Lone

She saw it in her dreams. Only the stars provided life to the shadows that clung to its form. It was staring out over the lands like a king. But no howl would it answer. Instead it lowered its ears and slinked away as if chastised.

How she wished it would revert, back to its proud stance, beautiful even in its solitude. But it withdrew in exile, never to join in the calls of the others.

She longed to feel its fur bristle beneath her fingers. See its eyes sharpen upon her, perhaps seeing her as prey, or perhaps, though she knew it to be impossible, seeing her as a familiar presence.

Over forests she reached, but it remained just beyond her fingertips, no matter how hard she strained.

And she would wake, tears in her eyes, as it turned from her and faded away. Just a dream, tangible only in her heart.

—-

Very loosely based on a dream I had.

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Seeing

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir!” She bent down and retrieved his glasses. She inspected them as she stood up, her breath misting gently across the clear surface. She immediately felt tired. “They’re not broken or scratched,” she constructed a relieved smile.

He barely glanced at her as he took them back, but she was not surprised. She knew that dismissive look. She had seen it plenty of times before. Because her face was too gaunt to be considered pretty. Her hair was thin and greying despite her age. Her eyes no longer held the life she had once felt so strongly.

She watched as he walked away, still talking on his phone, his white shirt crisp and bright, his leather shoes clicking importantly with every step.

“Did you do it?”

“I always do,” she replied without turning to look at the man who appeared at her side. She stumbled slightly as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her to his side.

“Good girl,” he kissed the top of her head. His lips were cold.

She remained still, used to his treatment.

“Let’s go,” he pulled her to his car.

She opened the door and sat down, immediately rolling the window down as she stared outside. She ignored his irritated glance.

The apartment building that they approached loomed with leering glass panels. She shivered despite the summer heat.

She did not bother rolling up the window as she exited the car. Her arms remained folded as they rode the elevator to the top floor.

The door recognized his fingerprint and allowed them into his apartment. And it was his apartment, not theirs. For he owned everything that she had.

Sharp edges and walls of glass glared as they entered. He pushed her towards the office, and she sat facing his desk. She picked up the notepad and pen. He sat in his chair and watched her, his eyes greedy.

Knowing better than to delay, she closed her eyes, and began to see. A screen flashed, a name, numbers. Her hand moved, a steady stream of red across the page.

She opened her eyes with a shudder as her hand trailed from the page. The pen dropped to the table and her hand fell to her lap. The world spun and she felt exhaustion creep in sluggish waves.

Her eyes drooped. She saw him take the pad, his smile cold, his mind already calculating. Soon, she knew, he would be millions richer, and a man would wake to find his accounts empty.

“Good work,” he praised.

She felt nauseated as she stared at his handsome face. At the lies behind his smile, behind his every word. The lies she had so foolishly trusted. The smile that had drunk in her deepest secret, one she had been so glad to finally share. The face that had been honest until it warped and its cruelty was revealed.

By then it was too late, the bars had fallen, and she knew that she would regret it for as long as she lived. Her only relief, she sighed as sleep lowered her eyes, was that it would not be too much longer. Her life drained as his greed grew and one day soon, she knew, she would be free.

Another in my series of Breath themed stories.

In no order:

Steam

Lunacy

More Secrets

“Damnit, boss, you said it was a gremlin!”

“Did I? Strange, I don’t recall.”

He glanced up to see his boss squatting on the roof above them. Forty stories up. He muttered something unfavourable as the figure waved.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” he said, his hand clenching around his phone.

“Indeed. Well, seems like Jake’s running late. You’ll have to do this one alone. Can’t fall behind schedule, after all.”

“By myself? Boss, I’m flattered at your faith in my abilities, but-“

“Chop chop!”

He cursed as he disconnected the call, shoving the phone into his pocket, and opening his bag. He unzipped the extra compartment and pulled out the red coiled rope. It was slightly faded in colour, some parts blackened and frayed, but he was unconcerned at its whining.

“Job to do,” he shrugged as he shifted the bag more comfortably on his shoulder. The rope began to glow. The light sputtered slightly. “Yeah, yeah. Complain, complain. What about me, huh? Think I want to take on this chimera by myself anymore than you do?” The glow increased until the rope began to hum in vibration. “That’s better.”

He glanced around the corner, only to jerk back quickly as a garbage can flew past his head. A furious roar followed.

“Off to a great start already.” He looped the rope and slung part of it over his shoulder. “Right, probably a good idea to move.” He ducked as giant claws dug into the building next to him. Debris clattered behind him and a long, thin neck chased him into the next alley. There was a hissing noise and he could not help groaning. “I hate snakes.”

There was a spitting noise and the ground behind him sizzled as acid ate its way through the concrete. He ducked behind a car, cringing as it, too, was sprayed, and began to melt. “I take it back,” he called out. “Snakes are great.”

The sound of a building crumbling answered.

Peering through the window, he saw the creature rear back. He swallowed. The rope in his hands was hot as energy coursed through it. His muscles tensed, and then he was moving, leaping over the car that was mostly gone.

The chimera struck. He threw the rope forward and the loop widened, hovering for a moment, before snapping forward, around the head. The rest flew from his hands and twined around the body, constricting.

