded Zollo often enough, after all, and it liked him. The council would surely all get exploded if they were introduced.

And so, he was stuck here, standing on the pillar as his legs ached, pretending to vary his interest in each of the mundane offerings. A couple of squibs here, a collection of very shiny rocks there. Zollo had to admit the rocks piqued his interest a bit. They were quite shiny.

But every time he found himself a little distracted, the Tiny Great Big One would shift around in its slumber, reminding Zollo how much he wanted to explode right now, just so he could be excused from the ritual.

An elbow to the side startled him, and he looked to Negs, who was vaguely gesturing to the offering table. Oh, right. Zollo nodded and joined the other council members as they all used the glyphs they had carved into the offering slab to set all of the offerings ablaze. Soon, the pit had grown into an inferno, growing higher and higher as the offerings lit.

This was everyone’s favorite part of the Ritual of Bigness. All the Athaxi in the tribe were cheering and dancing at the sight of such a Big, strong fire. It was like one one of the Great Big Ones could make. Impressive, Zollo had to admit, but fire didn’t entrance him as it had since he had discovered his Tiny Great Big One. It seemed silly to love fire when you had access to its true source. Even if it exploded you a lot.

An echoing wave broke the festivities. The distant roar of a Great Big One, the tribe knew all too well. Even if they hadn’t seen a Great Big One in years, the Bigness of its sound was unmistakable. In the wake of Big beats of its wings, soon the Athaxi were cheering even louder. Maybe it would choose one of them to be the next Great Big One, they were all whispering.

Zollo tapped an idle claw against where he kept his Tiny Great Big One. Maybe he would be exploding today after all.

Story — To Better Days

The Feral Jackal Inn creaked with the somber sigh of old age as it snoozed amidst the light morning drizzle. The grey of the fog enshrouded any obvious signs of disrepair on the building, but even so the building drooped with an imperceptible weight.

Dreary as it was, Kopek found the sight to be a welcome one. He wasn’t sure if he missed cooked meals or friendly, human faces more, and the rain certainly didn’t improve his mood.

As he opened the door, the soft hum of rain in the trees transitioned into the loud barks of dismay as an older man yelled in an otherwise quiet room.

“I told you I’ll be fine if you just give me another drink!”

“Sir, I can’t just give you another one, you’ve—oh, hello!”

Kopek shook the wet off himself a bit as he closed the door behind him. The barmaid—or presumably the owner of the establishment—was a middle-aged woman whose face matched the walls and space around her. Her friendly smile showed signs of thinning patience. The man she had been speaking to wore thick, muddied furs, and his brown hair was losing the battle of years. He turned to see the newcomer, and as soon as Kopek saw his face he immediately recognized the man as a fellow Ormen outlander, Bardam.

“Kopek?” he murmured, tilting his head like a dog a bit.

“Indeed. It’s good to see you, Bardam!” he called with a grin, sitting down next to the man. “How’s Altani?”

Bardam’s face darkened, his gaze turning to the empty stein in his hand. “Things haven’t been good, Kopek.”

Kopek nodded. “I see.”

“Like a drink?” the barmaid asked, pulling a rag from her apron.

“Oh, no thank you,” he replied. “It’s well before noon.”

“Didn’t stop your friend here,” she shrugged. “Keep up as he has and he’ll be dead by noon. My husband found him passed out in the trees last night. Would have died in the cold, probably. Gave him a free bed and he has the gall to ask for the whole cask.”

Kopek turned to Bardam, whose eyes were glazing over a bit with some echo of torment. He pulled out two coins and placed them on the table. “Will this do to cover his expenses?”

She rolled her eyes, but pocketed the money in silence before setting to wiping down the counter top.

Kopek glanced about the room, searching for a more private avenue for conversation, but with the already quiet room and the lack of any other people, there was none to be had. “What happened?”

Bardam looked at Kopek, and the dead intensity of those eyes spoke of a new decade of age the man had yet to live. Kopek watched as the words formed on his lips, then died as he broke the gaze by returning back to the stein.

“Father of Stars, man, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Maybe I can help.”

“Undoing take you,” Bardam muttered.

Kopek sighed. This wasn’t exactly the conversation he had hoped to be having today. Still, it was better not to push, and a familiar face was company enough. Kopek dropped the subject and turned his attention to a nearby window. The soft din of the outside rain fell into pace with the sound of the barmaid’s work. It wasn’t ideal, but he was at least happy to be indoors.

Bardam cleared his throat after a few minutes, but didn’t look up. “Hemloch is gone.”

