Category: thestorychaser

(IP) A Long Journey and a Restless Heart

(IP) A Long Journey and a Restless Heart

               The
warrior rested in the lush, green grass of the hillside, watching the peach
tinted clouds above her. The pennant she held was torn and battered, the horse’s
face upon it nearly unrecognizable.

               The
ache in her bones was familiar, and normally, she enjoyed it: it was proof of
her hard work. She was one of the Queen’s guard, and one of her best warriors. From
the time that she was twelve years old, all she’d ever wanted was to be one of
the Queen’s knights. But on this solitary hillside in the country, Selene could
not help but wonder if it was time to tell the Queen that she wanted a
different life.

               Her
horse stood behind her, his long, dark mane fluttering in the breeze. His
familiar weight was a comfort, the scent of hay and apples making her think of
home. Home also made her think of someone else, but she didn’t dare follow that
train of thought. It wasn’t forbidden, exactly, but a knight wasn’t to enter an
official relationship, not unless they asked the Queen’s permission to hang up
her sword.

               Her
heart ached; to distract herself from her conflicted thoughts, she reached for
the satchel that rested against Achilles’s flank, filled with dried meat,
cheese, and fruit. It was a lonely, solitary meal, but it worked. Giving Achilles
an apple and a carrot, she gnawed on her portion of the food, knowing that soon
she would return to the palace, to that familiar feeling of isolation and
loneliness and her.

               Try as
she might, Kaia could not stifle the memories that pounced whenever she was not
fighting or exploring, and she could not ignore the rush of heat and love that
lived on inside of her heart, despite the distance between them.

               She
stared at the palace in the distance, gilded gold and pink in the coming dusk.
A mad, crazy, impossible idea began to form inside of her mind, too reckless to
bring to fruition. Or was it? The scene unfolded in her mind like a dream.

               She
rode Achilles to the palace gates, waiting for the door to lower and grant her
passage. Rose was standing in the great hall, clothed in a gown the rich color
of sapphire, the hair she’d been named for piled in a chignon at the nape of
her long neck. She was deep in conversation with a male courtier, and as Kaia
walked up to her, she felt a reckless rush of jealousy, and had to resist
scowling.

               “Rose,
Rosie, I’m home,” Kaia said, walking over to her, clasping her beloved’s hands.
“I’ve come to take you away from here.”

               Rose
blinked, her brow wrinkled, and she stared up at Kaia as if in a dream.

               “Truly,
Kaia? You mean it?” She whispered, in a high, flutelike voice. “Don’t toy with
my affections. And The Queen—”

               “I’ll
give up my knighthood if it means being with you, Rosie.”

               “I
couldn’t take your career from you.”

               “Of
course, I love my profession, Rosie. But I love you more.”

               **

(IP) A Quick Getaway

(WP) A Quick Getaway

               He had
no idea how a human had been born from such darkness; the only thing he knew
for certain was that he had to get the infant away from his brothers and
sisters, who were raging blindly at the disturbance.

               The
child was wrapped in a thin, tattered blanket, and its squalls echoed throughout
the caverns. The dark tufts of hair that crowned its tiny head blew as Sorin
flapped his powerful bat wings, preparing to launch himself and the child
through the hatch at the top of the mountain.

               A tiny
pinprick of light shone through the hole: he would have to shove them both
through unforgiving, sharp rock before making it to the outside world.

               The
infant was clearly other, clearly human, and Sorin could not silence the questions
inside of his mind. What humans would be so cruel as to leave one of their
young in the heart of their kind? Few beings of their race were gifted true
sentience and free will; Sorin had been lucky. Even as a child, he’d been
certain that he wasn’t meant to live in a dark cavern, knowing naught but
hunger, rage, loneliness and loss.

               With
the arrival of this child, Sorin was more certain than ever before of his
purpose. No, he was not meant to waste away. He would live in solitude, raising
this human child to adulthood.

               With
one beat of his powerful wings, he flew upward, toward that tiny point of
light. The wrathful cries of his kin echoed through the emptiness, and Sorin
felt a tiny whisper: of guilt, regret, he didn’t know. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter
now.

