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Friday, 8 October 2021

Not After Midnight

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

     The cackle of children was the only sound to break the chill, autumn night. No breeze stirred but what was whipped up when they jumped or ran, and the fog shied back from the gusts of their breath. Nothing and no one roamed the roads they followed, nor the fields they crossed. There was only the village far ahead of them, and the troupers' caravan far behind.
     Yet they peered into bushes, high up into trees, and around behind notice posts anyway, searching for anything older human eyes might not be able to see.
     They always turned up empty.
     But they walked on, undiscouraged, until the road passed over a river running thick with the recent rains, where there was still certainly enough room beneath the bridge for a troll to hide. But it must have been out hunting for other nosy children that night, because it was nowhere at all to be seen. Again.
     The constant lack of any kind of sighting was beginning to grate. Why call it 'The Troll Bridge' if there was no troll?
     But, when a deep, mournful creak rolled through the air like the snore of some huge, sluggish beast, all six of the children came to a secretly hopeful stop and peered up along the river.
     The old mill stood out along the waterside, a dark silhouette, glowing in the fog while the full moon hung behind it. It was a deathly sight, forbidding; the place itself was like a phantom.
     The creak groaned again as they stared.
     The youngest boy slid up closer to the others, his eyes just as wide as the moon as he peered up over the top of the bridge wall. "W-why does it make that noise?"
     "The storyteller might know," an older girl replied, her own eyes far narrower. "We could go back to the caravan and ask him."
     "We don't need to ask him."
     Her sceptical gaze flicked towards another boy, who regarded the scene with confidence.
     "And why not?"
     "Because," he turned her a smug grin, "I know what it is."
     Other various degrees of doubt tumbled onto him.
     "It's the ghost of a troubadour, who broke his neck when he was trying to get away out the window when the miller caught him with his daughter. And now his ghost is stuck in there, tuning his screechy strings, getting ready to serenade her so she'll fall in love with him and run away from her stupid father."
     All eyes turned back out across the river - except for one boy, who adamantly shook his head. "Yer wrong and stupid, Tam. It weren't no troubledor, it were a witch. She cast 'er spells and tried to take the whole village as slaves, but they caught 'er before she could finish, and tied 'er to the water wheel, and she starved and drowned. It's true, me da' told me!"
     "And this time, you're wrong and stupid, Rhys."
     Rhys's cheeks flushed bright red even as he scowled towards the oldest girl. They burned brighter as he watched her lean against the drystone. "I bet you don't know what it is, Mandy. Yer stupider than I am."
     Mandy fired him a scowl of her own. "I do know, actually. It's just the wheel creaking. It's old and makes lots of noise, especially when the river's this high. Some nights it spins faster and gets louder. And some nights it spins even faster, until it's screaming into the moon, spun by the ghosts of the river's drowned dead."
     The children all fell silent and watched the distant wheel turn slowly in the darkness.
     Then a black mass of crows suddenly erupted from a tree a short ways up the river, and all the children jumped and squeaked.
     A long moment later, when their hearts had stopped hammering and the youngest had stopped crying, the final girl spoke up, her voice careful, considered, and her eyes as sober as stone. "You're all half-right," she said, immediately drawing their attention. "There was a witch, and murder, and the dead turn the wheel.
     "The millers owed a witch for lifting a sickness off of them, but they couldn't afford to repay her. They wouldn't admit that, though, so they saved what they could, setting aside a little of their earnings every week, and the witch was patient. It was all fine - until the village found out about it. They thought that, because they were alive by the witch's magic, they were still under her spell, and she was using them to poison the grain and kill or enslave the entire village. So the village killed them before they could."
     "How awful!" The youngest boy gasped, and the girl simply nodded her head.
     "But they were good, honest people, so even in death they're still trying to repay the witch and feed the village that murdered them. That's what the creak is."
     "That's so sad," Mandy sniffed. "Should we go and talk to them? Tell them to stop?"
     "Many have tried. Everyone who has have fallen ill with the same sickness the witch cured them of."
     "Oh... Then can't the witch just help them pass on?"
     The girl shook her head, her eyes glassy and burdened as she watched the wheel turn. "She can't. And she feels guilty, so her ghost haunts the mill, protecting them while they work. No one who goes in there ever survives..."
     Silence closed in around them as though the night itself had swelled, and suddenly the lone, woeful creak didn't seem so frightening anymore.
     Tam was the first to stir, drawing his eyes to the sky. The rest stared at him in outrage when he dared to break the stillness with a whisper. "I have to go. It's nearly midnight and my mum will flip her lid if I'm any later."
     "Ours too," the youngest girl said, taking the youngest boy's hand.
     "I'll walk back with you," Mandy declared, at which Rhys immediately decided to follow. Soon, all six children were walking back along the road, steeped in their thoughts, until they reached the boundary of their village.
     "Not going in, Rin?" Tam frowned as the girl with burdened eyes took a bucket from beside her front door and started back towards the fields.
     "No, I promised my dad I'd milk the cow for the morning time."
     "Oh, okay. G'night."
     Rin left the village behind her and dashed out to find her family's meagre cattle, sleeping in the fields. She slowed as she neared, and looked back around through the darkness.
     No one was following her.
     She knelt beside one of them and pulled the knife from her boot, hushing and soothing the startled creature as she let the blood from its neck. Once the bucket was a quarter-filled, she smeared mud over the wound, whispered another apology, then ran off towards the river.


     The ghostly fog had dispersed. The mill stood now as just another black, crumbling shape in the night.
     Rin crept towards its old, wooden door, knocked three times, then once with her foot, then twice more with her knuckles, and entered.
     Moonlight seeped in from the cracks in the derelict ceiling, dust drifted like snow in the beams, and mice darted between her footsteps. The rattle of the bucket's handle was the only sound to be noticed, but she could hear the rasp in the shadows if she listened for it.
     She stopped beside the grind stone just as a sharp and ragged sound broke through the innate silence. Then the rasping grew. The floating motes of dust undulated on the air.
     And a face appeared from the darkness.
     A face with sinking, misaligned eye sockets, a split bottom jaw cocked to the left, and a skull that was larger on one side than the other; a head set upon a long neck above bony shoulders, one disproportionately smaller, that mantled a broken rib cage, several of which were split outwards.
     There was nothing else beneath it.
     It peered down at Rin, and Rin smiled back.
     "I'm sorry I'm late," she said, extending the bucket, and watched the long, broken, bony hand reach out to take it. Then hesitate, as it always did. It gave in when she rattled it.
     "You don't need to keep coming here," the wraith told her in a distant, shattered voice. "It's not safe. And I'm happy alone."
     "Of course you are."
     She watched the wraith vanish, then reappear on the far side of the mill, floating as if it sat in a chair. She followed after him. "Sure you don't want to pass on?"
     The wraith nodded. "I'm content here for now, thank you."
     "I'll always ask."
     "I know. But not after midnight."
     "Never after midnight." She sat down beside him and waited patiently for that single stroke of the dark, when he would recount another of his lost and ancient memories.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