There was a furious screech, and for a moment the creature writhed, and he feared that it had failed, for it was looking at him, its mouth open, and he could see the acid dripping from its mouth.

He saw the muscles move. Saw it aim. Then the rope began to glow, and he knew that the spell had activated. For a moment it was so bright that he could not see. He threw a hand over his eyes in surprise. It had never flared this brightly before.

When he lowered it, the chimera was on its side, eyes glaring, as it lay, unable to move. In front of him he could see a few drops of acid hissing on the ground, but he was unharmed. He let out a breath, shivering slightly at the close call. The creature must have been immobilized before it could complete its action.

He turned at the sound of footsteps.

“Happy now?” He grouched.

“I knew you wouldn’t die.”

“Yeah?” He snorted. “How did you figure that?”

Her eyes flicked down to his bag. “It’s ruined.”

He scowled at her evasion and glanced down, only to shout in dismay. “She’s going to kill me,” he stared at the remains of the doll his wife had made. Acid had eaten away all but part of the head and one of the arms.

His boss’ lips curled upwards. “I’m sure she’d be happy to make you another one.”

—-

Part II of Secrets. Can be read as a stand alone or a sequel. I hope it satisfies some of your curiosity!

Steam

She loved the cold, but she hated winter. Her scarf muffled her breaths. The air was musty around her nose.

Her fingernails were slightly blue around the iced coffee she held. She shivered as she took a sip. She held her breath until her face was safely nestled within her scarf.

She checked her watch again. The bus was late, as usual. She curled her toes in her boots, but they did not warm.

“Cecilia, right? From Latin class?”

She glanced beside her.

“It’s Charles. We met a few times.”

She nodded and smiled but he probably did not see it. “I remember.”

He scratched his head. “It’s December,” he gestured towards her coffee.

She shrugged. “I like it iced.”

“Pardon?”

“I like the cold.”

“Ah. Well I suppose you do look quite cozy.”

She nodded. “I am.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m quite cozy.”

“Right, right.” His fingers tightened around his tumbler and she glanced away hurriedly with a shiver she could not restrain. He frowned. “You sure you’re not too cold?”

“Absolutely.”

But already he was unscrewing the top of his mug. He held it in front of her face before she could shy away. “Here, have some. It’ll warm you right up.”

She shook her head, eyes wide as she took a step back. “No, no, I don’t want-“

The steam rose in grotesque shapes that darkened his shoulders, hollow eyes grinning as tendrils wrapped around his throat and lingered near his heart. Some of them reached out towards her, and she could smell the acrid stench of corruption.

Her coffee slipped from her hands as she stumbled backwards. It splashed across the ground, and Charles cursed as it leapt up the hem of his jeans. He frowned as he glanced up at her.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled as the darkness dissipated. She hunched her shoulders and edged away.

“It’s fine,” he ran a hand through his hair and fell silent, taking a few steps away.

She clutched the strap of her bag with white knuckles. She kept her face buried safely within her scarf, shivers wracking her frame.

The Attack

“Hold my hand,” she whispered, reaching back.

“Why, are you scared?” He teased as he grabbed her hand. She did not reply.

He glanced at the dark sky with a frown. It was midday, and yet the clouds were so thick that it seemed like night. He shivered and clenched her hand tighter.

“It’s cold,” he muttered when she glanced at him. Her lips curled upwards and she cocked a brow. He flushed.

They kept moving at her insistence. Their feet crunched withered leaves and their breaths leapt from their mouths in brief, ethereal designs.

“What’s going on, anyway? Where did everyone else go?” He stumbled over a root but ignored her sharp tsk. “Why didn’t you follow the others? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay together?”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I couldn’t let you go all by yourself.”

“My hero.”

“Hey, I’m trying to help.”

“You don’t even know what I plan on doing.”

“That’s because you won’t tell me.” He hadn’t meant to sound so whiny. “Why don’t we go back? I’m sure it’s not too late to catch up with the others.”

“They’ll be long gone by now. If they made it at all.”

“What do you mean by that?” His voice wavered.

“If they made it out of the school alive, then they’ve probably been taken to a shelter. So I’m sure they’re fine.”

For a while neither of them spoke. The wind was growing stronger and the air seemed thicker somehow. Even the sound of their steps was muffled. He wondered if his ears were plugged.

“So the accident-”

“Attack.”

“Why?” He continued as if she had not interrupted. “Why the school? It’s not like we’ve done anything.”

“Doesn’t matter. It was never about us. It was about what is underneath the school.”

“Underneath? Like, some kind of monster hiding below?”

She shot him a funny look. “The well of power. Though I guess you wouldn’t know about it. They were aiming for the – energy, I suppose you could call it.”

The ground trembled and he nearly fell, only managing to balance by leaning on a nearby tree. The air trembled and for a moment it was filled with… something. Something that felt almost viscous in his lungs. He could not breathe.

She patted his back and he coughed heavily, relief slumping his shoulders as his lungs expanded.

“Looks like they broke through the protective barriers,” she said as she stared behind them. “We have to hurry.”

Never letting go of his hand, she broke into a run. He followed quickly, unable to shake the chill that had gripped his spine.

