Category: image prompt

(IP) The Great Escape

thestorychaser:

(IP) The Great Escape

Darkness descended upon the land, blanketing it under the cover of dark, swirling storm clouds.

The snow-capped mountains ringed the crumbling stone fortress, a gray stone barrier that protected it and the mines that went down deep into the mountains, built on the backs of the broken and downtrodden. Still, the castle is a buzzing hive of activity, even this close to evening. Servants traveled the halls inside, often in pairs and small groups, heads close together as they whispered to one another; if one looked closely, they’d see dark, red-rimmed eyes, pale faces, bitten lips and torn clothing.

A hooded figure slipped through the crowded hallways, unnoticed, head lowered in deference, heading toward the dungeons. The chaos of the castle is such that no one even gives the figure a sideways glance. That was good; the interloper intended it that way.

She’d come all this way for a reason, and it would not do to stand out. She needed to blend in, though it took everything in her power to stay quiet. The rage inside of her chest burned bright, a flame that would not be doused by anything but vengeance, retribution. If she could, she would burn this building down to the foundations. It had been built on the backs of her people, and many others, people that weren’t rich and privileged and able to hide their darkest secrets: anything to hold their positions. To profit from every immoral thing that they’d ever committed. She had to swallow to prevent her gorge from rising, to hold in the screams of frustration that were building inside of her throat, longing to be loosed. But none of that mattered now; she’d come to free the prisoners that were rotting in the dungeons.

Her priority now had to be to get them out of the castle alive, for fear that the Queen’s Guard would spot them and murder them where they stood. She forced herself to take a deep breath; she had to stay calm. If she slipped up, if she made even the smallest error, it wouldn’t just be her life at risk.

And she hadn’t taken on this mission to lose it. She’d sacrificed everything to become a member of the Resistance; her station, her lover, her family, and almost her sanity. She’d come too far to turn tail and run now.

She found the staircase that led down into the dungeons and quickly but carefully made the descent, the stench of mold and mildew hitting her face like a blow. She put one arm over her face and used her free hand to guide her way down the steps, wincing when her fingers met wet moss. Her eyes streamed; the awful smell of rotting flesh seemed to sink into her cloak, hair, and skin, and she swallowed, resisting the urge to gag.

At last, she reached the bottom floor, and she hurried to the cells, noticing more than one shadow curled up in the eerie light of the torches on the walls, tucked into sconces. She heard someone coughing, hacking as though they were choking, and she approached slowly, looking for a cap of bright red hair.

When she found the right cell, she knelt in front of the door, shoving the key into the lock with trembling hands.

A wasted little girl sat against the stone wall, arms wrapped around her knees. Her fine gown had once been white, but now it was black with sick and other filth. Her face was deathly pale, her eyes bright amber hollows in the dim light, and her long hair was matted and tangled, full of sticks, blood, and leaves. She looked up at the hooded figure, full lips parted.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a friend. We’ll talk later, when I get you out of here, Princess.”

**

Hey, guys! My latest short story, The Great Escape, inspired by an image prompt on Reddit! I hope you like it! Feedback is encouraged and appreciated! Feel free to like and reblog, just make sure you credit me as the original source! I love you all, thanks for your support! <3

(IP) The Great Escape

(IP) The Great Escape

Darkness descended upon the land, blanketing it under the cover of dark, swirling storm clouds.

The snow-capped mountains ringed the crumbling stone fortress, a gray stone barrier that protected it and the mines that went down deep into the mountains, built on the backs of the broken and downtrodden. Still, the castle is a buzzing hive of activity, even this close to evening. Servants traveled the halls inside, often in pairs and small groups, heads close together as they whispered to one another; if one looked closely, they’d see dark, red-rimmed eyes, pale faces, bitten lips and torn clothing.

A hooded figure slipped through the crowded hallways, unnoticed, head lowered in deference, heading toward the dungeons. The chaos of the castle is such that no one even gives the figure a sideways glance. That was good; the interloper intended it that way.

