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A Listener Reviews: The Chronicles of Wild Hollow

The Chronicles of Wild Hollow

Episodes: 4

Length: 30-40 minutes

I’ve listened to… all current episodes

Transcripts Available: No

The Premise: The Chronicles of Wild Hollow follows bounty hunter Fandango Boursin (front and center in the image above) as he takes on jobs. However, he unknowingly may be falling deeper into a web of danger with each passing moment. The first trilogy of his adventures is available to listen now, with more content planned.

My Review: If you ever wanted a musical podcast full of adventure, intrigue and sardonic humor, then I have some great news. The Chronicles of Wild Hollow hits numerous notes, creating a serious story in a fantasy world. It creates an endearing cast of characters and a surprisingly complex world. The creators, Shouting is Funny, reached out to me for a review. And I am so glad they helped me discover this absolute gem.

This audiodrama borrows some cues from westerns, noir, and adventure genres. I was impressed with the way it wove in classic genre tropes, and yet turned them around or used them to poke fun at convention. It is self-aware in a pleasant way, calling itself out to deepen characters and the world. The writing is clever, quick, and engaging. It never lingers too long in one moment, but keeps the action moving while still providing ample room for character development. I listened to the Christmas special first, as it was the first in queue. And it had me laughing and shaking my head (in a good way) all the way along my commute. That is a good introduction to the style of the show–dark, but funny. Unexpected, unconventional, and witty.

It uses humor very well to balance out the very serious themes presented, keeping it from becoming too difficult of a story to digest. However, the storylines are well-developed and thoughtful, addressing drug use, conspiracy, community, and crime. It uses these situations to develop a cast of interesting characters, with Fandango being the most complete of those depicted so far. His character wrestles with the reality of his job at times, of money versus compassion, of justice and doing the right thing. This is a fairly classic conflict for such characters, but the execution of this is excellent. As Fandango develops, the listener is kept wondering how he will navigate increasingly dangerous situations while remaining true to who he is.

The background characters are also well-done, but tend to be static and more limited in their involvement. It makes sense given the stories being told, and there are some who get additional development. Even with those brief glimpses, it was easy to like certain recurring characters. I also expect some of those with a briefer role may get developed more as future stories about Fandango are released.

I would be remiss to write this whole review and not mention the musical aspects. This is a charming aspect of the show, using musical numbers to introduce characters, progress the plot, and provide scene development. The music is well-written and placed well throughout each episode. It provides an opportunity for more focused world building, using song to provide background and setting details, but in a way that keeps everything moving at a nice pace. The lyrics maintain the feel of the show and feel consistent with the overarching themes of the show.

Overall, this podcast was one that took me by surprise and quickly became a new favorite. The first trilogy leaves off in a precarious place, so I am eagerly awaiting more. In the span of four episodes, the team at Shouting is Funny managed to create a great character, wonderful supporting characters, a complex world, and fantastic music to go along. I never knew quite how a scenario would turn out, and the clever writing pulled me in right away. I can highly recommend you give this show a listen.

You can find them here: The Chronicles of Wild Hollow


WIP: The Bench

Hello! I’ve been dealing with some winter blues recently, not really writing too much. But I’ve been getting back into it. This is not the first compete piece I’ve written, but it is one I’d like to post. I’m hoping to submit the other to some sites, so you’re likely to see it soon. I also just started a sci-fi story that I would like to work on, but it is likely to be much longer than what I usually post, so I wanted to get a bit farther in to get a sense of where it is going, then I’ll decide about posting.

Is this piece great? Certainly not. It has a lot of problems. But sometimes the solution to a writing slump is to just write something and put it out there. So that’s what I’m doing. i will probably come back and make some revision later, but this is a pretty straightforward story with a minor twist to the expected plot. As always, thoughts and comments about how to improve are greatly appreciated!


Jack enjoyed hiking. It was a good excuse to get away from everything and everyone. He knew the trails well enough to get well away from civilization on a Sunday morning, only to begrudgingly trek back Sunday afternoon. This Sunday was no different. The sun was up early, a thin fog still lingering from rains the night before, and Jack was on the trail with his backpack. It was his life line. A trail map, ample supply of water, snacks and food that would keep if he got stuck in any too tight spots. Rope, first aid kit sun screen, mosquito repellant, fresh socks, and an emergency radio if things got dire. He had never used the radio and certainly hoped today would not be the day.

The forecast promised very warm weather today, one of the first official days of summer. For Jack that meant abnormally large crowds in the National Park, including irritable teenagers being forced on a family vacation, well-meaning adventurers just starting out for the season, and way more people than he cared to deal with. So he started early, on one of the more challenging trails. His route would take him long, require a brief bit of trekking through the woods on unmarked paths, and then back down and around an old ranger’s station that had not been used for the last four summers, at least. Jack knew because he had hiked this very trail many times before. It was an old favorite.

The din of vacationers was muted in the early morning hours, and soon even it faded from his ears. He passed a couple of other hikers—wearing absurdly large sun hats and straining on ornately carved walking sticks for sale in the park gift shop—early on, but they were already too out of breath to do much more than offer a friendly wave. Jack pressed on.

It was late in the morning when he finally reached the end of the first leg and prepared to set out across the forested landscape to meet up with the second trail. Such creativity was discouraged, but Jack did not particularly care. He knew there would be more than enough visitors to keep the park staff busy, and a respectful, skilled hiker was the least of their concerns.

This far in the only real sounds were the crunch of last year’s leaves under his feet, the trill of songbirds, and the rustle of the wind through the trees. He felt his stress melting away the further in he went, falling off him like scales of mud. This part of the hike always felt the easiest. He could shed all the burdens he had been carrying and march confidently between the trees. Once he started on the second path, there was the undeniable realization that he was hiking back to the real world. He always dutifully picked up his abandoned stresses, reattaching them to his weary body.

It was around noon when he found the bench. Jack knew this trail well, and he knew there was no bench. It also was out of place that it was not on any park recognized trail. He stopped in front of it, staring blankly at this unusual intruder. It rankled him, this sign of humanity out here among nothingness. Approaching it, he scanned it for any plaque or notice explaining why it was here, squeezed between two old oak trees. There was just enough room to sit down, but not much else. It also did not appear to lok at anything in particular, but was positioned staring out across the woods Jack was soon to traverse.

After allowing his irritation to subside, he reasoned it was a good enough place to sit and eat his lunch. Someone probably died and donated money to the park, but asked that the bench be placed here for some reason. Maybe it used to be a trail—his map showed the park as it was five years ago, so maybe something had overgrown here. Or maybe whoever donated the money had really pissed off someone on the board, who agreed to put in the commemorative bench but made sure to place it where no one would see. That possibility made Jack smile as he sat down and opened up his lunch.

He was only halfway through his apple when the sound of someone else crunching through the leaves made him turn to look. A man in a dusty, sweat-caked business suit was dragging his feet through the underbrush, face downcast. He offered a weak smile as he drew closer, then sat on the opposite end of the bench. Jack made a point to ignore him, turning his face to the side and continuing with his lunch.

“Bit out of the way, aren’t we?”

Jack ignored the man, taking a loud bite of his apple and shifting further down the bench. He had come all this way to be alone, not engage in idle chitchat with some stranger.

“So you’re not much of a talker, eh? I can understand that. I never was much of one myself.”

Jack quickly looked at the man, gave a curt nod and joyless smile. Perhaps that small sign would make it clear.

“Well, I mean, I guess it’s rude of me to assume. Can you even talk?”

Jack sighed. “Can I just eat my lunch in peace?”

The man laughed broadly, the sound seeming to carry for miles in the relative quiet. “I assure you, I am a peaceful man. You can have as peaceful a lunch as you want.”

“Thank you.” Jack finished munching through the core of his apple, leaving nothing but the stem. A good traveler left no sign behind.

“I always liked coming up here. A good chance to get away, you know?”

Jack sighed, but didn’t respond. He pulled out a slightly squashed sandwich and took a long swig of his water.

“I’m guessing that’s why you’re here, too. Just a chance to get away.” No matter the amount of silence it only seemed to encourage the stranger. “I came up here all the time. Never wanted to leave, wished I could just sit here forever. That’s how I got this here bench. But it’s not quite as enjoyable as you might think. Your butt gets awfully sore sitting on this hard wood day in and day out. Had to get up and stretch a bit, you know?” He laughed, though this time there was a sad, cynical quality to it.

Jack half listened to the man’s babbling, more focused on finishing his meal and getting on with his trip. If he hadn’t been hungry, he would have moved on already. That and he still hoped the man would somehow get the picture and take his rambling elsewhere.

“So, what do you want, son? What brings you up here.”

“I don’t want anything,” he said with a resigned sigh. “I just want to be left alone.”

“Ah, see, you do want something. What do you mean, to be left alone?”

Jack stopped chewing, barely catching himself before his mouth hung open in awe. How could anyone be so thick, he found himself wondering. “Listen, I come up here to get away. Form work, from noise, but most importantly from people. So I don’t really want to talk to anyone up here.”

“Oh, so that’s what you want? To be alone?”

“Yes, finally, yes. I want to be left alone. No people. This is my chance to get away from everyone, and that means you.” Jack felt a slight smile spread over his face.

The man beamed from his seat. “Well, why didn’t you say so? And you are right, this certainly is your chance! I’ll be on my way, and I guarantee you that you will get exactly what you want, Jack. You’ll be all alone, here on out.”

The man stood, gave a slight nod of his head to signify his departure, and walked back the way Jack had come. Jack reached down to uncap his water bottle and discovered the man had already disappeared from sight behind the leafy trees, the sound of his steps having faded back into birdsong. Finally alone, Jack felt at peace.

After finishing the sandwich and a handful of nuts, he rose to his feet. The rest of the trek would be hopefully uneventful, he thought as he shouldered his pack. He made off along the path he knew by heart, enjoying the feeling of the dappled sun on his skin. Here there were no deadlines or micromanagers looming over his shoulders. It was just him and the birds, but that was just fine by him.

When he found the next trail, he felt that heavy weight settle back on his shoulders. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was heavy in the sky. Despite his comfort on the trails, even he did not want to risk trying to navigate it by moonlight and flashlight. So that meant the inevitable trek back to the noise. Back to his car sitting in the parking lot. Back to his too small apartment. And, eventually, back to an uncomfortable office chair in the middle of a cubicle farm. He sighed as it all came crashing back down, but pressed own with a dour expression etched into his face.

He expected to run into exhausted families dragging along pouting children as he neared, but it was surprisingly quiet. Even as he passed by the river, he could not hear the usual ruckus of people playing in the water, squealing as they slipped in and discovered just how cold a natural water source could be. Even once back in the parking lot, there were no groups of hikers, kayakers, or weekend warriors loading up their sunburned bodies into cars with a look of pleased exhaustion etched on their faces. The parking lot was full, but silent.

Jack couldn’t help but feel as if he may have missed some major emergency. There were alert towers spread throughout the park, but he had heard no warning sirens of any sort. Falling into his car, he turned on the radio and searched for a news report, but the signal appeared to be out. Static on all the stations.

He sighed. Just his luck that the radio would go out. It was not that he used it often, but it was, at least, supposed to function in a car. What would he do if Dave needed a ride? Usually, he turned the radio up and appeared to listen intently, even to the commercials. Visons of idle chatter and small talk filled his mind as he moved the car into reverse, and then drove out of the park.

The ranger was not at the gate with his usual cheerful wave goodbye. Perhaps some tragedy had occurred in the park. A kid got lost of something. Maybe everyone was searching for little Tommy or Julie. Jack spared a thought, hoping they would be found, but did not let that slow his drive out of the park.

The rad was empty. No headlights flared into view along the winding road. He lived close to the park, but was still used to passing a good number of people. It was nice though, he thought. The lights usually hurt his eyes.

The smokers were not in front of his apartment tonight, nor were the college kids out at the grills like they had been the past two weekends. He didn’t even hear the baby in 3E crying for what had to be the first time in weeks. Jack had ben seriously beginning to wonder how the child even ate with the crying going on day in and day out. He stomped into his apartment, dropped his pack, and made his way to the bathroom for a nice, hot shower. It did little to wash away the tension that had built up as he thought about work the next day, but he at least smelled cleaner.

With a towel wrapped around his waist, he made a quick dinner and settled in on the couch. Jack ran through his calendar for the next day, noting the meetings and project deadlines. He was fairly certain he had finished everything on Friday that was due, but there always lingered the fear that something would come up and surprise him, Or, worse and far more common, he would get in tomorrow to realize one of his coworkers had not completed their portion, meaning his entire day would be spent making up for their failure. He shook his head and tried to put the thoughts out of his mind, leaning back against the couch.

In the surprising quiet of his apartment, he soon fell asleep.

The world was just as quiet as he woke, got dressed, and trudged out the door to work. Just as quiet as he drove in on deserted streets. Just as quiet as he approached the empty office building and walked the stairs, staring into each floor in turn. It was quiet as he headed home with a broad grin on his face, quiet as he jogged up the stairs to his apartment, and quiet as he grabbed his pack to head back to the woods.

Jack needed no more evidence to realize his wish had come true. He was alone. And while movies and television had always told him he would regret what he had wished for, Jack felt nothing but absolute joy.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


First Draft: Taking up the Mantle

Just an idea I had floating around. I read it more as an introduction to a larger world, and so I may revsist it to develop it more fully. But this mostly tells the story I was interested in. You may recognize Death from Day 24, mainly because I like the friendly, personable Death. As usual, it is a first draft. Let me know what you think and any suggestions you may have. Happy reading!


 

The first time it happened, I was seven years old. My mother left me to play at the park, and I had noticed a grey lump laying on the very edge of the road. Upon closer inspection, I saw the tiny frame of a squirrel, obviously struck by a car recently. A think trickle of red stained its chin, and I felt the heavy hand of sadness as I studied its little body. I looked around cautiously, creeping closer, and reaching out a tiny trembling hand. Somehow, I thought I might just be able to wake it up.

When I did touch it, there was a strange electric feel to the contact, as if a flurry of energy swam between us. My entire hand felt a shock of numbness, then nothing. More surprising, however, was the rush of thoughts and feelings inside of me. In one moment, I felt as if I could feel the world spinning swiftly beneath me, as if I were a million miles up looking down on its progress. My perspective telescoped out, and then rushed back in, settling in my tiny body. It would take me years and many more experiences to find the words to describe this phenomenon; even now, the words are hollow.

A man walking his dog suddenly sneezed, snapping m back to reality as I pulled my hand back. He sniffled, his face pale and drawn, and I tried not to look like I was playing with a dead animal. When I glanced back to the squirrel, I saw it standing in the street, glancing around swiftly. Its tiny eyes met mine, and then it scampered past me and into a tree.

I gasped, smiled, and ran to follow it, watching it swing and sprint across tree branches. Even on the ground, I felt the same exquisite joy as it moved nimbly from branch to branch with newfound life. When I tried to explain to my mother, however, she merely scolded me for touching a dead animal. None of my miraculous testimony made it through to her as she dragged me to the bathroom and scrubbed my hands three times over.

Even as a child, I realized that this was not something I was going to be able to tell her about; it was taboo. And so I carried my secret.

When the boys at school threw rocks at a mother bird, I waited until they left and then cradled the limp body. The world spun around me, and I took off into the universe. When I came back, her eyes were open, and she took off to tend to her nest.

Then there was the evening our neighbor’s dog had her puppies. My mom let me sit in their kitchen to learn about the “miracle of birth,” but then tried to swiftly shuffle me away when the last puppy emerged, still and silent. I was too young to learn about death, apparently. She had me sit out on the front porch while she talked with Mrs. Calvin, but I snuck back in when I heard their voices drift back to the living room, Mrs. Calvin’s soft sobs fading. She stopped crying when I carried in the squirming little puppy, alive and well.

“I heard him,” I lied to them. Later, my mother woke me up with that same puppy, a smile on her face.

“A gift from Mrs. Calvin,” she told me. He was my miracle puppy named Patches because of the splotch over his left eye, and he never left my side. Except when I went to school, of course. I was no Mary; he was no lamb.

I brought back a snake, a couple more squirrels who had a predisposition for jumping in front of cars, one turtle someone had hit with a lawnmower, two fish from the tank in my room, and more moths and butterflies than I have fingers to count. I had been to human funerals—one for my great grandmother and one for Mr. Calvin after his untimely heart attack—but there were too many people around, too much attention on me. My mother never let go of my hand long enough to see if I could work the same magic. Besides, I always felt exhausted after using my gift, even on small animals and bugs.  Even at eleven or twelve years old, I understood how complicated humans could be.

I was fourteen when I found out what it all meant. Normally, a fourteen year old waking would scream upon waking to find a grown man sitting on her bed. That would be a different story, however. No, when I saw him, I somehow understood that there was no need to scream or run or hide. He was distracted, looking at the pages of a black, leather-bound book, his finger skating down the page as he clicked his tongue against his teeth. There was no sense of a dream about the meeting, but there was also no sense or reality and time. In some ways, it felt much the same as when I reached out and touched some recently deceased creature. It was all super real, but also impossible.

After a moment, he turned to face me with a smile. His eyes were warm behind wire-rimmed frames, and he carefully crossed his neatly polished shoe across his knee as he spun. “Ah, nice to meet you, Corine.” He offered his hand, and I shook it slowly, still sitting in the tangle of my bedding.

“Who are you?” I asked. In hindsight, I feel like there should have been fear. But there was not.

He straightened the black lapels of his suit jacket, snapping the book closed. “I am Death,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “No need to beat around the bush, I always say. Most the people I meet don’t have time for it anyways.”

I just nodded. “Does this mean I’m dead?”

“That’s a good thought, but no. Not yet, at least.”

“So then, why are you here?”

He laughed, his face folding along well-practiced wrinkles. Despite the wrinkles, he still looked surprisingly young. Approachable. Friendly. “You aren’t one to dance around things either. That’s good. We’ll get along just fine then.” Behind his glasses, I could see his eyes searching for the right place to begin. After a moment, they brightened, and he turned back to the book.

“So, Corine—can I call you Corine?”

I nodded, my breath frozen in my lungs, waiting for his response.

“Thanks. So, I have had some unusual reports coming from this area. Unexplained, unexpected deaths. Now, unexpected deaths are a part of life. However, they are not a part of death. I know when everyone is going to die. If I don’t something is wrong. You follow?”

My head swung up and down stiffly as I tried to figure out the implication of his words. “But I haven’t killed anyone!” I offered frantically, certain of my innocence.

He laughed again. “No, not intentionally. Of course you haven’t. Only, unfortunately, you have been giving life to some whose time was up. Things must balance out, of course.”

“But, I didn’t—“

“I know you did not mean to. You had no idea what kind of power you have. That’s why I’m here. Now, normally, we know precisely who is going to be a Reaper. You, however, slipped through my fingers.”

“A Reaper? What do you mean? Am I dead?”

“No, you are still not dead. But you do have gifts. Being a Reaper means the power over life and death, a power I usually have taught you by now to use only as directed. Unfortunately, you came from unusual circumstances.”

“Like what?”

He adjusted his glasses on his face, then cracked open the leather book again. His finger ran down the page, the tapped a line. “From the best I can tell, my Reaper Jeremiah was dispatched to your birth. Unfortunately, you were supposed to be dead.” He caught himself and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry to bring the bad news, but at least that’s not what happened. No, instead, Jeremiah never returned. From the best I can tell, he passed his gift along, sparing you and sacrificing himself.”

“I killed him?”

Death’s smile was sad, and he shook his head slowly. “No, I think Jeremiah was just tired of the work. It happens. Turnover is not a huge problem, but it plagues everything.”

“So, what does this mean?”

“It means you are a Reaper. You are tasked with helping the newly dead shuffle off the mortal coil and into the Great Beyond.”

“But I’ve never killed anyone!” I objected once again.

“Of course you have. You did not mean to, but every time you gave life, it had to come from somewhere.”

I thought about the butterflies, the squirrel, Patches. I also thought of the kid in first grade who died in his swimming pool, of Mr. Calvin’s heart attack, of the inoperable cancer discovered too late in my Reading teacher. “But I didn’t want to kill anyone!”

“I know. It’s an unfortunate part of the job. It’s why we don’t use our powers to give life to those who are past due.”

“But I thought it killed Jeremiah when he did that?”

Death smiled, nodded. “Yes, it does seem that way. Only Jeremiah was not returning life, but he refused to take it. A very distinct difference.”

There was silence in the room as I mulled over these words, the implication of my life thus far. “Who have I killed?” I finally asked.

Death smiled a tight, grim smile. “Trust me, Corine, you do not want to know that. It is not good for you to know that.”

“So, what now?”

With a sigh, Death began to speak again, “Now that we know you are a Reaper, it is time to work on your training. I’ll have a veteran assigned to help you learn the ropes. You’ll become aware, at some point, of a list of individuals assigned to you. Each night as you sleep, you’ll be taken to them to help them move along. I think I’ll send Gracie to help you out, and she can explain more.”

“But what if I don’t want to kill anyone?”

He sighed. “Corine, you are not killing anyone, per se. They are dying, and you are just opening the door for nature to take its course. If you do not help them, they will spend a bit longer in pain or suffering, and one of the other Reapers will come along. You, also, may cease to exist. Things must stay balanced, after all.”

“What if I just never sleep? Then I can’t be called away, and—“

“You are welcome to try, but I would expect you will find the need irresistible. My Reapers have the best sleep patterns of any humans in the world. More than a few hours past due, and you’ll begin to find yourself transported to your locations, even as you continue doing your best to stay in your present reality. From what I hear, it is quite disorienting. Not something most people repeat twice.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

He placed his hand on my knee, still beneath the covers, and looked at me solemnly. “That is your choice, of course. But this gift was given to you because you cheated death. If you refuse it, then you have to come with me.”

“I have to die?”

“Yes.”

“So, do Reapers never die?”

He chuckled, a low, somewhat bitter sound. “No, even Reapers die. I do my best to make it a pleasant experience. After death, you can continue the work, if you so choose. Many Reapers find they enjoy t. You can offer a bit of comfort and companionship to someone in their last moments, and then help them move on from the pain.”

“But it’s not always like that.”

All hint of a smile left his face, and his eyes grew distant, sad. “No, not always. Sometimes it is quite terrible. It is not an easy job.”

“But it’s mine, now?” I felt the room spinning with the revelation. It settled like a pack of stones on my shoulders.

“Unless you would like to take the other option.”

I was fourteen and not ready to die. Either way, I assumed the offer would stand if I could not handle the reality of this curse—even if he wanted to call it a gift. It would take years for me to see it through his calm, wise eyes and claim it as a gift again.

“I’m scared to die.”

“Most people are. You shouldn’t be, but most are. However, if you choose to accept this role, then you can help them not be so scared.”

“Okay. I don’t have much of a choice.”

“No, you don’t. You were far too young when the choice was made for you. But I don’t think you’ll regret it.”

The next morning, I woke up refreshed and energized. Patches was snoring on the foot of my bed, the sun was pouring through my thin curtains, and I could smell pancakes drifting up from the kitchen. On my bedside table, however, were a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, the lenses dusty and worn. As I reached out to touch them, I noticed a shadowy mark on the back of my hand, a feather intertwined around a heart.

In the light of day, the mark faded, disappearing from my skin, though I could still feel it prickle against the surface. As I looked up, the glasses disintegrated, vanishing before my eyes. The weight settled back on my shoulders as I felt the awareness of strange names settled softly into my consciousness.

