Friday, August 17, 2018

FORSAKEN

It’s no secret I’m a huge Destiny fan. This month, in anticipation of Destiny 2: the Forsaken expansion I’ve dipped into some D2 fan fiction. Hope you enjoy it. Keep in mind this is not cannon, just a story I put together for my own amusement.



image courtesy of Bungie
I followed the prince’s hulled ship down to the surface of the asteroid. “This is where it ends.”

“Just make sure it doesn’t end for us,” N2 said floating at my shoulder.

“We’ve killed gods. The prince won’t be the end of us.”

“Sure. I'm just saying be careful. A fight angry--”

"I know," I snapped and finished the quote. "Is a fight already lost."

N2 twitched his shell in what could only be interpreted as a shrug. The proximity alarm chimed and the trasmat kicked on.


A shimmer. A jolt. The cockpit vanished and I dropped to the gray, gritty surface of the asteroid some distance from the crumpled hull of the prince’s shattered vessel. The ship’s torn atmosphere tanks emitted a pair of white plumes that shot far out into the vacuum of space, venting the ship’s air supply. The perfectly dark dome of deep space enclosed us, shot through with the bright diamond pin-points of ten thousand stars racing towards the misshapen curve of the asteroid’s horizon.


Nothing but stars and stones and one traitor for ten thousand kilometers in any direction. Just the way I wanted it.


I limped towards the ship, my wounds from the bullet riddled journey through the prince’s forces reminding me just how close to death I hovered. Twitching my cloak back, I dropped my hand to the butt of my revolver, the Coyote’s Inheritance.


Something amid the wreck flashed and a split second later, shards of rock exploded into the air a foot to my left. I ducked behind a hump of rock as another round, silent in the hard vacuum, gouged a furrow into the ground.


“I guess he’s not dead yet,” N2 said. His shell contracted as he seemed to squint towards the wreck. “Eighty-five meters straight ahead somewhere. I can't pinpoint him.”


“Get me the Jealous Kiss,” I snapped. “The princeling wants to snipe. I’ll snipe his pretty little head right off.”


“I can get it, but we’re out of powered ammunition. That last battle…”


“Fine,”  I snarled and drew the Coyote’s Inheritance.


“Wait! Be careful!”


I darted from cover, my jump jets firing soundlessly, hurling me over the gray landscape in a long low leap that was only possible in the minimal gravity of the asteroid. I felt something pluck at my shoulder as another bullet tore through my cloak. This time I saw him, a shadowed figure in a cleft between a rock and his ship's mangled wing. Still mid air, I aimed my hand-cannon. The retical lit up, highlighting my enemy’s silhouette. I dropped the cross-hairs onto the head. Goosebumps prickled beneath my gauntlets. I squeezed the trigger. The gun thundered, jerking as it spat lead into the man who’d killed my mentor.


The silhouette staggered as his shield shattered with a flash of white light. I landed, staggered as my wounded leg turned on me, then jumped and fired again. This time I saw the pulse of lead slam home. He ducked away and I followed suit beneath the sheared off angle of a piece of debris to reload.


I switched my coms to broadband.


“This ends one way, little prince,” I said. “I’ve killed your lackeys. I’ve killed your allies. Heck, I almost killed that sister of yours until she saw sense. Now, you're going to die a long long way from your ancestors' bones.”


“You talk too much,” came the prince’s voice. He sounded tired, ragged, strangely calm. Not the usual oily arrogance tinted with rage I was used to. I smiled. He was rattled.

“She put a bounty on your head. Did you know that? Your own sister. Now that’s just cold. Whether or not she actually wants you dead, I don’t know, but she’s made sure every guardian in the City is looking for you. If I don’t get you someone else will.” I slapped my gun’s cylinder closed.  “But I am going to get you."

Gun ready, I edged carefully around the side of the jagged chunk of hull, hoping to catch a glimpse of my enemy. I saw only stillness, and the barren expanse of the asteroid's pitted surface.

"You know what the bounty says?" I continued. "It says: ‘Condition Non-Specific’. Back on Earth Before they’d have said, Wanted Dead or Alive. Now it’s Condition Non-Specific. I think I like the old way more.”


I waited, listening.


“Nothing to say? Normally you're so chatty.”


“Come get me, if you’re so confident.”


“Careful what you wish for.” I took a quick step out of cover and then stopped dead. A shot struck to my right where I would have been if I’d continued, but I was already moving back into cover. The second shot struck the torn metal of my shelter. Over the coms the prince swore and I smiled again as I sprang straight up. My leap carried me over the crumpled ship. I saw him twist towards me in the process of reloading and this time I didn’t bother shooting. I flung my knife. It pinwheeled through the vacuum, a flash of flame that knocked him to the ground. He bounced ludicrously high in the low gravity before settling back into the asteroid’s colorless grit, even as I landed. I trained my gun on his head, but I knew it wasn’t necessary.


