Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The L.A.O.S. Part 7


 Catch up on Part 1!
(Or maybe Part 2?) 
(How's about Part 3?) 
(Part 4!)
(Ooo, Part 5...)
(6! It's Part 6!)


I was still fuming when I got back (having successfully devoured a Mc-Bigger-Than-My-Head Burger and two large fries), so much so that I rounded a corner and ran smack into someone’s back. Said someone swore and rounded on me.

“Watch where you’re going, Private Boy,” he said, looking me up and down. “Private Parts.”

I flushed, hands fisting at my sides. “Piss off,” I snarled, with what was fast becoming my usual astounding genius. Master of Wit, that’s me.

“Piss off yourself,” Public Boy – Pubic Boy? That seemed fair – replied, vicious grin lighting up his face. “Especially since you’re, oh, I don’t know,” he looked at his watch, “five minutes late. That little pocket rocket you have on your team, she won’t be too impressed about that now, will she. Been giving you the cold shoulder all morning. Think what she’ll do now.” He tsked and shook his head.

My cheeks felt hot and my jaw and fists hurt from clenching. How dare… I mean, it’s not like… And seriously! But most of all: what the hell? I inhaled, long and slow, and forced the tension away. “You know what?” I said, wrestling my voice towards normal. “You’re right. I am late. I should go.” I turned and walked away. Megan should be proud.

Pubic Boy snickered. “Oh yes,” he said. “Don’t let me faze you. I’m only a public student. My words should just… pass right through.”

I froze, heart jolted. He knew. He’d seen me phase through the door earlier and he knew. What else could that mean?

He snickered again. “Don’t let me detain you, though. I’m sure you’re just dying to straight-line back to your little friends. After all, they clearly need you.”

I flexed my fingers and worked my mouth, trying to make my dried-out tongue function. “What do you want?” I said slowly, wondering if I could just walk away from this. A chill ran over my shoulder, skin contracting and shivering as something fluttered over it.

“That depends,” Pubic Boy breathed against my neck. “What’ve you got to give?”

Abruptly I realised what the strange feeling in my shoulder was: his hand. The feeling wasn’t on my shoulder, it was in it – which meant that his hand… I gagged, and the motion jerked on his arm, which sent panic spinning through me. I gasped for air and forced down the chants of ‘Chris-fit, Chris-fit.’

“Easy now,” Pubic Boy said, steadying me with his free hand. “Stand still!”

I tried, fighting to stay upright against the whirling in my stomach. The world blurred and I tasted bile, panting, gasping. Breathe, breathe, breathe! I shouted at myself, covering my mouth and nose with my hand. I sucked at it, slurping in the air, but it forced me to slow down and I gulped, swaying.

“Dude.” Pubic Boy sounded concerned. How touching. He shook his hand free with barely a second of effort and grabbed my shoulders, spinning me to face him. “Seriously?” He wrinkled his brow at me. “Just chill, okay?”

I nodded, releasing my mouth and inhaling myself fully upright. I squeezed my eyes closed. I’m fine. I’m fine. “How did you do that?” I said with my eyes still closed.

I felt him shrug. “Same way you walked through that door.”

Guilt surged in the pit of my stomach. Megan would be livid. Crap. I was late. She was probably already livid. I exhaled shudderingly and opened my eyes. Questions. I’d been about to ask him something. I stared at his arms, still propping me upright. Oh yeah.

I dragged my gaze upwards to his face, just registering the concern in his frown before it vanished and he was sneering. “But,” I forced out. “Can’t you only do that with inanimate objects?”

“Inanimate?” His sneer deepened back to a frown.

It was my turn to sneer. I shook him off and straightened my tie. “Inanimate, doofus. Not alive.”

Anger flashed through his eyes. “I know what it means, Private Parts. But why should that matter?”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, I don’t know: maybe because living things are complicated. Their molecular structure is irregular. Doesn’t that make it harder to phase through?” I bounced a little on my toes. In spite of myself, I was intrigued.

Pubic Boy shrugged again. “Glass is irregular. Wood is irregular. Didn’t seem to stop you with the door.”

I opened my mouth to retort – and stopped. Damn it. He was right. I blinked and close my mouth.

He snickered at that. “So, going to break that one to your dear little friends? They are your friends, aren’t they? You all looked like you were having such a good time.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Funny. No. I know them, that’s all.” Which was true: they weren’t my friends. They were the League of Extraordinary Losers, and sure, they’d invited me in when the rest of the world had shut me out but that didn’t mean I liked them – except maybe Megan, because hello, hot and intelligent.

