Category: image prompt

(IP) The Druid’s Deed

(IP) The Druid’s Deed

               He’d been searching for this creature since he’d first heard the legend as a child.

               The villagers were terrified, but he could sense the being’s thoughts: it was confused, afraid, desperate to find a home of its own.

               The druid had just barely managed to stop the townspeople from slaughtering the gentle giant.

               Even now, they clamored into the clearing, their footsteps and shouting echoing like thunder.

               “Kill the beast! Look at how big it is! It will destroy the village, take our children for its dinner!” One man shouted, brandishing a pitchfork.

               “It will take us all!” A woman cried passionately, holding her babe close to her breast.

               The druid frowned silently, then turned away from the beast, standing in front of it, trying his best to hide it from the hysterical villagers’ gaze.

               “Enough,” He murmured quietly.

               He waved a hand, and the forest quieted, as though a thick blanket had muffled all sound. In reality, he’d cast a spell to silence them.

               “Have you all gone mad?” The druid said, swallowing around a lump that was forming in his throat. “This is naught but a nature spirit, a guardian of the forest.”

               Perhaps it wasn’t entirely their fault; he knew that few people were privy to auras, energies, and things that weren’t precisely human. But it still didn’t excuse the senseless violence.

               Lips were moving, people were clutching their throats, staring at the druid indignantly for taking away the power of their speech. But he had long stopped caring.

               “The reason that she attacked you was because you murdered her children.”

               The dark, ominous proclamation dropped on the villagers like stones in a still pond.

               The druid’s hand swept the clearing again, and one by one, the villagers again found their voices.

               “Its children? What do you mean?” Someone asked, a young woman who had pushed her way to the front of the crowd.

               “The trees,” The druid snapped, his patience leaving him for the first time. “You have been taking the trees. To build houses, to stoke your fires, to make roads for your horses and carriages.

They might just be resources to you, but to this spirit, they were her children. Her family. And you hold her at fault for attacking you? What else would you have her do?”

This was one of the reasons he’d become a druid in the first place; to harness magic, yes, but also for the coveted ability to speak to nature.

Everything had a voice; one only had to be open to the idea in order to hear it.

“Would you not all do the same to protect your own kin?”

It began slowly: axes, pitchforks, knives, bows and arrows, all were lowered.

Several people even began to weep, for they now understood the ‘monster’s’ plight.

The nature guardian pressed its head to the druid’s palm, grunting softly, its heaving breaths fogging in the cool autumn afternoon.

“Soon it will be winter,” He murmured softly, stroking its cheek with gentle, calloused fingers. “And you and your children will be able to relax and regrow when spring comes again.”

**

(IP) The Door to Power

(IP) The Door to Power

               The forest hummed with the soft, dry whispers of the dead, breaking the silence of the misty, frozen night.

               Dozens of pairs of glowing eyes stared out at her, full of silent menace, daring her to enter their domain. She could feel their censure, as well as the magic that seeped like sap out into the air. She could taste it on her tongue: floral and sharp, with a bite that promised resolution as well as pain.

               She’d come this far. What was an army of spirits, compared to what had preceded it? Her hope buoyed her, despite looking darkness in the face. She would make it to the door; she had no intention of surrendering, not when she was so close. The cold slipped into her joints, making her stiff and clumsy. She was from warmer climes, but it made sense that the door to the Underworld would be in the frigid north region, fringed by jagged mountains.

               A few feet away, her mount, a gigantic, muscular moose with a noble crown of antlers, breathed raggedly, bright eyes on the woods and its occupants opposite. Its pants were urgent, but it seemed to be waiting for a signal from its comrade.

               “We have to do this, friend. I thank you for being my companion on this quest.” The warrior spoke for the first time, all too aware of the ice crunching in her hair, the snowflakes melting on her cheeks like a goddess’s tears.

She unsheathed the dagger at her waist and stepped forward, eyes on the gap that led into the trees. The moose followed, its footsteps across the frozen river cracking like rapid drumbeats. For all of its girth, it was light on its feet, and was soon bringing up the rear, ears flicked back in wariness.