               Turning
his body so it was curled around the child, he used the force of his body to
break through the top of the sharp stone of the peak. Snowflakes beat down upon
his head, and he clenched his jaw to keep from shivering in the sharp, cold
air. The wind seemed to roar around him, obliterating all other sounds. Buffeted
by the cold, he could hardly hear the child’s cries anymore, but he could sense
his heartbeat.

               Sorin
remembered that a string of villages surrounded the mountains like dark beads,
and though he was a monster, he hoped that at least the humans that dwelled
inside would take pity on the boy. He had to try; he’d risked everything and
betrayed his own kind so that the boy might live.

               He
couldn’t give up now. Whatever forces drove the elements had seen fit to make
him different, and he had to do his best to use that gift. His kind loved
violence, reveled in it, and it was something of a miracle that this child hadn’t
ended up harmed, or worse.

               Bolstered
by these thoughts, he flew downward, the child tucked up against his chest. Its
heartbeat slowed, and Sorin realized that somehow, in all the chaos, it had
fallen asleep, burrowing into him for warmth.

               He
descended when he began to see golden lights and smoke from cook fires, drawing
a hood over his face to conceal his true form. He walked toward the lights and
the warmth, and left the child on a doorstep. Knocking sharply, Sorin did not leave
until he heard the door creak open, a gasp of surprise, and the child’s
answering wails.

               He was
a monster, to be sure, but it did not mean that he was truly evil.

               **

(WP) The Savior of Moonlight

(WP) The Savior of Moonlight

               “Remember,
my love, if you’re ever in trouble, just hold out your hand, palm out, and you
will get the help you need, no matter where you are.”

               My
mother had said that from the time I was a little boy, and I didn’t think much
of it, until the night that I drank a bit too much and decided to walk home. I
didn’t hear them until they almost on me, and by then, it was too late.

               A blow
to the back of my head, the metallic, bitter tang of blood in my mouth where I’d
bitten through my lip. Drunken laughter and the stink of cologne.

               “What
an idiot! What kind of person walks through this neighborhood at this time of
night? He’s got no sense.” Someone said, punctuating the insults with a few
kicks to the ribs that had me coughing.

               “Why
are you complaining?” Someone else asked, laughing. “His bad luck is our gain.”

               My eyes
streamed as more blows rained down on my body; even after I curled up in the
fetal position, they didn’t abate.

               I
remembered my mother’s words, and in desperation, I unclenched my right hand
and held it up, palm upturned toward the moonlight.

               **

               I was
blinded by a sheet of silvery, white light, and I gasped, closing my eyes
against the intrusion. Maybe it was the drink, and the agony from being beaten
nearly to death. Maybe I was just hallucinating. But from my vantage point on
the blacktop, I saw a blurred, outlined silhouette, and around it were the prone,
sedate bodies of the thugs who had attacked me.

               Could
it be that the moon had heard my cry for help?

               “Don’t
try to move, child, you’re gravely injured,” The shadow spoke, and it certainly
wasn’t in any language I’d ever heard, but somehow, I still understood it.

               “Who
are you?” I choked out, spitting out some loose teeth as I did so. They landed
at the thing’s feet, glimmering in the light it emitted like tiny, misplaced
pearls.

               “Silly,
foolish boy,” It said, and I could’ve sworn that I heard laughter in its
strange, melodic voice. “You’ve known me all your life, Jericho. Remember those
myths that your mother told you when you were little? They’re real, child. But
hidden from those who are unworthy.”

               Did
that mean that I was worthy to gaze upon a being older than time itself?
It seemed too good to be true. Perhaps the thing could see the incredulity on my
face, because it laughed again, the sound like bright bells.

               “It was
your mother, really. She asked me to watch over you.” The being’s voice was
fading, and before I finally lost consciousness, it took the form of a lithe,
beautiful woman with long, white curls, and her eyes were a sparkling, beguiling
lilac. She looked like an illustration rendered in a storybook. “And how could
I say no to a woman who has paid tribute to me for all her life?” She smiled at
me, kissing my forehead so softly that I wondered if I’d imagined it.