Clutching the hilt of my knife jutting from his stomach, he crawled to his knees. The forsaken prince knelt gasping, his armor venting atmosphere from a half-dozen points. A crust of frozen blood glittered on his face-place, partly obscuring his pale features and glittering eyes. His sniper rifle lay where it had fallen. His stolen pistol, still strapped to his thigh, hung an eternity away from his blood stained hands.


“It’s done, you cobber. You’re done.”  


His glowing eyes turned to me, fierce as ever. “Then do it. Shoot me like I shot him. It’s not very satisfying but it does seem fitting.”


My lip twisted. My aim shook, and slowly I lowered my gun. With a twirl, I slid Coyote’s Inheritance back into her holster.

“What? What are you doing?” N2 whispered. “Just shoot him.”


The prince considered me a moment. “And what’s that mean?”


“I’m not like you. I’m not a coward. Now get up, and draw. And when you do I’m going to end you.”


He hung his head for a moment, before slowly nodding. With an effort he staggered to first one foot and then the other. He stood swaying for a moment, one hand still on the hilt of the knife buried in his gut. “So, how do we do this? Back to back and ten paces?”


“Just draw,” I said. “And the quicker one lives.”


He nodded again, and slowly moved a shaking hand to hover over the pistol’s grip. “This ridiculous tradition wouldn’t have saved him," the prince mumbled. "I’d have killed him all the same. Just like I’m going to kill you.”

A fight angry is a fight already lost. I took a slow steadying breath.


“I should have put a bullet to you the first time we met.”


“But then you’d have never found the Garden and your whole miserable world would be gone, wouldn’t it?” I watched the fingers of his gun-hand ease around the pistol's grip. I could see strength in them. He wasn’t as helpless as he was acting.


“Well, I guess--” He moved in a blur, but not in the direction I thought he’d go. The hand clutching the knife, my knife, flashed forward and the blade took me in the shoulder even as I tried to draw. The Coyote’s Inheritance toppled to the ground. The prince’s pistol seemed to leap from the holster and a spray of bullets shattered my shields.


I sprang into the air, seizing the light granted to me. Fire exploded all around. It scorched around me and through me, consuming me, transforming me into a creature of light and fire. This was my true form, not the mean flesh I wore, this was what I really was. Power. Energy. Holy fire. So too, this was my true weapon. In an instant, I formed the fire around me into a blazing pistol. Still mid air, I aimed. The prince's shining eyes widened, even as he tried to swing his gun up towards me.


I fired. A single scorching shot.


~SJA

Liked this? Please, share and comment. Also, I hope you'll check out some of my other Destiny themed fiction below:

THE FIRST WARLOCK 
LAST GUARDIAN STANDING
WHAT AM I
TIME STREAM

Monday, July 16, 2018

NECROPOLIS

Here's a short story I wrote a while back inspired by the execution arch in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling. 

Death’s city crouched atop a stony hill overlooking the old Roman ruin of Lunden. The ghosts of walls and towers undulated in the week light of noon. No birds sang. No insects buzzed.

I gripped the hilt of the silver and ruby encrusted sword I used rather than a wand and looked to the other wizards in Merlin’s Order. They all looked as apprehensive as I, all save Merlin himself. He seemed unaffected by the sight of Death’s phantom fortress encroaching on reality. He stepped to the front of our small group, his off-white robes flapping in the wind. His young, lean face had been marked with blue Welsh war paint. His staff was decorated with a fox’s tail and the feather of an eagle. He looked as savage and primitive as the people he had come from.

“Do not fear, brothers and sisters,” Merlin said quietly, though his voice seemed to carry for miles.

“We shall drive Death back into the beyond and make this place safe again for mortals.”

I wish I could say I believed him, that my heart swelled with pride and courage but in truth I stood trying to control my trembling limbs. I feared that translucent city. I feared its ruler. I feared them like nothing I ever feared before or since.

"You're sure about this? You're sure this is even possible?"

Merlin did not answer. Instead he simply strode towards the city. His force of will dragged us behind him, until the shadowy walls of Necropolis towered over out frail mortal forms.

"I am already dead," I muttered the words of the battle mantra that usually calmed my shaking hands.

This time they did not.

The gate posts of the city alone had entered our world fully, and stood solid and substantial above us, a soaring arch of gray stone. The gates remained insubstantial, transparent and rippling like silk in a breeze. Everything else had gone still. The dank air hung cold and thick around us, as oppressive as Necropolis’ unholy presence.

I realized I had drawn my sword. Cold sweat and mist made my clothes cling oppressively to my skin

Merlin stepped forward and lifted his barbaric staff.

