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A Listener Reviews: Palimpsest

Palimpsest

Episodes: 20 episodes total (10 episodes per season)

Length: Generally around 20 minutes

I’ve listened to… Both seasons

The Premise: Each season tells a different story. In season one, the narrator moves into a new home and starts to experience some strange things. In season 2, the narrator runs away from home and soon begins work caring for a unique charge in a house that shows off these “denizens” in a high end freak show of sorts. While one is modern day and the second is decidedly not, the share a lot in tone and both focus on supernatural stories.

My Review: Both seasons have been beautifully told stories. The title of Palimpsest refers to a work of some kind where the old has been written/drawn over, but the original remains visible. And the stories stay true to this, with both seasons telling overlapping stories. What has happened in the past has a distinct presence in the future, and characters end up telling two stories at once. I think this is a stronger theme in season 1, but definitely still comes through in season 2 in a more subtle way.

The style of this podcast tends to be a kind of somber, hopeful tone. In the present, it is earnest and optimistic, even in the face of difficulties, and this is woven with a sad nostalgia at times. With a single narrator in each, it manages to convey the different needs and personalities of many different people. The music used is also really well done, setting the scene and tone without becoming distracting.

I have found the seasons to be a little predictable at times, which is unfortunate but not unforgivable. The storytelling is done well enough that I’m happy to go along for the ride even if I’m pretty sure where we’re headed. I think once I made the connection about how the title is woven into the stories, it became easier to figure out the stories because the past and present are often overlapping in the audiodrama.

These are two reflective, intriguing, and emotional stories. There is action and intensity, but it is precede by the steadily building tension that the present in its current form is unsustainable, but the path forward looks impossible. For very different reasons in the two seasons, but still. I think season one is a great example of an unreliable narrator, which is probably one of my favorite approaches when done well. It keeps me guessing, and I like that. Even if I did figure a lot of it out before the podcast got there. It was still enjoyable listening to how they unraveled both stories.

Overall, while it does play on some familiar themes/tropes, the execution and presentation in this audiodrama is phenomenal. I was able to easily become invested in the characters, even when I thought they were making a bad move. It packs a lot of emotion into a single episode, steadily moving the story forward with an even pace. Ultimately, it was a joy to follow along with the story through all the twists and sometimes rather dark turns. I will be eagerly waiting for another season, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

You can find them here: Palimpsest

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A Listener Reviews: Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services

Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services

Episodes: 13 episodes so far, with some shorts and bonus content.

Length: Generally around 15-25 minutes

I’ve listened to… All the main episodes and shorts.

The Premise: Kalila Stormfire is a witch providing, you guessed it, “economical” magick services to people in her community. However, someone is sabotaging her reputation and she’s on the outs with the coven.

My Review: This is a show that I found endearing from episode one, and by episode five or six, I was hooked. I liked the concept early, thinking it would be a more “case of the week” style story, with Kalila narrating the story of one of her clients and how she was able to help. But then appeared this undercurrent of so much more going on. The world is still in the early stages, but magic and magical beings abound. It successfully manages to bring this world of fantasy into the modern day, with modern day problems needing magical solutions.

Kalila is the main character and, for season one, the primary narrator for all events. They’re adding more voice actors as they go, and I’m really excited to see where this goes as they break free of the mostly single-perspective storytelling. It’s not that her perspective is uninteresting or a negative, but I believe the creators will take the opportunity to have different voices to more fully develop the world, characters, and central conflict.

Season one tells a good story, but it certainly feels like more of an introduction than a full project currently. I really like what is there, but it simply needs more time to be fully developed.  I don’t yet have a good grasp of the “rules” of the universe, so it’s a little hard to know what is possible. However, you only get that sense from more and more exposure to what’s going on. And maybe knowing a little more about magic in general. I mean, I’m such a noob that I’m left wondering if I should be spelling it magic or magick and what might be the difference. Suffice it to say, I’m looking forward to season two (though I should probably Google the spelling thing).

Overall, this is a stable, comfortable, enjoyable podcast. It is serious without taking itself too serious, tells an interesting story, and is simply well put together. I look forward to the world gaining more depth through the inclusion of new voices and simply more time spent in-universe. This is a story in its early stages, but I am excited to hear what comes next.

Find them here: Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services


First Draft: A Story About Dragons Because Who Wants to Think About the Election

I thought about writing a horror short story today, but I looked at the news and decided that was horror enough. And then I thought about ranting into the void about the election, but I know the void is noisy today with all kinds of opinions.

