Short Stories

Turn Around

The sound of footsteps rouses me from my sleep, heeled shoes running along the hall. My clock reads three in the morning. Obviously, she’s just got back from one of her parties.

It’s unusual for her to go straight to Rich’s room, though. Usually she needs to vomit or sober herself up first. I can’t complain, my room is right next to the bathroom, and if she’s missing out that particular ritual tonight, that’s fine with me.
I hear his bedroom door open with a bang. There’s a startled cry, followed by raised voices. I can’t help it, I have to go and look. I slip the covers off my legs and slide out of bed, making no noise as I tread on the soft carpet. My door creaks as I open it but I doubt they can hear anything above the racket they’re making.

I carry on along the hall, reaching the door to the master room and resting my ear against it. The tapestry on the wall flutters. I start, but realise it’s just a breeze. I turn my attention back to the door.

‘Don’t give me that rubbish, Richard, I know you’ve been sleeping with her!’ Michelle slurs. I bend down to look through the keyhole and see her standing just in front of his bed. Her make-up is smudged and her short green dress has a dark stain on it, probably red wine.

‘Sleeping with her?  Don’t be ridiculous, she’s my brother’s widow!’ he says from somewhere beyond my limited view. By the mini bar, I’d guess.

‘That never stopped you before. I know you had a thing for one of your cousins.’

‘Michelle, please, we were children, and she was a very distant cousin anyway.  Believe me, there’s no other woman in my life more important to me than you. Haven’t I proved that several times over?’

‘Oh yes, you buy me jewellery and clothes and ship me off on expensive spa weekends, but that’s not love, is it?’

‘What more do you want? You know I work all week, and on weekends I see you as much as I can.’

There’s silence while Michelle ponders his words. I can almost see the thoughts trying to swim through her befuddled mind and come to a sensible conclusion, but then she screws up her face and lets out a nausea inducing wail. Again, the tapestry next to me quivers. I examine it, wondering if her astounding vocal talents are causing some kind of tremor effect, but then the tapestry is still.

‘You liar! You don’t need to work at all, you own two companies! They bring in all your money,’ Michelle says, at last stopping her awful noise.

Now I know it’s wrong to judge someone’s intelligence on a single sentence, especially when they’re so plastered it’s a wonder they can even talk at all, but good god, woman, have you no concept of running a business at all?

‘Companies need to be maintained, my dear. I can’t just hire someone else to oversee how they’re run, that’s how things go wrong.  Indeed, that’s how I managed to buy them out in the first place.’

‘Well, you could at least cut down your hours, instead of spending all your spare time with her.’

Mentioning me, again? Where had she got that idea?  As Rich said earlier, I’m his brother’s widow. Now that Jon’s gone, I have no other family apart from my brother Markus, who’s employed here as Rich’s butler anyway, and since I was already familiar with the house and grounds, Rich asked if I’d like to live here too. It’s true I like him, but not in any sort of romantic way.  I see him as another brother, nothing more.

‘Listen to me, Michelle. What makes you think I’m having an affair – with Jody, too?’

‘I’ve seen the way you look at her, the secret smiles, the twinkle in your eyes. Oh yes, I’ve noticed. I also found one of your shirts smelling of that sickly sweet perfume she wears.’

‘I can explain that. The shirt had a hole in it, and you were busy, so I asked her if she could mend it for me. As for those so called secret smiles, you know perfectly well that Jody and I are good friends and we share lots of jokes about how similar I am to Jon.’

I can hear the sorrow in his voice as he mentions his brother. Jon’s death was so sudden it cut both our hearts to pieces. It’s scarcely a year since his funeral, and Rich is the only one who I can share my pain with. How does Michelle expect us to act, when we each need to be consoled by the other?

‘You really expect me to believe that this is all because of Jon? Get over it, Rich, he’s dead. I’m not, so pay attention to me!’

Something made of glass shatters on the floor, I see shards of it skitter towards Michelle’s feet. Her jaw is hanging slack in shock. Rich must have smashed a bottle. How he stopped himself from throwing it at her after that remark, I’m not sure. I certainly wouldn’t have held back. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that I know barging in would only make things worse, I’d have punched her already.

‘Get out.’

With those two words, Rich projects enough authority to make even Michelle obey. She scuttles towards the door quicker than I can move out the way, but as it opens a pair of slender arms grab me and pull me behind the tapestry. Michelle stampedes past without any idea I was ever there.

I turn in the darkness, sensing that I’m in some kind of narrow corridor. Someone’s standing close to me. I catch a whiff of spiced aftershave. ‘Markus?’

‘Who else would it be, little sis?’ he replies, lighting a candle so that I can see his clean-shaven face. He nods to the surrounding area. ‘Being a butler does have its privileges. You get to know about all the secret passages in an old manor house like this.’

‘What are you doing here this late? Or early, I should say,’ I ask, remembering the time.

‘Same as you. I was curious about what was going on with those two. I never expected her to go that far, though,’ he says. ‘Breakfast tomorrow should prove to be interesting.’
Breakfast is indeed proving to be interesting. We’re all seated together in the dining room while Markus, dutiful as ever and with no indication that he has any idea of what went on last night, brings our food.

Michelle looks ill, but that isn’t enough to stop her giving me filthy looks. Rich, in his seat at the head of the table, catches her in the act and dryly announces how fine the weather is today. I cast my gaze out the window; it’s grey and stormy.

Abruptly, Michelle stands up and takes out a cigarette from the silver case she always keeps on her person. She lights it, and taking a deep drag, walks around the table to stand beside me and exhales the lot in my face. I cough and waft it away with the newspaper.

‘Is there something you want to say to me?’ I ask, getting up too. I hold my hand up to silence Rich as he starts to say something. I know I shouldn’t react to her childish behaviour, but frankly, after what she said last night, I’m ready to have my say.

‘You could put it that way, yes. I know what you’ve been up to with my husband.’

‘Really? Then perhaps you should tell me so that I can know too.’

She sneers. ‘He’s having an affair with you.’

I snort. ‘An affair? How original. When did this supposed affair take place?’

‘Don’t play innocent with me, Jody. Your perfume is all over his shirt, and ever since you got here he’s been distant from me.’

‘Michelle, when I came here Jon had just died. Rich was in pain just like me. Of course he’s been distant. As for his shirt, it’s just like he told you last night, I mended it for him.’ Okay, that last part wasn’t wise.

‘You were listening? How dare you eavesdrop on us! I bet you had your ear to the door listening to every word we said. You must have been hoping that I’d split up with him so you could move in like the snake you are and have him all to yourself!’

‘Michelle,’ I say in a pained voice, ‘for the last time, there is nothing going on between myself and Rich. Believe me.’

‘Believe you? Why should I? You think I’m an idiot, nothing more than white trash. You’re so bad at hiding it that I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone knows how you feel about me.’

‘Alright, it’s true that you’re not the type of person I can like easily, but I’ve never thought of you as trash.’ Though I do think she’s and idiot. I try my best to get on with you, but you certainly make it difficult when you go around accusing me of everything. Last week it was spilling paint on your new carpet, and now this.’
‘Jody, you are one patronising b—‘

‘Michelle, will you keep your mouth shut and listen for a change? Jody-and-I-are-not-having-an-affair-!’ Rich interjects, speaking through clenched teeth.

‘You’re wasting your breath, Rich,’ I say.

‘You’re both lying,’ Michelle hisses, proving my point.

‘Why would we lie to you?’ I say.

‘Why? Why? Because you think I’m just some silly tart and Richard just thinks I want his money, so stop insisting that there’s nothing going on between you two and own up. I’ve seen you walking around the grounds together, arm in arm—’

‘They’re not lying, Michelle. You’re just so paranoid that you’re seeing things that aren’t there.
She whips round to see Markus standing by the door with a tray of tea. His knuckles are white; he’s gripping the tray hard. I frown. He’s angry. Markus never gets angry.

‘What would you know?’ Michelle spits at him.

‘Jody would never do such a thing. She’s still in love with Jon, even if he is dead. However, seeing as you’re so bent at wanting to accuse someone, perhaps you should accuse me.’

I notice the colour drain from Rich’s face. What’s going on here?

‘Markus, perhaps you should just serve the tea and let me handle this,’ Rich says quietly.

‘Oh, no,’ Michelle says. ‘I want to know what he means by that.’

‘I mean what I said. Maybe you should accuse me of having an affair with Rich. After all, it’s true. He’s just too shy to admit it,’ Markus says bluntly.

Well, that’s a surprise. I also feel like a lousy sister. Markus knows so much about me, and I thought I knew everything about him. Yet I had no idea he was gay. How could something as important as this have slipped by me?

I do know this, though: Markus has always had great timing. The horror on Michelle’s face at her sudden revelation will stick with us for years, and I think even Rich was glad when she left the manor barely ten minutes later with her suitcase fully packed.

Honestly, how he ever ended up with her in the first place I’ll never know. At least now he and Markus can actually be happy. And, for the first time since Jon died, I think I can be too.

