Tag Archives: fantasy

Week, Jodie Ramodien

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Monday

This week I took a total of eighty-nine steps. My apartment, the first I ever owned, sat on the outskirts of the city and was surrounded by grungy streets, pubs, and gay bars. After the government ramped up social distancing rules, things took an atypical turn. The bars closed, the lights dimmed, the laughter faded.

Finally June, the chill in the air was a delightful change after so many humid months but had the unfortunate side effect of misting the glass and hindering my view of the outside world. Inside I looked at the landscapes I had painted of native wildflowers, silver scribbly gums, and the lit-up laneways of Barangaroo at night. Many discovered painting as a therapeutic hobby during quarantine. As I looked at my own artwork I thought 76, 81, 84. All Distinctions, no High Distinctions yet. What was missing from my work that other artists had? Gritty realism? Childhood trauma? A muse?

Turning on the shower, I stood under the scalding hot stream hoping it would wash away the failure, idleness, and ineptitude of the past few months. Upon my return I saw something I had never come across before.

It was usual for long strands of auburn hair to cover my apartment. They swirled in spirals on the shower, gathered in tumbleweeds on the floor, and occasionally turned up in my food. Something small, and the very same shade as my hair, sat on the table and watched me with wide innocent eyes. It wasn’t quite cute, but neither was I. It was the shape and size one might expect a pet to be. When I reached for it, it trembled violently, reminding me of a guinea pig I once had which often shook at the perilous thought of aerial predators. The little puff fit the size of my palm. I brought the creature closer to my face.

‘Hello there.’

Its chest beat violently and it let out a little whine. As I used to do with my guinea pigs, I gently pressed my thumb to lower its lip to see its teeth. They were blunt and square, with the exception of two sharply pronounced canines.

Google searching ‘small orange rodent with sabretooth-like teeth’ yielded only phony doctored images. This could be a new species. One that might be named after me. As the daughter of two zoologists unfortunately I wouldn’t be the first in the family for this to happen to. The white-bellied moss mouse Pseudohydromys sandrae had already been named in my mother’s honour.

On the basis of appearance alone my best guess was that the creature was of the class Mammalia like myself. In fact, it resembled me in its tawny colouring. Questions flooded my mind: What is it? What did it eat? Where did it come from? Is it dangerous?

Right now it looked about as dangerous as the Furby toys from my childhood.

I reached for my phone and took a picture of the creature, sending it to my parents knowing they’d take their time getting back to me. They often got sent these kinds of pictures from the general public. Some family or another would discover a baby animal in their garden, house, or on the side of the road. It would be helpless, a juvenile, too young for the average carer to identify its exact genus and species as its distinctive features had not yet formed. More often than not the beloved animal they’d taken into their home was none other than Rattus rattus. Mum and Dad would also be able to identify this weird animal, if it had already been discovered.

Starting with the ‘what does it eat’ conundrum I gave it a little bit of food from various food groups; vegetables, grain, meat, all of which it seemed uninterested in consuming. After determining that it was neither omnivore, carnivore, nor herbivore, I gave up. It currently seemed content, so I placed it in a tissue box as a makeshift bed and decided to wait for my parents’ insight on it later. Locking the door in case it developed a drastic and psychotic personality change overnight, I went to bed.

Tuesday

Mornings were a slow, painful endeavour. After a sip of weak tea, I regained the presence of mind to think about my creature. I shuffled to where the tissue-bed lay. The poor thing had shrunk! It was now barely the size of my thumb. A wail burst from its mouth. It reminded me of a hungry baby crying but the food I’d left next to it lay untouched. It immediately quietened when I focused on it. Content with the attention. In an attempt to calm it, I petted its head with a careful hand. Though it was an almost imperceptible change, with each pat the creature grew larger. It seemed like the thing needed me. Not to feed it, but to nurture it, perhaps even to love it. It grew to the size of my fist.

Yesterday’s discovery had shocked me out of my creativity and productivity. With the new day came a feeling of determination. Out of nowhere this thing had appeared, to me alone, to be my muse. Grabbing my more expensive paints and canvas I lay a protective tarp on the floor and set up a work space.

Within a furious two-hour run of painting in which paint got on just about everything except the tarp, I was done. Yet the creature I had painted was not the one that now stood on four legs before me. The thing had grown to be the size of a puppy. Though it was much hairier than any dog I’d ever seen, a perfect orange sphere. Through the fluff I could see that the creature had two arms and two legs. Two hands emerged from the hair and grasped my own, curling around my fingers and displaying, to my astonishment, two opposable thumbs.

Picking up the creature by the waist I carried it to the bathroom and sat it on the closed lid of the toilet. What lay beneath the hair? With the curiosity of a scientist I grabbed a small pair of scissors and began clipping away slowly at the folds of hair. The cool bathroom became covered in splashes of orange. After cutting the last layer of hair I looked upon what I had found. What once looked like a tumbleweed breezing past, now appeared to be a humanoid creature, one that resembled a baby orangutan.

In the animal world, brain size is commonly proportionate to intelligence. When the creature had been small I hadn’t considered the level of intelligence it could potentially have. It ate and it slept. Now when I took out the paints and canvas, I placed them in front of the creature to see if it had any kind of reaction or intuition. Instead of painting on the canvas it crawled over to the large white wall, arguably in a sense a larger canvas, and painted it with ochre and umber handprints. The effect reminded me of ancient cave paintings, like the parietal prehistoric rock art that dated back millenia.

When I placed paint brushes and sponges beside it, it took these and used them. This indicated a fundamental sign of reasoning, it had the ability to use tools. I painted a waratah on a piece of blank wall space beside it and engrossed by this display, the creature copied with accuracy.

During the hours that past, the creature had grown to be as tall as my waist with the hair on its stomach, forearms, hands and legs, starting to recede.

‘I should give you a name.’

In response the creature let out a garbled sound.

‘You must be a Weasly.’ Or it was at least a very dishevelled and primitive version of this fictional family.

‘Wes then.’

Its head jerked toward me, as though already recognising the sound of its own name. His own name.

Like a toddler learning to walk, he moved in a bipedal motion towards me, for the first time upright, on two legs.

Wednesday

I woke up to the sound of shuffling papers and furious scribbling. Turning the bedroom doorknob I came upon what looked like a 12-year-old boy, with perhaps a slightly more protruding forehead and longer forearms, colouring with my texts in the living room.

‘Wes?’

He turned to me and without preamble replied, ‘Yes.’

‘You can talk?’

‘Yes.’

‘How?’

‘Yes.’

Okay so his vocabulary was limited. Amazing still that his mouth had the ability to form the vowels and consonants of the human tongue.

A text pinged on my phone. It was from Dad.

‘Never seen the thing before in my life! Keep the little guy safe, your mother will love this! We’ll come on the weekend to have a look.’

Whether this was a dream or a nightmare I couldn’t tell. Wes had been growing at an astonishing rate. Some animals were like that, it wasn’t altogether unique. The Mayfly lived out its whole life cycle, birth to death, in one day. How long was the lifespan of an animal like Wes, a week?

Not wanting to put a damper on his mood I began taking out my art supplies, pictures, and books. What would he think of Picasso?

Thursday

Every morning with Wes heralded a new discovery. My ability to be shocked had taken on new heights. Yet he managed to do it once again. Or rather, she managed to. This may prove right the maxim that women are more evolved than men.

The boyhood version of Wes was no longer. Sitting calmly at the kitchen bench and eating a bowl of microwaved noodles was me. Or at least a creature that appeared exactly like me. From my long red hair to my gangly elbows to my impressively small feet. Wes was me.

‘Hey,’ Wes began, ‘now I know this is weird, I don’t completely understand things either.’

I spluttered. ‘Fancy that, my evil twin doesn’t understand things.’

She held up her hands.

‘This isn’t a Phoebe and Ursula type scenario.’

‘How in hell have you watched Friends?’ Remain calm, I told myself. This was the creature I had grown and raised myself.

She pointed to my laptop which contained all the free trials I had to streaming services.

‘I binged all ten seasons last night.’ She gave me a lopsided smile, the apologetic one I gave to people when I’d done something worth reprimanding. Our mouths were the same, as was our taste in television.

‘Favourite character?’ I tested.

‘Monica,’ we said at the same time.

Maybe this wasn’t all bad. We talked long into the night as I told her about art, history, and culture. I fell asleep beside her on the couch.

Friday

‘Wes,’ I called when I couldn’t find her.

What emerged from the study was no longer me. Wes had changed again. She was smaller now, had lost her hair and developed thicker looking skin.

‘Hello keeper,’ she greeted with a short wave.

‘Hello.’ I pointed at the hand she had waved with which had transformed once again, and now only had four fingers. ‘You lost a finger.’

Wes 2.0 glanced at her hands. ‘It was a useless vestigial part.’

‘Humans,’ she continued, ‘have destroyed this world with their unquenchable materialism and destructive self-centred natures, I leave here on a mission as one that has moved past their primitive beginnings and evolved into a creature of pure logic. Goodbye young friend, I leave here knowing there are only a few like myself who have the foresight to fix this world.’

With that she/he/it left. The door to my apartment falling shut and leaving me behind inside.

Tagged

Yellow, Aylish Dowsett

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

You’re nervous.

You’ve wiped the sweat from your palms three times now. Yet your hands still shake. A little tremor. Nothing too violent.

You choose the powder blue shirt over the others, matched with silver cufflinks. They’re scratched, but they do just fine. They’re your lucky pair.

You readjust your shirt as it sticks to your back, the scent of lemon seeping from your skin. She bought you that. You liked the smell.

I would’ve chosen the burgundy shirt. Gold cufflinks. But I am merely an observer. A silent spectator if you will. My favourite quote about me says

“the trouble is

you think you have Time.”

Buddha was correct. I am limited. I have no control, just as you do when you are born. And when you will die.

You look up, squinting against the fading light. The bruised sky watches you back. As do the trees, the cedar wood bench and the swings in the distance. A couple hurries past you, umbrellas swinging from their arms. You’ve chosen a good spot. You’re proud.

The bruised sky grumbles and you reach for your own umbrella. Blue plastic fans out over you like a protective shield. The rain begins to fall, tapping lightly, like tiny excited feet. You wait.

But it wasn’t always like this for you. You’re happy. If I take you back, it won’t be that far. Let’s start off with four years, shall we? The shadows of your past are still a part of you, after all. Isn’t that what you humans say about me?

.

It was cold. Dark. Damp. Mould clung to the air as cockroaches do to food. The wallpaper was peeling, curling over like long, overgrown toenails.

You hated it.

You didn’t want to live there.

But you did it for her.

For the both of you.

You were moving the last of the boxes from the van. Beads of sweat rolled down your forehead, so you used your t-shirt to wipe it away.

Navy, with white edges.

She appeared at the back door, with gloved hands and grass stains on her golden, bare legs. A grin shone across her face. Your eyes slowly grazed her body as she walked towards you and took your hand. Her yellow dress melted into your blue. You smiled.

.

But remember the first time you fought? I know it’s unpleasant to recall.

There was shouting.

Crying.

Puffy eyes.

You broke your favourite bowl. You’d made that together.

She stormed out.

You didn’t follow her.

And then you did.

That was three years ago.

You got through it.

.

Now, what about that time when you performed on stage? I remember it clearly. It was dim and smoky. Hundreds of hunched eyes watched you.

You only did that because of her. Because she pushed you.

Believed in you.

Gave you the courage

to believe in yourself.

She squeezed your hand, her dark eyes sparkling as you went on stage.

And my, what a performance it was. You brought the house down, as you humans would say. I knew you had it in you. I always did.

That was two years ago. My, how you’ve grown.

.

We can go back further, you know. I may be limited for you, but for me, I am eternity.

I promise you this won’t hurt. Only a little.

This was before all of it. Before her.

You were sitting at the back. You were slouching, with your feet slung over the seat in front of you. Arms folded. You wore a jumper, with the hood pulled over your face.

Cobalt, with frayed drawstrings.