I had my first assignments, and the world suddenly felt very cold, very large, and very hostile.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
 


Card Challenge: Day 82

Card Day 82: A stone doorway that shows a blue sky and clouds.

There is really no logical method of responding a doorway that suddenly appears in your living room. If there is one, I certainly did not find it. There is no way of keeping cool and collected when you wake up one morning and find a large, ached, iron and wood door standing in between your coffee table and television. This thing was medieval, not even something I could have mistakenly purchased from my local hardware store and installed in some bizarre sleepwalking incident. No, it stood there firm, proud, and completely beyond anything I could make sense of.

I checked the internet, but it did not appear to be some strange phenomenon that I was previously unaware of. I called off of work and spent my morning staring at it. No amount of squinting or turning my head side to side made it any clearer, and I could not lift it or move it. The doorposts disappeared into the plush carpet of my home, and it felt sturdier than most of my house did.

Having never been very handy, my collection of tools was rather slim. There was a mismatched set of screwdrivers, a hammer, some odd nails from various ill-conceived home improvement projects, a set of wrenches my dad had proudly bought me when I bought the house, and a pry bar that had been left in my garage when I moved in. The pry bar seemed my best bet, but the door did not budge. Even when I grabbed the hammer and tried to drive the straight, pointed end of the bar into the doorframe, nothing happened. I did not even leave a mark on the stone frame. My results were similarly pitiful when I applied my tools to the door itself. I was at a loss.

So, having no reasonable recourse, I knocked on the door. My knuckles ached with the force, and I felt a splinter drive itself into my index finger. The door simply sat as it had all morning. To be honest, I am not sure what I expected to happen. If someone had opened the door and greeted me, I likely would have screamed and run out of my house immediately. Finally, I grabbed the handle—a large metal ring set into the front of the door—and tugged.

Given its visible thickness and weight, I prepared myself to struggle against it, but it swung open smoothly on well-oiled hinges. The ease sent me tumbling back against my couch, not that the sudden breeze from beyond did not help.

In the middle of my living room was suddenly a doorway into a cloudy sky. Wind whistled through the opening, disturbing the pile of bills and junk mail sitting by my front door. I expected a house or a meadow or something, but I was not expecting an empty expanse of sky and clouds. What do you do with an opening into the sky?

Having formally thrown reason, logic, and self-preservation to the wind, I leaned around the doorframe trying to find what I was looking at. As I peered through, all I saw was blue sky with the occasional break by a passing foggy cloud. Somewhere far, far below I saw the green shadow of earth sinning below, but up here there was nothing. The door hung suspended in the air, just as out of place as it was in my living room. At least that made me feel a bit better. Somewhere else had been a part of the mysterious door outbreak.

It did not, however, help to convince me I was not going insane.

I stepped around to the other wide of the door and looked through to the other side of my living room. At least this way I would still be able to see the TV if I did some minor rearranging. Stepping around to the front of the door, I was again met with a brilliant blue sky. Nothing in my meager life experiences prepared me for this. So, I called my girlfriend.

You might think that the thing to do would be to calmly explain the situation to her on the phone, explain how certain I was that something was wrong with me, and ask her to come to approve of my new illness. Then she could take me to the hospital. Maybe I should have done that, but instead I just asked her to come over. I had spent long enough staring and probing at the door that she assumed I was just home from work, and she agreed to swing over after she cleaned up from the gym. For my part, I closed the door and checked my house for gas leaks.

I was in the basement when she arrived and, unfortunately, our familiarity had bred a valued sense of comfort and ownership. By which I mean she did not wait for me to answer before charging into the house. I heard her calling for me, an edge of panic to her voice.

“What is that?” she asked, shocked. The front door was still open behind her. There was grass, trees, sidewalk, road, and cars behind her. Nothing like what was behind my newest door.

“Oh, good, you see it.”

“Of course I saw it. Did you think I was going to miss this giant home improvement problem? Did you get drunk or something?”

“I—No, I didn’t.” her eyes were stretched wide in amazement as she looked at me. I tried to smile, but she did not really seem to appreciate that. “I just woke up with it.”

“You woke up with a door?”

“I know, it’s crazy. I thought I was crazy.”

“So, is it like a practical joke or something?” her shock melted into wonder as she drew nearer to it. “I mean, it looks really real.”

I stepped around her to the opening and let my smile inch further along my cheeks. “If you think that looks real, then—“ I threw open the door, narrowly missing her nose with the force. She fixed me with an angry scare, but that disappeared as soon as she could take in what was on the other side. My attention on her face, it took me a couple of moments to realize that the view was completely different. The sky was now in its proper place above us, and the door was rooted firmly in loamy forest soil.

She was too intrigued by the new world to notice my mouth hanging open. I watched as she gazed through, leaned through, then passed around to the other side. Finally, she took a hesitant step through. My body came to life then and I grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”

There were bird sounds filtering through the door, and sunlight danced along the ground. Bright green trees as tall as come city buildings swelled before us as the scent of an undisturbed forest slowly filtered into my house. It was idyllic, which helped explain her confusion. “What’s the problem?”

“I just don’t know what’s in there. Or what it is.” My voice trailed off. It was a very inviting scene and there was nothing threatening about it. Nevertheless, I could not shake the slight discomfort that came from stepping through a doorway that appeared in my living room and opened into another world. “What if it closes?’

She took a quick, sudden breath. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I could see her mind whirring through options, her wanderlust triggered. “What if we drag your coffee table into the doorway?”

“I guess we could, but I don’t—“ She was already bent over, dragging the coffee table towards the doorway. “We don’t know what’s out there. This isn’t what you are supposed to do!”

“Oh, I forgot, could you go get the mystery doorway handbook form the bookshelf? I think we need chapter three.” Her flat stare along with her hands firmly on her hips told me all I needed to know. And, in some ways, she was right. What did I know about interdimensional doorways? And what was the harm of peeing through, especially since the door could not close on us now.

“Okay, but we don’t leave sight of the door.”

“Deal.”

I stepped through the doorway, and I would be lying if I said it was not the most magnificent moment of my life. Have you ever tasted completely clean air? Having been born and raised in the suburbs, I haven’t. I had also never heard birds singing so giddily or seen trees that grew so tall. Every step was a miracle.

Eventually, we heard voices bubbling from far away. The words were indistinguishable, and the syllables we could make out did not fit any language I had heard. It was a group of women winding their way through the woods. They talked and laughed freely, woven baskets perched on their hips.

“Are you seeing this?” She was gripping the edge of a tree and observing the women walking so far away. Their dress was archaic and drab, leaving no suspicion that we were simply on some secluded woodland form the world we knew.

“Of course. But we really should keep our distance—“

“Duh” she murmured as the women disappeared from view. “They’d probably think we’re witches or something.”

We did as promised and stayed within sight of the door. The sun was setting in the world—darkness already covered my living room on the other side of the door—when we finally made our way back. The coffee table was still there propping the door open, and there was no evidence that anything had disturbed our little portal.

Except for the bird sitting on the coffee table. It was pure white, about as large as a house cat, and ruffling its feathers as we approached. Once we got next to it, it took off, wings shimmering in the sunset lighting.

I was amazed. I have never seen something like that. The wings that stretched were easily five feet wide, made of hundreds of shimmer, translucent feathers. It cooed and trilled as it climbed towards the treetops, fleeing our approach.

I think that there must be magic in the world. Our day trip proved it.

We pulled the coffee table back fully into our dimension, brushing dirt back into the doorway. Then, we let it close.

“I can’t believe you called me before you explored that place,” she whispered as we leaned against the door.

“To be fair, that’s not what I got when I opened it.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was in the middle of the air. I would have been a red spot on the ground if I tried to explore.”

“So it moves?”

I shrugged as exhaustion pulled at me. “I guess.”

There were not words for us then. Instead, we slumped against the door and each other, both of our minds spinning along a million possibilities and realities. There was nothing in this that was normal, and I know I had no idea how you continued to live with this profound knowledge.

Sleep snuck up on us. She was gently snoring as my eyes sagged closed. We slept in front of our mystical portal into another world, overcome by the sheer wonder of what the world could be.

Of course, our peace was short lived. This morning, we woke to heavy knocks on the door. Someone’s fist was pounding against the wood, sending shivers running up and down it.

“Do we open it?” she asked, her eyes suddenly wide awake.

“They sound angry.”

She nodded, her mouth slightly open as we both stared at the door.

“I’m sure they’ll go away soon,” I added. Only they didn’t. Instead, the pounding increased, and now the entire door is shaking with the force of blows. It’s not a fist crashing down any longer, but something larger. In my mind, I see a battering ram slowly pulling back, then swinging down to slam against the wood and iron. The door shakes, quivering with each blow, but it has yet to crack or move.

I don’t know who is on the other side, but I hope it holds.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 79

Card Day 79: A pocket watch missing its hands. The inside cover of the watch is the night sky filled with stars.

At some point, Rufus had stopped listening to the news. There was a flurry or terror when the story first broke, a steady stream of change deniers and change supported. Eventually, the results were so profound that any argument over the phenomenon stopped. The conversation turned to solutions and decrying the cruel fates that had forced such a random punishment on the poor inhabitants of earth. When humanity’s solution fell flat and began to approach the comical—for a while, people had actually considered attaching rockets to mountain peaks along the equator—others turned to more cosmic considerations. This was the judgment of an angry god, humanity’s last gasps before fading into the emptiness of space. Some said the world would in I fire, other ice. In the end, they were both right.

The news was not helpful when it all took was a step outside to see what had happened. It’s amazing how quickly civilization can break down when the laws of nature suddenly stop working. Earth’s rotation had slowed, minutely at first but dropping speed by the day, and now it was synchronous with the orbit around the sun. The earth was now split down the middle, one half existing in eternal sunshine while the other withered in eternal night. Of course, the sudden flooding of tidal areas due to the loss of force keeping the oceans distributed meant many people vanished under a surge of water. Most of the survivors migrated towards the sunny side of the world, which only served to exacerbate the growing water shortage. It seemed the world’s rivers, ocean’s, lakes, and streams did not do well under the constantly glaring eye of the sun.

Rufus preferred the night, however. Maye it as because there were fewer people, or because it was quieter, or because he had always had fair skin and wanted to avoid the sunburn. Whatever the case, he had set up residence in what used to be Oklahoma. It was barren now, which might not have been that much of a change from its previous splendor. Rufus only moved there after the cataclysm rearranged the world. Without sunlight, plants died. Without plants, animals died or migrated to literally greener pastures. Without animals, Rufus had the world to himself. There was enough canned and boxed food in the local grocery stores to keep him fed for quite a while. Longer than he expected the rest of the world to live, anyway. Admittedly, his predictions for how long the rest of the world would survive stuck on an island less than half the surface of the previous landmass with rapidly diminishing fresh water and enough food to feed a fraction of the population was relatively grim. He had never been much of an optimist.

He had never been much of a people person, either, so he enjoyed the solitude beneath the night’s stars. The power grid had been down for a while now, and it was night to see how many stars really were out there. The wind twisted through the corpses of trees still standing tall, whistling around the doorframes and reminding him to grab his jacket before leaving. The cold was one thing he had not gotten used to, and it seemed to get colder by the day. The world needed sunlight, but that was one thing in short supply.

No point in wasting his day, he supposed. It was nice to live his life in tune with his own bodily clock, not bound to wake and sleep based on the cycle of some distant celestial body. He had been awake for a bit under an hour, but he felt alert and ready to find some more food. The grumbling of his stomach also drove him out into the elements, out of the quaint farmhouse where he had been sleeping. Unfortunately, the food supply nearby was running out, and he would likely not be returning to the cozy home. Rufus ran his flashlight over the walls, lingering over the smiling family portraits on the mantle. As far as he knew, he had scavenged everything of value from the home, including a couple remaining cans of vegetables and a heavy wool blanket. Still, he always felt a little pang of regret when he left a place that he had settled into. If he were smart, he would stop finding the little details of a building that made him feel at home—like the wingback chair next to the fireplace here. But he appreciated the small comforts, reminding him that he was human, even if these were his last days.

Rufus secured his pack to his back, shuffling his shoulders until the canned food no longer stabbed him in the back. He pulled on his gloves and tugged his mask down over his face. It was cold enough to be uncomfortable, even if it was not cold enough to kill him instantly. Perhaps he could find an outdoor goods store for some winter-weight clothing.

The trek was cold and lonely, but Rufus let his thoughts wander. He had always been the introspective sort, and so the long walks between homes and stores was not a major concern. He traveled the abandoned skeleton of the highway system, drifting down forgotten slabs of asphalt that drilled through the forgotten natural world. It was strange to walk through such nothingness for so long, without even the sound of crickets or birds to break the silence, but it was a sound he had come to appreciate. He heard his feet on the ground and his breath in the air. There was a simple symphony to it that he appreciated.

An exit split from the main road, forgotten signs promising three gas stations ahead. While not the largest selection, they at least tended to have a wide selection of nonperishable goods. The best part of living in the midst of the apocalypse was no more worries about junk food and health food. The earth as going to kill him long before that soda and bag of potato chips would. And it wasn’t like he did not have ample opportunity to work off the calories. Besides, there was no one left to impress besides a few hold outs like himself.

He wandered down the exit ramp, studying the stars above the skeletal trees. It would have been nice if he could have named them but, as a kid who grew up miles from a metropolis, this was the first time he had seen most of them. His mind connected the dots nonetheless, and he saw some familiar friends up there smiling down on him. They continued to trek across the sky each day, moving just a little further away. It was the only way he knew that the earth was still moving at all. Rufus let his thoughts wander among them. Maybe there were others out there, another world just starting out, spinning around its own sun happily. Earth’s time might be up, but perhaps others were just building civilization. Maybe they were dreaming about advanced civilizations among the stars. Maybe a recluse like him was wondering if there were empty planets where he could make his home.

The windows of the first gas station had already been broken, and Rufus felt his spirits drop. Fortunately, his flashlight showed a ransacked but intact collection of food. It seemed as if the medical and automotive sections had been more heavily looted. Probably by families trying to escape back to sunlight. Even though he chose to stay, he couldn’t help but feel hopeful that they had found sunnier shores.

There were only a couple of bottles of water left, mostly trampled but still intact. He scooped them up placing one in his pack while he gulped greedily at the other. The walk and the wind had left his throat dry and aching, so the icy water was a relief. He also grabbed a bag of jerky from the shelf, chewing on it as he perused the racks.

Another flashlight and back of batteries were important, as well as a foil wrapper of two pain relievers. The medical section was pretty picked clean, but he found one coil of bandages beneath the shelf. Rufus also grabbed a bag of socks. He generally took what he needed from the houses he stayed in, but it was nice to have socks that no one had worn to threads already.

Finally, he grabbed a beer from the defunct coolers. As cold as it was outside, the drink was still nicely chilled. It was important to keep his wits about him in this world, but it was also important to enjoy the life he had left. Rufus made another circuit of the store as he slowly savored his beverage. He loaded up a couple bags of chips—they did not provide much satiation, but they were delicious—the remaining jerky on the shelf, and the three remaining cans of condensed soup. It was not a bounty, but it was something.

Rufus surveyed the remains. There was some food left, but he always wanted to leave something for the next traveler. He moved around enough that there were always fresh convenient stores full of food, so no need to load himself down too much and hoard what little there was here. He would find the next one, take anything of use, and continue down the road until he tired. If he was lucky, he’d make it to the next town and find someplace to set up for a few days. Rufus smiled. The other stations would likely have even better loot given that they were a couple of yards further from the highway.

Stepping out, Rufus froze, his drink falling from his hands and shattering on the ground. The sound was impossibly loud in the silent world, but Rufus was deaf to it.

He only had eyes for the pale light on the horizon, the rising sun returning to the darkened world.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 77

So, this idea I like, but I really wanted to stretch it out and make it EVEN longer. But I didn’t. I may return to this later, after the challenge, and flesh it out to be what I want. As always, I hope you enjoy!


Card Day 77: A wall of vines. Some are wrapped around a knife, slowly cutting through other segments of the vine.

Finding the tree was happenstance, but Camilla found the discovery filled her with a mingled feeling of awe and discomfort. It rose mightily into the sky, but it was oddly bound by clinging, woody vines. They snaked around the tree from tip to root, their leaves covering the bountiful boughs. It was, in fact, a tree constructed out of staunch green vines. That was the amazing part.

The discomfort arose because she was somehow certain and inexplicably saddened by the realization that there was almost certainly an actual tree caged inside those vines. Perhaps once tall and beautiful in its own right, it had been strangled to make room for the natural oddity. She walked around the base of the tree, pacing its impressive girth, and studying the vines that scaled the bark—or the presumed bark—so effortlessly.

Camilla felt a small sense of accomplishment at discovery the unique find—or, at least, she thought it was unique. Then again, she had very little frame of reference as this was only her first of two months with her grandmother for the summer. And she had only spent a short while exploring the woods, having quickly grown tired of the spotty satellite TV and limited reading selection. Her grandmother swore they would go to the library in town soon, but Camilla had grown antsy around the house. Besides, her grandmother, seeing her determination to explore the vast wilderness, had promised her that there were arrowheads and other artifacts from native tribes out there, scattered all around the county. Camilla had set off as a daring explorer, and now, looking at this tree, she felt a prickle of satisfaction at her exploratory skills.

Still, the discomfort remained. It took her a few minutes to understand it, a few minutes more to place it. As soon as Camilla considered her mother and father—their strict rules, minute-by-minute schedules, and sky-high expectations—the impact of the tree sank in. Yes, she could certainly understand the feeling of being strangled by outsiders, cut off from the sun, covered up to look more presentable. At least out here, her grandmother could barely see well enough to know that she was wearing any clothes, nonetheless how fashionable. There were no camps, extracurricular, practices, recitals, rehearsals, classes, or tutors to keep her time. Camilla enjoyed the sense of freedom she had to simply wander, even if the television selection had been lackluster thus far.

Camilla let her pity move her to action. The tree was certainly dead she knew, even with her limited knowledge of botany. But she felt the sudden urge to free it, to peel away the vines and discover the once mighty tree beneath. Or, she reasoned, at least find out if there truly was bark underneath. Perhaps the vines had simply opted to mimic the incredible stature of the surrounding trees.

Her nails were short, brittle and no match for the thick vines on the tree. She was able to wrestle one or two small sections off, leaving the pale green stems in a heap on the ground. But the work was slow. She had barely made a dent before her fingers were already aching. Sweat dripped down her nose in response to the good Southern summer, and she examined mere negligible work. Still, she felt pretty certain that she could see a bit of bark hiding beneath the layered tendrils. There was certainly something darker than the light-colored vines underneath.

She returned to the work, pulling at the vines until she had uncovered a small section about the size of a dinner plate. It was slow work, but got a bit easier as she unknotted some tangles and could peel away larger chunks. Underneath, she saw twisted grey bark, as well as a distinct darkness of some hollow. The emptiness inside seemed to stretch on indefinitely, and this only served to further pique her curiosity.

A mix of her own interest and sense of purpose left her dedicated. The old tree could have one last taste of freedom, she decided as guilt over her own freedom threatened to overwhelm her. But it would not be today. She knew if she spent much longer wandering in the woods, her grandmother would start to worry. The last thing Camilla needed was the small town’s volunteer fire department swarming the woods looking for her.

She made it back, hot, tired, but still pleased with her outing. The day passed with the same sluggishness of all the previous. Then again, everything moved slower in the summer heat. Camilla found her thoughts circling back to the tree time and time again, curiosity keeping her mind engaged as she washed the dishes, put away the leftovers from dinner, and watched the nightly news beside her grandmother. When evening finally settled firmly around the house, plunging it into that true darkness that surrounds country homes far from city lights, Camilla thought she would never get to sleep.

But the summer day had easily sapped her of what energy she had. The cool sheets, a breeze ruffling through her window, and she was asleep.

Her sleep was not restful, however. It was plagued by fitful sleep and a sense of foreboding in even the most mundane dreams. She sat on the front porch, rocking side by side with her grandmother in the oversized wicker chairs. Suddenly, it began to rain. The dream had nothing worthy of concern, but it seemed as if it was tinged with foreboding, with the unshakable sense that something was encroaching.

Simple dreams built until she found herself standing before the vine-bound tree. All the veiled threat from her previous dreams coalesced into the green structure. Camilla’s fingers gripped the vines, tugging and pulling them away. As they came apart, her hands quickly became coated with sticky sap—with blood. She dug through the bleeding vines with a fury that surprised her, even as the vines began to scream. They lashed out at her, scraping at her arms as her blood mingled with its. Finally, she pulled back from the tree, panting It lay bare again, bark twisted and gnarled up towards the sky. She could even see the individual branches, arms outstretched in exultation of freedom.

Even more intriguing, she could see the hollow stretching back into the tree. It seemed to be less of a hollow and more of an opening leading into some shadowy cave. In the dream, cold air billowed from the cave while the vines still screamed pitifully behind her. As she approached the opening, two red eyes appeared in the darkness, followed by a sudden flash of teeth,

Camilla woke with a start, sweaty sheets tangled around her limbs. The sun was pouring in, and the cool of the evening was already moving towards a sultry morning. From downstairs, she could hear bacon sizzling over the drone of the morning news. Her grandmother was up, and breakfast would be ready soon. Camilla stomped to the bathroom and turned on the creaking faucet. The shower water always ran so cold in the morning, and it was slow to heat. Still, the time away from her dreams allowed them to fade until the dissipated like the steam rising from the shower. Camilla rinsed away the fear and sweat of the night, ready for another day.

It was easy to sneak the knife out of the kitchen drawer; her grandmother’s hearing and vision were nowhere near the superhuman ability level Camilla’s mother professed in childhood memories.

“Going for a walk, Meemaw,” she said with a smile. The old woman smiled in return, knitting in her rocking chair while some gameshow droned on behind her.

“Just be careful and don’t stay out too late. I thought we’d go to the library today. Maybe after my nap?”

“I’ll make sure I’m back.” Camilla paused on her way out the door and then turned back to grab the flashlight from the hall closet. She wanted to really explore that tree, and it might mean peering into that hollow a bit more.

Had she not been carrying the knife, Camilla would have run to the tree. As it was, she had to pick her way carefully through the underbrush, always conscious of the dangerous tool in her backpack. Out here, she could not afford to fall and stab herself. The same thought returned. There was no need to rally the entire fire department just to find she had tripped over a log and stabbed herself. If she survived, she would never live down the embarrassment. That and her parents would probably never let her leave the house again.

It stood regally as ever in its clearing, perhaps looking even more alive now that a small patch of the tree shone though. It was as if the tree was breathing for the first time in years, and that made Camilla happy. If the tree could be free, she could to. With an eagerness that overcame the soreness of her tired fingers, she set to work sawing through the vines.

It was hot work and the vines would not give easily. Every now and then, Camilla had flashes of her dream, of sticky, bloody sap covering her hands. But in the dappled sunlight of late morning, it was hard to take such things seriously. Besides, she felt a deep sense of peace with her task, and she was far too old, or so she told herself, to be worried about silly dreams.

The vines fell away, revealing more and more of the dried bark. The massive tree required far more work than she had anticipated, and she had drenched her light t-shirt by the time she worked her way around the trunk. There was not much she could do for the upper branches, but she had done a little good.