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Short Stories

The Sweet Yet Bitter

The hessian sack over Parro’s head was clean, not dust ridden and mildew stained as she had expected. Then again, the soldiers guiding her and the rest of the group of potential royal poisoners were of the King’s personal guard.

Under her soft faux leather boots, she felt the firm evenness of flagstones. It was a welcome change from the three miles of cobblestones they’d just walked, and also a sign that they were finally nearing the castle. Perhaps they were already in the courtyard.

She felt herself being marched through a maze of sharp turning corridors, hearing the guards bark at any servant who wasn’t quick enough to scurry from the path. Eventually the party came to a stop. Then the clink of heavy chains, the grinding of a door that was not often used being opened, a sharp push forwards so that everyone stumbled against each other, and the same door being closed behind them.

The sacks were removed from everyone’s heads as the chains were being strung back across the door, and Parro got her first look at the King’s private audience chamber. The room was windowless, the light coming entirely from bright torches held in iron sconces on the walls. The floor was tiled with grey granite, and was devoid of decoration other than the royal banner at the far end, underneath which the King was sitting in a silver filigreed throne. His manservant stood next to him, still to the point that one might have mistaken him for a statue.

The King’s gaze was fixed on the poisoners, but none looked him in the eye except Parro. She examined him closely; his expression was flat and disciplined, but his eyes stared back at her with a keen intelligence. She quickly dropped her head; it would not do to give herself away just yet.

The captain of the guard made the poisoners stand in line, facing the interior of the room, where a table adorned with various apparatus was being set up for the demonstrations that Parro presumed would shortly take place. She caught sight of another group of people gathered in a dark corner. She focused her vision, and saw that they were shackled together. Prisoners. At least that answered the question of just how the demonstrations were to be carried out.

‘I presume they have all been checked, Captain?’ the King said when the preparations had been completed.

‘Of course, sire. I personally checked each candidate, only one of them had any marks pertaining to either spy or assassin guilds, and I dealt with him as soon as I found it,’ the captain replied, tapping the hilt of his sword meaningfully.

The King raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘Oh, from which guild?’

‘The Oens, sire.’

The King grunted. ‘The Oens? I’m surprised one of theirs made it as a candidate at all. It seems our selection protocol has become rather lax of late.’

The captain stiffened. ‘I shall see to it that proper disciplinary action is taken, sire.’

‘Good. Now, I think we should proceed, don’t you?’

The captain bowed, and turned to address the poisoners. ‘I shall call your names one at a time to present your skills. You may request as many prisoners to use for your demonstrations as you wish, but do not bore us with flowery words. Be direct, be swift, and be thorough. Once your presentation is complete, you must take your place back in line and wait while the other candidates present their skills.’ He took a scroll from his belt pouch and unrolled it, reading out the first name on the list. ‘Lector Heeny, please present yourself to His Royal Majesty, King Theroux the Second, Ruler of all Mentrolis.’

A thin, trembling man stepped forwards to the centre of the room, carrying a neat wooden box in his skeletal hands. He set it down on the table and opened it, taking out a myriad of vials and boxes, as well as a bottle of clean water, and began mixing various ingredients together with the apparatus that had been provided.

Parro stifled a yawn. The man’s poisons were basic and the shudder in his hand as he called for his first prisoner betrayed the fact that he had not once stayed to watch his victims die.

The prisoner, a middle-aged woman whose threadbare pantaloons were stained with fresh urine, struggled against the guards as they dragged her towards Lector Heeny. The poisoner gave a stammered speech to the King as to what the poison he had mixed would do, and then asked the guards to hold the woman’s head so he could poor the miniscule measure of green liquid down her throat. The pitiful man could hardly bare to look at her as he instigated her death.

The woman choked and tried to cough it up, but already her muscles had begun to seize. Within a few brief seconds, her entire body became stiff and she fell to the cold floor. Lector Heeny shuddered and turned away, already mixing the next poison for his demonstration.

So it went on. Poisoner after poisoner was called to display their lacklustre skills, while the bodies of their victims were hauled away and covered with a dark sheet. The King neither displayed his displeasure, nor acknowledged the candidates in any way… until Parro was called.

She walked to the table, putting her deep case up on its surface, and with her other arm, swept the apparatus laid out for her onto the floor. ‘Excuse me, your Majesty,’ she said as they shattered.

The King raised one bushed eyebrow. ‘It is unusual for a woman to be in your line of profession,’ he remarked.

‘I assure you that my skills are not lacking. In fact, to be worse than these other candidates would be impressive indeed, you Majesty,’ she said.

The King snorted in amusement. ‘I hope for your sake that your confidence is not unfounded.’

Parro smiled, and snapped open her case. From within, she pulled out two serving trays with domed metal covers, concealing the contents inside, and laid them on the table with a deft flourish of her arm.

‘What is this, woman?’ the captain snapped, rushing forwards. ‘His Majesty has called for poisoners, not a serving wench. How dare you waste his—‘

‘Captain, stand down,’ the King said, holding up his hand. ‘Let her proceed.’

The captain stepped back, his expression incredulous. ‘But sire—‘

‘Captain, if you disobey me, it will be your tongue on which this woman’s poisons will fall. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sire,’ the captain replied, his face turning grey. He turned to Parro. ‘Proceed, woman.’

‘Why, thank you, Captain,’ she said. She took a bottle from her case, and placed it next to the first serving tray. Then she turned to address the King directly. ‘Your Majesty, there are a vast amount of poisons in this world and, while effective, a great many of these now have known antidotes. Though these antidotes are only available for a substantial sum, they are not out of reach for those of a high societal standing. It has also become expected now that when hosting a feast, someone is sure to be the target of a poisoner’s deft hand, so people are being more cautious than ever. Even the ambassadors of Importa and Tlousin, whom I believe have recently lost your favour, have prepared themselves for such.’

Surprise flickered across the King’s face, but he regained his control instantly. ‘You have kept yourself well informed, woman. However, what is your point on this matter?’

‘My point is simple, your Majesty. There is a growing need for new poisons, and I have concocted one that I believe you’ll find most interesting.’ Parro lifted the domed cover from the first tray as she spoke, revealing a curried dish boasting a hue of deep orange. The fine use of spices in the sauce made the dish so aromatic that it almost chased away the stench of the prisoners. Almost.

‘That is Umbren, is it not? A staple served widely in Tlousin,’ the King remarked.

‘And a favourite of Lord Enru, the ambassador of Tlousin,’ the captain added. ‘He requests we send for ingredients for it all the time.’

‘Indeed,’ Parro said. ‘The first poison I wish to demonstrate only reacts with certain seasonings, which means to say that if administered in any other food or drink, it will be harmless. It also merges with the ingredients so well that it becomes untraceable; even a practiced healer examining the stomach contents of the victim would not find it.’

She clicked her finger to the guards. ‘Two prisoners,’ she said. As the guards brought them to her, she undid the cork on the bottle, adding several drops to the curried dish and then pouring a measure onto a spoon again taken from her case. ‘Observe, your Majesty.’ Forcibly opening the first prisoner’s mouth, she let the poison drip straight onto their tongue from the spoon. Then, washing the spoon in water to remove any saliva, she used it to take a level scoop of the curry, which she then forced into the second prisoner’s mouth. Satisfied, she stepped aside so that the King could see the effects in full.

While the first prisoner made a face of disgust, the second fell to the ground without so much as a cry.

‘As you can see, with this poison, there is no violent frothing, convulsing or bleeding. The man might have died naturally of a brain clot, for all anyone need know.’

‘I see you were not merely boasting after all,’ the King said.

Parro inclined her head, acknowledging the compliment, and turned to the second serving dish, again removing the dome to reveal the contents. On the dish was a glass gravy boat, but instead of holding brown liquid, it was filled with a tart yet honeyed smelling condiment. ‘This is a popular new sauce for meats that has made its way here from the continent. I am sure your chefs are already perfecting the recipe to serve it to you. What they do not know, however, is that this sauce is a poison far more deadly than any you have seen today. The reason why no one realises it, including your chefs, is that by themselves, the ingredients are harmless, just as other spices and herbs. It is only when mixed do they become so potent, and they kill very, very slowly. Not only that, but the taste is believed to be so divine that the consumer quickly becomes addicted.’

The King stood up abruptly. ‘Are you trying to tell me that someone from the continent is bold enough to poison me, woman?’

Parro walked around to the front of the table, facing the King directly. ‘That is exactly what I’m telling you, your Majesty.’

‘What makes you so convinced that my chefs are indeed planning to serve me this… relish?’

Parro’s gaze moved to the King’s manservant, who statue-like demeanour was diminishing by the second. ‘If someone were to sample even a spoonful of this sauce, it would leave certain traces,’ she said, turning back to the King.

‘Which are?’

‘A distinct greening of the cuticles and yellowing of the eyes,’ replied.

The King turned to his manservant, whose hands were shaking as he examined his fingers, seeing that Parro was correct. ‘Will I… will I die?’ the manservant said.

