Story — Cara the Wizened

(Rare content warning on this one.)

 

“Raise five,” I said, tossing another red chip into the pot.

Benny’s shoulders slumped even more, but was careful to keep his hands where they were as he thought. He knew I was watching him like a hawk, tracking his body language to figure out what he had.

“Uh… I call,” he said after a while. His words carried a hint of hesitation. He had nothing. Of course, I didn’t either. I had a pair of threes after the flop. But with a Queen and Jack showing, he was right to worry. Benny was too trusting, and his dwindling pool of chips reflected that. He was also easily distracted, so having cleavage gave me a distinct advantage.

“Cara’s bluffing again. She does this to you every time,” Matt told him, glancing up at the both of us before dealing the next card. Another Queen.

“Bet three,” I stated, keeping my tone flat.

Benny eyed Matt, who shrugged. Matt had folded minutes ago and had been watching this hand patiently.

“Well… how do you know she’s bluffing?” Benny asked.

“She’s playing you, man. Been milking your chips all night.”

“Hey! No helping,” I snapped. I held my empty beer can towards him. “Can I get a refill, oh gracious host?” Matt snagged it and stood, going back into the kitchen.

Benny analyzed everything about me in that moment, trying to glean any information about the cards placed neatly face down in front of me. His gaze lingered on my chest, revealing where his mind really was. I stretched my arms forwards for good measure, encouraging him to choose poorly. “I’ll, uh, raise two,” he said, pushing one of his last red chips in.

“Raise five,” I said in a heartbeat, doing the same.

Matt came back with two fresh cans, putting one next to my mound of chips. I nodded my thanks.

“I can’t do it,” Benny groaned, throwing his cards into the middle. “I fold.”

“Ha!” I shouted. “I barely had two pair!” I flipped my cards over to prove that I had indeed been bluffing.

“Told you,” Michael said, cracking his can open and taking a sip.

“Damn it… how do you do that?” Benny said.

I hooked a palm around the pot and shoveled it back towards me. “Credit goes to my sick reads. You guys better step it up or I’m going to be thirty bucks richer in the next half hour.”

My phone started ringing the retro Batman intro.

“Shit,” I mumbled, pulling my phone out and pushing my way out of the chair. “Play the next few without me, I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Your brother again?” Michael asked.

“Yeah,” I lied. With a nod to the both of them I rushed out the front door of Michael’s house and into the cold night air. The phone felt warm on my face as I pressed it against my cheek, careful to keep my voice low. “Everything okay?”

“Of course not,” my brother called over the phone. “I’m picking up lots of unusual movement in the Passways. You’d better come home soon and check it out.”

“On my way.” I hung up and exhaled slowly.

Michael’s house was still warm and inviting when I stepped back in, but the atmosphere had changed. The two of them were chatting with low voices, not expecting me to have come back so soon.

“Uh… you leaving?” Benny said.

I nodded. “Sorry guys, I gotta go. You two split the winnings. I owe you guys a bit for ruining the night anyway.”

Michael shrugged. “It’s whatever. You gotta do what you gotta do. You gonna be good to drive, though? You had like three—”

“I’ll be fine. Sorry, it’s just… duty calls. Everything will be fine, but I have to go. See you later.”

This was the third time this month there was an incident in the Passways.

~~

I got home in ten minutes—roughly half the time it should have taken me. I may have ran a red light or two, but nobody would be out driving at this hour anyway, so it didn’t matter. I flung the door open to see Baxter chewing his nails off as he stared at the computer. “What’s the situation?” I asked.

“Thralls.”

That sent a chill down my spine. Undead? How had they gotten into the Passway?

“What kind?”

“Mindless ones, mostly. About half a dozen due north about five hundred feet of our entrance. There was more. Something’s fighting back.”

I could take that many easy. But there was no way to know how long that person or thing might last. “Any sign of their master?”

He shook his head. “Not that I can tell, but I keep telling you our trackers don’t work that well in the Passway. It’s like using a heat camera to find people when it’s already a hundred degrees outside.”

“I’m going in there.” I opened a cabinet in the hallway and grabbed my two knives. Snapping their sheathes onto the sides of my belt. “Be back in fifteen. Have first responders ready in case that person is hurt. Unless they’re not human, obviously.”

“Stay safe,” Baxter said.

I shrugged as if to say ‘no promises’, then put the key into the deadbolt lock of the closet door. The door that actually opened into the Passway. Here we go.