She’d come all this way for a reason, and it would not do to stand out. She needed to blend in, though it took everything in her power to stay quiet. The rage inside of her chest burned bright, a flame that would not be doused by anything but vengeance, retribution. If she could, she would burn this building down to the foundations. It had been built on the backs of her people, and many others, people that weren’t rich and privileged and able to hide their darkest secrets: anything to hold their positions. To profit from every immoral thing that they’d ever committed. She had to swallow to prevent her gorge from rising, to hold in the screams of frustration that were building inside of her throat, longing to be loosed. But none of that mattered now; she’d come to free the prisoners that were rotting in the dungeons.

Her priority now had to be to get them out of the castle alive, for fear that the Queen’s Guard would spot them and murder them where they stood. She forced herself to take a deep breath; she had to stay calm. If she slipped up, if she made even the smallest error, it wouldn’t just be her life at risk.

And she hadn’t taken on this mission to lose it. She’d sacrificed everything to become a member of the Resistance; her station, her lover, her family, and almost her sanity. She’d come too far to turn tail and run now.

She found the staircase that led down into the dungeons and quickly but carefully made the descent, the stench of mold and mildew hitting her face like a blow. She put one arm over her face and used her free hand to guide her way down the steps, wincing when her fingers met wet moss. Her eyes streamed; the awful smell of rotting flesh seemed to sink into her cloak, hair, and skin, and she swallowed, resisting the urge to gag.

At last, she reached the bottom floor, and she hurried to the cells, noticing more than one shadow curled up in the eerie light of the torches on the walls, tucked into sconces. She heard someone coughing, hacking as though they were choking, and she approached slowly, looking for a cap of bright red hair.

When she found the right cell, she knelt in front of the door, shoving the key into the lock with trembling hands.

A wasted little girl sat against the stone wall, arms wrapped around her knees. Her fine gown had once been white, but now it was black with sick and other filth. Her face was deathly pale, her eyes bright amber hollows in the dim light, and her long hair was matted and tangled, full of sticks, blood, and leaves. She looked up at the hooded figure, full lips parted.

“Who are you?”

"I’m a friend. We’ll talk later, when I get you out of here, Princess.”

**

(IP) Ocean Voices

thestorychaser:

Somewhere along the line, she had somehow gotten lost. Maybe she’d gotten caught by a current and pushed in the wrong direction. She put down the oar, holding it across her lap, looking around, trying to see if anything looked familiar. Nothing.

Her heart began to pound in her chest, and the oar she was holding became slick with sweat. How was she going to find her way back to the beach? She had nothing with her except a few bottles of water, some snacks, and a bottle of sunscreen.

And then she spied the dark shapes moving in and out, under her boat. She clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle a shriek of panic and fear. Her vision spotted, and soon every breath that she took in was a labor, her chest seemingly wrapped in tight iron bands that made breathing all but impossible.

Okay, okay, she thought to herself. Don’t let your panic get the best of you. She took a few deep breaths, and after a few moments, her vision cleared. She gathered her wits and looked ahead; she had to get to land, and then she would focus on what to do next. She put the oar back into the water and began to row, trying to ignore the way that the sun was beginning to set, and the way her arms screamed in protest at the movement.

She never should’ve stormed off after they’d fought. But she hadn’t been thinking clearly, too blinded by the need to get away, her throat still hurting from crying and screaming. She had no idea just how long she’d been out here, and she wiped a hand across her face, crusted with sand and sweat. She needed to go back, to make things right, but the bitterness that built up in her throat prevented it; she just wanted to find her way home and go to sleep.

“I think she’s lost,” A voice murmured from behind her, soft, hesitant. “Should we help her?”

“You know the rules. We aren’t supposed to interfere, not for any reason. Besides, she’s a human,” Another voice responded, aloof and gruff. “And it wouldn’t matter anyway; one less of them to worry about.”

“How could you be so callous? She’s been out here for hours.”

“We’re only supposed to watch, and you know it! Besides, this wouldn’t be the first time someone invaded our home.”

“I’d hardly say that she’s invading. You can stay here, but I’m going to help her–”

Thalia wondered if she was hallucinating, if she’d been out on the waves so long that she was beginning to lose her mind from lack of sleep. Where were those voices coming from? They were muffled, as if they were creatures speaking from underwater.

But that was impossible. Wasn’t it?

There was the flowing of water, and then a sleek black head popped up, coming to the side of the tiny skiff. “I can help you get back home.”