The room began to fill up. People sat with their friends. Chatted. The air became thick with it. But you stayed back. Kept your arms folded.

You wanted to be alone.

It was better that way.

Everyone fell silent as someone approached the stand. You were having a guest lecturer that day. A student from another university.

You rolled your eyes, preparing to absorb yourself in your own thoughts. Your mind was not a bad place. It just hurt. Memories seared the edges.

But as you began to drift away, you stopped.

The guest lecturer.

Her pale, yellow blouse seemed to shimmer as she spoke. Her voice carried across the theatre. Powerful. Fiery.

You were hypnotised.

You’d never seen so much

passion

and beauty

from someone before.

As the lecture ended, people drowsily got to their feet. Some ran. Others stumbled out the door.

But not you.

You could have walked past like everyone else.

Out into the sunshine.

But you chose to wait.

You walked slowly down the stairs,

waiting for people to leave.

She gathered her things.

Smiled at other students.

And then you walked straight towards her.

My, were you brave.

You said you loved her lecture. You stuttered. She smiled.

And you walked out into the sunshine together.

It was that moment in Time that changed it all.

Changed everything for you.

For both of you.

You took a chance.

Lived in the moment.

Time changed. Your life shifted.

.

The rain thumps on your umbrella and it is now dark. A golden streetlamp glows nearby. The lights of cars flicker behind the trees.

You’re nervous.

You slide your hand into your pocket, pressing the outside of a small box to your skin. You hope she likes it. Loves it.

And then you see her.

She rushes towards you, her dark curls tucked under her hood.

She laughs when she sees you. Saying how cold the rain is. She forgot her umbrella.

You cradle her against you, her wet cheek nestling against your blue shirt. You smile and kiss her forehead.

You

are

yellow.

Tagged , ,

The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Aylish Dowsett

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

So is a lot.’

Albert Einstein

Okay, I know this looks bad. And very much illegal. But really, what else was I supposed to do other than to whack it on the head and drag it here? Don’t roll your eyes at me like that. It saw me; and we all know what could happen if the humans ever found out we still existed. Poof, gone, we’d be wiped out before Bob ever became anyone’s uncle. And is that? Urgh, ew, it’s bleeding. Human blood is so gross. You can pull that face all you like, but I’m not touching it again. Yes, I could’ve just let it go, but then what? I really didn’t want The Order to find the human and then they’d have found out about…well, you know. Not that I’m hiding anything. Why am I telling you anyway? I bet you’re just another filthy human, prying into, no, invading everyone’s business like usual. You should really take a good long look in the mirror, idjit. You’re the monster, not me.

But seriously, why the fuck is it so cold down here?

Jinx tugged at her jacket, the wool from her gloves snagging on the brass buttons. Great.

This was why she never came down to the cellar. Aside from the fact that, well, it was a freezing shithole, she could’ve sworn she’d seen a pair of eyes, glinting from the jade bottles that lined the walls. It must’ve just been from the dust that choked this place. Hallucinating on dust was the least of her worries right now though. She had…that to deal with.

Jinx grimaced, her eyes gliding over the human’s wilted head. Copper curls hung meekly down its arms; the hair having twisted itself around the metal of the chair. Freckles decorated its cheeks, along with smudges of thick, sticky blood. The lingering stench of damp and blood made Jinx want to gag. It was a Fae’s worst nightmare all right.

‘Is she…can I…is she awake yet?’

A blonde head slowly peered around the nearest door, his sheepish eyes darting from the curly mess to Jinx. He seemed to whimper at the sight of her, as though he might collapse under her gaze alone.

Jinx rolled her eyes, extending a gloved hand towards him. ‘Hand it over Seb,’ she sighed. ‘If you’d taken much longer, the Queen would’ve been dead and buried by now.’

Seb’s tawny eyes widened. ‘Oh yes, yes, I have it. It’s just,’ he scurried through the door, ducking under its frame. ‘It’s just, I had to…had to make a few alterations.’

Jinx looked at him blankly and snatched the burlap sack from his bony fingers. ‘I hate looking at its face,’ she said, screwing her own up. ‘At least now,’ she stepped forwards, throwing the sack over the human’s head, ‘we won’t have to, and I can actually think.’

The sack did not land with great accuracy, and instead, sat horribly slanted with what appeared to be

‘What are those!’ Jinx swivelled to Seb who recoiled instantly, shielding himself with his teal overcoat. The sack stared at them; two large cotton eyes were stitched in the middle, with a matching, happy, but wobbly mouth.

‘I did-did say that I made a few alterations, there were quite a few hole-holes in it, in all the sacks.’ Seb had faltered against the wall now, his fingers clutching the crumbling brick. ‘I think a family of moths had been enjoying it, perhaps a little too much,’ he mumbled, barely audible. ‘Maybe they smelt the potato residue? Did you-you know that Gypsy moths can lay up to one thousand eggs per—’

‘I don’t care about the ruddy moths Sebastian, fucking hell!’ Without warning, Jinx swung around and punched the wall behind her. The dusty bottles, thankfully empty, tumbled to the floor and clattered into silence.

The two Fae paused, the stillness engulfing the space between them. Seb gulped. Jinx examined her bleeding knuckle. And the sack gawked stupidly.

‘Well don’t just stand there!’ Jinx snapped back to Seb, her pupils tiny. ‘Fix the damn sack and pick these bottles up! Why do I always have to do everything? Why did I get stuck with a fledgling rather than a real healer?’

Seb had paled to the colour of sour milk, his lip quivering slightly. ‘If you allowed me to heal her, Jinx, she would recover. It would take a m-mere few minutes.’ He side-stepped to the sack, adjusted it gently over the human’s head and skirted around her to the fallen bottles. ‘She’s b-bleeding Jinx. We need to alert The Order.’

‘We’re not leaving Sebastian and it’s not going anywhere. It stays until I figure this out. I’m thinking a Gravel Grot could wipe its memory? But they charge a fortune…’

‘But if we—’ He grabbed a bottle, wiping its dusty body on his sleeve. He was avoiding looking at Jinx, studying the bottles instead with deep concern. ‘If we took her to The Order, they could erase her m-memory.’

Jinx glared at him, kicking a nearby bottle with a booted foot. ‘Yeah, and I’ll be striped of my ranking for having ‘maimed’ a human. Fat chance of that.’ She took a step forwards, leaning towards the unconscious girl. ‘No, I’ll deal with it myself. This piece of filth will go straight—’

But then the sack twitched. And Jinx practically flew straight into Seb. Seb, admirably, caught her, but she shoved him back hard, leaping away with a growl.

The human began to thrash around now, nearly toppling off its chair with a scream. But Jinx was there, her hand stuck out in its direction, tensing. It stopped moving instantly, but that didn’t stop its muffled cries.  

Seb had retreated into a corner, clutching a Rosé bottle desperately. ‘She’s awake, she’s awake! Ah! What do we do? What do we do?!’

‘Will you shut up!’ Jinx spat. Her hand trembled, still pointing at the very-much-awake human. ‘I don’t know! I was hoping it was dead! These things are so fragile! I thought a good whack on the head would’ve killed it, but apparently not!’

Seb’s eyelids fluttered in disbelief. ‘But you said it was an accident. You said you didn’t mean to hit her. That you panicked. What were you doing Jinx?’

‘None of your damn business fledgling!’

‘I HAVE A GUN! YOU TRY AND LEG IT AND I’LL SHOOT YOU, WHOEVER YOU ARE!’

The pair froze, their eyes jolting towards the stairs to the cellar: the only way in and out.

‘If you’ve hurt my sister, I swear I’ll kill you!’ cried the mysterious, quivering voice. It was getting louder. ‘DON’T YOU TOUCH HER!’

Jinx and Seb looked at each other then, both equally as terrified as the other.

Oh fuck.

Tagged , , ,

The Wedding Eve, Alison Graham

Altan had hardly expected to enjoy the day of the pre-wedding celebration, but things took a significant downturn after the rehearsal.

One of the girls had decided to ask him a question.

‘Shouldn’t you be with your future bride?’ she asked, teeth bright in a cheeky smile. She was a pretty thing with large blue eyes, cinnamon skin and unusually bright auburn hair. Her question sent a ripple of giggles undulating among the other girls surrounding the prince, glittering butterflies orbiting a single bright flower.

Altan stifled a scowl, glancing at the figure in the corner of the ballroom.

His betrothed cut an embarrassing figure. She was too slight and pale, garish in a puffy purple gown in the style of her homeland. She was rarely dressed in such finery, and it showed in how her calloused fingers tugged uncomfortably at her ruffled hems and pulled at the brocaded waist. Flowers had been woven into her glossy dark braid, but its beauty did little to offset her perpetually red cheeks and nose, and she hunched awkwardly over the glass in her hand. He knew she sipped at it to keep her hands and mouth busy, to hide the fact that nobody was talking to her.

Next to him, they made a bizarre pair, so he preferred to keep his distance. Altan was lithe and dark, with fine features. His mauve kaftan skimmed his figure perfectly, comfortable as a second skin. His jewellery was carefully placed, each link of gold painstakingly measured, garnets chosen in just the right colour to match his orange eyes. He was better suited with one of the glimmering courtesans currently surrounding him, but they lacked the power or lands that better piqued his mother’s interest.

He swallowed these thoughts, deciding instead to deflect the girl’s question. ‘My bride and I will be spending plenty of time together soon enough,’ he said, sliding an arm around the girl’s waist. Her cropped blouse and the gap left by her draped sari meant his hand travelled along bare goosebumps. ‘Are you ungrateful for this limited time left with me?’
Another peal of giggles dispersed through the group, and the auburn-haired girl flushed.

As the laughter settled, Altan felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned, and found himself facing the hard stare of his mother’s advisor, Odval.

Odval’s eyes were the cold hardness of amethyst, and even on this occasion she hadn’t traded her simple black abaya for anything more festive. Only a jeweled chain headpiece over her hijab gave any indication of her rank, and her face was as stern as if there was nothing to celebrate.

‘Your mother would like a word, Highness,’ she said in a low voice. She tilted her head, and Altan’s eyes followed the direction. Sure enough, his mother had sequestered herself by a gilded fountain. She was barely a shadow from his distance, but her golden-eyed gaze was clear across the hall.

He sighed, extricating himself from the auburn-haired girl. ‘All right, Odval,’ he said, following her as the dumpy-silhouetted woman led him through the throng towards his waiting mother.

The queen of Baliqas greeted her son with a lengthy sigh. ‘Altan, sun of my stars,’ she said, taking his hand. Her gold-lacquered nails pricked his palm. Where Odval was plain and utilitarian, Aigiarn was bright and effervescent with jewels and colour. She’d worn a purple gown that consisted of so many sheer layers that she seemed to float more than walk, and her long inky hair was woven with pearls and gold chains. A gold ring made a feature of her regal nose, and gold paint along the rims of her eyes accented her dark skin.

‘Mother,’ Altan said. ‘Odval said you wanted a word.’

‘I see you’ve been enjoying your rehearsal ball,’ Aigiarn said, eyes scanning the huge ballroom.

‘It seems all have been merry, except for one very key reason for the revelries, sweet.’

Altan fought to keep his expression neutral. ‘She seems to be enjoying herself just fine.’
‘Altan,’ Aigiarn stated. ‘Sascha has been hiding in the corner by herself since we finished the ceremony rehearsal. She looks utterly despondent, watching her groom flirt with every young person in the room but her. Would it torture you so to even smile at her?’

Altan’s hand clenched ever so slightly on his mother’s grip. ‘I’ll have all the time in the world to smile at her after tomorrow, Mother,’ he said carefully. ‘I’ll be the happiest prince alive once we’re wed, I can promise you.’

Airgiarn’s glittering eyes narrowed. ‘I take flattery and dressed lies from many, child-of-mine, but I won’t take them from you.’

‘So you know, the truth is I don’t want to marry her,’ Altan hissed, dropping his voice so low he wasn’t sure even his mother heard. ‘That’s hardly a surprise to you. We’ve never gotten along!’

