The Tower of Storms: Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Tamin had descended the stairs a half an hour prior. Baird waited, back pressed against the wall adjacent to the entrance. The only entrance. They were at the top of the tower here, with nowhere to go should things go wrong. A good few things could – Tamin betraying him being at the top of the list. He hoped against that for several wildly varying reasons.

Something stirred below. A voice. Baird held his breath and tightened his grip, sword in one hand and the mark of Oblear in the other. In Baird’s former cage was a makeshift dummy constructed from straw and armour taken from the dead. It was a poor likeness but the plan wouldn’t allow the sorcerer to stare for long. Echoing footsteps rose from the stairs.

“Idiot boy,” the elder grumbled, voice carrying up the stairwell. “There’s no way that fool could damage my bars, I don’t care what chemicals you thought you smelled.”

He reached the top step, striding past Baird into the room. A thrill went through him – this might actually work. The sorcerer halted.

“What the-“

Baird lunged, bringing his sword down in a sweeping arc towards the fiend’s back. With unnatural speed the sorcerer half turned and looked at Baird with wide, manic eyes. In the time it took for Baird’s sword to move an inch the sorcerer thrust out his hand. It felt like he had just been slammed in the chest by a bear. He took off from the ground and was thrown down the stairs. The impact knocked what little air he had left completely from him. His armour protected his bones from the solid steps but momentum and gravity sent him tumbling down the rest of them, landing in a dizzy and aching heap, wheezing for breath.

By the time he had his senses the sorcerer was already stood over him with a satisfied smile. Shouldn’t have taken the pendant off, Baird thought as a hacking cough racked his body. I hate magic. His sword could have been anywhere but the chain of Oblear’s mark was still wrapped around his fingers. At least he still had that – and the elder sorcerer hadn’t noticed it yet, instead calling for Tamin. He appeared from behind one of the painted wood partitions on the other side of Baird, looking timid.

“Come here, boy,” the father said and Tamin reluctantly approached. “Now is your chance to repent for this morning.”

“Yes, father.”

Uh oh, Baird thought.

The elder sorcerer turned his attention to the still struggling adventurer. “You’re going to tell me how you got out of that cage.”

Ratting out Tamin would just get them both killed. Plus Baird wasn’t exactly the type to bend to his enemies’ will. He was much too stubborn for that.

“Rot in the Pit,” he spat.

“As you wish,” the elder said before nodding to Tamin.

The young sorcerer paled. He lifted a trembling palm toward Baird. Baird froze, his hope extinguished under a volley of ice water. Tamin’s mouth twitched, eyes watered.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Baird didn’t know what to say. The young man was terrified of his father. This life was all he knew. All Baird could do was brace himself for pain. Tamin thrust his hand forward and he winced.

A gust of wind blew through the room. It tingled Baird’s skin but assailed him no other way. The elder sorcerer exclaimed in surprise as his clothes passed through his flesh as though through water, billowing out and falling onto the steps behind him. It took both Baird and the sorcerer himself a moment to adjust to the fact that he was suddenly stood there in nought but his boots.

Baird was the first to react, pushing himself up with one hand and throwing the mark of Oblear hard at the wretch’s chest. The sorcerer thrust out his hand and a look of panic struck his face as the sigil sailed past his fingers. Baird grinned. The sigil hit the sorcerer square in the middle of his saggy, sallow chest.

He opened his mouth but no sound came, face twisting in agony. The sigil stuck to him and the flesh around it turned grey, blossoming in a grotesque wave across his body and turning to dust. He crumbled away until there was the clattering of bones into a dusty pile. Baird held his breath, watching the remains, but no retribution came. A small, pained sound came from behind him.

Tamin was on his knees, face in his hands. The weather raged on outside. Baird pulled himself up and crouched next to Tamin, wrapping his arms around him. Tamin’s whole life, everything he had ever known, just disintegrated before his eyes. It was seconds before the young sorcerer’s arms were around Baird’s neck, face sobbing into the metal plated crook of his shoulder. It could have been relief or despair. Probably both.

Baird resisted a long moment but could no longer wait, hating himself a little for his lack of restraint.

“How can I stop the storms?” Baird whispered into his ear as he held him.

Tamin pulled back from him and wiped his eyes, keeping his head down and avoiding Baird’s gaze. He rose to his feet and headed for the other partition, giving his father’s ashes and bones a wide berth. His movements bordered on mechanical. Baird felt a pang of guilt as he followed.

“What happened to him?”

“The mark turns the user’s magic against them,” Tamin said, voice small. “The magic that kept him alive past his years reversed.”

Baird placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

They rounded a partition and came to a grand bedroom, lavishly plastered in rich fabrics and gold adornments. At the end of the master bed was a mahogany pedestal, a glowing blue orb upon it. Turbulent mist twisted and warped beneath the surface. Baird was drawn to it, soothed by it. Warming, unseen tendrils snaked into his being, calming his bruises and setting his mind at rest. He was unaware of his hand moving slowly toward it until Tamin grabbed his wrist.

“Don’t,” he said. “It makes people strange. Like father. Like mother.”

Baird’s skin crawled and he withdrew his hand. “What do I do?”

“Shatter it,” Tamin said, voice cracking slightly. “Set her free.”

Baird shook his head clear as the orb’s influence took another stab at him. He glanced behind himself and saw a small foot stool. Not wanting to risk the thing’s spell a moment longer, Baird grabbed the stool in both hands. He spun, bringing the makeshift bludgeon down on the orb with all his strength.

This was it, his moment, his self-appointed destiny. It all hinged upon the word on a man he just met.

The orb did not shatter. The stool sunk into it and it burst like a soap bubble. Mist from within swept into the air like a puff of pollen. Baird stumbled away but Tamin stayed put, releasing a giddy laugh. Baird panicked. Had he been played? The mist engulfed Tamin and he collapsed in a haze of blue, falling to the floor. Baird backed against the partition wall as the blue spread but it did not approach him. A warm, pleasant voice filled his mind, forcing upon him a brief wave of euphoria.

The ancients will not forget this heroism.