The speaker was male, and Thalia saw through the clear blue water that though he was human on his top half, with sun-drenched skin, tattoos, and brown eyes so dark they looked nearly black, his lower one ended in a sleek black seal tail.

“Who are you?” Thalia asked, and the creature smiled at her, speaking in a language that she did not understand.

“Let’s get you to shore and then we’ll talk. Deal?”

“Deal.”

**

Hey, guys! My latest short story, courtesy of an image prompt on Reddit! As always, feedback is encouraged and appreciated! I hope you enjoy it! Thank you so much for your support, I love you all! <3 <3 <3

(IP) Storms and Stories

The storm was here at last. He stood on the shore, eyes on the sky, which was darkening with every passing moment.

The ocean had always been a source of comfort throughout his life; it been one of his only constants, so until now, it simply hadn’t occurred to him to be afraid of it.

The adults had been talking about the incoming disaster for days, stockpiling provisions, for the sea was far too treacherous to navigate now, with the storm so close. He’d wanted to leave, to pack up the family and sail away, ahead of it, but his parents and big sister wouldn’t hear of it, saying that it was too dangerous, even for people like them.

He knew that he should leave, should return to the hut and help prepare, but something compelled him to stay, watching the violent waves turn the water into a dark bubbling soup, his feet buried in the damp sand.

“Kai!” A voice called from behind, and he turned toward it; a young woman was racing toward him, arms pumping at her sides, her dark curls flying behind her like a black flag, gleaming even in the darkness. “What are you doing?” She asked when she skidded to a stop beside him. “Shouldn’t you be helping your family with preparations?”

“I just wanted to see if it was all true this time, or if the adults just were overreacting,” He answered, shrugging, eyes drawn against his will to the blood-red tattoos that adorned her arms, clavicle, and neck that marked her as a daughter of one of the Elders. He pointed to the clouds, thick and black and ominous. “Looks like it’s actually happening this time.”

She nodded, taking a band of thin rope and winding it around her hair, tucking it all into a bun at the nape of her neck.

“Your mother and uncle have been looking for you. I figured I’d find you out here.”

“What makes this storm any different, Kalani?” He asked his friend, reaching for her hand instinctively. “Aren’t they an occupational hazard on an island like this one?”

She squeezed his hand lightly. “You know the story, Kai. One day a storm will come and send the ocean into a frenzy, and it will devour the island. You know, like that story of the land of… At.. Atlan… I can’t remember.”

“Atlantis?” He asked, and she nodded, her eyes on the horizon, biting her lip worriedly.

“But it’s just a story, isn’t it? Like all of our tales and myths? Surely they aren’t all true.”

“The adults of our tribe seem to think differently,” Kalani replied, shrugging her slim shoulders. “Come on, your parents are worried about you, and besides, it’s almost dinnertime.”

As if in reply, Kai’s stomach grumbled angrily, and he reluctantly turned away from the ocean, and the pair began the long trek back to the village.

**

The hut glowed with weak, golden lantern light, and Kai’s mother came to the door, hands on her hips.

“And just where have you been, son?” She asked, sparing a smile of thanks for his childhood friend. “The storm is nearly here, and you’re out wandering! You should be ashamed!”

“I’m sorry, Mother. I just… I wanted to see if the rumors were true this time. There have been false alarms before, after all.”

“Why would the Elders lie to us? The gods give them their powers for a reason. Now, come inside and have some dinner. She looked at Kalani. "Would you like to stay for dinner, dear? Fish stew and taro mash. We’ve got plenty, and you’re looking awfully peaky.”

“No, thank you, ma’am, my parents are expecting me. Have a nice night!” She smiled at Kai and waved, then disappeared, walking back to her own hut further down the street.

Kai walked inside, his stomach grumbling angrily as he caught the scent of garlic, ginger, and chili.

“I didn’t mean to worry you, Mother. I’m sorry.”

“Your mind is always elsewhere,” His mother replied; though the words were sharp, her voice was soft, exasperated. “Ever since your father died, your feet have led you back to the ocean, never mind that is one of the most powerful forces in this world. I don’t want to lose you.”