‘Yes, unless you take the antidote. Fortunately, I have it with me, but I need to examine you and the kitchen staff thoroughly to determine the dosage.’

‘Of course, lady, I—‘

‘No,’ the King said. ‘If my staff were foolish enough not to realise what this relish truly is, then their fate is of their own doing. I see no reason to save anyone so careless.’

Parro raised an eyebrow. ‘Careless? What an interesting thing to say, your Majesty.’

The King stared back at her, his eyes cold. ‘Woman, from the moment I first laid eyes on you, I have felt that you have been hiding something. At first I was intrigued, but now you are testing my patience.’

‘Your Majesty, I am but a humble poisoner. My standing is so lowly that in your eyes I am sure it must feel as though I am from a completely different world, however, I have nothing to hide.’

Suddenly, a look of dawning crossed his face. He turned swiftly and pressed a jewel on the arm of his throne, to which a section of the back wall shifted forwards and then to the side with a deep grinding. In its place was a slight opening. ‘Guards, remain here. Woman, follow me,’ he snapped, and disappeared through the gap. Parro followed.

After a short tunnel, they entered into a small square room, sparsely adorned with a simple desk, chair, and a thin bookshelf. As soon as Parro passed the threshold, the King shut the door. ‘Who are you?’

In reply, Parro took a small pot of balm from her belt pouch and, rolling up her long sleeve, spread a thin layer onto the pale skin of her left arm. Instantly, iridescent numbers appeared on the surface.

‘An android,’ the King sniffed. ‘I should have known. From the agency, I presume?’

‘Yes, and so far they’ve tracked you across three different dimensions. You’ve interfered with the development of every race you’ve come into contact with, and now are even posing as King. What did you do with the real one? Erase his memories and copy his form before deserting him in yet another dimension?’

He didn’t answer her. ‘Why are you here, android? I can’t believe the agency would have you go through this charade just to arrest me,’ he said at last.

‘You were about to be poisoned by the joint concoction of three different countries on the continent, and as you’re the foremost expert on dimensional shift technology, the agency thought it unwise to let them proceed, tempting as it was. Proving myself as a candidate was the easiest way to gain your attention, with minimal disruption to this world.’

‘The poisoned sauce was real, then?’

‘Yes, and soon I will have to give the antidote to your manservant and your kitchen staff, as well as revive the prisoners your silly poisoners supposedly killed,’ Parro said curtly.

‘Supposedly? I watched the life leave them!’

‘No, you only thought you did because that’s what you were expecting. Before we were all marched here, I drugged everyone and substituted their ingredients for ones that would give the expected reaction, but not be lethal,’ Parro said. ‘Now, I have to send a message to the agency telling them that the first part of my mission is complete.’

‘There’s more to your orders?’ he asked.

She nodded. ‘I have to make sure that you restore the real king to his throne, as smoothly as possible. Make no mistake, though, your actions won’t go unpunished.’

Short Stories

The Shades

The doorbell rang. Molly jumped out of her doze, disorientated for a moment. It rang again, and this time she realised what it was.  She glared at the grandmother clock on the wall. Five o’clock. Who the devil is it? I’m not expecting anyone.

She picked up her cane and heaved herself out of the armchair, managing to hobble over to the door. As she passed the window, she saw that a heavy gale was blowing and the snow had gotten deeper than last time she’d looked.

She unlocked the door, but just as she turned the handle the wind tore it open and knocked her backwards. It sent her sprawling to the floor, her cane rolling out of reach. Before she could get up, two figures darted through the doorway. One of them pushed the door shut again, and then knelt beside her, gently shaking her shoulder.

‘Are you alright?’

Molly looked up. The voice had been a woman’s, and it was very familiar. ‘Is it really you?’

The figure removed her chequered scarf. ‘Yes, mother, it’s me.’

Molly reached out a hand to touch her daughter’s face, but recoiled at the last moment. ‘Well, it’s about time you showed up. My chimney is in dire need of sweeping.’

She took hold of the cupboard she was slumped against, and tried to ease herself up. Her daughter grabbed her, taking most of her weight, but Molly shrugged her off and managed to pull herself upright. She stood breathing deeply, and caught sight of the other figure in the room.

‘Who on earth is that?’

‘Calm down, mother. This is Annie, and she is the reason I’ve come to see you.’

Molly looked at the girl huddled in the corner. She was so wrapped up in clothing that only her eyes were showing. They stared back at Molly, unblinking. There is something wrong with this child.

‘How old are you, girl?’ she asked. There was no reply, not even an acknowledgement that someone had spoken. Molly looked up at her daughter, and their eyes met. ‘Well, you have my attention. I’ll go and put the kettle on, and you can tell me all about it. Sit the child down in the lounge, it’s much warmer in there.’

 

They sat in the kitchen around the wooden table.  Molly wrinkled her nose at the strong smell of polish. As always, she had used too much.

‘Alright then, who is she? Where did you find her?’ she asked.

‘She’s an orphan. Her parents died in a fire about a year ago while she was on a school trip. She had no next of kin, but her neighbour kindly asked the court if they could look after her, and they agreed. The thing is, she hasn’t spoken a word since then.’

‘I was right not to take her silence personally, then,’ Molly grunted. ‘How did you get involved?’

‘I was her neighbour’s hairdresser. I did mobile work on the weekends, and so when I went around there I saw Annie. Each week Mrs Roberts used to tell me that she had had someone round to try and get her to talk, but they were never successful.’

‘So you brought her to me?’

‘So I brought her to you.’

Molly took a long drink of tea, absently fingering a mark on the table. ’Well,’ she said, putting the cup down, ‘I don’t think that this is a case of simply not wanting to talk, Samantha. I’ve seen that many times before, and this is different.’

‘Different how?’ Samantha asked.

‘It seems to me that she’s shut away her mind. She can follow simple commands, as I’m sure you know, but there is no emotional response. She’s a robot, or at least she might as well be.’

Samantha’s eyes grew troubled. ‘Is there nothing you can do?’

‘I’m not sure. If I can draw out her consciousness, then yes, but if my suspicions are correct it will take more than my power to do so. She is an unusual child.’ Molly drained her cup and picked up her cane again. ‘Stay here, I need to talk to her alone.’

She got up and hobbled back into the lounge where Annie was waiting. The girl was sitting close to the fire, staring into the flames. She had taken off her hat and coat, revealing long dark hair that fell down her back. Just like mine when I was her age.

‘You’ll burn your toes if you put them much closer,’ Molly said. There was no reaction. She sighed and sat back down in her chair, resting her cane back on the floor. Now what? Perhaps…

‘I’m going to tell you a story, girl. You should listen,’ she said. ‘Let’s see now…where should I start? Back before civilisation began, on the vast, barren plains of the continent, lived a small tribe. They had no home and no name, and wandered endlessly in search of food and water. For them, every day was a struggle, and often led to starvation and disease.

‘Yet one day, a particularly violent storm hit the area, and with it came a fierce earthquake that split the ground in two. From the chasm that formed, a green vapour spilled out and encompassed the tribe. It put them into a deep slumber for many days, and some of the elders died through lack of nourishment, but when the tribe finally awoke, they found that the vapour had solidified into shards of emerald crystal.  As soon as they touched it, every one of their senses became heightened. They could hear the thoughts of those around them, and converse telepathically. Their lives now had a new meaning, and a new purpose. Using their powers, they gathered information from the other tribes around them on where to find sources of food and water. No longer did they have to wander desperately on the brink of starvation.

‘For many years they prospered, and their abilities continued to develop. Soon they could even shut off part of a person’s mind to prevent them from remembering the tribe’s location or spread rumours of their powers, and it was found that children born to the tribe from then on also had those abilities. Even so, they could not keep themselves a secret from the other tribes forever. They became known as Shades- evil spirits, and the other tribes feared that not only would they leach every food source from them, but their very lives as well. They decided to take action against the Shades, and so joined forces to slaughter them. Hundreds were killed, but a handful of children managed to escape. Those children were my ancestors, Annie, and I too have the same powers as they, though mine are far weaker.’

Annie hadn’t moved throughout the story, but Molly knew it had reached her. She had been projecting images into the girl’s mind as she was speaking, and there had been little resistance.

‘Turn around, child.’

Annie turned as Molly knew she would. Her eyes were still unfocused, but there was something…a glimmer of hope, perhaps? I can feel her mind. It’s almost as though it’s encased in a shell. If I can break that, then surely I can return her to normal.

‘Another child would question that tale and say that it isn’t possible for a mind to gain so much power at the touch of a crystal.  They would say that it is the content of fairy tales, not real life. You, however, do not question. Like the Shades discovered, you know that it is possible to close the mind, and you dare to hope that it can be awakened once again.’

Annie blinked; Molly fought hard not to smile triumphantly. It was only a small response, but it was a response none the less. Her mind is stirring, but not enough. She is too strong for me to release her. There is only one way…

It was late now though, and the effort had drained much of Molly’s strength, and she was sure that Annie needed rest too. She got up once again, and hobbled out into the kitchen where Samantha was waiting. As she left, she saw Annie turn back to the fire.