When I awoke the next morning in
the hospital, I was almost certain I’d dreamed up the whole thing. But the pain
was indeed real, and on the inside of my forearm, a bright violet rune was etched,
the skin raised and angry at the fresh wound.

**

(WP) Stranger Than Fiction

(WP) Stranger Than Fiction

               Fiction
and myths aren’t just stories. Everyone says that because they’ve been told to,
because some things are just too fantastic to be believed. But they’re indeed
real, and I can prove it.

               I park
outside of the imposing, grand building, the coffee I gulped down on the way
churning in my stomach. This is only my third day on the job, and I’m still in shock.
And I can’t even tell anyone; I signed a nondisclosure agreement. I get out of
the car and lock it, keeping my head bowed as I walk into the building.

               “Jenkins!”
A slight woman meets me at the doors, her arms full of thick manila files. “The
Boss has been asking for you! She’s in a right mood; she’s been trying to subdue
a Titan who escaped its confines. Nearly blew up the whole building.”

               “Thank
you, Eliza,” I reply, smiling at her gratefully, and her cheeks pink demurely.

               “What
do I have to do to get some good coffee around here?!” The Boss, Director Salazar,
is standing in the center of her office, not a hair out of place. The only sign
of the event Eliza told me about is the color, high in her cheeks.

               “Excuse
me, Director, but Eliza said you needed my help. What’s going on?” I cut in,
and she frowns, turning to face me.

               “Where
the hell have you been, Jenkins? We’ve been in crisis mode all morning, and you’re
fifteen minutes late.” Director Salazar snaps through gritted teeth.

               “Traffic
was a nightmare, I’m sorry,” I apologize, resisting the urge to snap back at
her.

               “Never
mind that,” She replies, tucking a stray strand of dark hair back into her
severe bun. “A Titan escaped its cage and we had to subdue it.” She chuckles
bitterly, her gray eyes shining like chips of polar ice. “Y’know, our job is to
make sure the public knows that stories don’t come to life, that they’re not
real. It’s not really looking good for us.”

               I
blink, taken aback by her words. I’d expect this kind of talk from any other
government employee, but never The Director. She is frowning, and her hands are
trembling; I don’t dare try to comfort her.

               She
takes a deep breath and looks up at me. “We have a serious situation, Jenkins.”

               “How
serious are we talking, ma’am, with all due respect.”

               She frowns,
her already grim mouth thinning even more.

               “First,
I need your word, on your job, that what I tell you will not leave this
building.”

               “Of
course.” I know better than to even attempt to bring my work home with me; I
don’t want my family wrapped in these bright, unbelievable threads.

               “The
princesses have gotten out of their cages. Snow White and Rose Red, Shahrazad, Rapunzel,
Cinderella, they’re spreading magic the longer that they are free. We must
return them, or the world will be out of balance, and our organization will be
compromised. Will you help me?”

               **

(WP) Only Human

(WP) Only Human

               It
happened slowly, gradually. At first, no one really knew what was happening.
But humans were deemed too unstable, too emotional and volatile to rule
themselves. And so, the AIs took over the government and everything else. Humans
were considered as children, wards of the state who could not take care of
themselves.

               Our
benevolent rulers told us it was all for our own good. Our numbers have increased
to the point where a lot of the younger humans don’t remember that there was life
before, unimpeded by machines. But I suppose it was our own fault: We created
beings with artificial intelligence to serve us, to help us improve our lives.
For a good century or so, humans and AIs lived in harmony, until the robots
began to realize that they weren’t equal, that their only purpose was to serve
humanity.

               There
were protests, riots, and eventually, killings of the one percent of humans,
and the scientists who’d created the AIs in the first place. Bloodshed ruled
until the Supreme Ruler rose to power and clutched the humans within tight iron
fists.

               But
there has been a growing number of humans who are sick of the AIs and their
sympathizers. Hidden in the slums of the city, The Order of the Heart and Mind
are but ghosts, striking like a sightless storm. The note in my hand is
handwritten, on a scrap of aged yellow parchment. The symbol of the Order is
the only signature at the bottom of the letter: An open hand cradling a bloody
heart, and a disembodied brain opposite it.