So why was my heart pounding like I was trying to convince Dad that it had been Mitch that had wrecked the car that time, and not me?

Pubic Boy raised an eyebrow. “That so.” He paused, then continued in a rush. “And do they… you know.” He flapped his hand ineffectually. “Phase.”

I shrugged, trying to ignore my still-pounding pulse and the tiny voice that was whispering that this was a guy who’d pretty much attacked me just a few moments ago. “Maybe.”

“Of course they do,” Pubic Boy murmured to himself. “That’s why you’re with them.” He hesitated again, twisting up his mouth, then stuck out his hand. “Evan,” he said. “Evan Frampton.”

“Chris,” I returned, shaking his hand after only a fraction of an instant. So he’d tried to muscle me; the rivalry between public and private schools was as old as their existence, and he’d let up pretty quickly. “Chris Webb.”

He nodded. “Well, Chris Webb. We’d better get back inside, or your Pocket Rocket might just murder us both with her eyes.” His tone suggested that he wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be a real possibility, and I chuckled. Well, why not? We were a bunch of people who could walk through walls, after all.

[Continued next month...]

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Alone

He lingers over his approach to the front door, breathing deeply, filling his dry, creaky lungs with the scent of home. Stone and damp, old tomatoes and dust. His life encapsulated by a perfect smell.
And he’ll never smell it again. The soulbond is drawing to an end, he can feel it, feel the weight lifting. Two days, he estimates. Two days and the bond will be gone. He’ll be alone for the first time in years.

He casts his gaze over the two storeys of the little house, crammed in at the end of a high-walled alleyway—and yet the only place he’s ever been able to breathe. The gang—his family, the ones he chose and raised—are like that. They kept him going when there was nothing else to live for.

He winces. What is he thinking? They need him, his protection—and he needs them. He pauses stiffly on the front step, rubbing the age from his knuckles and the pain from his face.

He opens the door and Tara storms out into the hall. She attacks the stairs without even a glance in his direction. His mouth bunches tightly as he suppresses a laugh. Oh, yes. This is home.

He steps inside and closes the door behind him, smoothing a hand over wood more worn than he is. He takes another deep breath, basking in the warm smells of oak and brass polish.

A sigh, from the living room. Is that her? Fortuitous, if so. The more of them he can avoid today the better. Dying is hard enough without having to say goodbye. Especially when one must die alone.

He creeps across the hallway, floorboards gently protesting, and pauses for a moment in the doorway to drink in the scene. The bay window to his left lets in the little light available in this bottom storey of a back alley, softly illuminating the furniture older than he is—and probably in better condition. His lips twitch in a half smile.

And there, curled in the single armchair by the fireplace, bathed in flickering firelight, sits Jessana. He smiles at the contradiction of the literary novel in her hand and the assassin’s knife lying on the table next to her, loving it even as he hates himself for nurturing the killer in her. But it had been necessary, a choice of her life, the life of his almost-daughter, against the lives of faceless, impersonal others. He’d kept her alive by teaching her his skills.

He tenses, thinking of what he is about to do; it feels precariously like abandoning her. Pain stabs at his ribcage. He sucks in air that tastes like age and smooths the mask over his face. They will never know about the pain—but the goodbye he can’t delay much longer. So he straightens from the wall, squares his shoulders, and enters the room.

Jess glances up and smiles. “Hello!” She unfurls her legs to get to her feet, but he waves her back down.

“No need for that.” He lowers himself into a nearby chair and nods at her clenched fist. “What have you got there?”

Jess sighs and rolls her eyes, putting down her book and offering her other hand. “Tara found it.”

“Unusual.” The glossy black ring seems the antithesis of Jess, shrouded in darkness as she is haloed in light. For a moment he feels as though it tugs at his soulbond; but the moment passes, and it is just a ring, if an unusually deep black one.

“Very,” Jess responds. “And I don’t even want to know where she got it from, especially if it’s where I think she did.”

“And where might that be?”

“A dead body.”

“Oh, Jess,” he says, laughing. “You’ve got your hands full with that one.” He grins; Jess grins back.

“Is there any hope?” she asks in mock despair.

He sobers. “Funny you should say that,” he murmurs. “I was just thinking the other day that she reminded me of someone.” He shoots Jess a significant look.

She responds with a wry smile. “Okay,” she says. “I give in. I’ll persevere with the little monster.”

He chuckles. “Good girl.”

The silence stretches. Jess glances at her novel, then back at him. “Did you want something?”