“Patefacio! Lux lucis of vita subigo vos,” the master wizard shouted. At first nothing seemed to happen. Then a tiny flash of light appeared at the seam of the undulating gate. The darkness of the city seemed to press in upon the glow, but Merlin lifted his staff higher. The light blossomed and grew, folding the gates slowly back until the opening could admit us.

“Come!” Merlin shouted, though all was silent. “Before the gates close.”

He dashed through. The others followed him and they all seemed to fade away as they passed into Death’s city. I trembled violently at the sight and ordered my feet to move, but they would not. The light began to recede. The shadow gates crept closed.

"Godrick!" Merlin's voice echoed from far far away. "Stir yourself, Godrick, there is no time!"

"I am already dead," I reminded myself. "I am already dead."

I sprang through the closing doors and left the living world behind. The world seemed to shift around me. Color left the world. Whispering voices rose up around me. They muttered things I could not understand, but which were filled with malice and seduction. They called me to my death. Part of me wanted to follow the whispers into oblivion, but I tore my mind free and found myself standing before Merlin, his pagan staff glowing with a werelight.

Merlin scowled. "You cannot hesitate."

"I know. It won't happen again."

"It has already happened! Are you able to do this?"

I could not answer.

"Are you able?" Merlin pressed. "We must know or the whole of the Order will die here and with us, the world."

"I can do it."

He looked at me a long time before nodding. "Then let us be swift."

Merlin guided us through the city’s twilight gloom. A few of the others lit lights on the tips of their wands, but the light seemed to intensify the darkness rather than abate it. We progressed through twisting streets, black with shadow and mildew. Merlin led us unerringly, pausing neither to consider a juncture nor to double back. The whispers grew more intense, but never could I hear individual words.

Then we came to the pit.

Never have I seen something so benign twisted into something so horrible. It was a vast black and bottomless hole rimmed with festering pitch. Out of its maw the city slowly crawled, maybe a foot an hour, just fast enough to be perceived. Specters, shades and wraiths in tattered and hooded robes flitted through the feted air, oblivious to our approach. My mind tried to make sense of the cities gradual expansion, but it could not. I felt dizzy.

Merlin turned to us.

“Now we must separate. I will take position east, across the pit. The rest of you spread out around it.” He looked at me. “We will rally here once the spell is finished. Godrick, hold here. It point is our surest means of escape.”

"I will. No matter what."

"Good luck."

"And to you."

With that, our party dissolved. Two went round the north rim of the pit, two went south. I stepped to the oozing edge of the pit. All down the sheer walls the shadowed shapes of buildings jutted, marching inexorably upward. The whole of Necropolis crawled into our world. Its darkness seemed to stare back at me and I stood transfixed, hearing only whispers and seeing only doom. Then one of the whispers transformed into a voice and shattered the spell lain upon me.

"Now! Now!"

I looked up. Merlin was shouting to me. The others were in position. I had stared for a long time, lost in the city’s dark power.

Merlin began the banishing spell and the rest of us followed suit. The words I had memorized flowed from my lips as I gathered the power necessary to force Necopolis back beyond the veil. All five of us began to glow in the darkness. We were beacons in the night. Beacons to which the Death’s servants flocked.

It is a fairly easy thing to cast a spell with a vocalization. It is harder to cast with merely a thought. It is harder still to cast one spell with your lips and another with your mind at the same time. But we were masters, we were the greatest wizards and witches alive. It was for this ability to multicast that Merlin had chosen us.

I saw the bubbles of protection, walls of fire and light flicker to life around my companions as swarms of spirits converged upon them, and I knew it would be an instant before I too must defend. I continued to speak the banishing spell and turned towards the street we'd followed into the city. For a moment it remained empty but then like a rising tide, the whispers grew louder. Surging out of the shadows came Death’s army, thousands strong, black armored forms with burning eyes and glimmering blades and hooded scabrous creatures that stretched pale skeletal hands towards me. They came gliding, gliding forward, riding on the mists that filled the city.

Fear fell away.

I lifted my sword as the grim joy of battle came over me.

"Come then," I thought. "Come and see what a war wizard can do! Battle is my home.
Destruction my element."

Death’s servants rushed upon me in a wave of horror. They spilled through the distorted streets of Necropolis and swooping down from the festering sky.

I gave them lightning. Blazing chains of it shot from my sword blade and tore into their ranks. The power arced and leapt from black armor and pale swords. The creatures wielding them burned. The thunder of my attack rippled out over the city.

I continued to speak the incantation. The light and power of the banishing spell grew ever brighter, until I blinked against my own radiance. The power coursed through me. I could feel it pulsing in my veins and filling my belly, straining to tear me apart from the inside. It became harder to focus on the vocalization while keeping my internal castings separate.