               “I can feel the magic now,” She whispered, trying to ignore the restless sound of countless creatures writhing in the dark woods. “We’ll be there soon.” Though not without resistance, she mused to herself, lips drawing downward in a frown of consternation.

               But she’d expected no less. What was the point of a quest without obstacles? And this was bigger than her, anyway. She had a duty to her people, and she would not fail. She would sooner give herself to the ice and snows before she returned home emptyhanded.

               But another voice lingered in the back of her mind, oily and insistent. What did the homeland want with this power, after all? She was the emissary, the chosen one, the one who’d given up everything to retrieve this power.

Why shouldn’t she take it for herself?

As if summoned by her dark, selfish thoughts, the eyes began to grow, bodies melting into the moonlight, dark, rippling hides and sinuous movements. The Guardians of the door were on the move, ready to keep her from one of the greatest powers in their land.

Perhaps they did not judge her worthy, but that mattered not. She’d made her choice, and it was to crown herself ruler of all, to hoard the source of this delicious, dark power all to herself.

**

(IP) The Deal

(IP) The Deal

               The tiny cottage stood in the long, dark shadow of the mountains, with a small copse of trees to the right of it. An indigo plume of smoke puffed into the cold wind, one of the only signs of life.

               The day was gray and rainy, but that did not deter the person living there. It marched out of the dwelling, whistling a low but merry tune, quiet but cheerful. The figure was hooded, its face hidden, but it was of medium height, walking over the river and onward. There was business to be attended to today, that beckoned far beyond the clandestine location of the cottage.

**

               After walking so long, legs began to numb and exhaustion began to set in. By the time the outskirts of the small town hub was reached, the person threw back their hood, revealing a young woman with long, strawberry blonde hair braided down her back, pale, creamy skin, and bright amber eyes.

She ducked into a tavern, instantly assailed by a riot of sound, color, and sensation: the scent of meat roasting over a fire, the sounds of a group of men crying foul over a game of dice, high, female laughter. After the silence of her journey, the noise hit the young woman like a series of blows, dazing her. She slipped inside and sat at a table, her stomach grumbling in want of food.

She would take a repast, and then, she would move on to what had actually led her here. Waving over a serving girl, she asked for a bowl of beef stew, some mulled wine, and a slice of apple pie for dessert. The girl took her order and disappeared to the kitchen, and the woman sat at the table, quietly waiting. The only sign of her impatience was the drumming of her fingers on the wood, and when her food was brought out to her, she tucked in eagerly, famished after the long walk to the bar.

She was just bringing the goblet of wine to her lips when the door opened again; it had begun to rain once more, and the man who came in was soaked to the bone, clutching something close to his chest and cursing in a low voice. He looked around the room, eyes narrowed. When he spotted the woman, he hurried through the crowd, head lowered, shoulders drawn up in wariness.

“Do you have it?” The woman hissed, and the man’s brows drew together as he sat in the empty chair opposite her.

“Do you take me for a fool? Of course, I have it.” He snapped back, gazing longingly at the remains of the food in front of her.

At his look, she summoned the serving girl over again and asked for more food, making sure to pay her handsomely for the trouble.

When she walked away, the woman looked around to make sure no one was listening.

She slid a small, wrapped object across the table, and the man slid his own package over to her. She peeled back the paper slightly, as if to check the authenticity of what was in front of her; there was a faint, rainbow glitter before she closed it again. The man peered down at the object in his lap, one hand cupped around it.

“This better be the real thing, or it will be the end of you.” He said quietly, lips barely moving around the threat.

This was interrupted by the reappearance of the serving girl, her tray laden with food: warm, buttered bread, a jar of honey, a bottle of wine, beef stew, roasted vegetables, and a generous slice of pie.

“Thank you very much,” He murmured, though his eyes never left his companion, lip curling in naked, blatant disdain.

The woman, for her part, was silent, slipping the package into an inner pocket sewn into her cloak, smiling in a way that distinctly told him that she was unruffled by his threats.