Kopek caught the barmaid stealing glances at the two of them, and she turned her attention to the table once more.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Burned to the ground. The whole village. Must have happened the night before I got there. The whole place smelled like ash and… death. There were crows everywhere.”

“Any survivors?”

Bardam bit his lip. “I don’t know. Probably a few, but not many. I… wasn’t in the mood to investigate.”

Kopek frowned, starting to get a grasp of the situation. “And Altani…”

“I did find her,” he said. It wasn’t good news.

“Stars,” Kopek breathed. Another tense moment passed, and Kopek pulled out another coin, pushing it across the counter to the barmaid. “Another round for both of us.”

Prompt — Old Lady Picnic

“So there I was, sitting in one of the trees at Backarrow Park waiting for… I don’t know, something, when this old lady comes along with a picnic basket. It was a normal day, nice and breezy, the trees shielding the park-goers from any harsh sunlight. Not that the sun is harsh, though I suppose sometimes it is, but it wasn’t this day. I just think that if people are going to be out and about, they like to be in daylight, but not blinded by the sun, you know?

“Anyway, this old lady comes towards me with a picnic basket. Well, not towards me, but in my direction. She didn’t see me. Basically nobody sees me because I’m so small, you know? Well, of course you know that. You’re as small as me. Not that that’s a bad thing. Where was I?

“Oh, yeah, Old Lady Picnic. So she sits down under the tree I’m in and takes out a little blanket from her basket. She unfolds it and lays it on the grass. It’s this cute pink and white quilt patterned with baby elephants and rabbits. Stars above it was the most adorable thing I had ever seen. She probably made it herself! I would never sit on something like that. A work of art like that should never be laid on the grass. But she put it there and started taking out food. Bananas, tiny sandwiches, potato salad, and a gorgeous apple cinnamon pie, and in that moment I knew that if that pie was half as good as it looked and smelled, I would die a happy fairy, wings earned or no. Have you ever felt like that? Where you’re so sure of something that hasn’t happened yet? What am I saying, of course you haven’t.

“So she takes everything out and starts looking in her basket for something. She doesn’t take anything else out, though. Maybe she forgot something. So she gets up and starts walking back the direction she came, and at first I think ‘Hey, she won’t notice if I steal some of her pie, that’s a lot of pie. She can’t eat it all by herself’, but I didn’t want her to see me and I didn’t know how long she’d be gone, so I decided to wait.

“Well, I waited for like an hour, or however long a really long time is for humans, but she never came back so I started to get worried. And then, disaster struck!

“Flies started coming out of the woodworks. Or, well, I don’t know, the sky. I don’t understand human expressions. Anyways, they were coming for Old Lady Picnic’s food, and I knew then and there that this was it: the valiant effort that would earn this little fairy her wings, and, more importantly, the right to go back to Fae.

“And so, the great knight you know me to be, Petunia Peachthorn, leaped off the branches to the food hoard bellow, landing on the soft, billowy pink and white quilt made from clouds itself. I pulled out my sword and yelled ‘You foul creatures will not desecrate this wonderful picnic! I will protect it with my life!’

“They came at me, all eyes and loud wings buffeting the area. Our battle was one for the storybooks as I fought them off one-by-one, trading blows on the top of the narrow basket handle. They spat their toxic acid on me, rusting my armor and breaking some pieces off entirely. I was careful to keep my sword away from it, though, lest my attacks be rendered useless.

“Needless to say, I won. My foes were forced to retreat, some hobbling away with torn wings or eyes. I held no remorse for the savages, bent on taking advantage of Old Lady Picnic’s absence.

“Just when I thought that victory was within sight, however, the ants came. Legions of them, marching down the tree I had just been sitting in. I suppose they must have been army ants, with their perfect formation. As valiant as a knight as I may be, I knew I couldn’t fight a whole legion.

“So, to make a long story short, I certainly didn’t earn my wings that day. I don’t know where Old Lady Picnic went, but I couldn’t save her food, either. But I’ll tell you what, though—I did save that apple cinnamon pie. And it was delicious.”

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/sandara/art/Strange-Alice-735878743

Prompt — Peaceful Songs

The magic of Songs’ performance flowed like gentle currents of winds throughout the Laughing Escape Inn. Unlike many of the taverns in the lower district of Three Rings, people came here to enjoy the performance accompanied by food and drink, not the other way around.

As always, the tabaxi bard kept silent, letting the bow and strings tell the tale. This one was about the Feywild—about dancing faeries zipping around trees and grass as they played with other winged friends without a care in the world. Most of the simple folk here would never have been to such an exotic place, and Songs was happy to share a piece of his experiences. This was what adventuring was all about. Not for the glory or the wealth, but for the stories.