It’s time. It has to be done. His mind races for things to say, anything other than what needs to be said. Nothing comes, so he inhales and begins. “Yes, Jessana, I do want something.”

Her body language changes, becoming more alert. “Is everything all right?”

He smiles. “Everything is fine. In... in a manner of speaking. You see, it appears that I have...” He swallows, almost choking on the lie. “I have a son.”

Jess jerks in surprise.

“Yes,” he continues, finding his rhythm. “I was somewhat shocked myself to discover it. But the main point is, he is quite unwell, and his mother is unable to support them with all his medical expenses.” A slight pause before the climax of the lie. “I loved his mother very much. I... I have found a job.” He stares at the floor, sick to the stomach. “I'm going to live with them, and support them.”

He risks a glance at Jess, whose shock is written on her face. Shock, but not disbelief. That’s a good sign. He presses on, the hardest part behind him. “The house will need a new leader, Jessana. I want that leader to be you.”

“Me?” she says, incredulous. “Why me? There are others much better qualified. River is the eldest, choose him! Or Patty, she knows how to get everyone moving. Or Alek, or...” She flounders. “Why me?”

He smiles gently. “It has always been you, Jessana. From the moment you arrived. Don’t you notice how they follow you?” The whole world worships the ground you walk on, he doesn’t add.

Jess squirms. “I suppose so...”

He takes her hand. “They will support you. Never alone, remember? Do it for me?” He blinks back the tears that threaten to clog his eyes. Their motto, everything they live by—but he has to throw it away. He can’t cling to false hope, can’t risk having the bond transfer to someone he loves when he passes on.

Jess nods, exhaling. “Okay,” she says. “For you.”

“Then good.” He claps his hands once together and smiles. “That’s settled.” He makes to rise.

“When do you leave?” Jess says softly, and he feels her eyes probing his facade for the truth, pinning him back in his chair.

He shakes off her gaze, stands and closes his eyes; turns away from love and comfort and joy.

“It’s today, isn’t it?” she says.

He nods.

“Oh.” And she is there, beside him, wrapping her arms around him, and the tears that he’d promised he wouldn’t shed are coursing down his cheeks, making rivulets to rival his wrinkles.

Slowly, her soothing works its way into the crevices of his soul and the tears subside like dust settling to the ground. Jess pats him on the shoulder. “You should go, then,” she says. “Wouldn’t want to be late, now, would we?”

He smiles, a false, brittle thing that he erases before it cracks his fragile exterior. He flees to the front door and jerks it open, determined not to look back. He steps out, pulls the door—but Jess catches it and props it open, standing to watch him leave.

He walks away down the alley. Midway, Jess calls. “Wait!”

He steels himself, knowing he can’t deny her the chance for goodbye. He tenses as he meets her gaze, so piercing he thinks it might kill him there and then.

“Wait,” she says again.

“Yes, Jessana?”

“How much longer do you have to live?”

And there it is, the very thing he’s been trying to avoid, the reason he’d concocted the story of the job and the family in the first place. And despite it all, in spite of all his acting and plotting and planning—she knows. She still knows.

He works his tongue to moisten his suddenly dry mouth. “Not... Not much longer,” he says in a voice that rasps like dead leaves.

“How long?”

Those eyes. Stars of Fate, those eyes... He presses his own closed and forces the words out. “Two days.”

The silence and curiosity opens his eyes. Their gazes lock, and she nods. “Two days. Stay nearby. I’ll find you.”

“You can't!” he says, hands clenching. “I won't have the bond jump to you!”

Jess smiles sadly. “It can't. I'm already bound.”

He reels like she's slammed the door in his face. Jess, his precious, perfect Jess, is soul-bound too. No wonder she'd seen through his lies.

He nods. “Nearby.” She deserves that much. He turns to leave.

“Wait.”

Something thuds into the ground behind his feet, and he glances down. Her knife. His gaze flicks to Jess.

“For the pain,” she says.

He nods and picks up the knife. “For the pain.” Tucking it into his belt, he walks out of the alleyway for the last time.


Behind him, words echo down the street that smells like home. “Never alone, Guiro. Never alone.”

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Opening to "Star and Ice" (actual title TBD)

Sema didn’t sleep as well as she used to. Her back ached, the house creaked, and her mind would rise full of thoughts and memories when the stars shone on the ice, which was every night. So, this night, when the crash against the door that made the house shake intruded around the edges of her sleep-muzzed consciousness, she only wrapped the blankets around tighter and curled up on the bed. There was a voice in the wind, she thought dreamily, almost a wail. But such thoughts came from her grandmother’s generation. The immortal world needed no help from mortal beings, was not even immortal. Nothing left but the too-tired mind playing tricks on a lonely old woman.