‘The girl needs sleep. Show her to the guestroom.’

Samantha, who had just opened her mouth to speak, shut it again hastily and obliged without question. The stairs creaked as she and Annie made their way to the bedroom.

Molly had seen many people drawn in by their grief, but not to the extent that Annie was.  No-one else I’ve seen had that kind of strength, however, and there’s only one reason for a girl her age to possess it.

The stairs creaked again, and Samantha returned. She looked worn and stretched, as though she hadn’t had much sleep lately. ‘Did you get her to speak?’

‘No. It is beyond my own abilities to help her,’ Molly replied.

‘So there’s no hope?’ Samantha said.  ‘I thought for sure—’

‘I didn’t say I couldn’t help her. It’s true I can’t do it myself, but there is a way.’

For a moment, Samantha was confused. Then her eyes widened. ‘You…you mean to use the shard?’

‘Yes.’

‘But that could kill her!’

‘Indeed it could, but I strongly suspect it won’t. If she were a normal child then I wouldn’t dare use it, but then if she were a normal child I wouldn’t have to. You must have felt it, just as I did. I suspect that’s what drew you to her in the first place.’

‘I- perhaps I felt something yes, but what are you suggesting?’

‘That she is Shade, just as we are.’

‘Shade? Are you sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure,’ Molly snapped. ‘That is why only the shard can draw her out again. However, once it is done she will be a fully awakened Shade, just as the first ones were. She will need guidance and proper training. We have no choice but to keep her here.’

 

It was early, but Molly was already up and fully clothed. She headed down to the kitchen and out the back door, making her way to the stone shed at the bottom of the garden. She didn’t bother waking Samantha, it was clear she needed rest.

The snow was still deep and the wind seemed to eat away at her bones. Thankfully the lock on the shed door wasn’t frozen and opened easily. She slipped inside, glad of the slight warmth. The light flickered as she pulled the switch, finally settling into a dull glow, just enough to see by. There was a cupboard in the middle of the floor, and Molly cursed when she saw it. You old fool, how could you have forgotten that was there? Putting down her cane, she took the sides of the cupboard and pushed with what little strength she had.  

The cupboard moved, but slowly. Molly’s tired limbs were not what they once were, and she had to stop after each push to catch her breath. Eventually she pushed it off the loose floorboard that she was after, and with much grunting she lowered herself to the floor so she could remove it. She lifted it up, revealing a hole in the floor where an old chest lay covered in dust. Producing a polished brass key from her pocket, she opened it. Inside was a bundle of wrapped silk cloth. Good, it’s just as I left it. She picked it up, making sure the silk was still firmly bound around the object inside, and made her way back to the house.

When she opened the kitchen door, Annie was sitting at the table. She didn’t look up as Molly walked in, but she shifted ever so slightly in her seat.  Can she sense the shard’s power?

The door opened and Samantha appeared, looking very apprehensive.  She stared at the silk bundle Molly still held, and her lip trembled.

‘Is that…?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ Molly said, setting it down on the table. ‘Is she well rested?’

‘Yes, she didn’t wake until I called on her this morning.’

‘Good. It’s time,’ Molly said. She turned to Annie. ‘Do you remember the story I told you last night, child? About the tribe who touched the crystal shards and had their minds awakened?’

Annie looked up from her tea cup, and slowly shifted her gaze to the silk bundle.

‘Inside that bundle is one of those very shards.  It will help you if you touch it.’

This time Annie moved her hand forward slightly in the direction of the bundle. It was all Molly needed to be sure. She found the knot on the silk and undid it, carefully unwinding it until the slim green shard was visible. She daren’t touch the bare crystal herself, to expose her aged body so such a jolt of power would damage her mind beyond repair.

Samantha took hold of one of Annie’s hands and laid it flat on the table. Ever so gently Molly let the shard touch it. Annie gave a shudder, and Molly quickly took it away and wrapped it up once more.

‘Do you think it worked?’ Samantha whispered.

‘Yes. We must take her to her room and let her recover.’

 

An urgent knocking woke Molly from her sleep.

‘What is it?’ she shouted, fumbling with the covers.

‘She’s awake, mother, she’s awake!’

Molly stumbled over to the door, ignoring her aching back, and opened it. Samantha was standing before her, her hair tumbling haphazardly across her face. ‘Well, of course she’s awake,’ Molly said. ‘Has she spoken yet?’

‘No, not yet.’

‘Take me to her, then.’

When they arrived in Annie’s room, she was sitting at the head of the bed with her knees tucked up against her chin. Her eyes were wild, as though she’d just woken from a bad dream. Molly could feel her mind writhing, trying to make sense of what she now felt.

‘Tell me your name, child,’ she said, pushing past her daughter and sitting on the end of the bed.

‘A…An…Annie.’

Behind Molly, Samantha gasped. ‘It worked! It really worked.’

‘Samantha, be quiet. We need to keep her calm,’ Molly said.

‘Where…where am I?’ Annie asked.

‘This is Shadesview House, child. It has been my home for many years, and now it will be your home too. I’m sure you have many questions that I will gladly answer, but first I think you could do with a nice strong cup of tea.’

Annie put her knees down, and turned to sit with her legs dangling off the bed. She looked at Molly. ‘Do you have any biscuits?’

Molly chuckled, a cackling, pot boiling chuckle that made Annie draw back slightly. ‘Yes, child, we have plenty of biscuits.’

Short Stories

Shadow

Esh paced across the wooden decking, lit by the moon’s brightness. The dockside was empty, the only thing near was his shadow. Kivuli watched his master, listening to every step he took, knowing that soon someone would join them. Malkov.  Kivuli’s dark form paled slightly at the thought, for Malkov was a man who commanded complete obedience, an obedience that even his master now gave.

A second set of footsteps sounded in the night. Esh stopped his pacing. A figure was approaching, walking erect and with purpose. As the light hit him, Kivuli saw his face.  Strong cheekbones jutted on either side, and his hair was long and straight, framing eyes so bright that they seemed to burn with an inner fire. A perfectly trimmed goatee sprung from his chin, and despite the warmth of the night he wore a thick cloak with a rapier belted at his side. He stopped in front of Esh, who bowed low before him. ‘You have a task for me, my Lord?’

Malkov said nothing. Instead he looked around, and his bright eyes locked on Kivuli for the faintest of seconds, boring down on him as if he knew that the shadow was more than a grey form on the floor. He turned back to Esh. ‘You were not followed?’

‘Of course not, my Lord,’ Esh replied.  ‘My methods are not so lax.’

‘Good. Your skills have served me well in the past. I have use of you again.’

Kivuli stretched away from Esh, unable to stand Malkov’s terrible presence. He suddenly felt someone beside him and jumped back, merging with the shadows of the docks.

‘Calm yourself, Kivuli, it is only I,’ a voice said next to him.

Kivuli recognised it. It was the same as Malkov’s, but there was no hint of hardness in it. ‘Ombra?’ he said.

‘Indeed. Surely you were expecting me? After all, is it not my master with whom yours now speaks?’

‘I- It had not occurred to me,’ he said.  ‘You know how your master makes me feel. I cannot concentrate on anything when he is near.’

Ombra chuckled lowly. ‘You should take comfort then, Kivuli, for there are many who fear him. There are times when even I tremble in his presence.’

‘Truly? You fear your own master?’

‘He is cruel and ruthless. If he does not get what he wants, his anger is unquenchable. It would be folly not to fear him.’

‘But what does he want? Twice now my master has carried out tasks for him, and both times he has come across danger. I fear for his safety, Ombra. I must help him,’ Kivuli said.

‘No.’ It was one word, but it struck Kivuli silent. ‘You know our laws, Kivuli. You must never reveal yourself to him. Never let the humans know what we are capable of. Only a fool would think of exposing us.’

Without a word more, Ombra slid away to his master, who now turned away from Esh and strode back into the darkness of the night. Esh stayed for a while, watching the tide swell in and out, but eventually he seemed to grow tired. With Kivuli behind him, they made their way to into town.

Esh’s footsteps sounded loud on the cobbled street, but it was lost among the drunken bawling from the taverns. Half-clad whores called out to him while kicking at the rats nibbling at their bare feet.  Kivuli drifted closer to his master, but Esh ignored them and turned away down a back-alley. Kivuli followed him along to a rotten staircase that jutted out into the street. Esh darted up it and unlocked the door at the top.

It was black inside, but he struck a match and lit an oil lamp just inside the door. It lit up the narrow corridor they were in, and they headed through the single door at the end. Inside, the room was small, with a straw mattress at one end, and a crude desk and chair at the other. Papers littered the floor, some sketches of people that Kivuli recognised, others old letters from when Esh had lived a respectful life.

Esh stood looking at them, but then sat at the desk, letting his head drop on the rough wood. Kivuli watched from the wall, wishing that he was more than a shadow, wishing he could break the laws binding him so he could help his master.