And so, instead, I think I’ll write a bit of fantasy. The fantasy genre is probably my first love, full of all that puppy dog infatuation and idealization. I don’t think I have the stomach to write a grand fantasy epic, but I do think those are some of the stories I am most intrigued by. Specifically, the idea of dragons and dragon riders has always been a favorite theme of mine. So, today, when I need to write something for me, that’s where I go.

Disclaimer: While this does deal with “election,” there is no hidden meaning behind these. It is not some sort of metaphor or anything. It is literally a story about dragons and people and how that happens.


I carried my pack into the Hatchery Barracks, feeling a swell of anxiety and excitement. They blended so purely that it was hard to distinguish where one began and the other ended. Perhaps, I thought, they were the same thing. Anticipation of the future, one anticipating future good and the other future ill. But the same.

My thoughts spun in a flurry of ideas, each one blending into another, leading me down paths with no destination or reason. And then I was standing before my bunk, the one carrying a tag with my name scrawled on it, and set my pack down. Suddenly my thoughts were silent.

And suddenly the room was loud, full of people shuffling in and finding their position. Each full of hope and terror. We were all so much the same.

I was tired that first night; I was tired most nights in the Barracks, which I suppose meant training was proceeding as intended. Each day was full of drills, combat training, conditioning, and tactical education. I cannot separate one day from another, as they were all renditions of the same symphony. But I know I was tired.

I was especially tired that first night after carrying the burden of anxiety for so long, crawling into my bed and pulling the thin sheets over my shoulders while others chatted and whispered in the dark. Their whispers diminished over the days, as the fatigue caught up with each of us.

That night, I dreamed of home. It had been two weeks since I left there, and I would not return until next spring. The house was as I remembered it, standing proud on its stone foundation, new thatch on the roof. Smoke puffed from the chimney and I imagined I could smell my mother’s cooking even from the path outside.

Inside, my mother and father sat around the table while my brothers sat in front of the hearth, building with the blocks father had carved from them two winters ago. Words and hugs were exchanged. I remember laughter from the dream, as well as a feeling of intense contentment.

And then those feelings faded back into reality with the sound of the alarm, signaling another day of training. Even now, only the barest images and sensations from that dream exist, even though I have held them tightly all this time. They are worn like an old notice hung in the town square. I can still at least make out the details to know what it once said, even if the words have vanished.

The anxiety dwindled over the next two weeks. The alarm woke me each day, and each night I fell asleep lying next to the slumbering eggs, waiting for them to awake.

It was day nine of fourteen when I felt the connection. Exhausted as I was, my sleep was often deep and dreamless. But that night was different. That night my dream was of light half glimpsed through some semi-transparent barrier. I could watch firelight rise and fall around me, a soft dance along the walls. I felt the steady flutter of my heart, felt the soft brush of my breath over scaly skin. Sounds floated through the sounds of someone sleeping, muted footsteps on patrol. Somewhere, I heard quiet weeping. That night, I slept in the shell with the one I would later bond with.

I felt refreshed the next morning, filled with a unique energy and vitality. The day quickly sapped that, but I managed enough energy to inspect the eggs that night. I walked past each bay, glancing briefly in to see the cream, oval eggs resting in their nests. And then I walked up to number 43.

If you’ve never experienced The Connection, I’m not sure how to explain it. If you’ve ever held an instrument as it reverberates and felt that energy meld with your hand and pass through your body as well as the air, that’s like it. It’s like existing as a giant tuning fork for the entire world, so that, for a moment, everything flows right through you. You feel joy and despair and anger and fear and everything at once. You are land and sea and sky, plant, animal, and human. And then it’s over, The Connection dwindling until there is just a thin trickle of that massive river surging through you. And if you follow that trickle, it leads right back to your bonded.

The anxiety that had plagued me for weeks disappeared in that moment. Not everyone is bonded—in fact, most people leave to fulfill their duty in the infantry rather than join the Bonded Ranks. I had always hoped that I would be chosen, that I would receive the glory and esteem that came from such a role. But I never dared to believe it would happen. Until I stood in front of egg 43 and felt my breath flow in through my nose and out through theirs.

I reported The Connection right away. Sir Conaway raised an eyebrow at the number. “Ol’ 43, eh? That one’s been here a while. Waiting on you, I guess.” He pulled out a large book and scribbled the event on the last page. “All right then, miss, we’ve got it and you will be at the hatching at the end of the training.”