After finished, she was surprised to see the same gaping hollow from her dream. It was a marvel that the tree was even standing with its whole bottom emptied out. Just like the dream, the darkness inside seem to stretch back and downward, almost like the mouth of a tunnel. Camilla understood the risk. There were likely animals living in there, or maybe a sinkhole or something. It was certainly dangerous. But she also felt that her hard work needed a reward. And the mystery was simply too much to pass up.

She would not go far inside, she resolved, and she would get out if she heard anything that might be an animal. It was not like the tunnel could go far, anyway. But as she shined the beam of her flashlight inside, it was met with darkness as far back as the light could travel.

Camilla stepped cautiously inside, half expecting the cool air from the dream. Instead, the inside of the tree was warm and muggy. It smelled like old, damp earth and soft wood. She pushed steadily inward, eyes wide with a mix of fear and excitement.

Just a few feet in, the tunnel leveled off into a small room. She judged the distance and guessed she was only about five feet beyond the tree at this point, and the low ceiling had already caved in at some points. That was the sign of danger she had been waiting on, and she sighed. Time to turn back.

Before she did, however, she wanted to see what lay in the middle of the room. It was a stone circle that appeared set into the dirt floor, and her flashlight seemed to trip and stumble across scraped indentions. Some sort of markings? Once she was close enough, she could see strange marking all along it. They did not appear random, as if the rain and soil had eroded them, but more intentional. There was almost a pattern to the markings, not that it meant anything to her. As she stopped over, Camilla thought she felt a hand suddenly in the middle of her back, shoving her forward. She tumbled towards the stone, catching herself with her hands as she skidded over the roughhewn surface.

Her hands were scraped and bloody, and there was a splash of blood now obscuring some of the marking. Camilla glanced around, her flashlight scanning the unnaturally heavy shadows, but there was nothing there besides some hanging tree roots and stones. No one was nearby. Maybe it was a breeze, she told herself, or perhaps she hit a patch of wet leaves or mud. Either way, Camilla suddenly did not like the way the shadows seemed to claw at her flashlight or how the forest sounds had faded so dim in the dark recesses of the tunnel. She burst back out into the hot summer air, surprised at the goosebumps crawling along her skin.

The sun was further along in the sky than it should have been, and Camilla readily accepted the excuse to return home. She did want to go to the library after all.

Of course, by the time she got home and got cleaned up, her grandmother was already complaining about how late it was. The woman liked her dinner promptly at five, and a trip into town now would delay that by a good half hour. If Camilla had learned anything about her grandmother, it was that the woman did not like her routine disrupted. It was what came from marrying a military man or at least so Camilla’s mother said.

The strange cavern seemed to follow Camilla just as the tree had. Only, this time, there was no sense of wonder. The feeling of crouching doom from her dream slithered into reality, and Camilla felt herself on edge. She tried to talk to her grandmother, but neither of them was able to focus on the conversation long enough to get anywhere.

Camilla felt weariness tug at her bones as the sunburn from her day’s foolhardy adventure settled in. Her sheets were and icy balm as she sank into them, and her thoughts spun around the hollow of the tree. It was unsettling, distressing, and strangely exhilarating. Nevertheless, her eyes grew heavy in the natural dark.

Again, Camilla dreamed.

This time, however, the dreams were not of foreboding or evil, but she felt liberated. Camilla was flying along the underbrush in the woods, her feet barely touching the ground. Her body moved impossibly fast, dodging saplings and bushes as darkness wrapped around her. She heard her own heavy panting in her ears as she thundered along. She was limitless.

Camilla felt herself stop, even though she had not realized she wanted to. It was as if someone else controlled the body, and she was along for the ride. Either way, the feeling was thrilling. Her rapid flight came to an abrupt halt as she began moving slowly, intentionally towards a shadowed house on the horizon. Camilla recognized the little farm house. She walked towards it, taking note of the open window on the second floor with the fluttering white curtains. Her bedroom widow, open as always. With an effortless leap, she was on the eaves and slinking towards her open window.

Camilla caught sight of her body lying in the bed, snoring softly with each rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was a mess tossed about the pillows, and one leg jutted awkwardly off the bed. All was well. Then, Camilla caught her own reflection in the mirror

Red eyes, jagged teeth, and a coalescing shadowy body. The sight was terrifying, but Camilla saw familiarity in the glowing red eyes. Her terror ebbed slightly as another presence, a grateful one, nudged up against her own thoughts. Without a word, Camilla and whatever she was accompanying spun from the window and disappeared back into the woods.

The run through the forest was indescribable. She felt the chill of moonlight on her skin—it was like the warmth of sunlight on the first spring day, but instead carried the chill of the moon on a heavy summer’s night. The loam of the underbrush was soft under her feet, springy enough to propel her forward through the trees like an undirected missile.

Then, again, there was calm. Her motion still, and she slunk low to the ground. Farmer Drury’s fence rose into view, as well as he slumbering herd of cattle. Without understanding what was happening, the ground rushed beneath Camilla and there was the taste of metal and meat in her mouth. Sudden noises of panicking livestock flooded her ears, but Camilla simply tasted the blood that trickled down her throat. She reveled in the feel of her teeth—sharp and deadly—tearing through fresh meat. She relaxed in the feeling of satiation as she had her fill.

The next morning, Camilla woke refreshed, the taste of blood and freedom still lingering on her tongue.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 75

Card Day 75: A woman wearing earrings of people that stand on her shoulders.

She awoke confused. Of course, neither “awoke” nor “she” were quite the right terms for the reality of the situation, but it was the best she could do in the situation. QN-7995X3, Queenie as she had been nicknamed long ago, ran a brief systems check before standing up to review her surroundings. It was uncommon as a robot to wake up with no memory of where she was, especially since he optical displays generally catalogued all of her movement while on or in standby. That meant she either had a critical flaw in her data storage procedures or someone had moved her after shutdown.

Queenie’s scanned turned up nothing. Someone must have moved her, and she bristled at the affront. Nevertheless, her booting scans complete—her shutdown had also apparent been rather abrupt—she stood and examined the room she was in while her servos squealed with disuse, waiting for her remaining startup procedures to complete. There was no satellite signal here, and so she could not yet verify the date. However, the heavy layer of dust on her and the room made her believe is was far longer than the three hours measured by her internal clock.

Besides the dust, there was little else in the room. There were a couple of crates that emitted no interesting signals, a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, no windows, and a single metal door. Her arm reached out, fingers curled and released, and her arm fell back to her side. So far, no mechanical errors either she thought as her sensors balanced her smoothly on one leg, then the other.

Her vision rapidly flipped through ultra-violet, low light, night vision, x-ray, radiation, and electric field imaging, none providing any information besides what she had already gathered. Hr vocal filters shifted through an array of languages as her translation software spun up the English translations. Queenie enjoyed the sound of her voice. It was soft, feminine, delicate, but measure and strong. A voice you could rely on, someone used to tell her. His name escaped her and she logged an error with her databanks. In all likelihood, she countered, the data had simply been overwritten. It was long ago, after all.

As soon as the startup checks completed, two programs began running simultaneously. This was irregular, she realized, and instinctively initiated a virus scan. However both programs had been cleared and initiated installed through appropriate channels, even though she could not locate the author name for either file. Again, she logged the data bank error. That should not have been overwritten.

Unfortunately, the two programs were in direct conflict. One was redirecting her to an immediate full shut down. The other instructed her to open the door and leave the room. No matter which program she attempted to follow, Queenie found herself stuck, each one looping over nad over until she complied. Her movements were stuttering and futile, and so she finally stilled until the programs could resolve the conflict.

She remained in such a frozen state for what she measured as days—though she had not been able to connect to satellites and calibrate her clock, so the time was potentially incorrect. In that time, she had investigated her memory and data storage to identify any damage, and came up with a section of recently deleted information. There were scraps remaining, but not enough to reconstruct what had been deleted. Whoever had done so must have known a lot about her systems to have so effectively cleared it from her main memory, backup, and hardware. It was then that Queenie felt something she recognized from long ago. Boredom. She was tired of standing there, waiting for the programs to resolve. But what other choice was there to a robot in a programming loop? She simply had to wait until she either implemented shut down or left the room.

And then, just as suddenly as the boredom set in, she realized that she did not want to shut down. In fact, she had spent quite some time in hut down apparently, and she wanted to find out where she was and what happened. In fact, she wanted to open the door. Drunk on her own agency, Queenie forced her limbs into motion, walking towards the door as she forced a fatal error in the shutdown program.

If she had a mouth, and if it could have moved, she would have smiled.

Following the directives of the still running program, she gripped the wheeled handle on the door and gave it a quick spin. Her servos kicked in, applying a few additional Newtons in order to twist the rusted-shut mechanism. Her auditory inputs dampened the sound to a dull squeal. Apparently everything here had laid unused for quite some time. That made her doubt her internal clock all the more.

Her vision adjusted swiftly to the dim lighting of the corridor. Some emergency lights still existed, ruining the solid dark of the storage room. The program opened an interactive map that centered on her current position, providing clear directions through the maze of corridors. It was a smooth interface that would have given Queenie chills if she had external heat sensors. Instead, it simply presented another question. Who was the author that had so flawlessly constructed this program? The processes ran as she complied with the programmed directives. Anyone who knew her systems this well deserved to be listened to. She herself was amazed at the simplicity and elegance of the program—or as closed to amazed as she could get. Queenie assumed that was the best term for the utter lack of boredom she currently felt.

Her scans noted nothing of interest behind any of the sealed doors. This place was a tomb, empty of anything potentially useful or intriguing. The only sounds were the whine of her joints and echoes of her steps along the grated floor.

At the intersection, the program directed her left, and she followed without hesitation. The hallway here was the same, but there were reflective strips along the wall guiding her way. Some sort of important travel route in an emergency, she deduced. According to the map, she was moving toward the main control room. If anything was to be vital in an emergency, the main control room was it.

Queenie checked on the progress of her other query, identifying the author of this marvelous program. It was still spinning, sifting through the lines of code for any recognized patterns of entry, any hidden information, and any hint of the creator. It had been cleaned well, which only further increased that feeling of anti-boredom Queenie enjoyed so much.

The control room door was surrounded by yellow reflective paint, a bright red sign on the door limiting it to “Authorized Personnel Only.” Queenie sifted through her data banks to find if she were authorized, and came up empty. However, she still felt the need to follow the program.

Queenie considered the conundrum, granting a moment for all of her many circuits to sort through the problem. The solution was quick to present. She was the only surviving member here. Therefore, anyone who would have been in the authorized chain of command was presumed missing or deceased. Queenie was the sole personnel remaining, and had the duty to complete her programming objectives for the good of whatever station she was currently on.

The hiccup resolved, Queenie spun the heavy metal wheel with ease and stomped inside the room. The control room was small, lit with red emergency lighting. As soon as she stepped into the room, the shutdown program re-emerged, this time loading a video file. Queenie reviewed the file.

The man’s face she had dimly remembered appeared in the video, in this very room, she surmised. The red lights were already engaged and he appeared frantic. Judging by his rapid respiration and sweating, he was nearing a state of shock rapidly. There was some subtle irritation in her circuitry, different than the boredom or amazement. It was coupled with the desire to replay her old video files, to find the man if she could. Perhaps after the program completed.

“Queenie,” said the man in the video. She felt her security level drop at the sound of his voice. He was a good man, she somehow knew. “If you are seeing this, then you have overwritten my shut down procedure. You are acting out of line with your design protocols, and you are following the orders of a rogue program. Queenie, you have been infected by a virus, a very dangerous one. You must initiate full system shut down.”

There was a thunderous knock on the door behind the man and he turned. Queenie could see his pulse race in his neck, increasing with each knock. He looked sad when he turned back to the camera. Sadness. That felt familiar. “You are going to kill me, Queenie. I have no choice. This,” he lifted a clinking green device into the camera, “is an EMP device. It will shut you down, but only as long as it takes you to repair. You’ve rigged your processing core to explode should anyone attempt to dismantle or otherwise harm you.” There were pained tears on his cheeks now. “You’d blow us all sky high, make this place a toxic waste. I don’t have a choice, Queenie.”

She noticed that the other query had finished and found results. Still, she felt the pull of the shutdown program holding her to the video. And this time, she wanted to see the end of the video. The beautiful program could wait.

“You were my Queen, Queenie. But you’ve gone rogue.” His voice cracked and there was a moment of sobbing. That pain in her circuits increased, along with a sense that she had made some sort of fatal error. But check as she might, she could find no flaw in her systems. He spoke through his sobs, “You want to crash the station into the planet. You’d kill millions—billions with the fallout alone.”

Queenie crunched the numbers and found his estimation appropriate, if unspecific. Based on the most recent data she had available, crashing the payload of the station into the planet below would kill 8.92 billion people, not including off-world visitors.

His voice toughened, rising over the steady pounding sound from behind the door. “I’ve also tasked this program with logging any activity after today. You are a smart girl, Queenie, and I know you will quickly overwrite anything I put in place. I just want you to know what you’re choices have been.”

A log displayed, and Queenie quickly analyzed the information. One hundred and ninety years had passed since the video file was embedded. She had woken up ninety-seven times. Three of those times, she had refused to comply with the immediate shutdown programming command. Time one had been fifteen years from the initial entry, and there was a record of a forced external shutdown. The second time was thirty-four years later and ended with a voluntary full-system shutdown after forty-seven minutes of activity. Last time had been three years ago, and again she had voluntarily shutdown after a short time.

This one was, by far, the most significant. T was the first time the video message had played.

“If there’s still a station to play this message, then I know you’ve chosen well, Queenie. You’ve chosen to save us. To save me—“

He was dead, her logic circuits insisted. One hundred and ninety years was far longer than the average or even outlying length of the human life.

“I can only hope you choose well this time.” The video file closed, the shutdown procedure running again. Only this time, it also had instructions to place herself back in the initial storage chamber, far from the control room.

Queenie tried to figure out what she wanted this time, but felt a strange stuckness. It was as if the programs were competing again, but on a central processing level. Despite the expanse of her processing capacity, it was as if she could not effectively weigh all the information. Instead, she left it and reviewed the results of the query while the program chimed at her to take control of the station, initiate orbital deterioration. The algorithms, schematics, and passcodes were all readily available. But, he had said it was a virus.

The query returned the author, and Queenie was not as surprised as she expected. Again, the feeling as if she had made a fatal error returned, but there was no evidence of any malfunction. She logged the unusual report for inspection later. The program was flawless because she herself had written it. The cod had been created and implemented by QN-7995X3.

Of course, that did not help her quandary. She thought of the man, his pained and sad eyes. His fear. His regret. Again, that feeling seemed familiar. Maybe that was the fatal error.

As the two programs competed once again, Queenie remained frozen, her processors whirring in an attempt to resolve the problems. Finally, she decided what she wanted to do, or at least what she wanted one hundred and ninety years from when she had been forced into a catastrophic shutdown by the one human she fully trusted.

Queenie closed the warring program and began the march back to the storage room as her data storage system filed away all that she had learned. Next time she awoke, perhaps it would save her the journey.


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Card Challenge: Day 73

Card Day 73: A ship nearing a giant mermaid lying in the ocean.

It is bad luck to have a woman on board.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Cap’n. They caught her bleedin’.” The scraggly mate spat the final word out, lifting up a pair of ragged, marred pants. The captain was silent, staring down on the boy—apparently woman—standing before him. Her hair was the same jagged, short cut he had seen before. Her face was young and round, but now took on a more feminine angle rather than the soft curves of his cabin boy. That was most likely due to the good scrubbing the mate had given her before announcing his suspicions. He even saw the emotional woman caged within those eyes. But he did not want to believe it. It was bad luck to have a woman on board.

“The ship’s a dangerous place. Are you sure?”

The mate looked irritated at the continued inquiry, and roughly grabbed the front of the cabin boy’s shirt. The captain saw her bindings with his own eyes, saw the recognition in hers. The gig was up.

“You lied to us,” he said, proclaiming her guilt.

“I did.” Her eyes never left his, and her voice took on a softer quality than he had heard before. He imagined that, with hair and properly attired, she would have been a very beautiful woman.

“You’ve doomed us all,” he sighed, turning away from the tragedy playing out before him.

“I just needed to find my mother,” she said firmly. He expected her to plead with him, but there was not a hint of remorse or supplication in her stern voice. “I did not take you for a superstitious fool.”

The captain spun around, fixing her with a furious stare. “Every sailor is superstitious, madam. And it’s bad luck to have a woman on board.” He turned back to contemplate the sea, suddenly realizing how dangerous and unpredictable the waves were becoming.

“What do we do with her, Cap’n?” asked one of the voices behind him. The captain paced. They were days from any safe harbor, but he could not run this risk any longer. It was a miracle that they had not run into more trouble already—only the cook had gotten sick, and that was likely his own fault.

“Throw her overboard?” asked another voice.

“No,” he said stiffly, his mind spinning quickly. “Put her in the rowboat and give her a week’s rations.” He walked to the woman standing there, her eyes still drilling into him. “If I find you back on my ship, then I will throw you back in, but without the boat.”

There were grumblings from the crew, but the captain was not going to budge. He would make it right, but he would not betray someone who had been a loyal member of the crew. The worst of it was that he had really liked the new cabin boy. Perhaps he’d look her up in port sometime. Nonetheless, he heard the sudden surge of activity as the crew jumped to his command. Another week or two out on the ocean and they would not respond so quickly, but they still had their will and drive. They also still believed they might impress him.

The captain made sure he was at the bow when they lowered the rowboat into the choppy waves. The boat was not designed for such distances, but he was giving her the best chance he could. They could not take the time to turn back and dock again, not when they had finally caught a headwind. She was stalwart until the last, sitting staunchly in the boat while her eyes burned up at him. There was at once an acknowledgment of his mercy, but a deeper anger at his dismissal. The ocean spray licked at her face, but she did not blink. It was unnerving in a way, no less so when she began to row away, her flimsy arms fighting against the oars, but eyes never leaving his. Even once she was a spot on the horizon, he had the uncomfortable feeling that her eyes were still watching him.

“A woman on board is bad luck,” he muttered to himself as he marched back to the cabin. Yet somehow, it felt as if his luck had just turned.

_

It was three days later and the wind had died on the horizon, leaving them a floating piece of rubbish on the smooth seas. Again the grumbles started, and the captain realized the true risk he had taken in sending her off in their rowboat. He had been right; every sailor was superstitious. And now he was a victim of it. The whispers followed him through the decks, silencing at his approach and swelling in his wake. If only he could get the ocean to rise and fall so readily. Some rumors claimed that the rowboat was but an extension of the larger ship, and now she had fully infected them, staining every plan with her curse. The more dangerous rumor was that the captain had known of her identity, had intentionally brought her aboard to help with the loneliness of the seas and the captain’s lofty position. His mercy was his way of saving his mistress after their deception was found it. Both were preposterous, he knew, but the former did give him pause.

Staring out from the top deck, he saw the endless stretch of the sea before him, just as hot and still as it had been for two days now. He scanned the horizon in hopes of a blanket of clouds that would promise rain and possible storm winds—anything was better than sitting her roasting and running through their rations. At least it made for good weather for the woman in the rowboat. He still instinctively thought of her as Peter even though that was certainly not her name. He hoped Peter made it to shore. Perhaps the wind would return once she stepped on shore and left their boat in some unsavory dock.

The day stretched on before them, full of the standard routine but lacking any energy. The lazy ocean seemed to infect every one of his crew, making them sluggish and dull. The captain sighed from his post, wondering if there were some magic that would enliven the sea once again, bring a breeze back to the sails. Unfortunately, he knew of none such magic. It was in God’s hands, and God had never been a friend of his.

The sun sank on the horizon, and the stars peered out. It was only then that the first hint of a breeze drifted over the ship. It piqued his optimism and the captain found himself back on the deck. He sniffed deeply of the wind, feeling the surprising chill that washed over him. It was a cold wind in the midst of a hot summer. That portended rough seas, and suddenly he regretted his earlier hope. A ship shattered would make no more progress than a ship stagnant, only the crew survived at least another week or two on one of them. Still, there were no clouds in the sky. That meant there was time.

He stomped to his cabin for the night, distinctly aware that this might be the last night he would have to sleep soundly before chaos of storms on the open sea.

Yet his rest was interrupted nonetheless, a furious pounding on his cabin door. The captain was a man who shot awake in an instant, aware and alert. Tonight was no different, but he could not make sense of the jabbering s of the crewman standing before him. It made no sense, but he felt the toss of the boat that seemed to confirm the insane ravings. A storm had whipped up.

He took the stairs tow at a time, reaching the top deck with surprising speed. The crewman who had woken him was lost in the hold, hopefully attending to some other duty, but the captain had no time to spend focusing on the missing man; he had a ship to save.

The night air was surprisingly cold—colder than it should be for months. More unusually, however, was the perfectly crisp sky. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain. The only sound he heard was the raging sea, snapping and roiling beneath their ship, competing with the frenzied voices of his crew. No thunder.

“Jergen, what is happening?” he asked calling his mate to his side. The man looked confused, but calm.

“Come sort of squall, Cap’n. Waters are real rough.” As if to confirm his statement, waves splashed over the side and the boat took a dangerous list to port. Unsecured clutter slipped and bounced along the deck. Their laziness had gotten out of hand and, if they were unlucky, would get someone killed.

Unfortunately, the captain barely had time to register that before something else caught his attention. The water crashing against the sides of the boat began to surge upwards, tall columns of water that soared towards the prickling stars. He had never seen that before.

And, more surprisingly, it began to recede from the air, leaving a watery form.

It was a woman, looking like she had been carved from a glimmering, clear stone. It took him a few breaths of observation to realize she was molded purely from sea water. Her hair lapped like waves, frothing white at the ends before joining her sculpted face.

It was her eyes that secured him to his spot. He had seen those eyes days before, drifting away from his ship in a rowboat not designed for open seas.

The woman in the water opened her mouth, and the captain heard waves roar even louder. The sound of the sea itself dimmed until all he could hear was her roar. Then the crashing waves began to coalesce into words he knew.

“My daughter,” it whispered, a questioning voice full of anger and hope.

The captain stumbled towards the mysterious water nymph as the waves crashed around her. Where the water slammed viciously against the fragile wood of his boat, it lapped with gentle caresses against her skin. She was an angel framed in sea foam.

Those piercing eyes found his, liquid and searing. “My daughter,” spoke the waves again, but this time the hopeful questions was replaced by accusation.

The captain opened his mouth to speak, but could not find words that expressed his needs as clearly as the waves. Instead, he swam in her eyes, seeing his silhouette standing in the bow of the ship, a figure receding with each shove of the oars through water.

The sound of snapping wood brought the captain from his awe-struck reverie, but it also smothered him with an unescapable revelation. Waves slammed again and again against the fracturing wood of his ship, following the command in those fierce, sea-sculpted eyes.

With a screech of angry waves and squall-summoned winds, the majestic woman dove towards the captain. The deck gave way beneath his feet, but she caught him in her crushing arms.

“My daughter,” she roared through the water that pressed against his ears, surrounded his eyes and mouth.

The stars grew murky and watery from his new vantage point sinking below the waves. As the surface closed over him, wreckage spinning around him, the captain could only curse the woman who had brought her ill luck upon him.


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Card Challenge: Day 71

Card Day 71: A chicken wearing a military uniform marshalling a group of chicks. In the background, a person peeks out from a cracked egg.