The mist was gone. It didn’t so much vanish as it just wasn’t there anymore. Worry struck him as he realised the voice was the last thing he heard. He smacked his ears with his hands but became confused as his armour rattled. His jaw dropped. He clambered to his feet, dashing past an unconscious Tamin, and approached the window.

No rain lashed against the glass. No wind howled, rocking the building. In that moment, Baird experienced silence for the first time in his life. It frightened him, the vast emptiness of it, the sheer depth of nothingness. Before that fear could grow too deep, the sprawling black clouds split like curtains and a beam of golden light fell upon his face. He began to tremble as he lifted his hands to his cheeks. It was warm.

Baird dropped to his knees and laughed. He’d done it. He’d actually done it. He laughed some more. Of course he had. He’d always known he could. Definitely. He pushed thoughts of the cage away and pulled off his gauntlets, wiping the joyful tears from his face. He loosed a deep exhale and buried his triumph. He needed to check on Tamin.

The young sorcerer hadn’t moved since he collapsed, breathing softly. Baird knelt next to him, carefully brushing the hair back from his bruised face. He looked so peaceful it was almost a shame to wake him. With his other hand, Baird softly tapped his shoulder.

“Tamin?”

It took a couple of attempts before Tamin’s eyes fluttered open. Baird frowned when they did – they were a rich, swirling blue. This faded so rapidly, returning to the proper soft grey, that Baird was certain he’d imagined it.

“Are you alright?” Tamin said as he tried to focus his weary eyes.

Baird blinked. “Me?” he asked, incredulous. “Of course I am! I’m a famous adventurer! You’re the one who collapsed.”

“Oh…” He closed and opened his eyes a few times. “Yes, I am well,” he replied. Physically at least, Baird thought. A sadness hung about him.

Baird smiled. “Good. I have something to show you.”

He helped Tamin to his feet. He was unsteady and shaken so Baird took the liberty of wrapping an arm around his waist. Purely for support. Tamin didn’t complain, leaning his weight against Baird as he was guided to the window. He gasped as they stepped into the warm beam of light, face filling with wonder at the landscape before them, laid out clearly for the first time in both their lives.

“It’s… incredible.”

Pride swelled in Baird’s chest. He had done this. Of all the heroes who had come and tried, it was Baird who had succeeded. Released the Glen. Avenged his father. Without Tamin though, he never would have. He grinned as he looked out of the window. He couldn’t quite see Glen Feen but the view was more than a victory for him. Flat, barren and laden with water, to Baird it was beautiful. He pointed to the horizon.

“You see where the sky touches the land?” he asked. Tamin nodded. Baird looked down at the slight man and their eyes met. “Just beyond lies your new home.”

They smiled at each other and looked back to the landscape, damp and bedraggled as it was. At his side, Baird’s fingers lightly grazed against Tamin’s. Slowly, their digits twined together as they both watched the clear blue sky before them.

And Baird would even have been telling the truth, if they had been looking out of the other window.

Fin!

The Tower of Storms: Part 3

Part 1 / Part 2

Baird sank to his knees, still clutching the bars, and hit his head against them. The pain took its time in subsiding. Baird breathed through it, letting his mind clear, and when it passed he got to work. First he tried to examine the lock only to find it absent. Nothing physical held the cage closed. Next he examined his belt. Most of his provisions were still intact. He had two different corrosives and tried them both. Neither effected the bars, dripping away as harmlessly as water. The second did a number on the stone floor, sizzling with activity, but he had nowhere near enough to burn a gap he’d fit through. He was well and truly trapped, now in a cell with at least quarter of the floor covered in flesh eating potions.

Baird slumped against the back of the cage with a despondent sigh as he looked to the skull of his cellmate.

“Am I arrogant?” he asked it.

The skull did not respond. For now, he was taking that as a good thing.

Baird rested his head against the bars. His list of ideas had been reduced to sitting there waiting to starve to death. This genius could yet be thwarted by being tortured to death. He’d have to wait and see. He had planned for many eventualities but being taken alive hadn’t even occurred to him. The great Baird of Glen Feen would never get captured, his own words from a few years ago rang in his head. He cringed and despair saw his weakness and pounced.

It hit him like a horse at full gallop, a cold hollowness in his gut where hope and pride once lived. It was all he could do not to cry out. He wouldn’t debase himself in front of that sadist or his son. He was more than that. He was-

Baird bolted upright. His son! His son who, with hindsight, seemed a far cry from his father. His son who, against direct orders, spared Baird’s life.

“Tamin?” he called as softly as he could. The last thing he wanted was the elder to hear. “Tamin, can you hear me?”

There was a shuffle from across the room and he felt a faint spark of hope. He glanced at the stairs and risked another whisper, eliciting another shuffle.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” came back Tamin’s small voice.

“You were supposed to kill me though,” Baird replied. “It would appear you have an issue with authority. I can relate to that.”

“Please,” Tamin said desperately. “He’ll punish me.”

“He’s going to kill me.”

There was silence for a moment before the young sorcerer’s face appeared from between two rows of cages.

“If you’re so afraid of him then why not kill me?” Baird asked.

Tamin rested his back against a cage and drew his knees up to his chest. “Sometimes they leave.”

“I’m not the first you’ve let go?”

He shook his head. Things began to make sense. Only in recent years had deflated wannabe heroes returned. Before that, nothing. By the gods.

“You’re not like him,” Baird ventured.

“I just…” Tamin trailed off, staring at the ground. “I don’t know why we have to kill. I don’t know why we need the storms.”

A thrill went through Baird. “The woman on the lower level… Your mother?”

Tamin nodded. “She wanted to stop the storms.” He wiped a tear away with one of the long sleeves of his cloak.

“He killed her?”

“He’ll kill me too if I help you.” The young man’s eyes met Baird’s. They were stormy grey. Tormented.

“I’ll kill him first,” he replied, pulling himself to his feet. “I have to. Do you have any idea what these storms have done to us?”

Tamin’s jaw trembled as he shook his head.

“Let me go,” Baird said. “Help me and I’ll show you what we’ve had to endure. Take you to the Glen and show you what we’ve lived like.”

Tamin’s head lifted, eyes wide. “You’d free me?”