The Harvest Watch

Estimated read time: 13 minutes

     It wasn't that long ago when the wild things still wandered; when the forests were still dark places and village walls meant only tentative safety. When there were no reliable hearthfires, no filling meals every night, no guarantee of survival through the winter - none of the luxuries we have now in our rug-strewn, stone-built homes.
     It wasn't that long ago, and yet, for that basic uncertainty, things were done so very differently.
     Before the leaves fell - before they even turned - the final harvest of the year would take place. From the beginning of August to the end of September, villages would be out cutting and gathering their grains, laying them out to dry and storing them through the winter - some to eat, most to sell. Whatever was needed. And then, when the coldest months came, the oldest or sickest animals would be slaughtered. But that meat would never go far enough. Grains were staple. Crucial. Populations relied on those more than anything else.
     But even without the risk of stampedes or smoking-house fires, a grain harvest was never a straight-forward thing. Aside from the back-breaking work, there were also the threats of rot and pests. One ill-timed autumn rain could plunge whole provinces into famine. And so the old deities were beseeched and offerings left to the wild itself, to appease the witches and the vengeful spirits that dwelled within against attack, abduction, cursing the grain or directing the scavengers.
     And it wasn't that long ago that the deities may have answered.

     The girl turned her father a wide-eyed look through the dappled forest light, and again she watched the strange pride in his smile as he nodded his head towards the tree stump.
     For some reason, of all the children in the village, she'd been the one chosen to carry out some kind of important duty. She'd been taught a poem, shown how to arrange wheat husks, and that morning had her golden hair pulled and braided with summer flowers and her dress painted with berries. Then she'd been brought out here, so deep into the forest she couldn't see the fields behind them. That was strange, after having been told for eight years not to stray anywhere near the trees, but being here now was...exciting. And scary. So scary and so exciting that she couldn't keep her knees still. And only partly because of all the villagers' eyes on her.
     With a deep breath, she looked ahead and took the last two steps towards the tree stump, stole a glance up at the twisted woody giant looming close behind it, then followed her gaze as it dragged back to the bundle in her hands. The first head of grain, cut by her father that morning, a privilege for his daughter having been chosen. Leaving this on the altar and speaking the old poem was supposed to make the forest happy and keep them safe while they worked in the fields outside. But that, she'd decided, didn't make any sense. Why grain and not a loaf of bread? And would bread or grain really make the forest happy?
     Probably not. There wouldn't be enough. The forest was big. And once the grain was gone, it was gone, and the happiness would be gone with it. It wouldn't last anywhere near long enough to cut the crops. It had taken a year last time, as far as she could remember. Certainly not the two months her mother kept saying it was.
     But the grown ups wouldn't listen. So she'd taken matters into her own hands.
     While the adults watched, she reached out and laid the head of grain on the tree stump just as she'd been taught to, perfectly in the centre of the few rings and carved shapes she could see through the lichen. Then she stepped back and carefully recited the words:

"The first head cut,
we bring to appease,
and carry our
hearts bare in our pleas.
Contain this time
your huntress shadows,
and spare our young
the depths of barrows."

     She stole a peek behind her. All eyes were closed.
     She bent quickly and set her straw-stuffed doll down at the foot of the stump, and was upright again before anyone noticed. "Tall trees; fields fallow; may we all thrive as one."
     There was a murmur of approval behind her while the rest of the village stirred, and as her father's hand came to rest proudly on her shoulder, she erased her mischievous smile, stood tall, then turned and led the gathering away. As their footsteps moved from twigs to grass, the forest fell silent behind them.
     And the twisted tree looming over the stump twitched.

     Two flecks of green glowed softly like fireflies in hollow sockets, barely breaking the dappled darkness, and a head of twigs, woven into a horned bear skull, creaked high on its neck among the boughs. The silent, glowing stare followed the fleshy creatures closely. And only once stillness embraced the dark again did the tangled trunk follow.
     With barely a rustle through the sticks and roots, the misshapen trunk split, and two latticed, lichen-marked legs stepped over the altar in a single stride. Three steps the kvistdjur took, a guardian grown of twigs and roots, before it stopped frozen again and turned back to the stump. For a long while, it stared at the head of grain resting on top.
     The warning had been made. The humans were moving.
     And the kvistdjur would stand guard against them.
     Turning on its wooden heel, it began its march to the edge of the shadows to take up its vigil against the creatures loose in their golden fields, until a squirrel bounced onto its leafy antlers from a branch above. Again it froze, obligingly this time, and glowing eyes followed it down to its shoulder, along its arm, down its leg and across to the altar. And there it noticed, as the squirrel stopped and sniffed tentatively at the foot, a small human of equal size sitting among the roots.
     Its horned head twitched.
     As fast and graceful as a mantis, the kvistdjur flickered to its knees beside it. But while the squirrel sprang up to the grain, the kvistdjur realised its mistake. It was no living human, but a thing in human cladding and stuffed with dry grass.
     Slowly, the kvistdjur peered closer. The cladding was frayed, the straw was rotting, and the nut that resembled its head was cracked and scarred. The thing didn't move as it was prodded with a woody talon.
     For another long moment, it watched and waited, but still nothing happened. So, while the squirrel began stealing apart the grain, chittering at its approaching kin, the kvistdjur dismissed it, rose without a sound, and marched at last to its vigil.

     For days, the kvistdjur roamed the woods, watching the humans and their scythes butcher the golden fields. They were dangerous with these weapons; they cut too clean, too quick, too greedily. Saplings and squirrels would be no match. Too much could fall too fast, and if they were left unchallenged, the humans would do it again the next year, and the year after that, and more of them would join with each swarm.
     And that morning, in the dying light of a half-moon, they had wandered the closest yet.
     The kvistdjur stared from the shadows, firefly eyes aglow with every flash of steel, woody talons twitching, as long and sharp as scythes themselves. Their voices were too clear. It could feel them in the ground, see them fluttering through the leaves, disturbing every edge of life until those animals who were able finally moved away for sleep or safety. Before too long, the wilds would grow wistfully empty.
     Glinting movement towards the eastern edge suddenly snatched its malicious stare, and it dashed ahead while the glowing heart in its chest tightened and flared through the weave of its ribs. A tall, skinny one was moving slowly towards the trees.
     Wrapped in shadow, the kvistdjur stopped nearby and controlled the flare of its heart.
     Nearer, the creature wandered.
     The kvistdjur's talons stretched and flexed, its leg twitched impatiently. But before it could flicker forwards, the figure stopped and sat down in the shade.
     The kvistdjur remained as watchful, rigid and motionless as the trees.
     For several long minutes, the skinny one held its burning attention without once turning at the heat of those eyes. Then it rose again and moved back into the fields, oblivious to the danger.
     Slowly, the woven guardian creaked and settled in the shift of dappled light, until another voice stirred the leaves nearby, one higher and more vibrant than the rest.
     Again, its stare flicked onto its target: a small human, fairer and more golden than the rest. But this small one didn't cut, instead it gathered what the others had reaped and bundled it up in arms too small for the job, yet a job it did with glee.
     This one, the kvistdjur watched for a long while.