Unfortunately, Death’s army was in no mood to help me focus. Another wave came forward, this one comprised of huge creatures with man-like proportions. They bellowed and lifted great scythes that dripped and ran black. I sent lightning at them and they shrugged it aside. I sent fire and they staggered. I unleashed every weapon in my arsenal of spells. Water, stone, shards of magical glass, beams of pure light. Some they ignored. Some slowed them, but none destroyed them.

Out of options.

I lifted my silver sword, drew a warding sigil before me that blazed blue and then vanished. I struggled to continue the invocation.

"I cannot fail not before the invocation is finished."

There were only ten words left in the spell, but I was breathing hard, the wells of my power depleted. I was out of energy and time.

"Ten words," I told myself. "I'll speak them before I'm swept away."

The first great scythe swept towards me. It struck my sigil with a sound like a ringing gong. The creature stumbled back and I lunged forward. Silver and rubies flashed in my own angelic light. My sword cut deep, drinking the creature's power. The creature screamed as its fell. Another scythe swung and this time my sigil shattered. I ducked the blow, and countered with one of my own that clove the enemy’s weapon, and absorbed still more power.

Five words left.

Another blow. Another dodge. Another stroke of my miraculous sword.

Three.

A dozen creatures came at me in a rush. It was all I could do to hold them back. The will to hold onto the banishing spell and not speak other words, words that would give me power, consumed my mind.
One great hand reached for me. I hacked it off. A scythe tore through my cloak.
The words faltered on my lips.

"No! I will not be the one to fail." I gathered my will, my focus and resumed.

“Solei deius gloria!”

The world turned white.

The power of the spell building within me exploded from my body with the force of a hurricane. My enemies, now only dimly perceived shadows and dark shapes, were caught up in the light and wind and whipped away. I staggered to my knees and when my vision cleared my enemies had vanished. Beneath my feet the city slid back into the abyss at an alarming rate.

I could see the others of the Order across the city running towards me. The roads they followed were being drawn back beneath their very feet making their progress tedious. Merlin, ever the show-off, took to the air, flying across the pit in a blur of white. He alighted next to me.

“Well done!”

“Now we just have to get out of here alive,” I shouted.

The others reached us and we began to run, Merlin in the lead, guiding us uncannily through the maze of streets. The city increased its pace back into the pit, carrying us with. The seductive whispered of earlier transformed into wailing screams that filled the streets, and tore at my sanity. We seemed to move at an incredible pace but in fact, we'd only edged a few dozen feet beyond the pit's festering edge. The city’s fall aided us though. As it slid back into the beyond it drew the outer walls closer even as our steps propelled us towards them.

The black, moldering stones roared around us. The voices of the city screamed. Merlin shouting the incantation that would open the gates. The archway with its gauzy doors rushed towards us. The street beneath our feet hurtled over the edge of the abyss. As the last stones fell away I leapt and the others leapt with me.

The noise of the city went suddenly silent.

I looked up. The storm clouds over Lunden broke apart. The Temes rolled lazily. A bird trilled a cautious call. Necropolis was gone, all save for the gates, the tall arch of stone which towered above us.

“It didn’t work,” I said.

Merlin stood, and with a word cleaned his white robe.

“Nonsense. The city is gone.”

“But the gate, Death's gate...”

“What of it? A gate is not a city.”

“It’s the entrance of Necropolis and it's still here!" I tapped my swords blade against the stones and the silver rang with a sweet chime. As if to further emphasize the point, a towering figure stepped out from beneath the arch, fading into existence before our eyes.

Death.

Death by Ella McPhearson
I cannot even now properly describe its features. It could not be called he or she for it looked as if it were both and neither. It was beautiful and terrible, paler than moon light and clad in shadows that writhed and billowed around its thin figure. Its long white hair writhed with the shadows it wore, all colorless contrast. Its feet and legs were dark and wet with blood up to its knees. In one hand it carried a sword, black as night and impossibly long. In the other it carried an hourglass filled with sand as fine as ash and as pale as bone.

It looked down at us, head just shy of the great gate's peak. None of us could move under that gaze. Even Merlin stood frozen in silence.

Then it spoke.

“I cannot pretend not to be displeased.” Its voice was quiet but I know that it could be heard a mile away. “But know this, I have been given this realm. You cannot banish me. You haven’t the power.”

It turned to depart but it had pricked Merlin’s pride. Our leader mastered his fear and stepped forward, brandishing his staff.

“I will one day!”

It stopped and slowly glanced over its shoulder.

"I will have power over you one day," Merlin said.

“No, you will not. You have not my talent.”

Merlin's eyes widened, glittering with lust. "Talent? What talent is that?”

Death smiled and the world grew cold. I trembled uncontrollably and tried to keep a grip on my sword.

“Patience. I have patience you cannot dream of. In the end, even you Merlin master of wizards, founder of the First Order, even you will grow tired and unwary and then, like everything else, you will be mine.”