The land began to climb and his lungs burned but he did not stop because she was still running ahead of him. He almost collided with her when she stopped at the top of the hill. Then he clapped his hand over his mouth and fought sudden nausea.

It was not so much what he saw that repulsed him. In fact, it looked almost ordinary. A black stone, about half his size, lay in the centre of a large crater. It was smoking slightly, and looking closer he could see deeper shadows writhing within flat walls and sharp angles.

The air around it was what made him gag. It was putrid. It stank of something had never encountered, but knew so intrinsically that he instinctively took a step back, because it was twisted into something unnatural and forced upon a world that was not meant to hold such an abomination.

“Why did you bring me here,” his voice cracked.

“I told you not to follow me, but you didn’t listen. Now it’s too late. You’re safer here than you are back there. Its attention has been drawn away, and it has grown careless in its victory.”

She opened her backpack and pulled out a chain. It should have been too heavy for her to lift, but she coiled it around her shoulders as one would a scarf. It made no noise, and though it had looked at first like metal, he felt foolish for thinking it could ever be made of such a weak material. Symbols glowed along each link as it shifted and then settled like a snake coiled in anticipation.

“Stay here,” she said as she placed her bag at the base of a large tree. “If anything happens, run,” she pointed away from the school and stone and herself, “North.”

She couched down and removed her shoes, placing them next to her bag. Her feet wiggled in the loose dirt. And when she stood, she seemed different. Her eyes held a glow that repelled the dark stench in the air. He had not realized how bad it was until he met her gaze.

Questions nagged his tongue. What are you? He wanted to ask. No, he wanted to shout. But he didn’t. Instead, he ignored them and crossed his arms. “Then who would guard your shoes?” He said instead, a smile finding its way onto his face, despite his low shivers and tense muscles.

It took a moment, then her eyes softened and something sparkled deep within them. She stepped forward and kissed his cheek, a mere whisper of lips upon his skin. Then she was gone, flying over the edge and towards the perversion.

His hand reached up and touched his cheek. His heart thumped loudly in his ears. And for a moment he forgot his fear.

Torn

He opened his eyes. Eyes like golden suns. Like the peonies that stirred against his legs. And then he felt. Sensations that ran through the power lines of his body. Currents so foreign and yet so familiar. Because he knew them. He had felt them before. Even if he did not remember them.

He stepped forward with bare feet, relishing the warmth of the dirt beneath his toes. The tree at his side hummed with energy as it reached upwards towards the sun.

Leaves grumbled as voices disturbed their rest. But he was already slipping away, past the trees, through the bushes. Over roots and under branches. Something, though, pulled at his memories. Something about those voices. A name. His name? And desperation. But not enough for him to turn back. For him to leave. Because this, he knew, was what he had been searching for all his life.

He took another step. Then he hunched over, his hand grasping the skin above his heart. He frowned at the pain. He had no wound. Nothing had pierced his flesh. And yet he felt his heart ripping in two.

There was crying. The sobbing of one who has lost part of themselves. Heart wrenching wails that wrack the body with violent tremors.

Uncertainty, a Gorgon’s gaze, stilled him.

It was only when the voices began to fade, leaving him behind, that he turned, brows drawn together, and stared after them.

—-

Another in the Changeling Child series

Her Child
Changeling Child
Changeling Child II
In the Sun
Her Child II
Longing
Return

Return

He rounded the house and his feet met cheerful grass as he walked across the back lawn. Kneeling down at the far edge, he inspected the flowers that had recently been having difficulty. Despite the warming weather, they were late in blooming.

With glowing hands, he encouraged their blossoms, smiling as they sighed into his touch. He let his school bag fall to the ground and focused his full attention on the plants.

It was a few minutes later when he stood, satisfied at their progress. They would be fine, now, even without his help. He stretched with a yawn, the day’s stress slowly seeping away as he surrounded himself with his beloved plants.

The yard was not particularly big, but it was full of bushes and flowers. The sun’s late rays shone golden through the leaves. He closed his eyes, trying to figure out why it still felt as if something was missing.

His parents had allowed him free reign in the yard since he was a child and had expressed an interest in his dad’s gardening hobby. He loved being surrounded by his plants. It gave him a sense of peace. And yet, these days, he had felt unsettled, as if something was not right. His breath left him in a loud rush of air.

Birdsong caught his ears and he opened his eyes and turned to the right. It sounded familiar. He knew he had heard it before, but he could not remember where. It was not a common call, either. He stared into the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Instead, a glint of gold caught his eye. He frowned at the familiar colour and walked forward. So enthralled he was that he nearly bumped into the back fence. He paused as his hands traced the familiar barrier. And then he was climbing over it, something he had never before done.

His heart beat loudly, but underneath his skin he could feel his golden energy thrumming, anticipating. His mind hesitated, but his feet took him forward with steps like a bird’s flight. It was so close. He felt the need to reach it swirling in his blood.

He walked down the hidden path. It was overgrown, barely used, but he did not need it to guide his way. His eyes filled with energy the colour of the sun and his figure faded into the forest’s embrace.