Pink pearled the horizon after a night of swaying from asleep to not-quite-asleep, wanting to fall, but never quite managing to. Overcast again. For a brief moment, the sun stared dully down at the glacier, but it must not have liked what it saw. Sema brewed a pot of tea from the supply her son had left before his voyage across the sea. Almost gone now, it was, but with only one person drinking it, it would last a while yet.

Rain had come down last night, rain mixed with snow, and it occurred to Sema that she ought to see if the mat had frozen to the front step. Odd weather, that, it now seemed to her in the daylight hours. Too warm for the season. Too wet. She built the fire back up to a cheerful blaze and laid the horsehair blanket on the rocking chair, that it might be ready for her after her morning exertion. Tea ready, she covered the pot and set her cup by the chair that it might cool. Then, finally, she took the worn wooden box with a broken lock from its place under the window and placed it next to the chair, in front of the funny table with three legs — built that way — upon which sat her tea. The window had streaks on it, which she frowned at and tried to rub away with a corner of her sleeve, but they were on the outside, and would not leave.

Then, to the door. Snow fell in small, dry flakes on the other side of the window, so she wrapped herself in several layers — shawl, coat, parka — before touching the handle. It was warm, warmer even than the inside of the house. A trick of the senses only, reminding her to put on her fur-lined mittens, which she did. Prepared in all ways, she opened the door.

The air should have nipped at her nose and cheeks. White flakes should have swirled, sticking to her face and clothing. She should be regretting that first breath after the door is wide open and the worst is over, so you stop holding your breath and let the cold drill down into the lungs. But the air was mild as mid spring, the snow turned to water the moment it came within four feet of the door. That first breath went down easy, if a bit dry and, before the front step, lay a young woman naked as the day she was born, surrounded by a puddle of water mixed with blood.

Note: I'm not sure when/if I'm going to finish this story. I rather like Sema, and I find the mystery surrounding the young woman she stumbles upon fascinating, but I'm thinking that I'll need to change a LOT before I hit on the right form this story needs to take for me to be able to finish it. Maybe Sema and the young woman need to be in two different stories?

Hm. I'll ponder that.

In the mean time, I'll leave this unsolved mystery to rattle around in your brain a while. :D

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The L.A.O.S. Part 6


 Catch up on Part 1!
(Or maybe Part 2?) 
(How's about Part 3?) 
(Part 4!)
(Ooo, Part 5...)

I mooched into the room five minutes late with my school blazer itching unbearably at my neck. I ran a finger around my collar, feeling like I was going to choke at any second, and scanned the room for Megan. She was the only thing that would make this stupid day bearable. She was nearly the only thing that made joining the League of Extraordinary Losers worthwhile, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fracking cool to be able to walk through a door without opening it or, you know, rummage in someone’s schoolbag without unzipping it.

Not that, you know, I could do that around anyone but the Losers, because if anyone else saw me do it I’d a) land a detention (big woop) and b) probably be examined to within an inch of my life. Such was the joy of being a teenager with superpowers, even if they were ‘absolutely ordinary’ ones. I sniffed. Ordinary my arse. The other misfits could try to pretend they were ordinary if they liked, but I for one wasn’t the least bit afraid of being an individual.

A group of kids sans uniforms and ergo from one of the public schools crowded past me, sniggering as they went. I shrugged self-consciously inside my blazer. Stupid uniform. Stupid public school kids. Stupid Maths competition.

There you are.” Megan grabbed me by the elbow before I even realised she’d appeared and dragged me forward through the crowd. “Greg thought you’d chickened out.”

“Of the E. James Downward Mathematics competition? Now why would I do a thing like that,” I said, grinding my teeth as Megan towed me past the public school contingent who’d sniggered at me before.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Megan said with the air of explaining something simple to a very stupid person. “Maybe because you’ve missed every practice we’ve had this week?”

I pulled my arm away and shook my sleeve back in place. “Yeah? And?” It was Maths, for crying out loud. I could do this crap with my arms tied behind my back, and wasting every lunchtime with the Dorkazoids in some musty classroom had lost its gloss once they became more concerned with practice Maths questions than the freaky cool things you could do with some basic scientific knowledge. Create wind currents, for example. School uniform skirts looked heavy, sure, but a well-placed draft could lift them like a tissue.

Not that I would do that. And definitely not to Megan. That one time, it was the draft from the window, I swear it. Because, like, I’d tell her if I discovered something else awesome that we could do. Truly.

