Navigator

Writing Prompt: Corpses

navigatorpic

The hissing of an air pump. The beeping of a low oxygen warning. It was these sounds, and no others, that woke Adrian Martinez from his pleasant dream. He was watching the ocean with Mia and Scott.

There was no ocean in deep space. Deep space was where Adrian was now, and he realized that with the lazy certainty of an oxygen-starved brain. Above him, his scout ship’s canopy looked out onto the stars, a canopy with three tiny holes in it. Bullet holes.

The system sun crested the horizon on his cockpit’s left edge, and Adrian realized his silent ship was slowly spinning. He squinted through crystals of water and blood. How the hell was he still alive?

Hands that moved slowly in zero-gravity thumped his flight suit. Gloved fingers slid across his faceplate, the one that had automatically snapped shut when the enemy bullets zipped through the canopy. There were no holes in his suit, or if there were, his suit had sealed them.

The sun set on the right edge of his cockpit, and the world went dark again.

Their ship had vented to vacuum long ago. His suit’s internal oxygen had kept him alive while he slept, but he had obviously slept too long, because now it was angry at him. He needed to get them home.

Adrian sorted through blurred memories. Flight command had given him constellations to use as guides if the waypoint system malfunctioned. Those constellations would help him orient the ship. Maybe his navigator…

Shit! She hadn’t said a word since he woke up. What if she was hurt, or dying?

Adrian twisted in his chair, but the straps fought him, so he popped the straps and floated off his seat. He pushed up and started a slow twist, careful not to overdo it, and stared at the shadow in the seat behind him. Airman Shelly Hart didn’t speak, and no lights glowed on her suit.

The sun rose, illuminating Hart’s suit, and her shattered faceplate, and the staring blue eyes inside her helmet. The pale face covered in little flecks of ice. No oxygen warning was beeping inside her helmet.

Adrian watched her until the sun set.

His oxygen-starved brain refused to focus on anything but the woman who should be alive right now, but wasn’t. His partner. He tried to remember who Hart had waiting for her back on Earth. He vaguely recalled a sister, and a father. Hart’s mother died on Titan, in one of the first enemy attacks.

Adrian pushed against the canopy and back into his seat. He fumbled with his straps as the sun rose and set, squinting through droplets of Hart’s blood. Once he was strapped in again, he focused on the stars that would guide them both home. They, like his memories, were blurry now.

He couldn’t die out here, not yet, because he needed to get Hart’s body home. He knew what it felt like when someone you loved didn’t come home, because that’s where his brother was now, not home. Not dead, not prisoner, just missing, and forever. He wouldn’t do that to Hart’s family or his own.

Adrian flipped the emergency start. Nothing happened. He flipped off all the auxiliaries, counted to 10, and flipped them on again. He waited as the sun rose and set.

A single yellow button glowed inside his cockpit. That glow was joined by others, banks of tiny green lights that rapidly turned yellow or red. As glowing guidelines floated before him and a 360 threat sphere materialized above his flight stick, hope struggled to the surface of his drowning mind.

Yet as Adrian’s gloved hands wrapped around the flight stick, as his booted feet hovered above the thrust pedals, he didn’t know where to go. Navigation was one of the red lights – the destroyed systems – and while he knew the fleet had set a rendezvous point for survivors, he had no idea where it was.

Hart would have known. She could read the stars of this system better than any map. She would tell him how to spin the ship and go home, but she was now a corpse in his back seat.

Adrian focused on the briefing he barely remembered and tried not to scream. There were no constellations beyond his canopy. Just thousands of tiny blinking lights, all waiting to watch him die.

The sun rose and set again.

The sun. He would aim their ship for the sun, because the engagement map had them heading rimward from the carrier, toward the enemy. Heading coreward would take them home.

Adrian only had one thruster left, but it wasn’t like he actually had to stop. He cancelled the spin and pushed toward the sun. He had always hated how the stars didn’t move, how it felt like nothing was moving at all. With no navigation screen to track their velocity, the stillness was maddening.

He wanted to tell Hart they’d make it home. He wanted to sleep because he was very, very tired, but falling asleep was also falling dead. He couldn’t do either just yet.

“Martinez?” Hart’s voice echoed through the speakers in his helmet, barely audible.

Was he hearing things? “Hart?” He was too tired to look behind him.

“The fuck are you doing?” Her voice was weak, quiet, but it was her.

“You’re alive!” Had he imagined the cracks in her faceplate?

“No shit.” Her familiar snark cut through the blanket of disorientation infesting his brain. “Is that why you’re trying to kill us?”

“I’m not trying to kill us.”

“On this vector you are. The Slingshot’s 40 degrees off port.”

The Slingshot! Adrian saw it then, the constellation, just where Hart said it would be. “Hot damn.”

“Turn the ship, you idiot.”

Adrian oriented their nose toward the constellation. “Done. What’s next?”

“Straight up from the Slingshot, 20 degrees.”

Right. That’s what Captain Fallon said in the briefing, up 20 degrees. Thank God for Hart’s clear head.

“Now right 15,” she whispered. “Right 15.”

Adrian turned the ship. He fired the thruster, burned the last of their fuel, and grinned wide. “Hey, think we’ll get a medal for this?”

“Just get us home, pilot,” Hart whispered inside his helmet.

That ended the small talk, because they both needed air to live. Yet they were headed in the right direction now. Rescuers would find them, alive or not, so no matter what, their families wouldn’t wonder.

Adrian eventually lost his fight with sleep, but a loud pop shattered that peaceful black. He blinked bloodshot eyes as a plastic mask crushed his face, as oxygen fought its way back into his lungs. Even though the blur, he recognized the blocky lines of the carrier’s launch bay. Medals for everyone.

He struggled as medics in red jumpsuits pulled him from a ship filled with holes. As they settled him on a stretcher, holding the mask over his face, he tried to ask them about Hart. He couldn’t, but that was okay. They’d find her and save her, too, and they’d have one hell of a story to tell.

He slept again.

Adrian woke once more in a soft bed. Captain Fallon sat beside him. The sight of his commanding officer caused one arm to stiffen instinctively, but Fallon said “at ease” before he could try, and fail, to salute her. He nodded instead, and then he asked her the first question to enter his head.

“Did Hart make it?”

“No, and I’m sorry.” Fallon squeezed Adrian’s shoulder, but her comfort felt cold in the face of her words. “There was nothing we could do for her.”

Adrian felt a heavy weight settle in his chest.

“Even so,” Fallon said, “you got her home. You got the both of you home, and that’s something.”

Adrian sat back. “It was Hart who got us home, sir.”

Fallon narrowed her eyes. “How’s that?”

“I blacked out after we took three rounds to the canopy. After I woke up, Hart told me how to orient the ship. She remembered the constellations, sir.”

Fallon was quiet for a moment. “Hart told you how to get home?”

“Yes sir. It should be on the tapes, sir.”

“The only voice on those tapes is you, Martinez, and your vitals are clear. Hart died the moment those bullets penetrated. It wasn’t your fault.”

Nausea blossomed as Adrian remembered Hart’s pale face and staring eyes. “She was alive, sir.”

“The tapes say otherwise.”

“Then the tapes are wrong, sir.”

Fallon watched him for a moment. “Airman Hart guided you home, correct?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then that’s what I’ll report.” Fallon stood. “That’s what I’ll tell her family.”

Adrian relaxed. “Thank you, sir.”

“Get some rest.”

Adrian tried to make sense of things after Fallon left. He knew he’d heard Hart’s voice in his helmet, her whispers directing their ship. The tapes were wrong. The tapes had to be wrong.