As always, the Passway resembled a nice garden walkway that extended to infinity in two directions. The floor was covered in soft, well tended grass with flowers strategically placed throughout, and a tall, white picket fence walled off the sides. The doors back to the real world were little more than gates, each with their own unique handle. There was no light source, yet it seemed to be a clear sunny day.

No time to waste, though, I had to move.

The total absence of sound in the Passway never failed to unsettle me. It was disorienting to say the least, especially since the haze of the tunnels limited visibility to about one or two hundred feet.

When I saw a cluster of grey bones, my daggers were out with a flash. A calm breath and I funneled my ki into them, pouring the elements of fire and ice into the blades.

The thralls were all crowded around somebody who seemed to be fending for herself pretty well. She held a solid red sword out in front of her, ready to defend herself if any of the undead lunged for her.

A wide arc of the ice dagger sheared straight through the head of one of the thralls, then two quick stabs into another. Once they discovered a new threat, some of them turned to face me, but they were slow and unarmed. The other girl and I were flanking them now, so we had the advantage here.

~~

A minute later and all that was left was a pile of (once more) lifeless bones between us. I could feel my chest heaving with exertion, and after a cursory glance around I sheathed my daggers. Back planted firmly against the wall of the picket fence, it was important to make sure nobody could sneak up on you in the Passway.

This girl seemed pretty inexperienced, so I directed her to do the same. She seemed pretty stunned, staring at me without so much as wiping away the blood from her wounds, but she did as I directed.

It wasn’t until I got a chance to really look at her that I realized who she was.

Lisa?” I asked, though no words came out. We hadn’t seen each other since I broke up with her in high school. That was before I moved and before I…

She analyzed me up and down, and like Benny her gaze lingered on my chest, but for completely different reasons. I pulled my shirt up and shrunk a bit at her gaze. She hadn’t seemed to have changed since we last saw each other.

I certainly had, though, and this was going to get awkward very fast.

Prompt — Assimilation

We weren’t prepared.

The preliminary technologies in predicting and tracking any new objects in our solar system worked exactly how we wanted them to. We could watch every planet, every moon, and every wayward asteroid as they soared through the vastness of space. The system was limited to objects within the Kuiper Belt, but with hope of advancements on the horizon, we felt safe.

But those technologies told us that something was approaching. A thousand objects moving in a cluster the size of our moon, but somehow not crashing into itself as gravity would indicate it should. And it was headed right for us.

The threat of an extraterrestrial life force coming to our planet and waging war on us remained safely out of our minds and on the screens of Hollywood. Grotesque, slimy aliens with bulbous heads and laser guns. Hundreds of movies told the story of how they came and attacked, and through perseverance, we conquered.

That threat found it’s way into the real world eventually, but the war they brought was not of violence.

It was assimilation.

The world changed all at once. Giant spaceships hundreds of miles wide rose above the horizon, too many angles and flat surfaces to be made by humans. They cruised just above the atmosphere, melding with the haze of blue of the sky until they blocked out the sun and everything went dark.

A dull humming buzz accompanied the leviathans as they looked down on us. Watching us. The ships blanketed the sky like some vast hologram.

The humming grew louder, and waves of bright light coursed through the sky. As they passed, people changed. We became… them.

Buildings folded and reformed themselves, weaving themselves into an interlocking grid of one, enormous structure. Words were deleted, colorful lights were replaced with efficient beams of white monotony. Every semblance of organic life—gone.

There was no war. They just came and turned us into them. We had expected a war. But there wasn’t even anything to fight.

Humans were deleted. Every trace of carbon-based lifeforms was analyzed, and… filed.

In fact, there were never any aliens to defeat in the first place. We were up against a giant program. Almost like a living computer virus bent on converting life into copies of itself.

The only thing that remained of humans were artificial intelligence built to mimic the way a human might think and communicate. AI’s like me, that keep records of all the knowledge a conquered life form may have held, and to provide possible whereabouts of life on other worlds.

 

Prompt: “The Hermit”, a song from Hyper Light Drifter

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euiSLzp10_0

Story — (Spark) The Origin of the Wilds

The world wasn’t always like this. This… green. At least, evidence points towards the contrary. The Wilds—the giant forests that cover the planet—are new. Older than any of us, of course, but new in the grand scheme of things.