               Meet
us on the edge of the slums of the city at dusk, after the curfew. Stay out of
sight.

               When
I found this note in my locker, I was curious, in a way that I hadn’t been in
years. And so, here I am, standing in the rain, avoiding the sensors and the
droids that scan the area for undesirables. Their sickly, florescent light
makes me ill, and I bite my lip, ducking behind an abandoned, dilapidated
building, wincing as raindrops snake their way down my collar.

               A group
of droids spread out, and I cringe, looking away from them. They are humans who
willingly undergo surgeries and meld tech into their own bodies. A cruder term
would be cyborgs, but they are traitors. Doormats. Turncoats. Humans who have
betrayed their own natural inclinations to gain limited privileges in our
computer-ruled society.

               I don’t
move, and don’t even breathe until the group of droids and AIs have moved on.

               The
note is crushed in my fist, the ink blurred by the sweat beading on my palms.

               “So,
you made it. I wasn’t sure you would come,” A voice says from behind me, and
before I can so much as inhale to scream, they clap a warm, strong hand over my
mouth.

               “The
Order of the Heart and Mind would like to extend an invitation to you to join
their ranks,” Lips brush my ear, and then I feel the pinch of something biting
into the soft skin of my neck. “Welcome to the Resistance.” Darkness rushes up
to meet me.

               **

(WP) A New Home

(WP) A New Home

               The
bright lights of the city shone upon the water like a spray of a million stars.
The moon floated aloft, mirrored like a bright gem in the ocean’s reflection.
Even from above, it was a thing of beauty, a promise of hopes found and dreams
fulfilled.

               Etta
hadn’t crossed a light years’ worth of space to be haunted by ghosts and blood.

               Here,
she would make a new life, entirely her own. If there had been something, she’d
learned out in the velvet darkness of space, it was to trust none but yourself.
She’d busted her ass to be free of the shackles of her past.

               The
spacecraft landed delicately into the hangar on the tarmac, and she was funneled
out of the craft’s hatch. She’d thought of this moment for months, and it still
didn’t come close to anything she imagined. It was a place to hide, a sanctuary,
but even more than that, it was a new beginning.

               Etta
had closed the book on everything she’d left behind; it didn’t matter that she
was alone. Because she’d made it here, all by herself. Significantly low on
cash and down on her luck, sure. But the tides had always turned quickly for
her; she knew how to eke a living, regardless of her surroundings.

               Eager
to lose herself in this unfamiliar environment, she went to retrieve her
luggage, a small duffel bag, then headed out of the hangar. Her stomach
complained loudly, and her first thought was lodgings. Even with what little
she had left; Etta could afford to put herself up in a nice hotel for at least
a few days. Surely that would be enough time to find work.

               She
began to search for a hotel, using her cell phone. Everyone she knew opted for
the more invasive tech, implanted in your eyes or your skull. But she didn’t
want to be mistaken for a droid. The best thing for her was to lay low for now.

               She’d
put everything on the line to get to this planet, and she wasn’t about to be
dragged back home to be imprisoned again.

               Cold,
biting stone, manacles cutting at her wrists and ankles, the only sounds the
scurrying of the rats and her own harsh, ragged breaths. Moldy bread and
brackish water. A bucket in the corner serving as her bathroom, her skin
blackened with grit and bruises.

               As
quickly as the memories had come, they retreated again, back into a place she
could not follow. Etta shook herself mentally; if she had a flashback here, it
would mean her doom. She’d sought out the planet of Lavara specifically for its
isolation. That was, its jurisdiction being far out of reach for the
Intergalactic Council and their restrictive rules.

               She
found a hotel just down the street, making sure to keep her gaze low and not attract
attention. This was quite a difficult task, considering so much was going on
around Etta. She was in a new place, and she wanted to explore it. After
checking in her bags and changing in her room, a modest one with a bed, solar
lights, a nightstand, and a book shelf, she set out to find a meal. And then
she would really get down to business.