     Another puff of alarm went up ahead as the trees bent out of the kvistdjur's way, and the hunting one ran and stumbled on through the roots, firing back another haphazard arrow that whistled through the guardian's woven body. But it already had distance; the bow gave it reach. The kvistdjur couldn't chase it all the way out, and it was already too far from its post. It had little choice but to leave the hunting one to another. It was far from the only guardian in these woods.
     As fast as a bird, it turned and surged back through the forest, flickering between the trunks towards the edge of the trees where again it stopped, stared, and twitched at every flash of the scythes and every careless movement. But this time its eyes were searching, and as the small human walked by again, struggling with the bundles of grain, red-faced and glistening in the sunlight, the kvistdjur's attention settled.

     An entire moon had passed since the warning was left on the stump; that night, the sky was black and empty, and where the humans had retreated inside, light glowed through the holes in their nests.
     The kvistdjur watched them blaze.
     For all its vigilance over twenty-eight passes of the sun, nothing yet had forced its hand. But it was only a matter of time. And there was more than one attack front to watch.
     Finally, the lights went out, and one hour later, the kvistdjur turned and stalked away through the woods in search of hunters, traps and trespassers.
     It listened carefully to every sound that bounced across the trees, distinguishing between the wilds and invasive footsteps. As empty as the woods now were, humans would still try their luck, as with the reaping of the golden fields came the reaping of deer, boar and grouse. Their captives were never enough; they would kill yet more while keeping their own alive. The patrol had to be made.
     Finally, something snapped nearby.
     In a heartbeat, the kvistdjur spun and made towards it at speed. Leaves parted, branches moved aside, and owls hooted directions. But the kvistdjur was already there. It leapt, it landed, and it caged the human in its limbs. A sharp squeak was all that stopped its talons from striking.
     Bright firefly eyes stared down into the huge reflective orbs of the small, golden-headed human, whose body remained as still as stone in its grasp. Neither moved, neither made a sound. A long, warm breath of wind danced between them, stirring leaves and golden strands.
     It must have carried something with it; the small human suddenly scrambled backwards, struggled to its feet, and ran away without a sound.
     The kvistdjur watched it flee in silence. Then its stare sank back to the ground where it had lain. Another tiny, straw-stuffed human lay strewn in the dirt. One with tiny twigs tied to its acorn head, and two green, mossy smudges for eyes.
     Talons closed around it, then it rose back to its feet and stalked off after the small creature. It broke into another rapid run when the squeak rose again nearby, morphed into a shriek, and was answered by the snarl and bark of wolves.
     The kvistdjur burst in behind them, roared bitterly from its wooden throat, and sent the wolves fleeing.
     And again, it and the human stared at one another for another long moment. But though the creature was guarded, this time it didn't run. Instead, it dared a step closer.
     The kvistdjur twitched backwards, then sharply raised its talons.
     The small human hesitated, but its stare never broke. And it took another step.
     The kvistdjur hissed nervously.
     The human froze. The pair of them stared. Then the human's mouth moved, but no squeak came out. Several wolf howls nearby stopped whatever sound it was about to make, and it turned and ran off again.

     The kvistdjur watched the creature throughout the harvest, and the creature stared back into the woods from time to time. But they didn't step near one another. Then, after another black night and another new moon, nothing but one single stalk of grain was left standing in the flat, golden fields. The kvistdjur watched as all humans gathered around it, and the smallest of them, the fairest, its golden head dressed again in flowers and cladding coloured with berries, stepped forwards with a scythe and felled it.
     The kvistdjur straightened. The sign was made, the ritual done. Its vigil here was over.
     Duty fell from its shoulders as it turned its head to the breeze, and looked off back into the woods just as a shard of orange drifted down beside it. Its talons rose gently to its leafy antlers even as it peered up at the yellowing trees.
     It was time to move on. The Drowse was on its way, and the kvistdjur's final task was approaching.
     Turning its back to the human fields, it opened its other hand, dropped the two grass-stuffed figures to the dirt, and stalked off into the woods. These wilds were safe from this harvest.
     It didn't notice the small human looking its way with a smile.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Thursday, 26 August 2021

The Devoted Trilogy - Character Art Portrait Compliation

Character portraits of The Devoted trilogy, 2021.

Support me on Patreon to get early access to all art, as well as short stories,
snippets, deleted scenes, beta-reading opportunities and artist collaborations!

Rathen Koraaz

Salus, Keliceran

Aria Koraaz

Inquisitor Garon Brack

Petra Dalin

Anthis Karth

Eyila, of the Ikaheka


Friday, 6 August 2021

The Power of Music

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

     Sixteen months is too long for a full-scale war over pride. Especially when both rulers have only the most tenuous adoration of their people to begin with.
     A single misplaced ermine pelt had started it; ever since, the kings of Adelaare and Venvalk had been blinded by their blood haze, and it seemed neither sundial nor moth-eaten purse would drag anything to a rational close.
     With no sign of relenting on either side, their people were suffering sorely. Trade was dwindling, loved ones had been lost, homes had been ransacked; the nation struggled just to smile, and a nation without the will to thrive was a nation defeated. Battles may still play out, but the war had already been lost - and when both sides were falling side by side into the same trap, there could be no winner.
     Something had to end it, and fast.

     In the town of Sparling, these words were on everyone's lips, but followed always by the fateful question: "what can we do?" A single pebble may start an avalanche, but what good was it if no one was around to get caught in it? No one ever looked their way; they were insignificant. Sparling was a resource, nothing more. It, like so many others, produced the necessities for war - weapons, armour and horse shoes, flour, meat, wood, but little else. No ideas, no arts, no fine things worth paying attention to. All things for use by the military, or to pay for it. Revenue of one kind or another. That was all.
     And the people themselves, though they were among the workers and traders the nation depended on, were worth nothing. Hardship, poverty, misery; the crowns decided that their subjects' wellbeing didn't matter, so long as they were alive.
     And so, far too often, warlords overlooked that one final, crucial detail in their campaigns: war needed the people's support. Without it, the nation would crumble from within long before its walls were broken from without - and, for better or worse, the anger born of  oppression and worthlessness was the quickest way to rouse a broken spirit.
     But Sparling wasn't quite there yet. No one had quite reached breaking point, and the hope that someone else would do something first was still floating through the gutters.
     However, though anger might be the quickest way to rouse a broken spirit, there were other methods - slower perhaps, but effective.
     And on one August evening, one came right to them.