“Good luck to you, and good riddance,” She said, taking her leave and disappearing into the rain.

**

(IP) Love and Jealousy

(IP) Love and Jealousy

               There
had been rumors of the remnants of a spirit haunting the woods for years:
whispers on the wind, a rush of cold gusts blowing in faces, even on the balmiest
of summer days, animal bones of all sizes scattered in the bright, verdant foliage.

               People
from the village, and even from far away, tended to stay away from the forest, even
the elders. Whatever lurked inside was best left alone, everyone said. Of
course, that didn’t stop reckless children and curious youths from sneaking
into the wood and searching for the thing that haunted it.

               Never
mind that they’d been told of the risk, that they knew better. Nothing else
came close to the sweet, painful burn of anticipation and terror.

               **

               “We
shouldn’t be doing this,” A female voice whispered, impish with unseen glee. “What
if the ghost gets us?”

“Everyone knows that that is just a
fairy tale. A horror story told to scare the young,” Another voice replied,
chuckling quietly. “Besides, I’ll protect you.”

“My hero.”

The couple used the shadows for camouflage,
and as they drew into a heated embrace in a clearing, neither of them could
sense the invisible entity watching them, aflame with silent jealousy.

**

How
dare they? How dare they come into her domain and so foolishly taunt with their
bright, delicate humanity?

The spirit hovered above them, her
form flickering, swaying like a candle in a high wind, bright white teeth gritted,
garish scarlet lips peeled back in a snarl. It just wasn’t fair, and the anger
that was a constant companion, her only friend, flared to life inside of her.
If she couldn’t have what they did, she would do the only thing she could: to
take them from each other, and their world.

Perhaps that was not her right, but
so many centuries had passed she had stopped caring. She was dead, and nearly
gone, and what remained were mere pieces.

**

The couple broke apart, and the
woman shivered, burying her head into her paramour’s neck.

“What was that?” She asked,
clinging to him tighter. “It got cold.”

“It may just be the wind,” He said,
holding her flush against him, trying to warm her. “You don’t have to be afraid.
No one has ever seen the ghost, it’s all just nonsense.”

Before the couple realized what was
happening, they were ripped apart, thrown to the cold ground; they hit the
earth with two hard thuds, limbs akimbo and teeth rattling in skulls.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” A bodiless
voice purred, hovering inches before the man’s face. Cold fingers trailed down
his cheeks, and icy, lush lips touched his. When he opened his lips under the
invisible pressure, cold breath entered his lungs, and when it disappeared,
there was nothing left but a pale, frozen corpse, and his lips were still
gaping wide, eyes staring up at the black night.

His lover’s screams shattered the
silence of the evening like glass, and the last thing she heard was maniacal
female laughter before she lost consciousness.

**

(IP) Hunger

(IP) Hunger

              He wasn’t supposed to be here; it was forbidden. It belonged exclusively to the royal family. It was one of the most sacred places in the country. But with all this opulence and wealth, there had to be food somewhere. And death seemed too high a price to pay for something as inevitable as hunger.

               The boy crept along the shadowed path, using the shade provided by the trees to hide. The heat of the late summer day made his threadbare clothing stick to his skin, and he shuddered, making a note to take a trip to the river for a long, cool bath later.

               If he made it out of here, anyway. He shook the thought away like a particularly bothersome fly. He couldn’t think like that, not when his ailing mother and his smaller siblings were depending on him. Gods knew that he knew better than to steal, but the hunger pangs had gotten to him, and his sisters seemed to shrink more with every passing day.

               A hot flame of rage and resentment burst to life inside of his chest, and if his self-preservation instinct wasn’t so strong, he would steal into the palace of the widowed Empress and burn it to the ground. For what ruler was happy while her people were starving to death?

               The death toll continued to climb, people dying quietly in their sleep, begging for the slightest morsel, anything to save them from the cracked lips and empty stomachs. Some didn’t bother to wait for death, choosing to take the lives of their families instead of waiting for the goddess of Death, Kasmira, to bring them peace. The thought made him ill.

