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?”

Part 2 will go up next month!