“I know, Mother,” He said, washing his hands and sitting at the table. As usual, there were three seats, and three bowls, though it had been years since his father’s passing; his mother just couldn’t bear to clear away his seat at the head of the table. Kai knew how she felt; he missed his father too, and it had been the ocean that had taken him, on a routine trip out on the waves to bring back fish and other seafood back to the village, some to sell, and some of it to feed them.

And still he couldn’t bring himself to be afraid of it, to not love it, even after seeing all the destruction it had wrought, upon the island and his own family. It was as much a part of him as the sun, the moon, and their children, the stars, and the bright blue blanket that was the sky.

He just couldn’t bring himself to listen to the Elders’ warnings, even though he knew they meant well. He didn’t want to leave, either, even on pain of death.

This was the only home he’d ever known.

** 

(IP) Dark Whispers

(IP) Dark Whispers

It had been more of an accident than anything, a lark, a joke, a playful test of sorts. He’d never believed. He’d never had reason to, because he’d been chosen by the gods. But his parents and siblings were gone, and he didn’t think that a harmless stroll through the barred-off sections of the library would get him into too much trouble.

Clearly, he’d been wrong, as evidenced by the skeletal bird-woman with cold, clawed hands on his shoulders. He could feel her cold, rotten breath ghosting on his neck, and it took every ounce of his self-control not to shudder away from her.

“Is it true, that I’ve been summoned by one of the royal children?” She asked, her golden eyes alight with malice. Her nostrils flared delicately, mouth open slightly, as if she were tasting the air. “What a delicious development! And what, pray tell, has a human summoned me for? Broken me out of my prison for?”

It had been curiosity; he’d heard the legends his whole life, but he’d dismissed them as ancient history, mere wives tales. But here this monster was, standing before him in the flesh, waiting for an answer, head tilted to the side like a wildcat’s. Her stare traveled from his face down his bare torso, and she licked her lips with a long, pink tongue. Revulsion caused his gorge to rise in his throat, but his face was impassive, showing no emotion.

“Curiosity,” The prince answered quietly, shrugging his shoulders as though she were nothing of consequence to him at all. Being royal meant that playacting of any kind was as easy as breathing, and he knew instinctively that if he revealed any kind of weakness at all, she would latch on and not let go, not without a fight. “I tend not to believe in the stories that my family tells.”

The bird-woman laughed, a hacking rasp that echoed in the large room. “Is that all? Mere boredom made you break the ancient laws and free me? You may be quite the handsome specimen, little prince, but you aren’t the brightest, are you?”

“Hold your tongue!” The prince snarled, taking out two of the golden spikes that held his dark hair in place, and he held one to her throat, the other to her barbed tail. “I am a prince and I will receive the respect my station deserves, or I will make you pay in blood before imprisoning you once again!”

The bird-woman smirked, her plum-colored lips peeling away from her mouth to reveal tiny, sharp pointed fangs. “Oooh, and you’ve got spunk, too. Very well. I apologize.” She said, inclining her head regally.

The prince was unnerved; he’d heard stories of these monsters, and their Harpy Queen, all of his life, but this one was entirely too human for his taste. He hadn’t been prepared for this at all, and he found himself cursing his mistake. And he was alone and practically unarmed.

How could he have been so foolish? He was far too old for such pranks and tomfoolery. But it was too late; he’d broken the seal, the binding spell that kept her caged inside of that glass case in his father’s curio cabinet.

But there had been no way of knowing whether it had been real or false, before now: He was the youngest of all of his brothers and sisters, he thought with contempt. He wasn’t privy to the knowledge that his parents and siblings so coveted and treasured. After all, he’d been a spare. A mistake, at best. Even on some off chance that he somehow ended up on the throne, no one wanted him there. No one trusted him, not with anything that actually mattered.

 A lump built up in his throat, and he swallowed it down, willing his emotions not to show on his face, or she would pounce. And he wouldn’t be the first, or last person, that she’d fooled. She was notorious for her lies and guile. He had to be on his guard, no matter how he actually felt.

“I sense that your heart is heavy with doubt, your mind buzzing with questions. Perhaps I could help you? Direct you to answers?”

“Be silent,” The prince said through gritted teeth, his cheeks flushed with his mistake. “Or do you wish to return to your prison? The only person that The Harpy Queen helps is herself and your children.”