Baird blinked, speechless. Then internally cursed himself. It hadn’t even occurred to him that the young man was a prisoner. Parents don’t need bars to hold their children captive. Tamin was one of the people he was trying to protect. He pulled one of his gauntlets off and pressed himself against the bars, threading his arm through and holding his hand out to Tamin.

“Come to me.”

He looked startled a moment but slowly rose to his feet. He approached Baird’s cage with caution and took an age to raise his hand, quivering like a leaf. Finally their fingers met and Baird stared into his eyes again. There was something there, inexplicable yet powerful. He felt for this man. Something made Baird desperate to protect him. His resolve hardened.

“I swear to you, Tamin, get me out of here and I will stop these storms. We will both leave here together as free men. I swear by the ancestors of the Glen, I will make this true.”

Tamin trembled, water welling in his eyes. Baird took his hand, smooth and warm, and pulled him close, eliciting a gasp. Baird threaded his fingers through Tamin’s and reached his other arm through the bars and around his back, holding Tamin against the cage, against himself. Baird towered over him. He could see the small man’s face clearly, slim, and sharp. 

“I swear to you,” Baird whispered, drawing his face closer to Tamin’s. “Help me, and I will see you free or die trying.”

Tamin’s voice caught so he simply nodded. Baird’s hope ignited to a flame. Pulled by Baird’s grip, the small man suddenly jerked closer, pressed fully against him, one hand resting against Baird’s breastplate. The bars along that side of the cage were gone. Vanished, as though they never were. He turned his face back to the young sorcerer. He’d done that without lifting a finger or uttering a word. Baird was free. He squeezed the sorcerer’s hand before letting go and gently cupping the side of Tamin’s face.

“Thank you,” he said. Tamin winced and Baird lifted the stray lock of sable hair away from his cheek. It had been concealing a deep purple bruise, peppered with cuts. It wasn’t fresh. “I’m going to kill him and then you’re coming with me.”

Tamin nodded and said nothing. Baird forced himself to let go of the man and retrieve his sword from the cell floor. He was free again and it felt good. He did however have more pressing matters to attend than hugs, such as killing the sorcerer that hundreds of adventurers before him had fallen to. Great. No problem. He stepped out of the cage and Tamin backed away, still skittish. He did a quick check over his arsenal as he thought up a plan.

“I need him thinking nothing is wrong,” Baird said as he worked his hand back into his gauntlet. “I need you to go down there just as you normally would.”

“I’ve never been up here before,” Tamin said, wringing his fingers together.

“Never?” Baird asked, lifting his head to peer at him. Tamin nodded. “What made you come up today?”

“You.” Baird’s eyebrows rose and Tamin’s mouth flapped open and closed. “I- I mean, you’re different. You’re special.”

The adventurer straightened, smirking. “Am I now?”

“I mean… You can do it.”

This gave him pause. “What do you mean?”

Tamin pointed to one of the sigils on Baird’s chest. “Oblear the Devourer.”

“Yes,” Baird said, picking it up. It was the solid silver stick figure with a shield over the chest. “She led the ancient crusades against the Mages of the West.”

Tamin took another step back and put a hand to his heart, where the sigil had pressed against him. “I could feel it. Burning. If it touches his flesh, he’ll die.”

Baird’s heart fluttered. I knew I could do this.

“He won’t let you get close,” Tamin said rapidly.

“Not without a little misdirection,” Baird said, letting the pendant fall back to his breastplate with a clink.

“I… I thought I just had to let you out. You want me to help kill my own father?” Tamin asked.

“Yes,” Baird replied, blunt and absolute. “He hurts you, keeps you prisoner. He killed your mother.” He held Tamin’s eyes. “And my father.”

“I…”

“Please Tamin,” Baird said. He hesitated. The next words were difficult. Agonising, even. “I need you.”

Wordless, Tamin nodded.

Part 4

The Tower of Storms: Part 2

Read part 1 here!

Baird balked and turned on the spot, sprinting for the stairs, throwing himself down them three at a time. Like a clattering juggernaut, Baird hit the ground floor and rounded on Frenzy, sliding to a halt. Someone in a long, dark hooded cloak was softly patting the horse’s nose with one hand and feeding him a carrot with the other. The figure was startled and turned to him, dropping the carrot. An unperturbed Frenzy casually bent his neck down and retrieved it. Baird’s heart was doing triple time. He had finally seen his legendary adversary. It was a little underwhelming.

The sorcerer appeared to be a young man, about Baird’s age, slight and porcelain. He also appeared to be terrified, quivering like a rabbit. His eyes moved from Baird’s face to his chest and back again. Baird grinned deeply – the sorcerer must have recognised one of his protective sigils, one that was effective. His work had paid off.

“At last,” Baird said, deepening his voice to sound grand. “You, vile sorcerer, shall finally meet your e- HEY!”

The sorcerer raised his hands with a flourish and within the space of a second he disappeared from toes to head, as though he were a rapidly drawn up blind. Baird cursed and stomped his armoured foot. Frenzy shrugged.

“Bastard! Coward!” he spat. “I’ll find him Frenzy and I’ll kill him! You see his face?” He frowned, remembering sorcerer’s visage, and shook his head. “ONE of these trinkets works and HE knows it!”

Frenzy blinked.

“I just… Why did he give you a carrot?” Baird’s eyes went wide. He rushed to Frenzy’s side. “Was it poisoned? How do you feel?”

Frenzy blinked again, thinking he’d be a lot better if this idiot went and did his job so they could both go home.

Baird spent another anxious minute with the horse but it seemed more irritated by his fretting than it did sick so he resumed his climb of the tower. The first three floors were much of the same. The five after were simply deserted rather than derelict. There was nothing except a thin layer of dust across the hauntingly empty floors. The tenth flight of stairs took him to one that was both the same and different. Utterly deserted like its predecessors but absolutely spotless. The faultlessly clean windows meant that this floor was brighter than the others, only accentuating the difference. The floor glistened, pale stone marbled with blue tendrils. Baird’s steps echoed gently as he approached a window. The weather was fierce as always, battering against the glass and howling like a league of wounded animals. He had never been so high up but couldn’t see far before everything turned into dark grey haze.