But even if they weren’t, his navigator had guided them both home.

THE END

About the Story:

I actually struggled with this theme and it took me a good while to come up with anything. While our theme was corpses, the corpse had to be entirely mundane (no zombies or other supernatural elements) which immediately blocked off 90% of my ideas (though this was good, as it forced me to be creative).

Anyway, it was down to the wire, maybe five days left, and I watched an episode of Robotech (it is now on Netflix!) where Lisa Hayes was flying in a two-person fighter with her pilot. They get in a dogfight and her pilot gets killed, so now she’s (briefly) in a Veritech with a corpse in a seat behind her. I thought that was incredibly creepy, being trapped in a damaged fighter with a dead guy, unable to fly (Lisa isn’t a pilot, so I flipped the idea to be a pilot who doesn’t know here to go).

That was part one of coming up with the story.

Part two was old ghost stories, particularly involving downed flights. I remembered a ghost story from decades ago regarding the crew of a doomed flight that went down in the Florida Everglades. The pilots crashed because there was a malfunctioning height warning or something, and they (and everyone on board) were killed.

There were ghost stories (supposedly confirmed by flight crew, if you believe the Internet) of the ghosts of the pilots of that flight returning to warn future flights and crews of problems. For instance, supposedly the captain of the flight’s ghost appeared to flight crew on another flight and said “There’s going to be a fire” before vanishing. It turned out the airplane’s stove had a short or something, and would have caught fire in case they hadn’t checked it. So, I loved the idea of the ghost of a pilot reappearing on other flights to try to warn other flight crews of danger.

Finally, I remembered the scene in Gravity where George Clooney helps Sandra Bullock’s character (or does he?) and decided to add that as the final element. So the question in this story is the same. People who believe in ghosts can assume that Shelly Hart’s ghost manifested to help her co-pilot navigate home. People who don’t believe in ghosts can assume that Martinez’s oxygen-starved mind caused him to hallucinate something he subconsciously remembered (he did see the star charts, he just didn’t remember them).

I never say either way, and leave the conclusion up to the reader.

photo credit: X-Nergal-X <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/135887904@N06/30903320800″>Yela</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The Treasure of Saint Curio

Writing Prompt: Pirates!

Skull And Cross Bones Flag

Sailing the seas for plunder and fame was often a glorious adventure, but it did not come without perils. Having a loaded flintlock shoved in one’s face was one peril among many others, and it was one with which Captain Amaro de la Plaza was well familiar. That didn’t mean it annoyed him any less.

“Captain.” Amaro greeted Peter “Dogface” Davis with a tip of his own feathered cap. “Is the pistol necessary?”

“Don’t ‘good evenin’ me, you wily Spaniard.” Davis looked like a dog had chewed up his face and spit it out. “What are you doing in this cave? Answer me, or you’ll answer to God Almighty!”

“This cave” was a tunnel that flooded at high tide. Smoldering torches in wall brackets offered illumination, just enough to make Davis look crazy.

“Accepting Horatio’s invitation,” Amaro said in an airy tone. “You?” He hoped Davis’ finger didn’t slip.

“Why’d Horatio invite a pretty little sot like you out here?”

“A promise of treasure and glory?”

“My treasure,” Davis said, “and my glory. I should shoot you right now.”

“True. Yet wouldn’t your chances improve with a man watching your back?”

Davis scowled just a bit less. “You want to partner?”

“Fifty-fifty.”

“Seventy-thirty, or I shoot you right now.”

“Forty-sixty, and we work together to please Horatio.”

“One day,” Davis said, “I’ll smash that clever mouth of yours.” He uncocked his flintlock and holstered it with the others hanging on his chest. “Deal.”

Having now successfully not been shot in the face, Amaro cheerily followed Davis into a low sea cave. Captain Jean du Grammont waited inside, magnificent in a king’s silks. Horatio de Algier waited as well, dark-skinned and beautiful, and torchlight glistened on the gold in his nose, ears, and eyebrows.

“My captains, my captains!” Horatio called. “Today we shall crown one master among you!”

Captain Grammont offered a jaunty bow before rising. His perfect face would make an angel weep. “de la Plaza. Dogface. Did you have difficulty following the map?”

“Shut it, you briny peacock.” Davis spit again—the man did keep a remarkable reservoir of spit—and stomped into the cave. “What’s this ‘grand adventure’?”

“The treasure of Saint Curio.” Horatio beamed. “I’ve come into possession of his map.”

“You sun-dried monkey cock!” Davis worked his stubbled jaw. “You dragged me here for a sea shanty?”

“Is it no shanty,” Horatio said, in a melodic voice that had charmed many a man and woman into his bed, “and tonight, you shall compete for its location.”

Horatio had invited pirate captains from France, England, and Spain, but of course he had. That was, Amaro knew, classic Horatio. The best fence in the Indian Ocean lived for his games.

“As much as it pains me,” Grammont said, “I concur with Dogface. Saint Curio’s treasure is a legend.”

“You better have more,” Davis said, “or you’ll leave this cave with some new holes.”

“That would be … unwise,” Horatio said.

Amaro spun as a slab blocked the cave opening. Davis had flintlocks out faster than Amaro could blink, pointed at Horatio. “You mean to bury us, you coal-faced weasel?”

“Only if I die,” Horatio said, eyes not so merry now. “If I die, none of you shall ever leave.”

“A reasonable precaution,” Amaro added, “when tempers and pistols are involved. Let’s listen, shall we? Let’s hear what Horatio has to say.”

“I concur,” Grammont said. “Where’s your proof, dear man?”

“I hate the way you wankers talk.” Davis lowered his flintlocks and shot Amaro a not-so-subtle look.

Amaro shot a far more subtle nod back. Their partnership remained intact.

With the speed of a veteran cutpurse, three coins appeared between Horatio’s clenched fingers. He tossed one to Grammont, one to Amaro, and one to Davis, who dropped a flintlock to catch it.

Davis bit down and stared. “Real gold.”

“One of thousands,” Horatio promised, “that prove my map accurate.”

“This is the Vatican’s seal.” Grammont turned his coin in torchlight. “Could it be true?”

The gleam in Davis’ eyes revealed his belief. “So what’s tonight’s game?”

“Riddles.” Horatio beamed again. “Only the most clever captain shall claim Saint Curio’s treasure, and thus, only the most clever man shall leave with his map.”

“I do enjoy riddles,” Grammont said, as a gleam entered his own eyes.

“Bugger riddles,” Davis growled. “Let’s wrestle for it.”

“My cave,” Horatio said. “My rules. The first to answer three riddles shall claim the map, the treasure, and, of course, my contract. A ten percent commission.”

“Fair,” Grammont said. “l agree.”

“As do I,” Amaro added.

Davis just grunted. About as much as one could expect.

“First riddle.” Horatio preened. “What has one head, one tail, and no legs?”

“A coin,” Grammont said, before Davis or Amaro could so much as breathe.

“You snot-nosed pantywaist!” Davis glared. “You’re colluding!”

“I swear upon my dear mother’s soul,” Horatio said, “that I have discussed these riddles with no one. One point, so far, to Grammont.”

“Quite.” Grammont grinned wide.

“Second riddle. The more you take, the more you leave behind. What am I?”

“Booty!” Davis shouted.

Horatio merely smiled.

“The answer,” Grammont said, “is footsteps.”

“Two for Grammont,” Horatio said, cocking an eyebrow at Amaro. “Captain de la Plaza, has weather softened your tongue?”

Amaro shrugged. “You’re too clever for me, I’m afraid.”