But anyway, she dragged me over and plonked me down at our table up the front right as the presiding teacher tapped his microphone and launched into a long-winded and unnecessary explanation of what today was about, why we were competing, and who gave a fig in the first place. Which clearly wasn’t me. Greg muttered something under his breath at me, no doubt his usual charming hello, and I settled down to the serious business of ignoring him.

After far too long, just as I was about to die of boredom, Head Teacher who fancied himself Great Orator finally shut up, and the first round of questions was handed out. I let the League of Losers stress over it for a while – though Matt wasn’t doing a half bad job – before I snatched the question sheet out from under Greg’s elbow and began dictating.

Greg tried to protest, Megan launched into a tirade against both of us, Pip put her head down on the desk, and Matt, the only sensible person at the table other than myself, wrote down what I was saying.

“…and then it all equals seven,” I finished, putting the page back down on the table and nodding at Matt. “Right?”

He nodded back, capped his pen, and placed it on the finished answer sheet. “Right.”

“See?” I said, leaning back in my chair and folding my arms. “You lot just need to learn to chill.”

Megan angled her chair away from me and pointedly struck up a conversation with Pip. What was that all about? I’d done what she wanted, hadn’t I? Here I was, stuck at this stupid Maths day when I’d rather be doing just about anything else, and I’d given them all the right answers and everything, and now she was mad at me?

I shook my head. “Women,” I muttered under my breath.

Greg, sadly, heard me. “You’re a moron, Chris,” he said as he shoved his chair back. He grabbed the answer sheet and stalked to the judges’ table.

I rolled my eyes.

Three rounds later and I was just about comatose from the sheer excitement of it all. Problem after problem after problem, and they weren’t even that challenging. I mean, sure, a couple of times one or two of the others got the answer before I did, but I was distracted. It’s not like I was trying.

At long last we broke for lunch, and I hurried out of the room as fast as I could. Megan had barely looked at me all morning, and there was no way I was going to sit around with the Losers for forty-five minutes while everyone looked on and sniggered.

I was nearly to the exit when someone grabbed my arm, spinning me around.

“Where are you going?” Megan demanded.

“Out,” I said.

“You know we’re not supposed to leave the premises.” She put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. Good thing she wasn’t a real superhero; a laser stare on her would be dangerous.

“I’m not,” I said, smoothing down my blazer and heading back towards the exit. “I’m getting lunch.”

“There’s lunch at the canteen,” Megan said, not following.

“I want real food.” I reached the door. Stupid Megan and her stupid morals. Stupid Maths day. Stupid lunch. If I wanted to go eat some real food, why should anyone care? It’s not like I was nipping out for a spot of vandalism before returning to win the Maths trophy, was it now? I set my jaw and phased through the door, knowing it would make Megan furious – maybe furious enough to come after me.

But I strode away from the building, shrugging out of my blazer and stuffing my tie into my pocket, and no one followed.

[Continued next month!]

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Aish of a Grey Lion: A Storm-Dance Short Story (part 2 of 2)


Read part one here.

Aish of a grey lion,” he said. “Where are your claws?”

They stared at each other, Niobe sick to her stomach. He had done it. He had gone out into the eseteij and cried out for change. Why now?

No, she knew why. Either the Teeshlawat Fyareng had survived or one of his followers continued in his name. Which didn’t matter. They were recruiting again, both children and from the old ranks of child-soldiers. Even if she rescued the child, she couldn’t let this soticheij live or else he would tell the others about her. It didn’t matter how they would use that information; they would destroy everything she cared about, everything she’d built since her escape.

Except, without the other knights, her and her sword would not be enough to fell the beast. Wound it, yes. Scare it off, yes. But, to kill it…

“A samyot for the child,” she said. In a secret pocket, she still carried the one possession that remained from that part of her life.

He sneered. “We’re not children anymore.”

“A samyot.”

The soticheij sighed, but nodded assent and stepped back. Niobe sheathed her sword and retreated behind the dogwood. Off came her coat. Then the leather armour. Inside the coat was her identification as a knight of the Royal Militia, at the back of which was a pocket. With a nudge at the pocket’s spell, an oval of red jasper wrapped in a criss-cross of pale leather emerged. Her talisman. This Niobe held in one hand as she removed and put all her clothes but the coat into the pocket, the enchantment shrinking each to fit.

Beneath the surface of the talisman was the silken feel of common magic, of an incomplete spell. Niobe returned her identification to her coat and clutched the leather-crossed stone tight. She manoeuvered a key of magic into the spell’s lock and turned.