By the end, fourteen of the ninety-two who had begun the training remained for the hatching. We stood in formation, awaiting our next orders. The tension was palpable. We were all steps away from what would be the most significant event of our short lives so far. Sir Conaway stood before us, chewing on the end of his pipe as he read over the event log again and again. After what seemed like ages, he pulled the pipe from his mouth and spoke.

“Larena Dougan and Tallesor de’Trie, please come with me.”

Chills chased through my body as I heard my name, but faded as we walked past the bays and toward Sir Conaway’s meeting room. This was not protocol, growled the knot of anxiety roiling in my gut. I walked into the room, shaking as Sir Conaway closed the door behind me. He walked to the other side of the table, dropping the log book in between the three of us.

“Alright you two, somebody’s not telling me the truth.” He ran a large hand over his forehead, massaging at his temples. “I had hoped the fraud would chicken out before tonight, but one of you is foolish enough to push on ahead.”

Tallesor jumped to alarm. “What do you mean, sir? I’m here for the hatching.” He was sweating heavily, perhaps because of the fire roaring in the grate beside him. But his eyes seemed too wide, too jumpy. I had trained alongside him for two weeks, long enough to know that things rarely broke through his veneer of arrogant surety. I was not sure what to do with this uncertain, nervous comrade.

“Of course you’re here for the hatching,” exclaimed Sir Conaway with exasperation. “We wouldn’t have a problem if both of you weren’t here for the hatching!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice tiny in the large room, “but I don’t know what’s going on?”

Sir Conaway sighed and stroked his beard once, weighing his words. “You’ve both claimed egg 43. Which means one of you is lying and trying to sneak into the Bonded Ranks. And there are serious punishments for such deception.”

His eyes moved evenly over the two of us, measuring and looking for any weakness. We both dripped with anxiety and fear, and I suddenly felt myself doubting everything I had experienced up until that point.

“Could we—has there ever been two bonded to one egg before?” I squeaked out.

“Never,” came the solid reply. He continued studying us both. The only sound was the snapping of the logs in the grate. Finally, he spoke wearily. “You both know what happens if you try to bond to a dragon you’ve not connected with, right?”

My head shook, and from the corner of my eye I saw Tallesor do the same.

Sir Conaway sniffed. “Of course not. You wouldn’t try something this stupid if you did. The dragon will hatch bonded to its true connection. It’ll reject the impostor. Aggressively.”

The anxiety that had been my constant companion now swelled into a monster of its own, turning the room into a chokingly small dungeon. Tallesor appeared to feel the same surge of anxiety, but I watched as it slowly faded from his features. He was watching me, a half smile now on his lips.

“So, before I turn one of you over to the beast, can you both confirm your Connection to 43?”

Tallesor was ready with his answer. “Of course. I would never be deceitful with such vital information. I just can’t believe she,” he looked over to me with a sneer, “would stoop so low to claw her way into prestige.”

Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Perhaps all of these experiences were just me wishing it could be different, creating something that was not there. But I could reach out, follow that thin trickle of the world still running through me, and feel someone at the other end. 43.

“I can confirm.” The words were out of my mouth before I had even processed what was happening. I was sure Tallesor turned a few shades paler after I spoke, but perhaps it was simply the lighting.

Sir Conaway lifted the book from the table, stepping around to the door and dragging it open. “Then let’s get this over with.”

Upon returning to the others, doing my best to dodge their accusing, questioning stares, the bay doors were opened. Slowly, with reverent grace and patience, each of us stepped forward toward our identified bay and the waiting egg. The rest of the room disappeared around me, replaced by the simple wooden walls and straw floor of the egg bay. Egg 43 sat in front of me, the same shade of pearly white that I had watched for so long.

“Leave and I’ll pay you heartily, make sure the punishment is waived,” hissed Tallesor once we were in semi-privacy.

“What?” I asked, too loudly. He quickly raised a finger to his lips, shushing me.

“I need this more than you. I’ll be the first in seven generations not to be in the Bonded Ranks. If you leave, I’ll ensure you are well cared for.”

“I’m not going,” I said, surprising myself with my unusual confidence. Now I knew who the impostor was, the anxiety turned into pure excitement. “And I hope you’re not stupid enough or stubborn enough to go forward after the warnings.”

He smiled a dark, angry grin. “I’m sure the dragon will recognize greatness when it sees it. Let’s just hope you manage to survive this.”