“Next riddle,” Davis growled. “Now.” He shot Amaro another dirty look, one that said, You aren’t helping.

“What has six faces, but wears no makeup?” Horatio asked.

For once, Grammont only frowned.

“A dock whore!” Davis shouted. “A two-faced mutineer!” He grimaced. “A hydra!”

Amaro resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Where had Davis even heard of a hydra? The man obviously couldn’t read.

“No answer?” Horatio said. “A pity. What belongs to you, yet is more often used by others?”

“Ah,” Grammont said.

“Shut it,” Davis warned.

“My own name,” Grammont said, with hands on hips and a smile on his face.

Davis shot Grammont in the head faster than anyone could blink. He dropped the spent flintlock and pulled two more, one pointed at each of them.

“Treachery!” Horatio shrieked. “I will have your head for this!”

“Worry about your own head, you gold-encrusted leech.” Davis motioned with a flintlock. “Map, now.”

“No harbor will take your cursed ship. No pirate shall ever again parley with you!”

“I won’t need any of you,” Davis said, “once I claim Saint Curio’s treasure.”

Horatio glowered. “You violated my rules.”

“Technically,” Amaro added quietly, “he didn’t.”

“What?” Davis and Horatio glared at him.

“You said none would leave if you died,” Amaro pointed out. “As of now, you’re alive. Grammont isn’t,” and with that, he gestured to the warm corpse, “but you never said we couldn’t shoot each other.”

The evil grin that crossed Davis’ face was the best sign yet that Davis wasn’t going to shoot Amaro, too. He turned both flintlocks on Horatio.

“That’s right. You never said we couldn’t shoot each other. Give me that map, and you’ll get your ten percent. I swear.”

“Do as he says,” Amaro suggested. “Really, what choice do we have now?”

Horatio glared, but faced with the Davis’ ferocity (and, no doubt, reckless stupidity) he grudgingly handed over the map.

“The door,” Davis said.

“Open!” Horatio shouted, eyes narrow. “I expect my commission, Davis.”

“Oh, you’ll get that.” Davis backed from the cave, flintlocks raised. “Oh, and de la Plaza?”

“Yes?” Amaro smiled.

“You’re an idiot.” Davis cackled as he vanished.

Horatio sighed. “You’re quite useless in a fight, aren’t you?”

“I prefer not to fight,” Amaro said, “when I can avoid it.”

“Well, now you shall never fight for Saint Curio’s treasure.”

“True,” Amaro said, as he pulled another coin from his pocket. He flipped that coin, a different coin, to Horatio, who caught it instinctively.

Horatio’s eyes widened. “This is the Vatican’s seal.”

“Aye,” Amaro said. “It’s on all the coins Saint Curio stole.”

Horatio gasped. “You found the treasure?”

“How do you think you acquired that map?”

“But … I acquired this map from my best fence! She swore to its authenticity!”

“As I’m sure the thief who sold it to her did,” Amaro said. “The thief who stole it from me, after loose talk in a tavern inspired the biggest score of his meager life.”

Horatio stroked his chin, not smiling. “You deceived me.”

“I deceived Davis,” Amaro said, “and perhaps Grammont. Yesterday, three captains competed on the high seas. Now the pirates of England and France shall kill each other while Spain, ever blameless, shall benefit.”

Horatio ruefully shook his head. “You are a most interesting man.”

“And for your silence,” Amaro added, “you shall have your ten percent.”

Slowly, Horatio beamed again. “I have been considering retirement.”

“Oh, and those six faces?”

Horatio cocked his head.

“A die,” Amaro said. “One with twenty-one eyes.”

“You clever rat,” Horatio said. “You knew them all, didn’t you?”

“Aye,” Amaro said. “But I don’t care to be shot in the face.”

THE END

 

About the Story:

There’s not much to tell with this one, other than I’d never actually written a “pirate” story, so this was a fun exercise for me. The entire idea for the story (Amaro’s gambit to screw over the other pirates) came to me as I was trying to go to sleep one night, so I rolled out of bed, wrote down the outline, and wrote it the next day. By far, the most fun I had was coming up with the various ways for Davis to insult people.

As far as the riddles, I can’t take credit for those … they’re the result of a quick Google search.

photo credit: Dave Dugdale <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37387065@N05/5065481797″>Skull And Cross Bones Flag</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The True Origins of Bjord the Commanding, Washer of Sheets, Undisputed Ruler of Absenthia

Writing Prompt: Potions and Elixirs

Potions

“Psst.”

“What?”

“Pssssst.”

“You don’t have to psst me, Neesh. There’s no one here, and I can see you just fine.”

“Just keep your voice down.”

“The library’s empty. I’ve checked.”

“You can’t be too careful.”

You can’t be too careful. I don’t even know why I’m here.”

“I did it.”

“Did what? Why couldn’t this wait until morning?”

“I’ve mixed the potion, Artur! The Potion of Command Galidor mentioned in his historical journals.”

“You did not.”

“It’s right here.”

“Let me see that!”

“Well? Look at it!”

“Sure, this looks like a potion, Neesh. So do all the flasks we mixed last week.”

“It’s not a potion. It’s the potion. Don’t ask me what I had to go through to get my hands on a Yuk-Yuk’s heart.”

“What did you have to go through to get your hands on—?”

“I told you not to ask!”

“It probably wasn’t even a real Yuk-Yuk. Old King Harold killed all the Yuk-Yuks, after his son’s nose fell off. Every noble in Absenthia assumed he was snorting faerie dust.”

“Look, I have it on extremely good authority that it was a Yuk-Yuk … I mean, the flying possum from which the heart was cut … and the instructions said that adding it would create a poof of green smoke that smelled specifically of mint and goat.”

“I think one of those smells will overpower the other.”

“Not for a nose like mine. The smoke was green, a nice poof of it, and the smell was minty goat.”

“When have you ever spelled a minty goat?”

“The weight’s just right, too. I checked it against the figures Galidor left in his journals.”

“Did you remember to add a half-crown for the weight of the flask?”

“Of course I remembered the half-crown. I’m not an idiot.”

“Well, you did tell Alchemaster Palu that the difference between a Potion of Short Flight and Long Flight was the length of the feather you ground—”

“That was an honest mistake! And besides, you mixed up green sand and red in reagents class.”

“That’s because I’m colorblind, you insensitive dolt.”

“Oh, right. Sorry, Artur. I just don’t like it when you belittle me. Alchemaster Tonjold always belittles me, and you know what he thinks about smallfolk becoming alchemasters.”

“Look, Tonjold’s an old prick, and I’m not belittling you, Neesh. I’m just being realistic. I just don’t think anyone is ever going to be able to replicate Galidor’s Potion of Command.”

“But I just did.”

“Well, if you think so, how do you plan to test it?”

“That’s why you’re here.”

“Oh, no.”

“I’m going to drink the potion, and then I’m going to tell you to do something. If you do it—”

“Absolutely not happening.”

“—then we’ll know the potion works!”

“What were you going to tell me to do?”

“I don’t know, um … hop on one leg, maybe?”

“How would you know I’m not just messing with you?”

“Because you wouldn’t do that! How long have we known each other, Artur?”

“Too long. Far too long.”

“I know you wouldn’t mess with me like that. You’re nothing if not brutally honest.”

“Well, I suppose that’s true.”

“So, stand right there, and I’ll—”

“Stop!”

“Hey, let go!”

“You can’t just drink it, you dolt. What if you got the formula wrong?”

“I didn’t.”

“You could end up attracting slugs, or turn into a purple mushroom and migrate spores all over the library, like that second year that ground up a tree frog.”

“There’s no tree frogs in this potion.”