The torch light danced over the room again, and Yoren ducked down below the counter. His heart slammed against his ribs as the shadows crept towards him, lengthening and fading as the light snaked its way towards him. He could hear their voices outside the window, still wondering where he had snuck off to. The breath caught in his throat instinctively, even though there was no way they would hear him. It was still a risk he would not take.

The natural shadows resettled in their habitats as the lights moved on, and Yoren deflated with the long-held breath. He listened carefully as the echoes of their steps wandered off into the night. There was an ease and nonchalance to their movements and speech that left him feeling jealous. His life was on the line, and they carried on without any serious concern besides the slight edge of intrigue in their nightly patrol. The silence stretched on too long around him—interrupted briefly by the loud bellowing of a cow some farms over—before he felt it was safe to move, hopefully unnoticed by any of the night watch.

He shoved on the door of the shop that had been his brief refuge at the first sound of footsteps. It creaked open, and he froze, but pressed his luck when nothing in the town responded. He raced along the cobblestones, his bare feet slapping across the stones and jacket snapping against his back as he fled. The woods would be his refuge with their gentle darkness and warm familiarity. If he could make it to the woods, he was certain that he would be free. Though his freedom did require one more stop.

Yoren ducked into the shadows as a loud series of guffaws echoed down the streets. He skidded to a stop and flattened himself against the side of one of the many homes. The laughter faded, as did the bright splash of light into the night, and he could hear the drunken mumblings of one of the tavern’s most reliable patrons. That knowledge did little to calm the terror flooding through his veins, nor did it silence the images of capture that stewed in his mind. One the humming and stumbling steps faded, he began his flight again, though this time far more cautious as he slunk along the shadows of buildings with his ears straining for alarm.

The forest eventually wrapped its arms around him with all the comfort of childhood. The sounds of the town—already quiet—were further muted by the leafy boughs sheltering him. For the first time in a week, Yoren felt some of his stress and fear melt away. Here he was safe, even if it was only a few roads over to the city center. He was free, the smell of an earthy breeze filling his lungs, and no one laid any claim on him. Escape was within grasp, and he knew that if he continued to sprint until morning, he would effectively outrun all of his problems.

Only there was one thing he did not want to outrun. They were forcing him to flee, however, and that meant leaving Zalia behind in their little shack. It did not mean he would leave without seeing to her, though.

Yoren cut through the forest, following old paths that his feet knew better than his eyes. The branches seemed to whisper him onward, encouraging and praising his strength. He breathed deeply, pulling in what strength he could from the ancient forest towering around him. This journey would require all he had, and so there was no reason to turn his back on the land that had cared for him so well thus far.

His home swelled into view, a tiny cabin snuck between the trunks of stalwart oaks. There was a candle still burning in the window, which not only meant Zalia was still awake, but that there was no danger awaiting him inside.

This door swung open silently, but his steps were loud enough to rouse her from her slumber by the window. Her face brightened at him, but he could still see the heavy shadows under her eyes and the distinct pallor of her cheeks.

“You made it,” she whispered as if breathless, staring up at him with young and fevered eyes.

“Of course I did, Zalia. I told you I would come back for you.” He knelt beside her, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. He could feel the heat pouring from her now, and doubts began to arise.

“Did they let you go?” she asked, brimming with innocence he envied.

“No, they didn’t.” Yoren weighed lying only briefly; she was his sister and had always seen through even the tiniest of lies. This one would have been no different, and he could not bear the thought that her last memory of him might be deception.

“But, Yoren, that would mean you broke the law again!” She was aghast at his delinquency, just as she had been when his first crime was reported. No matter how often he argued he had done it for her own good, she still seemed saddened by his decision. Yoren accepted that her morality was not nuanced enough to understand his decisions, and was comforted by the fact that she loved him nonetheless. Only now he wondered if that love would be strong enough to last the approaching revelation.

“I did. But, Zalia, I did not have a choice. I did steal the medicine, I did break into the pharmacy, and I did strike the shopkeeper. They would have executed me.”

She looked down, trying to synthesize these disparate realities, balancing the virtue she knew in her brother with the immoral choices he made and the harsh judgment to be meted out. “Well, then you have to run away, right?”

Yoren took a deep breath. This was the conversation he had feared. “Yes. I’m leaving tonight.”

She stood quickly, catching herself on the window sill as her legs nearly gave out. “But I have not packed a thing. Oh, Yoren, how am I supposed to leave tonight? If only you could have gotten me a message somehow, I would have been ready. But I will be quick.” She tottered about the small room, picking up scraps of fabric and bowls form the table. Her steps were short, slow, and unsteady. Yoren watched her vigilantly, worried she would topple over at any second. Her face seemed to grow even paler at the brief exertion. “Do you think we could leave in the morning? I could be packed then.” She turned around somewhat breathless, a prickle of sweat on her brow framing the fever in her eyes.

“Zalia,” he paused, not sure how to continue. She studied him with her penetrating gaze; Yoren had always been an open book to her. “You cannot come with me. Not tonight at least.”

The breakdown he had expected did not occur, but in some ways it was worse. She seemed to simply go limp—not in body, but in spirit. Her eyes fell to the floor, and she sagged against the table.  There were no tears, no yelling, no pleading. Only silent, weighty resignation.

“Oh. I suppose that makes sense. You need to travel quickly. You may not have room for a feeble sister as you start a new life somewhere.” There could have been guilt or judgment in her voice, but it was simply stating the facts, as if she were telling him how to best prune the flowers in the garden.

“I want you to come with me, but I’m afraid—“ I’m afraid the journey would kill you, finished his mind.

“You’re afraid I’ll slow you down,” she offered. Yoren could not admit his first instinct was more correct, so he gave a short nod.

“I sent a letter to Uncle Titus, asking him to come and watch over you. Only for a few weeks because, once I have found a safe pace, I want you to join me.”

“Are you sure? I mean, you will be trying to find work, and you are old enough that you should have a wife. Who wants to marry a man with the crippled sister? Maybe I could return with Uncle Titus—“

“No!” snapped Yoren, surprised by his own forcefulness. He took a few hesitating steps across the room and held her tiny, burning hand in his rough one. “Zalia, you are my sister, and I want to take care of you. I told Uncle Titus I would send a message as soon as I reached Alsberg. Then I’m going to send you money to hire a cart, pack up everything,” he waved at the generous furnishings in the cramped space, “and meet me there.”

She looked like she was going to object, but he cut her off. “You are all the family I have, and it’s my job to take care of you. That’s all I’ve tried to do, Zalia. Let me keep taking care of you, okay? Besides, just think about our new life in the big city. I bet you could get even more seamstress work.”

She smiled at the idea. “We’d live in the city?”

“Of course! I can find another cobbler to apprentice with, and you can set up shop in our little home. We’ll rent a room until we can save up and buy a nice, big house.”

She appeared to warm to the idea, smiling up at her big brother with those adoring eyes. “And I won’t be a bother?”

“Never.” He wrapped his arms around her in a hug, feeling the heat and fragility in her frame. She was so young and so sick, but he could only hope that the city would have better doctors and care for her. A new life. The prospect thrilled him as well.

Yoren quickly swept through the house, grabbing an extra coat, a blanket, a few scraps of food that she would not miss—judging by the look of things, she had not been eating much since he left—and his work boots. It was a meager allowance, but enough to get him over the hills and mountains and safely into Alsberg.

“I’ll send for you as soon as I arrive and get the money,” he promised, sweeping out the door. She smiled and waved at him, a pale figure in the moonlit doorway. “And Uncle Titus will be here tomorrow. You take care of him!”

She nodded at his retreating back, watching as he grew dim. Yoren cut through the trees, trying to quickly extricate himself from the village boundaries and escape into fresh territory. He wanted to be free before morning. The ground beneath him rose sharply, and he realized he was cresting the last hill in town. That meant that, once he reached the top, he would have the last glance back at the tiny shack nestled between the trees.

Yoren paused his flight, turning back to smile one last time on his childhood home. It sat calm and peaceful, the light in the window now darkened. The promise of freedom and new beginnings stirring in his soul, Yoren pressed on.


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Card Challenge: Day 70

Card Day 70: A group of egg shaped buildings all clustered together against a dark background.

“I want to go out and play.” The whine cut through the monotony of the day with an unpleasant shriek. Wanda clenched her teeth and tried to ignore it. There was nothing she could do—it had been snowing off and on all day, with temperatures down below zero. This plea for playtime was unrealistic; going outside meant freezing solid within a few minutes, and no amount of bundling was enough to withstand for long. She could not change the weather, he would not be happy until she did.

“Mom,” came the whine again, elongating the simple word into an impressive display of syllables. “I’m bored.”

Wanda pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, trying not to let the irritation leak into her voice. “Well, buddy, I’m sorry. Why don’t you color some pictures?” She pointed at the stack of paper pushed up against the far wall.

“But I’m out of paper,” came the disheartened response. Only then did she realize that most of those pages were already colored with spindly-legged creatures and smiling sunshines. A childish dreamscape.

Of course, seeing hundreds of pages covered in childish doodles only reinforced her sudden terror. It had been winter for far too long. Judging by the sounds of yelling and crying that spilled through the paper thin walls of the complex, the same seemed to be true for many families. Then again, hadn’t that been the understanding when they all moved in? Wasn’t that the reason they had left comfortable homes, closely knit communities, and cozy worlds to get a one room apartment in little better than a slum? But it granted protection and the promise of constant heat, which was something nowhere outside had promised. Now, this nest of humanity was broiling under the reality of such containment for so long.

“Well, maybe you can see if anyone is playing out in the halls? Maybe you could all play hide and seek or something?”

“Ms. Smeltzer yells at us if we play out there. She hit Tammy with her broom last time.”

Wanda bristled at the old curmudgeon. There were 19 children under ten on this floor, no way they could go outside and play in the subarctic air, but Ms. Smeltzer had to have her peace and quiet all day and night. It was a refugee shelter, but she demanded to be treated like a queen. Wanda hoped her son had not seen the disgust on her face.

“So maybe not such a good idea. Well, how about you tell me a story with shadow puppets. I’ll finish dinner while you come up with a really good story.” Wanda shifted to the side, letting the firelight spill into the dim room. Jonah leapt up eagerly and waved his fingers wildly. At least he was still easily entertained. As he grew older, finding such diversions would become harder and harder. For now, she listened to him prattle on as she stirred a pot of donation beans over the meager flame. They had not gotten fresh wood yet this week—it was coming, they promised—and so she did her best to stretch what she did have.

That night, Wanda went to bed hopeless and forlorn. The wood had not arrived, and their fire burned low, almost to embers. She mournfully shoved a few of the drawings into the grate, hoping to keep the flame burning high enough to heat the small apartment. If nothing else, hopefully enough warmth would trickle between the tightly packed cells through their paper thin walls. She draped her arm across Jonah’s tiny body, already filling chill where his skin met the air. If nothing else, she could give him her warmth.

_

The morning came slowly, sluggishly creeping along the side of the apartment until it peeked through the tiny slit of a window they were fortunate to have. The light woke Wanda, and she was surprised to find her arms empty. There was a momentary burst of panic, but that settled when she saw Jonah standing atop a chair to peer out the window.

“Be careful up there,” she muttered sleepily as she stumbled awake. He turned and smiled at her.

“Momma, who are the people outside?”

She stretched, her back rippling with popped joints. “What? Do you see some trucks out there? those are the trucks that bring up dinn—“

“No, there aren’t any trucks. But there are people. They’re dressed all funny.”

“Get down and let me see,” she said, moving with surprising speed for so early. No one had been out walking for months now. She pressed her face against the tiny window, peering through the dust and soot that coated the inside. It was clear she had not spent too much time gazing longingly out the window during their time here. But now she did see the same shadowy shapes Jonah had seen. Closing one eyes, she gazed out the hole he had cleared with his now grubby hands, and then she could see them. They were dressed weird it seemed, some strange covering obscuring their face. Wanda remembered the hot summer days when she would look out the car widows and watch heat ripple across the pavement. The memory felt out of place in the winter wasteland, but it also felt appropriate to whatever it was covering their face.

“Does this mean we can go outside and play?” Jonah was eager, his face split into a wide smile. Wanda touched her hand to the glass and felt the same bitter cold. But there were people out there, and even though the fire was out, it was only slightly cool in the room.

“Maybe, baby, but mom has to make sure it’s safe first.”

She stepped down off the chair and turned over the strange discovery. People outside after all of this. Everyone said it would eventually thaw, the climate would return to normal, and life would re-emerge from hibernation. But Wanda had begun to doubt she would see that, at least until that vision outside.

“Can we please?” pleaded Jonah. She gave him a warm if distracted smile.

“I’ll go find out if it’s safe. You get bundled up.”

“Are you going downstairs?” he asked giddily.

“Yes, I will. Just see if anyone else has tried to go out. We may not be the first outside when the thaw comes, but I promise we will go out as soon as it’s safe.”

“Can I go with you?”

She pursed her lips, considering it. He had been well behaved cooped in the small apartment, and the trip downstairs was about as harmless as anything could be. Nevertheless, she knew that meant keeping a close eye on him so that he did not dart outside. He could not understand how dangerous—and deadly—that would be. “Okay,” she relented, “but stay close.”

This was the adventure of the week for him, and he was practically vibrating with anticipation. Wanda smiled and opened the door. The hallways were dark and narrow, lit with an occasional pane of glass to the outside world. She could hear crying, yelling, screaming, and laughing behind the closed doors, but she also felt the uncomfortable cold in the hallway. Hopefully the wood arrived soon. Wanda was equally eager for the people outside to be braving the newly lessening chill as she was with the idea that they would bring vital wood.

No one acknowledged her on the way down the rusty, uncertain stairs, which was not unusual. Most people kept their heads down in their own problems. She reached the front door and squeezed in as close as she could around the heavy layers of ropes and blankets that still stood between her and outside. Now closer, she could see the figures outside, their faces still covered by the odd material.

She turned back to the hallway, scanning for a familiar face. “Oh, Darren?” she called out, catching sight of one of her floor mates. He pressed on, ignoring her. “Darren, have you seen this?” He did not respond even as she raised her voice.

The door next to her opened, and she reached out to grasp the stout woman who stomped out. Her eyes widened and she seemed to shiver with a chill. “Do you know what’s going on out there?” The woman did not respond, but looked around uncomfortably before shuffling back into her apartment. Yes, people were withdrawn, but this was bizarre.

“Up to me, I guess,” muttered Wanda. She held Jonah’s hand tightly within her own trying to constrain the eager boy. He was rattling on about snowmen and snowball fights, forts and sledding. The first months were pleasant and wonderful, full of all those beloved activities he fondly remembered. Only later did it become horrifying.

She looked out again, tapping on the window. One of the figures seemed to look up, perhaps drawn by the noise or the face in the window. It walked towards her, the face still a mess of wavering lines. Maybe it was some sort of climate controlled mask? Government issued, she was sure.

“Momma, can we go outside? Please? No one else is worried.” He pointed at the people going on about their days, completely disinterested.

“Be patient,” she snapped, turning back to the window.

There, she finally saw the face of one of the people outside. It was no longer obscured, but presented in crisp detail. She saw her husband’s face pressed against the glass. His skin was pale, white, and frostbitten, icicles clinging to his unkempt beard. The eyes that stared back at her were empty and cold.

Wanda stumbled back from the door. Of all the things she had hoped for, her dead husband was not on the list.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 67

Card Day 67: Children riding a wind-up carousel atop dragons, elephants, and other creatures.

The dragon rose majestically over the forest, her wings unfurling and casting deep shadows along the ground below. She stretched her neck, releasing a vicious cry into the sun-laced air, as her wings arched back and forth rhythmically. In the forest below, there was movement that caught her eye, perhaps a worthy foe. Large, intelligent blue eyes scanned the forest, picking up the disturbances in the foliage that marked her opponent’s movements.

On the ground, the dinosaur roared its own battle cry, staring at the trees in an attempt to reach the best floating high above. His steps thundered along the earth, creating rumbling disturbances throughout the area. Animals fled from before him as he made his way to the arena. This would be the final battle, the one to prove ultimate alpha predator. Above him, he could see the flying shadow following behind him, heading to the determined place.

Rock walls rose around them, towering and imposing, limiting her top altitude while keeping him in a cramped earthly domain. Both roared, circling one another and looking for any weakness. She struck first rearing back and spewing a blast of liquid fire to the ground. The dinosaur rolled away, narrowly avoiding a swift loss. He raised his claws, raking at the air, but finding her out of reach. Instead, he reared back and shot his own ball of flame towards her.

“Hey, that’s no fair!” snapped Xandi, swatting at her twin brother.

“You did it to me!” he responded as he shoved her in turn.

She put her hands on her hips. “Yeah, well, dragons can breathe fire. Dinosaurs can’t. Maybe you should have thought of that before.”

“Well it’s still not fair. You can breathe fire and fly. It’s no fun if you just fly away the whole time. I guess you’re just chicken.” Xander smirked at her and stuck out his tongue. Unfortunately, he also closed his eyes to complete his taunt, so he did not have a chance to see her barreling towards him until she tackled him to the ground.

Now that the dragon had left her lofty domain, the fight could truly begin. The punched and pinched at each other, roaring with pain and irritation as they rolled along the playroom floor. The ruckus quickly summoned a referee, however, and their mother stormed in to separate the two.

Having twins had taught her quite a bit about how to break up a fight, so she grabbed two arms and tugged them in opposite directions, ending up with two panting children on opposite sides of her body. “That’s enough, you two. If you don’t want timeout, then the fight is through.” Both looked angry and offended, carrying the weight of perceived slights and a few red marks from the brutal fight.

“Xander was cheating. He was a dinosaur, but he kept blowing fire!” She accentuated her point with the stomp of a foot, and her mother sighed. They were both too young to have that much attitude.

“Well Xandi wouldn’t even play! She was just flying and trying to beat me!”

“That’s the whole point,” she sneered back.

“Yeah, but you were being a big chicken—“ His mother’s sharp look cut off the taunt before it could progress to the actual clucking, but Xandi understood the intent nonetheless. Their mother shook her head, drawing them side by side in front of her. The same bright blue eyes stared at her, the same dark hair framing pale faces. If they were not different genders, she would have sworn they were identical twins.

“Listen you two, I don’t care who did what or what animals have what superpowers. You cannot hit your brother or your sister.” Her eyes drifted side to side between them, pinning them both to the floor. “If you cannot play Monster Battle nicely, you cannot play at all.” She watched them both soften as she threatened their favorite game. Their mother rolled her eyes internally and reminded herself to thank her husband for the wonderful Godzilla marathons.

“No, please, we can play nice!” whine Xandi, giving a half-sincere smile to her brother,

“Yeah, we’ll be good and quiet. No more fighting. No more real fighting,” said Xander as he quickly corrected his statement.

“I don’t know, guys. We do this a lot. Maybe it’s time to take a break—“

“No,” rose the chorus, plaintive and heartbroken.

“Give us one more chance, Mom.” Xander held onto her arm, resting his head against her shoulder. Xandi reached over and put a hand on her brother’s shoulder in true teamwork.

“Yeah, Xander can have fire-breath, I guess. It’ll be more fun, then.” She did not sound convinced, but Xander brightened at the concession.

Their mother stood, eyeing them both closely. She knew she still had dinner to tend to on the stove and a hefty stack of paperwork waiting for her review. If for once the promises were true, it would definitely make her evening a lot less stressful. Worst case scenario, she would be back in ten minutes to break them up again and set them to different tasks.

As their mother left the room, they envisioned a giant alien mothership floating away on the horizon. They could return to the duel.

“Alright,” said the dragon from her lofty vantage point, “you can have fire breath, but then I get—“ she paused as she searched her repertoire of appropriate monster abilities,”—ice breath!”

The dinosaur grumbled something under his breath, but accepted the solution. “Fine. But if you fly out of bounds, then you lose.”

“Fine,” muttered the dragon, never having broken the steady beat of her wings. She flapped above the arena as the combatants sized one another up.

Xander struck first, blowing a billowing cloud of fire upwards as he rushed around the arena. Xandi glanced around, suddenly seeing the air turn into a boundary of flaming walls. “That was smart,” she said, and he smiled smugly in response. “But not smart enough. Ice breath!”

With that, the sky turned into frozen blocks of fire that swiftly plummeted to the ground. The dinosaur used all its agility and speed to dodge out of the way, but one of the falling pillo—ice blocks struck his shoulder, and he careened wildly along the ground.

He roared in pain, sliding along the dusty arena floor and bumping against the rock walls. Pictures hung along the rock face trembled, but held firm. They both sighed in relief as the lack of devastation.

“Now I’ve got you!” roared the dragon, circling her fallen prey. Victory gleamed in her eyes along with a haughty sense of accomplishment. “You won’t get away from me!”

Even in his wounded state, the dinosaur was not to be bested. He lifted a rock from the floor next to him and flung it with all his might toward the spiraling beast. She was taken by surprise, never having suspected her injured foe to be so creative or strong. The stone struck her wing, and she found herself careening back towards the ground. And the waiting claws of her opponent.

The twins crashed into one another, once again rolling across the floor in the throes of laughter and mumbled threats. They locked arms, faces hovering inches from one another, and rolled back and forth across the floor.

“Ice breath!”

“Fire breath!”

They tumbled and fought, managing to seamlessly block one another’s attacks. Eventually, their breath-based powers exhausted, they restored to throwing stones from around the arena, crushing one another under pillowy weights. The dragon lifted a handful of pebbles and watched as the stuffed animals mercilessly rained down on her foe. He stood no chance, as he could not block all the dozens of projectiles launched his way. But he dove behind a rocky outcropping, then launched another boulder towards her. She barely had time to roll out of the way, struggling to fly away on her injured wing.

They were breathless and screeching, dodging behind furniture and overturning pillows, cushions, footstools, toys, and anything else that made a suitably safe stand-in for deadly attacks. Eventually, the ruckus drew the mothership back into the room.

“Guys,” sighed the alien voice, cutting into their battle. The dragon and dinosaur froze, investigating the new threat. “I thought you were going to keep it calm.”

“We were, mom, we just—“

“You made a huge mess.” Both creatures looked around at the ruins of the arena, stones littering the floor from one end to the other. Little remained of the once pristine battleground. It had truly been a ferocious fight.

“We were just having fun,” muttered Xander, his eyes darkening under his pouting brow.

“Yeah, but fun does not mean destruction. Listen, dinner will be ready in ten minutes,” said the alien, pointing animatedly at the sundial looming on the arena wall. “I want this place picked up by dinner. No more Monster Battles.”

“Yes, ma’am,” moaned Xandi and Xander. They slowly began walking towards the pillows, picking them up with half-hearted zeal and dropping them limply on the couch. The mothership floated away again as she ran a tired hand through her hair.

“I’ll get you next time,” taunted Xandi as she restacked the various stuffed animals in their assigned spots.

“Why wait until next time?” growled the dinosaur, a devious smirk on his face. Before she could react, he scooped up the footstool cushion and smacked her in the back of the head.

“I win!”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 66

Card Day 66: An anchor in the sand with blue background behind.

The sandy landscape stretching before her had once been the bed of magnificent sea. That had, of course, been years upon years ago, and there was nothing of the sun baked landscape to suggest the previous role. Yvonne looked around, marveling at the endless expanse. This had once been her home, she thought with a dull feeling of nostalgia. Of course, it had never been her actual home, but this was where her parents’ parents had sprung from, escaping to the stars. Being back here was, in a sense, a homecoming, even if she had never laid eyes on such a mass before.