“As far as you know. You know so little, ignorant prince. Some people hide the darker parts of history so they don’t have to realize their own mistakes. I wouldn’t be so certain that I am the villain in this tale.”

** 

(IP) Shadow of the Moon Goddess

The hills opposite the lake glowed, outlined in golden sunlight, lush with crops, lending the background with a gentle, pastoral kind of beauty.

But all of that paled next to the gigantic woman that stood in the dark, murky depths of the lake, drenched to the waist. Her pale, delicate hands hovered around a moss-covered bell tower that had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Her feminine features were half hidden by the shadows that emerged from the grotto opposite her, and she opened her eyes, letting out a sigh so great that it gusted along the water’s surface, creating miniature waterspouts.

But the most surprising thing about this being was her armor. It looked be ancient, the material dark with age in some spots, others were practically pristine, white and strong; it looked like someone had taken moonlight and forged it into powerful protection for this woman. Forbidding, beautiful, and near-silent, she raised her head and looked around. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust, until she found the cloaked man in the boat, his voice so soft in the cave that even her sharp ears had trouble picking it up at first. She couldn’t even understand him; he was speaking the language of the mountain peoples, something that she hadn’t been fluent in since leaving this plane more than a thousand years ago.

**

He’d journeyed for more than a month to come to this spot. It had taken more than his fair share of blood, sweat, and tears to get here. Years of reading, translating, and chasing what most of his tribe called fairy tales, old wives’ stories, myths and folklore that everyone no longer believed in. The old traditions had long since fallen out of fashion, though he was the son of the chieftains, entrusted with their peoples’ stories, rituals, and traditions.

When he’d heard the story of the Moon Goddess, Chandra, and her ability to grant someone’s heart’s desire, he’d been skeptical at best. The gods and goddesses were most certainly real; he’d grown up hearing all of the stories. But he didn’t know if the stories that they were told were real, or if they were just clever metaphors for processes that happened through nature.

And then his bride, tall and lithe with sun-kissed skin, had taken ill and died suddenly, of causes that he still didn’t know of, not for sure.

Driven by desperation, he’d sought out Chandra to beg her for answers, and perhaps something even better: His bride returned to him from the Underworld, as fresh and new as a budding lotus. And even if she didn’t grant his request, what was the harm in asking?

“O Moon Goddess, Chandra, Keeper of the Night and the Stars, I humbly ask that you grant me answers. The ancient stories tell of your benevolence and generosity. My bride died a mere week after we were married, and I’m not sure what caused it. I have searched for many long months for you, and I am humbled to be standing before a goddess of such might and power.”

The Moon Goddess, for her part, gazed down at him, and she lowered herself so that she was kneeling in front of him, her brow furrowed. She couldn’t understand this man, but she couldn’t doubt the sincerity of his request. She merely nodded, the motion slow and sure.

**

(IP) A Bit Lonely

The town of Stony Ridge had long since gone down in the books of history as a lost cause; calling it a ghost town was being generous.

No one really knew exactly what happened to the town; the exodus from it was just as mysterious and mythical as the city itself. Some said it was a plague, a sickness spreading like wildfire, and whoever survived had fled, eager to start a new chapter in another place. Others said that a civil war of sorts had broken out, clans breaking down in the middle like weakened tree branches, brothers turning on sisters, fathers on sons, leaving nothing but blood in its wake. There were as many stories and myths as there were people, and it was near impossible to discern fact from fiction.

Everyone knew that the desert was unforgiving, harsh and controlled by nature rather than man. But that hadn’t stopped people from migrating, often with their families in tow. Desperate to eke out a living, with or without the government’s aid, the town had grown bit by bit, a quiet, lonely refuge from the sand and sun, making money here and there from travelers passing through.

There had been a fragile, tenuous peace, when the O’Malley family came to Stony Ridge; they were easily the richest folks in town, and they could afford to live on the hill outside of town, ringed with green, prickly succulents that grew higher with each passing day; it was almost as if they were protecting the newcomers from the rabble that lived below. They were just and fair, and they were kind, even though they went out of their way to separate themselves from the other townspeople.

And then one of the other clans, a son that had convinced his family that the O’Malleys were sporting to take over, to wipe out everyone that had been there before, and pad their own pockets with money made from bringing their own family members and friends from far away.