     "Ooh!" A child gasped from her perch in a tree at the edge of the neighbouring woods, and thrust a short finger out towards the road. "Daddy! Look! Jesters!"
     "What are you saying now, Melie?" Her father grumbled, and looked up from the fence he was fixing to peer off along to the distance. He stiffened a moment later. "Travellers?"
     Then a melody drifted through the golden dusk.
     "Oh! Oh! Daddy, listen! Such happy music! Can we go see?! Please?!"
     "Melie, go warn the guards."
     But she had already scrambled down the trunk and run off towards the road.
     The troupe of musicians and actors were welcomed reluctantly into the town, and everyone gathered about them defensively in the square, waiting for the first request of food they couldn't spare, or a bed they refused to. But no such burdens came. The troupe had begun a skit the moment they stepped through the gates, and joy radiated from them like heat from the sun. Their comedies, bright costumes, rainbows squeezed from fiddles, accordians and tambourines were their own contribution to the war effort, they'd announced, with the promise that they'd transformed the spirit of every town and village they'd tickled their strings in.
     The locals remained sceptical, but the troupe played on with unflinching mirth, and, as the evening wore on, their promise proved true. There was at last some kind of cheer trickling its way through the streets, and for the first time in months, the town of Sparling smiled. Japes and laughter filled the square, while music seeped through windows and stirred up even the sewers. Smiths set their work aside, thieves left the shadows, and farmers drifted in from their fields. Life glowed again.
     But as far as their promise held, as was the nature of joy, it couldn't last forever. When the moon shone and the performances came to a close, the town slipped back into melancholy, stirred into longing rather than action, and the troupe, apparently satisfied, moved on to cross another townstead off their map. One evening of revelry wasn't enough to transform Sparling's spirit after all.
     And one of them could see that more clearly than the rest.
     "Come along, Ilse," the red harlequin told the flutist as they moved back out through the gates, hoisting her patched and fraying bag higher over her shoulder, "we've a ways still to go tonight if we're going to keep to the schedule - unless of course you plan on walking there backwards?"
     Ilse flashed her a smile. "I don't. But..." The flutist's eyes pulled back to the town. "It wasn't enough..."
     A hand came to rest on her shoulder. "Some people need more," the harlequin told her softly. "Sometimes music, sometimes just time. It'll sink in. We touched them deep enough, you'll see."
     "I know..." But Ilse still didn't turn away.
     A sigh soon rose from behind her, and the hand slipped from her shoulder. "Fine," the harlequin grumbled. "Catch up with us when you're satisfied, all right?"
     "Good." The harlequin cast Ilse's grin a cocked smile of her own. "We need you and your pipe!"
     And so, while the rest of the troupe moved on to keep trying to spread the cheer, the flutist stayed, paid generously for a room in the most impoverished inn, and played her music beside the town's clogged fountain from the first chirp of the dawn. And again, the grim town revelled.
     But it was different this time. Somehow, her music had power. Alone, unsullied by the tints and shapes of the others, it shone and sang in vibrant golds and lilacs, and the sunlight itself seemed to swirl and gather with every trill. The colours and rhythms moved them just as she'd hoped they would, deeper than the whole troupe had, and they danced and laughed the whole day away, thrown into movement like cheerful puppets on golden strings.
     Children jumped and played around the well, young women smiled and giggled around a forgotten Maypole, young men showed off their strength by the masonry, married couples danced and spun through the gardens, and every voice sang out together whenever a familiar tune came by.
     Chores were discarded, arguments forgotten, even the rumble of stomachs went blissfully unnoticed. Fear and helplessness no longer sat in the corners of their minds. They escaped the shadows fully, and spirits lightened in the sun.
     The flutist smiled behind her pipe. This time, she would reach them.
     As evening set in, the children splashed buckets from the well, soaking themselves and others, and threw the buns they'd forgotten to eat. As the sun faded, young men ran and climbed across crates and wagons, and as the moon rose, young women splashed in the puddles.
     The adults weren't far behind them.
     Well-water rained, muddying the ground, quenching the forges, ruining the smithies' work.
     Lanterns swayed, knocked by the slipping dancers, sending stray flames skittering towards the store houses.
     Carts were smashed and horses fled.
     Pigeon coups blazed when the store house fires grew.
     The wells clogged with people falling in.
     Fields burned, cattle bellowed and stampeded through fences.
     The forest smoked, seethed and crackled.
     Revenue was lost.
     And still Sparling danced.
     The townsfolk smiled, grasping one another, swapping partners, hands on hands, hands on hips, hands on necks, hands wrenching heads, snapping necks, laughing all the while.
     Bodies fell, broken, drowned and burned.
     And the flutist rose and walked away, smiling impishly behind that enchanting pipe, and Sparling burned down merrily behind her.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Veysuul Release Day!


     It's release day, and the end of The Devoted trilogy! It's been a very, very long journey, and while I'm sad to reach the end, I also find myself surprisingly satisfied. There's nothing at all that I feel I've left unfinished; everything is as it should be. Veysuul is the ending I wanted the trilogy to have.

     Veysuul is currently available as paperback, Kindle and on Kindle Unlimited, and Kindle versions can be read via the free Kindle app, downloadable on all tablets, smarthphones, laptops and computers. I do plan to expand distribution at a later date!

     Naturally, release day was a celebration, and involved many sweets! I baked and decorated a black & gold cake (chocolate fudge cake, golden white chocolate ganache, black cocoa buttercream, golden modelling chocolate), and The Cake Baroness made these wonderful biscuits inspired by the book cover! A wonderful and sickly time was had by all, and very well-deserved.

     I've made hardbacks available to patrons for purchase at print price, should they want them, and I still plan to have more goodies for them by the end of the year, finances permitting. If you're interested, head over to my Patreon page and pledge $1-$3 a month, and get extra benefits like WIP snippets, news on my next book long before anyone else, and, for the time being, exclusive access to the origin stories of every lead character from The Devoted!

Thank you all so much for your support over the years, it truly means a great deal. I hope you'll stick around for future stories! I already have my next book in mind, and a duology after that! There's plenty still to come!

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Patreon-Exclusive Character Origin Stories

   Over the next month, I'm sharing the origin stories for the lead characters of The Devoted trilogy on my Patreon, exclusively for all tiers. These are short stories that I wrote before starting any work on The Zi'veyn, and were written for several reasons: first, to pick my skills back up; second, to get to know the world and the characters so they'd all be consistent, and third, to develop some of the backstories.

   None of them are spoilers, I'd decided way back in 2014 to be careful about that in case I decided to share them (I was of the mentality back then that everything I wrote had to be shared; today I know that's not true, but I do want to share these).

   All seven stories have been edited to bring them up to my current skill rather than how they were seven years ago, and I'm really excited to share them!