It stepped beyond the arched gateway of Necropolis and the towering figure faded away, leaving us alone under the thin light of a dispersing storm.

~SJA

Friday, June 1, 2018

BIRTH OF A LEGEND

Congratulations to Jenny Martin, the winner of the Castle Prize pack. It's on its way. I hope you enjoy it.

This month's fiction is a bit of a prequel for my current work in progress, a meta fantasy western that turns the traditional epic story arc on its head. Let me know what you think in the comments section. In addition, it's my birthday so follow, like or share my social media pages for a chance to win an Audible version of my award winning novel Terra Soul.




The Boy watched the murders with keen interest. He observed the grizzled old sheriff square off in the sweltering street with the coarse, angry young man the posters throughout Texas named Thomas Bartlett aka Black Bart. The four roughians with him were equally scruffy, equally cross. Cowards. Villains. So the Boy saw the sheriff die, out drawn before his big Navy revolver had cleared the holster. His two deputies died moments later.

The Boy looked up at the woman beside him who stood in frozen horror, gloved hand over her mouth.

“I shall fetch the lawman’s gun,” he said solemnly. “It is still fully loaded. But first you must scream,
miss.”

She looked down at him in surprise, for the Boy did not seem much older than ten--surely not more than twelve--all tan and gangly and cherub-faced as boys of that age often are. She made to protest, but stopped short for something in the Boy’s cold blue eyes made her trust him instantly.

She nodded.

Black Bart laughed, levering the cylinder of his pistol open and shaking out the shells.

“Hoo-we! Nuthin’ like smell of slaughtered pigs.”

“Now?” the woman whispered.

“When he has loaded,” he said, slipping away to skirt the scene.

The bright cartridges slipped home one at a time as Black Bart loaded. The cylinder clicked as he turned it. Once. Twice. Four times.

The woman screamed. All eyes turned on her, the gang’s included. She stood frozen like a startled hare for a moment, eyes wide, ringed with white. She clamped her mouth shut, and promptly fainted.

“Judas! She’s a might late to the party,” the Tom Bartlett said with a sneer. The Boy slipped unseen from the crowd to approach the fallen sheriff. The man lay where he’d fallen, a look of surprise frozen on his weathered face. Had he really thought this was a fight he could win? Some minor character against a villain? The Boy eased the Navy pistol from the man’s lifeless fingers. The gun felt large and familiar in his hand.

“Well what have we here?” Tom Bartlett bellowed.

The Boy turned to regard his opponents and smiled. The pistol, he let hang easilly at his side.
Tom squinted at him. “What you think you’re doing there, boy? Speak up now.”

“You wish to banter then? So be it,” answered the Boy in a steady. His voice sounded unnaturally high and his hand trembled slightly in excitement or fear he did not know. “It seems, Mister Bartlett, that you have a problem.”

“Oh-ho! Mister Bartlett is it? How proper,” Tom said turning to his gang. He laughed and they smiled, though tensely. The Boy could see a glimmer of fear in their eyes. “How you figure I got a problem?”

“You're a villain,” the Boy said. “Author says we're to put ‘em down.”

“True and sure that is what the Good Book says, but you forget, it’s heroes who put down villains,” Black Bart growled. All the mirth had gone from his sun baked features. He clicked the cylinder of his pistol closed, but he did not move to holster it. “You figure you're a hero, boy?” Bart snarled the last word, tossing it out like a challenger’s hat.

“I am the hero,” the Boy said.

The gang blinked at him in surprise. He started walking toward Tom Bartlett and his gang, pistol still low at his side. The dirt road crunched beneath his shoes. He watched them keenly, the way their bodies and hands shifted, their placement scattered around the street. “I was born in blood and fire on Saint Crispin’s day. My family was slaughtered that day. I was taken in by the People who made me one of their own and returned me to the East to find my way.” Though he spoke the words softly, the Boy could feel their power spread through the sweltering air, thick as smoke, intoxicating as whiskey. The Boy stopped just a pace or two from Black Bart. A stillness now filled the muggy Texan street. Tom’s four allies glanced at each other, while Tom himself stood frozen in place, a mouse caught in the gaze of a rattler.

The Boy gripped the Navy pistol tight. A line of sweat slid down between the his shoulder blades making him shiver. He leaned forward slightly. “Want to know something else?”

“Wh--wh--” Tom Bartletts’ adamsapple bobbed as he swallowed. “What?”

“I was taught to shoot afore I could walk.”

Like magic the words transformed the gang from statues to gunslingers. Pistols rose. Hammers fell. Shots barked, sharp and loud. The boy responded in like, the big Navy pistol bucking in his hand as he fanned the hammer.

Smoke choked the air.