The talisman’s intricate power flowed over and through her body in waves. Fur sprouted, her back lengthened. Claws extended from hands and feet that morphed into paws. Her mouth filled with the teeth of a predator, her pupils became black slits in a field of yellow. The magic contorted her limbs, reshaped her muscles until, only heartbeats after the spell had begun its work, she stood on all fours. With her nose, Niobe nudged the talisman under her coat.

From behind the dogwood, a grey lion leapt at the soticheij.

He lowered his antlers.

When Niobe landed on them, he brought his head up to throw her to the side. She twisted to land on her feet and swiped at his forelegs. They weren’t her target – her aim was to get at his neck – but he didn’t move them. Instead, he brought his antlers down.

So, he still over-relied on his headgear.

Niobe leapt into the cedar behind the soticheij. As he turned to face her, she dropped and slammed into his side, enough to make him stagger. His antlers swung to the side and, while moose are agile, he wasn’t a moose. Not in the way she was a grey lion. She could see his very human Adam’s apple under that thick neck.

Darting under his belly, Niobe escaped the antlers to his other side. With a snarl, she clamped her jaws on the underside of his neck.

Now he remembered his limbs. As she tried to crush his windpipe, he grabbed her with thick fingers to wrench her off. This only served to cause her teeth to tear his skin. He squeezed her ribcage – that was how he’d broken bones and almost killed that knight before she and the others had intervened.

When she felt the crunch of his larynx, Niobe let go. She twisted in his grasp, clawing at his face. The soticheij threw her. From the wounds on his cheeks, she could tell she had almost gouged his eyes.

He put a hand to his throat and tried to speak, but his voice was so hoarse as to be nearly unintelligible. With each laboured breath came the harsh vibration of broken cartilage.

“Take-” he said. “Take the child.”

Left in this condition, he would seek out another eseteij and let the icewater hold of storm magic return to him his strength. The samyot may be over, but Niobe’s work was not. She sprang at him, the top of his neck now between her teeth. Using her claws to keep hold of him as he struggled, she repositioned her grip to just under the base of his skull and bit into his spine.

The soticheij screamed; the sound was stomach-churning with his maimed throat. As it faded, a chipmunk chattered. No, not a chipmunk.

Niobe let go and retreated from the soticheij. Though she hadn’t managed to break his spine completely, his movements had become clumsy.

With a dash behind the dogwood, Niobe signalled the knights with the jays again. Come, be ready to fight. She fitted key to lock and the talisman returned her body to its natural form. Hands shaking, she dressed herself and hid the talisman in its pocket.

The other knights arrived as she stood over the soticheij, sword drawn. He had fallen, succumbing to the injuries of his spine and larynx. Niobe directed two of them to attend to the child, who still lay huddled in the cedar.

“She was in – the cult!” said the soticheij to the knights. “She fought for – for…” he coughed blood. “The Teeshlawat Fyareng.”

But the knights didn’t speak his language. Niobe, Champion of the Royal Militia that had defeated the cult of the Teeshlawat Fyareng eleven years ago with ease, didn’t translate.

She decapitated him instead.

The Storm-Dance is a planned four-book series in which the people of the country Asebei uncover, over the course of their history, the secrets of the eseteijo, the magic storms that plague their continent. The first book will be about Niobe. The second will be about Vjaited.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The L.A.O.S. Part 5


 Catch up on Part 1!
(Or maybe Part 2?) 
(How's about Part 3?) 
(Part 4!)

The next day we met in the same classroom to plan our ‘attack’ for the stupid maths trophy. The room was empty when I arrived, so I grabbed a chair by the window and closed my eyes.

Footsteps made me open them again, and Megan entered the room, tanned legs flexing under her school skirt as she walked. Very deliberately, I turned away.

“So,” she said, dropping into a chair and leaning forward over the desk. “Belief that things are possible – that’s one major element of what we’re trying to achieve here.”

I nodded. I’d spent most of last night holed up in my bedroom, practising phasing my hand through various objects; sinking it into the mirror was the coolest.

“But I have another theory, as well.” She stared at her hands. “See, it has to be more than just belief, otherwise why couldn’t anyone do it? Why haven’t people done it before now?”

I stared out the window at the basketball court where Nate and Horse were tossing a ball around – not playing, you understand, because cool people don’t actually commit to anything, including learning the skills it takes to actually play anything. Cool people just learn the most impressive-looking moves and string those together with a bunch of nonchalant poses designed to say, ‘Look at the awesome stuff I can do without trying.’ Which is the perfect excuse for not trying, right? Because if you’re that good without trying, clearly you’re so good that being good isn’t a challenge, so you’re not not-trying because you’re scared to fail, but because the whole idea bores you, because, like, whatever, man, I mastered that years ago.