   My Patreon has two tiers - the Library Moth ($1/mo) and Archivist ($3/mo), but these short stories are special exceptions and will be available to both  tiers as soon as they're available. I won't be sharing them here, however, as I think it's about time my patrons got some truly exclusive content.

   If you're interested, all pledges are collected on the first of every month (with exception to your first pledge, which is taken immediately), and you immediately gain access to all past content, including exclusive snippets from Veysuul pre-release. Pledges can be made in Euros, GBP or USD, and by card or PayPal. I receive 95% of all pledges, with the rest going to keep Patreon running. The pledges help to buy reference and research books for future works, as well as advertising for my books and proof copies!

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

The World Changes At Night

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Excerpt from Professor Jaeger's 'Analysing Controversies and Speculation over the Oro-Empirical and Pre-Dansk Psychological Treatise; Death, Magic and Allies', published 1295, Leid Press.

    The dark is a frightening place. All logic and rationality crumbles, tensions hike, and we jump and flinch at the faintest things, even when we know it can't possibly be anything more than a creak of a contracting floorboard. We know this. In daylight, we know this. But at night, in the could it possibly be that simple?

    But what triggers this betrayal of the mind? Is it chemical? Is it because we're diurnal creatures, and our bodies can't handle cortisol when, by all biological rights, we're supposed to be asleep? Or is it more basic than that - that we rely so much on sight that we cease functioning when it's taken away from us? But in that case, what about the blind? Or does it come down to some primordial instinct etched into our DNA from a time before locked doors, still trying to keep us safe from the wolves and bears that can no longer reach us?
    Take your pick. They're all reasonable enough. But the dwarfs of the Chyrzonmarch present a fourth option - one that, in daylight, I'm sure you'll scoff at. One that, in daylight, I admit makes no sense at all. But it's one that I have researched, weighed and now present to you all the same.
    The world around us changes at night. It gets dark. The usual day-to-day creatures sleep, and others you've never caught more than a passing glimpse of awake. The calls of one beast or another shred the black silence, those awful, blood-curdling screams you've heard in the spring. Why should an animal make a noise like that unless it was being killed by something worse?
    Well, why shouldn't it? It's going about its business in its world. And, when the sun sets and the moon rises, we are no longer a part of it. The world...changes.
    There are all kinds of stories about the night - werewolves, midnight wraiths, vampires... All kinds of strange things are said to wander the darkness. Stories that, in the light of day...well. I've said it already: they don't make sense. But it's more than just fanciful musing by idle writers, isn't it? What about the things you imagine? The grinning, disembodied faces; the claws reaching up from beneath the bed to seize a hanging foot; the big, black, red-eyed dogs staring at you from the edge of the dark when you turn around in bed; half-rotten skeletons with wide grins and necks three feet too long peering through the window; the slow, scraping tap at the door...
    Why do these images not come to us in daylight? Why only in the dark? What spell are we under?
    What spell indeed. And are they just images? We are in that strange world for half of our lives, and conscious for less than thirty percent of it. How much can you recall from your childhood but largely fogged fragments of things that, in hindsight, couldn't have happened? Perhaps it's the same phenomenon. I have never held a spiny-tailed tarantula in my life, and yet the image of one in my hand is far too vivid, and far too old, to be untrue. Why would it remain with me if there weren't some truth to it? Or is there a difference between truth and fact? I suspect there is, but that, dear reader, is a matter for another time.

    I put it to you: the fear we feel at night, it's real. Our hearts race. We sweat. Our eyes flick around. We're convinced something's happening that is worth getting riled up about. It's not a sensation we feel without good reason during the day, and yet it occurs so much more readily at night. And perhaps it's there for good reason, too. Perhaps, what seems foolish in daylight, is peril in the dark. Perhaps, it's all real.
    After all: the world changes at night...

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Veysuul Now Open For Pre-Orders!

   Veysuul is now open for Kindle pre-orders! Paperbacks will follow on release date - August 1st.
   The pre-order is a promotional price and will increase on release day, so be sure to purchase your copy through July!

Here are the most common pre-order links - or you can search 'Veysuul' on your preferred Amazon.