Another peculiarity of the Laughing Escape Inn was the total silence beyond the music. There wasn’t an empty seat in the entire building, and yet each human, elf, and dwarf sat in an enthralled silence as they watched the ethereal faeries dance around them, their tiny forms landing on patrons’ shoulders and kissing them on the cheek before dissipating into nothingness.

As the song neared its conclusion, he nodded his respect to the creatures that accompanied him on his performance. They were mere manifestations of his memories, given life through his magic, but he still felt it important to show respect to those that had given him those memories, for without them there would be no music at all. At least, not any worth listening to.

The magic faded, and the weaves of blue light disintegrated into streaks of dust where they fell, an unintended side effect of Songs’ magic. The people paid it no mind, however, and the tavern erupted into an applause as relaxed and respectful as his performance. This wasn’t the place for cheering or shouting.

Songs stood from his chair and bowed, a self-satisfied grin on his face the whole time. He began putting his things away and pushed his coin purse forward to encourage donations, leaving it on the stage while he approached the bar. It wasn’t that he trusted the customers—they were as apt to steal as anyone else—but the amount of money he’d collect on any one night was a paltry sum. It was nothing compared to the money he had accrued from his travels.

“Another astounding performance, Songs,” Thakros, the half-orc bartender nodded to him as he took a seat on a newly vacated stool. “Though I see you’re still getting your magic sparkle dust everywhere.”

“My apologies,” Songs bowed to him. “I still have much to learn about magic through song. Your patrons don’t seem to mind, though.”

“Well, I do. Who do you think has to clean it up when you’re gone?” he huffed, passing him a stein of Songs’ favorite honeyed whiskey.

“I’d be happy to take my business elsewhere if you wish,” Songs smirked, knowing full well that neither of them had any real desire to end this partnership.

Thakros smirked, his tusks protruding a bit with the expression. “No, no, of course not. I’m just having a hard time finding things to complain about ever since you stumbled onto my stage.”

Songs considered that. “I could set something on fire if you like. Perhaps one of your esteemed guests?” A dwarven guest came to the bar and ordered something, eyeing Songs with a suspicious glare as he said this. Thakros found the dwarf a filled stein before returning his attention to the tabaxi.

“As long as the people keep coming in every night I don’t care what you do.”

Songs glanced about the tavern, taking a swig as he pretended to identify a suitably flammable target. “No, I suppose not. Your clientele is woefully lacking in treants. Perhaps another time.”

“Songs!”

The tabaxi turned to see Olnele, Thakros’ daughter approaching, dressed in the messy apron of a long evening shift coming to a close. He nodded to her. “Evening.”

She rounded the bar and leaned forward across the wood, either finished with her work or too disinterested to continue it. “Lovely song, but I wish you’d play something more dramatic.”

“Well, I do take requests, what did you have in mind?”

“You make music based on your adventures, right?”

“To put it simply, yes.”

“Well, have you ever been to the Nine Hells? Or the elemental planes? Anything more… exciting than faeries dancing in peace?”

Thakros frowned. “You want him to perform songs of pain and death?”

Her eyes lit up just thinking of it. “Yes! Just think of the people we’d attract, playing songs like that!”

Songs frowned at the expression. He knew what she meant, but it was all too easy to hear ‘playing Songs like that’, as if he was just being manipulated. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Olnele deflated a bit in annoyance. “Oh come on, Songs! Why not?”

“I don’t travel to risk life and limb against dragons and demons. I do it to find the beauty in the world, and there is little beauty to behold in such places. Besides, the people here don’t come for heroic tales of combat, they come here to relax and forget their troubles. I am merely a humble servant catering to their wishes.”

Olnele shrugged, but she made her dissatisfaction obvious. “I think a lot of people around here might enjoy hearing some real stories, Songs. Just think about it, okay?”

He did.

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/sinlaire/art/Comm-Performance-Check-750752051

Prompt — The Second Sun

Captain Hadrus adjusted his sunglasses as he looked sunward over the valley. The lenses blocked out a vast majority of the sun’s brilliance, but even so he could make out the dim outlines of the horizon and the reflection of the sun off the lake.

A good day for hunting, he thought. Which means it’s a good day to be hunted, as well.

He put a hand on Engineer Paddock’s shoulder, signaling for her to stop. When she did, he drew a finger along her back in swift, precise motions, telling her to stay close, keep quiet, and have her weapon ready. They were far from the cities, and so silence was key.

With the sudden appearance of this intensely bright new sun, the world had changed. Eyes became almost useless, because the second sun never moved, and so the concept of ‘night’ was a thing long forgotten. And so, the other senses took precedence: hearing and smell became the favorite means for predators to find food. Humans were no longer top of the food chain.