The last shot faded away, leaving behind only the moans of Tom Bartlett. He lay clutching the cavernous wound the Navy pistol had opened in his belly. The rest of his gang lay still in the street. The Boy squatted at Black Bart’s side.

“H-how?” Tom gasped. “Ain’t no child can shoot like that.”

“I am no child. I am the hero,” the Boy said. He looked across the carnage in the street and sighed. He turned back to Black Bart, gently prodding the man’s belly with the hot barrel of his pistol. The villain moaned. “You're gutshot, Mister Bartlett, bad way to go, or so I've heard. I reckon this here pistol still has one shot left. I could ease your passing though it's a mercy you hardly deserve.”

A spasm of pain jerked Tom into a miserable ball. He nodded sharply. “Please.”

The Boy stood, cocking the pistol a final time.

“It didn't have to be this way,” he said.

Tom looked up. “Didn't it though? Cain’t have a hero without a villain. Cain't see a light but fer the dark. Cain’t--”

The Navy pistol cracked.

by Ella McPherson
The Boy walked slowly up the street. He paused to gather the sheriff’s gun belt before continuing. As he passed the woman who had screamed for him, and was now recovering from her faint, reached out a shaking hand. “Wait. Where are you going?”

“Onward.”

“But…”

The boy frowned at her, puzzled. “Mister Bartlett was right. A hero needs a villain. So I must go and seek the enemies the Author sees fit to put in my story.”

With that, the Boy passed quietly from town, out into the wild of Texas and the destiny chosen for him long ago.

~SJA






































Tuesday, April 24, 2018

THE DECTECTIVE

In honor of this week's theme (Detective) I'm going to be raffling off a Nathan Fillion Castle prize pack. Enter by signing up for my mailing list using the contact field to the right. Already on my list? Share the social media post for this story and you're in. Use a valid email because that's how I'll be getting hold of the winner.

Art provided by the talented Ella McPherson.

You ever have one of those days where you’re working what should be a simple missing persons case and instead you wind up stabbed in the middle of the forest surrounded by statues and your steakout snack scattered all over?

No?

Well crap. I guess it’s just me. I suppose it comes with the territory. I’m a detective.

I lay bleeding and staring up at the silhouetted branches and statuary that hung dark against the sparkling night sky. I shook my head and tried to roll over.

I knew this case was going to be trouble when she walked in, dark hair down to her waist, pale skin, eyes like sapphires and a missing persons case. Missing husband. Very concerned. Rash of strange disappearances. Blah blah blah. I’d read the script before but I just couldn’t bring myself to turn it down.

Call me a sucker. Better yet, call me an ambulance.

I know. Puns. I’m sorry.

For those not familiar with my line of work a missing persons case is never actually a missing person. Oh no! It’s never as simple as an unfaithful husband who’s run off with the barmaid. It’s never a kid who just got lost in the woods or a business partner who ran off with the money. Sure, it always starts that way but that’s never how it ends. No, it’s always got to be some epic scale fiasco involving a lot of blood on my face. Some of it my own. Or in this case, a lot of it.

Truth be told, it’s actually best that most of my cases end with a grand melee. Honestly, I’m not that good of a detective. I just kinda stumble from clue to clue until someone attacks me. Much like tonight.

“Must be getting close to the end,” I groaned. I dug my the flask out of my pocket. I always kept a little something-something in reserve for occasions such as this. A few swigs and I’d be on my feet again. I took a long pull that ended before I would have liked. Still, it revived me enough to get on my feet and recover the mace I’d planted in the face of the fella who’d stabbed me (with a pitchfork no less! Yeah. Not living that down anytime soon). I pulled a handful of my crunchy corn steakout snack out of my coat pocket, and popped a few kernels into my mouth.

“Alright,” I said chewing slowly. I leaned against a statue of a startled looking elf. “Now who exactly are you?”

I bent down to examine the body. I recognized the clothes and the parts of the face that were still intact. Farmer Giles. The old coot who had been in and out at my office going on about some rooster keeping him up. Why would he attack me? Why try to lure me out into the woods. Unless ….

I straightened, turning to the extremely life-like statue I leaned against. A startled elf, hands fumbling with his slender bow, a curious expression on his face. I turned towards another statue, a surprised looking dwarf, war hammer in hand, eyes wide, beard bristling. Behind him was a beef cake in furry underwear, each rippling muscle of his torso and limbs perfectly defined. The hairs on my arms stood to rigid attention. These weren’t statues. They were other adventurers! Adventurers turned to stone. Top notch detecting if I do say so myself.

“A medusa? Did the old coot summon a medusa?” I said to the closest statue. It didn’t answer. Behind me I heard something moving slowly through the brush. I strained, listening. I didn’t dare look, not with the chance a medusa was around. Then I heard the soft Cluck. Cluck. Cluck.