US   UK   DE   NL   AU

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Casting Runes

Collaboration with Frenone for a limited-run tarot set

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
     The mocking cackle of crows drawled hollow through the leaden air. Its breath ruffled ashen leaves, stirring the iron scent of blood through banners that hung silent in glory and horror. The smell of smoke moved stiffly behind it; burned trees, burned flesh; corpses caught by the last wandering flames.
     A warrior, painted with blood, gilded with wounds, cast his eyes over the sun-bathed fields. Even now he could hear female voices raised in warsong. But where once they'd thrummed like a pulse in his ears, now they were soft, and as golden as the moor.
     Motion dragged his listless gaze up towards the sun.
     Dark shapes were circling.
     They grew larger as he watched them, descending, angling through the updrafts like silver eagles. Timeless sun glinted from low steel helms.
     Then an awesome, strangling terror dragged him suddenly to his knees, and his gaze crashed to the ground.
     With a clatter, a shadow fell.
     The air stiffened. The silence beneath the rattle of armour was deafening, beneath the sure and measured steps of booted feet. It grew worse as they ceased, at the clunk of a weapon butt striking the blood-spattered ground before him.
     Foolish curiosity lifted his gaze. The same primal horror cast it right back down.
     The valkyrie's presence pressed heavily upon him as she tucked away her vast, steel-tipped wings. "Cunning," her voice was a terrible melody, "restraint, patience; you have exercised experience and demonstrated great wisdom. This has brought you victory, and with it a glorious death. Rise, Viskhugr. You are being summoned."
     The warrior's eyes tore up to her in shock. Her own were concealed beneath her visor, but her round lips were passive. "This battle is not worthy of my death," he dared. "There is no glory in this worthy of Valhalla! There is more I can yet do! Do not insult me - let me earn my place in blood and true glory, not through pity or spite!"
     Beautiful lips pulled back in a snarl, as promising of swift injury as a wolf's. "We do not open the way to Valhalla through pity or spite. If we pitied you, you would be left to struggle and die in your bed. If we felt spite, we would strip you of your weapons and set you back upon the field. You would join Hel - or worse, the ranks of haugbui or draugr. It is through our graces that you are here in this moment. You have earned this honour, your place in Valhalla, through blood and through wisdom."
     A ruffle of wings drew his eye. Twenty-one ravens had gathered, perching upon axe, shield and rock around him. Not one of them picked at the bodies with the crows. Their abyssal black eyes fixed him astutely.
     "Glory," her voice rose again, "is delivered by more than axe alone."
     But he could only shake his head. "...No." His gaze returned to her, wild and desperate. "No. Not like this."
     She didn't move. Her lips didn't curl. Instead, she waited. Another gust of blood-tinged breeze stirred the grass. Her tone was steel when she finally spoke.
     "You vowed to bring your clan to greatness. You vowed to rise, yourself, to the einherjar, to die in blood and glory. That same heart drove this battle; its path to victory was shaped by the same determination - your own planning and forward thinking. You enforced your ideas, set them into action. You have made no blind, blustering declarations; you have not led your clan heedlessly with naught but a rallying cry into the edges of axes.
     "You used your enemies' habits against them. You trusted in their flaws, used your intuition in the absense of theirs. They wouldn't presume you would emerge from the forest, themselves so fearful of its denizens, nor that you should offer tribute to these denizens and use the world around you rather than steel or fire alone.
     "Despite the unorthodox approach, your clan trusted in your leadership as they would in a father, though but three are your own blood. Because you had proven yourself before, completed your rite of passage and set others out on their own. You have overseen your people, guided by axe, and by wisdom, and by the will of the All-Father. None could doubt in your plans."
     "That is not enough," he blustered, but her lips didn't change.
     "No? You have brought harmony to five clans, turning to bloodshed only when needed. Your actions are considered. For that, your own people remain safe, fed and unchallenged, and you have won the loyalty of the rest. You fight the wondrous compulsion of battle and bloodshed when it will not bring victory, mastering your own willpower, while at all times moving forwards, trampling your enemies even in passivity. You have mastered your strength, of body and mind.
     "You retained faith in your own ideas, even while the enemy turned the tide and your warriors sought to return to the bear-headed tactics they learned in the womb. You held fast. And your clan rallied - for their trust, even in the stirrings of a slipping victory, was unbreakable. They trusted your confidence."
     "We should have failed. We only gained the upper hand because of--"
     "Wind. It shifted and dragged a sheet of smoke from the forests the vaesen permitted to be burned."
     "My plan failed. It was luck."
     "And yet many accept that luck is a foundation of life. Fate. Change. Reward. Punishment."
     "Luck is meaningless!"
     "Only because you fear that you could not alter it. No man has control over every aspect of his life. Those who believe otherwise exercise it poorly. These, who disregard fortune, fate, who take everything into their own hands, for their own gain - they are always dealt with." A smile of amusement vaguely touched her lips. "Do not look so frightened. You led your people into this glorious battle because it was necessary. And when luck favoured you, you embraced it. You chose this battle - so did your people - and they followed you away from practiced tactics, into new dangers and risks, and succeeded. You embraced its necessity, and made a wondrous thing of it, knowing that death and change would strike harder if you resisted. You did not succumb to fear. You did not succumb to the arrogance of past victories. You stayed true to yourself, and your clan stayed true to you.
     "The arrival of these heretics would break your world. Upon this, you understood, did you not, that there was more to fight for than land, wealth, food and retribution? That is what led you to this battlefield. This battle was not an effort to reach Valhalla. This was an effort to retain your people's identity. And so, my sisters and I have come. To deliver you, Viskhugr, and others, to Valhalla."
     But the warrior said nothing. Axe clutched tightly in his hands, his eyes roved over the crimson earth as though searching for options - answers, or a way out.
     The valkyrie saw this through an impenetrable visor. She hefted her battlespear, and the ring of fine steel blades sang through the stillness as her magnificent wings unfolded. "Still you reject it." Her tone was unchanging; stubborn and patient. "Do not forget your lessons of life in death. The beating of your heart is fleeting; the wisdom of ages that has shaped your identity - that is carved in stone. Your life and its trials were leading to this moment. To this judgement. Do not shun it through pride, through blind conviction of power, or because it did not fit your expectations. Were these not also lessons that you learned?"
     Slowly, his eyes lifted, darkened by shame. Her chin followed in satisfaction.
     With a graceful sweep of her outstretched wings, she rose up above him. Every gust from their powerful beats stirred red dust into the dying smoke. "Trust your soul to me. Abandon fear, and embrace your reward. You have been judged and called. This is what you have been seeking. Now you have found it. Rise."
     The sunlight dulled.
     Winged figures, eternally glinting, launched into the air from across the battlefield, whipping plumes of smoke and embers in their wake. Banners snapped in the gusts. Heat dulled the glint of shields. Crows cawed. Their mockery was lost in the roar of warsong.
     His fingers tightened about the axe hilt.
     Another plume erupted as he stood up on his feet.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock
Written for a collaborative project with Frenone.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Veysuul - Book Cover Reveal

It's cover reveal day!

     I'm so excited about this cover. I'm always excited about them, but this was ambitious, and suits the final installment of a trilogy that I've poured the vast majority of my time into over the past seven years. I've had help and guidance from the wonderful Frenone on readability, and have come out with something I'm genuinely proud of, and I hope does the trilogy justice.

     The gold and embroidery were some of my favourite things to paint, and the hands easily the worst. But I learned a lot through the project - and through writing it, too - and that in itself is always a win. I really hope you all like it!


Veysuul will be available for Kindle pre-order on July 1st
and will be released with paperback on August 1st 2021.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Hagfish

Estimated read time: 12 minutes

    The waves don't lap. There is no movement. The sea is dead. The water is haunted.

     The songs of whales and a thousand dead voices were the girl's only company beneath the waves. She was young when it happened, a wee merbairn, and the memories she carried from that hazy time didn't make very much sense. But, young as she was, she didn't try to understand their shapes, shadows or colours, and instead she grew, played and thrived as any other merbairn would have, making do with the whale calves, the shoals, the turtles and the kelp in the absence of anyone else, and wove her young magic into the currents to better their games. She was adored and cared for by every creature in the sea, and none more so than the elder whales. When they knocked and drummed their warnings, they were as much for her as for each other, and they dove as one into the depths while the long, sleek shadows cut rigidly across the waves far above.
     But as much as they loved her, she learned quickly that she was different. The calves weren't as small or as agile, they ate more than she did, and they didn't have to carry a drum to communicate. They also slept more than she did, which often left her alone in the cold, quiet dark of the sea, with voices and memories that she knew in her heart were not really her own. It was in those lonely moments that she would lift the small box that hung around her neck, open up its lid, and peer inside at the never-ending darkness with a curiosity that hurt her soul. And when the voices inside began to sing, she would bang the small drum at her side in tandem, and her own voice would lift with them, the most bleak and heartbroken of them all. Because it was then, with the music box open in the palm of her webbed hand, that those tangled memories started to take on some kind of shape.
     But the darkness never held her for long. An elder would always soon appear, drawn by the solemn call of her drum, and gently nudge her stumpy horns before luring her away to brighter waters with a playful jet of bubbles. Then, the calves would wake, and the wonderful games would distract her all over again.