“Or you could end up burping crickets.”

“Name one time that’s happened.”

“Potions Exhibition, last year. Dilution training, four months ago. Smell control, last—”

“Name one time recently.”

“All I’m saying is, if you really think this does what it does, we should test it first. On someone else.”

“Oh. Well … let’s think. Who do we know who’s stupid enough to drink a potion without asking what it is?”

“We’re at a school of potion makers, Neesh. The stupid ones never make it through the first year.”

“Haha, true. Oh hey, do you remember that long-nosed guy from Estonir, the one with the ponytail? What was his name?”

“Lejo something.”

“Lejori?”

“Yes, Lejori. That’s the first and last time I’ve ever seen anyone projectile vomit their own tongue.”

“Okay, fine, let’s say we do it your way. We still need someone who’s not part of the school.”

“A mundane?”

“Why not? We’ll just tell them it’s a love potion or something.”

“Love potions are illegal, and if he reports us—”

“He won’t report us, Artur. They don’t even let mundanes in the guild anymore, not since the last peasant uprising. Steward Snodgrass had to order eight-dozen new vials from the Illusion Embassy.”

“Didn’t they get into the reserves as well? Some rumor about strength potions they could use to bash through the king’s guards?”

“Honestly, I think that’s where all the new statues in the hedge maze came from.”

“All right, so, we’ll go find a mundane. But we’re not going to tell them it’s a love potion. Maybe a truth potion, instead.”

“Ha! That’s a bit ironic, isn’t it?”

“Not if you know what that word means.”

“I like this plan. I like it a lot. So, first thing tomorrow?”

“Yes. Fine. But we should only offer the mundane a single drop. Assuming Galidor’s old journals aren’t all donkey scat, a single drop should give him the power of command for … ten minutes, tops.”

“Say, um … what if he commands us to give him more?”

“That’s why we take a dropper, with one drop, and hide the rest of the potion in your room.”

“Ooh, good idea.”

“Mix up a bit of ForgetMeSo. We’ll both take a drop before we leave tomorrow. That way, neither of us will know where the potion is, so even if he commands us to give it to him, we won’t be able to. ”

“But … how will we find it again?”

“When the ForgetMeSo wears off. Assuming you mix it right, that’s less than a day.”

“Oh, good idea! That’s why I always call you, Artur. You have all the good ideas.”

“Well, Seven forbid, if you have managed to somehow replicate Galidor’s Potion of Command, you’ll be the one with all the good ideas, Neesh. They’ll promote you to alchemaster for sure.”

“Gosh, you really think so?”

“They promoted Bujor, and all he did was turn the Potion Master’s cat into a slightly larger cat.”

“Alchemixed milk, wasn’t it?”

“He’s lucky the cat didn’t explode.”

“Okay. I’ll hide the potion tonight. Tomorrow, we prove it works, and tomorrow afternoon—”

“Alchemaster Neesh becomes the new head of the Galidor Restoration Project!”

“With his new Steward of Potions, of course, Artur Rainwater.”

“I like the sound of Steward Rainwater. He sounds very rich.”

“I could be Galidor, Artur! They could speak of me like Galidor someday!”

“Just remember to hide the potion better than the Potion of Flatulence you mixed last year, for Jester’s Day. Old Bjord always turns down the bunks. If he turns down your bunk—”

“Seven take me, I couldn’t go in the dorms for a week after that! But he won’t find it.”

“He’ll drink anything he sees, Neesh. It’s a compulsion he’s had since he mixed up the ingredients in his Dietary Elixir. That’s why they demoted him the Dorm Master.”

“Head sheet washer, you mean. I still don’t see why they don’t just fire him.”

“Honestly, how do you pass anything? He’s the last member of Galidor’s tenure track.”

“Tenure track?”

“That’s why you become an alchemaster, Neesh! So you get tenure. So no one can ever fire you.”

“Oh, right.”

“No one can fire Bjord even if he lacks the wits the Seven gave a caterpillar, which is why they have him turning down bunks.”

“He won’t find it. Besides, we’ll be back before turn down.”

“Just don’t hide it in your bunk.”

“I told you, Artur, I’m not an idiot!”

“I know. I know you’re not an idiot, Neesh. I’m with you.”

“Really?”

“We’re doing this. We’re going to be the toast of the Absenthia, thanks to your alchemical brilliance, and my political brilliance.”

“But mostly my brilliance?”

“Whatever you want to put on the wall.”

“Seven take me, Artur, we’ll be famous!”

“And rich, remember, but only if your potion works.”

“It’ll work! I know it’ll work!”

“Well I suppose we’ll see tomorrow, won’t we?”

THE END

 

About the Story:

This month’s theme, “Potions and Elixirs” was open, and didn’t initially inspire me to write any specific story. I eventually decided to try to do something I believe I always have trouble with: comedy. Once I’d decided I was going to try to write a “funny” story I then, just for the heck of it, decided I’d also try to write a story that was all dialogue … no descriptive prose whatsoever, and no dialogue tags.

Could I tell a complete story, using only the dialogue of two main characters? That was my experiment! You can judge if I pulled it off.

Finally, for those curious about the ending of this story, just go read the title again. Hopefully, that should make it rather clear what happened.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/51771794@N07/5238433505″>Dry Ice Experiment 1</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The Frozen Glass

Writing Prompt: Story Generator

TheFrozenGlass

It was past dark when Ren came in sight of old Prophet’s Church, and the local militia were gone. Perhaps in the first days, when the fires of revolution still burned in the minds of the people, those guards had not shirked their duties. Those days were decades past now, the great people’s revolution now reduced to boring history.

No one had worshiped in this building in decades, since it was abandoned by royal decree. Newly crowned King Darenth had not ordered it burned or torn down—that would imply the land’s newest monarch thought the Prophet’s rantings meaningful—but had instead ordered it left to decay in obscurity. Forgotten, like the Prophet herself.

Still, the church was in better shape than the Prophet. You could not behead a church.

Ren’s trusty velociraptor, Shrike, hunkered down as Ren reined him in at the stone fence. Time and opportunistic villagers had left its stones depleted. Shrike hated the church, hated what waited inside it, but that was because raptors were, by nature, distrustful of magic. What had brought them into the world could easily send them back out again.

“There now, girl.” Ren slid off Shrike and stroked his hand down the raptor’s long neck. “Don’t fret. I’m going in alone.”

Tonight, Ren knew, he would finally hold Elen into his arms. He would free her from her magical prison and bring her home to his father, to marry. He would tell her he loved her.

The inside of the church was in worse shape than the exterior. While stone and mortar had weathered the years gracefully, the wood inside was peeling, broken, and rotting. Ren chose his steps carefully. He was going down to the cellar, but he preferred to take the stairs.

He felt his way down stone steps in darkness, using the wall as his guide. Only once concealed by the cellar did he produce his wand and light it with a word of power—Solyr. Long ago picked clean by scavengers, the cellar was empty of all valuables save one—the full-length mirror with the golden frame and frosted glass. The mirror that had called to Ren from his dreams. Elen’s prison. A prison for the woman he loved.

The scavengers hadn’t touched the mirror. They hadn’t even been able to see it. Ren could see the mirror because he knew the old words, like Solyr and Vanis, because he had learned those words from his father. King Darenth’s mastery of those words had allowed him to seize the throne. All Ren wanted was to free Elen.

He walked to the mirror and set the wand aside. He focused and waited until a blue tint grew at the edge of his vision. He said the words that brought him to Elen six weeks ago, on the first of many nights they spent talking, commiserating, falling in love. “Revel.”