Just sayin’.

Anyway, needless to say, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to Megan, so when she jabbed me in the arm I first of all winced – “Ow! Hey, what was that for?”

“For not paying attention, numbskull.”

And then I wondered what it would be like to phase through something alive. I shuddered. Ew.
“You’re still not listening!” Megan reached over and smacked me on the arm.

It hurt. “Ow!” I glared at her, rubbing my stinging bicep. “I’m listening!”

She rolled her eyes. “I said, what do we have that they” – she waved at the playground generally – “don’t?”

“You mean other than being ridiculously intelligent?” I said, still glaring.

“Well obviously that.” Megan squeezed her temples in one hand. “But that’s not enough, either. There have been other smart people in the world before us, you know.” She shot me a look that would have melted icicles.

I stared at her. “You’re really worked up about this, aren’t you?”

Megan shrugged. “I hate not understanding how people work.” She glanced at me and a faint blush coloured her cheeks. “I’m usually pretty good at it.”

I didn’t realise it then, but man, is that the understatement of the year.

“Yeah, but seriously, does it really matter? We can do it, yay, awesome, moving on. Why waste brain power stressing over why? Isn’t the whole point of this little group to figure out how? Saving the world and all that?” I laced my fingers behind my head and leaned back in my chair, sneaking glances at the guys not-playing basketball.

“You sound so convinced.”

I dragged my eyes away from the court. “So sue me,” I muttered. “I having friends, you know.”

I was saved from Megan’s response by the arrival of the rest of the little crew, and they quickly set about the business of boring me to death. Oh, sorry, I mean planning for the Maths event. Thrilling business.

After five minutes I’d had enough. I snatched the study sheet away from Greg and scanned down it. “Seriously, remind me why we are wasting time preparing for this?” I said as I calculated the answers to all but the fifth question.

Greg smacked me over the head and stole the sheet back. “Moron.”

“Because we want to win, Chris.” Megan sighed. “I know actually caring about things is a foreign concept for you, but—“

“But some of us actually give a fig about the world,” said Greg, interrupting loudly.

“I care about things!” I shot back.

“Oh yeah? What?” Greg folded his arms over his chest.

“Guys, can we just concentrate, please?” Pip waved the scribble paper in the air. “Please? We’ve only done three questions and the halfway bell--” The bell rang, and Pip sighed. “Is about to go.”

“Just a second,” Greg said, guiding Megan back into the chair she was standing up from. “I want to hear what Loserboy here has to say. So, tell me.” He stood with arms refolded. “What do you care about?”

I shoved myself out of my chair and stood, fists clenched by my sides. “I care about plenty of things, thanks.”

Greg snorted. “Yeah, like whether your tie is just loose enough to broadcast ‘rebel’ without being so loose you’ll get detention. Or, you know, whether or not your hair is perfectly ruffled. Here, let me help you with that.” He reached towards my head and I ducked.

“Boys,” Megan said warningly.

I shoved Greg aside and straightened out my shirt, self-consciously ignoring my tie. “Look, just because I don’t happen to be as passionate as you about some stupid Maths day doesn’t mean I don’t care about stuff. I care about stuff!”

“I’m still waiting on examples, numbskull.”

“Oh, come off it Greg. Just leave him alone and let us get back to studying, will you?” Megan pulled out the chair beside her and patted it. “I need your help with this one.”

Greg’s jaw twitched and I knew Megan had gone straight for the soft spot.

Excellent. Thank you, Megan, for showing me his weakness. “Aww, did you hear that Greg? Megan needs your help. You like to help, don’t you, tough guy? Like to feel all manly and protective and needed?”

His jaw worked furiously.

“Let it go, Greg,” Megan said softly, eyes sharp. “It’s not worth it.”

I tensed, expecting Greg to lunge at me again and calculating which way I could throw myself if he did.

Instead, he exhaled forcefully and relaxed his arms to his sides. “You’re wrong,” he said, turning to Megan. “It is worth it. Because if he can’t care about anything, he can’t be part of a team. If he doesn’t care about what we’re doing, why risk his neck? And if he doesn’t care about us, how can we trust him?” He shot me a sidelong glance before plonking down into the chair and grabbing the paper Matt had been writing on. “Here, where are you up to?”

Megan gave me a look as though wondering if Greg was right.