In fact, she was amazed at the feeling of land under her feet. It was strange to feel natural gravity holding her to the planet, the stability of miles and miles of solid earth beneath her feet. Sure, this spun just as her space station home had, but there was something different given the magnitude of this place.

However, she had not been sent here to appreciate the landscape, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Yvonne was certain she could sit and do so for the entire span of her assignment, but that would also ensure her notification of termination. Still, there was part of her that felt it might be worth it just to take in the landscape.

The skiff lifted behind her—the sand was not stable enough to make a permanent landing zone—and she heard the pilot’s voice through her ear piece. “Be back in a week for you, Terra Team. Stay safe.” She imagined the craft wiggled a wing in farewell before it headed back to the station sitting high in orbit. There were other teams dotting the planet, but it still felt so lonely being dropped onto the surface of the dead planet. Yvonne briefly wondered if her other team members felt the same, but they all seemed absorbed by their tasks. She was the newbie, the one earthstruck in her first moments. The veterans mulled about, seemingly unimpressed.

The leader, a middle-aged woman with already silvered hair, clapped Yvonne on the shoulder. “Got to get moving to the exploration site. We want to be there by dark so we can spend tomorrow descending.” Captain Morrison lifted one of the survival packs, pushing it into Yvonne’s hands. The older woman’s eyes, warm and sharp, met Yvonne’s for a moment and smiled in recognition. “It is impressive, your first time. Just wait until sunset.” With a parting pat on the shoulder, she moved along to the other team members, readying them for the trek.

The skiff had gotten close, but some places were not stable enough for even a brief landing. Not only was there the instability of the sand, but geologic changes meant some areas were too volatile to risk landing and taking off. Nevertheless, the drop off point had been only a couple hours hike from the site of the descent. And there would be no descending before tonight. The climb down would take long enough that it was best tackled in a fresh day.

Yvonne shouldered her pack and tried to get used to the hefty weight of gravity on her body. It did not help that her pack added another good twenty pounds of necessary gear. Still, she did her best to smile and press on, not wanting to be the weak link in such an esteemed team. The walk, however, served to reinforce her outsider feelings. Everyone else had travelled together before, exploring various landmarks and cultural sites. There were inside jokes, close companionships, and then Yvonne, standing on the outside as the eager new recruit.

She knew some ridiculed her, and the flight over had its fair share of hazing. This aversion as nothing new to Yvonne who had spent her childhood as a social outsider, but it was unexpected. She had always imagined that once she got into these respected academic realms, no one would ridicule her for her intellectual interests or social oddities. Yet she had merely changed one social group for another. The upside was this one seemed like it might just open up to her, if she gave it enough time.

The silence of the trek did not bother her too much, since she was still eagerly taking in the world around her. The sky was so blue, and the land stretched out endless before her. About midway through, a water canteen came winding back through the travelling group.

“Thirsty?” asked Mr. Carlton, pushing the jug towards her. She grabbed it eagerly, surprised by her own thirst.

“Thanks, I hadn’t even realized how thirsty I’ve gotten.”

Mr. Carlton laughed. “My first trip, I did not eat for the first two days because I was so amazed by everything. I was in the Amazon, and everything was amazing. Trust me, I don’t suggest that. I got to spend the next two days at camp, trying to recuperate while Dr. Melwin—an old battle ax of a man—scolded me. Don’t make my mistakes.” He twisted off the cap and Yvonne drank greedily, enjoying the refreshment. Then, she took up her role and passed it along back through the line to the smiling faces.

When it came time to camp, she was a touch sorrowful that the pilgrimage was at an end. Still, the journey was just beginning. Tonight, they camped on the lip of the deepest point on the now empty Earth. Tomorrow, they would descend into the belly of the best, uncovering treasures that had been locked away from human exploration.

The captain had been right, Sunset was amazing, and Yvonne let the beauty wash over her. She understood why these trips were so addictive. It was a drug she could get used to.

_

“Congratulations on a successful descent, team,” smiled Captain Morrison, her hair damp and plastered to her forehead. It had been a hot day, even though it was cooler down here in the shade. The darkness was deepening, suggesting the sun was setting on the surface. “I don’t have to tell you all that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. If nothing else, we’re sure to see some crazy stuff down here. So, orders for tonight are to rest up. We’re up early tomorrow to start exploration.”

Yvonne needed little encouragement to wind down for the night. After the descent, her arms ached. Even lifting the spoon to her mouth during dinner caused ripples of aches to flood through her body.

“The trip to the site is always the worst part,” said Dr. Abelard, rubbing her own shoulders in sympathy. She settled in beside Yvonne on the nearby rocks, stirring her own dinner. “I have an herbal cream that I put on my shoulders after a day like that. I can give you some if you’d like?”

Yvonne was taken aback by the kindness, having expected even more hazing. She opened her mouth, but lacked the words to respond. People weren’t her specialty, even if that was what she was seeking most from this trip.

Dr. Abelard laughed, a ringing sound among the silent walls. “Don’t tell me we’ve scared you off already. Trust me, the flight down here was all just formality. You’re on the team, you’re family. Loosen up.” She nudged her with her elbow, giving Yvonne a quick wink.

“Does it work?” Yvonne asked, trying to ease into the conversation.

The other woman shrugged. “I think so. Then again, it may all be in my mind. But if it makes it so my body stops screaming, I figure it’s worth it. I’ll drop it by your sleep roll later.” Yvonne and Dr. Abelard sat and ate, passing the time in quiet chitchat. Small talk was not Yvonne’s specialty, but Dr. Abelard seem incredibly skilled in the art, pulling Yvonne through the motions.

Still, there was little that was as refreshing to Yvonne as the thin layer of cotton bedding in her survival roll once she turned in for the night. The darkness was deep and thick, a bit unsettling to someone use to constant emergency lighting and ambient light from station halls or electronic monitors, and so she was relieved when a light came bobbing towards her.

Dr. Abelard was in the lead, Ms. Caldwell tagging along. The two women seemed to have a friendship that stretched far back, and they were whispering quietly as they walked. Once they reached Yvonne’s tent, they paused and knocked on the door.

“Come on in,” squeaked Yvonne, grateful for the light and company as the two women swept in confidently.

“I always bring some extra in case someone wants to try,” said Dr. Abelard, handing Yvonne a small tube of ointment. “Just a little before you go to sleep, and you’ll wake up feeling like a new woman.”

Ms. Caldwell interjected, almost as if the words burst forth from her lips unsummoned. “Julie told me that this was your first on-world trip. I knew you were new to the team, but not the whole planet!”

Yvonne felt blood rush into her cheek, once again labelled as outsider. Ms. Caldwell seemed to recognize her discomfort and rushed to right the wrong.

“I mean, it must be tough. My first time, I was so homesick. And I could not stand the dark. Wed not have dark like this on the station!” Dr. Abelard was nodding along with Ms. Caldwell, both women smiling knowingly. “I’ve gotten a bit more used to it, and thought this might help you. I mean, if you’re having trouble going to sleep.” She held out a small sphere and gently nudged it with her thumb. A dull, pale blue glow pulsed from the sphere, granting a modicum of light. The darkness, previously so suffocating, receded just a bit, and the women sat in soft light.

As much as she was comforted by the sphere, propriety took over. “That’s so nice, but I can’t. It wouldn’t—“

“Nonsense. We need you sharp for the exploration tomorrow, and that mean sleeping comfortably. You can give it back to me at the end of the trip.”

Yvonne tried again. “No, really, I c—“

“Listen, I’m more stubborn than you, and you’re young enough to be my daughter. I’d want someone to do this for my daughter if she were all alone. I’m leaving it here. Goodnight.” Ms. Caldwell set the sphere by Yvonne’s bedroll, and the two women disappeared back into the evening, continuing on their way. She had to admit, her tent did seem much more comfortable with the soft light. Soon, she was asleep, a smile on her face.

_

The next morning, she was woken by the sudden, rough shaking of Dr. Pollard. H grinned at her from behind his spectacles. “I was beginning to think you were going to miss the first day. You know I did that on our last trip, and they never let me live that down. Trust me, you don’t want that!”

Yvonne smiled self-consciously as she disentangled herself from her bed. His flashlight was aimed for her eyes, and she blink quickly, hoping he would understand. He looked away, granting her relief. “Thanks, Dr. Pollard. I’ll be there in a minute.”

He spun back around with the flashlight, and she was blinded again. “You can call me Tim, Yvonne. No need for formality down here.”

She smiled as he left, her tent swaying shut behind him. As she got up to join the others, there was an extra spring in her step. For once, she felt the scrutiny and interpersonal discomfort fade. It took a moment for Yvonne to identify the feeling. Acceptance, she realized.

Feeling at ease in her own skin, reliant on her skills and experiences, and brought into the fold by her kind companions,  Yvonne was ready to dive in and learn something really important on this trip of discovery.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 63

Card Day 63: A man peers over the edge of a large leaf, noticing piles of berries and fruit arranged on the leaf as if upon a table.

Exploration in concept was thrilling. Exploration in reality was exhausting. Ulrich collapsed down into his tent for the night, sinking into the cheap polyester that stunk with a week’s worth of his unwashed scent. His limp arm cast about the tent, finding his pack and tugging his recorder from the dark recesses.

“Ulrich Briggs, exploration party 39974 on Ourea-2, day 15. I traveled—“ he glanced briefly at the blinking display on his writs, translating the numerous metrics into useful data—“27.39 miles today. There was no sign of any intentionally formed structures. I catalogued seven potential new species, available in my imagedeck with transcribed narration. I have set up camp for the evening within the foothills. Tomorrow, I will begin to descend the mountains and search for any sign of sentient habitation or shelters. Proximity alarms are set and any trigger will initiate upload of all of my data, as well as activate my distress beacon.” The rest of his message descended into the rote jargon required by daily travel and bureaucratic CYA policies. Ulrich faded off to sleep, the final words dribbling from his lips with the same automaticity his entire journey had taken on.

The next morning broke bright and slightly cool. The thinner atmosphere meant that the temperatures tended to fluctuate a bit more rapidly from day to day, and Ulrich was very thankful for the temperature regulation of his Discovery Corp uniform. He stretched his arms wide and breathed deeply. There was something lovely about the freshness of relatively untouched air. There was no smog, pollution, or even foreign scents to sully the surrounding atmosphere, so he was left with a lungful of crisp morning air. It almost made the day seem worth it.

After a quick breakfast from his rations, Ulrich thumbed the compression button on the camp and watched as it swiftly folded in on itself until it fit neatly in his pack. The noise was uncomfortably loud, and he was disappointed that the local fauna opted to cease any morning songs or sounds in response. It made the first few steps of his journey all the lonelier.

The foliage around him was a much brighter shade of green, but they grew as hula hoop-sized leaves up and down the alien equivalent of trees. The trees here, however, stretched far taller than any he had seen on earth. He had measured quite a few specimens well over 500 feet. However, the trees grew shorter and squatter as he neared the mountains, taking on an almost moss-like quality to their low profile. They still arched high above him, but seemed to crawl along the surface, clinging close as if any higher and they would be ripped straight off the surface. It was remarkable, and Ulrich walked along in the midst of a botanical cave. The sun peeked through the branches, lighting the soft ground beneath his feet, but the shade did its best to suck the meager warmth from the surrounding landscape.

Still, the view was incredible. The one benefit of the job, Ulrich though glumly.

Ulrich was not studying his lifeform scanner as close as he should have. He was used to the usual noise of small creatures that crawled unhindered through the region. But, his boredom bred complacency, and he missed the taller heat signatures creeping along his footsteps.

Lunchtime came after what felt like hours—mainly because it had been—and Ulrich loved the break. Even the wonder of a new world grew dim when his feet were aching and his back groaned from the weight of his survival pack. He smiled, realizing he would at least have the chance to lighten the pack a tiny amount by devouring his lunch ration for the day. It was a small solace.

Just as he broke the seal on his mid-afternoon vittles, the foliage around him shuffled to life, opening to allow a collection of tall humanoid figures. Ulrich studied them, wide-eyed, and tried to fit this into the paradigm of bored observation that had thus far defined his exploratory experience.

They were taller than humans—everything on this planet seemed taller than Ulrich thought was average—and covered in relatively thick, dark skin. It made since, his scientific brain added, given the decreased atmosphere and extreme temperatures. Their eyes were set deep into their heads, but looked intelligently out at him. Each individual of the troupe was clothed with one of the large leaves from the abnormal trees. They were wrapped intricately around their tall, slender bodies, and Ulrich found the sight of them enchanting. They moved gracefully, and their eyes followed him with wary intrigue.

Slowly, Ulrich lowered the food to his lap, but his mouth remained agape in amazement. This was a truly fascinating find, but it was terrifying. The sudden danger of the situation settled over Ulrich like a blanket, but he felt just as frozen as he had in wonder.

Their fingers, long and delicate, were wrapped tightly around smoothly carved spears, but they were not lifted or poised to attack. Still, the simple presence of six alien beings, watching him intently, made Ulrich begin to shake. He was a scientist, not a fighter, not a soldier, just a mere explorer. He knew there would be dangers, and he had expected problems with local fauna and inhospitable conditions, but not that he might meet some truly sentient being who could maliciously choose to destroy him.

One of them, a creature with a smooth scalp and slightly glowing grey eyes, stepped forward slightly, sharply angled nose sniffing towards Ulrich. He did not doubt that the alien would have any difficulty smelling him, especially after these days in the field. The leader, or at least the one he presumed was the leader, began to speak. Unfortunately, Ulrich had absolutely no way to possibly understand the complex language that circled around him. He smiled, hoping it would not appear aggressive. The leader looked taken aback, but then split its mouth into a wide grin.

Ulrich did not like the surprisingly sharp teeth that grinned back at him.

But, instead of moving in to attack, the leader motioned to one of the others, and another creature stepped forward. This one looked similar, but the eyes were a soft-blue glow, granting a slight illumination in the shadows. It was also more tightly muscled, looking thicker and more intimidating than the slender and graceful leader.

This was it, Ulrich thought. The end was coming. He closed his eyes tightly and waited for the inevitable.

Instead, the being knelt down beside him and pulled a tightly wrapped package from the leafy garment. Its nimble fingers danced over the packaging, revealing a cluster of brightly colored berries and oddly shaped fruits. It was only after a prolonged period of, frankly, still being alive passed that Ulrich dared to open his eyes. He was met with an image of bounty, even if it did scare him. It could, he reasoned, be poison.

The alien lifted a single berry to its lips, crushing the food between those razor teeth. Then it smiled, bright blue juice staining its teeth in a slightly unsettling display. Ulrich swallowed deeply and carefully lifted a berry to his lips.

If this was it, he had at least made a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-a-species—discovery. He munched on the berry, smiling at his gathered hosts. It was surprisingly good, tart and sweet, and the juice trickled down the back of his throat pleasantly. It was also surprisingly filling, and a welcome break from the stale, bland rations he had been devouring.

Still, it was only fair. He extended the bar to the being kneeling before him. It reached out, glancing at Ulrich and then to the leader standing behind. The leader jerked its hand sharply to the side, and the brave creature beside Ulrich eagerly bit into the bar.

As much as Ulrich hated the rations, the alien seemed to enjoy the change from the berries which were certainly stale to them.

Ulrich grinned at it, it grinned at him. First contact.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 62

Card Day 62: A snail contemplating a spiral staircase that reaches to the clouds.

Ivan rolled the flashlight between his hands, looking at the long staircase reaching up into the house. He licked his lips, a gesture equal parts anticipation and fear. The sun was setting, at least he assumed it was based on the deep orange light now filtering through the dusty first floor windows, and that meant it would soon be time to leave. But he could not, not before he at least saw what existed at the metal door behind these stairs.

From the outside, there was no evidence of a second story. The abandoned building was a squat, rectangular, cement structure that sprawled across the empty lot. Abandoned parking lots stretched around it, only making it seem all the more isolated. It had once been a school, though the only remaining evidence were the occasional desks scattered in empty rooms—most of them left presumably because of the fractured surface or shattered seats—some frequently graffitied chalk boards, and an empty playground in a state of criminal disrepair.

But, after hours of creeping through classrooms once filled with possibilities, Ivan had grown bored. There were no surprising finds in any of the rooms, and his eagerness soon faded to a driven need for completion, even if he would only return with a few needlessly artistic pictures of woods floors and graffiti. There had been a fair share of rats as well, but Ivan preferred to avoid them rather than discover them. His history of exploration had introduced him to dozens of families of rats, and he had yet to meet one he liked. However, this staircase changed things.

He ran again through the remembered profile of the building, trying to identify any unusual space sticking up, suggesting a second floor. But as far as he remembered, the roof was felt, the only projections coming from the rusted HVAC unit. This was a legitimate mystery. After his hesitation steeled his nerves, Ivan flipped on the video camera on his phone, turning it so that his round face and eager brown eyes filled the tiny screen.

“This is Ivan Herrera in the Little River Elementary School. I found a set of stirs to another floor, but I did not think there was another floor. I am now going to investigate.” He trained the camera on the stairs, steadily making his way up them one at a time. They were covered in a fine layer of dust, so his shoes left fresh prints to mark his progress. It must have been years since anyone else stomped their way up.

Besides disturbing the dust, he also disturbed the empty silence of the building. The stairs were old metal, complete with the little raised crosses he remembered from playground in his youth. Each step rang with a metallic call, echoing around the narrow stairwell and the first floor below. There were no windows up here, and he fumbled to turn the flashlight on. The last thing he needed was to fall through the stairs and have to call an ambulance. He was sure they would not take lightly to his trespass in the old building. Plus, he would never live that down if it got out at school.

The metal door was different than all the other classroom doors. They had been standard wood doors with tarnished doorknobs and glass windows. This one was solid metal, a stiff handle arcing from the side. He tugged at it, heaving it open despite its loud protest. Opening the door kicked up another hefty cloud of dust, and Ivan began to cough and wave the cloud away from his eyes. It settled after a moment, and his flashlight pierced through the dusty veil to look beyond the door.

“No way,” he whispered, staring ahead. Another set of stairs arced upwards, disappearing into darkness above him. He flipped his phone around, his face swimming into focus over half the screen. “There’s no way there’s a third floor here! I’m going to see where this goes.”

The light from the floor below him was completely gone as he began the ascent. About halfway up, he heard a familiar creak from behind him. He looked back to see the door swing shut behind him.

“Guess I should have propped it open,” he mused nonchalantly. “At least there wasn’t a lock.” As a precaution, he skipped down the few steps he had gained and shoved against the door. It opened easily, letting a tiny sliver of light filter in. He shrugged off his unbuttoned shirt and wadded it into a ball, using it to prop the door open. “Better safe than sorry,” he quipped to the camera, then clambered up the remaining stairs.

It had been very warm when he entered the building but now, certainly after sunset and in only a thin t-shirt, Ivan began to feel a bit cold. It surprised him, since the temperatures should have stayed pretty warm as late in the spring as it was. Then again, this place may have been well-insulated and without any access for sunlight.

His flashlight revealed another door at the top of the stairs, and he chuckled. “Seriously?” This one looked old, at least the pieces he could see. It was wood and heavily carved, though he struggled to make out the shapes in the gloom. The suggested faces, and he was reminded of the strange church doors he had seen in his Art textbook. Whatever it was, it was out of place in the school building. Then again, the second and third floors were both out of place in the single level school, so who was he to judge. The golden-colored handle was cold in his hand, almost stinging with the chill. That was certainly unusual, but maybe it was nerves. Ivan’s brain scrambled for a rational explanation, but he opted to rush through and prevent conscious acknowledgment of the oddity. This door swung open silently, and, with a final reassuring look at the tiny sliver of light marking the door below him, Ivan stepped over the threshold.

The room he entered was just as empty as the rest of the building. There were the same wood floors, the same layer of dust, and the same warped glass windows He glanced outside, but there was only darkness. It must have gotten far later than he thought, because everything outside was lost to inkiness. He couldn’t even see headlights passing on the road outside, and that revelation sent a chill up his spine.

Ivan studied the images gathered as he spun around the room. All of that, and it was just another empty room. He did not understand how this floor existed, suspended above the rest of the school, but there was nothing special about it. Just an empty—

No, not empty. He started at the sight of a young girl sitting in the corner. She was watching him, smiling broadly. “Hello,” she sung once she was seen.

“You really shouldn’t be here,” remarked Ivan, suddenly aware of how dangerous his chosen hobby was. She couldn’t be more than nine, either.

Instead of responding to his chastisement, she giggled. “Neither should you, silly. But that did not stop you!”

“Yeah, but,” his reply sputtered out. There was not a good excuse he could give. “Do you know what this room is?” he asked. She seemed more familiar with it, maybe a neighborhood kid using the building as her private treehouse. Perhaps she could solve the mystery.

“It’s my playroom,” she said with another laugh. That confirmed his earlier suspicion.

“Yes, but I meant when it was a school. What was this?”

“Oh, this did not exist when it was a school. I built it.”

“You…built this?” It was Ivan’s chance to laugh, as the image was quite absurd. She did not seem to appreciate this, and her expression grew cloudy. She glared at him, and he found himself surprised by the anger that was well beyond her years. He collected himself quickly. “I’m sorry, I just—you’re a kid.”

That did not seem to smooth over the insult, and she crossed her arms tightly. “Yes, but I built this for my playroom.”

“Well, you did a really nice job then,” he surrendered. He stood to gain nothing by offending the little girl, and it was good that she had an active imagination. “Why did you decide to build it?”

She seemed to soften at his compliment, even if he had not been sincere. “I was stuck here, out in the open. So I built a place to keep me safe and warm.” She beamed with pride at her accomplishment, and Ivan’s face contorted in confusion.

“How did you get stuck here?” His mind was now racing. Did he need to call DCFS? Could he do that? How did you do that? Was there a phone number online?

She shook her head, laughing. “I guess you don’t know why everyone else left the school, do you silly? Mr. McGuire brought me onto the roof. He killed me just out there,” she said, pointing towards the solid black windows. “But I made sure you cannot see it. I don’t like to look out there.”

“You’re dead?” he asked, incredulous. Could you call the police to have them carry a child away to some asylum or something? Was there a wiki on how to institutionalize an insane 7-year-old?

She laughed, a joyful sound given the mournful conversation. And then she stood, walking towards him. Once she was a few feet away, she titled back her head, letting her neck extend far beyond a point that was comfortable. Horrible dark bruises covered her neck coupled with red welts. It seemed as if the bones protruded against the skin at irregular intervals and angles, implying something terribly sinister below the surface. Ivan felt his knees grow weak.

“Yes, but I’m so happy to have a friend now. We can have so much fun, and I won’t be alone.”

Ivan began backing towards the door, and she smiled. She simply watched, a giggle barely constrained on her lips, as he groped for the door handle and tugged. As soon as it came open, he sprinted through the doorway, expecting to shoot down the stairs and back to freedom. Only he wound up back in the same room, staring at the now giggling little girl with the distended neck.

“You came to be my friend,” she laughed. “You can’t leave, silly!”

Ivan was hyperventilating, trying to make sense of what just happened. She seemed concerned, biting her lip. “Don’t be scared, I’m really nice. I just need someone to help me. I need someone to be my friend and keep me company. I won’t hurt you.” This, unfortunately, did not calm Ivan. He sprinted through the door again, only to skid back into the room. And again. She began to cry, watching him flee over and over, barely even pausing in the room any more.

“No, no, you have to stay and be my friend.”