The sun had risen high before Kivuli saw his master begin to stir. Realising how late it was, Esh jumped up, quickly making his water in a pot in the corner before striding out the room and through the door into the sunlight.

He headed to a tavern in the centre of town that Kivuli had never noticed before. Inside, the floor was littered with straw and the smell of stale sweat and vomit made Esh’s brow sweat. Kivuli looked around at the other customers, and noticed that both men and shadow alike had an unsavoury aura. Shaking a little, he stayed close to his master, who had chosen to sit in the corner, as far away from them as he could get.

A serving wench, wearing a dress so filthy it should have been burnt, came over to see what Esh wanted. ‘Ale,’ he said, trying to hide his involuntary shudder at her closeness. Her eyebrows raised a little, but she said nothing and left.

As she came back with his ale, a man walked in wearing a rough-spun cloak. The hood concealed most of his face, but on seeing Esh he lowered it to reveal an angular jaw and a nose that had obviously been broken. He walked over, grinning as though meeting an old friend, but Kivuli was sure his master had never met him before. He looked around for the man’s shadow, and saw it just a little way away from him. It too was angular, and Kivuli didn’t recognise it.

‘Fancy seein’ you ere, friend,’ the man said, sitting down at the table next to Esh. His voice was slurred, with a dryness to it that Kivuli didn’t like. Then he put his hands on the table and interlaced his fingers, dropping both index fingers down quickly and then up again.

Esh swallowed and held his arm half under the table, rolling up his sleeve to reveal the brand mark he had received from Malkov barely a month before. The man nodded, and drew a small package from inside his cloak, passing it to Esh under the table. Kivuli moved closer to look at it, but the man’s shadow clawed out at him with a hiss. He drew back quickly, just as the man got up again.

‘Sorry ta leave ya so soon, friend,’ he said. ‘Tho I ‘spect we’ll be seein’ each other soon enuff.’

 

Back in their room, Esh opened the bundle. Inside was a bag containing a strange powder, and a note. Putting the powder aside, he unfolded the note and read it aloud. ‘All is set. Ignite the powder when you reach the drop off. Once the light appears, leave.  Do not stray, we shall be watching.’ He inhaled deeply and scrunched the paper in his hand.

Sitting down on the floor, he looked at all the sketches and letters littered around him. Now they were the only remainders of his past life. He smashed his fist against the wall and gathered them all up, throwing them in the grate. He took a match from his pocket, ready to strike it.

‘Stop!’

‘Who said that?’ Esh said, turning around. ‘Is someone there?’ He stood up and opened the door, looking down the corridor, and then shut it again. With no-one replying, Esh went back to the fireplace. Kivuli tried to clench his jaw, but then his master struck the match.

‘No, master, please!’

Kivuli couldn’t stop himself. His master was a good man, he didn’t deserve to be dragged down by the likes of Malkov and his men.

‘Who’s there?’ Esh said again, his skin paling.

Kivuli shook slightly, but he had made his choice.  Speaking to one’s master was forbidden, no matter what the circumstance, but Esh was too important for him to care.  ‘Master, please. Look at the wall next to you,’ Kivuli said. In the light coming from the window, his outline was distinct against the wall. His master looked at him, still uncomprehending. ‘Master, I am your shadow.’

Silence. His master didn’t move or waver so much as an inch. He just stood, staring at Kivuli, his expression unchanged. At last he spoke, wetting his lips with his tongue. ‘My shadow?’ He walked closer to the wall and held out his hand, touching Kivuli lightly as though he might suddenly attack.

‘Yes, master,’ Kivuli whispered. He lifted his arm independently, with deliberate slowness so as not to cause more alarm. His master’s eyes followed it, growing wide and glistening slightly.

‘No. This isn’t real. You’re a shadow, you can’t move on your own, and you certainly can’t talk on your own either.’

‘Please Master, I understand that this is a shock, but you must listen.’

Esh tightened his lips together and shook his head. Kivuli sighed. He walked around the room, moving from wall to wall and across the floor, merging with the static shadows and then reappearing again. ‘You see?’ he said.

Esh had seen. He grabbed for the wooden chair and slumped down on it heavily, still watching Kivuli with a wild look in his eyes. ‘How?’ he breathed.

‘That does not matter, master. Please, you must reconsider your involvement with Malkov.’

‘Malkov?’ Esh said, blinking. ‘I’d forgotten.’

‘Master, I have spoken with Malkov’s shadow—‘

‘His shadow can speak too?’

‘All shadows belonging to living creatures can speak,’ Kivuli said, as if it was common knowledge. ‘As I was saying, I have spoken to Malkov’s shadow, and he has told me that Malkov’s only desire is to get what he wants. He is using you, master, and I have no doubt that he thinks of you as expendable.’

Esh stood up and picked up a dusty wineskin from the floor. He opened it and took a long drink, wiping his mouth after. He took a few steps away from Kivuli, but then turned back to him. ‘I know that Malkov’s using me. And I know that he’s dangerous. But tell me, shadow of mine, what is it I’m supposed to do? If I back out now, he’ll only hunt me down.’

‘Then go to him.’

‘That would be suicide.’

‘Not necessarily. Malkov is a man who expects to get what he wants. If you hold your ground, you will surprise him. He may just let you go.’

‘He may…or he may not.’ Esh paced around some more. ‘Damn it! Alright, shadow, have it your way.’

 

Kivuli and Esh were sitting in a tavern across the street from Malkov’s townhouse. It was the evening Esh was due to carry out Malkov’s plans, and he knew that soon the rest of Malkov’s men would be leaving to set everything up. Malkov himself would be alone.

Twenty minutes passed before the doors of the townhouse opened, and five men came out and made their way back down the street. With a slight smile, Esh noticed the man from the other tavern at the back of the group. He waited until they turned the corner, and then he and Kivuli went outside to Malkov’s townhouse. Following Kivuli’s idea of surprising him, they avoided the main door and went around the side, where they knew there was a door leading to the cellars. Down there was where Esh had been branded. It wasn’t a memory easily forgotten.

When they reached it, they found it locked, but Esh took out a thin knife and a stolen hairpin to try and pick it open. To help him, Kivuli slid his hand into the lock and told him which way it needed to be turned. A moment later, it clicked open, and they descended into the cellar.

Inside it was completely dark, but with Kivuli’s help, his master made it through to the small staircase leading up into the main house. Once they were out in the hall, they listened for any signs of Malkov. Loud voices were coming from a room further down, and a manservant came running from the room, holding a blood soaked cloth to his arm. Kivuli and Esh shrank back as he passed, but then edged down the hall to peer through the door.

‘I should have had a report back by now,’ they heard Malkov say. ‘Something is wrong.’ He sounded panicked, and the dominance had completely disappeared from his voice.

‘You fret much, Malkov. All shall go to plan.’

‘But you said his shadow was concerned. What if—‘

‘Kivuli does not possess the courage to break the Laws of Shadow. He will never reveal himself to Esh.’ It was Ombra speaking.

Before he knew it, Kivuli had slipped into the room. There they were; Malkov, sitting in a fur backed chair near the fire, his eyes now dull and his goatee untrimmed. Ombra was on the wall next to him, stretched out to his largest form, distorted so much that he barely resembled Malkov at all.

‘Ombra?  Kivuli said.

Malkov sat up, startled by the voice. He looked around, and his eyes locked on Esh as he stepped inside the room. ‘You!’ he said, half standing, but Ombra silenced him.

‘It seems I knew you not, Kivuli. To think you broke our laws so easily. And you,’ he said, rounding on Malkov. ‘You assured me that this scoundrel would be too fearful to back out.’

‘Ombra, this was all you?’ Kivuli said. ‘Why?’

‘How many thousands of years have we shadows been but servants?’ Ombra hissed.  ‘It is time for change, Kivuli. Humans are weak and filled with greed and hatred, we can let ourselves be ruled by them no longer.’ He slid over to Malkov, who withdrew visibly. ‘Dispose of these buffoons, Malkov.’

Malkov got up shakily and drew his rapier from its scabbard. Kivuli saw that his eyes had grown watery and knew that his heart was not in it. Still, he could not see a way to stop him, and with Ombra controlling him, words were useless. He looked at his master, who stood still despite Malkov’s advancement. Then he knew. He swept up and whispered something in his Esh’s ear, speaking quickly.

‘But what’ll happen to you?’ Esh whispered back.

‘Do not worry, master. Please, you have no time.’

Nodding slightly, Esh drew out the powder that had been in the package. He charged at Malkov, driving him into Ombra, and threw it into the fire beside them. The flames leapt up, and a white light burst, engulfing them all.  As it hit Ombra, he let out a roar of agony and vanished.

The powder’s effects finally dulled, but it was an hour before both Malkov and Esh had recovered their sight. When they were able to look around, they found both Kivuli and Ombra missing.

‘They have…gone?’ Malkov said, pivoting on the spot.

‘I think so,’ Esh said. He sighed.