Sir Conaway’s voice echoed behind us. “Place your hand on the shell of the egg. I will come through and pour the Hatching Serum onto each egg in turn.”

I placed my hand on the egg as Tallesor did the same. It was softer than I thought, feeling less like an egg shell and more like skin. It seemed to give slightly as I put pressure on it, almost as if returning the touch. A slow, steady heartbeat pulsed through my hand and into my body, providing an echo to the one that had flowed through me since The Connection. I would not be abandoned, it assured.

There were sounds of cracking shells all around us. Of course, the view was entirely blocked, but I heard shots of joy, followed by soft rumbles and yips. Through it all, Sir Conaway’s voice giving polite, practiced congratulations.

He stood in the doorway to our bay for the span of a few breaths, studying us both. There was resignation in his voice when he finally spoke. “So you’re both going through with this?”

“Yes,” was Tallesor’s confident reply. I nodded my head weakly, and I could tell by the pity in his eyes Sir Conaway thought I was the liar.

He lifted a bowl over our hands, spilling out a thick, warm, honey colored liquid. The substance oozed over our hands, then trickled down along the shell. After a moment, there was the sound of cracking as the egg moved for the first time. It rocked strongly, and I feared I would be thrown against the back wall. But the liquid held my hand to the surface with surprising strength, almost as if my hand and the shell had somehow merge in that moment.

Then there was a louder crack. Like a lightning bolt, one large, green eye found me. It was like a jewel, colors folding on top of colors to form a deep, ageless pit of emerald. The trickle of connection I had felt surged into a river again, but this time it was not the whole world. This time it was just myself and—

“Khandar,” answered the dragon’s voice in my mind. It flowed through me, the name sounding like thunder and tasting of smoke. There was a moment that the world was doubled and I saw from four eyes, felt two hearts. I felt my muscles strain against the shell before finally bursting free.

And then he was standing before me, our eyes locked the world having resolved to one perspective again as the river steadied its flow. The Connection was there, but it was restrained. Manageable.

I looked at Khandar, studying the long line of his neck, the strong limbs of his body, the thick wings folded. In an instant, he stretched those wings, the tips reaching from one corner of the room to the other. He was the same early white as the egg shell—I knew that, somewhere in the recesses of knowledge. All dragons are born without color. His would develop as we trained together over the next few months, reflecting our role within the Ranks.

I was dimly aware of Sir Conaway still standing, slightly shocked, in the doorway. I was also aware of Tallesor lying in a heap on the far wall, his hand still stuck to a fragment of the shell. Rage flowed through me, not from myself, but from Khandar. I watched as he turned, steam billowing from his nostrils. I could feel the power flowing through both of us as he reached out one clawed leg and struck at the stunned impostor.

Sir Conaway looked concerned, but stood immobile. “Such is the way,” he whispered to himself as he watched.

There was blood on the ground, blood in the straw, anger in the air. And I could see Tallesor’s shocked face, now sporting a bright red gash across his cheek.

There was fire building in my belly, and I could hear strong words, ancient words passing through my mind. I was at once witness and actor. “Thus to usurpers,” whispered Khandar’s voice. This was the way it had been determined, I could feel it in my bones. Those who attempted to deceive or disrupt the ancient ritual were dealt with harshly. Still, I felt sorrow and guilt rise up.

“No.” The word brought the world crashing back down around me. Khandar eyed me, his mind probing my own and uncovering every detail he sought. We were not of two minds any longer, but one shared.

“No,” his voice repeated in my mind. The fire dulled as he took the few steps to my side. Tallesor sat with blood dripping down his chin, eyes wide.

Sir Conaway watched the scene curiously, finally waving over his shoulder to alert the waiting guards. They shuffled in and grabbed Tallesor under the arms, dragging him from the room.

“He got off far better than most others who have tried that,” he said with a hint of disappointment and respect.

“What will happen now?”

“The doctor will patch him up, he will be disbarred from all military and public service, and as such he will be fined a portion of his income each year to atone for his negligence.”  He looked at both of us. “You let him off too easy, I’d say.”

I felt a nudge of agreement from Khandar, but it was good-natured. We had a difference in temperament, I could see, but certainly that could be a strength. Right.

Khandar leaned against me, so I could feel the puffing of his chest with each breath, the thunder of his heart as it pounded in time to my own. Connected. Bonded. The next few months and years would be full of training, of honing our bond and our work. But we had conquered time and space to unite together.