‘You’ve never given her a chance,’ Aigiarn murmured, steel in her voice.

‘And what chance was I given? You dropped a little girl I’d never seen in front of me one night when we were both six years old, and you told me to be nice to my future wife. Did you really think I’d do just that?’

Aigiarn took a deep breath as if to speak, then paused, exhaling slowly. Her eyes still darted across the room, never ceasing to monitor the guests.

‘I’d always hoped you’d grow to care for each other eventually,’ she said softly. ‘I expected resistance – of course I did, Altan. You’re my son. But I’d hoped you’d inherited some of my… I don’t know. Romance? I thought you’d at least feel sorry for her, this poor princess taken to a foreign realm where nothing is familiar. I saw long ago I was wrong.’

Aigiarn paused to straighten and square her broad shoulders, flashing a quick smile at a passing courtier. ‘Nonetheless, the marriage is necessary,’ she reminded Altan. ‘And you know this well, otherwise you wouldn’t bother putting on a show. You know what this means, both to our nation and hers.’

Altan looked across the room again, at the forlorn girl in the corner. He knew exactly what was at stake and what he needed to do, but it didn’t mean he had to enjoy it. He dropped his mother’s hand.

‘I’ll be all smiles and blissful marital delight tomorrow,’ he muttered. ‘I promise. But at least let me have fun tonight.’

Aigiarn pursed her lips. ‘I wish you’d see her from a different perspective, Altan.’

Altan turned away. ‘Enjoy your night, Mother.’

He could see the girls as he’d left them, no worse for his absence. But as he approached them, another hand landed on his elbow. Scowling, he pulled away and turned to face whoever now demanded his attention.

Huge brown eyes looked at him, jarring over an unlovely face and downturned mouth.

Oh.

Sascha.

‘What?’ he asked.

She was little; at her height, she had to look up at him, like a child. She hesitated, chewing her lip, and Altan’s frustration flared. She was so timid. ‘Get on with it,’ he snapped.

Her milky cheeks filled with colour. ‘I just wanted to ask how you were,’ she said in a low voice that mirrored his exasperation. ‘I saw you’d been speaking to your mother. You looked unhappy. I wanted to see if everything was alright.’

Altan reared back. ‘If I needed comfort, I wouldn’t seek it from you,’ he said.

Sascha blinked slowly, breathing in deeply. ‘Forgive me for my concern, Highness,’ she said, and turned to walk away.

As she left, the auburn-haired girl peeled away from the group to greet him. ‘I think you need a moment in peace,’ she said, grinning at him and taking his hand.

She led him out of the hall and outside, into one of the quiet courtyards littered across the palace. This one was mercifully quiet, with only a light breeze and faint birdsong accompanying the pair. The sun was low in the sky, painting a pale sunset behind the palace’s white marble.

‘You seem troubled, Highness,’ the girl said, skimming a hand over Altan’s shoulders. ‘I am surprised a prince would have woes on the eve of his wedding.’

The orange light lit up her skin and made her blue eyes appear to glow. Altan smiled and caught her hand.

‘No woes,’ he said. ‘Merely concerns. Political marriages are not all bliss.’

‘Your bride seems less happy than you,’ the girl said, raising her eyebrows. She pulled Altan over to a seat bordering a little stone-bounded patch of greenery, a fine maple reaching over bright flowers and shrubs. Altan obliged her and sat, ignoring the cold stone for the girl’s warm skin.

‘I am sorry for her,’ the girl continued, twining a finger around a lock of Altan’s blue-black hair. ‘She seems so lonely. How long has she been here? Enough to make friends?’

‘Twelve years,’ Altan said. ‘She arrived here when we were six. She made friends, but…’ Altan waved a hand in the air. ‘Palace staff, pot-scrubbers and guards’ daughters.’

He could envision them so clearly – the woman who taught the pair to ride, lovingly easing Sascha into the saddle while unceremoniously dumping Altan onto the back of his lioness. The sword master who left him covered in bruises, while Sascha’s fair skin remained unblemished. A young cook who’d sneak up to their chambers to share leftovers with Sascha, the two of them giggling when Altan grimaced at the homely food.

All people who could not be invited to the wedding festivities. Altan didn’t know if he should have felt guilty or smug when he saw Sascha alone.

‘Did you never try to befriend her?’ the girl asked.

Altan could not hide the wince he made. ‘We are very different people,’ he said.

The girl laughed. ‘They say opposites attract, Highness.’

‘There is such a thing as being too different to be compatible.’

‘I don’t know,’ the girl said. ‘I think sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. Do you view a person’s differences as flaws, or as unique attributes?’

‘I don’t know,’ Altan said, starting to feel irritated. ‘I didn’t realise you wanted to come out here just to talk about her. Of all things, she’s the last person I want to think about tonight.’

The girl’s blue eyes narrowed. ‘It’s a shame for you to be so cruel to her, Altan. I would have liked to think you’d give her more of a chance.’

Altan blinked, shifting away from the girl. ‘Did my mother send you to talk to me?’

‘Your queen?’ The girl laughed. ‘She’s in no position to order me around, I’m afraid. No, I attended because I wanted to see how the wedding would play out. I didn’t realise the Baliqan prince was such an ass towards his bride, though. She seems nothing if not sweet.’

Altan’s mouth fell open. ‘Who do you think you are to speak to me like that?’ he demanded.

The girl sighed, smoothing a hand over her face and hair. As her palm passed over her features, they shifted. Her skin became as green as a sapling’s leaves, and her ears grew long and pointed. Her nose and cheekbones were sharper, her shapes harder, becoming too strange and beautiful to look directly at. Wings flashed kaleidoscopic colours as they shimmered into place. Only her hair, clothes and eyes remained the same.

‘My queen is interested in the dramas of your court,’ the fairy said. ‘She sent me to collect gossip for entertainment – I’m no spy. She won’t be entertained by a spoiled prince’s arrogance, though. I will need a better story to tell her, so… I think it’s time you had a change of perspective, dear Altan.’ She laid a slender, gentle finger on his chest.

A sharp pain bloomed in Altan’s stomach, a ripping sensation that spread outwards. He grunted. The pain surfaced, sending jolts of it over his skin, not unlike pins and needles. He looked at his arms; his clothes were melting into his skin. He stared in horror as the silk sank in, morphing; turning into gold-orange scales the same colour as his eyes.

The pain enveloped him completely, as his bones scraped and popped and groaned and changed. His lungs tore into shreds, and he felt long gashes slice across his ribs.

His fingers fused, his hands flattening and becoming translucent, the same occurring to his legs.

He gulped for air to scream, only to drown.

He felt himself being grabbed, and thrown. He splashed against water. The impact stung, but at last he could breathe. He gasped, sucking at the water. He tried to kick, but found he couldn’t move his legs. He couldn’t move his head to look at himself.

He drifted motionless for a moment, registering the new form of his body. There was a tail, and fins. He wriggled the tail, and could swim forward.

He looked up, and the fairy was grinning down at him, her face distorted by the surface of the water. He swam up and broke the surface. She smirked. ‘Welcome to your new home, prince,’ she said. ‘I hear goldfish make wonderful companions.’ Then with a flutter of her glittering wings, she was gone.

Altan looked around him. He was in a stone pool, with algae-covered rocks at the bottom, several plants, and other goldfish. They swam in lazy circles around the pond, apparently oblivious to the newcomer.

Altan propelled himself upwards, pushing himself out of the water. If he pushed hard enough, he could glance out of the pond for moments at a time. The pond was in the centre of a circular courtyard that now seemed gargantuan, bounded by trees and a tall iron fence. Large glass doors led in to what appeared to be a bedchamber.

He knew where he was.

These were Sascha’s chambers. She had a large pond in the courtyard outside her bedchamber, filled with bright little goldfishes that she cooed and chatted to. And now he was one of them.

There was a bang, like a door slamming. He heard footsteps, and the rustle of crumpled fabric. Someone came into view, slumping by the pond. He looked up to see milky cheeks blotched red, soft brown eyes watery. Tear stains tracked down the cheeks of a face he’d known for twelve years, that he’d never seen so close, or from below.

‘You’ll never believe the night I’ve had,’ she sobbed to the fish.

Altan sunk low into the pond as she raged and wept and lamented her many frustrations with him that she never voiced in his presence.

New perspective.

Right.

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Brief History of the Blood Curse, Celine Perczynski

It was commonly known that the Curse was not well thought out. There was humming, not shouting. No licking of stones or puppets. Though the ingredients were ground into thin powder, they were snorted not swallowed. Nothing was done properly.

Still, it was not a complete disaster.

Instead of turning into crows, women bleed once a month.

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Another Sense, Eilish Hendry

My father once told me he knew something was wrong the moment I was born. He said I cried too loudly. They couldn’t take me anywhere: shopping malls, parks, the more people there were, the worse I became. I would scream and cry and fuss; nothing could make me relax. He said I emerged from the womb determined to spite him—that I had always hated him. But I didn’t, how could I? I was an infant. It took me years to accept that he would never love me. He’d decided against it the moment I uttered my first words because he could never understand them:

‘Too loud.’

The world was just too loud for me.

Eventually, I adjusted to larger groups of people. I didn’t really have a choice. When my kindergarten teacher said I had socialisation issues, my mother defended me. She insisted it was because I hadn’t been to preschool. If only it were that simple. It would take me a long time to learn that there were certain things I shouldn’t say out loud—things that would make people angry.

‘What do you mean you don’t like anyone, Ella? You just said you like Billy.’

‘What’s the point of silent reading if everyone’s still talking?’

‘Oh, Jeremy stole your chocolates, Miss. He’s laughing about it right now.’

My classmates called me a tattletale, my teacher labelled me a compulsive liar. But Mama refused to believe them; she pulled me from that school and found a new one. But the teacher there accused me of cheating. Soon, I was changing schools every six months. Somehow things just kept getting worse.

When I was eight, Daddy told Mama he was going to work, but he told me he was going to a hotel with Helen. I didn’t know who she was, so I asked him about her later and he got mad. He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about, but when I mentioned the name of the hotel he almost looked scared. He begged me not to tell. He told me that I wouldn’t understand, that my mother wouldn’t understand. He took me out for ice cream and that made Mama smile, so I thought it was okay.

I didn’t tell her the truth until he left us for good. Mama had no words when I finally admitted it, but by then she didn’t have any tears left either. Pretty soon after that, she told me we were going to a doctor. At first, I was happy. I thought the doctor was for her; I knew how sad she was, I knew what she smelt like, so I thought she was getting help.

‘No Sweetie, the doctor is for you.’

My father was a doctor, so I’d never been to anyone else, let alone a psychologist. I was sitting on a beanbag surrounded by stuffed animals, while Mama sat on a rickety chair, listing my problems for at least an hour.

‘She’s a very sweet girl, very smart… But I know something’s wrong. Her teachers’ say she plays games with them in class. She’ll say she can’t work out a problem but the moment they sit down with her she knows all the answers. She can’t go to school assemblies or the park. I thought it might be sensory overload, so I bought a few books. But it doesn’t seem to matter how loud a place, she just can’t handle it.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Alexandra please, we’re here to be honest with the doctor. You know you don’t like—’

‘Mama I didn’t mean what you said. I meant what he said.’

‘Excuse me?’ the doctor said, face crinkled with confusion, ‘I didn’t say anything.’

‘Yes you did,’ I told him. ‘You said it’s Asperger’s. I read Mama’s book and I don’t think I have it.’

I still remember feeling like I was the only person in that room that was making sense. Mama seemed happy when I spoke up, not because she agreed with me, but because the doctor had just witnessed what she’d never been able to explain. It took three sessions for him to finally admit I was right. After that, he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. We went to see at least twelve more doctors, and a priest, before Mama finally gave up. She used to say that there had to be an explanation. She’d say it over and over like it was the only thing binding her to this Earth. She needed something—something to make me make sense.