 Though there was no real proof, everyone knows that in a small town, gossip, even at its most harmless, is nothing less than potent poison.

By the time the rumor had reached the townspeople that hadn’t been swayed by the man’s words, it was too late; the cottage was in flames, casting a rainbow of warm colors down the hill. By the time someone had made the climb, all that remained of the O’Malleys was the ring of cacti, and the bodies of the family lay twisted and mangled, torched beyond identification.

The exodus began after the murders; no one wanted to stay and see the wicked family that had killed the O’Malleys ascend to the throne on the hill, having paid their way to it in blood and suffering. A couple here, a family there, and soon all that remained was the family that had taken over in a violent coup, and their descendants.

And then the desert had claimed all of them as well.

** 

(IP) The Noble Attempt

(IP) The Noble Attempt

When the dragon laughed, it was like the flames of a forest fire, deep and smoky, but dark with warning.

“Did you truly think that you could defeat me? My kind was here before you human weaklings were a twinkling in the universe’s eye. Though I will admit that it’s awfully valiant of you to attempt killing me. What’s the point? I have blood on my claws, that’s true. But I was merely defending my territory. My possessions.”

It stalked forward, laughing at the knight who knelt in the cold, barren earth, one hand twisted around the hilt of his blade, the other holding him up, but just barely. Blood spotted the gray ground that smelled of fire, ashes, and carrion, leaking from him in violent crimson spurts. The pain was such that he was near blind with it, and he didn’t know if he could attempt attacking again.

The cowardly part of him demanded that he back away, that he turn back and go home while most of him was intact. But he wasn’t a coward. He was the oldest son of the kingdom’s most legendary general, and turning away from his duty wasn’t an option. His honor would simply not allow it. He struggled to stand back up, using his sword as best he could.

“If you give up now, I will let you return to whatever hole you crawled out of, you human worm,” The creature crooned, its fiery eyes sparking. The knight was reminded of a cobra; he almost couldn’t see the monster’s pupils, the fire inside of its eyes was so great. He felt as though he were caught in a trap, and the only way to free himself would be to sacrifice something.

Anything for a distraction.

His old childhood fear, not of the dark, nor the ocean, or heights, or strangers stealing into the castle late at night to slay them all, reared its ugly head, and it only amplified when the dragon came face to face with him, twisting its head on its long, scaly neck to get so close.

 "There is no need to sacrifice yourself for that corrupt kingdom of yours, whoever you are.“ Its voice was oddly tender, and immediately the knight didn’t trust it. Monsters were known to lie, to say anything to sway a gullible human over to its side. "What would be the point? You deserve to return to your people.”

“You’re just saying that so I won’t try to hurt you again!” The knight snarled in reply, spitting at the massive dragon’s clawed feet. “You don’t know anything about me and mine!”

“You also wouldn’t be the first human that has attempted to best me.” The beast said, sounding almost exasperated. “And you’re injured. Are you certain that you wish to finish this quest?”

“Why are you trying to talk me out of it?” The knight asked, discombobulated by the fact that this bloodthirsty, vicious thing was taking pity on him, trying to send him home.

If he went home without slaying this thing, he would face the wrath of his family, especially his father, as well as the Crown. How could he turn back now? It had taken him days to get here, and it would be an even longer journey back.

“I don’t understand,” He added, his teeth chattering violently. Exactly how much blood had he lost in their first skirmish? His heart was still beating, but more slowly than he’d ever experienced, and his eyes fluttered. Just speaking those three words was too much.

“As I said, I don’t enjoy killing, you foolish human.” The dragon sounded tired, even while it showed off dozens of rows of sharp white teeth. “Especially not a human who seems to be so burdened.”

“So you’re taking pity on me, are you, you big ugly brute? I don’t know whether to thank you or scream in frustration.”

“Would it better, human, if I simply put you out of your misery instead? That way, you wouldn’t have to return home shamed because of what you couldn’t do.”

The knight looked up at the dragon and removed his helmet. Then he nodded, and said very slowly and clearly, “Yes.”