“A chicken? Why would a chicken …?” I looked at the face of the elf recognizing the expression: a mirror of my own bemusement. It wasn’t the terror a medusa would induce. It was the pure befuddlement of hearing that soft clucking. It was the look of a person about to say, “What the heck? Is that a chicken?”

Suddenly everything made a sort of sense. The missing persons case. The rash of disappearances. The statues. The old man complaining about a rooster. There was one answer. One thing that made a lick of sense. Cockatrice. That blasted magic chicken whose crow could turn just about anything to stone.

“Time to go.” I glanced around. The thing had to be close if I could hear it walking. I tore bits of cloth from my ripped and bloodstained tunic, jamming it deep into my ears to muffle it’s crow. I eased my way towards town, past more statues. A deer. A racoon. A barmaid. Each perfectly rendered, each with the same stupid look on their face. The sky was lightening. Any second now the thing would crow and I was fairly certain that despite my makeshift-earplugs I’d be stone.

“Ok, why …” I whispered to myself. “Why turn people to stone? I mean, obviously to get them out of the way but it’s a really random way to kill people.”

by Ella McPherson
A flurry of iridescent blue and green slashed through the air and suddenly the cockatrice stood in front of me, three feet of mean enchanted rooster with a high arching tail and wicked golden spurs. It jerked it’s head to the side to regard me with one black eye. Sure it was barely half my size but it still scared the dickens out of me.

“Nice chicken. Nice quiet cockatrice,” I said. My hands crept over my coat searching for something, anything that might give me a chance. I still had my mace, but the thing was too far away. It would crow before I could close the distance and maces aren’t known for their thrown accuracy. My hand closed on the fistful of loose crunchy corn snack still rattling around in my pocket.

Corn.

Chicken.

Mace.

Maybe. Just maybe, I did have a chance.

~SJA

Monday, March 19, 2018

THE DARK FIGHT


As is the case with many writers (and others) I suffer from depression, a fact that I’ve only recently been able to voice. Admitting to it seemed like a failure of character, a mental and physical weakness I’ve been ashamed of, so I’ve hidden it for years. Now I’m learning to admit it, and I’m seeking help. If you are anything like me, I hope that you too will speak to a doctor or councilor and try to find what help is out there. 

One of the hardest things about depression is that those who do not suffer from it have no frame of reference for what it’s like. They simply don’t understand what you have to feel bad about. I’ve written this bit of fantasy to try to illustrate what it’s like, at least for me. 



I live chained to a demon.

It follows me down the street, into the shops and churches and wild empty places. I cannot leave it behind no matter where I go or how fast I travel. The others in my world do not see the thing but it is there, the cold steel of our chain scraping against the ground with a clattering jangle, a constant reminder. 

Original art by Ella McPherson
“You won’t get me. Not today.”

It gives me nothing but a thin smile.

I should resume my search for salvation, for some enchanted dagger of elfin silver that might slay the beast or some  magic hammer that might shatter the chain. I have gone from one place to another searching for freedom, but I have begun to think it does not exist.  

I don’t have strength for another day of searching. Instead I do what I can to distance myself from my demon. I walk in the light, in the warm sunshine that seeps into my very bones and drives the chill of the chain away. I stretch. I work. I try not to think about the thing at the end of the chain. I move quickly, keeping the chain from growing slack. But it always follows, a darkness dwelling in dark shadows. 

I breathe a sigh of relief because I know I will not have to fight just then. “You can’t reach me! Not today.”

Again it gives only a smile.

I am afraid. Afraid of my own weakness and frailty and the fact that I know I cannot stand against the savage strength of the demon. And I am afraid because I know I must sleep soon. Oh God above, I hate sleep! Not because of the sleeping, but rather the waking. Sometimes when I wake, I am safe. The creature at the end of the chain has remained crouching in the shadows where I left it. Those days I wonder if it might stay there this time, stay in the darkness and leave me in the light. But I know it will not. 

I move on. I push myself until I can go no farther and grudgingly I sink down to rest, certain I am as far as I can be from the demon as our tether allows.

“Didn’t get me today.”

“Not today,” it whispers back. 

I shiver and turn my back upon the dark creature.

"This time will be different. This time I'll be vigilant, even while I sleep," I resolve. The slightest sound of movement, the barest jingle of chain and I will be awake and running. Tonight will be different.

I sleep.

“Today,” it whispers.

I open my eyes. Somehow the demon perches over me, twisted features just inches from mine. I've not heard a thing.

“Today!”

“No! NO!” I try to scramble to my feet, try to run, to pull the chain taught but cold hands, strong as stone slam into me with the force of falling meteors. The demon batters my head, making my ears ring, my vision sway. 

“Today, weakling! Today!” it snarls. With a flick of its sinewy arm, it throws a loop of the chain around me. 

I am caught. I cannot move. 