               The Empress had all but sentenced the peasants in her prospering country to death, choosing to keep all of the profits for herself and her household, all the while, her people were dying. The bitterness that coated his mouth and throat was an all-too familiar sensation, and with thoughts of his family and village spurring him onward, he at last made it inside of the temple.

               The stone temple was silent and dark, surprisingly cool after the immense heat he’d just come out of. Statues of gods, goddesses, and idols adorned pedestals around the room; there was the cool scent of stone and the spicy aroma of incense. The boy felt a slight twinge of fear and regret; he wouldn’t have dared defile the temples of The Old Ones if he’d had any other choice.

               But he couldn’t just let what family he had left die. Perhaps the gods would forgive his transgressions, he thought as he knelt in front of Lapis, The Blue Lady, murmuring thanks for offerings that were not his to take in the first place. But he could not resist the bounty of jewel-bright fruit resting in her lap: mangoes that looked like bright, round sunsets, tiny orange goji berries, bloodred pomegranate seeds spilling out of a juicy melon, tiny buns filled with ground meat, thin strips of beef and vegetables layered over rice, scarlet cubes of tofu in a spicy, black bean sauce tiny squares of glistening coconut ice candy; it was all a veritable feast, and everyone knew that the gods did not eat, not unless they had taken a vessel on this plane, and that hadn’t happened in more than five hundred years.

               He got as much food as he could carry in a small, makeshift bundle crafted from an old, clean work smock, and he began to creep out of the temple, hoping that no one saw him.

               When he reached the door, he just barely avoided crashing into a tall figure with glowing sapphire eyes.

               “And just where do you think you’re going with my offering, child?” A musical voice broke the silence of the empty building, accusatory though not raised.

               He’d been caught with the offering of a goddess. And, so it seemed, that same figure from all the stories had somehow descended from the sky to confront him for his theft.

**  

(IP) Star Patrol

(IP) Star Patrol

               The vast expanse of the galaxy spread out beyond them like the most colorful painting, the bright, dazzling sky belying the dark mission that lie ahead.

               The pilot sat at the front of the ship, thin lips set in a white, grim line. Her voice streamed out in a garbled sentence.

               “I don’t know about this, Captain. Something seems fishy to me. It seems… too quiet.”

               “We have our orders, Pilot McKeene,” The captain’s sharp, quiet voice broke the stale silence of the ship. “And they were to go on until the light disappears.” Her tone brooked no argument, but it did nothing to silence the sudden chorus of unease firing in the back of McKeene’s mind.

               Orders or not, this felt wrong. They weren’t allowed, by law of the Galactic Peace Union, to go past the Celestial Fields, into Dark Space and beyond. But their mysterious benefactor had offered quite a hefty sum in exchange for what the Captain called ‘a quick trip across the universe, nothing out of the ordinary’.

               McKeene had known that was a lie; the captain had been grinning at her over a neat whiskey, challenge gleaming in her bright amber eyes. Her Captain never took a job that wasn’t difficult; anything too easy tended to bore her and send her packing. But, what with the need to eat and survive and all that, even on the fringes of society, she’d ignored her misgivings and gone along with the Captain.

               Never mind that they’d hired a bunch of green new recruits, for medical purposes and protection; it was clear that none of them had ever been on an actually functioning spaceship, but McKeene was certain that the Captain had taken them on out of sheer desperation, not that she’d ever admit it.

               The doctor stood at one of the wide windows, hands clasped behind her back, eyes narrowed against the many pastel lights of the sky.

               “It’s so beautiful,” She breathed, raising one hand and putting it to the glass.

               “Enjoy the view while you can,” The Captain growled quietly, and McKeene bit back a sigh. This was exactly why she hadn’t wanted to hire a couple of greenies, but regardless of her opinion, the Captain was going to make her own choices. It was what had drawn McKeene to her in the first place; she hadn’t wanted a life where she could not choose her own path.