The frosted glass melted from top to bottom, revealing a surface beneath like the side of a soap bubble, transparent but always shifting. Elen waited beyond the frost. Her brilliant smile when she saw him lit Ren’s world brighter than the glowing wand.

“You’re back!” She was everything he wanted. “I thought I’d never see you again!”

Elen was close to his age, old enough to marry but only just, with golden hair to her shoulders and a green dress—the same dress she always wore—that rose to her neck and fell to mid-calf. She had soft curves and a nose that was just a bit rounder than his. She owned his heart.

“I found the word,” Ren said, and Elen’s eyes grew wide. “I can free you. We leave this church tonight, together.”

“You found it?” Elen clasped her hands together at her breast. “Oh Ren, I knew you wouldn’t fail me. I love you! I love you! I love you!”

Each repetition made the words more powerful, and Ren felt his face flush and his body heat. He thought of all the nights they had spent talking in this cellar, her on one side of the glass and him on the other, and the bond that grew as they learned they shared the same dreams, and beliefs, and hopes. Her to be free once more, and him to free her.

“I need you to stand back,” Ren said. He couldn’t wait to touch her, to hold her, to kiss her, at last. “Stand well back, Elen, and I should be able to make a hole in the mirror.”

“Will it hurt?” She swallowed and stared from behind the glass that kept them apart. “The Prophet told me it would hurt. She said I would die if I went free.”

The Prophet again. Ren worked to hide his anger. The Prophet deserved to lose her head for all the awful things she had done, least of which was imprisoning her own daughter in this mirror when King Darenth took power. No one deserved to suffer forever in a mirror.

“It won’t hurt,” Ren said, because he wanted to reassure her. “And you won’t die.” That he did know, having researched every book in the old king’s library regarding enchanted mirrors. “You’ll be free, we’ll be together, and we’ll rule the kingdom as husband and wife.” He smiled. “In a few decades, of course. After Father passes.”

“I’m ready.” Elen stepped back. “I trust you, Ren. I know you’d never hurt me.”

Ren focused on the golden frame, on the bubble glass, and waited until the blue tint came. It was all around the edges of his vision now, crackling more than normal. Was that a warning? Ren didn’t care. He focused on the word, fixed it in his mind so he could think it as urgently as he said it, and spoke. “Liber.”

The surface of the mirror shimmered like a still pond struck by a heavy stone. A wind grew inside it, tossing Elen’s blond hair and pressing her dress close against her body. Frost appeared at the edges of her hair, and her teeth chattered. “Ren!”

“Come out, Elen!” Ren shouted. “Walk toward the wind!”

“I can’t!” Her eyes were wide now, the frost spreading across the glass. She reached for him, struggling. “Help me, Ren! Help me!”

Something was wrong. He had said the word of power wrong, but he couldn’t let her die in that mirror. He couldn’t let her freeze.

Ren dashed forward and, for the first time, reached through the mirror. He strained for her and Elen for him. Their hands touched, warmth upon warmth, and for the barest of moments time ceased to be. There was just Elen, her hand in his, her smile and her love.

The world melted around him.

Ren stumbled into hard stone, except it was not stone, not any longer. It was glass, clearer than any he had ever seen and tall as the sky. A golden frame surrounded a mirror shape in the wall of glass, and behind that glass and endless sky was a dark cellar and a glowing wand. Elen stood in it, staring at him, smiling, her hair still tipped with frost.

“Elen?” It was cold in this world of sky and glass, and Ren saw his breath mist as goosebumps rose on his arms. “Elen, what’s happened? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine now, Ren.” Elen’s smile grew as she watched him through the glass that had once separated them. “No, beyond fine. I am perfect. I am avenged.”

“What?” Ren didn’t understand any of this, and he pushed his hands against the glass that separated them. It was no longer a bubble, and it was hard and cold. “Elen, what are you doing out there? How am I in here? What is this?” He loved her!

“Your father’s reward.” Elen’s smile turned chill. “My mother’s gift.”

She was the Prophet’s Daughter. The Prophet had imprisoned Elen, hidden her, damned her, and King Darenth had killed the Prophet. Elen should be grateful!

“Elen, no. I love you!” Had she lied about everything? He realized he didn’t care. “I’m not my father. We can overthrow him, Elen! We can rule together!”

“My mother can’t rule without her head.” Elen picked up his glowing wand and turned her back on him. “And your father can’t pass on a kingdom to a son that doesn’t exist.”

She was mad! She was going to leave him here, in this mirror, where no one would find him, because he loved her. Because he wanted to save her. “Stop! Please! Don’t do this!”

Even as he shouted, even as his heart pounded and his head thumped, Ren knew she wouldn’t listen. He knew, because he remembered those words. The Prophet had uttered those same words, in that same tone—before King Darenth chopped off her head.

“Farwell, Ren Darenth.” Elen climbed the steps. “Farewell, you blind fool.”

Ren was still screaming when the cellar grew dark again.

THE END

 

About the Story:

This month, the mods made their own “story generator” and everyone rolled a set of random numbers to determine what elements they would have to incorporate into that month’s story. This resulted in a number of stories with similar elements, but those stories ended up being very different. It was a remarkably fun exercise, and I was surprised by how much of this story “wrote itself” as I worked to incorporate all the elements I had rolled. Below, the story generator matrix:

934irgw

My roll ended up as the following:

Paranormal Romance
Royal Heir
Church
Wand
Too Trusting
Evil Wizard/Witch

AND…

DINOSAURS

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/25494789@N02/27894292603″>Chapelle de Cazeneuve</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

One Last Drink

Writing Prompt: Randomly Rolled Wikipedia Article

RomanCover

The man named Servius Tuccius Cotta approached the refugee camp with his head down. He had not been born the man he was now, but those names remained a part of him. Even with Batavia in revolt against the empire, those were still his names. He’d earned them, no matter who he served.

This battered camp was perhaps threescore tents and lean-tos, but many huddled in the cold and mud. People fled Tongeran when runners brought news of fighting between Julius Civilis and Claudius Labeo at the Mass river, and Tuccius suspected more would flee in the hours ahead. These were uncertain times.

He was an assassin by trade, a man who killed so others wouldn’t have to. He had tracked Labeo for the better part of the day, ever since the man slipped free of the Tungrian lines. Every last Tungrian had abandoned Labeo for Civilis, but Tuccius did not blame Labeo for that. He had planted the seeds himself.

Labeo’s distinctive tracks entered this camp, and circling the camp assured Tuccius they did not leave. Labeo’s fine boot prints differentiated his tracks, another mistake. That was the problem with men accustomed to luxury, even experienced cavalry commanders. They loved expensive boots.

Tuccius affected a limp as he entered the camp. His own cloak hung on his frame. No one gave a beggar a second look, and a beggar among refugees was a stalk in a field of wheat.

He passed figures huddled around sputtering fires, listened to coughs and moans from those who’d been injured or taken sick. A drizzle had fallen since dawn, beating on people and tents alike. Tuccius held out his bowl at each fire, muttering apologies, and each time, the refugees turned him away.

None of the refugees at these fires were Labeo. None wore the man’s fine boots. Tuccius moved on.

It was at a small fire at camp’s edge where he finally found a man whose frame and bulk suggested regular meals. Mud covered the boots protruding from his cloak, but the tips were distinctive.

Tuccius extended his bowl. “Please, I’m sorry. Anything you can spare.”

“Off with you, beggar.” The man beside Labeo glared, his face covered in mud. “We’ve nothing for you.”

“Don’t be cruel.” Labeo motioned Tuccius to the fire. “You may warm yourself by our fire.”