He turned off the car and got out slowly, stretching his old bones in relief. He ran a hand through his silver hair and made his way down the driveway. Taking out the keys, he turned his head slightly, frowning as he saw his son’s backpack lying in the garden.

He shook his head and retrieved it before entering the house.

“Son?” He called out. “You left your bag in the backyard.”

“He’s not home yet,” his wife said as she greeted him with a kiss to the cheek.

“This was lying in the garden,” he replied with a frown as he lay it on the floor. “But he wasn’t there.” He looked up and met his wife’s eyes, a cold dread welling up in his heart, and he could see it reflected in her face.

“Oh, please no,” she murmured, eyes wet.

“We don’t know for sure,” he took her hand in his. Whether it was he who was trembling or she, he could not tell.

They raced across the grass and over the fence. The pathway was almost invisible, but even after all these years they had not forgotten the steps they used to walk every day.

The sun was starting to set and the shadows lengthened. They called his name as they went, their hands clasped with desperate strength.

But when the path ended and they found themselves in a familiar clearing, they saw no one. No trace of anything beyond a clearing of blooming, golden peonies.

—-

Another from the Changeling Child series

Her Child
Changeling Child
Changeling Child II
In the Sun
Her Child II
Longing

Her Child II

She hummed softly as she walked, her bare feet exciting the leaves that otherwise lay dormant on the ground. She trailed her hand along the rough trunks of the trees that she passed. So densely they grew that she had barely to step before she reached the next one.

Her eyes focused unerringly on the edge of the forest. Not even the howl of hungry wild beasts could break her path. She stared so wistfully into the distance, and into the past. Sometimes her hand would reach out towards a nothing that any one else could see. Always in her hair she tucked a fresh peony. They bloomed under her tender hands, no matter the season.

Her children had long since learned to leave her alone when she fell into these moods. Angered at having been interrupted too many times, she had once turned them into thin saplings that shivered in the cold and reached in vain for even a little sunlight to give them the energy they so desired.

She loved her children dearly. Upon each one she had bestowed a token of her love. And so they flourished deep within the shadowy protection of the forever aging trees.

But there was one… one who could not yet be with them. One who was caught within the webs of the humans. One she had put there herself.

She felt her heart clench every time she remembered the magic that swept over his features. That changed him. That allowed him to be taken from his home. That dulled his eyes until they resembled the melancholic clouds of clouds that heralded furious storms.

But he needed the guidance of the sun. The energy and warmth that would help him grow strong, so that one day he could join them and be once again with his family.

Her humming grew stronger and as she drew closer, she saw his figure rise tall and turn towards her. Her feet whispered forward and her hair glittered with promises. Soon.

—-

Another in the Changeling Child Series

Her Child
Changeling Child
Changeling Child II
In the Sun
Longing
Return
Torn

In the Sun

He loved the way her face would light up the moment she stepped into the sun. She would grace the world with her smile, even if no one was looking. People were always looking, though. Which is why he did not feel so bad observing her as closely as he did.

Her eyes were like the forest, brown and green and full of life. Her hair was the brown of the wood of the maple trees that surrounded the school. And her voice was the wind that blew through the leaves, that lifted petals from their flowers, and that sometimes howled down streets, rattling windows and smashing down branches.

She did not make his heart thump in his chest. He did not flush when she walked past. He had no desire to hold her close and whisper his love into her ear. And yet there was something that made him stare. Perhaps the sparkle that always seemed to dance within her eyes. Or the way she seemed to float, rather than walk.

She caught him staring one time. But she did not seem bothered. In fact, she seemed pleased, for she had smiled a mysterious smile and for a moment her image blurred, as if she was not she but rather someone else entirely. Then she had winked and turned away and he had hurried off to his next class.

One day, he hoped, he would have the courage to talk to her. Then maybe he could find out why he always wanted to sit next to her in the sun, but felt no desire to kiss her. Why she seemed so familiar, even though he had never met her before.

But at the moment… she seemed a world away. A place of her own that no one could reach. No one was quite comfortable standing next to her. They always shifted a few paces ahead, a few paces back. But never beside. They never sat close to her, either. There was always space beside her, while the others bunched like fish packed into cans in the factory.

And sometimes she looked lonely. Surrounded by people who couldn’t look away, by people who smiled and flattered and demured, she seemed singular. And it was not that her beauty or her intelligence or her wit stood above the others. It was something… else. Something he could not quite place.

At those times he longed to stand beside her as no one else did. To stand beside her and show her the wonders of life in the sun. But, he would muse sadly each time, he was not worthy.

Then he would step into the sun and clasp his hands together, gathering life, that golden glow, and cupping it to his heart. The warmth would seep into his skin, reaching with warm tendrils throughout his body. Then he was able to smile again.

—-

Another stand-alone in the Changeling Child series.

Her Child
Changeling Child
Changeling Child II
Her Child II
Longing
Return
Torn

Her Child

Her hands trembled violently as she smoothed the well handled paper. The results of her test screamed in a cold, formal black. Blotches marred some of the words, round patches of pain. Her eyes stung and another was added.