               Space had offered many things for her, but freedom had been most effective in swaying her. She had little use for the gilded trappings of her family’s nobility. And the Captain had offered her a way out.

               ‘It won’t be easy, kid, and it’s nothing like anything you’ve experienced before. You gotta be willing to get your hands dirty, to go for what you really want. And you’re a great pilot; haven’t seen anyone fly like you in years. So, you coming or not?’

The young chef, the only man on their ship, came up front, leaving the galley to see how close they were to the boundaries. His apron and toque were already, somehow, stained, and he’d brought with him the fragrance of coffee and fresh bread.

“How close are we, Captain?” He asked, eyes on the windows, a toothpick between his lips. In his gaze, McKeene saw the wonder, that shocking punch that always came, sooner or later, that accompanied living this far into the star systems.

“Nearly there, as long as we don’t have any problems,” She replied, shooting McKeene a sharp look.

Something was still bothering her; normally, by now, they’d be running into something dangerous: asteroids, scavengers, space debris, hostile humans or aliens; that feeling of unease clamped down on the back of her neck, and she inhaled sharply.

“Someone should be watching the back of the ship,” She said, not daring to take her eyes off of the darkening landscape in front of her.

As if in response to her words, the ship rocked, and there was a high, crunching sound of metal meeting metal. Alarms began to blare warning in high, keening peals, and the chef clapped his hands over his ears, eyes screwed shut tightly against the sound.

“What in the universe is going on?!” The mechanic came running out of the cockpit, hair pulled back in a bun and a smudge of grease on one of her cheekbones.

“I think something hit us!” The Captain snapped, and she walked to the seat next to McKeene, eyes narrowed.

“There’s another ship, we bumped into it.” She said, her voice hushed even under all of the distress sounds.

Behind them, the door opened, and a tall figure stepped through it: A young woman with a shaved head, half of her blue locks shaved close to the scalp, and she was wearing an eyepatch.

               “Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Captain Georgina Delalo, and my fine crew and I will be taking over this fine vessel. Surrender everything, or die.”

**

(IP) An Invitation

(IP) An Invitation

               The
young woman knelt before her, one hand held out in invitation, long silver
tresses turning pink in the dying evening light. The sacred symbol inked onto
her forehead glowed faintly, pointed ears twitching.

               “Isn’t
this what you wanted?” She inquired, tilting her head to the side. “An escape from
everything you’ve never wanted? I can’t promise that this will be easy. But
surely it’s better than not having a choice.”

               The
other girl stared up at her, brow crinkling slightly. “You can’t be serious.”

               At
first, she’d thought that this young woman—this sly, beautiful fey girl with
pointed ears, a secretive smile, and the most impossible of it all, a way out—had
been a dream, a figment of an overtaxed mind after a long day of working in the
village. She’d been sitting on the riverbank, resting her hands in the cool
water. Then she heard twigs snapping behind her. She’d whirled, only to find a
lovely girl staring at her, a basket of herbs in her arms.

               Immediately,
Matilda had been entranced; she hadn’t had a chance. And it appeared that the
girl, whose name was Rin, was just as fascinated with Matilda. After that, they’d
met in that same spot, every night, to share their days, or at least their
evenings.

               Rin
hailed from a land that for Matilda only existed in stories and fairy tales,
and even in her own language, it was practically forbidden to discuss. But for everything
she’d heard, Rin was nothing like she’d imagined, and now here they were, with
Rin inviting her into her world.

               Rin
blinked, and she smiled, her whole face glowing when it stretched across her
face.

“Why would I not be, Matilda?”

“I couldn’t,” She replied, shaking
her head and pulling away before she could think through her response. “I… I
should stay here.”

“Is that what you want, Mattie?”
Rin asked, and Matilda’s heart fluttered at the nickname. “Do you wish to stay
here? I’ll support your decision. It’s just that… You seemed so unhappy.”

Matilda’s eyes filled with tears,
and she put her head in her hands; she could not deny the truth of that
statement, not to herself or her only friend. Her first friend.