               It was
high time she’d found a home she felt comfortable in, and Candleon was Lavara’s
capital. Etta would fit in here just fine.

               **

(WP) Too Hot to Handle

(WP) Too Hot to Handle

               Everything
started when she tried curry for the first time, weirdly enough.

               Her
friends had been raving about the new Indian restaurant, and Morgan had just
managed to save enough to go with them. Morgan was also the only one who wasn’t
yet able to summon her spirit animal, and the thought left a bitter taste in
her mouth.

               “You’re
gonna love it! If you don’t burn your tongue off, that is,” Riley told her, laughing.
Her spirit animal, a chestnut horse, shimmered right above her right shoulder,
neighing in tandem with her mistress’s laughter.

               “Aw,
come on, Riley, don’t scare her off before she even enters the damn place,”
Riley’s boyfriend, Mason, shook his head, his shaggy hair blowing in the
breeze. His spirit animal, a bear cub, trotted after him, growling low in his
throat.

               Alyse
brought up the rear, hands in the pockets of her dress, hiding a smile. Her
spirit animal was a swallow, and its merry chirruping provided a soundtrack
that only their group could hear.

               “I like
spicy food!” Morgan protested, frowning. “God, Riles, don’t ruin this for me!”

               She
followed her nose, letting the aromas of garlic, chili, and ginger led her
toward the building. It was tucked into a little alley, and the glass door was
already open, with a hand-drawn sign that said Welcome! Please seat
yourself.

               Morgan
led the way in, her mouth watering. She was so hungry, and her stomach
grumbled. Mason smirked, but said nothing as they all sat down around the
table. There was a short wait, and then a tiny woman shuffled out of the
kitchen, armed with a notepad and pen.

               “What
would you like, dearies?” She asked, giving them all a bright, full smile.
Alyse ordered green curry, with a side of yellow rice. Morgan was feeling
daring, so she ordered one of the spiciest curries on the menu. Mason ordered
garlic naan and red shrimp curry, and Riley opted for a vegetarian lentil soup.
Taking their orders down, the woman disappeared back into the kitchen.

               “I don’t
think I’ve ever been more excited for food in my life,” Morgan said sheepishly,
feeling her cheeks warm. Riley grinned at her; eyebrows raised teasingly. Mason
waved a hand, and the bear disappeared. The other two girls followed his lead,
and their spirit animals dissolved in a flash of bright, glittering smoke.
Morgan bit her lip, hoping that her envy didn’t show on her face.

How she wished that she had a
spirit animal of her own. Was there something wrong with her? Something flawed
deep inside that she couldn’t see? Morgan was soon distracted by the arrival of
the food, and it all smelled so good.

               “Please,
everyone, enjoy, and do let me know if you need anything else.” The woman
smiled at them, and Morgan grinned back, before digging into her food. The
first bite set her tongue ablaze, and she gasped, feeling her eyes water and
her nose run. But her cursing was impossible to make out clearly. Tears ran
from her eyes, and through the tears, she could see a huge, blurred shape
hovering above the table.

“Morgan, I think you finally summoned
your spirit animal.”

“And it’s a fire dragon! How cool
is that?”

**

(WP) For Your Own Good

(WP) For Your Own Good

               “Yes,
Ted, we’re receiving an urgent message, our regular news program will resume
after this bulletin.”

               The
pretty anchor onscreen is joined by her male co-anchor, his face grave. “I’m
afraid that I must tell the world grave news. Aliens have taken over our
planet.”

               I
blink; for a moment, I worry that this is a prank, that we’re being Punk’d on
an enormous scale. But then I see a bright, metallic collar around Ted’s neck,
buzzing ominously.

               “And
now we’re getting a transmission from our new extraterrestrial overlords.” He
speaks in a garbled language that I cannot begin to translate, and I shudder.
Did Ted betray us to the mysterious alien race that somehow held the entire
planet in their palms?

               The
screen flickers, and a pair appears, smiling kindly. They are hand in hand, and
I would almost think them human, if not for their bright orange skin and green
eyes. They begin to speak, and I read the subtitles under them, outlined in
black.