Before today is through, he thought with conviction, I will stand at this window and see all the way to the Glen. So distracted Baird was by his fervour that he didn’t realise he was looking in the exact opposite direction to Glen Feen.

He continued to scale the endless supply of steps past many more pristine and empty floors until something was different again. A soft blue light came from the top of the next staircase. He carefully unsheathed his sword. With renewed caution, he carried on upward.

As he ascended the last steps, a large glass sarcophagus came into view alone in the centre of the room. He paced closer. Azure light radiated from it, soothing and peaceful. Inside lay an immaculate woman. The tint on her lips and the darkness around her eyes added to the unnatural stillness telling Baird she truly was dead. The faint thrum of magic was present. Preserving her, Baird guessed. He wondered if it was grief fuelling the sorcerer’s torment of the land and scowled at the thought. No good woman would want such suffering in her name.

He glared at the next set of stairs. He must be getting close now. The sorcerer clearly wanted her near him. He stepped past the coffin and started upwards again. Nearing the last steps, he rose up into a room so lavish it could have belonged to the Duke. Everything was rich, dyed and velvet. There was a creak above Baird and he looked up to see a bundle of extravagant furniture suspended over his head. Then drop. He dove forward onto the thick, spongy carpet, rolling and springing back to his feet. The furniture clattered against the stairs.

“Why aren’t you dead?” came a voice, deep and menacing.

Baird spun to face the sorcerer. “Ah-HA- …ah.”

The man before him was more than double the age of the one he’d seen before, with a long, greying beard and the trappings of an especially vain king, all jewels and finery.

“Give me some credit,” he said. “You’ll need more than a sofa to-“

A low coffee table shunted toward him, straight into back of Baird’s knees. His limbs flailed as he sprawled across the carpet. The man—the sorcerer?—sighed. “Just another fool with a sword.”

Baird raised his chin and sneered. “Not quite.”

He yanked one of the glass bulbs from his belt and hurled it at the sorcerer. There was a soft ‘thwp’ sound as it collided with the sorcerer’s glorious crimson robe and again as it impotently dropped to the carpet. The sorcerer raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him and Baird grinned before burrowing his face in the soft pile, covering his head with his hands.

The bulb exploded, showering the room in tiny shards of glass which tinkled against Baird’s armour. The sorcerer wailed and yellow streaks of wild magic crackled around the room. Shelves were sheared in two and cushions exploded in puffs of feather down. Baird sprang to his feet, darting for the only exit – the stairs leading up. He shot up onto a floor like the last but partitioned. Furious, uncontrolled magic followed him so he carried on, ignoring the separate rooms to his sides and running for the next set of stairs. He needed just a moment to compose himself.

With far less bounds than there were stairs, Baird was at the top of the next flight with his back pressed against the wall, breathing hard. It wasn’t the extravagant bedroom Baird was expecting. Before him was a latticework of cages, dark and shadowy with boarded up windows. It stank the foul, foetid stench of death, stinging at Baird’s nostrils. Some of the cages had skeletons or badly decomposing bodies. Some wore armour Baird recognised.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” said a small, shaky voice. Baird caught sight of the younger sorcerer. He looked afraid. “No one should.”

Baird raised his sword. “I can’t let you continue to torment the realm.”

“He’ll kill you,” the man said, backing away.

“I’ll kill you both first.”          

“Tamin!” boomed the elder’s voice from Baird’s side. Startled, Baird stumbled deeper into the dungeon. “I told you to kill this wretch.”

“I thought he was leaving,” Tamin wailed, fear thick on his face.

“I said kill,” the elder spat, backhanding thin air. Tamin was lifted from his feet and launched across the room, slamming against a cage so hard half the room rattled. He slumped to the ground out of sight. The elder looked to Baird and shook his head. “Don’t have kids,” he advised.

He swatted the air in Baird’s direction. Nothing happened. He gave until the old sorcerer looked truly confused before allowing himself a grin.

“Some kids do their homework,” he said.

Baird struck at him with his sword but the sorcerer recovered quickly, conjuring a metallic staff from motes of light to block the blow. He was freakishly strong, stopping Baird’s arm dead. The shock through his limb was so painful he almost lost grip on his blade. The sorcerer grabbed him by the throat and shoved. Baird staggered backwards into a cage, tripping on bones and crashing against the bars. The door clanged shut and he felt sick with panic. He kicked at it but it didn’t even rattle.

The sorcerer’s shadow fell over him and Baird looked up into his sneer. There were a few bleeding cuts on his face and a burn on his chin. “On second thought, I’m glad Tamin didn’t kill you. Such an arrogant little boy. I look forward to hearing you beg.”

Baird went cold as the sorcerer turned away. He scrambled to his feet and shook at the bars. They didn’t budge. He watched with growing despair as the sorcerer disappeared to the lower levels. He had failed. The sorcerer had beaten him without even trying. And now he was going to die.

Read Part 3 here!

The Tower of Storms: Part 1

Baird stood in the musty stable strapping Frenzy’s saddle in place. The door opened and a furious, icy wind swept through, disturbing hay and toppling buckets. Rain and sleet splattered across the wooden floorboards, soaking the straw as several horses grunted disapprovingly.

“Duke’s hairy arse,” someone grumbled as they slammed the door shut, muffling the hideous weather outside. It continued to howl and roar around the building. “Ne’er gets any better, does it?”

Baird smiled as he secured the final strap of the saddle. “Give it a couple of days.”

The man, Erlon the stable master, laughed as he shook out his cloak. Enough water poured from it to make a puddle around his feet that Frenzy took to lapping at.

“Aye, about that,” Erlon began. “I thought it best to collect your stable fees before you left, if you know what I mean.”

“I know precisely what you mean,” Baird said, fishing around in the coin pouch at his belt. “You’re afraid that I shall be so mobbed by adoring fans upon my return you’ll never get near me.”

“Sure,” Erlon said. “Let’s go with that.”

Baird flicked a coin to him and returned to tending his horse. Erlon had to juggle a few times before he got a proper grasp. When he did, he scowled.

“Aye, and the rest of it,” he said, brandishing the coin. “This is a half.”