**

(IP) The Witching Woods

(IP) The Witching Woods

He’d heard stories his entire life about these woods. They’d held a dangerous sort of allure for him, full of secrets and the one of the biggest plot points in every story he’d spent his childhood hearing. The elders had begged all of the children to exercise caution, for the trees hid creatures of every sort, legends given life. Now that he was of age, his desire for exploration brought him here, to the edge of the woods, to discover just what mysteries lie inside of them.

To say that he wasn’t afraid was a lie; anyone with sense the gods gave them knew to be careful, for in the days that the village had been established the body count had begun to climb, bloodied corpses found scattered throughout the forest, some so mangled that they were well beyond identification. Of course, it was necessary to brave the forests for food, water from the river that cut a gleaming line throughout, and wood to fuel their cooking fires. But they’d always remained respectful, for those forests had been before them, and would surely remain afterwards.

Shaking himself out of his thoughts, he shouldered his pack, stuffed with food, a canteen, blankets, several knives, a bow and arrows, a warm cloak to battle the autumn chill, flint and firewood. He’d packed only the essentials, the sole exception being a book of lore that had been passed down to him by his older sisters before they’d married and went their own ways, to start families and livings of their own.

As he walked into the woods, thoughts of the past lingering in his wake, he was greeted by quiet birdsong, and the wind caressed his face, as if in welcome, in greeting. He smiled, lifting his head to the sky, and he spread his arms wide, as if to encompass the forest who’d fueled his imagination all his life in an answering embrace. “Hello,” He said quietly to it all, eyes on the sky.

There was so much life around him, so much to take in, and he wished that he could grasp the feeling inside of him, this soaring exaltation that made his heart feel like it was lodged somewhere in his throat.

Seized by a rush of restless energy, he began to run, the sack of supplies bouncing against his back; the beaten brown earth of the path dipped suddenly, and he lost his footing; he skidded to a stop at the base of the slope, and landed on the ground so hard that he lost his breath. He coughed heavily, hoping that he hadn’t lost any of his supplies.

When his vision stopped swimming, he sat up, holding his head in his hands. He stood up, and nearly fell again; the ground was wet, moist, and he followed it, the sound of water flowing spurring him forward. It might be a good place to make camp, near the water source.

After he walked for a while, he found the river, and he knelt before it, examining his reflection for injuries. Luckily, he’d gotten away with a purple bruise that was blooming above his left brow. Part of him wanted to set up his campsite, but the more rebellious part wanted to explore; it was late afternoon, and it would still be a while before sunset.

Hadn’t he spent his whole life wanting to see what secrets these trees held within them?

With that in mind, he opened his pack and removed a ripe pear from it, taking a bite out of it, juice running down his chin, and he started off, in the eastern direction. He felt like his ears couldn’t properly hold all the sound that was taking place around him: birdsong, animal shrieks, some of the dying and the living, the river gurgling merrily in the background, the angry scolding of squirrels and chipmunks, the vicious, indignant barking of a fox, and the bellowing of deer and elk that he couldn’t see for all the cover provided by the trees.

He understood being afraid, being respectful, but this place felt more like home than the tiny village he’d departed from. He felt as though he belonged, and he couldn’t shake it. 

Something just felt… right.

He spent the last of the afternoon exploring, fortifying himself with fall fruit, dark bread and seeds, and the last of a miniature cask of wine in his pack. When the sun began to set, he returned to the riverbed, putting up his tent of canvas a few feet away. Thanks to all the trees, he was mostly hidden, and hopefully no predators would visit him in the middle of the night. He was mostly full from his earlier meal; it had been quite a walk to get to the forest.He didn’t set a fire; the autumn night was cool, but not enough that he was uncomfortable. He went into his tent and covered himself with the blanket, soothed by the sounds of the world around him. He might not have had any dwelling established yet, but he felt safer than he ever had.

**

He was awoken in the middle of the night by a loud crash; he bolted up from his bedroll, the fog of sleep still sitting heavy over his mind.

He hadn’t even set up a fire; what animal would have come into his camp in the first place? He stood up and approached the canvas walls of the tent, momentarily blinded by the silver, liquid moonlight that streamed through them. He strained his ears, fighting to hear just what had entered his campsite.

When his vision cleared finally,  he could make out six shadows, all of different sizes. One was the size of a bear, and seemed to speak in low, plaintive grunts, and there were two tiny ones that seemed to float above the ground; he could just barely make out shadows in the form of tiny, flapping wings, and there was one that was roughly the size of a human child, reaching out for something, though he couldn’t say what it wanted. What they wanted.