“Thank you, master.” Tuccius found a place between two other scowling refugees, both women, and sat.

One woman wrinkled her nose and scooted away, reacting to the dung Tuccius had smeared on his cloak earlier today. The other stared at the fire without speaking, barely breathing. She had lost someone today. Tuccius had seen that blank look on so many faces since Batavia rebelled against Rome.

Labeo’s cowl obscured his face. All Tuccius could make out was a strong chin, thick with stubble. This assassination must be quiet.

Many in Batavia respected Claudius Labeo for his actions at Nijmegen. They resented Civilis’s decision to exile such a useful commander, but killing him would have been an even bigger mistake, at the time.

Poisoning Labeo’s drink would be easiest—Tuccius carried a powder that would bring on the runs days later, when he was gone—but Labeo would be watching for poison. He could follow the man to the latrine ditch, but Labeo was a notable warrior as well. There was no guarantee Tuccius would prevail.

“What brings you here to us, friend?” Labeo asked. “Have you fled Tongeran as well?” He motioned to the others. “We are all Tungrians, here, and any countryman of ours is welcome.”

“I’m Marsaci,” Tuccius muttered. There were too many things he did not know about Tongeran, and presenting himself as a Tungrian invited questions he could not reliably answer.

The woman who had moved away wrinkled her nose. “We don’t need no stinking Marsaci in our camp.”

“Why?” Labeo asked. “A beggar is not to blame for this war.”

“It’s Labeo’s fault, you ask me.” The mud-covered man spit at the fire. “If that stubborn cunt hadn’t set fires all over Batavia, Civilis would have sent the legions running by now.”

“Perhaps,” Labeo said, and Tuccius heard no anger in his words.

“Bah,” the boiled man said. “Need to piss.” He rose and stalked from the camp.

Tuccius rose and followed him. “I shall not trouble you further.” The man who’d cursed Labeo was an opportunity. If he could convince an actual refugee to murder his target…

Tuccius found the smaller man at a makeshift latrine, dug by those among the refugees who knew defecating where you ate and slept was a wonderful way to start a plague. The refugee stood with his back to Tuccius, whistling as he aimed a golden stream into the ditch. Tuccius limped closer.

“Marsaci!” The refugee turned, his cock flopping before he crammed it back into his soiled breeches. “Come to contribute?”

“Did you mean it?” Tuccius asked.

“Mean what, beggar?”

“About Claudius Labeo being the cause of all this.” Tuccius made himself shudder.

“What’s it to you who I back? You heard something?” The mud-covered refugee leaned closer, eager for gossip. Without food, gossip was the only nourishment many had.

“I heard Labeo’s working for the Romans again, against Civilis,” Tuccius whispered.

The refugee scoffed. “Labeo’s a cunt, I’ll give you that, but he’s no Roman spy.”

“Really?” Tuccius said. “And a Roman spy wouldn’t disguise himself as a Tungrian refugee?”

“Say what?”

“Did you notice the boots of the man beside you, his bearing, his girth? He’s no beggar. I think he might be Claudius Labeo.”

“You think so?” The boiled man leaned closer. “Say, has Civilis got a reward for him?”

Greed and desperation made fools of all men. “As much gold as you can carry, last I heard. We could take him, between the two of us. We could split the reward.”

There was no reward, of course—offering a bounty for Labeo would be foolish when Civilis lacked the money to pay even his own soldiers—but this refugee wouldn’t know that.

The refugee pulled a small flask from inside his cloak. “You’ll help me? I ain’t killed no commander before.”

“I’ll help as I’m able,” Tuccius said. “I need the coin.”

“Then let’s drink to our new wealth!” The refugee raised the flask and took a long drink, Adam’s apple bobbing. He passed the flask to Tuccius. “To piles of Roman gold.”

Tuccius hesitated, but only a moment. The man had drunk before him, and this was too good an opportunity to scuttle. The water tasted foul. Soon after, they were off to murder a commander.

“Say there, beggar, what’s your name?” The refugee might be nervous.

“Tuccius.” No harm in giving his real name, and he needed to keep this man calm. “What’s yours?”

“Claudius,” the refugee said, as he straightened and turned.

Tuccius missed a step as mud roiled around him. “What?” His eyes watered and his throat clamped.

“Claudius Labeo,” the small, mud-covered man said. “The big man at the fire is one of my many loyal soldiers, but there’s no way you could know. My reputation is bigger than me.”

“But I…” Tuccius coughed and fell, trying to understand the fire consuming his belly. “You drank…”

“Did I?” Labeo smiled with teeth far too clean for the mud cloaking his face. “Seems a tongue could clog that spout pretty easily. Have you ever tried that, Tuccius?”

Stupid. Tuccius had been stupid, too focused on the boots, the cloak, the bearing. Claudius Labeo was not a big man with a fine cloak and fine boots. He was a small man, dressed like all the other small men in the refugee camp, and he had just beaten an assassin at his own game.

Tuccius’s eyes glazed over as his vision swam and the poison burned through his gut. Yet despite his agony, his fear, he respected Labeo’s gambit. There was no shame in dying to a man like this one.

“You were only doing your duty,” Labeo said, as his voice came from somewhere far away. “I won’t let you suffer. Go in peace.”

Tuccius felt cold steel against his throat. He would have thanked Labeo for that mercy, had he been able to speak, but perhaps the man understood anyway. Tuccius imagined his wife, his daughter, and home.

One day, he hoped, Civilis or Labeo would bring them peace again.

THE END

 

About the Story:

This month, every writer participating clicked a link that selected an article, at random, on Wikipedia. We then had to write a story incorporating that article. We ended up with some weird subjects, but mine was actually fairly straightforward. Essentially, I ended up writing historical fiction for the first time ever (or, at least, making an attempt).

I’ll admit it’s never been a genre I enjoyed, and I have no doubt this story is full of anachronisms and inaccuracies (I didn’t research much about Roman life beyond the Wikipedia article). Still, writing this was more fun than I expected, and without the article, I would never have learned about Julius Civilis, Claudius Labeo, and the intrigue associated with Batavia rebelling against Rome. That would make a good book in and of itself!

The original Wikipedia Article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudius_Labeo

More Information: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/claudius-labeo/?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/68801711@N00/27932908521″>Ampitheatre@Ephesus</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The Strangled Heart

Writing Prompt: Fairy Tales from a Different Point-of-View

StrangledHeart

The blood rites were finished, the words of power chanted, and the potion prepared. A drop a day would save the afflicted babe, but Ana felt ravaged from the inside out. This spellwork had stolen years of her life, but what alternative did she have? If she did nothing, she might as well murder the baby herself.

The sobbing parents arrived at dusk, motivated, Ana assumed, by fear. Everyone feared Dame Ana Gothel, and Ana bore the loneliness without complaint because the alternative was chaos. Her words of power would be used to kill, her runes to imprison, her magic plants to plague and poison.

No one else remained to protect the Walled Garden from men.

When the miserable couple reached the edge of her verdant estate, the mother’s sobs matched her babe’s. The smell of rotting leaves rolled off this mother, the stench of despair. Ana understood despair – she understood the pain of losing her only child – but this mother would not see her child die.

The father stank of frustration and regret, the stench of a bog mixed with the smell of iron and blood. He blamed Ana for this, of course, but Ana’s focus remained on the babe, on the squalling her parents assumed was natural. It most certainly was not. This babe was in agony, spiky roots tightening around her heart.

The mother wailed and clutched her newborn daughter to her breast. “Why must you steal our child, Dame Gothel? How have we wronged you?”