“Erlon,” Baird began, turning to the man with an easy smile. “Come now. Just think how much business you’ll get when people find out the saviour of the Glen stabled their horse here.”

Erlon held his hand out with a glare. Baird kept his earnest grin firmly affixed but Erlon did not budge an inch. After a moment Baird finally accepted his loss, pouting.

“Oh fine, take it,” he huffed, digging out another coin and flicking it to Erlon with a touch of venom.

“What’s wrong with you, boy?” the stable master snarled as he retrieved the coin from the dirty floor. “Not like you to be so tight fisted.”

Baird focused intently on Frenzy as he ran a brush needlessly over the beast’s coat. “I just… I wanted to give that to my mother.” He then shot a sharp look at Erlon. “Just to tide her over until my return.”

A half sovereign would tide the woman over for weeks, never mind his short trip. Erlon looked down at the coins in his hand and then up at the well-stocked horse. Well stocked with weaponry and armour. A glance didn’t reveal much food or camping gear. “This is all you’ve got left?”

“It’s the off season,” Baird said with a noncommittal shrug. “Won’t be until the festivals that all the bandits show their heads again.”

Erlon sucked his teeth. It was true enough and Baird had been buying unusual and expensive equipment for his go at the quest, attempted by many over hundreds of years and completed by none.

“You’ve waited this long. Why not leave it one more half year?”

“I’m done waiting,” Baird replied. “I’m finally ready.”

Erlon sighed and shook his head. “Here,” he said, thrusting his hand out to Baird. The adventurer lifted his head and the stable master dropped both coins into his palm. “For your mother. She’s gonna have enough to worry about.”

Baird quickly looked away, tucking the coins into his purse. “On my return you’ll be repaid tenfold.” He gave Erlon a furtive glance and returned to the finishing touches with his horse. “Thank you.”

The stable master nodded. It was the closest to humility he’d ever get out of the little shit. “Be careful. And don’t be stupid. A lot of folks have actually managed to come back in recent years.”

“Unsuccessful.”

“Think of yer ma,” he persisted. “No one’ll judge you for coming back.”

Baird turned and looked at Erlon levelly. “I will be back, long before those coins run out. I’ve slain more than anyone in this Glen, mundane and magical alike. I will kill that sorcerer, Erlon. Not even the gods can stop me.”

He went to his mother’s house direct from the stables. She was delighted to see him, despite berating him for dripping all over the floor. He gave her the coins, which she repeatedly tried to give back, and did a quick inspection of the house to ‘ensure there weren’t any leaks.’ There was enough in the house she could sell to keep herself fed, if anything happened. Not that it would, obviously, but it was reassuring to know.

Then there was nothing else for him to do but set out on the road. He’d waited for this his entire life, dreamed of the moment his blade severed the sorcerer’s head and the storms that had plagued the Glen for centuries fell silent. He’d tried to imagine it as a child, shoving his head under pillows or hiding in cellars but the constant roar of the wind and the rain could not be suppressed. Baird’s hands shook with excitement, hardly able to believe it was finally his turn. He would be the one to bring justice for the weather goddess.

The journey was wrought with gale force winds that caused Frenzy to stumble; with rain half ice that mercilessly pelted Baird’s body, penetrating his thick travelling gear; with such poor visibility that he may as well have shut his eyes. So like a trip to the baker’s, just longer. There was no shelter on the road and while trying to sleep Frenzy made an exceptionally poor and cantankerous windbreak. Rumours told him that long ago, before the winds, trees were a common thing – that there had been whole forests of the things. Now only the most gargantuan of them remained upright and even fewer alive thanks to the constant storms.

Despite everything—his growing hunger, exhaustion and cold—he soldiered on. The route, at least, was in his favour. So travelled the path to the tower was that what had once been a beaten track was now practically a road. It was more frequented than most trade routes. His lack of needing to pack up camping gear and Frenzy’s slow yet unfaltering gait meant they made very good time. Most horses tired quickly in the weather but Frenzy was bred to be a cart horse, not some idiot mercenary’s steed. After three days of journeying a tall, thin shadow began to stretch up past the horizon, a grey omen barely visible against the rain and clouds.

Baird grinned, water dripping down his face from his somewhat ineffectual hood. “Good job, Frenzy,” he said, giving the horse a slap on the side of the neck. “This is it. My destiny. I just know it.”

If Frenzy could have rolled his eyes, he would have.

Over the next hour, the tower grew up high into the sky until the base was just visible through the weather. From then, it took even longer for the tower to start feeling as though it was drawing near. Eventually, it loomed over them both.

Baird looked up at it with a wide smile, his face pelted with rain and his hood filling like a water skin. After a moment it slipped from his head, depositing the water onto a disgruntled Frenzy’s back. Baird leapt to the ground, stumbling. The wind here was the worst he’d ever experienced, to the point where he was astounded that any manmade structure could have survived all this time. He drew his sword and stalked forward as best he could braced against the gale, ready for assailants to jump out at any moment. Frenzy, thoroughly unimpressed, plodded after him.

Baird approached the doors, easily three times his height, with caution. He’d fought magical types before and didn’t believe a single sorcerer could not have met their match after all these years. The number of challengers compared with the number who actually came back was not promising. Sword raised and ready, his foot touched the steps. The doors swept slowly backwards into the tower of their own accord. Baird hesitated, then shook his head.

“Come on, boy,” he said. “Let’s see if there’s another way in.”

They circled the tower, finding excesses of uneven scrub and solid masonry. There were also skeletons. Lots and lots of discarded skeletons. It didn’t take long for them both to be staring into the gaping maw of the same doorway again, inviting them in from the fearsome storm. There was a flash across the sky, accompanied by the rumble of thunder. Frenzy nudged Baird’s shoulder with his nose.

He approached the doorway. Everything inside was still. He crossed the threshold, stepping out of the rain. The tower’s base was a single room, gloomy and derelict. The floor was dim and dusty, fallen victim to time and neglect. There were marks in the dust and not just Baird’s, easily identifiable due to the water droplets all around them. A wide, spiralling staircase led up. The dust on the steps had been brushed by something as well. With quick, graceful steps, he checked behind each door and scouted the room, finding nothing malicious. Satisfied that he was alone on this floor, Baird brought Frenzy inside and the doors swung shut by themselves. Baird exhaled and took to strapping on a few additional pieces of armour.