One doctor was convinced I was schizophrenic, another said I was an autistic savant. They threw around every personality disorder they could think of from borderline to histrionic. They tried ADD and ADHD but nothing could explain me away. One doctor said I just had a wild imagination. He said that this is what happens to children raised by single mothers. Mama didn’t hear the bad word he called her, but I did. I hit him for that and we had to leave. But she needed answers, far more than I did. Every misdiagnosis made her shatter like the glass that surrounded her.

She needed someone to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. That I wasn’t her fault. But it was too late, too quickly it was too late.

It was loud that day. I could hear her in the next room, screaming for someone to answer her. I went to check on her and she was lying in bed, dry-eyed and staring at the ceiling like she had been for days. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, but she told me she was fine, she just needed some rest. I didn’t blame her, neither of us had slept in three days. She didn’t because she couldn’t, I hadn’t because she hadn’t. She promised me everything was going to be fine, but I could still hear her pain. I couldn’t ignore it; it hammered into my skull and my heart screamed like a wounded anvil. So, I checked on her a second time, then a third. I didn’t check a fourth… I should have checked a fourth. But instead, I stuffed my ears with tissue paper and prayed to every god in existence for it to be silent.

And then it was.

Everything felt cold and for the first time, it was peaceful. I could still hear the whispers of the world, but they were so far away. I cried because all of a sudden, I could breathe. That night, I slept more serenely then I ever had in my life. And when I woke up, it was still quiet. And that was beautiful. There was a part of me that thought that this was what control was. That maybe it had finally stopped. There was something that could make the world go quiet, I could be what my mother needed me to be. A normal child who didn’t need doctors, who could make friends. A girl who couldn’t hear what no one had said.

I ran to tell my mother the good news. To my surprise, she had slept peacefully too. All she needed was a bottle of pills.

My father didn’t take me in after the funeral—he refused. He told his new wife that he didn’t want me getting into her head or their baby’s. He had a new daughter now, so he set me up in a crappy apartment and never looked back. He paid my rent remotely and wouldn’t take my calls. He told me that as soon as I turned eighteen he wouldn’t be legally responsible for me anymore. At fourteen, he was counting down the days until he could be rid of me for good.

I can’t tell you how loud that apartment was. There were fifty people just on my floor and they all just seemed so busy. My neighbours were nice to me at first, they’d bring me leftovers and offer to help me with my homework. By then I had learnt to only respond when I could see someone’s lips moving. But it’s impossible to catalogue what someone has and hasn’t told you. I started to wonder if it was even right for me to hold back. I knew their pain, their struggles, their grief. Why should I let someone suffer in silence when words might make the world a little bit quieter?

The landlord came to see me, he told me to move out. The other tenants complained, he said. I was disturbing them, he said. I had never been more desperate in my life. I knew my father wouldn’t take my calls even if I was homeless. It was like there was something buried in my chest, something alive and thrashing. Maybe it only came into being in that moment or maybe it had always been there, threatening to burst free. That was the first time I saw true fear; it burned in my landlord’s eyes and his mind descended into howling chaos.

Yet somehow, I made it go quiet.

I told him I wasn’t leaving and he agreed. I told him that the people complaining about me should be evicted and they were. Suddenly, I had someone who was incapable of turning me away—who couldn’t tell me no, who couldn’t hurt me. That was all I’d ever wanted. For the first time, I had a voice in this screaming world and now one wasn’t enough. One of my teachers was next. Then a classmate, then a neighbour, then anyone who tried to silence me. I couldn’t win anyone over with affection or kindness. I had tried loving the world and it did nothing but break me to pieces.

The very thought spread through me like wildfire because I knew its source. I knew the one who had begun it, who had stolen my voice—It was time to take it back.

‘You’re going to tell me the truth, Father. I’m tired of your lies. You knew what I was and you prayed for it to destroy me.’

He stared back at me with those big brown eyes, the one’s strangers used to tell me I’d inherited. Seeing him look so trapped was a joy I had never expected. He was so flustered, so panicked. For once, I had the upper hand and it was a power I never knew I craved.

‘Alexandra, you need to leave now,’ he tried to sound confident, but his voice shook with every word, ‘My family will be home any moment. They know to call the police if they see you.’

I could hear his mind racing at a million miles a minute, desperate for me to accept his lies. He couldn’t figure out how I’d found his home, let alone how I’d made it inside. His eyes were locked on the safe on the wall, wondering if he could make it in time.

‘Your new wife and daughter went to the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s so sweet you bought a little summer home for them. It was Mama’s favourite place, remember?’

‘No, they’re at Cassie’s dance class,’ he spluttered, suppressing a gulp, ‘They’ll be right back—’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ I snarled in a voice I didn’t recognise before I walked over to his safe and began turning the knob, ‘You don’t think I can hear it? Your mind’s in a tailspin because you know no one is coming for you.’

The safe clicked open and from it, I pulled out his gun, ‘Lexi,’ he breathed, as all hopes of escape melted in front of him, ‘Put it down, let’s talk.’

‘Okay.’ I smiled, even as I began loading it with gloved fingers. ‘How about you tell me about Uncle Michel? We never got to talk about him.’

He repeated the only thing he had ever said about him, ‘my brother was sick.’

‘Sick? Sick? He was just like me and you know it.’

I could smell his sweat as I flicked off the safety, ‘I thought that he might be, but I didn’t know for sure. He—’

‘Hung himself, in a mental hospital. Was that what you were hoping I would do? Is that why you cut me off? So I would kill myself like your brother? Like my mother?’

‘Lexi—’

‘Stop calling me that, you gave up that right when you left.’

‘…Alexandra, just because I’d seen it before, doesn’t mean I knew what to do. I couldn’t help you, I felt like a failure, so I left and I’m sorry but—’

‘You let my mother think it was her fault,’ I hissed and the gun cocked with a sickening snap. ‘It was your genetics, you’re the reason I am what I am. It had nothing to do with her but you told her “it’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of the child,” while you busied yourself with your work and your affairs and your life outside of us.’

‘I couldn’t have known she—’

‘I don’t care! You don’t get it, do you? You still haven’t figured out what I am, have you?’

He spluttered and I couldn’t help but laugh, ‘I’m not a freak, I’m not a monster. I am evolution incarnate and I’m not alone. Mama’s last gift to me was making sure I knew that. You’re a doctor, maybe you’ve heard the stories? There was this guy in Yokohama, absolute sweetheart, called his grandmother every day but she’d been dead for three years so they locked him away.’

I stepped closer and he shuddered, ‘Did you hear about that fifteen-year-old in Siena? She was living twenty years in the future, there’s no telling the good she could’ve done. But instead, she was ridiculed until she ripped her all-seeing-eyes out.’

I grabbed his chin, wrenching it upwards until he was forced to look me right in the eyes. ‘Or the six-year-old, just over in Pittsburgh. He liked to make his teddies dance, but he didn’t need his hands to do it. You remember him, Daddy?’

I was standing so close to him now, that I could see the sweat being crushed in the wrinkles of his forehead, he was silent so I spoke again, ‘He starved to death… during his fifth exorcism.’

His mind became quieter and quieter, every thought grinding to a stop as I ensured he could do nothing more than to listen to me.

‘And what about me?’ I asked, before beginning to recite the explanation he had tried to rob me of, ‘Alexandra Priam, nineteen. Hyperthymesia. Telepathy. Mind Control.’

His breath quickened, his knees quivered, and for a moment I wondered if he was going to faint. ‘Wh-what?’

‘Didn’t know that last bit, did ya? Why do you think you haven’t run away? Why you haven’t called for help?’ a laugh escaped my throat, yet I didn’t know what I found so funny. ‘It’s because I removed the idea from your head. I mean, think of the possibilities, I could cure addiction in seconds, break apart toxic relationships, rewire criminals. I could hand my father a loaded gun and tell him to pull the trigger.’

‘Please… Please don’t…’

‘It’s my people’s destiny to replace your kind. What I want you to know, is that this is just the beginning. There’s a storm coming, we won’t be silenced. We won’t let people like you control us. It’s almost a shame you won’t live to see it because let me tell you, the new era of humanity is going to be beautiful.’

Download a PDF copy of Another Sense

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The Shadow, Suzin Lee

 

The first time Alex saw him, she was indifferent. In fact, if it wasn’t for the minor incident, she probably would have brushed past him. The murmur of the supermarket was monotonous in Alex’s ears; her mind was fixated on the broken wheel of her trolley. Rattle, rattle. Rattle, rattle. Alex sighed. She wondered if Dad had ever helped Mum with the shopping. Not that it mattered, now. She reached for a loaf of raisin bread, then hesitated at the thought of Mum’s tantrum the other day.

‘I’m sick of eating this crap!’ Mum had shouted as she threw the freshly buttered toast against the wall. ‘If your Dad was here—’

‘Well, he’s not. And this is all we’ve got in the pantry, so you can starve,’ Alex had snapped as she walked out of the room with the empty plate.

Her hand hovered over the beckoning bag of bread before she threw one, then another, and another, into the trolley. She smirked.

With the trolley piled high with groceries, Alex wheeled it down the health food aisle towards the checkout. Then, they collided. The details of his appearance bypassed her memory except for one small feature—his glasses. Thick-rimmed with additional shades, one side of the frames were wrapped with a Band-Aid, holding them together. They fell off his face and clattered onto the linoleum floor as Alex swerved her trolley, barely missing them.

‘Oh! Oh… I’m so sorry! Are you okay?’ Alex said as she picked up the glasses.

She handed them over to the man, who hesitated at her gesture. He took them, observing her with alarm. Slowly and silently, he walked away.

Alex noticed that other people were staring at her with the same expression on their faces. Any other day, this might have struck her as weird, but she realised the time—Mum had been home alone for longer than she should have been.

 

 

 

The plastic bags rustled as Alex treaded carefully into the dim house. She closed the door gently and when the lock clicked, turned quickly towards the hallway. Silence.

Quietly, she opened the blinds of the living room. A shrill ring broke the peace.

‘Shit!’ Alex muttered, as she clambered over the sofa reaching for the phone. ‘Hello?’

‘Alex, is that you?’ An English accent crackled through the bad reception. ‘It’s Auntie Sue. I just wanted to check in, how’s your Ma going?’

‘Oh! Hello, Auntie Sue. Mum’s alright, the same old.’ Alex fidgeted with the cord in her hand as her eyes nervously watched the hallway.

‘Would you like me to fly over?’ asked Auntie Sue.

‘Oh no! That would be such an inconvenience!’ Alex pulled a face. She couldn’t think of anything worse than to have Auntie Sue fussing around.

A door creaked open down the hallway. Alex perked her head up.

‘I better get going now. I think Mum is awake,’ Alex whispered hoarsely.

Alex watched nervously as the ghost-like figure appeared along the passage. Her hair was disheveled, eyes vacant, and her face was as pale as the silk nightgown she was wearing.

‘John?’ Her shrill voice quivered, echoing off the walls.

‘Mum, it’s just me,’ Alex called out.

Light footsteps pattered on the floorboards.

‘Oh, Alex…’ Mum’s voice was soaked in disappointment as she observed the empty living room.

‘Mum, remember Dad is—’

‘I know.’ Mum stared at the bouquet of flowers on the kitchen bench. A card with the word ‘condolences’ peeked through the leaves.

Alex watched Mum walk back into her room with her head hung low. You could see her bones protruding through her nightgown. Alex wanted nothing more than to get Mum out of her room, to open the windows and curtains and change the bed sheets. A pungent smell had started to arise from in there; a rotting stench that seemed to infiltrate Mum’s grieving body. Alex wrinkled her nose. It was getting worse.

 

 

 

A week later, Alex’s feet were crunching through the autumn leaves as she made her way to the bus stop. Three weeks felt like a very long time away from work. She missed the buzz of computers inside the busy office. A cold gush of wind sent a shiver up her spine; it felt like a breath of fresh air. Alex had never been a patient person, she knew it was only a matter of time before she would snap. She had begun to throw away the condolence cards and sometimes left the phone unplugged. But no matter how hard she tried, the memory of her Dad’s death seemed to taunt her. Even the crowd of black coats at the bus stop triggered memories of his funeral. Alex released a dramatic sigh, receiving side-glances from the people near her.