‘Why so solemn, master?’ Kivuli’s voice came, sounding faintly amused. ‘Could it be that you felt a loss for me?’

‘Kivuli? Where are you?’ Esh said.

‘Open your tunic, master.’ Esh did so, and Kivuli’s grey form poured out of it and onto the floor.

‘And Ombra?’ Malkov breathed, suddenly fearful again.

‘He is truly gone,’ Kivuli said. ‘There was no chance for him to hide as I did. You are free now.’

 

 

Short Stories

Ed’s Summer Leave and Inuyasha’s Confusion – Crossover Fan Fiction

‘Brother, are you sure you should be doing this? What if Winry finds out and refuses to fix your automail for six months like last time?’ I said, watching brother mark out the transmutation circle on the floor. His gold eyes were full of determination, ignoring the strands of hair falling in his face.

‘Relax, Al. She won’t find out, she’s busy fixing up the dog’s automail. It’ll keep her busy for sure. Besides, haven’t you ever wondered if there are other worlds beyond the gate of truth?’

I thought for a moment, my armour creaking slightly. ‘Maybe once. I had a vision of my body, it was looking through the gate at the countryside. I thought it might have been here in Amestris, but the people were dressed in strange clothing.’

Brother looked at me, his eyes narrowed. ‘You never told me about that,’ he said.

‘It was a long time ago, right after you sealed my soul to this armour.’

Brother looked away. He sighed and shook his head. ‘Well, there’s no use talking about it now. The circle’s finished.’ He knelt down and put his hands on it, causing it to activate. The blue sparks of his alchemy rippled across the surface like a swift storm.

Suddenly, the room went dim. I felt uneasy, and I could just make out brother’s breath steaming into the air.

‘Brother—’ I began.

The door burst open. ‘Ed, what are you up to now?’ Winry shouted, brandishing her spanner, but before she could throw it at him, long, black hands came out of the circle and grabbed us. I heard Winry shriek, then everything went dark.

 

‘Kagome, where are you going? Kagome—’

‘Inuyasha, sit!’

A loud crash brought me to my senses, and I came around to see a boy a few years older than brother, face down in the dirt. He was dressed all in red, with long silver hair and what looked like…dog ears!

‘You didn’t have to do that, Kagome!’ he said, getting up angrily. He stopped and looked at me. ‘What’s this heap of armour doing here, anyway?’

He kicked at me and I jumped up. ‘Hey!’ I said, staring at him.

‘A person?’ His eyes narrowed and he sniffed at me. ‘Wait, you don’t smell human at all. You’re one of Naraku’s spies, aren’t you?’ He pulled out his sword and levelled it at me.

Just then, heavy footsteps sounded behind me and brother appeared, jumping over my head and kicking the dog-eared boy in the face. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, aiming that sword at him?’ brother shouted, transmuting his automail arm so that it now had a blade.

The dog-eared boy stood up, growling. ‘Why you! I should be the one asking the questions, you little pipsqueak!’

I saw brother tense up, ready to insult him back, but then a girl with dark hair came around the corner with Winry.

‘Ed, Al! I’m so glad you’re okay!’ Winry said.

At the same time, the dark-haired girl said, ‘Sit, boy,’.

The beads around the dog-eared boy’s neck glowed and forced him towards the ground with another loud crash.

‘Sorry,’ the girl said. ‘Winry told me how you guys got here. We—’

‘Kagome, don’t be fooled by them. The one in the armour isn’t human,’ the dog-eared boy’s muffled voice came from the ground.

‘It’s okay, Inuyasha, I know. They’re not from this world.’

She led us to their camp, filling the dog-eared boy, Inuyasha, in on our situation. He and brother took opposite seats, staring each other down.

‘Sheesh, Kagome, you really believe all that?’ Inuyasha said, scowling at us.

Brother looked as though he was about to reply, but he suddenly yelped and slapped his face. He looked down at his hand. In it was a tiny flea.

Inuyasha smirked. ‘Well, if it isn’t old man Myoga. If you’re here, then they can’t be dangerous.’

The flea hoped off of brother’s hand and onto Inuyasha’s shoulder. ‘Indeed, Master Inuyasha. I can attest that the small one’s blood tastes somewhat different to ordinary humans, but they possess no ill will as far as I can see.

‘See, Inuyasha?’ Kagome said. ‘All they want is help getting back to where they came from.’

‘We do?’ brother said, raising an eye at Winry.

‘We can’t stay here, Ed. Your summer leave is almost over and I’ve got to get back to Rush Valley and my clients. You were supposed to be spending time with granny and me, but instead you shut yourself away again!’

He sighed. ‘You’re right, I guess. Al, let’s draw up the circle and go home.’

He found a stick on the ground, and with my help, he marked the circle out in the dirt. Like before, it was a variation of the one for human transmutation, which was basically what he had to do to himself to open the gate again. He knelt down to activate it. Nothing happened.

‘I don’t get it,’ he said. ‘It’s like my alchemy isn’t powerful enough to open it, yet it worked fine when I transmuted my automail.’

Inuyasha got onto all fours and sniffed the circle vigorously.  ‘I don’t get how this stuff works or anything, but if you need more power, then maybe Kagome can help you,’ he said, sitting up to look at her.

‘You mean using a sacred arrow?’ she asked. ‘I can try.’

Picking up the bow and quiver of arrows stacked beside her pack, she nocked an arrow in place and aimed it at the transmutation circle. With a sharp exhale, she released the arrow. In a wave of pink light, it flew down and struck hit the circle’s centre. Brother whistled. Obviously, he had never seen anything like it either. Somehow, whatever the pink light was, it made me feel warm and calm inside. But the circle didn’t react at all.

‘That’s weird. I thought for sure that it would do something…maybe if I tried using a jewel shard…’ She pulled out a small bottle with shards of pink stone inside. She took one out and attached it to the head of an arrow. ‘Here goes nothing.’ She shot the circle again, and this time the reaction was instantaneous.

‘Get back!’ brother shouted to her and Inuyasha as the black hands erupted from the circle again.

I looked at them, barely managing to say ‘thank you’ before the hands wrapped around us and we were in darkness once more. The next thing I knew, we woke up in a heap in our own room.

‘Brother,’ I said excitedly. ‘That stone she put on the arrow—’

‘I know, Al. It was almost like a Philosopher’s stone. Do you think—’

‘Don’t you two ever stop?’ Winry shouted, tears running down her cheeks. ‘When I woke up in that strange world without you, I thought…I thought…’ She sniffed, unable to speak.

‘Brother, we made her cry again,’ I murmured.

‘Winry, I…I’ll make you dinner,’ he said softly.

‘What?’ she said, wiping her eyes.

‘I’ll…I’ll make you dinner!’

She smiled.

Short Stories

The Poison Spreading

 

‘Mother, look at the river! All the fish are dead!’

Naida swallowed and emerged from the undergrowth to see her young son standing by the riverbank, looking out at the rushing water beyond. The river, which usually gushed blue and was filled with energetic silver fish, was now a dull mud colour. The fish were lifeless, their bodies carried by nothing but the river’s flow.

She had noticed the river’s decline in health two days ago, when dark stains appeared within its depths, and had warned everyone not to collect water from it unless they were desperate, hoping that by now any danger to them might have passed. But it hadn’t, and now their water stores were running dry, even with the help of the forest’s daily downpour. Something had to be done, for if there was something in the water powerful enough to kill all the fish, then how would her village stand a chance? She had to confront the Elder and force him to look beyond the needs of his sickly son, hard as that might be for him.

‘Stay away from it, Ren. It’s dangerous,’ she told her own son as he made to prod a stick at one of the dead fish floating by.

‘But I’m thirsty, mother, and my water skin is empty.’

‘Then you’ll just have to wait until we find some juicy fruit, or a leaf full of dew. That will quench your thirst.’

Ren pulled a face, but Naida ignored it. Still, she understood all too well how he felt. She herself had gone without water since noon the day before in order for him and his sister to drink, and had been sustaining herself on the small collection of fleshy fruit that they had stored away.

Gathering up their empty water pots, they made their way back to the village, treading the well known path through the undergrowth. Hearing the noise of the forest cheered Naida; the birds were calling spiritedly to each other, the primates were foraging up amongst the trees and the hum of insects filled the air, proof that not all life had been affected by the decline of the river. If there was one thing that Naida loved about the forest, it was that she was never alone there. There were always other creatures darting about, reminding here that it was home to so many.

Ren, however, had been introduced to the world outside the forest by travellers and was overcome by curiosity at the gadgets they possessed. For him, the forest which his mother loved so dearly seemed dull in comparison. Even so, he respected the life around him and helped his mother around the village, practicing their traditional ways.  Soon he would start learning how to hunt with his father, though Naida could hardly believe he was old enough already. It felt like it was only a few short months since he was a babe in arms, not years.

They reached the village an hour later, greeted by Naida’s daughter, Laka. She was a few years older than Ren and not nearly so fascinated with the outside world as he was. In fact, the thought made her nervous, for she knew that there would be so many sights to see and people about that she would not be able to take it all in.