Her eyelids rested for a moment and she folded the paper along creases she had memorized. Steady breaths did not come for many minutes. She placed the letter in the desk drawer, and pushed it forward. It jammed at an awkward angle, and she pushed harder, drawing it out, and slamming it forward, once, twice, three times, until she was cursing loudly.

“Love…” a large hand rested her own and she stiffened as her husband removed her hands from the drawer. His eyes landed on the paper, and understanding sorrowed his eyes. “Come,” he led her away from the small study. “Let’s go for a walk. Clear your mind. It is a beautiful day. The sun is smiling down on us today.” He coaxed her into her jacket and out the door.

The air was crisp with fresh Spring air. She found herself relaxing as they walked along the forest pathways behind the house. The dirt was well worn, originally a deer trail that they had followed on a whim and had soon become a regular path.

The sun filtered through the leaves, warming their faces on every possible occasion. She squeezed her husband’s hand gently, a smile working its way upwards. His lips curved in response, and she felt the constant threat of tears begin to retreat. Still, though, something had hollowed part of her heart. A part that she feared would remain this way forever.

A flash of yellow distracted her and she glanced to the side. There, off the path, she could see peonies blooming under the sun’s loving gaze. “Oh, they’re beautiful,” she exclaimed as she tugged her husband after her. She knelt down and cupped one, entranced at the feel of such soft petals, of such a bright colour. The flowers were spread over the small clearing, all glowing a golden yellow. “How marvelous,” she breathed.

It was the gentle whining of a child that caught her attention. She glanced up, her heart thumping as a figure came into view. A lithe body, so androgynous that she was unsure as to whether they were male or female. Bare feet and a body barely covered by the sheer cloth that gleamed like a spider’s web covered in morning dew.

From within the masses of cloth held against the chest came another cry, this one needier. But strangely echoing, resonating in a way she had never heard before. The flowers rippled at the sound, colours distressing at each whimper.

She waited, motionless as the stranger approached. Beside her, her husband, too, seemed frozen. Her eyes were focused on the small hand that emerged and flailed helplessly. Tiny, chubby, there was no mistaking the baby for anything else. Her heart clenched and she felt jealousy well up, dark, black, within her mind.

The figure stopped mere feet away, and as she looked closer, she realized that it was not cloth, but hair, an ethereal silver, that was woven so finely and wrapped around the slim figure.

“You long for something with all your heart,” a voice that sounded like wind and rustling leaves emerged from lips that barely moved. Eyes, a mesmerizing swirl of green and brown, stared unblinkingly. Inhuman, the iris was expanded, leaving no white to mar the colours of the forest.

“Wh-who are you,” she whispered. Her husband beside her was gripping her hand tightly. She chanced a quick glance and saw his tense muscles and grim, suspicious face. But still she turned back, caught by the hook that had found its way into the empty cavern of her heart.

“I can give you what you want,” the being replied, its expression unchanging. It shifted its arms and the baby’s face came into view. Its face was scrunched up in discomfort, toothless mouth agape mid cry.

Her heart stuttered and for a moment she was unable to breathe, unable to form words.

“Love…” her husband’s voice was full of uncertainty and suspicion.

And it allowed clear thoughts to regain control. First caution, then anger. “You would- you would give up your child?” She croaked out, fist clenching at her side. “How could you-”

“He is too weak,” the figure replied.

She expelled a breath of disbelieving laughter. “Because he’s weak, you would abandon him?” She began to shake her head.

“He will die if I keep him. With you, he can grow strong. He will live, he will thrive. He is the runt, he will not survive the season with me.” The creature moved forward until they were face to face. “Take him, and raise him well. And when he is strong enough, I will be back.”

“You would give me a son to raise,” the words almost refused to emerge, “and then take him away again? What makes you think I would return him to you?”

“You will, because he is not yours. He does not belong with you. One day, whether you wish it or not, he will return home, on his own if he must. If you wish happiness for him, you will bring him back to his true home.” The creature’s eyes did not move from her face. They swirled slowly, emotionless.

“I-” she cut off and glanced at her husband. He stared back, then gave a helpless smile and shrug. His hand remained firmly in her grasp. “He will be my son in all but blood,” she replied softly. Then she let go of her husband’s hand and accepted the child with both, cradling it gently against her bosom.

The stranger’s arms retreated slowly. Then it bent forward, and placed a kiss on the child’s forehead. The baby’s eyes opened, revealing golden irises that shone like the sun. And then slowly, white began to crawl forward, and the colour dulled until stormy grey eyes peered back at them both. Small arms reached up for both their faces, and for a moment she swore she saw the creature’s lips turn upwards.

Then they were alone, she and her husband, and their child. She cradled him to her chest, pressing kisses to his cheeks, his nose, his forehead. Her husband wrapped his arms around them, no words needed.

Within her chest, her heart thumped fully.

Set before Changeling Child and Changeling Child II.

Changeling Child II

He stood slowly at the sound of pattering feet and giggling. A faint tinkling sound that flitted past his ears.  He removed his gardening gloves and let them fall next to the plant he had been tending.

He gazed into the woods behind the house. The yard faded into tall trees and engulfing foliage. The wind whispered words through the straining branches. Dense, the canopy allowed no light to shine through.