When the bus appeared around the corner, the drowsy crowd started to stir. Feet shuffled as everyone hungrily inched forward in hope of getting a seat on the bus. Alex had seated herself comfortably and was drinking coffee from her thermos when she saw the man jump onto the bus; the same man from the grocery store. Alex held her thermos in mid-air as she eyed him. He hasn’t paid for his bus fare, maybe he is poor. He took out a notepad and started scribbling. Every time she looked up, she felt him glance away. Alex felt the hairs on her arms stand on end—it was as if he knew she was watching him.

When her stop approached, she carefully made her way down the aisle, seeing him fold the piece of paper as she drew nearer. The closer she got, the more she noticed a pungent smell, and scrunched her face in disgust—it was the rotting smell that had started to infiltrate Mum’s room, and it was coming from him. She covered her nose and looked around madly, but no one else seemed to be bothered by it. Just in time, the doors opened and Alex flew out. She stared with a gaping mouth at the bus as it continued on.

 

 

 

By their third encounter, Alex felt an uneasy dread. She had organised to meet Toby for a date night, which they hadn’t done in a while, since the passing of her Dad. Waiting in line at the movies, Alex felt restless being in such a busy space. All the noise of people chattering seemed to echo in her head, and the smell of the buttery popcorn made her stomach churn.

‘You alright?’ Toby asked as he put his arm around her shoulders.

‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ Alex replied, her foot tapping impatiently.

The two of them waited in line behind a big family; a toddler wailed in a stroller and another two ran wild. Alex crinkled her nose.

‘I think that baby’s nappy needs changing,’ she whispered to Toby. ‘It’s making me feel really nauseous.’

Toby raised his eyebrows and shrugged sympathetically. Then one of the children bumped into a person waiting in the queue, making them turn around. It was him. Alex froze as the man turned in her direction. Their eyes met for a few seconds—an icy shiver ran up her spine. His face was expressionless, not a flinch nor a flicker.

‘Toby…’ whispered Alex.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Do you see that man? The one in front of the family?’ Alex’s voice trembled.

‘Where?’ Toby inclined his head.

‘There, don’t you see him?’ Alex tugged Toby’s shirt in desperation.

‘There are many men in this line, Alex. Which one are you talking about?’

The man walked away as Alex watched in horror.

‘I keep seeing the same man,’ she said.

Toby looked at her quizzically before stroking her hair. ‘Does he look like your dad?’

Alex shook her head, ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

‘You sure? I think it might be.’ Toby gave her shoulder a squeeze. ‘It’s okay, Alex. You haven’t even had a proper chance to mourn, with the way your Mum has been.’

Alex shook her head again. ‘I told you, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

Toby nodded and gave her a light kiss on the forehead, as if politely dismissing her behavior and worries as a figment of her imagination, a mourning strategy, or a cry for attention. Alex bit her lip.

Yeah, maybe I’ve gone fucking mad as well,’ she said.

‘Come on, Alex. You know that’s not what I mean.’ Toby tilted his head to the side.

‘No, I think that’s exactly what you mean,’ Alex muttered through gritted teeth as she pushed Toby away from her and started running.

Weaving through the crowd of people, Alex was determined to confront this mysterious man. I’m not crazy, she repeated in her head. Her eyes darted from left to right across the bustling food court. I’m not crazy. Sure enough, there he was standing in the far corner, staring at her as if he knew she would find him. Alex made her way through the people, drawn to his stare.

‘Alex, stop!’ Toby had grabbed her arm and turned her swiftly around, ‘Where are you going?’

‘He’s there! I need to talk to him,’ said Alex, pointing at the man.

‘Okay, where? Where is this man?’ asked Toby.

‘Just there, in the corner!’

Toby paused, staring intently, ‘Alex, I don’t see anyone standing in that corner.’

She jabbed her finger in the air, ‘Look! He’s right there!’

Toby looked again, then shook his head silently. He pulled her towards him in a tight embrace. She looked past his shoulder and watched the man walk away, slowly disappearing into the crowd.

 

 

 

That night, as Alex lay awake in her bed, she could hear her Mum’s muffled sobs in the room next door. It wouldn’t be a surprise if I was going mad too, she thought. Toby had suggested they book an in-home psychiatrist for her mum. He was worried about her condition, but Alex knew that his underlying agenda was really Alex. She hugged her pillow tightly as she listened to Mum’s whimpers softening, until there was finally silence. A soft breeze rustled the autumn leaves outside whilst a storm brewed in Alex’s mind. She imagined herself barging into Mum’s room, shaking her frail body and shouting, ‘No more, Mum! No more! I can’t handle this anymore!’ Alex’s body shuddered. She didn’t feel like herself anymore.

 

 

 

The next day, Alex received a text from Toby saying that he had booked an initial consultation for a therapy session at 6pm.

‘Just for your Mum. You can listen in if you want, up to you,’ he added.

When Alex arrived at home at exactly 5:45pm, the lights were on in the living room. Strange, Alex thought as she fumbled with her keys. She was greeted with warm air as the heater had been turned on, and she could hear her Mum’s high-pitched chuckle. The house had come alive again. Alex frowned, disturbed by the sudden change.

‘Mum?’ Alex called as she made her way to the living room.

‘Oh, Alex! We have a visitor!’ Mum called.

That smell hit her before Alex could see him. She covered her nose and froze in shock at the sight of the man. He rose onto his feet, pushing his glasses up.

‘He said he was an old friend of your Dad’s. High school friends, did you say?’ Mum looked over at him in admiration, then at Alex quizzically, ‘Why are you doing that?’

‘I… I… ’ Alex mumbled behind the hand blocking her nose.

She edged her way toward Mum. What the fuck is going on, she thought.

‘Mum… you can actually see him?’ Alex asked cautiously.

Mum frowned, ‘What do you—’

The man cleared his throat. ‘May I have a word with your lovely daughter?’

‘Oh, yes of course!’ Mum sprang to her feet. ‘I’ll just make some more tea.’

‘Sit down, Alex.’ The man gestured. His voice was low.

Alex shuddered as she sat in the furthest seat away from him, her trembling hands gathered in her lap.

‘You know me, I presume,’ he said.

‘I’ve… seen you around,’ Alex replied, avoiding eye contact.

‘Which you shouldn’t have.’ The man peered over his glasses. ‘I knew something was wrong when I first saw you at the supermarket. Normally, people like you can’t see me.’

‘What do you mean?’ Alex’s eyes were wide.

‘It means I have prolonged my stay. My job here proved to be more, well, complicated.’ The man paused for a moment. ‘You see, the fact that I am starting to be seen means that I need to leave this planet as soon as possible. But the problem is, my job is not done. I had a list of people to select from, and I selected you.’

‘Am I going to die?’ Alex whispered, her voice trembling.

‘Yes,’ the man replied, ‘because that is the fate of all humans.’

He took out a clipboard and started scribbling notes indifferently, as if he was sending off a parcel.

‘And it seems you have already become very sensitive to death,’ he said, nodding.

‘The smell…’ Alex mumbled.

‘Like a rotting corpse, or simply, the fragrance of death.’ The man shrugged. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’

‘But… I can’t die,’ Alex said. ‘What about my Mum? What about—’

‘No one gets to choose their death, Alex. Death is a natural occurrence whether it be sudden or expected,’ the man said as he peered at his clipboard, ‘and yours will be… sudden… the result of a natural cause.’ The man put down his clipboard, ‘I’m ready when you are.’

Alex felt an adrenal surge of mania rush through her blood, as if all the anger and frustration that she had contained was finally bursting. She stood up abruptly, looking around for something to aide her escape.

‘Stay away!’ she roared, her arms in front of her in defense.

‘Please, don’t resist. It never works.’ The man stood up.

Alex threw a vase of flowers at him and the glass shattered on the floor. The man shook his head. ‘You can’t cheat death, Alex.’ He halted at the sight of blood tricking down his injured arm and growled. ‘And it seems that I am really running out of time.’

Alex watched as the man threw his glasses onto the floor—the same glasses that had clattered onto the floor of the supermarket, the same glasses with the Band-Aid wrapped around the side. All of a sudden, he looked different; his eyes looked darker and his face hollower. A Grim Reaper, hungry for life.

He lurched and grabbed hold of Alex’s arm, covering her mouth with his other hand.

‘You won’t even know it’s happening,’ he whispered.

Alex’s eyes widened as she watched a golf club rise up behind the man. It hit him square on the head. He swayed on his legs, as if confused by the pain, his mouth opening and closing in silence. Alex watched in horror as her Mum swung with all her strength. Swoosh, thud. Swoosh, thud.

‘Over. My. Dead. Body,’ she growled through gritted teeth, between each forceful stroke.

It was the sight of a madwoman. She didn’t stop until the man had buckled over into a limp heap. Unconscious. Dead. Mum was panting, with sweat running down the sides of her face.

Alex was screaming.

‘Shush!’ Mum hit Alex lightly on the shoulder.

‘Mum, are you insane! Why did you do that? How did you do that?’ Alex blundered over her words.

Mum tucked her hair behind her ears as she tried to find her composure. Her chest was still heaving.

‘Whether it be a man or a ghost or some weird shit like that, I’m not losing any more people. Now get the shovel.’

 

 

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Hollow Love, Brianna Sawyer

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, sticky droplets dribbled off stalactites, freezing to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones.

 

 

 

12 hours earlier

Love knocked on the wooden door and twisted the handle. Stepping inside, the smell of stale bread and mouldy cheese made her scrunch her face. Her mother sat in bed, staring at the ceiling. The moth-bitten blanket engulfed her petite frame. Spider webs clung to the closed curtain and tittering squeaks could be heard in the walls. Love swallowed, and lifted a tray of goat milk and crusty bread.

‘Mum, you have to eat something,’ Love said, glancing at her mother’s chest bones, which protruded against her veiny skin.

Hollow rolled away, tufts of brown-silvering hair spotting her head. Love straightened her spine and placed the tray on the side table. Breathing through her mouth, she pulled the ratty blanket up and tucked it under her mother’s chin. Turning away, Love walked to the door, but stopped to glance over her shoulder.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ she paused, looking at the flaking citrine wallpaper, once a vibrant yellow. She cleared a lump in her throat.

‘I love you, mum.’ Love held her breath, waiting.

Her mother’s body language gave no indication of hearing her, though Love knew her hearing was fine. Love squeezed her eyes shut then reopened them, nodding sadly as she let the door click softly behind her.

 

 

 

The breeze from the ocean slipped around the three huddled figures along the edge of the sandy cliff-face. They shivered in their black bearskin coats. The sun peeked over the horizon, bathing their bodies in an orange warmth which did nothing to rid the chill in their hearts. After all, today was another funeral.

‘Why would Cliff venture up onto the cliffs? His deathname was plain enough, why would he go anywhere near them? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.’ Love questioned, shaking her head. Arrow’s pale blue gaze flitted over to her.

‘Why am I an archer’s apprentice, when my deathname is Arrow?’ Arrow quirked an eyebrow, combing her fingers through her wind-woven red tresses. ‘Old-man Cliff didn’t want his deathname to control his life no more. Suppose he wandered up to the cliffs to see what he’d been missing during his cliff exile.’

‘Exile? Deathnames aren’t punishment, Row. They’re precaution,’ Love said automatically, staring down at the funeral procession happening below them on the sand-bed.

Arrow scoffed. ‘What a load of mud. You’ve seen the self-barricaded townhouses. That’s not precaution, Lo, that’s paranoia.’

Love mumbled noncommittally, her attention snagging on the gaping black mouth of the Calling Caves, where every newborn received their deathname from the oracle within. The villagers called him The Caller. As Love stared, the black hole seemed to widen, revealing a cloaked figure by the entrance. She shivered, the wind tearing through her coat and making her eyes stream.

‘This makes nine funerals in five days, don’t it?’ Arrow clicked her tongue against her teeth. Love wiped at her watery eyes, fixing her attention back on the grey body atop the funeral pyre.