He pulled a belt from one of the packs on Frenzy’s back, covered in thick glass bulbs with powders and liquids. He might have been a cocky bastard but he always made sure he was prepared. Especially where magic was involved. All of his trinkets, talismans and potions had, after he’d given his last sovereign to his mother, left him penniless. He took some ancient wristbands and tied them on, the warm, pink stones clacking quietly together. It took time to strap every piece of protective gear he had to various parts of his body. His years of delay had been filled with research. He might act arrogant and fearless but he valued his life. His self-assurance came from a lot of hard work.

Hands trembling with anticipation, he placed the chain of the final protective sigil—a shielded silver stick figure—over his head, to let it sit upon his breastplate. He was ready. His whole life had been building to this moment and he was finally ready. He patted Frenzy with a wide smile.

“When we return, my friend, it shall be as kings.” Baird turned and made for the stairs.

Frenzy would have liked to point out that they lived in a duchy. Alas, what with being a horse, he could not.

Baird had mostly stopped dripping by the time he began his ascent of the stairs. The first floor looked much like the ground floor and there was disturbance apparent here as well. There was something in this tower and it wasn’t a rat. As his foot touched the first step of the next flight of stairs up, a piercing whinny came from below.

Read part 2 here!

Autumn

Another short from the writing classes. This exercise was to simply choose one of the presented prompts and run with it. The prompt I chose was “Autumn.”

 


 

It happened with the turn of the leaves, when things change from green to precious gold. I didn’t know what I was looking for, just that I was looking. I didn’t need anything to search for because I never found it anyway. Just looking was enough. The shiny disk of the metal detector glinted in the sun, offering promises never fulfilled. I didn’t mind. It was a nice excuse to go outside. I always needed one; I could never allow myself to enjoy the world without some tangible reason for it. So I looked for metal.

Then one autumn’s day I actually found some.

The detector startled me as it bleeped wildly – after all, it was a sound I’d only heard once before, when I tested the thing as it came out of the box. I stared at the flat, bare ground before me, confused as to what came next. I’d never anticipated this moment. Eventually I got onto my knees and dug into the soft earth with my hands. It wasn’t particularly cold yet and the soil came away easily. I kept digging and never found anything but I was so curious I couldn’t stop. When I got to about a foot down with still nothing, I tried the metal detector again. It bleeped, so I kept digging.

The sun was setting and I was still digging. I would periodically check to see if the mystery item was still there. It was. I kept going, until I was certain I’d gone down further than the metal detector’s range. My hands bled but by that time I couldn’t feel them anyway. I plunged them down to take another scoop of earth and they smacked into something cold and hard. I dusted the loose soil away frantically, revealing something smooth beneath.

I frowned. The full moon was high in the sky, casting silver light into the hole. It was a face. A metal face with dead, circular eyes and a hollow rectangle for a mouth. Everything smelled like soil and blood.

“HELLO.”

I flinched at the metallic voice. It hadn’t come from the face. It had come from behind me. From the metal detector.

“GREETINGS.”

I looked back to the face. Both eyes were lit with a soft blue light, the left one flickering. My mouth was dry and slowly the feeling was returning to my hands. They burned and shook.

“IS IT TIME?” asked the metal detector. I turned and picked it up, inspecting it. It looked normal, with no spot I could guess at as being speakers.

“Time for what?” I asked it, feeling silly.

“IT IS TIME,” said the face behind me, and something hit me on the back of the head.

I fell face first to the ground and darkness took me, and when I finally woke again Edinburgh was already gone.

Day and Night

Another short from the writing classes. In this exercise, we were tasked with studying sound in two contrasting things.

 


 

When the sun is high, the world is full of the babble of laughter and voices. Cars rumble past in a persistent, growling stream. Little bells jangle as the shop doors on the street open and close, the crinkling of shopping bags constant.

Only twelve hours later and those sounds are gone. The babble is replaced by a cool silence to those who do not wish to hear the night. My steps are gentle footfalls on the concrete. A soft rustle to my right – just a cat inspecting a bin. At this time, my breaths are loud and the soft breeze whispers to me. Just as I feel peace in this serene nightscape, there are footsteps behind me. I turn quickly. But behind there is only empty space and the footsteps remain. When the sun is high, the world is loud and I am safe from the sound. But it isn’t.

It is dark and it is cold and still the footsteps remain.

 

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Aurora Borealis

A few weeks ago I promised that I’d start posting some of the flash fiction from my writing class exercises! So here is the first one. This came from an exercise about describing a setting with the senses, using a place from a childhood memory.

 


 

Icy air gusted softly by as we stood beneath the stars, staring upwards past the looming grey pillars of the hilltop monument and into the crisp night sky. Specks of silver glistened in the void above us, stiff bristles of heather rustling by our feet. A couple of snowflakes twirled on the salty air, the very first of the fall. It wouldn’t be long before the encroaching grey clouds obscured our view and snuffed out our chances.

Dad held his camera aloft, hoping for those eerie green lanterns to splash across the sky. They never did. Never on the nights we tried. But we always went. And tonight, deep between those twinkling dots of light in the sky, something moved. We both tensed, excited, my numb hands clenching tight. This was it, our time. The thing that moved did shimmer with emerald wonder but it did not spill across the night. It moved closer, growing larger. I held my breath, the crunching of my raincoat falling silent as I stood stock still. Drifting up high was a perfect viridian disk.

My mouth fell agape, breath misting on the air. I glanced at my dad, the camera clutched white knuckled in his chill burned fingers. His brow furrowed, disbelieving and almost annoyed by the object above. Whatever it was, it drew nearer, silent as the snowfall. The quiet drew out long enough that the gentle whispers of the wind became unnerving.

The sudden click of the camera startled me and the haunting thing rose so swiftly upwards it was a dot within a second. It became a pinprick among the starts and then it was gone. I stared a long while, just in case it returned, while Dad scowled at the little preview window of his camera. The display showed perfectly the eerie form of the green glowing UFO, proof that the incredible spectacle we’d witnessed was real. He muttered under his breath and shook his head.