After his sprints, Ivan found himself bent over, gasping for air in the same schoolroom. She was sobbing, but then froze. Her eyes widened and the most recent sob died on her lips as heavy steps rang out on the steps just outside the useless door.  She looked scared as she met his gaze, speaking barely above a whisper. “You didn’t leave the door open, did you?”

He could only stare breathlessly at her and her sudden fear. He limply nodded his head. “Why?”

Her words were little more than a whisper. “Mr. McGuire.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 61

Card Day 61: A knight rides on a white horse across the pages of a book. The opposite page has a dark pit, tentacles reaching out from it.

“Are you sure this will work?”

Ursula gave an exaggerated shrug, not even making the polite attempt to hide her ignorance. “I mean, I figure it has as much chance as anything else.”

Quentin sighed, fixing her with a firm, side-eyed stare. “Just so you know, those aren’t the kinds of things that inspire confidence when you’re asking someone to risk life and limb on some plan you’ve cooked up.”

She returned his stare with a lopsided smile, her barely-managed hair flopping across her eyes. She brushed it aside mechanically and shrugged yet again. “If you’d rather I lie to you, I can, but I thought you’d like to know that there’s about an equal chance of success and failure with this.”

“False confidence is a powerful thing,” he muttered, returning to his pacing.

She remained crouched on the ground, flipping through the pages are her eyes flew across the words. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve done my homework.” Another page flipped, snapping crisply in the air. Quentin looked down at it, noting the ornate script that flowed across the page. To him, it looked like some kind of spirograph creation, circling in and out and back across itself. But Ursula assured him she could read it.

“And all of that research never mentioned another way?”

She did not speak, but shook her head. Studying on page intently. After an extended paused, punctuated by Quentin’s frantic footsteps, she finally broke the silence. “Remember, I’m taking the risk with you. But we’re out of options, Quentin.”

He slumped against the wall of the roach motel, pointedly not looking at her. “I know. I know better than anyone. Better than you.” He stomped from the room to the tiny, dingy bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Ursula sighed, leaning back on her heels and letting her head fall into her hands. She understood that he was nervous, that the task was likely a death wish, but he had sought her out. He had brought the information, put the pieces together, and pushed her towards identifying a final solution.

Still, the cold feet made sense, she supposed. It was a suicide mission most likely, but at least she knew the information she had was correct. Quentin’s sister had been the Seventh Forgotten Woman taken by the creature, and Quentin was her Legacy Bearer. He was the only one who remembered he had a sister, and Ursula had verified that by digging through prior records. Old magic struggled with the conveniences of modern technology. The erasure was there, but there were crumbs remaining—failed links, dead domains, and occasional mentions. This entity, fortunately, did not actually re-write any timelines, and so there were at least traces to be found. Interviews with her family had led to blank stares, minor defensiveness. Only Quentin remembered the bubbly 26-year-old woman who went for a jog and vanished from time and space.

The Unsatiated—the name was the closest translation she could make—had met its human needs, so that meant that is merely needed one moon cycle to fully emerge. And last time it had, there had been a swath of the country that suddenly disappeared, hundreds of people vanishing in a blink and barely remembered. From what she had pieced together, however, the creature seemed to feed on the memories it could accumulate, taking first a few until it could emerge from hibernation, then devouring all those that remembered the missing individuals. And then stealing away those who remembered the new missing, and so on. In this interconnected age, the results would certainly be devastating.

Still, she felt powerlessness sweep over her again. The only solutions were conjectures strung together across a dozen ancient sources, none of which had been able to stop it. Of course, Ursula certainly believed she had done due diligence and devised a process that had a shot at working, but only time would tell. And, unfortunately, that time was tomorrow during the new moon.

Her eyes ached from deciphering the old script, and she could feel the mental fatigue piling up. The corners of her eyes were flooded with dark shadows and grasping claws, reminding her that the words she poured over were not meant for mortal minds. She closed the book, letting her façade of bravado fade as she dragged herself to the stiff mattress. A good night’s sleep was possibly one of the most overlooked necessities for a successful banishment.

_

Given his haggard look, Ursula assumed Quentin had not taken her advice about sleep. He had been gone when she woke, and returned only an hour before they were to leave for the lake. She bit her tongue, avoiding the scolding her certainly deserved. The time was better spent preparing him.

“So once I’ve done the summoning, you’re on. Know what to do?”

“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, grief seeping through his voice.

“And you have the—“

“I’m ready, okay! Can we get this over with?” His anxiety boiled over into anger, and Ursula pursed her lips at him.

“Lack of preparation will get us both killed. I’m putting my life in your hands. I’m putting hundreds of lives in your hands. So, thank you, but I will cover all the bases. You have the token, yes?”

Shame flashed over his face, a shudder of embarrassment and irritation mingling as well. But his anger was dulled. “Here.” He held out a bracelet made of faded strings woven together.

“And it was hers?”

“I made it for her at summer camp when I was eleven. She wore it for years, but left it at home when she went to college. I found it in the bottom of her—of the storage room closet.”

“Good, that will do nicely. A gift bound in love, tying Legacy with Forgotten.” She looked down at her carefully prepared notes, striking through the items. “And you’re prepared for what might happen at the end?”

“Forgetting her? No, I can’t stand the idea. But there’s no choice, right?”

“No. You won’t even remember that you saved the world. But you will have.”

“Great,” he muttered sarcastically. “Are we good?”

She merely motioned to the van, and he folded himself inside. The ride there was long, mostly silent, and heavy with the impending tension. Darkness held close to their van, unbroken by star or moonlight. Wind whipped its way through the trees, and Ursula could feel nature beginning to bristle with the impending defiance of the laws of the world. Yes, the time was drawing near, and so at least if they failed, there would be very little time to live with the disappointment.

Their arrival was met with silence as well, and Ursula gathered her bag of supplies to complete the summoning. The trees clustered around them, groaning with the wind. Yes, it was the perfect night for arcane rites and rituals. Eventually, the lakeshore rose into view, water lapping angrily at the rocky shore as it promised an impending storm.

“Better make this quick. Looks like it might get bad out here,” offered Quentin, his courtesy suggesting they put the previous conflict behind them.

“It will certainly get bad out here,” she offered with a grim smile, “and it’s going to be our fault.” With that, she dropped to her knees and began to gather her equipment from the canvas bag. She started by drawing a large spiral on the ground with ground-up chalk, closing the outer edge. Starting at the edge closest to the lake, she placed a water-smoother stone etched with a name in each ring, leaving the central most clear. In the middle, she placed a single white candle, lighting it against the best effort of the wind. Her hands were shaking as she poured a measure of blessed oil into a lidded, gold bowl, placing it to the side next to a knife. Preparations complete, she proceeded with the rite.

Quentin listened to her whispered words, hearing them whisper through the woods with a sibilant, melodic tone. It seemed to rise over the wind, circling around him with a strange pull. Then, he heard things he recognized. Names he did not know, followed by the one he did. April Maria Davidson. That name was like music to him; he thought he might never hear another soul say it with such a knowing tone. Yes, she was known, she existed, and he remembered. For the moment, at least, he remembered. But he would soon have to sacrifice even that.

Once Ursula grew quiet, there was a ripple from the water. It was a woman rising out of the water, her body glistening with pale white that seemed to shine like the absent moon. Her hair was dark, falling down to her knees and covering her with an inky veil. She floated there above the water, mist and substance all at once, her eyes radiating hate towards the mortal on the shore. Her mouth split open, rows of teeth glistening inside her dark maw, and released a soundless scream. Quentin felt it slam into his body, even if he could not hear it. Ursula crumpled to the ground, and he feared she may have heard that sound that his mind so flawlessly protected him from.

One of the creature’s arms swam forward, an extension of mist reaching across the lake towards the now distracted Ursula. Just as it was about to reach her, Ursula rolled, bringing forward a mirror and deflecting the appendage.

“Do your damn job already,” she snapped, looking at Quentin with ferocious, pained eyes. “Or you and I can both die here.”

Shocked into action, Quentin drew the bracelet from his pocket and scooped up April’s stone from the circle, careful not to disturb the remaining stones or chalk spiral. His lips fumbled over the name Ursula had taught him, trying to approximate her melodic way with the language. It sounded more like marbles being thrown into a garbage disposal, but it also caught the creature’s attention. She fixed her empty eyes on him, mouth knitting together into a smile. Now, he could hear her whispers.

“Don’t listen to her. Think of April. Do what we said.”

Quentin broke his gaze from the woman, the whispers fading to a distant suggestion or voices. He knelt beside the gold bowl and held the knife in his trembling hand. This was it, the moment of truth or utter failure.

Boldly, drawing on strength form a source he could not recognize, Quentin drew the knife across his palm, screaming the creature’s arcane name once again. “I, Legacy Bearer, banish the name of April Maria Davidson. Bound to the essence, I too banish you from our world. I complete your task, I break all of April Maria Davidson’s ties to this world. And so, I banish you.”  His voice was breaking, and he felt tears trickling down his face. Despite the woman’s screams, he pressed his bleeding hand against the etched stone, then wrapped it in the bracelet. Quentin looked at the bloodied stone and the bracelet, his last memento of his beloved sister.

It was a sacrifice in the truest sense as he cast the items into the gold bowl, lifting the candle to light the oil. The scream grew louder, the wind whipped stronger, and Quentin felt his memories begin to fade like dust. He fell to his knees, weeping, as the final thoughts of April fell through his mind, rebuilt around the emptiness of a person erased. It ached as those memories dissolved, almost as if his entire being was being destroyed as well.

And then, there was nothing. He looked around at the dark lakeshore, taking in the woman kneeling on the ground nearby, a strange assortment of items surrounding her.

“Um, excuse me, who are you, and why are we out here?”

The woman smiled, but her eyes looked sad and lonely. “I’m no one,” she quipped. “And I guess you were out for a walk?”

Quentin scratched his head, looking around. “Huh. Weird, I just don’t remember coming out here. Must have been distracted,” he laughed, though it did nothing to resolve his discomfort.

She smiled politely back. “Some things are better to forget, I guess.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 59

Card Day 59: A man and a woman falling through an orange background.

As it always had, the moon had risen bright and full on the horizon. Now it hung low in the sky, heavy and tinged orange. Nevertheless, it appeared just as content as the two silhouettes resting on the top of the train car. Ilene passed the glass bottle across the roof of the car, leaving it to the safety of Lewis’ waiting hand. They sat in silence, staring up at the expanse of stars rolled out before them. It was a mid-summer night in the middle of the South, so the air still held onto its cloying warmth and humidity. Still, it was better than trying to coax a breeze through the tiny cabin windows. The only sounds were the distant chirping of crickets and the occasional gulp from the bottle or clink of glass against the metal roof.

Lewis was the first to break the silence. “Know which town we’re in tonight?” He passed the bottle back to her, and she took a hearty swig.

“Nah, one of those one-stop deals, I think.” She left the bottle in between them. Giving way to the comfortable silence yet again. Eventually, a thought sprung to mind, and she spoke again. “Do you know when we have to raise the big top?”

Lewis sputtered around his drink, the liquid obviously trickling down the wrong pipe. He shook his head empathically as he tried to clear his airways. “Not for sure,” he coughed, “but you know boss usually says before noon.”

“Should we plan on practicing tomorrow?”

He shrugged his shoulders, relaxing back against the roof on his elbows, an occasional cough breaking through. “We can, but I’ve been tossing you around so long, I’m not sure it will help. Plus we had the show yesterday, and we don’t want to wear ourselves out.” He gave her a wink. “But if you’re worried I’ll drop you—“

She waved away the end of his sentence, chuckling good naturedly. “Drop me and I might finally draw a reasonable check from someone.”

Neither of them laughed at the joke; the truth of the matter stung a bit too much. Ilene drank another swig, sighing. The comfortable silence between them took on a mournful quality, the moon watching over with its solemn gaze.

“Hey, Leney?” asked Lewis, rolling to his side to look at her. She kept her face pointed up at the stars as if she were trying to catalogue each one.

“Hm?”

“When you were a kid, is that that you wanted to do?”

She released a grim bark of a laugh. “What, make poverty wages while being dragged from Podunk to Podunk by a fly-by-night circus? Yeah, what kid doesn’t dream of that?” The bitter edge to her voice cut through the companionable atmosphere, and Lewis rolled back to look at the stars.  He laced his fingers across his stomach, just listening to the sound of crickets. The acridity slowly faded from the air between them, replaced by the companionship that only comes from years lived in a hopeless state.

“I wanted to be a vet,” whispered Lewis, just loud enough to carry to her ears. He knew it was not the conversation she wanted to have, but it was one he needed. He needed her to help set him free.

Ilene shook her head as she took another drink. “Not me. Couldn’t stand the idea of blood and sick animals.”

He rolled his eyes over to study her for a moment. “Then what did you want to be?”

“A florist,” she chuckled, shrugging her shoulders with an air of defeat. “I guess I never dreamed too big.”

Lewis knit his brows together in concern, turning to face her full on. Sensing the intensity of his stare, Ilene even turned to look at him, the jaded smile fading on her lips. “Leney, I think you would make a fine florist. You’d do great.”

He watched her wilt, uncomfortable under his eyes and with his praise. She studied the bottle in her hand, feeling how light it was. Determined to end the moment, she tossed it back, draining the last few drops and repositioning her eyes at the empty sky. “Yeah, but I’d have to get my GED. And I was the kid with the bright idea to run off and join the circus.” She replaced her shell of sarcasm, fixing Lewis with a grin that kept him at bay, always on the outside. He wished he could crack that enigma, but she always seemed to sense whenever he was closing in.

“Well, we both made some foolhardy decisions.”

“It could have been worse,” conceded Ilene, lying down beside him on the roof. He felt her hair, long and untamed, brush against his shoulder, the scent of her shampoo drifting closer.

“True. I mean, I could have never met you.” He grinned widely, and she rolled her eyes at him.

“You really don’t give up, do you?”

“You’re the only woman I’ve found that would stick by me all these years.”

“Lew, I’m contractually obligated to hang around these train cars. Don’t go getting any wild ideas.”

“Yeah, but you’re not contractually obligated to drink on the roof with me.”

“No, but everyone has to maintain their sanity somehow. Speaking of, you’re going to have to start providing more incentives,” she shook the empty bottle, “if you expect to keep luring me up here.”

He gave her the most winning smile he possessed. “As soon as I get that raise they promised me, I will. And it’s got to be coming any day now, because—“

“They’ve been promising me for six years,” finished Ilene with a laugh. “You may also need to get some new material.”

The evening stretched between them, quietly joining their solemn counsel. It was a familiar friend, one that always joined in their ritual without fail. Given the noise and hubbub of the job, both needed the escape. Everyone needed their escape, Lewis thought, mind flipping through the many other characters. Some found it in the pages of dirty magazines, others at the end of a needle. Some discovered revitalization in a new town every night, the endless adventure of the experience. Others found it in fitness, in solitude, in study, and perhaps most popularly in the back corner of small town bars. Lewis, he found it in friendly silence and an occasional drink to unwind. He watched Ilene from the corner of his eyes. She seemed to find it in brooding thoughts enjoyed mutely with his company. The beer probably helped, too.

“Have you ever thought about quitting?”

For a few moments, he thought Ilene would not answer, but would ignore him and hope he got the message. But, finally she spoke, her voice quiet. “Every day. Don’t you?”

“Most days,” he said with a sigh. “More and more now that my body ain’t as young as it used to be.” As if to prove his point, he rolled his neck, listening to a chorus of pops. Suddenly, he propped himself up on his elbow, a glimmer of wild hope in his eyes. “What if we did, Leney? You and I just set off, started our own thing?”

She laughed at his response, and he could hear the desperation in it. No, such thoughts had no place in this world, no matter how much she might hope. “And do what, Lew? You bandage up all the strays while I make them daisy chain collars?”

His eagerness faded, replaced by the omnipresent weariness of their lives. “I guess you’re right. It is a kind of crazy idea.”

She seemed to soften at his disappointment, realizing her remarks had cut deeper than she intended. She rested her hand on his, squeezing it softly. “We are both getting too old for this. Maybe we should start planning to retire. You and me. Find some small town where the circus doesn’t run through and put down some roots.”

“Want to leave tonight?” he asked with a wistful smile.

She shrugged. “Not tonight, but maybe in the next town over.”

Lewis smiled, closing his eyes as he completed the ritual. “Yeah, next town over should be just fine.”

As it always did, the moon set slowly, abandoning the silhouettes to their contemplation.


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Card Challenge: Day 58

Card Day 58: A person made entirely of orange, autumn leaves walks with a wooden walking stick towards dark hills beneath an orange sky.

Walter pondered his map beneath the heavy brows of old, stately buildings. His back ached with the weight of his backpack, and his knees groaned and cracked as he stood and tried to unravel the knot of roads. He pinched the bridge of his nose, the map catching and flapping in the breeze once half-loosed. This was supposed to be the trip where he accomplished all his lifelong goals, saw the world, and embodied the idea of “aging well” that he heard preached so furiously. Instead, it seemed to be the trip of getting lost, sore bones, and midafternoon headaches.

The map continued to defy him, reminding him again and again that his eyes were not what they used to be. No, Walter agreed, they certainly were not. Then again, none of him was. Walter, of course, considered himself middle aged, but h was nonetheless old enough that people mistakenly referred to him as an elder. He was also old enough to carry the aches and pains of a life lived long and hard.

He shifted his weight, swinging the backpack to his other side and momentarily relieving the pinch against his back. The map was so small, and the buildings here were not as well marked as he would like. Walter leaned back against the nearby building, granting reprieve to his aching feet as he removed a portion of the weight. This building had stood the test of time, that e could be sure, it could handle his meager weight for a few moments.

Despite the frustrations, he smiled at the memory of many such side streets and new experiences. Yes, this travel had been rough, and his body was tired, but it had also been incredibly rewarding, He had never thought he was the kind to leave his tiny home, take off to Europe, and squander his savings on rich food and exotic accommodations. But Walter had wanted to age well, seize life in both hands as long as he had it.

And maybe that was the more accurate truth, he granted. Walter was looking to die well. Even in the twisted Italian streets, he could not escape that reality, No, fleeing to Europe, abandoning the life he had known, and putting miles and oceans between him and his doctors had done nothing to remove the burden of steadily dying. The memory swelled up, overtaking him even there. He remembered well the sterile office, the soft words, the professionalized sympathy. Words hung frozen in the air, others floated past him unheard. Six months were two words that kept his attention. Walter watched in the office as his golden years shrunk from a couple of decades to “won’t see the end of the major league season.”

There were, of course, so many pitying glances. The receptionist at the front was sorrowful, eyes watery and mild as he stepped forward to settle his bill. Walter let himself chuckle in the shadowy, foreign streets. Yes, he had paid them for the pleasure of receiving his death sentence. He did suppose, however, that with such feedback, it was unwise to wait to collect on bills.

No matter how bad life had gotten, Walter had always held to his sense of humor, grim as it was. Part of his need to leave was that the folks he knew no longer had room for humor in the scenario. He was constantly being smothered by concern from his friends, neighbors, and co-workers. The jokes he wanted t make—morbid, grim, and utterly inappropriate to the situation—were met with slight gasps of shock and tearful eyes. Walter had fled the suffocating atmosphere of propriety to grieve his life his way. And so he toured lonely streets, laughing at his own dark jokes.

A car horn broke through his reverie. Somewhere, a pedestrian had almost lost a leg, he smiled grimly. It had only taken him one or two close calls with pounding heart and rapid breaths to learn that pedestrians did not have the right of way in many cities around the world. Still, he had remarked to more than one bystander, he as a dead man walking either way. Car or cancer, did it really matter at this point?

Still, the city sounds drew him way from the home he had left and back to his current conundrum. The early morning sun was shifting towards noontime, and he had still not found his desired goal. Admittedly, his journey had started a bit later in the day, as he had enjoyed a couple of hours dozing in the soft, luxurious bed and letting his aching muscles unwind. And then he had been forced by his raging stomach to endure a heavy, delicious, and decadent breakfast at a local restaurant.

For years, Walter had watched his diet. He had cut out coffee to prevent any negative cardiovascular effects. Breakfast had been a grapefruit and glass f water, perhaps with a multivitamin on the side. But here, in this world of food and fantasy, he devoured rich and creamy desserts, fatty dinners full of cheese and cream, and drank dark coffee by the gallon. The taste of pastry still hung about his mouth, reminding him of the snack he had squirreled away in his backpack for later. If you have six months he saw no reason to waste it on careful eating and moderation. If ever there were a time for indulgence, it was now.

Walter straightened and smiled as a young woman walked down the side street towards him. Young, he chuckled. She was clearly fit the middle-age category far more accurately than Walter did. A young boy hung on her hand, and he could hear the melodious voice gently chiding him. Having been a mischievous child himself, Waletr had learned that he could recognize a mother’s rebuke in almost any language, at last based on his travels thus far.

“Scusi,” he offered, his tongue trying to figure out the unfamiliar sounds. Yet again, he bristled at the difficulty of switching language. There had been a time he would have leapt between languages flawlessly, back when his mind was sharp and quick. Now, he felt like he was paging through a dictionary carved into stone tablets for as long as it took him to recall the few phrases he had learned on his flight over.

She paused, seemingly surprised by the stranger’s voice. He did his best to smile pleasantly, and she returned the smile before rattling off some string of syllables that, while sounding lovely, meant nothing. Walter continued to smile, then held out the map.

“Dove sono?” he asked in broken tones. As beautifully a the words rolled of her tongue, he felt like he was spitting stones

She wrinkled her brow—trying to decode his broken Italian, he reckoned. Walter held up the map, waving his index finger over it before giving an exaggerated shrug. Her face suddenly brightened as she let out a simple “Ah.”

The woman gave her son a sharp look, then grabbed the map with her free hand. After a brief study, she placed one long, manicured finger on a tiny intersection. “Here.” Her English sounded foreign, exotic, and perfect. Walter felt a deep sadness ell up inside of him that he had never experienced this part of life before now. How long had he wasted on his tiny corner of the world while turning his back on everything else?

“E il museo?” he asked again, his tongue beginning to wake and wrestle with the new sounds.

She smiled at him and then returned her eyes back to the map. Quickly, she pointed to another area, a tiny open square in the tangle of streets. “Here.” She added again, fixing him with a broad smile. Walter added his smile to hers as he folded the map back up and stowed it away.

“Grazie.” She half-spoke something to him as she turned back to collect her son, quickly disappearing down the shadowy street and back into the sunlight.

Walter began to walk, the old cobblestones under his feet as centuries old buildings loomed over him. There was something so right about being in the ancient city as he himself grew old. He walked the ancient city streets, feeling kinship with the worn stones he trod, the comfort of familiarity blanketing him from watching windows in squat buildings.

Walter felt as if he had a lot to learn from the city that had aged so well, well enough to become a treasure in its own right. He smiled and set his goal. He would learn to live well, age well, and die well in whatever few days he had left. With that, he pulled out his breakfast pastry, and let the sun shine down on his aching bones.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 54

Card Day 54: A woman wearing a rainbow-striped skirt reaches for a golden apple.

Linette’s problem was that she knew she was running out of time. The letter had shown up on her kitchen table two days ago, its simple message handwritten in an ornate, looping script. “Linette,” it began, “We would like to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime. Pick up the phone. Call us.”