‘It’s unheard of,’ Love agreed.

‘What’s unheard of?’ Trip piped up, sweeping a tangled strand of black hair out of his preoccupied eyes. He was heavily involved with the making of a sandcastle. Conversations never excited Trip; they never shaped into anything with gritty substance.

‘Your complete and utter lack of attention,’ Arrow shot back, pointedly looking at his sand abomination. Trip shrugged and Arrow huffed out a breath of smoky air. Love sat between Arrow and Trip, and she felt her heart ache in response to their bickering.

Love knew there were different versions of love you could have for someone. She made a hobby out of identifying them in the people she encountered. The bakers’ cherub-faced daughter twirling on her toes so her baby brother stopped crying. Arrow’s mentor shooting her proud smiles when an arrow hit its mark. Trip stealing glances of Arrow when she was busy detangling her red mane. Seeing these gestures, Love had also become an expert in spotting a lack of love. After all, she dealt with the absence of it every day of her life. The wide berth the other villagers gave her. An ever-expanding detachment between herself and her friends. Including her own mother. But Love understood why.

No one wanted her to die.

It didn’t stop Love, however, from craving that which would kill her.

‘I should get back, my mum…’ Love trailed off. Arrow’s frown softened considerably. Trip had even stopped moulding sand into a misshapen castle, which was then quickly conquered by the whistling wind.

‘My mum, she—she’s refusing to eat anything now. I try feeding her dense foods and warm liquids, but it’s not working. Her body is shutting down. She—she’s just giving up.’ On me, was the add-on both her friends knew lingered there, unspoken. Arrow squeezed her shoulder a moment, then let go.

‘Her deathname is Hollow,’ Arrow said quietly, and bit her tongue when she saw Love wince, ‘do you think an outer-region disease is emptying her out?’

Love breathed in the crisp cool wind, looking out to where the ocean caressed the sky. Love was half convinced she was the disease.

‘I’ve tried the medication we had in storage, but with no food in her stomach, the meds just make her sicker. I don’t know what else to do.’

‘Talk to her,’ Trip murmured, accompanied by a solemn head nod. Arrow’s mouth twitched.

‘This advice coming from the man-of-few-words himself. Surprise after surprise, it is with you,’ Arrow replied. Love laughed as Trip mimed an arrow plunging through his heart. Arrows twitching mouth stretched into a smile.

Then the pyre sparked a blaze and their smiles melted away. They all looked on as licking flames engulfed the lifeless body. Moisture gathered in the corner of Trip’s usually untroubled brown eyes. Arrow shuffled behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Love shut her eyelids but couldn’t shut out the images of her mother, bedridden and helpless, morphing into a pale corpse surrounded by hissing flames as her skin peeled off her bones. She kept shaking her head but the image kept searing her brain, like a branding iron. A shake to the shoulder made her eyes fly open. Love gulped down cold air to settle her laboured breathing.

‘Trip’s right, talk to your mum, Lo,’ Arrow whispered, her head resting against Trip’s shoulder blade.

‘If she can stand to look at me,’ Love snorted, tearing her attention away from the fire. The Caller was hovering by the entrance of the Calling Caves. She blinked—despite the roaring wind, his cloak remained completely still.

 

 

 

Hurrying through the main courtyard, Love could smell fresh garlic and sizzling meats in the brisk air. Drawn to the stand by the sweet fragrance, Love exchanged her pouch of four chicken eggs for a slab of caramelized lamb and rosemary sprigs. To her left, she saw the closed sign on the door of Cliff’s Carrot Cakes. Now there was no one left to tend to the fireplace inside, allowing the front window to gather a thin skin of ice. Turning away, her eyes travelled to the boarded-up houses and businesses lining the cobbled courtyard. Wooden slats were secured over windows and doorways, dozens of nails sticking out haphazardly.

Every so often, Love caught flickers of light between the wooden beams when a person moved behind them. Collision, a mother of twin sons, Arti and Choke, had locked her family behind the walls of their home. A widower named Rod had closed his metalwork shop and disappeared when he lost his wife, Bee, to an unidentified infection. Taking a deep breath, Love could taste the salty ocean air and the tang of fear lingering along the skin of everyone she passed. Scratching at her arm, she looked up. Love stood before an unlit townhouse. Trudging forward, she pulled the key which hung around her neck and opened the front door. Letting it swing shut behind her, she was greeted by a wave of rotting flesh.

 

 

 

Rinsing her hands at the sink, Love reached for the ragged towel. Atop the tray, she tossed the caramelized lamb with rosemary sprigs and set a chipped limestone jug of water next to the platter. Walking down the dimly lit hallway, she paused before entering her mother’s bedroom. Her hands were trembling, making the contents of the jug slop over the side. She needed to talk to her mother; Arrow and Trip were right. Without knocking, she turned the door handle and entered. Love kept her eyes on the tray, but could hear her mother’s shallow breaths.

‘It’s lamb, your favourite,’ she said, setting the tray on her mother’s lap. Love picked up the jug of water and lifted it to her mother’s lips. Tilting her head back, Love managed to get the water into her mouth without it pouring down her chin, unlike the times before. Setting the water down, she looked at her mother’s sunken cheeks and the purple discolouring under her cloudy, brown eyes.

‘You’re killing yourself,’ she said, moving the tray onto the side table. Her mother continued to stare upwards, her gaze unfocused. But her mouth tightened slightly, Love noticed.

‘Say something. Talk to me.’

The silence was a crushing weight.

Love sprung from her perch on the lumpy mattress and paced the room. Glancing at the corner, she watched a black beetle scuttle under the bed. Love couldn’t even muster disgust at the sight, more revolted by the sickly creature lying on top.

‘I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to help,’ Love began, twisting her hands together. ‘I’ve fed you, bathed you, cared for you. All for nothing? Is that it? You’re happy to waste away? I know death haunts us here, in this paranoid village. It lies on the end of every breath. But I’m haunted by your death every time I shut my eyes. The house is falling apart. I’m falling apart. Because you’re giving up. You’re giving up…’ Love bit her lip, hard. A metallic taste flooded her mouth.

‘You’re my mother,’ her voice cracked, ‘why don’t you love me?’

From the gloom, a scratchy voice spoke.

‘You know why.’

Love looked away.

‘Do you think I’m selfish because I want to be loved?’

‘I think you’re foolish,’ her mother coughed, sputtering. Her unfocused gaze, however, remained fixated on the ceiling.

‘Because being loved is how I’m going to die?’

‘Yes,’ croaked Hollow.

‘You think I have a death wish?’

‘Yes.’

‘I get it from my mother, apparently,’ Love snapped.

Hollow’s face seemed to cave inwards. Her eyes closed, then fluttered open and rested on Love’s face. Love thought they resembled the eyes of funeral goers: pained and resigned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Love bowed her head. Her mother opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried again.

‘Not loving you kills me,’ Hollow said, barely above a whisper. ‘It eats me up inside.’

The quaver in her mother’s tone made something quaver inside Love. She dropped to her knees beside her mother, feeling the confession settle like a weight on her chest. Her mother’s face broke apart, knowing Love had come to the realisation Hollow had known for some time. Tears began spilling down Love’s cheeks and Hollow reached out a trembling hand to wipe them away. It made Love cry harder. She gathered her mother’s hand in both of her own and pressed her lips to it. Love could feel the thin bones pushing against her mother’s cold, rubbery skin. She thought back to Cliff’s Carrot Cakes, cold, abandoned. Love couldn’t help but feel as if her mother had lost her fire too.

Suddenly, the hand she held went limp.

Releasing a shaky breath, she placed the arm across her mother’s stomach, then stood. Her knees wobbled. Looking down, Love saw her mother’s gaunt face and half-open eyes, staring blankly. She backed up until she collided with the wall, flakes of teal raining down on her. Unable to support her weight, she collapsed on the carpet matted with stains.

Love, herself, felt like a stain for existing. For on the bed, her mother lay utterly still. Her chest did not rise, as her heart, devoid of love, could no longer beat.

 

 

 

In a daze, Love raced down the sandstone stairs. The ocean tides at the bottom were flooding the stretch of sand between the staircase and the Calling Caves. Plunging forward, Love waded through the freezing water which climbed to her waist. Hoisting herself free from the seawater, Love stood facing the black mouth of the Calling Caves. Inside, the cave walls were coated with moisture. A ping ping ping of falling water echoed throughout the chamber.

Where are you?’ she screamed, breathless.

‘Where I’ve always been,’ came the reply.

‘Bring her back. You can save her. You have a direct connection to the Fates.’

The Caller didn’t respond.

‘Please, just bring her back.’ A black-robed figure seemed to detach itself from the darkness. Love lurched back a step. The Caller tilted its mouth. The smile looked slightly unhinged. Love shook, her lips turning purple.

‘What’s dead, stays dead,’ said The Caller.

Love squeezed her eyes shut. Behind her eyelids, she saw her mother’s body, still and lifeless. Hollow.

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, stalactites dribbled sticky droplets which froze to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones. Her breath turned to puffs of cloud in front of her.

‘You wish to die,’ The Caller stated. Love shook with silent tears, nodding. A hissing rose from The Caller. Love froze, realising the oracle was laughing. Something cold snaked down her spine. She heaved herself onto her shaking feet.

‘Are you my people’s oracle?’

The figure grinned, shifting into the dark recesses of the Calling Cave.

‘What are you?’ she breathed.

‘Impatient,’ it teased, a clicking reverberating against the cave walls. ‘Want to know a secret, Little Love?’ The voice twisted around the caves, coming from every direction. Love flipped around, certain the creature was behind her.

‘You were never going to die from love.’

Love flinched.

‘It was all for nothing?’ She saw her mother’s motionless body behind her eyelids, pale and cold. ‘You’re lying,’ she spat.

The creature bared its pointed teeth. ‘Insulting a God? Little Love, I could squash you into the Earth where you belong and watch you wriggle like all the other worms. Nothing but insectile, pink flesh rolling in your own filth.’ It hissed, spittle flying from its mouth. ‘But you do secrete tasty treats.’ The creature breathed in deeply, nostrils flaring as its eyelids fluttered closed.

‘Why are you here?’ she panted, her voice trembling. The creature opened its bulbous black eyes and smiled sharply.

‘To call and collect.’

Why?’

Why?’ the guttural voice mimicked, ‘Mmmm. I like to toy with my food, Little Love, before I feast. And your mother was my favourite. Playing with a second generation to manipulate the first. The sweet patience it took. The sweetest reward. There’s nothing more delicious than a sacrifice.’ The creature whetted its pale, flaky lips.

She faced the creature as it loomed closer. Her eyes welled with pain and resignation.

And the Death God welled with satisfaction. It bared needle-like teeth, saliva slipping down its jaw.

Love closed her eyes and let her guilt swallow her whole.

 

 

 

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Misguided, Ben Lawrence

The fire crackled, green logs spitting sap into the small inferno. A man and a woman huddled close to the fire. Their silhouettes danced around them. They sat on the cracked flagstones of a ruined tower. The rest was tumbled out around the hillock, long overgrown with moss and lichen.

The woman wore a circlet of gold on her greying hair. Her face was dominated by a hawk-like nose that kept watch over lips set in a sharp line. She wore studded leather pants, with thick riding boots and a coat of plates that had once been fine, but was now scarred and dull. On her shoulders she wore ornate pauldrons set in the likeness of a lion’s head, the eyes set with precious gemstones.

A snore came from the prone figure on the other side of the fire. She looked at the pile of blankets and creased her brow in a frown.

‘Bard’

‘…’

‘Bard!’

The man jolted awake at the Queen’s bark, grumbling under his breath. He was dressed in a much simpler fashion. Woollen pants, supple hunting boots, a dirty linen shirt and a simple leather vest. His blonde curls sat in a tousled heap on his head, giving him a youthful appearance.

The Queen’s frown deepened,

‘You are addressing Queen Ysabel of White Shore.’

‘Raise the dead with that shoutin,’ you will.’

She bristled at his lack of respect.

‘You would do well never to speak to me like that again.’