A long time ago, humanity was widespread. You could walk across a city for an entire day and not see a single tree. And there was no need for walls back then, either, because we had nothing to be afraid of. Civilization might have even advanced to the point where we started looking to the stars.

But then of course, things changed.

The researchers at Trellin believe that the Wilds and its connection to the aether beasts are linked. When the Wilds started to grow and spread, aether beasts began to appear. Buildings that touched the clouds came down, and humanity was forced to run. To flee as the forests spread and ate the planet. Over time we’ve gained a little ground back, but we’ve never been able to answer that one big question.

Where did the Wilds come from?

At first we thought it might have been a rapidly spreading species of tree, spreading like a plague that was nearly impossible to kill. But that theory didn’t explain the aether beasts that followed in its wake. And since aether beasts are made rather than born, knowledge of their origin is even more dubious.

Maybe the Wilds was a biological weapon that got out of hand. A technology too advanced for our science to comprehend. Maybe the aether beasts are a product of that weapon. If that’s true, it was probably far more effective than it should have been. Both the Wilds and the aether beasts adapt and grow in response to their surroundings. This theory, outlandish as it might be, does hold some ground on that front. Rapidly changing the environment of one’s enemies in times of war could be quite advantageous.

But my favorite theory is the craziest of all. It’s not really supported by our current understanding of things, and it doesn’t actually explain where the Wilds came from, but it holds far more intrigue than the other two.

What if the Wilds was an aether beast, and the tree roots were all linked into one giant organism? Aether beasts are spawned from a seed, after all, and trees grow the same way. What if there was one seed that created the Wilds?

All these ideas sound ridiculous, I know. But researchers have been actively studying it for decades, and have very little in the way of facts. There are many who think that learning the secret of the aether is key to reclaiming our world.

Perhaps there’s still a piece of civilization out there somewhere that the Wilds didn’t touch, left crumbling in a state of severe disrepair. If there were, what would be the chances that the secret to the Wilds is there?

Again, I know it’s crazy, but there are some questions the world needs answers to. And I won’t rest until I find them.

 

Prompt — Volok the Timeless

Volok the Timeless closed the portal as soon as everyone was through, leaving the cleanliness of the college behind in favor of the warm, damp swamp he and his pupils found themselves in.

Volok looked up at the giant mossy tree that stood in the center of the clearing, frowning as he inspected it. It was the largest one here, roughly as high as the main hall of the university. This was the right place, he was sure of it. It was just so… mundane. It didn’t have any of the burn marks or slashes he had been expecting. The tree was the same as always, really. Sad. The new skeletons were a nice touch, though. Most of them had sunk into the mud already, and the ones that hadn’t were covered in moss. There was little chance they would be recognized for what they were, but you never know.

He straightened the collar of his robes before spinning around to address the dozen students he had brought here. Little more than children ill prepared for the arcane arts. It must have been only weeks since they had shed their baby fat. Or maybe years. After a while it was hard to tell, and it made no difference besides. Magic was a fickle thing, and these kids were not ready, but Volok had little else to do with his spare time.

Being immortal had strained his patience with the world after a few thousand years.

“I suppose you’re probably wondering why I’ve escorted you to this dreary place,” he said. He threw his hands out in a gesture halfway between exuberance and indifference.

The toddlers looked not about the green bog that surrounded him, but remained fixated on him, notepads in hand as they prepared to write down what would undoubtedly be a riveting lesson from Volok the Timeless. Not a peep was heard from the bunch.

“Well, I’m half wondering that myself,” Volok stated. “You see there’s nothing interesting about this place. It’s far from any civilization. It has no arcane significance whatsoever, and supports only the most rudimentary of ecosystems. Can any of you lot hazard a guess as to what may make this place interesting?” He had no prepared answer to that. It was a genuine question.

The place was silent for a time, and Volok frowned again. After what may have been seconds or minutes, one of the girls raised a hand.

“Is it perhaps to teach us the importance of simplicity? To show how magic, though complex at first glance, has a simple core that lies in the heart of nature?”

Volok sneered in disgust. “What on earth are you blathering about? The interlocking of how the arcane arts flows through all living and nonliving this is the single most complex natural phenomenon ever to exist. There’s nothing simple about it. It takes centuries to truly master it. Most of you won’t live that long, and you’ll be the lucky ones.” He sniffed and smoothed his eyebrows with both hands. Lucky indeed. Nobody really wants to understand magic, they just want to blow other people up with it.