“The babe was never yours.” Ana maintained the stately pose she had cultivated to hide doubt and pain.

“I carried her!” the mother wailed. “I birthed her!”

“If you believe our bargain unfair, your quarrel is with your husband.” It was the greed of this father, after all, that sentenced his child to death.

“A bargain is a bargain.” The father motioned, impatiently, to the mother. “Give her the child, Nan.”

His emotions now smelled like spoiled oranges – guilt. Ana knew then he had not told his wife what the stolen rampion had done to their child in her womb. Men like him did not admit fault.

“All we took was a plant!” the mother wailed. “Why must I trade my child for a plant?”

“Ask your husband.” Ana stared at the man until his eyes fell.

“You’ll kill her!” the mother shouted. “You’ll sacrifice her in some blood rite! I won’t let you!”

“Your daughter dies already. Do you not hear the truth in her cries?”

The mother gasped. “You ensorcelled my child?”

“The rampion you stole from my garden did that. The plant you so foolishly gorged upon is strangling your child’s heart.”

“That can’t be true!” The mother’s eyes welled as she glared at her husband. “Eddard! Tell me it isn’t true!” The smell of her betrayal hung on the air, sickly and sweet.

The father’s downcast eyes damned him more than any word from Ana ever could. Ana stared at the mother. She stared at the dying babe. And with one more sniffle, that babe was hers.

* * *

Fortunately for young Rapunzel — named, Ana decided, for the enchanted rampion wrapped around her tiny heart — drops of Ana’s potion slowed the plant’s growth and kept the baby alive. As years passed and the babe grew into a young girl, who grew into a young woman, Ana began to hope this child — her child, now, because she could no longer think of little Rapunzel as anyone else — would one day venture beyond the Walled Garden. If Ana could find some way to unwind those hungry roots from her heart.

The answer came on a fresh spring day, Rapunzel’s twelfth birthday. As Ana helped her daughter trim the ivy choking their garden’s walls, she saw its true nature. Tendrils around Rapunzel’s heart.

As ivy grew in the direction of water and light, so might the roots of the hungry rampion. Ana could not destroy the rampion, but she could lead its growth elsewhere. Ana would coax the magical plant out through her daughter’s brilliant blond hair.

That night, after Rapunzel slept, Ana returned to her mother’s tower. She carved, and scribed, and chanted, sacrificing decades of her life so her daughter might one day be free of the rampion curse. Ana knew when she was done, breathless and quivering with pain, that this blood enchantment would draw the rampion out of her daughter — but only if Rapunzel remained in the tower until the healing was complete.

Given enough years in this enchanted tower, the roots strangling her daughter’s heart would grow into luxurious blond hair, strong as hemp rope and long as the ivy clinging to the Walled Garden’s stones. Why strangle a heart when you could spread your blond roots, drinking in sweet sunlight and fresh air?

Ana would not live forever, certainly not as long as Rapunzel, not now. She had sacrificed so much of her life, and when she died, who would conjure the potion that kept the rampion from strangling her daughter’s heart? This tower was her only daughter’s salvation.

Some day, Ana would make Rapunzel understand.

* * *

The moon was bright when the prince climbed the strong blond curls that had once strangled Rapunzel’s heart. When he saw Ana waiting for him, he almost fell right off the tower, and Ana was sorely tempted to let him fall. He was the reason her daughter hated her.

“Dame Gothel!” The prince’s eyes narrowed as his hand brushed his sword hilt. “Where is Rapunzel?” Like all outsiders, his first solution to conflict was violence.

“Not here,” Ana said.

“Foul enchantress! What have you done with her?”

“I haven’t made her pregnant, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’d never…” the prince began, but his flush gave him away. “We didn’t … we only…”

“Rapunzel is gone, you fool.” The air shimmered as the rage Ana restrained writhed inside her. “She hates me, and will always hate me, but she is now free.” This prince had filled Rapunzel’s head with lies, seduced her, used her, but he would not kill her. “You will never see her again.”

“You imprisoned her!” The prince pointed an accusatory finger. “You kept her in this tower against her will!”

“I saved her life, foolish boy.” Ana’s grief and despair smashed against her mental gates, shaking the tower and forcing the prince a step back. “I loved her, protected her, taught her, and now you have poisoned her heart against me. Yet you failed to kill her. I stopped that.”

“What do you mean? Why would I kill her?”

“If you had dragged her from this tower before her healing was complete, the decades I’ve sacrificed would be wasted. I sheared Rapunzel’s fatal curse from her head this morning, even as she shrieked at my cruelty and demanded her release. I love her, I will always love her, and so I set her free.”

Rapunzel’s curses and threats had ruined Ana worse than rampion around her own heart, strangling, crushing, feeding. There was no pain like the hate of one’s own daughter.

“Where is she?” the prince demanded.

“Why do you care? You’ve already sown your wild oats.”

“I love her, Dame Gothel!” The sincerity of his emotions rolled off the prince in waves. “We are betrothed!”

His love was the smell of cherry blossoms in bright spring, a fresh rain on clean grass. It might not ease Ana’s grief, but it could ease Rapunzel’s. “Prove it.” Could Ana save her daughter one last time?

“I will do anything to find her. Anything! Please, help me.”

The prince craved magic. They all craved magic, just like Rapunzel’s birth mother craved that stolen rampion. So be it. Ana was done protecting these fools from the garden’s magic, done sacrificing her life for people who feared and hated her. Her own daughter had cursed her and left her alone, to die.

Ana clapped her hands and said the words.

Where once a prince stood now flapped a bird, small and blue and chirping with outrage. As Ana approached, it fluttered and squawked around the room. Ana spoke loud enough for the bird to hear.

“Fly to your Rapunzel, little prince. Fly far. If you truly love her, and if you can find her, her touch will restore your form. Find your betrothed and bring her, and her child, the happiness I never could.”

The transformed prince fluttered to the window sill, glanced back. Then he was off and flying before Ana’s legs gave out, before she collapsed on the cold stone floor, exhausted. Her life drained.

Dame Ana Gothel would never see another sunrise. She had given everything for Rapunzel, and now her tower, her garden, and her legacy would crumble to dust. She would die alone, wrapped in her daughter’s hate, but Rapunzel would live on with her prince, happy and alive.

If Ana left nothing else to the world that hated her, she left that.

THE END

 

About the Story:

This theme was incredibly similar to that of Fairly Wicked Tales, the anthology of twisted Grimm fairytales that published my short story “Rum’s Daughter”, so I was initially a bit unsure where to go with this one. I’d already twisted one fairytale into knots (Rumplestiltskin!) and no others jumped out at me as obvious propaganda from the winning side of a conflict.

That changed when I read the wikipedia entry for Rapunzel, specifically some of the older versions and variations. Pretty much immediately, I knew that Dame Gothel had been on the wrong side of history, maligned and misunderstood, and a much different version of the Rapunzel tale popped into my brain. At that point, all I had to do was write it down.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7156765@N05/24572547029″>Spokane Washington ~ Spokane County Courthouse ~ Central Tower</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Everything in Frame

Writing Prompt: Dystopia

MineShaft

As the two clean-suited enforcers marched me through from the exit pod into the magnificent bright, I considered my inevitable death. I’d never seen the sun before — none of us had, other than in videos the director showed on weekends — and I had never seen anything so bright or beautiful. I couldn’t even look at it, not directly, and I longed to feel its heat on my skin. Assuming Gurney was right.

Stalks of grass greener than any green I’d ever seen swayed in the gentle wind, rising to my thighs. They brushed against the legs of my clean-suit as they brushed the round, rusted domes of the exit pod. That pod and the long elevator shaft inside it was the only link between Sanctuary Twelve and the surface world.