Hadrus watched as the vague outline of Paddock’s form nodded and turned to him, tapping his shoulder to indicate a reply. In similar fashion, she wrote, “One final weapon check before we descend.”

Hadrus rolled his eyes at the request, but acquiesced. After all, part of the reason he had brought her along was because of how careful she was—you could count on things going smoothly around Paddock. He pulled out his crossbow and handed it to her, watching as she examined the bowstring and the limbs, pulling a cloth out and cleaning the polished wood of any dirt. She inspected the weight of the drawback and did a cursory scan of everything else, making sure that the settings were all correct and that the string wouldn’t snap as soon as he fired. When she was satisfied, she handed it back to him with a curt nod.

Once that was settled, the two of them turned sunward once more and made their descent into the forest below. As always, it was quiet, and the two of them were careful not to make their presence known, treading on soft dirt and moving slowly. In centuries past this forest would have been rife with wildlife, with birds chirping and all manner of insects buzzing.

Hadrus had heard stories in a world that went dark half the time—not so dark as wearing the sunglasses, but dark enough to have trouble seeing even without them. He never really understood what that would do to an ecosystem, where predators could track by movement and didn’t need to rely so much on sound or smell.

He wouldn’t have noticed that Paddock had stopped moving if she hadn’t tapped his shoulder again. With the following gestures, she said “Watch out. Something straight ahead. Thirty feet.”

Hadrus strained his eyes, but saw no movement. It must have been big for Paddock to see it that far away, though. Maybe she smelled it, which made sense since they were travelling upwind. He tapped her shoulder and responded with “Ready bows.”

He kept scanning the area ahead as he drew out a bolt with his free hand. Half a step ahead of him, he saw Paddock taking out a bolt of her own, sliding it onto the barrel of her own crossbow. Once their weapons were loaded, he took a pair of pebbles that had been packed neatly at his side so they wouldn’t make sound with his movement. His hands were full now, so he couldn’t talk to Paddock, but his previous command deemed further instruction unnecessary.

Captain Hadrus made one last scan of the area and tossed the pebbles into the forest ahead of them, trying his best to land near whatever creature Paddock had spotted so that he could get its attention. They would track its movement as it investigated and…

The pebbles hit something soft, and it was followed by the sound of a low, huffing grunt.

They had directly hit their target, which had alerted it to their presence.

The creature huffed again, its huge claws scraping the ground as it paced. Towards them presumably, and a bear by the sound of it.

Hadrus exhaled slowly and quietly. Since the bear didn’t move to investigate the pebbles, there was no reference to get a clear shot at it, and the dark outlines of the forest made it all but invisible.

A soft click and a snap, and the bear roared in pain. Paddock had fired, and the bolt hit its mark.

The bear charged, and Hadrus clearly saw its outline as the hulking shape suddenly grew enormous.

The element of surprise was gone.

Hadrus fired, but it didn’t seem to hit. Paddock screamed in terror as the thing crashed into her, their dark outlines blurring into one.

The grunts of the bear collided with Paddock’s hushed gasps of panic. Hadrus fumbled for another bolt as he heard a sickening slash.

“Oh God,” Paddock cried. “My glasses! I can’t see!” The sound of her voice here sent a chill down Hadrus’ spine.

Hadrus fired again, aiming high to minimize the chances of hitting his ally. In the sound of the scuffle, it was impossible to tell if he had actually hit. The only thing to do was load again.

Paddock’s cries continued, and Hadrus kept firing. The chaos of the scuffle lessened, and soon the bear started to lumber off, evidently too wounded to want to stay.

This went to Hell really fast, Hadrus cursed. No deer or foxes, but a bear? There was no hope of bringing back food now. Little hope of bringing back Paddock alive, at that.

“How bad?” he asked aloud. There was no use for silence now.

“I… don’t think I can walk on my own,” she grunted. “And it tore off my glasses. I can’t see.”

He nodded. They had to get back to the city fast. “Here,” he said, taking off his glasses off. He shut his eyes immediately, but even through his eye lids the intensity of the second sun was uncomfortable.

“What? No, you have to leave me. Get home safe.”

“To Hell with that. Here,” he took her arms and helped her up, draping her over his shoulder so that she could half-stand. Sure, it would be better if he had his glasses, but he had no way of knowing if her injuries were life-threatening, and if they were, he wanted her to feel as safe as possible. “You be my eyes and guide us home, okay?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Thank you.”

“Enough talking, you need to conserve your strength and we both need to be quiet.”

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/aenami/art/Solar-714444421