The last two of the group were the size of two men, stretching tall in the moonlight, and they spoke in a language that he didn’t recognize.

“Bring the intruder. We need to have a word with him,” One of the voices said; it was the dry, hoarse rasp of stones scraping against one another, destined to create a spark.

**

(IP) The Crumbling Temple

(IP) The Crumbling Temple

The explorer held his companion close to his side, his arm wrapped around him, wincing as he felt the lad’s wound begin to reopen, trying to move as quickly as he could while the stairs began to disintegrate. Blood dripped between his outspread fingers, warm and thick, and the panic he’d managed to shove into the back of his mind ripped through him, in bright, suffocating crimson waves.

He had to save him. He would never forgive himself if he wasn’t able to. The boy had begged to accompany him, for weeks, before he’d given his consent. And now, all he could feel was panic and the iron tang of bitterness and regret.

“Hold on, I’ll get us to the temple. Just try to hold on; we’ll get help and you’ll be fine!” His voice sounded bright and too cheery to his own ears, and he winced. “You’re gonna be fine, I promise you, kid. Just don’t… Don’t die on me, not now.” Not when they’d come so far.

 He could barely hear himself, let alone his companion’s response, over the vicious, endless howl of the wind. He was blinded by the grit and stone that was flying through the air, and he growled. He had to get to the temple, even if he had to drag himself up those steps with the boy in tow. He’d been the one to set this in motion, and he would be the one to fix it.

He was certain that if he didn’t, his spirit would not be able to rest after he passed into the next world. He didn’t have many fears, but that was one of them, the product of his mother and sisters telling tales from the time he was young.

He had to right his wrongs, or he would pay for it when it was time to make peace with his death. That thought alone was nearly enough to bring him to his knees.

But then the boy coughed, splattering spots of dark blood on the stone steps.

“We need to hurry, child. I know it hurts, but we have to make it to the temple before it crumbles and is given up to the portal entirely. Strength and honor, my friend. Stay with me, now.” His voice was soft, and he doubted the boy could understand him, but the words lit a fire in his heart.

He would make it to the temple, or die in the attempt.

He cast a worried glance at the boy, and he gulped. His face was white, his bright green eyes the only spot of color in his face, his clothes torn nearly to shreds, and that damned gash still spurting blood, despite his attempts to staunch the wound. He was wracked by a coughing fit again, but he began to walk, and the pair mounted the steps.

Just a little farther…

The wind whipped his hair out of its leather thong and it spun in thick, bright strands around his face. Gathering the last of his strength, he swung the boy over his shoulder, carrying him into the cold stone temple like a sack of grain, heedless of the blood dribbling down the back of him. That didn’t matter; he had to invoke the power of the gods and stop this destruction.

If anyone deserved to die for this, it was him, and not this boy, this child, who’d yet to live. The guilt was enough to make him gag, adding to the panicked stranglehold building around his throat.

The quiet of the temple after the roaring of the storm was deafening, so much so that his ears were ringing. He could hardly see in front of him, it was so very dark, but he could just barely make out the shape of an altar at the center of the room, and he carried the boy over to it, his hands shaking so badly he could barely hold him.

They’d made it to the temple. Now he needed to try and speak to the gods.

But why, after all of these years of silence, would they speak to him now? The thought sickened him. But he had to try. For the boy, for his family, for the last scrap of honor he had left.

He took his pack off of his hip, trying to wince when the boy began to wheeze, hacking for air as if he were close to his last breaths. The explorer dug through his pack, trying to find flint and a candle. He had to hurry.

At last, he found a thick stub of a candle, the wick almost entirely spent. It was good enough for now, though. He struck the flint against the stone until it sparked and flamed, and he lit the candle. Placing it in a nearby sconce, he lifted the boy and lay his body on the altar.

“Please… I have nothing to offer you, but I humbly ask that you fix this, that you close the portal and spare this boy’s life. I’ve made mistakes, and he doesn’t deserve to die for my sins. Please.”

There was a bright light, blooming slowly like the petals of a flower, and he covered his eyes, blinded.

**