What awaited her if she stayed
here? A life of drudgery, a miserable marriage to one of the men in the
village, inevitably followed by offspring, and then working until she was old,
and finally died. The bleakness of the future that lay ahead of her made her
heart weep.

She might not have known what lay
ahead, but Rin was offering a way out, an escape she hadn’t dared to dream of.
A future in which she had a choice, and had a chance to make her life into
something that she was proud of. She would never get something like this again.

When she turned around, Rin was
beginning to walk away, the faint rose glow of the portal painting her in soft
pastels.

“Rin! Wait!” Matilda cried, and she
ran after the other girl. She grabbed Rin’s hand and clasped it tight; Rin
smiled, delighted, and kissed her fingers.

“Come, my love. Come home.”

**

(IP) Journey Through the Dark

(IP) Journey Through the Dark

               They’d
reached the ruined abbey just as the sun had begun to set and turn everything a
bloody scarlet.

               The
party was made up of three people, a woman holding a lantern astride a horse,
and two men walking in front of her, one holding a bow and arrow and the other
leaning heavily on a twisted yew staff.

The abbey was so quiet that only
their footsteps and the horse’s feet clop
clop clopping
on the stone floor broke the silence, each one crashing down
like a rockslide onto a hill.

The woman frowned, one hand wrapped
in her mount’s long, dark mane. She wasn’t sure why, but it felt as though
something was hiding in the dark shadows. She shook herself mentally; she wasn’t
a child in a brick and thatch hut anymore, sitting in front of a fire while her
grandmother told stories of the past. She was far too old for such fear to be
sitting upon her shoulders.

Her companions, meanwhile, were
keeping ahead of the horse, silent and watchful.

The archer crept through the
shadows, blinking as he passed through the light of the dying sun, hands poised
on his bow, his ears perked up for any out of ordinary sounds. They weren’t
expecting anyone; this abbey had been falling apart for years. In fact, no one
in the ragtag little group knew just why they’d been sent here.

The man with the staff was trying
to match the archer step for step, but he was impaired by a deep limp. He said
nothing, but his teeth were clenched, sweat beading up on his brow like tiny,
liquid salt crystals.

As they moved further into the
building, a chill formed in the air, freezing the sweat on the mage’s brow, and
the archer shuddered, caught by surprise.

A breeze chased the sudden dip in
temperature, making the golden flame within the lantern gutter and dance,
painting sinuous shadows upon the stone walls.

“What’s going on?” The woman
gasped, and her horse spooked, rearing and bucking her off; she landed on the
stone floor with a nasty crunch, and
there was a flash of white light in her vision; the pain was such that it felt
like her rib cage had imploded.

For one terrible fraction of a second,
she thought that she was dying.

But the spell was broken by the
horse turning and fleeing, its frightened cries magnified so that it felt like
there was a whole herd of them running out of this haunted place.

“Are you all right?” The mage
asked, limping over to her and gracelessly kneeling beside her, as best he
could.

The archer stood in front of them, fitting
an arrow on the drawstring of his bow and pulling it quickly taut.

The woman nodded, though she had
quickly grown pale, and she was holding her ankle, her lips drawn into a thin
line; her companions suspected that she was biting back a scream.

“Don’t worry, we’re going to get
you help, somehow,” The mage murmured, gently smoothing back her hair.

The cold that surrounded them only
intensified, and a mocking, high laugh sounded, echoing off of the abbey’s
stone walls.

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,
foolish little mortals, for you have trespassed in my territory. Bid each other
goodbye, for you will not leave this place alive.”

**

(IP) Shaman

(IP) Shaman

The forest was a riot of sound, and it and all of its creatures welcomed her.

A distant smile touched her full, lush lips, painted as violet as flower petals, and she reached out her long, bejeweled fingers to feel the viridian velvet of the plants.

Here, more than anywhere else, was home, and the rightness of it settled into her bones. The skull headdress upon her proud forehead gave her a look that was almost menacing, but her aura spoke of something else: peace, and magic; it hung like a rosy-pink veil around her body, casting her pale skin in warm light.