I do care, I wanted to say to her. I care about everything, more than anyone. But it’s too much and I can’t do anything about it anyway, so I have to lock it all away or I’ll drown. I care. I just don’t want to.

Instead, I shrugged, and walked away.

[Continued next month...]

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Aish of a Grey Lion: A Storm-Dance Short Story (part 1 of 2)

The sharp scent of pine a stab through her nostrils, Niobe kept her eyes on her target as she wound her way through the trees. Uneven ground lent itself poor to graceful movement, but Niobe had the uncanny knack of keeping her shoulders level even as her feet crept across the fallen logs and moss-covered rocks beneath the underbrush.

There, only twenty paces ahead and to the right was the soticheij, the monster that once was a man. Back to her, his antlers outlined an undulation as his head swayed. With a deep breath, almost a sigh, he pawed the ground with his forelimbs, thickened and lengthened to support his weight in quadrupedal movement. He could no longer stand upright, his back having hunched at the centre, his legs having contorted to a shape like that of a dog’s. Everything about his massive body suggested strength, a ponderous strength Niobe had already seen fell trees and break a knight’s ribs.

The aish of a moose, judging by the antlers. That’s what she would have called it, back when… but no one talked about that anymore. Or, at least, no one acted on it. This man had been merely unlucky and gotten trapped in an eseteij long enough for the storm’s magic to twist both bone and humanity. Still, the bodies of usual soticheij were more chaotic. His had a focus to it, enough that it rested on the line between what it should be and what it must never be. It gave rise to old memories Niobe would rather not think of.

She raised her pistol.

Where were the other knights? They had separated to surround the brute, but none had given the signal that they had arrived at their position. She sent the magic upwards and it caught in a tree, releasing the back and forth of jays before dissipating. No response yet.

No matter how many times she went on hunts like this, Niobe wondered what kind of people soticheijo had been before they’d changed. Common knowledge held that nothing remained of their former selves. If only. Niobe had known people who sought this change, and it had only amplified everything they already were and wanted to be.

Its antlers finished their undulation, the soticheij drew back from the tree it had pawed at. A large cedar, almost dead, and no wonder with the hollow in its trunk the soticheij had just uncovered. There was something inside. Niobe couldn’t make out what it was.

A chickadee’s call rang out, one dee, with an odd lift of pitch at the end. One of the other knights had called an alert. She responded with a chipmunk’s chatter from about five paces behind. The chickadee came again, five dees this time, accompanied by the squawk of jays. Immediate danger, come to aid.

Niobe shifted her weight to help, but she caught sight of what was in the tree. A child. As the other knights signalled that they would go to the one in distress, Niobe drew her sword and approached her quarry.

With its thick hands, the soticheij picked up the child, who hung limp in the monster’s grip. Not dead, Niobe didn’t think, but unconscious. She crouched behind a stunted dogwood. Only eight paces away now.

The child opened its eyes. It cringed, but didn’t struggle. In a low, distorted voice, the soticheij spoke to the child. Though unintelligible, the cadence and sound of its words suggested to Niobe that she should understand it. She almost understood it. But it eluded her and she couldn’t see why. The child didn’t listen to its captor. Its eyes stared off at nothing, an expression Niobe recognized with a thud of her heart. This angered the soticheij, who yelled and slapped the child, drawing blood with jagged fingernails. Two of its words came into deadly focus:

Teeshlawat Fyareng.

All at once, the rest of what the soticheij said cleared like ripples giving way to still water. The language she had not heard since childhood…

“He chose you, as he chose me, and I will take you to him when it is safe. His call is an honour, an honour-”

Niobe shot him.

His roar filled the air as he dropped the child and turned to face the threat. The child only retreated into the hollow of the tree and curled up.

No one had said anything about a kidnapping. The soticheij had been spotted, too close and too wild to be ignored, and so the Royal Militia had come to dispatch it. But no one had been hurt yet. Or missing. Which meant the child must have been taken from another village, taken here as the soticheij took it with him. Took it to the Teeshlawat Fyareng.

She had shot him in the shoulder, which bled, but his hide was too tough for much more. More shots rang out too far away, the other knights in their battle. Niobe returned the pistol to its holster. Bullets wouldn’t help here.

The soticheij scanned the forest, nostrils flared and breath heavy. Stepping out from behind the dogwood, Niobe brandished her sword and made as if to approach. She would have, too, if not for the moment his eyes met hers and she knew him. It had been years, but she knew him. And, as those eyes of gold-scratched grey widened, she knew he saw past all that time, too.

Aish of a grey lion,” he said. “Where are your claws?”

Read part two here.