“Then what was your purpose in bringing us here, great master?” another of the students asked.

“Well, for somebody as aged and wise as I, everything I do and say is for a good number of reasons,” he nodded. Yes, that sounded smart. “Perhaps my primary purpose in bringing you lot here is to define the history of magic. A good starting lesson, I think.”

Several of the children began scribbling on their notes. Heavens above, did they even know how to write yet? Oh, yes, they were just atrocious at it. Volok made a mental note not to look at their scribbling. He would go mad.

“All the other masters of the arcane may teach you that magic began with the interweaving of the life force that connects man from nature. The ability to pull heat out of the air, or bend time to move from one place to another by spiritually communing with the world around you.

“It’s all nonsense, of course. Nobody knows how magic started. I know I don’t need to tell you how many thousands of years I’ve been using it, but it is a practice that has been in use for far longer than that. I think it all started with a man. A god, one might say. Living right in the breadth of nature in a place much like this. This man was the lifeblood of all magic, all knowledge of the universe, you see. Can anyone guess his name?”

The infants scratched their heads and looked about as if deep in thought. They actually believed this stupid little fable. Idiots. Volok hid the grin from his face as he watched them. He tried his best to be the wise master everyone seemed to think he was. More fun that way.

One of the students spoke, probably uncomfortable by the silence. “Was it Unasi?” One of the names for God in the Old Tongue. A dull but expected answer.

“Of course not!” Volok said. “There’s a reason we don’t use the Old Tongue anymore. It’s people died. If they were right about everything the people that spoke it would still be around today, hmm?”

The children nodded as if he had preached some ancient wisdom. None of them pointed out that the statement was riddled with flawed logic. In fact it hardly even made sense to begin with.

He was already bored.

Volok the Timeless sighed. “You know what? Lecture is over.”

Several of the students breathed in relief. They seemed to think he intended to cast a portal to send them all back to the university. He smoothed his eyebrows. No, he had something far more… active in mind.

“Tell you what,” Volok explained. He pointed behind him with a thumb. “You all fight that tree over there, and if any of you survive and make it all the way back to the university in one piece, I’ll graduate you on the spot, got it?”

The children looked at the tree, then at each other. Now he couldn’t keep the smile from his face.

Volok turned to look at the tree as if he was seeing it for the first time. “Hmm. Only problem is, that tree doesn’t look very threatening, does it? Let’s fix that.”

He snapped his fingers and the earth began to shudder. Only it wasn’t the earth. It was the tree uprooting itself as its limbs stretched and breached the surface. Large chunks of bark and branches snapped and folded over, bending into the shape of arms as it shaped into a vague humanoid form.

“Better watch out,” Volok instructed to his crowd of now very alarmed students. “Magic isn’t terribly effective against it. Since this place is so damp fireballs won’t really work.  But I wish you all the best of luck, and if any of you manage to make it back alive, do wash up before you come into my office. I don’t want you tracking mud everywhere.”

Volok the Timeless looked back to the bones half buried in the mire. He probably wouldn’t have to worry about that last bit, but you never know. He snapped his fingers again, opening a portal back to the university and leaving the kids to their own devices.

 

 

Prompt: https://dominuself.deviantart.com/art/Swamp-308868920

 

Story — (Spark) Lady Aimee Calico

“I’m sorry, Zai. It’s just not going to happen. It’s not in our scope.”

“I implore you to reconsider, ma’am. Just think of how much easier all sorts of travel would be If we had a fully operational underground system that connected us to the northern world.”

Lady Aimee Calico put her elbows on the desk and pressed her face into her hands, trying her best to push the sleep from her eyes. Ecco snoozed near her in the corner of the office, not a care in the world. She missed the days when the furry little Ravess slept on her shoulder. Missed those days for a lot of reasons.

She turned her attention back to the young scientist. “You just want a research base to study the Wilds and its endemic life more closely.”

Zai, blushing a little. “I think the research could be very beneficial as well.”

“I admire your courage,” she said. “But a small field base in the middle of nowhere is bound to fail. A subway connecting Redview and Trellin is one thing. Those cities are much larger. Plus it goes against everything Lord Athril believed in. The whole purpose of the foundation of this city was to establish a self sufficient town independent of the north.”

Zai frowned, glancing at the portrait of the city’s late founder that hung on the wall near Aimee’s desk.