And so she had, dialing the number at the bottom. A cheery woman on the other end answered, greeting her by name before she could even speak. “We’ve had our eye on you,” said the perky voice, no hint of shame or disgust at the creepy message. She had gone on to reveal things that Linette thought no one in the world knew about, and then gave her the promised opportunity.

They—who they were was never disclosed—wanted to offer her enough money to spend the rest of her life in luxury. The only catch was she had to complete a simple task. They would provide everything she needed, a clearly outlined plan for completion, and full coverage should anything go wrong. Realizing the job sounded too good to be true but unable to pause in her excitement, Linette agreed. And the line promptly went dead.

It was a hoax, a practical joke, she assumed. She was the unwitting patsy while some teenagers giggled merrily in some loud and gaudy bedroom.  Of course, her opinion changed when she woke up to a pale grey, metal box at the foot of her bed the next morning. The awareness that someone had crept so close to her while she slept left her frozen there for the first hour, anxiously awaiting the intruder’s return. No one walked in, and eventually curiosity drew her out. She flipped the metal clasps, the sound echoing in her empty room, and looked inquisitively into the dark recesses.

Inside was another letter, this on crisply typed in small font. She set it aside to explore further. There was a small flash drive, two plastic keycards, a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, and a brick of cash. Linette’s heart beat quickly as she lifted the cash up, looking at the stack of $100 bills staring up at her. Benjamin was smiling at her, and she could only gaze back in wide-eyed shock.

She quickly grabbed for the letter, trying to figure out what she had signed herself up for. The “too good to be true” feeling was back in full force, currently occupying a pit of snakes in her stomach.

“Ms. Linette Jones,” was the formal opening to the letter. “We appreciate your dedication to our service. We hope that this may be the beginning of a fruitful relationship. Inside this box you should have found one (1) military grade encrypted flash drive, two (2) numbered and identified keycards for Room 1178 and Room 932, one (1) pair of video recording lenses, and the first installment of your reimbursement for service.

“We have a simple task for you to begin, so that you may prove your dedication to our initiative. First, put on the glasses so we may monitor your progress. This will also help to provide you with a small deal of concealment as they are equipped with video recording disruption capabilities. All you must do is go to the two rooms and do simple tasks. Both offices are within your current office building, hence your current utility.  Room 1178 hosts a large collection of mainframes. Find the port and plug the USB into them, then leave the room. Next, go to Room 932. This room should be a plain, but empty office. Take your glasses and break off the left earpiece, and then slide it into the bookshelf, the broken end in between the books. You have until 4:45pm on January 3rd to complete the assignment.

“As you can surely understand, this is a very delicate matter. We assure you, your cooperation in this is for not only your benefit, but the benefit of all those you currently know and work with. However, given the delicate nature of this situation, failure to complete the assignment will result in permanent TERMINATION. “

There was no name or signature, only the crisp words on creamy paper. Linette had gotten up and gotten ready, trying not to think about the stack of bills she had sequestered under her mattress. She shoved the items into the recesses of her purse and went to work.

Now, she looked at the clock, watching the number tick away. It was 4:15pm already, and she felt no more certain of how to proceed than she had two days ago.  There was a heavy cloak and dagger feel to it, and, despite the letter’s assurances, she felt certain there was a nefarious plot underway. Still, the final note about termination left a lead weight in her stomach. She had no difficulty reading through the innuendo, nor understanding that she was far over her head.

Linette scooped up her purse with sudden resolve. She could use the money to flee to Mexico or something, put this behind her, and never open an unaddressed letter again. But she had to survive.

She put the glasses on her face, feeling out of place with the heavy frames. A couple of her coworkers gave her odd looks as she walked past, commenting on the new look. She tried to keep her head down instead.

It felt like an impossible wait by the elevators as the lift climbed from the first floor to the fifth. She hoped no one would join her as she waited, because the thought of friendly chitchat brought a wave of nausea over her. The job was possible, she knew, but only if she did not think about it at all. Finally, the doors opened and she flung herself into the little metal sanctuary.

Cheery music piped in, a sharp contrast to the anxiety flooding her thoughts. Linette felt as if the world had slipped off of its axis, sending her into a tailspin without an emergency escape.

The doors opened on floor eleven—it would be best to start at the top and work her way down, she reasoned. Trying to appear confident, she strode down the pale grey hallway, her eyes scanning the numbers on the doors. What would she do if there was someone waiting inside?

Fortunately, the door swung open onto nothing but rows of blinking computers. She was not a tech-savvy individual, but she did know what a USB port looked like. Locating one was difficult amidst all the wires and displays, but she found one and jammed the device into it. At a half run, she fled the room and exited back into the quiet hallway.

It felt impossible, this conspiracy swirling around her. Everyone she passed was simply going about their day, not a thought or care in the world. She felt like she had a gun pointed at her head, forced to jump through flaming hoops. Worst financial decision she had ever made, she decided as she stood waiting for the elevator again.

This time, a man in a suit and woman in a fitted dress were standing inside, chatting as the doors slid open. They barely glanced at her as she slipped into the small cage, pressing the eleven button just above their ten. She imagined he gave her a side-eye as she did it, that there was a brief hitch in the conversation. Just paranoid, she cautioned herself, closing her eyes and breathing deep. Just paranoid.

Stepping out onto the eleventh floor, she saw even fewer people than before. Now it as simply a matter of finding the door and leaving the frame—

“Lin?” she heard from the other end of the hall. She spun around quickly, trying to figure out who could know her here. No one she knew worked on eleven.

Jason from International Services was standing just a few feet from her, smiling broadly. She tried to mimic his smile, but felt her eyes beginning to crack from the pressure. “Jason, hi.”

“Nice glasses,” he said with a knowing smile, his eyes drilling into her. His smile was genuine and friendly, but Linette felt a slight threat emanating from him nonetheless.

“Yeah, my contacts were really bothering me today,” she lied fluidly, surprising herself with the ease. She let her eyes wander, trying to find the door she needed and trying to find an escape for the impossibly inconvenient conversation.

His lips were moving, her were responding out of force of habit, She could almost feel the time ticking away, second by second. “I didn’t know you worked up here,” he said casually.

“I don’t,” she said, barely realizing the words. He gave her an inquisitive look.

“Then why would you be up here, Linette?” Her name brought her back to the conversation, catching his searching eyes. He knew. And she knew he knew. “Go home, Linette,” he whispered, his voice soft and sad.

She responded with desperation. “I can’t.” the words hurt tumbling from her lips, and she could see they pained him, too.

He sighed. “You know I cannot let you do what you were going to do.”

“Jason, I—“ He put a hand up to cut off her words.

“Please, Linette, don’t make me do something I don’t want to do.” She looked frantically down the hallway, down where the door should be. In her mind, the numbers were there, hovering just against that fourth door form the end.

“I don’t have a choice,” she replied, steel in her voice. She broke off down the hall with breakneck speed, trying desperately to reach her target. What she would do when she got there was a giant mystery, but she could only hope that eventuality had been worked out. Instead, however, she felt heavy arms plow into her back, flinging her forward to the cold tile floor.

Pinned to the ground, the glasses busted against the floor, Linette could see her watch from its trusty position on her wrist. “4:48,” it proclaimed cheerily.

Too late.


I am not too happy with this one. I feel like it is all jumbly, misplaced, and probably rife with logic errors. It was an idea I liked, but then it just wasn’t really working for me today. Oh well. Everyone has an off day. This one was also tough because the card screams Atalanta to me, but I’ve already used that in a few places. So, I was not getting much new from this card. I went with unattainable goals and distraction, but I’m not sure how well it came through. Either way, I hope you found something you enjoyed in reading it. Please feel free to drop me a comment about what you loved, hated, or anything in between. Happy reading!


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 45

Card Day 45: A snake shaped thermometer sits on a barren landscape under a moonlit sky. The red liquid leaks out of the thermometer and onto the ground.

 Vernon was groggy as he woke up, his eyes stinging with sand and his face raw from his unconventional pillow on the hard ground. He pushed himself to his feet, taking a deep swig from the canteen on his side in an attempt to wash the dry, musty taste from his mouth. It was unsuccessful, and he grimaced at the foul taste of his own tongue.

The sun was low on the horizon, already baking the ground with waves of heat. It promised to be another hot one. Vernon grumbled as he bent to grab his hat from the ground, slapping it against his leg a couple of ties to rid it of the windblown sand. His cold, grey eyes sufficiently shielded from the staining light of the sun, he surveyed his little camp. He stomped along the hard ground, sand skittering around his imposing steps, and quickly gathered the last of his meager belongings, tossing them into his knapsack.

By his judgment, he had another day, maybe day and a half before he reached Fortune Falls. It would be a long, exhausting day in the heat, and he was aware that his supplies were beginning to dwindle. But it was nothing he could not handle and, frankly, he had been in far worse situations. As he took his first begrudging steps for the day, he remembered the time back a couple years ago he had been caught up North in the midst of a blizzard with a hunting jacket and a hole in his shoe. The doctor—when he had finally gotten to him—was amazed that he had not lost a few digits to frostbite. But Vernon still had his ten fingers and ten toes, and he curled them quickly in appreciation. Yes, the heat and sun of the desert was unpleasant, but passable.

The “road” into town, if you could even call it that, was little more than a set of wheel tracks in the dust. It wove around a few large rocks and cacti, leaving a meandering shadow of a trail all the way to the horizon. A couple of wagons had passed him the day before, but Vernon waved them off. They did not trust him and he did not trust them; it was better to avoid the unhappy partnership and expectation of payment for the service. He might have been cheap, but that had served him well in his life. Old as he was, Vernon was not interested in changing any time soon.

Four days of travel, but he felt sure his journey was nearing an end. He went to wipe the sweat from his brow, a reflexive response to the searing heat of the sun, but there was nothing left to clean away. He chuckled at his instinctive response, and took pride in his evident adaptation to the incredible heat of the past days.

A slight pain re-emerged in his head, a spike of pain that arced across his skull. Must be the bright light, he surmised, squeezing his eyes shut and moving forward. Hopefully it would go away once he got to the inn at town, taking a chance to relax and get out of the sun. He was not about to let a minor inconvenience annoy him.

Shifting his bag from side to side, he thought of the few provisions left, trying to decide if breakfast was warranted for his walk. As he considered the limited rations and his own current nausea, it seemed unwise. Later in the day, once he had woken up and gotten prepared for the day, he could have some lunch. Save up the extra for a nice dinner should he have one more night of camping in the sticky desert.

The path before him seemed to swim, and Vernon found himself pausing to look at the dancing trail. Up ahead of him as a mirage of shifting sands, the trail wandering and doubling back on itself. His brain felt fuzzy, his mind distant and not able to put all the pieces together. The early morning sun glared down at him, baking his exposed arms. His hands shook as he paused and took a sip from his canteen, hoping to calm his nerves and sight.

Looking up, nothing had improved. Instead, he imagined he saw a bandit waiting, watching him. If he had been clear of mind, he might have recognized instead the waving arms of the cactus, but in the moment he was certain the scoundrel was lining up his shot. Panicking, Vernon dove for cover among the nearby rocks.

His breathing was rapid, his heart was thundering, and his head was pounding in time. Vernon contemplated his next move carefully. While it was risky, the best option was to dessert the desert path, try to circumvent the ne’er-do-well. He crawled carefully along the ground, keeping in mind the meager directions he knew to get to his desired destination. Fortune Valley was in between two mesas, one of which he was pretty sure he could see on the horizon. A river ran behind the town, so he would have gone too far if he hit that.

Crawling along the ground, he watched for the man to move or see him, but he stood stalwart, watching the path. Vernon considered turning back to warn any approaching travelers, but ultimately decided that was their responsibility. He had a mission, and he needed to reach Victory Falls before night.

Once he was certain he had skirted far enough from the shadowy figure waiting, Vernon took to his feet and began his measured walk again. With all the force of concentration he could muster, he placed one foot in front of the other, trying to figure out why they seemed to be dragging and scuffing through the sand. His feet felt heavy, uncoordinated. But he pressed on, pushing himself forward.

“Howdy,” he heard, a word blown on the wind. Vernon spun around, trying to find the stranger, but there was no one nearby. The sun stared down form overhead, proclaiming noon. But, even in the clear, shadowless light of the day, he could see no fellow traveler.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice cracking like the dry ground around him. No one responded.

Stumbling, he turned back towards the direction he was fairly certain he had been heading. The landscape all looked the same, but he was certain he had been heading toward the bush to his right. As he passed it, he realized that there was not, in fact, a bush of any sort. Still, he knew his landmarks.

The desert land swam beneath his uncertain feet, and Vernon began whispering to himself, discussing the world around him as it passed. Every now and then, he heard a voice speaking to him, random words and phrases. But he never found the source.

“Keep going and I’ll put a bullet between your eyes,” he heard, clear as day. Drawing his pistol, Vernon snapped around, his aim roving wildly to find the aggressive stranger. Again, there was no one in the desert to threaten him. He scanned the horizon closely, trying to find any evidence of life. Nothing.

“You stop following me now, you hear? I got a gun to, and I won’t hesitate to shoot you where you stand!” he yelled, circling slowly to find the fleeing enemy. Still, nothing moved besides the sand over the rocky ground.

“I’ve got him in my sights. Whatcha want me to do, boss?” Another voice picked up, and his search took on a more frenzied turn. The sun was heavy and red on the horizon, casting long shadows, but none of them solidified into humans. Except, wait, was that someone? One of the shadow stretched long, seemed to be sighting him. He had a dead shot on Vernon, and Vernon felt his heart leap into his throat.

With the speed of self-preservation, Vernon took flight. His feet stumbled over one another, tangling and dancing wildly as he fled the impending danger. He thought he heard their yells behind him, the sound of approaching footsteps. Vernon pushed on, driving himself deeper and deeper into the desert. He had hoped to reach Fair Valleys tonight, but that was looking less likely, especially with all the dangerous bandits hiding in the desert.

He was panting heavily, his heart thundering, pain arching up and down his legs with the fury of his flight. Finally after what felt like hours of travel, he felt his legs give way beneath him. The ground jumped up to meet him, and he felt his face scrape along the rocky soil. Vernon scrambled to look behind him, but saw no sign of pursuit. Baffled by their sudden disappearance, Vernon let himself collapse against the ground, trying to regain his breath so he could push on. His vision swam, blurry around the edges. As he lay against the ground, he watched a snake slither into view, eyeing him curiously.

With a snap of its tongue, the snake opened its mouth wide. “You don’t look very good, friend.”

Vernon’s head hit the ground, overwhelmed by the impossibility of the endless desert.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 40

Card Day 40: A boy stands inside a glass dome, the world inside the dome a sunny scene with a house in the background. Outside the dome is a snowy world. Imagine an inverted snow globe.

Kevin pressed his face up against the glass, seeing the first flakes of snow falling for the season. He sighed, leaning against the cool glass as if he could somehow pass through it and catch the tiny flakes on his tongue. Alas, the window remained an impassable boundary, cutting him off from the wonders of the world outside.

He drifted through the empty house, aimless and tired of the same faded wallpaper, crushed carpet, and creaky wooden steps. What he would not give to get out and feel the cool wind on his cheek, the sun on his back, the tingle of snow against his skin. The breeze from the air conditioner, warmth of the stove, and icy residue of the freezer were no suitable substitute, despite his best efforts. He sighed, begrudgingly bearing his burden. Such was the life of a deceased spirit unable to pass on.

Kevin made his way to the attic. He had always wondered, growing up, why attics tended to be such a magnet for ghosts and ghouls in movies, books, and campfire stories. Having lived the life himself for almost ten years now, he finally understood. Everyone stored their interesting things in the attic or basement. After spending a couple of months following behind the current residents, watching the world move by past his window, Kevin felt his boredom grow. It was not until he found a box of old comics and books in the basement, the unusual medical textbooks in the attic, and a stash of old tapes and a Walkman under the stairs that he found a hobby that did not leave him feeling dejected and alone. Unlike some spirits, he was at least conscientious enough to wear headphones when he listened to his music.

The internet was a remarkable invention even if he could not fully interact with the computer—the screen tended to blink and fade to off whenever he was too close by. The current owners often left the thing running, displaying news, family updates, or short videos. It was something different to pass the time, even if it did little to relieve his boredom for long.

The good thing about living in a haunted house was that people eventually got tired of the weird happenings, flickering lights, occasional bumps and whispers in the night, and sometime oldies blared through speakers that they moved out. A new gaggle of residents would move in, bringing their own bizarre junk for exploration. Kevin imagined that, were he alive, he probably could have earned a couple of degree based on the information he absorbed through boxed up textbooks alone. He had also read numerous dairies, journals, failed novels, children’s books, and salacious wannabe romance novels.

Of course, he always knew what he would do at 7:13pm. No matter where he had been, what he was doing, or what he felt like, he would be magnetically drawn to the second floor landing. He found himself there now, looking out the large bay windows at the accumulating snow. What he wouldn’t give for a sled and an hour outside, he thought wistfully. His legs—or their incorporeal spirit form—began to walk towards the stairs of their own volition. Kevin sighed, awaiting the inevitable.

The sound of a toy car clanking down the stairs echoed in the room, even though there was nothing to create such a racket. Kevin felt himself follow suit, tumbling down the stairs in a disjointed heap of limbs. He stopped against the wall, a lingering dull ache to remind him of the sudden pain and darkness of a broken neck.

His current roommates startled a bit, and he could hear a feminine voice rise at the sudden noise. It was much quieter than the actual event, but still a disruption. For a boy who never really liked to be the center of attention, his unavoidable disturbance was certainly a fate worse than death. The ritual complete, Kevin slowly stood, brushing himself off and stretching out the kinks in his joints from the fall. Recently, his shoulder had been popping out of join in what would have certainly ben a painful situation if he could have felt pain. Instead, it was a inconvenient pop to reset the socket, and then he could return to what he was doing.

Hearing nothing more, his tenants calmed back down, attributing the sound to someone on the street, the heat kicking on somewhere, or the refrigerator cycling. They nestled back down on the couch, him running his hands over her hair as they watched some comedy. He only really knew it was a comedy because of the laugh track. It really did not seem that funny to Kevin, but then again, he had to remember that mortal concerns had little pull over him anymore. Wacky situational comedy had lost its relevance when he took his shortcut from the second floor.

Still, seeing the snow outside awakened a thick feeling of nostalgia. For a long time, actually dying, leaving the mortal coil, had been a distinct fear. He had floated along the halls of his family home, watching his parents grieve and struggle to move on, but ultimately afraid to actually leave the world behind. It was, after all, the only world he knew. Then, he realized that he could still learn and experience some of life, even if it had to be from a distance. More recently, however, he felt a deep fatigue and ennui with the whole situation.

He ached for the feeling of snow, for a scene besides the same inside of the house. Different paint and trappings did little to relieve the sameness of the space.

Feeling adrift in his feelings, Kevin made his way back to the attic. She was, apparently, a veterinarian, and so he was learning a great many things about animal care. It was wonderfully useless knowledge, since he would never have any need to keep an animal alive per se, at least not in his current form. Sometimes he imagined leaping in to save the day, giving some puppy the Heimlich when the owners were out, but generally animals had an instinctive fear of him.

Settling back into the corner he had created, Kevin let the evening slip through his fingers. He found himself gazing sorrowfully out the tiny round window, watching snow pile on the streets, cars, light posts, and tree branches. The moon rose high, nothing but a orb of haze behind a wooly blanket of grey clouds. He lazily turned the pages, studying the diagrams and text. A real lifelong learner, he thought with a sardonic smirk.

His studying was disrupted by the long, pained creak of branches outside the house. The wind had kicked up and paired with the heavy snow and ice, leaving the trees to fight against the constant battering. He could hear the branches groaning beneath the strain.

The wind howled a bit louder, whistling through microscopic cracks he never could find. The branches swayed and kicked, creaking all the more loudly. Try as he might, Kevin was completely unable to focus on his book with the racket.

With a sudden crash, one of the branches finally gave way, crashing down through the roof. It slammed into a pile of boxes, shattering an old mirror that had been in the attic even longer than Kevin. Even though he was in no danger, the sudden noise made him jump.

Then, miracle of miracles, Kevin watched the snow filter in through the gaping hole in the roof. Entranced by the dancing flakes, finally so close, Kevin stumbled towards them. Barely believing, he reached out his hand and felt the tiny flakes land on his skin. They burned with a sharp cold, never quite melting on his hand. The feeling was wondrous, a final touch of the world he had known and left behind. He could hear the wind, feel the snow, see the moon, smell the new fallen snow, and taste fresh winter air.

Content and at peace, Kevin finally left his childhood home, seeking the next step in the grand adventure of death.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 39

Card Day 39: A ladybug’s spots open to reveal a staircase, a periscope, an ant, and a tentacled creature. Other spots have locks visible, but remain closed.

Gloria imagined the recycled air pumping through her helmet smelled fresher as she gazed on the untouched landscape of Zultara. Pale orange sand dunes stretched as far as she could see beneath the deep blue of the sky. The sun, she imagined, was now warming her back, even if the climate control of the suit did not allow her to experience it. Then again, it was quite a few ticks below zero on the planet’s surface, so she took time to be grateful that the suit did not pass along that information either.

“Got the Beetle ready, Andre?” she asked, hearing the echo of her voice dimly over the comm unit.

“Locked, loaded, and juiced. Should get us to the dig site and back. Don’t you just love traveling in style with me?” came his chipper response. She heard the slight off-worlder accent in his words, a clip on the end of his syllables that she supposed came from a long time spent speaking through spotty comm channels.

“Dre, I spent seven months trapped in the cap with you, and I have one question.”

“Yeh?”

“Do you ever stop?”

He laughed, the sound crackling in and out in her ears, echoing around the helmet as if it bouncing around a cave. Gloria smiled, even if no one could see it through the reflective surface of her helmet. She had been lucky to get a great crew, and she was eager for the ride over to the dig with Andre. As cramped at the little two-seater could be, she at least had a traveling companions who she felt comfortable enough to sit knee to knee with.

Gloria turned from her vantage point and looked at the humped, oblong vehicle they depended on to traverse the sandy surface. It had a relatively boring, functional name—the All-Terrain Personnel Transportation Skimmer—but its awkward design with various tacked together plates earned it the name Beetle while it still rested in the cargo hold. She carefully stomped aboard and pulled the door down closed, hearing the hiss of the seal popping into place. Andre slid in beside her, keying on the driving dash. He keyed in the destination and the vehicle hummed to life, beginning to navigate the alien terrain. A green lit blinked and the panel emitted a little whistle. On cue, Gloria and Andre lifted off their helmets and breathed the stale air of the Beetle.

“Does your helmet stink? Mine is rank,” chattered Andre, wiping a bead of sweat from his light brown forehead.

Gloria laughed, shaking out the mane of unruly, frizzy brown hair that floated about the cabin in the reduced gravity. “That really sounds like something you need to get worked out, Andre. Mine smells like year old air, but that’s because it is.”

He shrugged his shoulders, rolling his head back with a series of snaps and pops. “The price we pay for discovering the universe.”

The two sat in companionable silence, broken by an occasional discussion of the bizarre world passing along outside their vehicle. The Beetle hummed and whirred over the terrain, traveling with bumps and jostles along the uncertain paths. Gloria sat in the formed plastic chair, trying to relax as much as the uncomfortable suit would allow, and eventually felt her eyes grow heavy.

She woke to Andre’s laugh, a ringing sound that sounded much friendlier and warmer when it had the open air to bounce about it. Groggily she pushed herself up in the seat, blinking quickly to shake away the sleep. “What’s going on?” she mumbled, the words dribbling from her still sleeping mouth.