‘Aye, and you might do just as well to keep ye voice down… M’lady. No tellin’ who or what lurks in these parts at night.’

He could feel her baleful gaze drilling into him from across the fire, but she didn’t deign to retort. Probably never been told to shut her trap, he thought.

Instead, she rummaged in her pack and drew out a whetstone. Her sword lay next to her on the flagstones and now she inspected it. With a sniff of annoyance she set the stone to the blade and began honing its edge with long, purposeful strokes. The Bard watched from across the fire, the flames highlighting her movements. They were graceful, exact, and deadly, just as they had been in the battle against the Griffon that day. She did not wear the armour or sword simply for show it seemed.

He inspected his own sword. It was a utilitarian tool, solid iron with a wooden handle and a bronze cross piece. There were several nicks along its edge and some rust spots at the base of the blade. He shrugged and placed the weapon on top of his pack alongside his harp. He didn’t feel like sharpening it just now.

The night was deathly silent. No owls hooted, no critters scurried along secret paths, and the rasping sound of stone on steel set his neck and arm hairs standing on end.

‘Why sharpen it?’

‘Because it needs doing,’ she said in between strokes.

He pushed the sound to the back of his mind.

‘Why? The Griffon’s dead, the battle fought and won.’

‘This battle,’ she said, looking up at him. ‘And who are you to question the Queen of White Shore? You were hired to write a song about my victory over the Griffon. Nothing else, understand?’

He was not surprised by the shortness of her reply. He was used to being looked down on by those of higher station. Yes, they would pay him handsomely enough for a song of their brave deeds, but at any mention of a truth that was not their own, he would be discarded. Just another peasant who didn’t know how to respect his betters. What truly shocked him was her coldness.

‘That beast slaughtered a hundred of ye knights today. Their blood is nawt cold and here ye are preparing for the next battle? Why so cold, mistress?’

‘Are all Bards fools? Or just you? I would think that singing songs of great heroes all day would teach you a thing or two. There is always another battle, another war. To not recognise this is to die a fool.’

He shook his head in disbelief, his mind recalling the images of the battle against the Griffon. He saw again how the Queen had ordered her knights to charge the beast, and how the knights were cut down by the Griffon’s foul claws. All the while, she watched, searching for an opening. He saw how she had urged the last of her knights forward to their death, and how she had charged behind them, trampling those who were wounded in order to strike the killing blow.

‘Aye, I sing songs of heroes, mistress. But none so cold as you.’

She regarded him with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow, and if she hadn’t been raised a Queen, she might have chewed her lip.

‘You truly are a fool. All heroes are heartless at some point. That is the part the tales leave out.’ She reached inside her pack and withdrew the trophy she had taken from the Griffons’ corpse. It looked like a feather, but it was about half a metre long and rich gold in colour. The fibres were malleable, but he had witnessed swords shatter against them. As his eyes ran along its sleek surface, he noticed how the colours changed, from gold to bronze to brass, and at the very tip, bright silver.

‘How much do you think this is worth, Bard?’

He thought for a moment, but couldn’t think of a number high enough.

‘I don’t know, mistress.’

‘Exactly,’ she said as she twirled it in her hands, the firelight making it look like liquid gold. ‘It is priceless. It is power, and glory, and riches. And this is just one. When I harvest the rest from the Griffon’s corpse tomorrow, I will become more powerful than all the Kings on this continent. And I will start an Empire the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, my knights died. But they died an honourable death serving their Queen.’ She said this all without taking her eyes off the feather. She seemed to be somewhere else, as if in a daydream.

The Bard didn’t understand.

‘An honourable dead man is still a dead man, mistress. And you’re already a Queen. You’ve a whole kingdom, hundreds of kilometres of land and wealth. Why be an Emperor?’

She tore her gaze away from the feather, although it seemed to pain her to do so.

‘And? Hundreds will become thousands, tens of thousands. I will have it all. And no man will ever dare to question my rule again.’

He was lost for words. Granted he had always wanted a bit more. A few more coins to jingle in his pocket would have been nice. A new harp would be good if he could afford it, and he did want to settle down someday with a plump wife that would give him many sons. But she was a Queen. The idea that she could possibly want for more just did not make any sense to the Bard.

An idea struck him.

‘Do you know the history of this tower?’

‘Of course I do!’ she snapped. ‘It is the seat of the Old Empire.’

‘Right you are, mistress. But do ye know how it came to be nawt but a ruin?’

Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. A grin split his face, revealing crooked teeth.

‘Worry not, mistress, let me tell ye the tale of the great Empire of Abernia, which stretched all the lands to the north and most to the south, all of it ruled from right here in this very castle.’

‘Get on with it, Bard, I assume this tale has a point?’

‘Aye, it does. Now, the Empire was at peace, had been for years. But the King was a vain man. He loved nothing more than to sit on his throne and count his coins. Then, one day, during a feast he held as celebration for the conquest of another nation, a real threat came to his kingdom. Or at least, the news of one. A farmer crashed through the door to the great hall, weak and weary from travel. “Dragon! Great, terrible, fire breathing dragon! A vile creature, evil to the core! Please O’ wise and noble King, send your knights to slay this beast and deliver us from fear,” said he. Naturally, everyone at the feast was shocked by such news, but they were even more shocked by the King’s reaction. “Good man! Thank you for bringing word of this threat to our safety. Sit! Feast! On the morrow, I will lead my knights and slay the creature.”

“O’ Wise King, O’ brave King! God’s praise you! The creature is truly evil. It killed ten farmers with one fell sweep of its claws, and then set the buildings alight with its wicked breath.”

“Fear not, brave fellow, my knights and I will slay the beast, of that you can be assured!”

‘So, that settled, they feasted into the night and when morning came, the King and his knights and the farmer set out to find the dragon.

‘They travelled far to the south where the King’s grip on the land was not as tight. The farms he passed were far dirtier, and far poorer than the pretty ploughed fields outside his castle. “Look at what this beast has done! My poor subjects suffer greatly at the hands of its evil.” His knights agreed, but the farmer was confused. The creature had only attacked his village. These farms had not been affected and to him looked as they always had. But he didn’t say so, far be it for him to question his King.’

‘If only all men were as noble and loyal as this farmer’ remarked the Queen, voice thick with derision.

‘Aye, mistress, if only,’ the Bard replied, knowing full well the comment was aimed at him, and recalling that the Queen’s sword was now very sharp. But he continued anyway, hoping his tale would reach her. ‘When the King and his knights came upon the man’s village, ravaged and savaged as it was, they found the dragon sleeping on a pile of bones. The King ordered the charge and the battle was on. For a day and a night it raged, but finally, the beast was slain. Many brave men died in the battle, including the poor farmer.

‘As proof of his victory, the King brought back a large scale from the beast’s breast, crimson and gold in colour. Now, as I said, he was a vain man and wanted to assert his wealth and power even though he was an Emperor. He flaunted his prize and gloated with glee… And was promptly assassinated by jealous rivals.

‘Without a King, the Empire crumbled, and all because the man who had it all, wanted more.’

‘A fine tale, Bard, you obviously have some skill,’ the Queen said begrudgingly. ‘But it is a tale, nothing more than myth and legend based on an old fool.’

As he had been talking, a red sun had begun to rise. It was still an hour or so until dawn, but the first tendrils of crimson light were filtering in from the east, creeping over their camp.

The Bard’s shoulders sagged. He had failed to have an effect on the Queen. She remained stoically silent as she watched the world awaken to the new day.

Eventually, she spoke.

‘Tell me, Bard, what song have you written of me? How shall my victory over the Griffon be remembered?’

‘I haven’t written anything yet, mistress’ he lied.

‘I have seen you practice at night as we travelled from White Shore, and you have just proved you have some skill in the art. Come, sing it to me. Now.’

With a sigh he relented. He picked up his harp, plucked a few strings and adjusted them. Then, satisfied, he began to play a slow melody.

‘There once was a Queen, greedy and bold,

She went chasing legends of old.

 

For o’er yonder hill from White Shore,

There was a creature who she was sure

If not slain, would be her shame,

So she set out, to gain her fame.

 

Over high mountain and deep river,

She voyaged with barely a shiver.

 

She took a hundred knights to meet their maker,

All in the hopes that she could be greater…’

‘Enough!’ she screamed. ‘Your arrogance knows no bounds. You have insulted me beyond forgiveness this night. As Queen of White Shore, I sentence you to death.’ She rose from her sitting position, sword in hand and advanced. ‘The Lords of White Shore have always been their own headsman. Bow your head so that I may make it a clean death, though you don’t deserve one.’

The Bard scrabbled for his blade, regretting his laziness earlier in the night. She was old but experienced, and he lacked training but was young and fit. He took the guard position he had been taught as a child, feet braced apart, sword raised in front. She swung her sword in lazy arcs as she advanced, the blade whistling as it cut the air.

She feigned left then lashed out with a right-hand cut. He blocked to his left then slashed wildly, forcing her to jump backwards. She immediately stepped forward again, bringing her blade down in a swift overhead motion. He barely managed to get his blade up in time, and the force of the blow made his hand go numb. She was much stronger than he had anticipated.

He lunged forward, but his blade was easily swept aside. Overbalanced, he had no choice but to continue the motion. He knew he couldn’t bring his sword around in time, but neither could she, so he threw his fist into her chin as he careened forward.

She fell hard but instinct saved her. As soon as she hit the ground she was rolling, and his sword struck the stones where moments before her head had been. He advanced on her again and she lashed out with her heavy boots, catching him on the knee. He howled in pain and was forced to moved back, giving her enough time to regain her feet.

They had the measure of each other now and the duel settled into a steady rhythm, the clash and clang of their sword’s echoing through the pre-dawn light, giving a grim feel to the red light of morning.

Her sword sliced into the Bard’s arm, her superior skill giving her the upper hand. He grunted in pain and frustration, blood flowing freely down his arm. She advanced again and he backed away, unable to keep his sword raised. He tripped on the fire as he retreated and the Queen’s boot caught him in the chest as he struggled to maintain his balance. He sailed backwards over the fire, losing his sword as he fell, severely winded. Fighting for breath and in immense pain, he dragged himself across the ground toward the Queen’s pack. She advanced, ready to drive her sword into his exposed back.

He reached the pack and frantically rummaged. The Queen brought her sword down just as he rolled, so instead of skewering him, her sword only cut him superficially, grating as it glanced off his ribs. But he had what he had been searching for in her pack, and he drove the feather into The Queen’s neck. Blood erupted from the fatal wound and poured down the feather onto the Bard’s hand.

Her eyes widened in shock as she fell to the ground, coughing and spluttering. A pool of blood quickly formed as she clawed at her ruined neck, fighting for a breath that would not come.

The Queen of White Shore died with the Griffon’s feather still protruding from her neck, shining crimson and gold in the light of dawn.

 

 

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The Valley, Anna Blackie

Marcus hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. He marvelled at how insignificant it seemed from this height. Turning his focus to what lay above him, Marcus hauled himself through the crack in the sky, the tantalising scent of fresh air luring him out of his comfort zone. Finally, he lurched over the rim of the Valley, scurrying onto a thin ledge and standing shakily, desperately pushing his aching muscles, both terrified and excited by what lay before him.