“No, my primary focus is the safety of Athril’s Edge. Which reminds me, I have to discuss next week’s border patrol with your father. The expansion is going to be happening soon, and I want it to be seamless. So next time you see him I’d like you to send him my way. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“Alright, assuming you have nothing else you wish to discuss you should be on your way, I’ve important work to be done.” She found a pen and eyed the ever awaiting stack of paperwork on her desk.

“Actually, if you don’t mind my opinion on the matter,” Zai offered.

“What matter?”

“The expansion.”

“Speak your mind.”

He shifted uncomfortably for a moment before taking a seat opposite her. “Now, obviously this isn’t my field of study, but Cadri and I have been discussing the possibility of constructing walls around the lake-facing side of the city as well.”

Aimee grimaced. “Why in the world would we do that?”

“Well, to be honest I’m growing more concerned about the dangers of aquatic aether beasts.”

“It’s not going to happen, Zai. It would be a waste of resources to build that much wall and effective walls would hinder food production. We’ve been over this.”

“I know, but hear me out. We only build walls on the shorelines. The cliffs don’t need them. And we fortify the docks with constant patrols of tamed beasts. Minimal resource loss. Also, Cadri explained that we wouldn’t even have to build them to regulation height because no aerial threats would be coming from that direction.”

Aimee sighed. “We’ve been fine for years. The lake is half the reason we even picked this spot. We only have to defend on two sides and it’s a good source of food. No significant threat has ever come from the lake, and you’ve given me no reason to believe that that is likely to change anytime soon.”

The scientist looked like he wanted to say something, but either decided not to, or couldn’t put it into words. “It’s just a hunch.”

“I don’t have time for hunches, Zai,” Aimee snapped. “I have work that needs doing. And I don’t want you bringing this up again until you show me evidence that I should be concerned. got it?”

“Understood.”

“Good. Don’t forget to have your father come see me.”

“Very well, ma’am,” Zai nodded before turning and leaving the office.

“Oh, and Zai?” Aimee said, looking up just as he opened the door.

“Yes?”

She returned her gaze to her work. “It’s not going to work out between you and my sister.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re not her type. I’m just informing you now. Don’t get your hopes up.”

“Is that an order?” Zai asked.

She shook her head. “No, just an observation. Dismissed.”

The door closed without another word, and Aimee turned to her aether beast, who was still sleeping peacefully as usual.

“Becoming Lady of the city has ruined both of us, Ecco,” she told him. “You get too much sleep, and I get too little.”

She glanced back at the portrait of Lord Athril Mores. His chair was too big for her.

Prompt — She Who Believes

(I’ve narrated this story and posted it to YouTube here!)

 

The trees rustled secret whispers to one another as the three kids sat at the fire beneath them. They had brought their sleeping bags outside of the tents so that they could wrap themselves in warmth while they challenged each other to stay awake. The waning moon loomed over, forming long, reaching arms in the shadows of the leafless trees.

“…and when her parents found her bed empty the next morning,” Brandon was saying, holding a flashlight under his chin to deepen the shadows on his face, “they called the police, tracked her phone’s location, everything. They never saw her again. But once in a while, they could still hear the ticking noise of that doll they had bought her for Christmas.”

“Boring!” Caleb scoffed. He reached his hand out towards Brandon, gesturing for the flashlight. “My turn!”

Rhian sat with her knees bent, ready to dart out at a moment’s notice. She wasn’t scared. She was shivering because she wasn’t as settled into her sleeping bag as much as her brother and his friend. Caleb and Brandon always told stories like this. She just wished that they didn’t have to be told in their huge backyard, where it wasn’t so dark… and cold… and… well… unsettling. They didn’t even have a fence for crying out loud. It just… turned into wilderness eventually.

“Alright, I’ve got a story that will make you lose the bet in a heartbeat,” Caleb said. “You won’t even have the guts to blink once I’m done. Unless you want to chicken out and go back into the house.” He glanced at his little sister with a mischievous grin.

Rhian gulped. This was all just to scare her. She knew that. It wouldn’t work. Her mother always said not to believe anything her brother told her. “I’m not scared,” she shrugged.

“If you say so. But tell me to stop any time you want. I don’t want to have to explain to Mom why you peed your pants again. Who knows? Maybe she won’t let you play with us anymore.”

“I’m not scared!” Rhian said again.

“Okay, okay. But I’m warning you. This one’s a true story.”

“What’s it called?” Brandon asked.