     Over the years, the merbairn grew into a kind and cheerful young maiden, with fins and a tail of deep-ocean indigo, horns that rivalled the sea dragons', and a beauty that outshone the moon. She'd also become an agile hunter, a fast thinker, and her magic could spin hordes of the whales' shrimp into a feeding whirlpool.
     But a compulsion had grown with her. She still followed the whales' commands when the shadows cut through the surface, she still braided the kelp and teased the calves with her spells, she still played in the elders' jets of bubbles. But the voices in her music box had begun to speak to her in the quiet, even when the lid was closed. Not even her dreams were an escape. And when they grew too loud, she lifted the lid despite herself, and her voice rose with their keening song while her heart sank only deeper.
     And so it was that on one warm spring day, when the box was open in her hand and those shadows passed overhead, trailing their great nets and streaming their colours through the dry azure far above, all reason fled her. The whales dove, they drummed their call, but she wouldn't hear them. With a sharp flick of her tail and an understanding that lay out of her reach, she abandoned her kelp-tangled home and darted after those colossal shadows instead.
     Miles she swam, until her fins were ragged, her heart pulsed in her throat, and the voices fell strangely silent. Here, at the sudden edge of the sea, the shadows numbered in the dozens. The water, too, had changed, its life diminished, and the taste of something familiar yet forgotten laced the funnelling current.
     But it wasn't that which consumed her attention, nor the huge, impossibly smooth and straight-sided rock interrupting the waves that turned her blood cold, nor the nets of fish being dragged out of the water that stoked her horror.
     As if snared on a hook themselves, her black eyes followed the slow, downward drift of the glittering fish scales as they sank to settle among the broken corals, shattered stone, and strange, smooth, grinning rocks.
     The moment her gaze touched them, the voices erupted inside the box, and the shapes, shadows and colours crashed into place.
     Water rushed from her gills.

     A sea teeming with fish, whales, seals and gannets.
     People like herself, and people with two rigid fins, smiling and trading through the water, exchanging silks and metals and fish.
     The people like her guiding those long, sleek shadows safely around reefs, saving the homes inside them.
     Her people leaving the waters, swimming through a narrow inlet to a greater, warmer place, to return home later by tradition.
     Smiles fade when the Mer return, with more twin-finned people trading for fish. Concern among the Mer, they can't keep up with their needs.
     Nets full of fish, many shadows, no smiles between Mer and Landfolk.
     Reefs destroyed, homes lost to careless clumsy shadows.
     The Mer migrate again, reluctantly.
     They return to more growth of Landfolk.
     Scowls and mistrust, Mer in seclusion, Mer in fear. Would their world last much longer? Would it still stand after the next migration?
     Talk along the currents: perhaps, this time, they wouldn't return at all.
     They gather. They leave.
     Landfolk waiting at the straits. The Mer taken by surprise.
     Harpoons. Blood. Pain.
     The Mer's magic was too late.
     All dead, or fled. None would ever return to the Kazimiri Sea.

     But one had been left behind.

     Her body shook. Her fins tremored. Her fists and jaw clenched. Her fury threatened to boil the water around her as she stared, unblinking, at those many skulls. But the voices still shrieked. And they had grown; voices she'd never heard before chimed now through the clamour. Voices that had never spoken - or voices that had never been with her to begin with.
     And more voices from above.
     Her black, seething eyes flashed towards the surface, where shapes and shadows darted around, and she watched them, impotent, while they multiplied. A tell-tale click; instinct lurched her to the side as a harpoon cut through the water.
     A wretched roar tore just as readily from her throat, throbbing through the straits, just as another harpoon broke through, and another, and another. None hit her; she was far too fast. But she didn't wait for them to get a lucky shot. Her magic whipped the water up into a clumsy spout and scattered the gathering figures. She fled in the chaos. Fury carried her away.
     Her muscles shook as she swam, her jaw knotted, her sharp teeth were grit. Her black eyes stared ahead, blinded and stained by hatred.
     Her compulsion was satisfied; she had her answers, and she had her memories - and others'. The Mer were the Keepers of Memory. Of time, truth and understanding. Of heart and story. Of forgiveness and repair. Of grudges and vengeance.
     Her future was decided for her in that moment. And she would bide her time over years to achieve it.

     A thick mist hung over the water as the fishermen hauled in their nets, and low hearts only sank deeper at the sight of them. The catches were failing, and superstitions were already being muttered on the wind: old tales, old mistakes, and old fortunes being repaid. Not everyone believed it; 'a turn in the currents', or 'a shift in the wind.' "All will be well next season."
     But it was not these who suffered the correction. Nor was it the superstitious who suffered their imagination. The strike was as real and indiscriminate as the waves.
     Every soul on board heard the knock and drum of gray whales while the sea fell eerily still. Every eye watched the fog dissipate and a fine rain fall upwards. Every hand gripped the rails while they watched the kelp twist and spin far below, as if in the grip of a rising maelstrom.
     And every heart froze at the black eyes set in a beautifully fearsome face staring back at them from the centre, while the crying song of a charnel choir spiked and trembled the water.
     Fear crashed over them like a wave. Orders were barked, the harpoons were manned, the sails unfurled, and every free hand was put to the oars. But not one soul survived the crushing descent of the boat. And no stories or warnings returned for the rest.
     When the ship failed to return, the superstitions grew; tales of kraken, of whale gods, of serpents and drowned spirits circulated while more ships set out, only to vanish to those unnatural clutches. It took time before they learned and finally sailed out in groups of three. The carnage didn't stop, but at least now there were witnesses, all baring matching stories of whale song summoning a multi-headed guardian, at whose hands the sea came to life, and from whose many mouths sang a saline lullaby of death.
     Hungrier than they were fearful, the people gathered, they organised, and they set out in search of the drumming of whales to lay their cunning traps.

     The mermaid found and destroyed the clumsy traps with ease, tripping them without a catch and freeing whatever wasn't so lucky, right beneath the ships' very hulls. With water itself as her cloak, she was as good as invisible; it perfectly hid the long, flowing drape of her midnight-blue tail and mane, the moonlight shine of her skin, and the strong, black, curling horns that crowned her regal head. And when she let herself be seen, with the music box about her neck, drum on her hip, corset of bones and string of jaws along her waist, the open mouths of her own crying people, she was a vision of terror.
     But that vision wasn't enough. She continued to hunt the Landfolk, she continued to follow in their shadows as they moved, blind in their own arrogance. And the sea became violent. Before long, death tainted the water. For every ship she destroyed, more creatures were killed in response - anything that could have been her. As she hunted through the reefs, she found squid and octopus dismembered and discarded. Tracking through open water, she found jellyfish harpooned or tangled. Recovering in the shallows, she found sharks and dolphins gutted. And in the sanctuary of the kelp-tangled waters she'd grown up in, while her people lay dead leagues away, she found the whales who had adopted her floating belly-up, mouths agape, and the currents deathly silent.
     The sound of blood rushing furiously through her veins granted only a thin trickle of mercy, and rage rose fast enough to obliterate paralysis.
     The water thickened around her, it tremored and boiled, then compressed and twisted in her wake as she spun from the massacre and sped like a wretched harpoon through the water, while a cataclysmic bellow tore from her fair mouth, and every voice of memory in her care roared along with her.