The demon howls in glee. It slithers onto my back and its steel limbs wind round my throat. Slowly, slowly it squeezes until it feels as if my head and heart will burst. 

I thrash in the dark, slowly strangling, slowly dying alone. I can see the sunlight. I can see the people walking, just feet away. I try to scream, try to summon aid, but the people passing do not see my struggle. No! Someone is coming. A man in a gray coat comes to the edge of the shadow. I silently beg for him to pounce on the demon, to drive it from me but instead he crouches at the twilight edge of the shadows so that I can see his solemn face. He takes his hat off and regards me sadly with watery eyes. 

“I fought a demon when my mother died. They are strong and terrible.” 

“Help me!” I gasp.

“I found it best to avoid the dark places. Just stay in the light,” the man says. “Think of it this way: things could be so much worse. Here you can be in the light. You don't have to go into the darkness. You could live in a place where there is no light, where demons run free and there is no escape. None whatsoever. Imagine how terrible that would be.”

“Please!”

“Don’t worry. I am here with you,” he says. A surge of hope blossoms in my chest but then it erodes into shock and despair as he stands and walks away, shaking his head. 

I know this time I will die alone. 

The demon and I lie entangled, I slowly dying for a day, or maybe it is month ... a year? I do not know. My thrashing grows weaker and weaker until my strength fails all together. I lie in the darkness, the crushing limbs fixed around my throat. I wait for the end. 

The limbs slack. Air rushes into my starved lungs. 

The demon crawls away, kicking me numb and trembling back into the light. I gasp. I choke. Shaking, I slowly stand and look back at my foul attacker. The creature hunches in the darkness and smiles. It’s black eyes glint at me and it whispers, “Not today, weakling. Not today.”

I run. I run until the chain jerks taught and the fear returns.

I live chained to a demon.

~SJA

Liked this story? Here are some others you might enjoy.

DREAM THIEF
OCTOPUS GIRL
SOUND OF THE SUN

Friday, January 12, 2018

LOST


His blue-bladed spear steaming and dripping, the Lord of Guards tore kicked the door to his wife’s chamber open, startling the cluster of women within.
“We’re out of time!”
They looked up, terrified of what his words meant. The enemy was coming to devour their bodies and drink their souls. They stood frozen in their actions, still bloody from the birth. The newborn mewled in his wife’s embrace. Zerah was pale, sweaty and clearly exhausted and in pain. He had not wanted her here, pregnant and vulnerable, but she was an Heir. She belonged at the battlefront where her kin fought. The Great Families still had their honor. Besides, she provided an advantageous route of retreat. She was an Folder.
“The lady can’t be moved,” the midwife said but Keleb brushed her aside.
“Zerah, they’re coming. We have to get everyone out now!”
“Take the girls.”
Keleb let go of the spear to take his unnamed daughter in one arm and two year old Ayla in the other. The instant the weapon left his hand it vanished in a bolt of light that shot up through the ceiling without a trace. Both his daughters in his arms, the Lord of Guards stepped away from his wife. She winced as she adjusted herself on the bed and summoned her black folder staff. Zerah closed her eyes, focused on the formulas, the mathematics and physics required to open a safe passage from the manor house to the Great House of Beyz some sixty miles away.
Outside the room, the last of his guardians screamed as their lives were torn from them.
Zerah’s eyes snapped open, her calculations complete. Lightning blazed from the black rod in her hand and tunneled through space pulling two points across the world together. The baby in Keleb’s arms began to scream. He turned to the women.
“Through the portal! Now!”
The servants hustled through. Zerah, crawled from the bed, her pain evident. Her bright blood glistened on her gown. The agony overwhelmed her and she stumbled, leaning heavily upon her staff. Keleb was already moving. He lunged through the opening as his wife’s concentration wavered. The portal seemed to warp as Zerah lost control of the portal’s end point. It jumped, just for an instant, to another world. She gasped through clenched teeth. “Keleb, no!”
Keleb hated portal travel. It was impossibly fast, but the sensation was unsettling. Fortunately, it passed in an instant. But instead of relief and a return to normalcy, Keleb emerged from the portal’s far end into a world of pain and noise. A searing gold light tore into his eyes, slashing into his retinas even through his eyelids. A weight seemed to slam down upon him, dragging him to his knees. He barely managed to keep his grip on his daughters. The baby screamed. A gale tore at them.
He forced his watering eyes open as a shadow fell across him. He looked up into a silhouette framed against a scorching wall of light.
“Where am I?” he groaned.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, young man, but I’ll take a guess,” the woman said, flinging her coat over his, and his daughter’s heads. “But if I’m not mistaken, you’re a long, long way from home.”

~SJA

This is a deleted scene from my award winning novel Terra Soul. Check out this and many other extras in the hard cover, special edition.