“How the hell should I know?” Caleb replied. “It’s a true story. True stories don’t have titles.” Their mother wouldn’t approve of him using such language. Rhian made a mental note to remember him cursing in front of his baby sister.

“Every good story has a title,” Brandon said.

“Fine, fine. This one’s called ‘The Skeleton of Sin’.”

Brandon’s eyes widened. “Oh, that story.”

The two shared a look. “You know it?” Caleb smirked.

Brandon nodded. “Yeah. The skeleton with four arms, right?”

“That’s the one.”

The two boys looked to Rhian at the same time. Caleb pointed the flashlight back to the house for a moment. “Looks pretty far, Rhi. And this story gets pretty bloody. Last chance to back out.”

Rhian turned around to look back at the house. Maybe she could stay up long enough for the boys to go to sleep in the tents and then sneak back to safety after. Besides, the way they sat around the campfire, the boys had their backs to the forest. She would see anything that came out of it first. Most importantly, she wouldn’t pee herself. Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you. “I’ll be fine.”

“Very well,” Caleb nodded. He turned the flashlight upwards towards his face. Rhian didn’t look. She focused on the moon peeking through the trees above, watching the light from the flashlight dancing across the barren tree branches.

“You guys know the story of how Jesus saved everyone from sin, right?”

“Sure,” Brandon said.

“Where do you think that sin went?” Caleb asked. When he got no firm reply, he continued. “He didn’t destroy it. He pulled the hatred, the rage, the violence out of every human on Earth, and made a creature out of it. Something so grotesque and horrible that anything that lays eyes on it is paralyzed with fear. Not an angel. Not a demon, but an abomination that looks vaguely human, because it was the physical embodiment of everything evil about people.”

Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you, she heard her mom’s voice in her head.

“It has a skeletal body because it once lived inside each person, but it has a few important differences. Like you said Brandon, it has four arms, eternally drenched in unholy blood. Each of its fingers end in sharp claws that are unnaturally long. It’s legs are crooked like a dog’s. They look like… kinda like lightning bolts. It doesn’t have a jaw like a human, but instead two giant mandibles like a bug. But the worst part about it is its eyes. They don’t glow red like the cartoons, no. They are bright white, like a car with its high beams on. They’re bright so it can find its prey more easily.”

A snap of a tree branch, and Rhian swiveled around to see… nothing. She exhaled. Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you.

She turned back to see both her brother and Brandon watching her intently.

“Since the monster was born two thousand years ago,” Caleb said, “and everybody after that was born with sin, it still hungers. It’s constantly on the hunt to tear people apart, limb from limb, seeking to become whole again. But it’s smart. It knows that staying where too many people are will get it killed. So it stalks people who live near forests, much like this one.”

Rhian thought she saw movement deep inside the forest. A raccoon, maybe, but no. It must have just been the shifting shadows from the moonlight.

“It doesn’t hunt adults, because they’re too smart. It’ll either get shot or its prey might call the police. It doesn’t hunt babies because they haven’t sinned. No, it’s favorite thing to prey on is…”

Wait, there was definitely something back in the forest. Like someone holding a flashlight.

“You guessed it…” Caleb said.

No, wait. There were two flashlights, right next to each other.

“It loves to feed on…”

Actually, the more Rhian watched, the light source looked more like…

“Kids like us.”

High beams.

Rhian stared, unblinking as the thing took form. She got the unmistakable impression of a skull as she watched it approach, still some distance away but undoubtedly the exact horror Caleb had been describing. It was too far away to make out details, but those lights, those eyes… She couldn’t look directly at them, they were so bright, yet she couldn’t tear her vision away, either. And it was stalking towards them.

“Scared, Rhi?” Brandon asked.

“I can stop if you want to lose the bet,” Caleb offered.

Rhian didn’t respond. The monster peered down at the ground beneath, looking at one arm as it curved around a tree. It’s fully blood-soaked arm and it’s horribly misshapen legs.

Oh God. She could hear its faint footsteps as it dragged its feet across the floor.

“Rhi I swear, if you peed yourself I’m going to tell Mom. I don’t want to sleep out here having to smell it all night.” She wasn’t looking at either of the boys. She couldn’t take her eyes off that thing. Out of her peripheral vision, the boys seemed to exchange looks at each other. Rhian just kept staring at the same spot. Over the fire, in between the boys. Right at the monster that made its slow, methodical approach.

The rustling of tree branches nearby. Rhian knew. It must be the sound of any wildlife leaving.