‘Your water pots are empty again, mother?’ she asked, taking one from Naida and shaking it just to be sure.

‘The river is still ill. The fish are dead and the water is no longer clear. I must tell the Elder. He has to take note of it now.’

‘The river has worsened? What will we do?’ Laka said, despair in her voice.

Naida put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. ‘The Elder will know what to do, so don’t alarm yourself about it,’ she said, much more confidently than she felt. ‘For now, help your brother gather more fruits so we may drink the juice, and ask the other children to do it for their own families. However, it would be unwise to tell them in detail just how bad the river has become until I have spoken with the Elder. There’s no need to cause a panic.’

Laka nodded and went off to find her friends, trailing her brother behind her. Naida inhaled deeply. It was late afternoon; the Elder was usually seeing to his son at that time and would not take kindly to being disturbed. Perhaps she would be allowed to wait in his hut until he returned.

She made her way to the middle of the village where the Elder’s hut was located. Nothing about it suggested that it belonged to him other than a small, delicate symbol carved above the entrance.  It was even the same size and shape as the rest of the huts.

Naida took a breath to call inside, but before she could do so, the Elder’s wife, Ayme, appeared in the doorway.  ‘Come in, Naida,’ she smiled warmly. ‘There’s no need to stand outside. You know that you are always welcome here.’

Naida smiled back at her and took up her invitation. It was cool inside and dry, at least compared to the dense humidity outside. Ayme brought her a small cup of berry juice, and they sat drinking it in silence for a moment.

‘My husband will be back shortly,’ Ayme said after a while. ‘These past few days have been difficult for him; our son’s condition is getting steadily worse. He fears that our only option is to take him to the outside for treatment there.’

‘But how would we pay for something like that? The outside is run with money; we can’t simply trade goods.’

The flap around the doorway opened and the Elder came in, looking more drawn and dishevelled that Naida had ever seen him before. ‘That is something we shall discuss if the need comes to pass.’ He took a swig of the juice that his wife offered him and sat down with them. ‘Now Naida, what is it I can do for you? It’s seems we spoke only recently.’

‘That was two days past, Elder. And I would not trouble you again if it wasn’t so urgent,’ she replied. ‘Elder, my son Ren and I were down by the river to collect water not long ago. Do you remember I told you something wasn’t right about it last time, and I advised everyone not to drink from it until it had cleared up? Well, this time, not only was the water discoloured, but it was murky and every fish we saw was dead.’

‘So it really is too dangerous to drink, then?’ Ayme said, her eyes wide. ‘This is very disturbing news.’

‘Now, now, let us not get ahead of ourselves. Do not forget, fish are far more sensitive creatures than we. What affects them may not affect us at all,’ the Elder said, scratching his beard musingly. ‘It may well be the case that some large animal has died further upstream and its remains are now polluting the water. I shall go myself and check. We should make no more assumptions until I return.’

Naida inclined her head and stood up, bowing to them both. For some reason, the Elder’s words did not comfort her as much as she had been hoping. It was true that animals did sometimes die near the water and pollute it as they rotted, but she had never seen the river look like that in all her years. He had been too quick to jump to such a conclusion, and even though he said he would inspect the cause himself, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was hiding something.

She remembered a few weeks back; the Elder had three outsiders visit him. He said after they left that they had merely been scientists, observing the natural world, but now she felt that he had been lying. But why would he? What was it that the Elder was trying to conceal from everyone?

 

After the sun had set and Laka and Ren were asleep, Naida went out into the village by herself.  Her husband was out hunting and wouldn’t be home for another three days, along with the rest of the hunting party. The wives of the other men in the party were all younger than Naida, and so she rarely met with them while their men were gone. Now, however, she passed them outside their huts. Despite the failing light, some still sat repairing clothes and weaving baskets, but all talked animatedly to each other.

She smiled a greeting at them and they nodded in reply, but she did not feel like stopping. Instead, she planned to go to the Elder’s hut again to ask if she may go with him when he was to inspect the river. When she got there, however, Ayme was alone inside, readying herself for sleep.

‘Naida, I did not expect to see you again so soon,’ she said, her eyes questioning.

‘Forgive me, Ayme, I did not mean to disturb your rest,’ Naida apologised.

The older woman smiled. ‘My dear, it is perfectly alright. You are obviously still troubled by something. Tell me, what is it?’

Naida sighed. ‘I am still concerned about the river. I was hoping that the Elder would let me go with him when he inspects it so we may both see it clearly and discover the cause.’

‘You suspect my husband may not be up to it?’ Ayme asked, pulling her blankets around her shoulders. The night had turned cold, and her body no longer kept warmth in as it used to.

‘It’s not that,’ Naida hesitated. ‘I feel as though he is disinterested in finding the true cause. He may be right in his suspicions, and I hope that he is…but I want to be sure. I have never seen the river like that in all my life, nor have I heard anyone tell of something like this happening before.’

Ayme pursed her lips. ‘I admit that I, too, feel as though he is not as concerned as he should be. However, he has been true to his word, for already he has gone to examine it.’

‘At night? But how will he see it properly? Even with a lighted torch it will be difficult. Did you not find that strange, Ayme?’ Naida said, shaking her head.

‘Yes, but perhaps it is his plan to follow the riverbank a good way up and wait until the first light to see its true state,’ she said, but deep lines had formed on her brow.

‘How long ago did he leave?’ Naida pressed.

Ayme thought for a moment. ‘Just a few minutes longer than you have been here. If you are swift, then you may be able to catch up to him.’

Naida put her hand on Ayme’s shoulder and thanked her, before leaving the hut as quickly as she could. She took one of the torches blazing by the storage hut and made her way down the path to the river.

She was even more cautious at night than she was in the day, because many creatures came out in the darkness; including some that could bring instant death to her if she were bitten or attacked. Fortunately, the torchlight made many of them scatter from her wake when she passed through, leaving her unscathed. Ahead of her, in the distance, she could just make out the light from another torch. It must be the Elder.

She was surprised that she had caught up to him so quickly, but then she remembered that his age had started to affect him these past few years and he was no longer the fast hunter that she had grown up watching.

He was now almost at the riverbank; it was just beyond the next clump of bushes to his right, but instead of turning towards it, he carried on. Where was he going? Curious, and more than a little suspicious, she decided to follow him. She dulled her torch so that the flames flickered as low as she could get them, pursuing him further and further until she was sure he must be lost. She herself had only been this way a few times before; it was not a good place for hunting or gathering foods, so the villagers tended not to go there.

Yet the Elder’s pace wasn’t hesitant, it was strong and confident. Ahead of him, she suddenly spied a bright light in front of him. Some of it was firelight, but the rest looked as though it was the strange electric lights used by people on the outside. What were they doing here? Had they come to make a settlement, or were they just a large group of travellers like the ones that visited the village? No, she thought, they were up to something else.

As she got closer, she saw that all of the trees in the area had been cut down, and enormous pits lay there instead; great chasms going so deep into the earth that looking at them was like looking into nothingness itself. Tents were scattered about around them, as well as huge metal structures- machines, she remembered they were called- that stood dormant on the site. The whole area glistened with moisture, despite the fact that it had not rained for hours. Sloped as the area was, she could see the run off spilling downwards,  in the direction of the river.

The Elder continued on, right into the heart of the light. Naida hid behind the surrounding bushes, watching as he neared a group of people sitting around a campfire. As they saw him approach, they called out behind them and another man appeared from one of the tents. His eyes darted to the Elder, and immediately his mouth broke into a wide grin, like a jaguar watching particularly easy prey before it attacked. He beckoned to a young boy by the fire, who scrambled up obediently to stand beside him.

‘Ah, Elder Cirilo,’ the boy said, translating the man’s rushed foreign words as he energetically took the Elder’s hand and shook it. ‘What may we do for you on this fine evening?’

‘You said that our village wouldn’t be harmed,’ the Elder said, sparing the man any niceties.

There was a pause as the boy explained what the Elder had said, but then the man’s reply came. ‘And I am true to my word, am I not? None of your villagers have been affected by our work here.’ The man gestured broadly around him, the smile still spread across his face.

‘But they could be,’ the Elder said. ‘Our river is polluted; the water is discoloured and the fish are all dead. Where are we supposed to fish, and what are we to drink from now?’

The grinning man frowned deeply. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. If the river is polluted, then it has nothing to do with us, I assure you,’ the boy replied for him, casting a wary glance at his master.

‘You lie. I know that you use strange potions to kill the plants and make the soil ready for your digging, and other such poisons in those foul things you have that cause explosions.’

The man’s frown turned to a scowl and, as he instructed the boy with what to say, it was clear that the tone of his voice had dropped all its pleasantness. The boy shrank back, but his master gripped him tightly on the shoulder and forced him to address the Elder. ‘I believe your son is terribly ill, is he not? Did we not promise to pay you a good sum of money to take him for treatment in the city in return for your silence?’