               “Earthlings,
it has come to our race’s attention that you are freely abusing your planet’s
ability to nurture plant, animal and human life. To prevent the extinction of
so many different, unique life forms, we have decided to take the fate of Earth
in our own hands. Your cooperation is appreciated, but not required.” The rest
is left unsaid, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.

               Somehow,
overnight, Earth has become a commodity to an unknown intergalactic race.

               The
other one, silent, smiles widely at the camera, already confident in their own
victory.

               “As the
lifeform Ted has said,” It continues, smiling and gesturing to his collar, “it
would be in everyone’s best interest to register for your tracking devices.
Nothing too invasive, just a cautionary measure to take each human’s carbon
footprint. How will we save your planet and its precious environment and atmosphere
without taking these steps? It is for your own good.”

               It all
sounds so reasonable, and I grit my teeth as my suspicions about Ted are
confirmed.

               With
questions floating in my head like a swarm of agitated bees, I watch for a few
moments more, as the screen is returned to Ted and Lisa. I turn off the TV and
walk over to the windows.

               Nothing
seems to be out of the ordinary, at first. But then I notice a flag, embroidered
with the same symbols that appeared at the bottom of the newscast. It’s bright
blue, and I grit my teeth.

               How did
this happen so quickly, so insidiously?

               A knock
is heard at the door, and I frown, peering through the peephole.

               A
neighbor, Jenna, waves, smiling, but her eyes are tight.

               I open
the door, and without waiting for an invitation, she pushes past me, into the
living room.

               “Did
you see the news, Leo? Aliens!” Jenna says, her dark, curly hair floating
suspended around her head like a cloud, her amber eyes sparking with skepticism.

               “Yeah,”
I reply, “Somehow aliens took over the Earth, right under our noses. How did
this happen?”

               **

(WP) Desert Secrets

(WP) Desert Secrets
               “Who knows if we’re even
gonna find anything?” A voice yells out, swallowed by the desert wind. “What’s
the point?”

               “Oh,
come on, dude. Where’s your sense of adventure?” Another voice joins the first,
tinged with laughter. “We’re in Egypt! Home of the ancient pharaohs and the
pyramids!”

               “Hurry
up, you two, or we’ll lose you!” A woman on a horse speaks from behind them,
having to shout over the wind.

               Both
the cameraman and the explorer hurry to catch up with their group; to be left
behind in this massive sandstorm would be disaster. Shelter had never seemed so
far away from Gage, and if his camera got fucked up because of all this sand,
he’d be pissed. Meanwhile, Fallon was smiling, her cheeks chapped and flushed
from the heat.

               Gage
thought she was crazy, but when she’d come to him, begging him to come along,
he hadn’t been able to say no. But now, he found himself regretting his
decision.

               Their
guide, Neith, turns back to the group, her long, dark braid fluttering like a banner
in the wind. Her lips are mashed into a thin, tight line, but her dark eyes are
sparkling with excitement.

               “You
guys have to see this.”

               **

               Gage catches
up with the rest of the group, breathing hard, his clothes stuck to his skin,
every inch of him coated with sand and grit. Everyone is walking into a
gigantic pyramid, and Gage stops, hesitating.

               “Come
on, Gage! Nothing’s going to bite you!” Fallon teases, and Gage scoffs. There
were plenty of animals in this region that bite, crawl, and slither. But more
than anything else, a sense of heaviness bombards him. He wants to say that something
felt wrong. Twisted. Evil. But he walks inside despite his misgivings.

               The
darkness is cool, a welcome refuge from the heat, and Neith is standing beside
one of the walls, one of her hands pointing to a picture etched into the stone.
“I’ve never seen this symbol before,” She says, frowning thoughtfully.

               Fallon
beckons him forward, her gesture impatient. “We need a record of this, Gage.”
She says, her voice hushed, even in the dark. “This—We can make history with
this. What does it mean, Neith?”

               Mutely,
the other woman shakes her head. “I wish I knew.”