Excitement bubbling in our mind, we stepped out of the bay and into the Bonded Ranks.


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


First Draft: Hope Springs Eternal

Hey, here;s a little something I whipped up tonight. The first line was pretty much the information, a quote adapted from something one of my supervisor’s said during training. Just a idea, bit of a thought experiment with some mild twists thrown in. As always, feedback heartily welcomed. I hope you enjoy, and happy reading!


Hope is the knowledge that the next moment can be better. It is about potential and the inexorable march of time. I used to think my next moment could be better, but eternity has dissuaded me from that foolishness. I live without hope.

At least, I think I live. I have been trying to remember those qualities I learned in grade school to determine if something was alive. Living things move, but I have not twitched an inch in so long, I know longer know which direction my libs would customarily travel. Living things reproduce and grow, neither of which I have done any of recently. I know that energy is a part of being alive, and I suppose I have enough energy for thought. Then again, so would a computer, and it certainly is not alive. Unless the world has changed more than I realize.

I remember my teacher—Mrs. Hasemblat—writing the signs of life on the board. She started with simple things, like dogs and rocks, and then got more and more tricky. Were trees alive? What about fungi? Bacteria? Viruses?

Living things had to be organized, and I suppose I am still organized. I know that I have two arms, two legs, ten fingers and ten toes. My lips are dry and cracked, a constant source of dull irritation. I assume my eyes sits right where they always have, crushed too deeply into my face and set just too far apart to make me conventionally attractive. Knowing no one can see you makes you surprisingly honest about physical appearance.

The one that seems to fit me best, however, is that complicated process of homeostasis. Mrs. Hasemblat talked about air conditioning and hunger to help us understand. She brought in a set of scales and showed us how things can be balanced. I am perfectly balanced. Never one bit out of sync, always exactly as I should be.

And perhaps that is it. I finally hit the perfect human balance point, and now my body refuses to disrupt that delicate homeostasis. I’d love to say I’ve spent days, weeks, or years here in limbo, but without another moment to come along, that time really has no meaning. It’s hard to describe how something can feel so long when time has absolutely no reign in some strange purgatory.

I’d wonder if others noticed that I was gone—or I used to before that thought experiment became too boring. I ran through every permutation, and none of them were promising. More importantly, none of them broke this curse. I assume they did not, because they are still sitting in front of me, their faces lit with smiles. Jason has a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth, eyes bright with the first half of a joke. I never got to hear the end of that joke. I think I figured out what it would be, because I have had plenty of time to contemplate how “a man called the electrician about his washing machine,” can end. At least I can find solace in the fact that the joke was likely terrible.

Claudia’s hand is on mine. Her skin is still warm, a comfortable weight atop my fingers. She was mid-laugh when it all stopped. At least I can be close to her, even though I cannot see or hear her.

Yes, the lack of sound is concerning. Well, lack of sound is incorrect. There is sound, but it is just a single moment of sound, playing endlessly. A dull thrum of a single syllable from every mouth. It just becomes useless white noise, or at least it did after a while.

I wonder if I have died. Or if the world ended. Or if someone unplugged me and left me in some strange limbo, forever caught between one page of my life and the next. Good things were going to happen, I am certain of it. Only those moments will never come. The next moment certainly would be better, but I am convinced now that it cannot. It cannot be better because it cannot be. I am forever in this single instant, a frozen memory forgotten by someone.

I wish I were dead, because nothingness would be better than the intolerableness of being and having no agency. I cannot move or speak or cry or sleep or read or die. And that must be the ultimate injustice. I cannot even choose to cease to be, to escape this hell of emptiness. I must continue on, a solitary sentry on this instant time forgot.

Jason’s eyes watch me, and I find myself sinking deeper into despair. That is the only thing I can change about my state. I can despair and mourn and bitterly embrace my cruel fate. And so I despair a bit more, and let myself think again that they all may be trapped with me. Perhaps Claudia is just as frozen at my side, our child half-knit in her belly and destined to never be born. Is Jason frozen, the words of his stupid joke forever pasted to his lips? Has the whole world stopped on its violent course through the universe and held onto this microsecond of existence?

Perhaps the universe collapsed. Or maybe the Earth did stand still, sending us plummeting into a void where physics, time, and human consciousness have no meaning.

I have thought of a million and one possible scenarios, but none of them help to set me free. If hope is knowing the next moment can be better, than I of all people am certainly hopeless. I cannot even hope to die any longer.