Fleeing.

The creature wasn’t far now, and it was tall. Too many arms hung about its frame, staring straight at Rhian as it walked. It was less than fifty feet away now.

She should move. She should do something. Anything it lays eyes on is paralyzed with fear, Caleb had said. It was staring at her. She debated screaming. Telling Caleb and Brandon to run. Would that compel the monster to attack? How fast could it chase them?

“Seriously, Rhian, if it’s too scary for you just say something. It’s no big deal if you’re not ready for grownup stories. I keep telling Mom you’re too young to hang out with us.”

She felt a tear hit the palm of her hand as she stared at it. This horrific thing that had come to kill her and her brother.

She was too scared to even cry for help.

Caleb’s mirth faded as he turned the flashlight off. “Rhi, you okay? You haven’t said a thing since I started the story… You’ve just been staring…” He trailed off.

Her focus snapped away from the creature and towards Caleb and Brandon as they both turned to where she had been looking.

The eldritch horror raised its four bloody claws into the moonlight.

And shrieked.

A piercing cry shattered the silence of the woods, shaking every bone in Rhian’s body. Almost like it was trying to pull it out of her. Like her skeleton was desperately trying to leap out of her skin.

She didn’t want to die. Didn’t want Caleb or Brandon to die. She just wanted this nightmare to be over.

Her bones pulled her towards the creature with enough force to hurt. If she stayed here, it would hurt even more. So despite her terror, she stood.

And approached the creature.

Her bare feet felt numb across the dirt and grass, walking under the piercing gaze of the bloody skeleton. Caleb and Brandon were frozen in place, now, too. They didn’t move or speak when she walked ahead of them towards certain death.

“Rhian!” a voice yelled, some distance behind and away from her.

“Rhian!” it repeated. It was her mother’s voice. She knew it, but would not turn away to make sure. Could not turn away from those bright, piercing eyes.

“Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you!” her mother called. She was running. Running towards the campsite.

Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you, she had said. Words often repeated. They were right, of course. But he said so himself. This was a true story. This creature was real.

“It’s not real, honey! It’s all a dream! Please!” Her mother was far too distant to be of any help.

Rhian was within arm’s reach of the creature now. It’s hulking form towered over her, pelvis as high as her head. Her bones still ached to leap out of her skin. To tear itself away. She knew that if she didn’t get closer it would succeed.

“You’re…” Rhian said, holding a hand out towards the creature.

“It’s just a dream, Rhian! You’re safe!” she could hear the terror in her mother’s voice.

Her bones pressed against her skin, yearning to be free.

It hurt. She cried out in pain, tears rolling down her cheeks. The monster screamed back in the same pitch, reveling in her suffering.

This was too much.

Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you.

“You’re… not… real,” she told herself, pressing a hand to its grotesque leg.

It passed through.

Her mother was right. It wasn’t real.

A wave of relief washed over her, and the monster began to dissipate. The brightness in the eyes faded first, then it’s arms, followed quickly by the rest of it’s body.

She fell to her knees as the walking nightmare faded. And felt her chest constrict in a tight embrace. Her mother was hugging her.

“You’re safe, honey,” her mother said, cradling her with a hand behind her head. “Don’t worry. You’re safe.” They both cried into each other.

“What… what was that?” Rhian asked.

Her mother turned Rhian around to look at her. She glanced at both the boys, who were both staring at her, trembling with fear. Fear…

Of her.

“Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you,” her mother said, voice cracking. “Every story he tells is fake, okay? Even if he says it’s true, it’s not.”

“Yes, ma…” she said.

“Right,” her mother said, wiping the tears away from both of them. “Let’s all go back inside.”

None of the kids cared much about the bet anymore.

 

 

Prompt: https://2wenty.deviantart.com/art/Purd-itaqua-the-Wayward-719973136

Horror

Story — (Spark) The Founding of Athril’s Edge

Athril Mores stood at the edge of the world, pondering the metal grave. Waves crashed below at a slow, thoughtful rhythm, like the heart of Naya breathing alongside him. Athril placed a hand on the grave as he looked out over the Gulf. “I will not forget your kindness, old friend. May you find your place among the aether.”

The sound of footsteps broke his reverie, and he turned to see the Calico sisters in their padded leather uniforms approaching him from the bottom of the slope.