Shadows writhed beneath trembling leaves. Occasionally a bird would wing its way between the trees, quickly disappearing from view within the darkness. Sounds muffled from between thick trunks, strange and distorted as they emerged.

His fingers clenched into fists, his muscles tense, but he made his way closer. When he was a child, he had never paid much attention to the woods. The low fence that separated the yard from the forest had held all authority, and he had never questioned its statement.

Recently, though, he had found himself staring into its depths with a scarily strong intensity. Sometimes he would blink back to awareness, his body stiff from remaining still for so long. He would glance at his watch and realize that he had spent hours gazing into the crooning darkness.

A shiver raced along his spine and he paused just shy of the white picket fence that now barely reached his waist. Again he heard the giggling, and for a moment he swore he saw something glimmer within the depths of the trees. He squinted, leaning forward, balancing himself with his hands braced against the wooden fence.

Something danced within the woods. Something that glowed brightly. A familiar light. One he had seen time and again. One that he had used in the garden his whole life.

He raised his hand in front of his face, and breathed. Golden swirls answered his call, sparking across his fingers, curling around his thumb. Slowly, his breath catching as he saw the other light pause, he reached his hand forward.

The light in the forest stilled, and for a moment he feared it would disappear. But instead it began to draw nearer. It was slow, like a mouse that knew the cat could not be far off. Or perhaps a predator that did not wish to scare off its prey. It walked a path that was almost invisible. Giant tree roots and shrubs concealed most of it, but he could see the small stones that lined the way.

The sun above encouraged the beads of sweat that crawled down his neck and past the neck of his shirt. His mother’s warnings echoed inside his head, urging him to back away, to return home. This was not safe. Whatever was in that forest was dangerous. It was no place for him to be playing. But his hand did not retract.

Closer it wove, hesitating at every inch. And at one point, it almost disappeared when his arm had begun to tire and he had allowed it to drop slightly. He hadn’t moved it since, despite the burning felt in his muscles.

His breaths came quicker as it approached the edge of the trees. He could almost make out a shape hidden in the shadows of the light. Lithe, delicate, it made no sound as it moved. It paused in the last of the shadows, wavering as it contemplated.

He stopped breathing momentarily, did not even blink as he waited. His heart fluttered like a startled bird’s frantic wings. He felt like he had waited for ages for this. What it was, he had no idea, but he knew that he needed to know. He needed to understand what it was that had him gazing for hours into the woods. What it was that had captured his mind so easily.

“Honey?” His mother’s voice had him jerking around, the light in his hand sputtering out.

He glanced back, and saw to his dismay that whatever it was, was now gone. He felt disappointment push his shoulders downwards, and for a brief moment, something ugly and dark, something resentful reigned as he glanced at his approaching mother. If she had not called his name, if she had not come, he could have gotten his answers. If she had not-

He saw the concern that she could not hide, the fear that lingered at the back of her eyes. Her gaze darted between him and the forest.

“Are you alright? You’ve been standing there for a while now…” Her voice was as unsteady as the hand that reached out, hesitating to cup his cheek, as if fearing it would disappear if she moved too quickly. In that moment, she seemed so frail. So noticeably mortal that it hurt. The lines on her face were prominent, highlighted by the white glow of her aged hair in the sunlight.

He felt his face soften as he held her hand in his. “I was simply lost in thought,” he replied with a smile. “Shall I help you prepare lunch?” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and guided her back towards the house.

She nodded. “If you please. These old hands of mine are not quite as good at dicing as they used to be.”

“Nonsense,” he laughed as he held one of her wrinkled appendages in his own. “You are young as ever!”

“Such a dear you have always been,” she chuckled, though it lacked the confidence she used to have. Her eyes drifted to the side as they climbed the stairs to the house. She saw the forest sway, the wind pull. She heard the promise she had made so many years ago, and she felt its weight tug at her. Soon, she knew, she would be unable to deny it. The day would come when she would have to let go.

But for now, she smiled at her son, she would hold on. Because she wanted to be selfish. Just a bit longer.

—-

Others in the series:

Her Child
Changeling Child
In the Sun
Her Child II
Longing
Return
Torn

Dragon Keeper

She grunted as she heaved the carcass over the tall roots of a large tree. Not for the first time she wished she had kept her mule. But times were hard and she had needed the money.

She shifted the quiver of arrows on her back and readjusted the bow before giving a particularly strong jerk on the rope in her hands. The dead deer crashed to the ground, and she winced as its head bounced, twisting at an unnatural angle.

Shaking her head she continued, leather clad hands cramping as she kept a tight grip on the rope. Her cheeks billowed as she let out a huff, sweat trailing down her temples. She gritted her teeth and continued to put one foot in front of the other until she reached  a large cave.

The area in front of it was blackened, cleared of any foliage that had once made its home there. Scorch marks licked the roots of some of the furthest trees, but had yet to consume them.

She kicked a few loose stones as she walked, pausing as they clattered noisily across the bare stretch of rock in front of her. She was rewarded with a blast of flame mostly blue in colour. It stretched out, so hot that she had to step back, though she was already a few feet away. She placed a gloved hand in front of her brow as she stood there, sweating, waiting for it to end.