_

Maggie dragged her arm under her bed, scraping up years’ worth of detritus from underneath. It was hard to imagine actually leaving the old house, but her burgeoning family certainly needed more room to grow. It was hard to say goodbye to such a good home.

She sat up and surveyed the assortment of trash, papers, and forgotten treasures. There were more candy wrappers than she wanted to admit, a handful of cat toys, two letters Alvin had written her, a framed picture from her senior prom, and a dog-eared old book. She sorted the trash from the keepsakes, and then turned her attention to the book. Donation or library, she pondered?

The cover was dusty, and she did not immediately remember the title. Her bookmark was still wedged halfway between the covers, so she guessed she must have dedicated some time to it. Still, flipping to the back cover offered no further illumination. Claudia, Jason, Cory, and Luanne were high school friends reconnecting when they were caught up in a supernatural thriller of sorts. It was definitely the kind of cheap, cliché, fast-paced book she liked to read, but it had been sorely neglected.

She flipped it open, sneezing as it gave up a hearty serving of dust for her efforts. She scanned the page where her bookmark sat, reading briefly about the dinner where they finally put aside the years of difference and began to reconnect. As she read it, she felt tingles of memory. It seemed like things were about to take a terrible turn—the lights would probably go out soon, she thought with a smirk.

Jason leaned forward, his dinner halfway between table and snapping teeth. It was spared for the briefest of moments by a joke. ‘So, a man called the electrician about his washing machine…’ he began, looking around the table to be certain he had everyone’s attention.

Cory was rapt with attention, barely noticing Claudia’s manicured hand finding its resting place on his, giving him a light squeeze. They waited with bated breath for the rest of the joke. Jason had always been the class clown, ready with a quick wit and hilarious story. For once, the four felt young again. They felt alive. Invincible.”

Maggie shook her head and closed the book, tucking it under her arm. It certainly was not highbrow literature, nor was it likely to win any awards. But, she hated to leave a book unfinished. It seemed disrespectful to simply abandon the characters midway through, to not at least give them the benefit of finishing their story.

Besides, it could not be that bad of a story. Or, so she hoped.


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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.


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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 83

Card Day 83: A blank, wooden marionette seated on a crimson and gold throne.

King Torvald woke suddenly on his throne. He jolted into consciousness, suddenly sitting upright and blinking.

“I apologize. I must have dosed off,” he offered a humble look of chagrin to his gathered advisors. They all gave him rather puzzled looks, exchanging uncomfortable glances between themselves. Torvald felt embarrassed at his lapse, but he was still the king. No one would call him out or chide him for it. Still, it did nothing for his image.

He rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly as if the world was suddenly brighter. “Now, where were we?”

“Discussing trade relations with Vongoria, sir.”

“Ah, yes, no wonder I fell asleep!” The others politely echoed his laugh before continuing the morning meeting. Trade decisions were only one of the many topics covered, others included tax reform, local ordinances, and palace gossip. It was nearly lunchtime when the meeting finally wound down, but Torvald was missing something.

“I know we’ve run long, but I hate to think we dragged Archibald here only to avoid discussing the Kimal fleet nearing our waters.” There were those same hidden glances back and forth, but Archibald eventually cleared his throat and offered a meager smile.

“Of course, milord. Do you have any further commands regarding the situation?”

“Further comments? Please, fill me in on this week’s development, and then I will make a decision. I cannot be speaking from days old information!” He cast his eyes around at the other assembled advisors, noting their slight nods and concerned eyes. It must be bad news.

“They have continued to encroach, though they have not yet made any sort of offensive movement. Their delegates continue to assure us it is meant merely as an exploratory expedition of the local marine life.”

“And have we sent a formal response to Queen Cynthia that they are terrifying our citizens?”

“Ah,” Archibald looked towards the other advisors, seeking some kind of support but finding nothing, “no sir, we have not. I thought you were opposed to such an action?”

The king laughed again. “What a joke! Me not being interested in contacting Queen Cynthia. No, I’m sure it is just an exploratory mission. Certainly she will recall them if she realizes she is causing unrest. Draft that, Archibald. I will review it tomorrow.”

“Sire,” this time is was his commerce advisor, a slim woman with dark hair piled atop her head, “does this mean you do not want us to send our fleet to meet them?”

“What? Why would you think I want to send a fleet? That would only serve to increase tensions, force Cynthia’s hand to respond with equal force.”