“We’re never gonna see those bloody lights.”

Writing Games Mark Two

Hey, hey, hey! 

Today we have another installment from Melanie’s Writing Games! I hope you enjoy this ridiculous little story. The quote below is this month’s prompt and can be found at The Write Hobby blog, and the story follows.

So three film producers are sitting at a bar complaining about their latest sci-fi movie. The script is lacking something important. It has no interesting worlds or locations. One of the producers, with more money than sense stands on the bar, almost completely drunk and brings the room to a stop. The producer yells out to the crowd. “A hundred thousand dollars to the person in this bar who can save this script and make the final combat scene set some place extreme. I want the location to be so fierce that the set becomes a character in my movie.”

A hundred thousand dollars?! You betcha Mary was up for that. She was on her feet and careening sharply sideways before the guy on the bar had even closed his mouth. It wasn’t often three rich Americans wandered into tiny Scottish pubs but she certainly wasn’t complaining.

“Yo!” she hollered, raising a hand above her head and pointing an ill-aimed finger down at her own scalp. “Right here, sonny-jim.”

She swayed left, then right, and then left again, before finally settling somewhere close enough to upright. Rows of large, inebriated eyes turned to peer at her. Great. She had their attention. All she needed now was an idea. Uuuhh…

“Well?” the wobbly man on the bar demanded, head skewed to the left as it fought some hanging beer mugs for space.

She remained frozen and another slow second passed. A proverbial tumbleweed scampered past.

One of the propositioner’s friends sprawled his upper body over the bar with a dismayed groan. “She’s got nothing. We’ve got nothing! We’re all hacks-”

“Picture a scene before you,” Mary said, voice loud, hands splaying out like fans as she stepped closer to the bar on unsteady feet. “Picture… picture a snowstorm! But, uh, instead of snow… it’s LAVA!”

While there were one or two startled gasps from the crowd, but most just cocked eyebrows and looked confused. The three rich men at the bar looked so unimpressed that even their expensive pressed suits appeared bored.

“How does-” one drunken by-sitter began, but Mary didn’t let them carry on.

“All around is a darkened landscape, the sky a deep, judgemental orange glow, the ground for miles around all, uh, dark.” Her eyes darted up and to the side as she desperately pondered just what the hell she was talking about. “Peat! Dark, black, squidgy peat hills rolling for as far as the eye can see! Flecks of molten hot… STUFF raining down like phosphorescent snowflakes, twisting  slowly as they descend in the utter stillness.”

People were leaning forward now, listening closely. She had them, now to keep them.

“The air is thick and hot but there is not so much as a breeze to disturb a hair on your heads. All around, nothingness. Just thick, dense silence like the calm after a snowfall. Dampened, muted nothingness.”

You’ve said snow too many times! she thought in a panic. New words, new words! What little attention the three men at the bar had been showing was rapidly waning. One pulled out his phone and started jabbing at it, struggling with his hand eye coordination. Another’s eyes started to very slowly close over. The man’s words began to repeat in her head again. I want the location to be so fierce that the set becomes a character…

She grinned. “Just then, when you thought all was quiet, stood in the desolate quiet  – uh, I mean silence – something stirs.” A little more attention came back as she wove between the tables orating, occasionally knocking into things and tipping glasses to disgruntled mutterings. “Perhaps that is the wrong word.” She spun on her heel, doing a full three-sixty and nearly ending up on her face. Three different hands shot out to steady her as her eyes bulged different sizes. She squinted them, forcing them to focus on the rich men. Somehow, there now seemed to be six of them.

Everything stirs.” She raised her arms up in the air and began to undulate them like an eckied up octopus. “The ground rises in places and falls in others, moving like a sea monster, like great Nessie herself!”

“Nessie’s a bloke!” someone shouted from the crowd and she pointed a stern and angry finger at them.

“Don’t you start that shit with me again, Timmy. Don’t you dare.” She turned now manically wide eyes back to the suits, all of whom were watching her. “The ground moves and shapes itself as it likes, never making a sound, never breaking that eerie, haunting quiet. In places, cliffs as high as the Hebrides-”

“That’s not that high,” a petulant Timmy began.

She raised her voice to almost a shout, giving her very best Brian Blessed impersonation. “-and low as the Marianas Trench appear out of nothingness!”

This drew a couple of drunken ‘ooooooo’s from the crowd.  At some point she had dropped into a lunge, both hands curled in front of her like a particularly enthusiastic glam metal act.

“That’s right,” she continued on, rising again and lifting an arm in the air, “and every fifteen minutes, it all-”

“Here,” said one of the suits, now stood right in front of her. She hadn’t even seen him approach, too wrapped up in her own genius, but he held out a small white slip of paper to her. She took it. A cheque for a hundred thousand dollars. Her face lit up, mouth wide with delight. “There you are. I’ll give you that if you agree to shut the hell up.”

Michael, You’re Screwed

So, do you remember me mentioning Melanie’s Writing Games? Well, here is the result. The first game consisted of this: a character of yours being abducted by the guys from survival program “Dude, You’re Screwed.” Unfortunately I’ve never seen the program and had no way of seeing it, so I’ve pretty much guessed. I can probably safely say that Michael, from my Twyned Earth novels, has GOT to be the fastest to lose the game.

I present to you:


Michael, You’re Screwed!

When the hood was pulled from his head, Michael wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. ‘Lighten up,’ they said. ‘It’ll be a laugh,’ they said. As the light filled his eyes and the landscape before him was revealed, he wasn’t so sure. The air that filled his lungs was so hot and thick it was chewy, and it tasted like compost.

When he was abducted by these over excitable survivalists, he’d expected they would dump him in the middle of a forest somewhere. Which, to be fair, they had done. He just wasn’t expecting this forest. The trees in front of him were enormous, hulking things with bark black as night and heavy drooping branches that reached to the uneven, marshy ground. Through them could be seen the thick gnarled trunks. He stared at them and they stared back. One of them blinked, looked mildly puzzled, rolled its eyes and then took to ignoring him. The rest of the trees followed suit very quickly.