Finally it abated and smoke began to curl from inside the cave, dark clouds of moodiness.

“I get it,” she called out, “I’m sorry it’s late. But you burned my best bow. I had to do with this shoddy one.”

A low growl resounded, echoing warningly from the walls. She started forward again, panting as she pulled. She made her way into the mouth of the cave, maneuvering around protruding rocks with practiced steps.

Finally she gave one final tug and stepped back. “There,” she kicked it with a foot. “Big enough for you?”

A low croon sounded from the creature that brought its head forward to sniff at it. In the meager light its scales glinted a mixture of blue and green. Almost dainty, the head sloped gently around large eyes that shimmered a moonlight silver.

It chirruped and bit easily through the thick fur into the flesh underneath. Blood dribbled down its thin neck as it gorged itself. Claws, deceivingly sharp, tore fine lines that split the skin and bared the cooling meat.

Barely twice the woman’s size, it still managed to devour the whole animal with relative ease. It settled down afterwards, eyelids lowering slightly as it rested its large head on her lap. She leaned against the cave wall as she gently scratched the delicate leather patch under its eye.

“You’re so spoiled,” she murmured fondly.

Its body vibrated as a rumble emerged. She found herself closing her eyes as well, her tired muscles finally relaxing.

The Unicorn

“Hurry up, dear,” her mother called from up ahead.

“I’m coming,” she grumbled, hiking her backpack higher upon her shoulders. With purposeful stomps she made her way to her parents. They were pointing at a rare bird on a branch too far away for her to see.

“Here, use the binoculars,” her father offered at her complaint.

She lifted them to her eyes, and searched for the bird. It took a while, and when she finally focused on the branch, the animal was gone.

“Better luck next time,” her mother laid a lightly calloused hand on her shoulder.

“Yeah,” she muttered in reply, scuffing her shoes against the ground as she walked. She watched in satisfaction as some of the pebbles fell down the steep edge, past tree trunks, ferns, and swaying leaves, until finally they disappeared from sight.

Further up the trail narrowed and the forest grew denser, the trees larger, branches lower. She caught up once again to her parents, kicking every rock she could find into the foliage.

A particularly strong hit had a rock flying higher and further than she had planned. She watched it arc into the leaves and was about to continue on when she heard a squeal.

It was not like anything she had heard before. Ethereal, it echoed in tones she could never hope to replicate. It was pained and angry, black ichor spilled upon the sun.

She glanced ahead, but her parents were fiddling with the binoculars again. Another rare bird, she supposed. She walked slowly, following the path of the rock. She had to duck under some branches while others stung her cheeks. Still she continued until light began to filter through the leaves.

Pushing aside the branch, she found herself stepping into another pathway. This one was rough, with rocks of all size scattered. It wound dreamily around trees, a meandering river void of water.

And there, in all its angered glory, was a creature she could barely stand to view. Its body was lithe, its arching neck too long, long legs too thin. Its head was gently angular, topped by large ears. Eyes like burning gold were highlighted against its black coat.

And most noticeably was the lightly drooping horn on its forehead, twice as long as its head. Narrow, it tapered even more to form a crooked point so thin it was only visible when the light reflected. It was brown at the end, fading to a faint pearl at the base.

It was staring at her, searing her as she met its gaze. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see something oozing from its neck. Black, it dripped, nearly invisible. A small pool was growing on the rocks below, and with a cringe she recognized the one she had kicked.

The creature snorted, smoke emerging from its flared nostrils. Her lungs strained but not a muscle could she move to even take a breath. A whimper balled itself in her throat, clawing in a vain attempt to escape.

Then the horned beast took a step forward. Slowly it lifted its leg, so spindly that she could see each muscle contract, see the skeletal joints straining against the skin. And then the hoof hit the ground with a sound like bones shattering.

It was this that broke her free of its gaze. With a soft cry she scrambled backwards, unheeding of the branches that whipped her head and pulled her hair. Her hands grasped whatever they could reach to keep her upright, to keep her moving. Her legs buckled, so she shoved herself with her arms, away from the sharp hooves, the lowered horn, the eyes like hell’s fires.

The creature was picking up speed, its hooves crashing towards her faster and faster. Lips pulled back to reveal sharp incisors. As it got closer, she could see more clearly the black that dripped from its neck, thick and sluggish. Steaming as it hit the ground. The horn that shed brown flakes and hell-fire’s smoke lowered until it was aimed at her heart.

Its mouth opened, and it screamed. Inhuman, the notes screeched like metal upon metal and wailed against her ears, the sound of an angel dying.

She crumpled to the ground, her hands clamped over her ears, though in vain, for its scream reverberated inside her mind. Something hot and wet began to drip from her ears, and she pulled her hands away with growing horror as she saw the cruor that stained her fingers.

Then it was in front of her, a towering shadow that blocked the midday sun. His horn pressed against her shirt, exuding a lingering scent fire and brimstone. She sobbed as it slowly pushed forward, the needle-thin tip piercing her skin. Its breath smoked across her face, acrid, ruinous.

Her fingers dug into the dirt. It was still slightly damp from the morning dew. Hysteria bubbled at the thought that her body, too, was soon to nurture this very ground.