“Sir you did instruct us to do that this morning,” Archibald offered. His discomfort at correcting his king was clearly written across his face, especially in the beads of sweat glistening on his sagging forehead.

“This morning? We haven’t even discussed Kimal!”

“It was right before you, um, you ‘woke up,’ sir.” The local mayor was looking at him with wide, concerned eyes.

That hit Torvald with considerate force, but he kept him face composed in a calm half-smile. Then he laughed, perhaps a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “Well, look at me, making ruling in my sleeps. From here on, if I’m snoring, then don’t take my word for it.”

They chuckled softly, nodding. A few distant, muffled, “yes milords” filtered through the assembled as they gathered their belongings to leave. The uncertain looks still remained in their eyes. Torvald waved at his second in command. Ricker nodded smoothly and accompanied Torvald down the hall as they made towards his chamber.

“Well, that was embarrassing.”

Ricker fell into step, his long robes rustling along the stone floors. His eyes were sympathetic, reflecting back Torvald’s own shame, but adding a hint of compassion. “You have not been sleeping well, Torvald. Things like this are bound to happen. Should I call the palace pharmacist to mix you a sleeping draught?”

“Yes, and have the whole palace twittering about the neurotic old king. No, I think I will manage it just fine. Can you believe we almost sent our fleet to challenge Kimal’s?”

“It would have been a bold and risky decision. Though, I must say, they have encroached before. And we have struggle with raiding parties on our borders, which Cynthia has not stopped. A show of force might have—“

Torvald cut him off with a wave. “Yes, we have had some rogue bandits crossing over, but that is not the country’s fault. Cynthia has been nothing but cordial to us. I am hopeful we can improve trade relations before the next harvest.”

“I do not share your optimism, but perhaps that is why you rule and not I.” There was a slight bitterness in his voice, an edge to his tone that left Torvald with a furrowed brow.

“Yes, Ricker, that is the way of things. You may have greater freedom to speak as you will, but do remember who I am.” With that, Torvald settled into his chamber for lunch, followed by an afternoon of hearing grievances brought forward by the citizens To be honest, it was his favorite part of the day. There were always some interesting bit of information, some bizarre situation that he was called upon to settle. Yes, some people left angry and bitter, but many more left satisfied with his judgment. Or at least they told him as much as they left. After they were gone, there was little he could do if they disagreed or harbored resentment. That was a poison that would kill them without any of his help.

So it was that he settled in for the night, his head full of the day’s spinning events, but his body tired. Sleep came quickly and certainly.

However, the next morning, he was surprised to wake up with ink staining his fingers. There were black smudges on his white sheets, as well as a distinct cramp in his hand. This was a new thing. He had woken up with drool on his pillow, on the floor after falling from his bed, halfway out of his nightgown, and hugging his pillow like the lover he never had, but he had never woken up with a pained, ink-stained hand.

He did not have long to investigate the mystery before the answer presented itself to him. Torvald rose from bed, washed and dressed, and started to munch on his breakfast—fresh grapes and still-warm bread from the bakery—when someone knocked on his door.

“Enter,” he monotoned distractedly as he read over the letter Archibald had composed. It was good, forceful but friendly.

“Sire?” One of his staff stood in the doorway, looking somewhat confused and shaken, but pleased. At Torvald’s nod, the man continued. “I sent the letter off with one of our fastest messengers. It should reach Kimal within three days.”

The delicious taste withered in Torvald’s mouth, and his fork clattered to the table. “What letter to Kimal?”

Confusion mingled with fear now on the poor man’s face. “The one you gave to me in the early hours this morning. You said it must be sent immediately and swiftly. It was of the utmost importance for the security of the State.”

“I did not write—“ the ink on his hands suddenly made sense, and Torvald left the words dangling in the air. “Send out another messenger and overtake the first. Tell them not to rest or stop until they have reached the first. Have them both return here immediately.”

While the poor man was clearly confused and terrified of impending wrath, he did not protest, but scurried out the door. Torvald could hear his shoes slapping against the stones of the floor as he sprinted through the halls. Then his door swung back shut and there was silence. After a moment, Torvald broke the silence with the bell outside his door. A young woman, cheeks blushing and hair amess from her sudden summoning, appeared in his doorway. “Who is the best pharmacist in the city?” he asked her.

She wrinkled her forehead, obviously deep in thought and burdened by the weight of his request. “I would say Greshom. He lives in Western Well, and—“

With a wave, he silenced her. “Send for him. Have him brought to my chambers discretely.” Like a bird swopping from a branch, she was gone.