               Gage brings
his camera up to the image, and he gasped. A flame, a field, and blood, so much
blood, and a woman floating aloft above it, a necklace made of jet glowing around
her throat, her hair as bright red as a flame.

               Just
what have they stumbled into? All thoughts of spiders and snakes flees his
mind, but he is rooted to the floor with another primal fear: the unknown. The
text under the image flickers, as if they were standing in front of a warm
blaze, and Fallon’s quick intake of breath tells him that she had seen it also.

               “There
are only a few documented female rulers of the Egyptian empire,” Neith says
thoughtfully, stroking her chin. “Perhaps this was one of them.”

               Gage
stares at the image, as poor as it was, even on his expensive camera. Filled
with a foreboding he could not understand, he watched Fallon reach for it,
something he couldn’t read in her eyes.

               **

A Feast and a Tale

(WP) A Feast and a Tale

               “My
parents were right. I never should’ve taken this job. Who am I but a farm boy?
How could I think someone like me could change the world, change history? I’m a
failure.”

               The boy
throws his weapon, a sharp sword, at my feet, surrendering.

               “I give
up,” He says quietly, his voice thick, as though he is on the verge of tears. “I
never should’ve taken this job.”

               Though
I am his enemy, I cannot help but feel pity in my old, dead heart for the
child.

               “Perhaps
a story over a hot meal will revive your broken spirits, boy.” I say, standing
up from my throne and beckoning him closer. He approaches, but his eyes narrow.
“How do I know that this isn’t a trick?”

               “You
don’t. Either you break your fast with me and hear a story, or you stay here in
my throne room, feeling sorry for yourself.”

               I turn
away and summon one of my servants, a goblin in a dirty toque, and give
whispered instructions. She nods, smiling a wickedly fanged grin at my unexpected
guest. She disappears into the kitchen, barking orders in her guttural language.
I summon another servant, this one a redcap.

               “Will
you please make the boy presentable before our meal? And do be gentle, he is
our guest, not a prisoner.” Without a word, the redcap marches the boy toward
the baths, his protests bouncing off of the stone walls.

               **

               The
table is set for two, and my creatures populate the rest of the empty seats, creating
a grotesque parody of a feast. The wayward farm boy sits down. His face is
clean, and he is dressed in a silk suit, a bleeding-heart bloom pinned to his
lapel. He watches me carefully, eyes sweeping the table.

               “You
said that you were going to tell me a story,” He says quietly, and in the
background, my servants begin serving the food: rich, dark bread slathered with
butter, bean soup flavored with oxtail and wine, a whole haunch of roast beef
served with pan drippings. “I’m listening.”

               He
grows so quiet that all I can hear is the quiet scrape of cutlery against china
I haven’t used in years, and without further ado, I begin my tale.

               **

               “I was
not always The Dread Witch of the Bane Lands, boy. I was born to a rich
nobleman and a palace servant, and after being left by my father, my mother
sought to teach me all she knew. She taught me to read the stars and to harness
the powers of nature and the elements… For good or ill, the choice was mine.
That was all my mother could give me, a choice.”

               “But
then my father brought her back to the palace on the pretense that his first
wife had passed away, and that he wished to marry her. He demanded I be brought
also; he’d had no children, so with the woman’s death, I would be declared legitimate.”

The boy is silent, watching me, eyes
wide and face pale, as if he’s dreading my next words.

“But it was all a lie. He had my
mother killed to pay recompense to his wife, to erase the indiscretion of his
straying. He agreed to kill the woman who birthed me, but he refused to kill
me. Instead, he tried to raise me in the ways of the court. It went well for
him, I suppose, until I decided to take my mother’s legacy.”

“At sixteen, I was betrothed to an
old lord, sold to the highest bidder as if I was nothing more than chattel.”

The farm boy has cleaned his plate,
and my servants quickly replenish it.

“What happened next?” He asks
quietly, swallowing hard.

“I killed him on our wedding night,
when he tried to take what he wanted, rather than ask for it. And after that
day, I became The Witch of the Bane Lands, Scourge to all Life and Light.”

**