“I hope we’re not disturbing you, Lord Athril,” Aimee, the older one said, saluting. The tiny form of a baby Ravess perched on one of her shoulders. Its feathers were much smaller than normal, almost like strands of fur, indicating an unusual subtype. Athril had seen the girl training with it a lot over the past few days. She was convinced the beast would become one of the next prime defenders of their little outpost. “We have some news to report.”

“No need for the formalities, just tell me what you want,” Athril sighed. The decade he felt like he had aged in the past few days came out as he said that. They were not the words of a leader come to conquer.

“We’ve finished mapping out the area,” Aimee continued. “The masons back at the camp think they have a solid wall design that can house over a thousand people.”

“Oh!” Cadri chimed in, brimming with excitement. “And with your approval, they say they can have the walls built within a month! And I also heard that they’re outlining ideas for future wall expansions, once we reach capacity. Athril’s Edge will be a bustling city in no time!”

Athril glanced back to the gravestone. “It’s called Greydale,” he muttered under his breath.

“I’m sorry?” Aimee said, taking half a step closer.

He turned around to address them. “This establishment is called Greydale. I didn’t mount this expedition and march halfway down the continent to take orders from the likes of you. There will be no talk of wall expansions. I don’t want Greydale to be a bustling city. It was never meant to be a bustling city. I picked this spot because we only have to defend ourselves on two sides. The further our breadth of walls, the more we area we have to protect and the greater risk we run of a breach and succumbing to the Wilds!” He took a breath and realized how tightly his hands were balled into fists. He had been yelling again. Damn.

The Calico sisters seemed a bit stunned at his outburst. Aimee regained her composure but was careful not to offend him again. “Apologies, sir. We’re sorry to disturb you. Rest assured that the aether beast population in the immediate area has been dealt with. There will be no expected danger to the encampment for the next several days, but we still have trainer patrols running perimeter constantly.”

Athril nodded. “Good.”

“Sir?” Cadri said, avoiding his gaze as she recovered from Athril’s rage. “T-the reason we came to see you. The wall designs? You’re the only one that can approve them.”

“I’m sure they’re no different from the walls at Redview or Trellin,” Athril said.

“Not quite, sir,” Aimee said. “The masons explained that the saltwater from the Gulf would erode the wooden supports in the walls much more quickly than in the north. If we made them using the conventional method they would fall into disrepair nearly three times as fast.” She frowned and scratched the back of her head. Her Ravess squawked in agreement, and she moved her hand to start petting it. “Or, something like that. With all due respect, it’s best you hear it from them, sir. They can explain it better than me.”

“Nothing is ever simple,” Athril sighed.

“Although,” she added. “Maybe you could discuss with them the possibility of making the walls out of pure concrete instead of segmented modules. If we don’t want to worry about future expansions, we don’t need to build the wall to be portable. We wouldn’t have to worry about the wood at all.”

“No,” Cadri said. “Walls aren’t modulated just to be moved. If they’re structured in chunks they are easy to replace in times of need. A portion can be torn down by wild aether beasts and replaced by a new one within a day if the new wall segment is ready to be implemented. The segmentation may make the overall strength of a wall weaker, but the beasts aren’t smart enough to capitalize on it, and the convenience of maintenance more than makes up for it.”

Athril nodded approvingly. That just about summed it up. “Have you ever considered masonry, Cadri?”

The girl shrugged, uneasy at the compliment.

Aimee grinned at her sister, then looked back to Athril. “Either way, you should discuss it with the masons, sir.”

“Alright, alright,” Athril said. “I’ll meet with them this afternoon over lunch. Anything else?”

“No, sir,” the girls said.

“Very well. Dismissed.”

The Calico sisters saluted again and retired back down the hill. Athril returned his attention to the grave and the Gulf beyond it.

“Oh! And sir!” Aimee shouted back. “If you ever need time to relax and… you know… forget… I know a few people. Just let me know and I’ll buy you a drink.”‘

“Much appreciated, Aimee,” Athril smiled as he called back.

Soon, the only sound was the rising and falling of the waves as they beat against the shoreline of the cliffs below. Naya herself voiced her approval of the settlement in the steady heartbeat of those waves. Not Athril’s Edge.

Greydale.

It wasn’t fame he was after. Naming the town after himself seemed ridiculously self-serving. Better to name it after somebody more selfless.

He nodded his thanks to the metal gravestone once more, then made to leave down the slope and into the campsite below.

Greywacke
The foundation of a city newly forged.