One by one, animals melted out of the trees and foliage, brushing the shaman’s fingers, hips, any part of her skin that they could reach, and she let out a quiet, musical laugh that seemed to stir the woods into full waking.

She lifted her head and spoke to the sky, to the world that had welcomed her as its own.

“Thank you, Mother Earth and Father Sky, for your endless bounty! I cannot express in mere words how pleased I am.”

Revered though she was in the village, she could not quiet the voice inside of her that simply demanded: more.

More of what, she did not know. When she was busy in the village, healing, midwifing, giving advice, overseeing marriages and separations, it was quiet, but not silenced.

And how could she run to chase phantom desires, when so many people actually needed her?

But that could not stop her dreams, the endless visions of running with her feet to the earth, feeling the wind stroke cool fingers through her long hair, the trees parting for her, freeing her from her duties…

The conflict was a storm inside of her heart, one she feared would build into something she could not suppress.

Part of her belonged to the village, and the other belonged to the great unknown, and she could not even begin to know what it was she really wanted.

She walked until she came to a clearing, a meadow full of bright flowers and a small, bright pool of water. She sat down at the edge of the pool, then sank into it, fully clothed, and she sighed, leaning her head back and closing her eyes.

Here, she could pretend that nothing awaited her; that she was an entity of the gods and the world they ruled.

She had no idea that in the trees, undetected, someone was watching her.

**

(IP) Many Are the Dead

(IP) Many are the Dead

The sky was bloodred, painting the new snow on the ground a rusty cinnamon.

The warrior and his familiar, a painted steed with a white mane, stood in the center of the wreckage, the only sound breaking the heavy silence the huffing of the beasts no one had bothered to pillage.

Gone were the sounds of marching, the beating of drums and the screams of the dying.

When they’d been sent here by their general, they’d been expecting slaughter and bloodshed. But everyone was gone, down to the last man, woman, and child. The only thing left now was the heavy, carrion stench of death and vengeance.

The warrior’s stomach turned. Though he was used to war, he could not fathom just how senseless this all was. The general had demanded that he travel to the mountains and find the battleground, and to scavenge what they could from it.

“I hate to do this,” She’d said, in a quiet, raspy voice that bespoke of years of tobacco and other vices, “But loss is necessary, and we must make of it what we will.”

She’d set a cup of tea in front of him, and he’d nodded to her in thanks.

“Go to the mountains with your familiar and see what happened there. Please. Those people deserve the truth, the gods see them home safely. Of course, I will give you supplies. Be careful. You never know who may be watching.” Her already thin lips flattened into a grim, white line, and he knew she was thinking of The Devourer.

It was a black shadow that had descended over their land, able to hide in plain sight and work deadly magic; its presence was both omnipotent and unknowable, even to those who worked their whole lives to dismantle its iron grip on the country.

The horse tossed her head, her hooves meeting the ground with terrible force, and she turned to look at the warrior, dark eyes glistening with human knowledge.

I can smell The Devourer here. But I’m certain that it did not come itself.

“So it was working through someone,” Her companion replied, more statement than question, and the horse nodded, whickering as her head bobbed up and down.

“I was afraid of that,” He sighed, running a hand through his hair, his breath forming a white cloud in the cold, crystalline air.

How did one catch something that constantly changed forms, that hid everywhere, was impossible to detect? It was as impossible as trying to catch smoke, or hold water in one’s cupped hands.

“Come,” He bade at last, taking the horse’s reins. He would have to send word that he required help after all—there was no way that his horse could transport the buffalo that had somehow survived the onslaught.

“Let’s get this over with,” He murmured; the cold had seeped down to his marrow, his heart a frozen block of ice in his chest.

All of this wasted, another wave in The Devourer’s reign of terror.

With the military’s resources shrinking daily, it seemed impossible to hold on to the humanity, or, what was left of it. But the General, and every soldier under her, was depending on him.

Giving up simply was not an option.