The monster paused, then slowly withdrew its horn and lifted its head. It stared beyond the trees for a moment, then menaced a glance in her direction, before retreating.

She watched it go, her heart refusing to calm. Only when the sound of its hooves faded away did she allow a wail to break through her lips. Her ears were still ringing, but her hearing was beginning to return. Something familiar sounded in the distance, and it took a few moments for her to realize that it was her name being called.

Her parents, she knew from the familiar harried tone. Closer and closer they came, until they were kneeling beside her, lifting her gently.

“That was quite a fall,” her father inspected her head. “Lucky there’s no bump. You did scrape your ear, though.”

“Are you feeling alright, dear? You look deathly pale. Are you hurt anywhere?” Her mother fretted.

She blinked, moving her head to glance at one parent, then the other. They stared expectantly, worry and relief vying for dominance on their faces. She curled her legs underneath her body and slowly stood. She wobbled slightly at the sudden head rush, but smiled. “I’m fine,” she said despite her trembling.

“Still, I think it best if we get you home. Just in case.” Her mother wrapped an arm around her shoulders and began leading her back towards the main path.

She nodded absently as she snuck a look behind her. The dense foliage gave no sign of animal life. But small drops of black sleezed down leaves and rocks, a dark path that led somewhere she knew she would see again one day.

All the way to her heart she could feel the throbbing cut on her chest burn.

NaNoWriMo excerpt

I’m now on day 12 of National Novel Writing Month. It’s a great challenge, and I am enjoying it immensely. However, it means that I’ve been spending all my time focusing on my novel, rather than my blogs. And for that, I apologize.

So today I am offering you a small excerpt, so that you can see what I’ve been up to for the past couple of weeks. Note that it is unedited. Sorry about that:

“Still, I think I should carry your bag for you,” Iuvo replied stubbornly.

She shook her head. “I do not deserve your kindness,” she  rolled her sleeves back down.

“It is not about deserving,” he said. “It is about helping. If I do not do this, then what kind of a person am I?” He countered.

One of the elite, her mind supplied, but she said nothing as he shouldered her bag. She snuck the occasional glance as they walked past the tents, but he seemed not to see the way people looked, nor hear what they whispered. But she saw it all, and heard it all, and every stare, every word, fed the darkness that she was trying so hard to ignore.

She swallowed the sludge of words along with her meal. It slid like black oil down her throat. She inhaled their whispers with every breath, whispers that began to coat her veins, her lungs, until it became a struggle to keep her breathing even.

Even as they bent over their sketches, discussing their improvements and making lists of materials necessary, the air seemed thick with words, so many words. And not the words that she wished for, not the ones that put wings on her feet and heart. These ones pushed her head down, they bent her shoulders with their weight, and they dulled her eyes with their darkness.

And as she grasped her ruler, it suddenly seemed to weigh so much more than before. The weight pulled on her wrist, and with a wince, her fingers loosened and it fell to the ground where it lay, too heavy for her to lift.

Changeling Child

It was early. The sky was drowsily changing colours, but he was already outside in the small garden behind the house. The sun had barely poked its rays through the tree’s branches, still weak in its tired morning state.

He reached out and grabbed hold of some of the golden life. It flickered around his palm, confused. He cupped it gently, and walked to the small plant hidden under the massive bulk of the bushes. Their leaves rattled warningly, but he payed them no heed. Instead he focused on the stunted stems. Only weak swirls announced this plant’s remaining life. Unlike the trees and bushes that dominated the garden, this one was small. It would not last long without interference.

Morning dew crept past his pants and onto his knees. He murmured soft words to the light in his palm. It flared and pulsed an offbeat rhythm. His fingers tightened momentarily, then loosened, falling forward. And with the soft push of his palm, the light flowed forward in graceful curves, looping around the small plant.

It settled around it, a golden glow that surrounded each leaf. It soon began to grow, spiraling upwards until it broke past the shade of the neighbouring bushes. Buds formed, then blossomed. Bursts of colour exploded open like so many fireworks in the glowing sky.

When brightness faded, he finally stood. He smiled gently as the plant swayed its gratitude. He caressed the soft petals momentarily and then stepped back.

“Honey? Are you ready for school?” His mother opened the back door and looked out. Her lightly wrinkled face softened as her gaze fell upon him. “Still in your pyjamas,” she threw up her hands, and then her eyes flicked sideways. “Oh!” She exclaimed. “It bloomed! How large it grew! What a miracle. I was so sure it would not survive.” She sighed, her eyes filmed with nostalgic fondness. “The flowers your father would always bring for me,” she murmured softly, but he could hear every word. “That was how we found you,” her gaze returned to him. “Sleeping soundly in a bed of peonies. Such a tiny thing. And now look at you, all grown up.”

He glanced at the flowers in front of him. She had told him many times how he had been found, how they had taken him, and how they loved him as if he were of their own flesh and blood. Though they had not given birth to him, they were the ones who had given him everything.

He smiled and walked back towards the house. “I could see the flowers from my window.” He said as he ushered her inside and closed the door. “I had to go look.”

Others in the series:

Her Child
Changeling Child II
In the Sun
Her Child II
Longing
Return
Torn