I took a long look at the world the Overseer had assured me would kill me, the world his oldest and most trusted servant, Gurney Maynard, had assured me would not. I had to act shocked, because this world did not match the dead plains the Overseer showed us so often below. I felt one enforcer push his staff into the small of my back.

“Move,” the enforcer said.

“Or what?” The head part of my clean-suit wouldn’t turn to look back at him, but I didn’t need to look back to express my disdain. “You’ll execute me twice?

A holo screen flashed in front of me. It was a recording of my son, now thirteen and wiry, as he worked beside the others dredging energy fragments out of the deep shafts. The enforcer made it disappear.

The threat was obvious, and I walked without another push from the enforcer’s staff. I’d already taken steps to ensure the Overseer could never punish Matty for what I was about to do, but I couldn’t let him know that. I had to act like another outspoken problem marching to my inevitable comeuppance.

The outside world was poison without a suit — the sun, the grass, the air — and questioning that was the only way one escaped the drudgery of the crystal mines. We were safe in the mines, the Overseer assured us. We lived by his grace, his generosity. Everyone outside Sanctuary Twelve was doomed.

Soon the enforcers marched me to a clearing, a down swept field of brown stalks crushed beneath dozens of robotic feet, likely less than a day ago. After they poisoned the grass. That streak of death sat in stark contrast to the simple beauty around us. It was a naked, pus-filled scar on a glistening grass plain, but that was the advantage of a narrow camera lens. You could focus on so little and block out so much.

The Overseer had constructed a fake exit pod at the top of the descending plain of dead grass, and I recognized that pod and the dead field from the videos I had seen of the others who dared question the Overseer. People who insisted the world above was alive and safe, like me. Murdered people.

The enforcers would force me inside that dome and strip me of my clean-suit, with dire warnings of what would happen if I went outside. When they were ready for me to make my entrance, they would pump the pod full of something noxious – tear gas? Toxic fumes? – until my heaving gut and shriveled lungs forced me to stumble out of the front door, into the camera frame.

Then I would die. Then my fellow miners would watch as I shrieked, and burst into flame, and melted. They would watch my seared bones pop, my body brutalized by the poisonous world above.

“The outside world is death,” the Overseer would repeat, as those below averted their faces from my melting body. “The claims of Worker 542 are as false as all those before them. Only I protect you.”

They marched me inside the dome, just like Gurney had said they would, and they stripped off my clean-suit, just like Gurney had said they would. All I wore now was my light gray mining jumpsuit, and the air inside the rusting pod was stagnant. I longed to feel the sun on my skin, a cool breeze on my face.

The sun wouldn’t melt my skin, and the grass wouldn’t melt my jumpsuit, and breathing this wonderful air would not shrink and ruin my lungs. Those horrors would instead be caused by the weapons of the Overseer, hidden out of frame. Microwaves. Heat rays. Infrared. I did not know what those words meant, what Gurney had envisioned when he said them, but I knew they offered invisible death.

I waited until the Overseer’s voice echoed through the rusty pod. His voice was pumped up to the surface so the enforcers could hear it, so they could pump in the gas at the proper time. The Overseer was speaking, now, which meant the feed was “live”, as Gurney had called it. Time for me to die.

I burst out of the front of the rusting pod.

That was the difference between me and the other victims, you see — Gurney’s betrayal of the Overseer, the clarity provided by a cancer no Overseer medicine could cure, and the death of the Overseer’s leverage. Gurney’s daughter. Those events conspired to make my death different.

The enforcers had done this a dozen times before. Place the victim in the rusting pod, set up the weapons and the camera, check the camera angle, and then, and only then, pump in the gas. All happened only after the Overseer set the stage, said a few haunting words for this poor deluded fool.

No miner raised as I’d been would voluntarily burst from their safe haven, but I had, before anyone planning to murder me was ready. The outside world felt wonderful. For the first time I felt the gentle heat of the sun on my skin, a cool breeze rushing over my cheeks. Nothing melted. Nothing burned.

That was the other thing victims of the Overseer couldn’t do — run — because when your lungs were full of tear gas you made a very slow, very easy target. I was no easy target. I zigzagged down that field of dead grass toward the small, round ball sitting at its end. Toward what I knew was the camera.

I saw the now panicked overseers struggling to set their weapons up, to bring them to bear — they were mounted, I saw now, on complicated tripods which were still being arranged — and for a moment, I pondered grabbing a weapon. Yet I was not here to kill anyone, and any overseer was easily replaced. I reached the round black dome as the first overseer grounded his tripod and readied his weapon.

“Look at me!” I shouted into the camera. “I’m alive! The world above isn’t killing me! They are!”

I struggled to rip the camera from its mount, but it remained stuck tight. I heard a loud hum and then I felt heat that seared my skin and bubbled my eyeballs. The air was so hot I couldn’t even scream, yet I didn’t die — not immediately — and my rage gave me the strength to turn the lens, not up and out of the ground, as I planned, but sideways. Toward the green fields and the enforcers with their weapons.

Even as invisible death set my skin afire I heard the Overseer shouting over the speakers, not to his enforcers, but to those below. His desperate explanations fell on deaf ears. Gurney had whispered to those below as well, and all they needed to start their riot was proof. My death was that proof.

The boiling heat ended at last, perhaps because the enforcer knew better than to waste power, or perhaps because he heard the masses rioting below and knew that running was better than facing those he’d help imprison. None of it made any difference to me. I drank in the feel of that cool breeze.

I wished I could see the sun and touch the grass, stroke my son’s face one last time, but I was too busy dying. Had I succeeded? Gurney’s crackly voice echoed over the Overseer’s intercom.

“We did it!” Gurney shouted, as my people cheered. “You gave us the truth! You gave us the whole world! We’re free now, all of us!” The cacophony faded as Gurney faded, as he called for silence.

“Thank you,” he said, voice trembling over the speakers. “We’re coming up. We’ll see you soon.”

They wouldn’t. No one would reach me in time to save me, but I didn’t mind. Matty would grow up breathing this clean air, living beneath this warm sun, sleeping in this soft grass. After decades of slavery, it seemed absurd that our freedom required nothing more than a camera, twisted sideways, but that was the beauty of it.

All it took to free us was one traitor. One sacrifice. And one perfect camera angle, everything in frame.

 

About the Story:

Initially, I struggled with the dystopia prompt. I’ve read so many good dystopias that I had trouble thinking of anything that didn’t feel derivative, and nothing initially jumped out at me. Oddly enough, this rather dark story was partly inspired by a much lighter (but similarly dystopian) story – the ending of Portal 2, or one small element of it.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 Follow)

At the end of Portal 2, GLADOS releases you, her test subject, back into the “real world”. You ride an elevator (serenaded by singing turrets, of course) up to the surface, a seeming paradise filled with tall, flowing grass. You enter that paradise all alone, with no civilization in sight, and the ending is a bit melancholy in that respect.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 End)

Although it is never explicitly stated, the implication of both Portal games is that whatever happened to damage the Aperture Science laboratories also did great damage to the world. Either the vast majority of humanity was wiped out, or have vanished entirely. On the positive side, in the years that followed the world has been “reborn”, having returned to the pristine state in which it existed before industrialization.

The idea of someone who had been below ground for a long time emerging on the surface of an empty, pristine inspired this story. From there, all I had to develop was a protagonist, an antagonist, and their conflict, as well as creating a suitably dystopian situation for my protagonist to struggle against.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/40243520@N02/11230150485″>Empire Mine Shaft</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;