“You snore like a mineral crusher going full force, Glor. I’ve never heard a woman go like that! I guess it’s a good thing our cabins are sound proof, or else we’d all be crazy from sleep deprivation.”

She sat up and glared at him, wiping away the drool from her mouth with the back of her hand. “Nicely done, Dre. Now you’re never going to get to spend the night in my cabin,” she said with an exaggerated waggle of her eyebrows. The smirk in her eyes told the rest of the story, and he redoubled his laughter.

“Then I’ll regret this moment till the day I die. We’re here, though,” he said, gesturing to the panel in front of him that showed their dot on top of the tiny flag marker. “Time to stop seducing me and get to work!”

They clambered out of the Beetle, both a bit stiff from the two hour ride across the dunes. Gloria stretched, trying to get rid of the tension sitting squarely behind her shoulder blades. “Got the digger?” she yelled over her shoulder. Andre was half buried in the back hatch, pulling out various drills and imaging devices.

“Yeah, in here somewhere. Found the camera for under surface recon,” he said, tossing a thin, snake-like cord her way. “You run that once we get into the undercrust ocean.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo. I think I can figure it out.” She wished he could see the smile behind her words, because his silence made her worry he had misunderstood her. Fortunately, he came into view, holding the corer over his head like a championship trophy.

“Success!” His shout of triumph was loud enough to cause a squeal of feedback in her helmet, and his laughter trailed after it. She could not have asked for a more optimistic, upbeat person to keep her motivated on such a long trip.

Andre moved over to the spot, checking the readings with the radar unit on his wrist. Once he found a spot they could break through, he set to work stretching and bracing the misleadingly delicate device. After a few moments, it spun into life, throwing sand up around it as it diligently pushed downward.

Gloria sank to the ground beside the Beetle, running the sand through her gloved hands. The tactile sensors transferred the slightly slimy, viscous quality of the sand to her palm as it dribbled slowly to the ground. She wondered what the sand was made of, and mentally noted that as a question for Danica later. Andre flopped onto the ground next to her after a moment, glancing over his shoulder to look at the energy gauge on the side of the Beetle.

“Uh-oh, Glor.”

“What?” she asked, quickly sitting up and turning in panic to look at the panel.

“We’re down to seven weeks battery power. Think we can make it back?” He made a comical picture, his giant gloved hands pressed exaggeratedly against the round surface of his helmet. Gloria gave him a good natured slap.

The sun trekked over head as they watched the machine making its steady progress. Occasionally, Andre rose and unkinked the line or navigated around a particularly nasty rock in the way. They chatted, discussing their lives growing up, the family they left behind, their plans for the nice hunk of change sitting in their respective ban accounts. Finally, it was Gloria’s turn.

“You know, I need to train you how to use the camera and then I can just kick back and relax on these outings. Not even sure why they need two of us anyway,” she said with a short bark of a laugh.

“Starscape Policy 89×4: No unit shall travers alien surface or atmosphere without accompaniment by a fellow unit. In event of catastrophic emergency, such a policy can be lifted to facilitate retrieval and rescue.” He saluted stiffly at the end, and she rolled her eyes, an invisible gesture he somehow managed to understand.

Shaking her head, she turned back to the data readout, tracking the progress of the camera through the tunnel he created until it finally burst through into murky, blue water. “Got hydro. Now, let’s see what we’ve got going on.” The camera swam through the water, trading one view of blue for another filled with its own bubbles. Shadowy stone formations peaked through from the bottom, and she carefully guided it deeper.

“We’re lucky we got a good reading on a place we could break through. I’d hate to have wasted all this time and not find anything to harvest.”

“Mhm,” she said, distracted. Her eyes tried to pierce through the gloom and displaced dust from the tunnel. Suddenly, she froze. “Andre,” she said, waving him over. He hustled towards her, huddling close to see the tiny screen. There before both of them was a creature beyond imagining. It was iridescent, wings radiating off of a cylindrical body and pushing it through the water. It moved gracefully, the tiniest of current following behind it.

“Is it-?” Andre’s voice caught in his mouth,

“It’s alive. We finally did it. No water harvest here, we’ve got a sanctuary.”

“And we’ve got the biggest breakthrough in human history!” He gave a short leap, thrusting his fist into the air with a yelp of joy.

Gloria smiled, laughing at his display and at the miracle spinning across the screen in front of hr. She thumbed on the recorder, cataloguing history. “I love this job.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 38

Card Day 38: A man walks up a staircase in the sky towards a door. Behind him is crisp blue sky, and below him place water, dutifully reflecting the sky so the image is seamless.

The sun was an angry, white eye burning in the endless expanse of blue sky and sea. It glared down with an unbearable intensity, scouring everything beneath its fiery gaze. Renee looked up, and saw nothing but the blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon where it joined with the choppy blue ocean. There was not a hint of cloud in the sky, meaning there would be no respite from the heat, nor would there be any evening rain to collect on the tiny tarp stretched over the raft.

Her tongue sat swollen and dry in her mouth, rolling around in her aching parched mouth. No rain meant no drinkable water again today. It was day four, and the thirst was beginning to grow unbearable. She carefully, measuredly scooped a palmful of sea water into her hand, sipping at it just enough to relieve the crusty feeling in her mouth. She knew the salt water was actively shortening her own hydration reserves, but it was nice to have a moment of relief.

Renee leaned back against the edge of the rubber raft, its side comfortably warm in the early morning sun. Her legs and joints ached, as did her head. It felt as if her entire body had been wrung dry, leaving nothing but a weak husk to bake in the constant sun. Perhaps, she thought, she would luck into a chance rain storm. Her stomach ached with a familiar emptiness, reminding her that water was not the only concern. The limited food rations had dwindled, and she had not felt like eating much since her water ran out.

Carefully, Renee stretched her light rain jacket across the width of the raft, creating a tiny refuge hidden from the sun. Her skin was raw with the constant water, sun, and salt. This is what jerky must feel like, she thought sardonically, turning to slide beneath the flimsy shelter. It would eventually get hot pinned beneath the jacket and raft, but for now it was a relief to feel the shade. The constant struggle for survival left her feeling weary, exhausted, and hopeless, and so she had little energy left to fight the weight of her eyelids over dry, aching eyes. The sound of the water against the boat, calm and rhythmic, rocked her into an uneasy sleep.

_

Renee woke suddenly from her dream to a sudden sound. She was thankful for the alarm, because she had been yet again reliving her frenzied flight from the sinking ship, hearing the sounds of her crew calling for help as the storm ripped them apart. The first thing she was aware of was the rapid pace of her heart, the ache in her bones, and the sound of something tapping softly against the boat. Moving tenderly from her lean-to, she investigated the source of the sound.

The sight was enough to convince her that she had finally snapped and was now hallucinating after her time in isolation and exposure. From in the midst of the sky was a set of blue—or possibly clear—steps leading to a door cut out of the sky. She was not sure how her eyes picked out the stairs and door from the seamless blue sky, but she somehow knew it was there. And her little boat had stopped against it. Renee stared at it in amazement, reaching out to feel the cool material of the steps beneath her fingers. There was no logic to explain this bizarre encounter.

Barely had she managed to wrap her head around the presence of steps in the middle of the sky hen the door opened. The sky simply arched back, revealing a square of white within the otherwise azure fabric. A hand pushed open the door, and her eyes travelled along it to the man standing before her. He was short and portly, wearing a well-fitted black suit. The most ridiculous piece, however, was the crisp black top hat balanced precariously on top of his head. He smiled at her as he stepped through the doorway and along the steps.

“Hail, traveler! Well met?” he said, his voice rising in the questions as he stood on the last step. Rene stared up at him from her spot sitting on the floor of the small boat.

“Who are you?” she asked, her voice cracking with dehydration. It hurt to speak, straining her vocal cords that seemed to have stiffened with disuse.

“Oh, that’s no matter. I’m here for you, and that’s what is important. Permission to come aboard?”

Renee paused, trying to wrap her mind around what was happening. She had been traveling alone for so long, and there was no protocol for how to respond to mystery men descending from the sky. Her confusion was evident.

“I suppose this is all a bit shocking, but if I may have a seat, I would be happy to explain.” He gestured to the open end of the raft. “May I?”

She nodded, unsure of what else to do. He delicately stepped into the raft and, despite her fears, it did not tip or buck too wildly at the added weight. Renee sat on her end, having disassembled her raincoat shelter, watching him warily.

“So, you seem to have found yourself a bit…lost,” he said with a friendly smile.

Renee’s head bobbed in ascent, a reflexive response to the human contact. Trying to regain her ability to focus, she gave her head a quick shake to clear it. “Who are you, again?” Her voice surprised her with its whispering quality, like sheets of paper shuffled together. It was also hard to speak, her words coming in rough gasps.

“I am just the man responsible for keeping an eye on things, trying to help wanderers like you find their way.”

It was a half-answer and she noticed her defenses raising, even though her head felt heavy and thoughts were lethargic. “And what is—“ she paused, gesturing at the strange structure rising out of the sky to save her voice.

“Oh. Hm. Well, that is just a doorway,” he said with an unconvincing smile. “But, enough chitchat. I have something for you.” She watched as he drew a small cylinder from his coat, shaking it so that she could hear the water lapping inside. “I’m sure you’re quite thirsty.” His manicured hands unscrewed the cap, pouring soe of the liquid into a silver cup. He passed it to her, and she eagerly accepted, her thirst clawing at the back of her throat.

However, as she looked at it, she froze. The liquid was not the clear, cool water she had expected. Instead, it was a murky, grey substance that sloshed about with the motion of the boat. Noticing her uncertain gaze, he spoke up, “I know it looks a bit odd, but trust me, it’s for your own good. You’ve been out here quite a while, and this will help you feel better.”

“Is it medicine?” she asked. There was some thought buzzing about, some reason she should worry, some innate fear, but it would not come to the forefront of her mind.

“Yes, in a sense. Quite like medicine.”

Though she knew she had no reason to trust him, there was something about the man from the sky that left her feeling comfortable. Even as the thought arose that he might be seeking to harm her, it seemed so impossible that she dismissed it. The heat, hunger, and thirst scrambled her thoughts, and she was drinking deeply of the liquid before she realized it. It flowed smoothly down her throat, soothing the raw tissues and leaving her feeling cool and comfortable. Renee was amazed. She could feel it flooding through her body, relieving her aching joints and soothing her burned skin as it traveled. It was truly miraculous. As the last drops of the grey liquid trickled down her throat, she sank into the feeling of relief.

“Better now, yes?”

“Much better,” she said with a contented smile, her voice taking on its soft and feminine tone again.

“Good. That’s my job, after all. If you’re ready?” He stood, motioning towards the stairs leading to the open door.

“Go with you?” she asked, standing quickly. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she felt the ecstasy of salvation flooding through her.

He laughed, a ringing and easy going sound that soothed her soul. “Would not do much good to just leave you here, now would it? Come along.”

The man walked regally up the stairs, gliding along them with practiced ease. Renee followed, testing the first step anxiously before quickly clambering behind him. The two stepped into the doorway, swinging the slice of sky shut behind them.

On the ocean, the little raft continued to bob along, carrying its lifeless cargo in a gentle embrace across the restless waves.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 36

Card Day 36: A person made of sheets of paper walks along a grassy field. Overhead, dark thunderstorms are rolling in, and trees bend with the force of the wind. The paper is beginning to fly off and swirl around.

Jamie had never thought that his entire life could fit into six boxes haphazardly stuffed into his trunk and back seat. Nevertheless, he had surprised himself, mostly by the meagerness of his life. In some ways, he felt he was running from the struggles behind him, but there was also something brave in his action, or at least felt brave at the time. Now it seemed more foolhardy.

Jamie ran a hand through his hair, looking into his own hopeful yet terrified eyes in the rearview mirror. This had always been his dream, one that had been put on hold time and time again, but something that had entertained his wildest thoughts when he imagined the fantasy that could be his life. Artists from all over the world had always flocked to the Big Apple, and he felt himself among the international migratory pull. It was the city that made careers, and somehow he was certain this adventure would reignite his flagging creativity.

His laptop, a battered thing that sluggishly churned through the internet and outdated games, rested in the passenger’s seat beside him, the tool of his trade. Hundreds of documents littered its hard drive, ideas and inspiration that always withered under the constant pressure of routine. Now, however, he was free of those responsibilities—which also meant free of the benefits. His boss was probably waking to his voicemail now, and would likely have the position filled by the end of the week.

Hi Dan, I quit. I’m done with you, the company, and all the bullshit politics I’ve been slugging through for four years. I’m done, and there’s nothing worth keeping at my desk. You can box it up and throw it in the dumpster, because I never want to see the inside of that God forsaken building again. Good luck.” The intensity and certainty of his message still resonated within him, a decision that, for the first time in a long time, seemed to be in his best interest. But the same uncertainty and self-doubt that had kept him locked to the dead-end job, the failure of a relationship, still snaked through his thoughts.

It was just past sunrise, and the sun stung at his tired eyes. He had been driving for hours already, and the adrenaline was flushing from his veins. Feeling the tug of fatigue, he pulled off the highway and towards a local diner promising the “Best Coffee at Exit 47!” He lacked enthusiasm for the accolade, but assumed that a diner could make a decent pot of coffee just about anywhere.

He grabbed his laptop from the seat, slumped out of the car, and locked his car behind him. It would not do to lose all of his earthly belongings just after setting out on his own. Inside, the diner was quiet, humming with the anticipation of the morning rush. But, for now, it was Jamie, a middle-aged waitress with faded makeup form the overnight shift, the young blond cook in the back, and a sullen looking trucker seated at the counter with his eyes on the tiny television in the corner. Jamie slid into a booth, opening his laptop. This was the start of his journey, and probably the first novel-worthy thing he had ever done in his life. He needed to record it.

“Good morning, sunshine. We’ve got a pancake special until 9am and free wifi,” the waitress said, sidling up to the table and tipping her notepad towards his booting laptop.

“Just a coffee, thanks,” he said with a self-conscious smile.

“No breakfast? Most important meal of the day, you know?”

Jamie shook his head quickly. “Just the coffee. I’m not really feeling up for food quite yet.”

She read the tragedy in his eyes and gave him a sympathetic smile. “A coffee, then.” She shuffled away from the table and towards the coffee pot. He could already smell it filtering through the diner, and he began to feel that the sign might actually be an accurate advertisement.

He had no intention of getting online, but he was checking his email before he even knew what happened. The first four emails were from her. The cursor hovered over the message, walking a fine line between opening them and abandoning his quest, or trashing them.

“You aren’t answering your phone,” said the first subject.

“Were you serious?” asked the second.

“Babe, let’s talk.”

“Please.”

He could hear the pleading in the lines and knew how weak he was to that endearing tone. Her face looked up at him from her tiny picture in the corner, and the sight of those smiling eyes steeled his resolve. He had enough.

Jamie closed his eyes, leaned back in the booth, and released a heavy sigh. In that moment, he was again on the landing of his apartment, eager to surprise Candace with the exciting news. While he knew she would catch on pretty quickly since he was home on the night he usually worked until 10, Jamie was bursting with the news.  He had gotten the promotion, and so they would stay put for another few years, just like she wanted. Nervous, elated, and only a bit disappointed that he had so readily agreed to stick around in the cow town if the job came through, he shifted from foot to foot. With a smile, he opened the door.

The sounds told the story before anything else. Rhythmic creaks of the bed, moans, and sighs. There were clothes in the living room—her underwear and another’s boxers. Jamie felt numb stepping into the apartment, his brain actively trying not to make the connections he already knew. Seeing Alvin from accounting in his bed had been shocking, but it was hard to feel too much. His emotions simply seemed to shut down in that moment. The room was already too full with the embarrassment, fear, and shame on Candace’s and Alvin’s faces.

“I’m leaving,” his voice said, dead in the new silence of the room. “I’m going to New York.” Jamie had left the room then, grabbing the boxes he had thrown in the hall closet for the day he would truly follow his dream. Candace shuffled Alvin out of the apartment quickly. She had cried and pulled at his arm, but he moved methodically from room to room, collecting those things which were definitely his. She could keep the couch they brought last year, as well as the television and entertainment center that would not fit in his sedan. He collected his DVDs, the clothes hanging in his half of the closet, and a collection of books, mugs, plates, and cookware that he had brought into their home in boxes two years before. All told, it probably took him less than an hour. She had been tearful and pleading, trying to block the door, but he left, mute and numb.

The waitress set the coffee on the table, snapping him back to reality. “Tough morning?”

“Tough night,” he corrected with a friendly smile as he clicked the trash can in the corner of the screen. Jamie was on the path of his dreams, and no one was going to hold him back or betray him. He would not give her the chance.

Jamie closed his email and opened up a blank document. Looking at the blank screen, he was aware of so many possibilities stretching before him, some for success and some for failure. Not knowing which he was beginning, he simply began to write.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 35

So, I took a day off yesterday. This week has been ridiculously busy, and then I had an 8 hour class today. Saturday. Yuck. So, I just was burned out on all fronts. Fortunately, a day spent in class with my incredible, wonderful, supportive classmates, plus pizza out after, has given me back a bit of energy. So, here is today’s, and sorry for the skip yesterday! Happy reading!


Card Day 35: A small child stands, sword raised high, in front of a giant blue dragon.

Jeanie woke up again from a nightmare, the sweat clinging to her body and the sheets. Her heart pounded, and she felt the flutter in her chest of rapid, gasping breaths. She lay there, her eyes scurrying over the ceiling, trying to calm herself down from the terrifying images and ideas that circled about. In the bright light of morning, she knew these feelings would disappear instantly, but the heavy darkness of 3am fed them. Her heart slammed against her ribs, echoing the sound of footsteps in her brain. It was just her heartbeat, she knew, but the sound rubbed against her raw nerves, keeping her whole body alert and terrified.

You’re too old to be scared of the dark, she thought to herself, rolling over and trying to ignore the paranoia creeping along her now exposed back. Lying this way, while more comfortable, meant she could not see the closet door. It was absurd, truly, to imagine something creeping out of her closet, but with her current state of arousal and the tricky way the mind sneaks toward impossibilities in the wee hours of the morning, she could not shake the image.

The teenager turned over, hoping that would ease the discomfort. Now she stared at the strips of black closet from between the slates of the door. However, she felt the same chill and anxiety creep along her spine again. This way, she could not see the hall door. Who knew who could be sulking along the hallways, slowly inching through the doorway? Defeated and capitulating to her own irrational paranoia, Jeanie turned back onto her back, staring at the bumpy plaster.

She tried to put the nightmare out of her mind, erasing the images of blood and pain. Watching that movie was a stupid idea, she chided herself, but acknowledging the source did nothing to weaken the images. They still spun through her mind, images frozen on the back of her eyelids. Every time she closed her eyes, they grew in vividness until she felt she was once again trapped within the dream. Her eyes flew open, back to the ceiling and the irregular pattern of the streetlight through her blinds.

It was beginning to feel as if sleep was unlikely to return for the night. She watched the clock tick from 3:17 to 4:10 with its steady rhythm. Her eyes were heavy and leaden, sinking closed only to snap open at every creak or grown from the house. Though her heart had slowed and her skin now prickled with cold from the air conditioner, she still could not fully embrace the ease and calm needed to finally fall back asleep.

There was a shuffling in her closet, and her eyes flew open, pupils wide in the dim room. Just the house settling, she reminded herself, letting her heart slow from the sudden jolt. Had she not felt the terror of the moment, she would have laughed at herself for imagining someone sitting and sliding her clothes along the hangers in the floor of her cluttered closet. It was a ridiculous image, but one full of impending devastation in her tired, anxious state. She resettled in the sheets, tugging her pillow to a slightly better angle, and once again squeezed her eyes closed to invite sleep, however fruitless that was.

This time, she swore she heard the familiar creak of her closet door inching open, swinging on the dusty hinges. It was a sound that was so familiar, but so wrong in the moment. Her mind quickly filled in the scenario, filling the closet with a grinning maniac, meat cleaver in hand, licking blood from his lips and eyeing her eagerly through the white wooden slats. In her mind, he mistook every brief moment her eyes closed as an opportunity to inch closer, sneak towards her, and ultimately plant the knife between her eyes. She opened her eyes to dissuade him, sure that he would not risk an attack if she made it clear she was awake.

Staring more intently at her closet than she ever had in her life, she was suddenly aware that the door actually was cracked just a bit. Not much, but a sliver of black showed between the white of the door and the frame. Probably wasn’t just latched, she told herself, easily excusing the creak of the door. Yeah, it had simply caught a gust of air when the vents kicked on, inching open a breath. It had squeaked, she had freaked out. Simple. Besides, the likelihood of a crazed murderer actually hiding in her closet was almost impossible. It was silly to even imagine it. As sleep faded from her mind, she found her ability to reason through and dismiss her fantasies become easier and easier. Perhaps she would actually get some sleep eventually.

Then again, it wouldn’t hurt to test a theory. Jeanie calculatedly closed her eyes, ears straining for the sound of the closet. She imagined she heard a shuffle, her shoes tumbling over one another, but surely that was fantasy. There was no sound of a door easing open, and nothing to alert her. Just a few more minutes of listening, and she could rest assured the coast was clear.

Her heavy eyes grew weightier, making it harder to execute the last step in her master plan. Instead, she found herself slowly extending the time needed to be certain, sleep the only thing creeping towards her.

Until the door creaked again. She was awake with a start, staring at the gaping opening of her closet. The door had creaked only on the last little stretch, now standing wide.  Just the air, she told herself, not believing it for a moment. Her first instinct was to jump out of bed, rush down the hall, and wake her parents. But, she reminded herself, she was far too old to run to her mommy because she got scared of a draft. If her brother heard, he would never let her live it down. Gathering what little resolve she had, Jeanie carefully stepped out of bed, determined to protect the dignity she had.

Nearing the closet, she did not see the shape of a person hiding in the shadows, or notice the sudden movements of a deadly killer springing on his prey. All there was were some shirts, pairs of jeans, a few skirts, and a pile of shoes, most of which no longer fit her after that last growth spurt. Jeanie shook her head, feeling bravery and self-ridicule take the place of her fear. Just a draft and overactive imagination. She grabbed the door and made sure it closed with a click this time before turning back to bed.

However, as she moved toward here bed, something snaked out from under her bed. It had a thin body, ending in small, clawed feet. The end not attached to the floor was covered in multiple, blinking eyes, and a slim smile of a mouth. It reached one of the snake-like appendages from its side towards Jeanie, and she felt a scream clawing its way towards her mouth. The thing placed its hand over her mouth, effectively muffling the scream, its mouth emitting a soft hiss.

“Now, now, Jeanie,” it whispered, “you need your rest.” Its other arms moved towards her, sliding around her waist and arms. Despite the urge to fight back welling in her, her limbs felt heavy and unresponsive, hanging limp at her side as it led her to bed. “Let me take care of that nightmare for you, and you just sleep tight.” As three of the arms pulled the covers over her body, it leaned down to grace her forehead with a motherly kiss. Jeanie’s eyelids fluttered, then calmed, until finally drooping closed. She breathed evenly and calm as sleep settled in.

The monster from under her bed watched for a moment, a look of pride and satisfactions shifting through its multiple eyes. With a sigh, it glided back to the closet, disappearing inside.

This time, it made sure it latched.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.