To his side, Michael spotted a rather bulky man with a crew cut and a camera who gave him a rather sheepish smile. “Did that tree just wink at me?”

“Just how much research did you guys do on this place?” Michael asked.

“Well, I’m not supposed to help you,” the guy answered.

Michael’s shoulders dropped. “We’re going to die.”

The man with the camera glanced at his watch, a thick chunky thing that looked as though it had about a thousand functions. “Only ninety nine hours and fifty five minutes to go. Better get shifting.”

A little whine escaped Michael’s throat and he started to take a step forward. As he put his foot down though, the tree directly in front of him began to growl. He lifted his foot again and the low rumble fell silent. He sighed.

“How am I supposed to get out of here?” he asked to the cameraman.

“I really can’t help you,” he replied. “It’s against the rules.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed. “Is killing you against the rules?”

The large man looked at Michael’s dumpy shape, then at his own barrel chest. “Can give it a go if you like.” He grinned.

Michael exhaled, looking back to the trees, trying to decide who he had less of a chance with. Eventually, he decided to give the trees another shot. The threatening growl sounded again as Michael’s foot came close to the ground, but he took a deep breath and placed it firmly in front of him.

The tree’s trunk split into a horizontal slit, a horrifying and ragged maw filled with uneven barky teeth. It swung its heavy branches at Michael, smacking him off his feet like a he’d been hit by a lorry. As he travelled through the air and darkness enclosed him, his last fleeting thought was:

Can I go home yet?

The Shower

Harold awoke to a terrifying sound. It was both a hiss and a rumble, deep and brash, loud enough that the vibrations wracked his body. The peaceful sanctuary he had stopped to rest in was awash with chaos. Baleful orbs of water fell from the sky, larger than his own head. They pelted within inches of his body, their disturbance of the air palpable. Instinct kicked in immediately and he knew that he had to move. Only death awaited here.  Far below, the water pooled and swept away debris with a fierce current – one he knew he could never fight.  To either side, the verdant drape Harold clung to curled in toward that vicious rainfall. There was only one way. Up.

A stab of panic sliced through his thorax as he tried, unsuccessfully, to move his leg. The appendage was drenched in water, the strong membrane pinning him down. His heart convulsed in fear as he whipped his gangly body about in a frenzy, flailing from side to side. It held him fast. The weight was unbearable, stifling. Hope began to sweep away from him.

And then he saw her face.

A brief flash across his vision, her beautiful face.

Maria…

The quiver of her antennae, the multifaceted emeralds that were her eyes. In that moment, she was his strength. He reminded her of everything he had to live for. Of a wonderful wife who would be left alone. Of three hundred children raised without a father. Determination slammed into him with all the force of the drops from above. He commanded his leg to move and it did, eking slowly at first but it moved. Harold strained against the grip, refusing to relent, body quaking with exertion. The membrane gave and Harold lurched upwards.

He scrambled onward, ignoring the screams of his aching body and the trembling of his limbs, dragging himself up and up as fast as he could. Water sloshed toward him, dangerously close, and the air grew thicker and thicker, hot and dense with vapour. His breathing was laboured and unsatisfying, each lungful merely keeping him conscious and doing nothing to stave off the crushing feeling of suffocation.

And suddenly, time was standing still. Water hung suspended in the air. All the vapour in the world could not have made Harold have felt as breathless as the sudden sense of dread he now held. Very slowly, like the crawl of a glacier, it turned to look at him. The thing, the thing that basked in the fitful pelting of the water, turned and looked at him. Harold did not know what they were, nor did he want to know. He wanted as little to do with them as possible. The things were gargantuan creatures of bizarre proportions, their legs barely longer than their bodies and heads grotesquely large. Some said they were keepers of the earth. Others said they were gods. It didn’t matter. They only ever reacted one of two ways to Harold’s people. Hateful anger or cold indifference.

The thing eyed Harold, the protective layer gliding over its eyes and back. He was overcome with jealousy that the creature could hide its sight in such a way. All he could do was stare, betrayed by his own vision, forced to watch his fate with the torturous drag of time. Eventually, the creature chose its path. Choosing cold indifference, it turned its back on him and he was forgotten.

Reality came crashing back to Harold. He was alive. Struggling and suffocating, but he was alive and his resolve remained. This was clearly a sign, he thought. He was meant to live. He chose to live. He continued to climb, fighting his way every agonising step until finally he was mere inches from the top. Then the water stopped. Silence tumbled around him, the only sound to be heard was the persistent throbbing of his heart. It took a moment of confusion for him to realise what had happened but when he did he waved his antennae in elation. He’d made it.

The curtain was thrown back and folds of it came crashing against him. Enveloped in darkness and motion, he could barely hang on, a mere two of his feet left clinging desperately to the fabric, all that was keeping him from plummeting to the damp, soapy abyss. His four loose legs scrambled for purchase but in his panic and disorientation, he could find no hold. As suddenly as the turmoil had started though, it ended. The curtain was pulled taut again, giving Harold the space and light he needed to compose himself and cling safely. He wasted no time in hoisting himself up the last little bit, over the top of the drape and onto the rail.

He hunkered down, taking a moment to try and catch his breath in the thick air. The thing moved on the other side of the curtain now, ignorant or simply uncaring as to Harold’s presence. It moved over to the great screen of light and began to toy with it. Harold watched, forgetting his own near death and laboured breathing. The thing lifted something and then pushed. The screen of foggy light fell away and pure, unhindered light spilled through. At first Harold thought he was hallucinating but a blast of cold, pure oxygen filled air penetrated his lungs, the feeling of which was almost euphoric. He scrambled to his feet to get a better look. The trails of mist upon the air spun and danced as the fresh, untainted breeze from outside swept in, mingling with it.

Freedom.

Harold didn’t need another sign. There had been too many already. He was supposed to live. He would see Maria and all his little children again. He was supposed to live.

Giddy with joy, he leapt from the rail and into the air, wings spreading and hammering to keep him aloft. He whizzed toward the open portal to the outside world, to freedom, to victory. And as he passed the threshold from the watery prison and into the world, he pumped his antennae victoriously into the air.

When, really, he should have been keeping an eye out for that chaffinch.