*

  The air was warm and thick, despite the relentless movement in the Valley. They had long ago realised that fresh air was not easy to come by, all breeze barred by the vast mountains that surrounded the small town. Marcus clung to the tree beside him, his fingernails digging into the soft bark. The ground trembled incessantly, the vibrations growing stronger and stronger with each passing second. Marcus analysed the movement of the earth, careful to note the way the ground folded and creased as the disturbance played out. The earth continued to shudder violently, those who were unprepared sent soaring through the air. He watched as Mr Roy, the baker, flew past him, the stout man bracing himself for the inevitable impact against the Valley wall. As suddenly as they had begun the tremors ended. Marcus’s eyes were drawn to the small crack of light shining through the top of the Valley. He watched closely, waiting for change, some movement, just a flicker of light, anything…   With a deep sigh Marcus released the tree, his fingers unfurling to reveal two large handfuls of dirty bark. He gently released the debris, opening and closing his hands in an attempt to restore the blood-flow.
‘Marcus!’ Mr Roy called from behind him. Marcus turned to watch the small man make his way back up the hill, his white apron askew, and face bright red from the effort.
‘All right there, Mr Roy?’ He called back to the baker.
‘Yes, yes, this isn’t my first disturbance you know.’ Mr Roy chided as he reached him, the bakers ruddy face glistening with a layer of sweat. ‘But you know how these things are, let your guard down for five minutes and you’re soarin’ out your kitchen window!’ Marcus laughed, life in the Valley certainly did have an element of the unexpected.
‘How’s that research of yours coming?’ Mr Roy asked as the two men walked together through the Valley.
‘Oh, you know,’ he mumbled in reply, ‘No breakthroughs yet.’
‘Well you just keep on keeping on, Marcus’ Mr Roy said, his jovial tone before suddenly turning serious, ‘If anyone can crack the code of this place, it’s you.’ With that, Mr Roy gave Marcus a firm clap on the back and made his way back into his bakery.

*

  The origin of The Valley had been speculated over for as long as there had been people inhabiting the tiny enclave. The Church of the Palm spoke of a hand that reached down into the Valley and released life onto the land. The non-believers spouted stories of people falling from the sky, of fish growing legs and emerging from the Valley’s deep, stagnant lake. Children were told tales of men sprouting from the ground, like seeds growing from the soil. Marcus seemed to be the only citizen of the Valley unable to stand the ambiguity; even as a boy he remembered questioning the fables their home was built upon, the myths and folklore not enough to satisfy his thirst for the truth. Although, it wasn’t until the arrival of disc that Marcus fully began to question the Valley, becoming desperate to know what lay outside the only reality he had ever known.

Marcus followed the outer wall of the Valley home from school, his small fingers running against the smooth barrier that surrounded him. He moved with a bounce in his step, a somewhat unexpected side-effect of the spongey Valley floor. As he grew closer to home he caught the sound of voices, the walls surrounding the town making it almost impossible to have a private conversation outdoors without your dirty laundry echoing throughout the town.
‘Do we tell him?’ he heard his father ask apprehensively.
‘Of course we tell him.’ his mother replied, ‘don’t we?’ she added with uncertainty. Marcus stopped and listened to the conversation, sure that his parents were talking about him.
‘This is just the sort of thing he’d obsess over…’
‘Well, we can’t very well hide It.’ his mother declared. Curiosity burned through him, and Marcus began to sprint towards his home, the sprung-floor of the Valley bouncing his tiny body higher and farther than he could have managed alone. He rounded the corner and spotted his house.

The small cottage hugged rocky boundary of the Valley, its walls and roof anchored to the side of the cliff. Marcus followed the sound of voices to the small garden outside. His mother and father stood in the centre of the grassed area, his younger sister Jenny hugging their father’s legs, her small body not even reaching his knee. Marcus was too excited to focus on his family, his attention immediately drawn to the object. It lay in the corner of the back-yard, squishing half of the vegetable garden. The disc was huge, at least three times the size of their house. Marcus approached it slowly, as if afraid the inanimate silver object would rear up and bite him. His family stayed quiet as they watched him inch closer, sensing the fervent excitement that lay beneath his hesitation. He walked slowly around the object, amazed by the vast size, taking its metallic sheen and the massive, stern face chiselled into its surface.
‘What do you think it is?’ he asked his parents who had silent moved to stand behind him. Marcus’s mind was reeling with possibilities of the disc’s origin, each more unlikely than the last.
‘They used to tell us stories about silver discs in school. Myths of these objects falling from the sky and crushing whole houses.’ His father told him quietly, ‘I always thought they were just fairy-tales, scary stories…’
‘Where did it come from?’ Marcus asked as he crouched down to touch the object, caressing its cold, hard surface. ‘How did it get here?’
‘It arrived while you were at school,’ Jenny announced from behind Marcus, making him jump slightly as he had been so involved in the object that he’d forgotten she was there.
‘I was lying in the garden looking up at the sky,’ she gestured to the sliver of light shining through the roof of the Valley, ‘then suddenly it got really bright, and that thing,’ she gestured to the mysterious silver disc, now glistening in the dim light, ‘started to fall towards me. I jumped up and moved, it would have squished me flat if I hadn’t!’ Jenny finished her story, beaming from ear to ear. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, the moment Marcus had been waiting for. Of course it was Jenny who saw it all go down.
‘It came from the sky?’ Marcus repeated, running the words through his head, trying to make sense of the senseless.
‘That’s what I said.’ Jenny replied, clearly miffed at Marcus’s lack of appreciation of her near-death experience. Marcus plunked himself down next to disc, not willing to give his younger sister the satisfaction of appreciating her story. Despite his overwhelming jealousy, Marcus knew he had to find out the origins of the disc.

*

The disappearance of the disc was as surprising as its arrival. Each morning Marcus had ventured out into the garden to perform his daily tests. First he measured it, struggling to reach his tape measure over the diameter of an object so much larger than himself. He often dreamed about the disc growing through the night. He would run into the garden the next morning, disappointed to discover nothing had changed. After he’d taken his measurements he would sketch the object, careful to include every detail. When the disc had first arrived Marcus left gifts of food next to it morning and evening, at least until his father had found out and stopped him, unwilling to waste the food on an inanimate object that had crushed half of their vegetable garden. Unable to provoke a reaction from the disc any other way, Marcus had begun to speak to it. He would tell it his dreams as he performed his tests, then inform it of his day at school in the afternoons. Despite the disc’s obvious inanimate nature, Marcus had become quite fond of the object and the plethora of secrets he imagined it held.

Marcus had fallen behind on his testing schedule on the morning of the disc’s disappearance. He’d been unwilling to enter the conscious realm, his dreams filled with silver objects raining from the sky, the faces etched on the discs filling his ears with stories of the world beyond the Valley. When he finally awoke and made his way outside he was greeted with a sight much more spectacular than that of his dream. An enormous hand emerged through the crack in the sky. The hand was more massive than anything Marcus had ever imagined, thousands of times bigger than the disc. The light emanating from the crack in the sky caught on the hands gargantuan surface, illuminating its full scope while darkening the valley below. Each finger was alarmingly thick, the giant fingernails grubby with dirt. Marcus stole a look at his own hand and marvelled at the similarities, unable to form a coherent thought about what was unfolding before him. A thick wrist covered in dense black hair came into Marcus’s view, lowering the hand closer and closer to the disc. The fingers flexed towards the object, reaching to capture it in its grasp. Marcus scurried to the side of his garden, sketching the scene transpiring before him, a voice in his head screaming to him, telling him this is what he had been waiting for. The hand plucked up the disc, lifting it as if it was no more than a piece of paper. Marcus watched in awe as the hand rose higher. The wrist disappeared through the crack pulling the hand and disc along with it.

Speculation as to the origin of the disc and hand ran rampant throughout the Valley. The Church of the Palm experienced an influx in their patronage, the towns’ people believing that God had finally begun to take an interest in their home, the hope being that this Almighty force may be receptive to the prayers of the people. Those of religious orientation began to pray day and night, waiting for a hand big enough to destroy them to reach down and grant their wishes. Others were less optimistic, believing the hand and the disc were signs of the apocalypse, and thus began to prepare themselves accordingly. However, as the weeks past with no sign of the hand, disc or anything else out of the ordinary (despite the regular tremors, which the people of the town had long since accepted as a fact of everyday life) the people began to forget, and soon questions of the unknown were put aside and people moved on with the mundane flow of life. All, that is, except for Marcus. The appearance of the coin had sparked something within him, a deep, searing curiosity that consumed his every waking moment. For the next five years the coin, the hand and the origin of the Valley were all he thought about.

*

Marcus had worked tirelessly to prepare himself for what lay beyond his home. He had developed strong, muscular shoulders from spelunking and climbing throughout the Valley. He had also grown to match his father’s height. At 16, Marcus was already a head taller than all the citizens of the Valley and showed no signs of a decline in his growth. As he continued to grow, he found his climbing exploits became gradually easier. His length allowed his to reach further and pull himself higher along the enclosed walls of the Valley. One day he found himself further up than he had ever been before. The view was magnificent, Marcus could see the entirety of the Valley stretched out before him, his friends and family ambling along beneath him. From this vantage he could see the overhang of the crack in the sky, like a rock shelf, certainly one that Marcus could hoist himself onto. He had no idea what would be on the other side, but he was sure that it was the key to the mystery of his home.

‘Climb out?’ She repeated incredulously, ‘How do you even know there is an out? For all we know you could get to the top and fall into nothing.’ His parents sat across the table from him; his mother ringing her hands as she spoke, while his father remained stoic and silent, apparently deep in thought.
‘There has to be something more out there, Mum’ he pleaded with her, ‘the hand, the disc, they had to have come from somewhere.’
‘But Marcus-’ she started, struggling explanation to placate her sons curiosities.
‘No Mum, we both know it’s true. There has to be more than this…’
‘He needs to go,’ his father announced.
‘What! How can you support this Jeremy?’
‘If we don’t let him go now he’s just going to find a way to do it eventually anyway, right Marcus?’
‘Yes,’ Marcus answered, avoiding his parents gaze.
‘But if he goes now and we help him prepare, then, maybe, he’ll have a better chance.’ Marcus’s mother listened incredulously, unable to accept the idea of releasing her only son into the unknown.
‘I need to know what’s out there Mum,’ Marcus told her, gripping both her hands in his, ‘If I don’t figure this out it will eat me alive.’ Tears cascaded down her face as she took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.

  *

He hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. Marcus reached out to haul himself through the hole in the sky, his aching muscles screaming in protest as he heaved his long body through the crevice and out into the open air. The sky Marcus saw as he emerged from the crack was more spectacular than he could have dreamed, the light so bright he was forced to cover his eyes. The weak rays of light that had shone down into the Valley were nothing in comparison to the huge, burning ball of bright heat that hovering miraculously on the skyline, causing Marcus’s eyes to water as he peaked at it from behind his hand. Marcus’s vision began to adjust as he took in the breathtaking view before him. He had done it. Finally, gloriously, he had done it.

Eventually he tore his eyes away from the marvel before him and looked back down towards the Valley. He could now see that his home was a deep crevice, carved into the side of what appeared to be a colossal mountain. As Marcus craned his neck backwards to take in the scope of the mountain, a deafening sound ruptured through the silence, followed by a vicious rumbling underfoot. Marcus grabbed hold of the closest ridge and clung for dear life. The disturbance outside the Valley far more violent than he could have anticipated. Around him he saw a flurry of movements. The hand appeared, Marcus watched as a long arm protruded out from behind it. A desperate excitement inside him screaming that the truth was almost known. Marcus could see now that the arm was attached to the mountain. His brain exploded with millions of attempted explanations, struggling to comprehend what he was transpiring around him. Before he had time to digest this breakthrough, he felt the shuddering increase. A sound louder than anything Marcus had ever heard broke through the air around him- a barking cough amplified to the highest extend. The violent tremor of the mountain was unrelenting. Marcus’s grip faltered and he slipped down the ledge, grappling wildly in an attempt to grab hold of the cracked opening of the Valley. Before his hands could make purchase, Marcus was flung from the mountain. Sheer terror flooded through him as he felt himself freefalling away from everything he had ever know and the answers to the mystery which he had devoted his life. As he fell backwards he looked up towards the mountain, his perspective and the shock of his imminent death allowing him to take in the enormity of what stood above him, and process what he saw him with no scepticism or fear.

A huge man, the scale of which beyond anything that Marcus could have possibly imagined stood before him, draped in the mountain that Marcus now realised to be a huge overcoat. Marcus continued to fall, the air pushing past him at a phenomenal speed, but he no longer cared. It was a man, no mountain or Valley, but the biggest man Marcus had or would ever see. A sudden wave of tranquillity washed over him as his minuscule body hurdled to the ground.

 

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