The Elder said nothing. Naida caught her breath, not wanting to believe what she’d just heard. Had these people really promised to pay the Elder for his silence? No, it couldn’t be. Even if his son was ill, the Elder wouldn’t accept money from such people…would he?

‘I want double,’ the Elder said finally. ‘Give me double what you offered and I’ll leave you alone.’

‘Done,’ the boy said bitterly after another brief instruction, lowering his gaze so that he wouldn’t have to look the Elder in the eyes. ‘But there will be no exceptions after this.’

Naida couldn’t stop herself. She ran out into the light, in full view of all the people sitting there. ‘Elder, you can’t do this! What about our village?’

‘And who is this pretty one?’ the boy said, though he was unwilling to use his master’s lecherous tone. ‘Hiding in the bushes, were we?’

‘Naida, you should not be here,’ the Elder said quietly. ‘Please go back to the village.’ He did not turn to her as he spoke, but instead chose to look blankly ahead of him.

‘I will not,’ Naida said. ‘Why are you letting these people keep you quiet with their paper money? Even if it is to save your son, how can you allow them to poison the river and risk the lives of our people?’

The Elder made no remark, as though her words had fallen on deaf ears.

‘We cannot let them do this. We could all die if we let this carry on…my children could die, Elder!’

‘Or you could move,’ the boy said for the grinning man, whose interest in Naida had turned to disgust now that tears were wetting her cheeks. ‘There are plenty of places to move your village; after all, the rainforest is rather large.’

‘No,’ the Elder snapped. ‘Our people have lived in this village for generations. We will not move.’ He looked up at Naida, staring at her as if seeing her for the first time. He saw the anger in her eyes, and with it the sheer shock of his deception. He sighed, and turned back to the grinning man. ‘I have allowed you to manipulate me for too long. Why should my people have to suffer because of my selfishness? You can have your paper money back. I want you to leave, and take your machines and poisons with you!’

‘Then your son will surely die,’ the boy said, wincing as his master’s grip on his shoulder became more intense. ‘He needs treatment from the outside, treatment which a poor village such as yours can never hope to pay for.’

‘We will find another way,’ the Elder said. ‘Come, Naida, we shall return to the village.’

He turned sharply and wordlessly, and Naida followed him back through the forest to their home. When they reached it, the Elder called for a meeting amongst the adults. Naida had not said a word on the way back, and refused to speak when the other villagers asked what was going on, disgruntled at being called on so late into the night. That was the Elder’s task; his and his alone.

‘My sons and daughters,’ he began, addressing them all. ‘I know that the hunting party has yet to return, but I feel I must speak with you most urgently.’ He paused, trying to form his words. ‘I have been lying to you all.’

The people whispered in shock and Ayme fell weakly against the walls of the hut. Naida went to Ayme’s side and let the older woman lean on her shoulder.

‘Several weeks ago, some outsiders came to speak with me. I told you that they were people known as scientists that study the natural world. They were not. These people want to destroy part of the forest so that they can dig for minerals beneath the earth, to sell for their precious paper money. They told me that if I remained silent about their plans, then they would pay for my son to be treated by the healers on the outside. I am ashamed to admit that I accepted, and even today, when I found that their methods were polluting the river, I went to them not to ask them to leave, but to ask for more money for my son in return for my continued silence. They accepted and, if it hadn’t been for Naida, I would have left satisfied and risked all of your lives by doing so.’

The villagers were too stunned at his words to speak, staring at him in silence. When finally they registered what he had said, a great uproar broke out. The crowd shouted and jostled against each other in a wave of fury and betrayal. The Elder endured their insults, and so foul were they that Naida was astounded he did not protest even once.

Then a young woman sprinted into the crowd from the hut where the Elder’s son was housed, heading straight for Naida and Ayme. She whispered something to Ayme, and though Naida couldn’t hear it over the roar of the crowd, Ayme’s reaction gave the message away immediately.

She let out a cry of despair that silenced everyone, and as they turned to her, they knew just as Naida did that the only cause could be that her son was dead. It rang through the night, lasting only seconds, but to everyone present, feeling like an eternity.

With his face turning ashen, the Elder dropped to his knees. ‘It is over then,’ he said, his voice quiet at first, but becoming louder with each word. ‘These people who wish to poison our river and dig up the land now have no power over me. They cannot play to my weakness anymore. I will bury our son and grieve for him, but then I will fight. We will fight. I and a few others will journey to the outside and seek assistance from those who are knowledgeable on such matters. I will not lay down and let these people threaten our way of life anymore.’

He took a breath and went to Ayme’s side, his body trembling along with hers. ‘But now, on this night, I will say no more. Forgive me, but I must say goodbye to my son.’ They parted from the crowd and disappeared into the hut where their son’s body now lay, and for the rest of that night the only sound that was to be heard in the village was Ayme’s sobs.

Naida felt a sadness that was deeper than any she had experienced before. Though she did not want to admit it, she understood why the Elder had gambled their lives for that of his son’s. If it had been one of her own children, then she knew she would have been swayed just as easily. It was this, more than anything, that caused the guilt she now felt eating away at her. But nothing could be done now. Death had dealt its cold hand and freed the Elder from his turmoil, forcing him to move forwards.

She walked slowly back to her own hut, slipping through the doorway to see her son and daughter deep asleep, wrapped up under their blankets. She knelt down and put a hand on each of their heads, humming softly.

Chasing the outsiders from the forest and purifying the river would be no easy task, but if the villagers stood strong, they would do it. She was sure of it.

 

 

Short Stories

The Hidden (a partial story from an old OU assigment)

I sat down at the table. The sun was bright and shone in my eyes, while the chill winter breeze blew my hair across my face.

I looked down at my notebook, flicking through the pages like I always did when I was anxious. My writing was nothing but a scrawl, yet nearly all the pages were full of it. I began to read through some of my notes, stopping now and then to try and decipher a word or two.  I was so absorbed in it that it took me a moment to realise that someone was casting a shadow over the pages. I looked up, pushing my glasses back onto the bridge of my nose.

‘Still lost in your notes as always, I see,’ said the well dressed young man in front of me.

‘Lawrence,’ I greeted him.

He pulled up a chair and sat opposite me, and caught the eye of the waitress two tables behind.  He ordered two cappuccinos. I watched her go over to the counter inside the cafe before turning to him.

‘So, what is this all about?’

‘Well,’ he said smiling, ‘I believe I have something of great interest to you. To us all, actually.’

I raised my eyebrow, about to reply when the waitress came back with our drinks. Lawrence nodded his thanks, and without bothering to watch her leave, proceeded to put his briefcase on the table. Two clicks told me he’d unlocked it, and before I could utter a sound he opened it and turned it round so that I could see what was inside.

I gasped. Then, noticing how many people were around us, turned it into a cough. The clatter of cutlery and babble of small talk told me that no one had noticed. Still, I felt the urge to whisper.

‘Where on earth did you find it?’

‘Here, actually,’ Lawrence replied.

‘Here? After all this time, it was here?’

‘Yes- but Jenn, there’s something you should know. The dig site where we found it suggests that it’s over fifteen hundred years old.’

Fifteen hundred? How can that be? Our records of it only go back seven hundred years.’

‘There’s something else, too,’ he said. Fishing through his jacket pockets, he produced two photos.

‘We found these markings all over the site.’

I looked at them. They both showed the same marking, an inverted triangle with its point set on a horizontal line. Each end of the line was connected to a downward diagonal line.

‘This looks just like a House Mark!’

‘That’s what I thought, so I checked. It was there all right, along with all the other Marks of the Old Houses.’

‘And?’ I asked. ‘Which house does it belong to?’

‘That’s the thing, there was no name next to it, just the Mark.’

I frowned. That was unheard of. A House Mark surrounding the Object, but with no clue to the House it belonged to? No, surely we’d gone wrong somewhere.

‘Have you thought about it being something other than a House Mark?’

‘Yes, I’ve searched through the whole of the Great Library. There’s no sign of it. But the question is, if it isn’t a House Mark, then what was it doing in the records of the Old Houses?’

I tried to think, but no answers came to me. What was the link between the Object and this Mark? Was it a House Mark? I just didn’t know. There was only one thing I could think to suggest.

‘I think we should show my Father.’

‘Your Father?’ Lawrence said, turning pale.

‘Yes, he has quite a few articles in his personal library that I haven’t seen in the Great Library. Maybe one of those can answer our questions.’

‘Are you sure he wouldn’t mind us looking? I heard he’s been ill lately, I’d hate to interrupt him unnecessarily.’

‘Oh Lawrence, don’t be ridiculous! If he finds out that we have the Object from someone other than us, he’d probably go so far as to disown me.’

‘Well, if you’re sure…’

Two hours later we arrived at my Father’s house. I looked at it distastefully as we drove up the long gravel path. I took Lawrence around the back to the workmen’s entrance, and then raced up to the library. Swinging open the great double doors, I revealed the rows and rows of bookshelves, and at the very far end, as though expecting us, was my Father.