This was a delicate matter. He was making poor decision and jeopardizing years of diplomatic work, all in his sleep. He could not let the palace know he was struggling so, but he certainly needed help. Richer’s advice was good, if perhaps the source was dangerous.

When Torvald returned from the morning meeting with his advisors—a much shorter and less uncomfortable one this time—Greshom was waiting in his chamber. The man was old, bent at the waist until he seemed to fold over onto himself. His hair was stark white, but trimmed close to his head. And he smelled faintly of unfamiliar herbs. The perfect pharmacist, Torvald thought upon seeing him.

“It is a pleasure to be called to your service, milord.” His voice quavered with age, and the man bowed even lower.

“You come highly recommended, and I hope you can help me with a sensitive matter.” Greshom raised his eyebrows, but was wise enough to remain silent after the king’s vague but suggestive comment. “I have been—“ his voice trailed off, searching, “—sleep walking, I suppose. I wrote a letter and made a diplomatic decision yesterday while sleeping. I suppose I am sleep ruling, to be honest. And I do not make the best decisions.”

“Hm,” hummed the old man, his eyes drilling into the floor as he chewed on his lower lip. “That is very odd. Not a usual case, by any means. Any other strange phenomena?”

“Is that not strange enough?”

I suppose you’re right. Well, I will go to my shop, mix you up a sleeping draught. That should help. In case it does not, I have also brought you this,” the old man pressed a pendant into Torvald’s hand. “It will protect you from any unsavory influences that might be lingering about.”

“I thought you were a man of science.”

Greshom smiled a tired smile. “My years have taught me to revere science, but my mistakes have taught me to never be too careful.” He patted the king’s arm and began his slow shuffle towards the door. Most people waited to be dismissed, but Greshom appeared to have no time for such pleasantries. “I will have the draught ready before dinner, check in this time tomorrow.”

When the potion arrived, Torvald eyes it suspiciously. It was a cloudy, pinkish liquid in a tiny vial. When the time came to drink it, he discovered that the liquid tasted almost as foul as it looked, but had a somewhat chunky, slimy texture that gagged him on the way down. Still, he could not let his true disgust show. He was the king, after all. Still, it was a wonderfully relaxing sleep.

One that ended with him again waking to ink-stained hands. He had thought ahead this time and asked that no message be sent until he approved them over breakfast, but the poor messenger looked pale and drawn in the doorway. Apparently, he had withstood quite the storm and rage from Torvald that night. His hands shook as he handed over the missive, and Torvald read it greedily. It was practically a declaration of war against Kimal, lambasting them for guerilla incursions and threatening to sink their “exploratory” fleet. Torvald’s head spun, and he cancelled the morning meeting. It was as if he had lost his mind.

Greshom arrived promptly at lunch time to find the king languishing in his bed, contemplating the reality that he had lost control of his own body.

“I assume by your demeanor the draught did not work.”

“Not at all, Greshom. I did the same thing again, and I am sure the whole palace will soon know me as the crazed king.”

“I was afraid of this, sire. I hope you will not judge my deception harshly, but the pendant I gave you is not really a warding device. It is more of a detection one. If I may see it, I think we can find out what has been going on.”

Torvald’s hand trembled as he removed the pendant, and Greshom’s were surprisingly strong. He lifted the pendant to his lips, blowing a soft breath over the surface. Torvald’s eyes grew wide as the pale stone glowed, but Greshom simply closed his eyes and nodded.

“Yes, quite the hex. Milord, someone has been enchanting you, taking control of your senses. It is strong, dark magic.”

“What? Are you sure? Who could do this?”

“Well, if you will follow me, this,” he lifted the pendant in the air, watching it spin on its string, “will show us the source of this evil.”

Torvald untangled himself from the bed, enthralled by the slight drift of the pendant out the door of his chamber. He mutely followed Greshom, doing his best to hold back anger at the man’s slow pace.

Up and down the halls they paced, passing doors and dodging confused glances from various cooks, maids, messengers, advisors, and visitors to the palace. Torvald only had eyes for the spinning stone as it pointed them along the way. Finally, they stopped in front of a door Torvald knew well.

“Here is where the caster dwells.”

As much as Torvald dreaded what he would find, he pushed the door open. Ricker sat in his chamber, bent over his desk. His face showed shock, but also guilt.

“Guards!” commanded Torvald, his voice strong and his eyes trickling with grief.


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