     The people gathered in silence along the coast, staring out to the horizon. The screaming - they'd each heard it, or heard of it, but never within range of the shore. Looks were exchanged, between fishermen and wives, apprentices and merchants. Then came the drumming. The knock and bellow of whales. But they'd killed all the whales, just like their fathers had killed all the Mer. It couldn't be...
     The docks burst to life, and panic spread to the town. All scrambled for nets, leapt onto ships and loaded the harpoons, reached for their spears. Then a call rose up: "a swell in the water!" and all wide eyes tore back out to sea.
     The bulge was surging towards them. The ships rocked with the draw of the water, and the shore shrank away from the coast. Harpoons were turned and aimed; knuckles over spears turned white. Lumps formed in throats. They readied themselves, even as they watched the wave rise higher than the highest mast, and stop against its own momentum.
     They stared aghast into that waiting wall of water, watching mindlessly while kelp like a hundred tentacles shook and knotted inside it, enchanted by fear as the giant, fish-tailed woman of black and white, surrounded by bones and a tempest of dark hair, howled and bellowed with every spirit lost to the sea, each crying out in their own pain and blame.
     And they wept as the edge of their senses returned, and the hagfish smiled a sharp-toothed grin, one twisted by rage, heartache and madness.
     The people could do nothing but stare and sob as she spread her arms and crashed the sea upon them.

     The waves don't lap. There is no movement. The sea is dead. The water is haunted, by distant rain over open water, the knocks of gray whales, and the songs of a thousand dead voices. 

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Monday, 19 April 2021

Drown In Sorrow

 This short story is a collaboration piece with MischiArt

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes


      Long, withered fingers closed slowly around the decrepit battle standard. With a deathly tug, it was dragged it down into the bog. The surface barely rippled as it vanished.

     There, down below, in the deep murk of the dead, stagnant water, six inhuman pupils contracted over the stained and ragged banner. The fabric shifted lifelessly in her blighted grip, and those fingers traced the broad, branching tree emblem stitched in rotten thread with unearthly care.
     Then, her touch hesitated.
     Rain pattered steadily over the water surface above. M'lok sank deeper.
     Her chest felt heavy as she stared at the decaying weave. Something was moving beneath her ribs, through fluid, through algae, through reanimated bone - something that shouldn't have touched her in the safety of her waters, yet seized her all the tighter for it: her muscles stiffened, a pit yawned open in her gut, and a chill ran over her torn and withered skin. And above it all, bleak shadows formed and flickered in her mind, dredged up from somewhere long since drowned and severed. And she found she had no power to stop it.
     M'lok clutched the banner tight enough to tear it, while her triple-irised eyes burned into that emblem with strength enough to set it alight. Something intense screamed inside her, commanding her to shred it, to throw it away, to spare herself the noxious confusion that choked her heart. But her fingers wouldn't open.
     The colours, the shapes...every lost banner, every shred of humanity discarded at the edge of her bog had power. Power enough to boil her blood, tighten her jaw and grit her teeth. To make her lip tremble and her body curl up like shrivelled moss. And, once in a while, to make her feel so small, aching and desperate that she wished she could vanish entirely for lack of any clue of how to make it stop. Never once had she understood why. And never once had those shapes given her the strength to find out.
     Again, she willed her fingers to open and discard the banner. And again, they ignored her.
     In a ragged heartbeat, she wrapped it around herself with the others instead.
     The longing passed rapidly, and anger oozed into its place. She welcomed it. It was easier to handle.
     She cast a festering look around herself, and watched the bog seethe with her; snakes and larvae wriggled through the mire and brushed over her skin, the rain above swelled the waters and spread her reach, and she could see the grey tail of a great crocodile on the nearest bank: Gortythe sitting ever-watchful in the drizzle. She could feel every tendril of life, just as they could feel hers. The turtles, the frogs, the eels; the leeches, the nymphs, the mosquitoes; the flytraps, the fungi, the moss...everything was connected, and she connected to it.
     And so the nervous footsteps of the trespasser in the eastern reaches shuddered its way through all life in the bog in seconds to tremble in her waters.
     A smile skittered across her face, and that brief desperation sparked once again into something irrational and blistering. She wouldn't wait. This time, she would hunt.
     The water clung to her as she rose, slowly sliding over her skin as she broke the surface without a sound. The earth shifted just as silently beneath her feet, moving with her stride. And the white, ghostly fungal mass of drooping lion's mane clinging to a misshapen log in the centre of the water pointed a long, crooked arm to the east.
     Gortythe turned and ambled forwards, and M'lok's tongueless snarl gripped her once-beautiful face.
     They would regret ignoring the old warnings.
     They would drown in her sorrows.

     Mischi makes wonderful illustrations, and is creating equally wonderful and immensely evocative colouring books, Contested Canvas, featuring battle maidens fighting one another for their place among the Battleborne. There are two available - Recruitment, and Adversaries - with a third, Battle Aria, on the way. Follow her on twitter and on Patreon, and find her colouring books and individual colouring page downloads on Etsy!
Character and concept by MischiArt, words by Kim Wedlock.
No part of this may be reproduced without both of our written permission.
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock  

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Locks and Boxes

Estimated read time: 11 minutes
     "You know what She'll do if She catches--"
     "She won't catch us, Arta." Medea muttered a curse and steadied herself against a bookshelf as the library tilted to one side. She glanced out through the window on reflex, but it was impossible to get any bearings. The shifting, purple-wisped world outside could've been flowing in either direction, if anything was even moving at all.
     She sighed and turned back to the arcane library while Arta anxiously wrung her hands behind her. The room was poorly-lit, which, Medea noted with a purse to her lips, made no sense at all, and what little light there was was caught and scattered by a thousand jangling keys swinging across the wall beside her. They offered nothing at all but confusion - and the smell didn't help. It was the sweet, subtle, tantalising smell of a promise she didn't want fulfilled; belladonna, monkshood, hemlock, mandrake, and other plants so poisonous they could probably kill in a glance, all hung dried across a rail or sat in pots, growing bitterly in the dark.
     She swallowed slowly while her fingers traced absently down her throat.
     With a moment of effort, she shook it off, strode decisively towards the far wall, the coarse disciple's robe shifting about her legs, and began rummaging through the shelves, drawers and clutter. The owner would probably have said there was a method in the madness, but she couldn't see it for the life of her.
     A small, nervous noise behind snatched her attention briefly over her shoulder. "You don't need to be here, Arta."
     "It's a bit late for that now," she said tightly, pulling her wide eyes onto her from the door. "Just exactly what is it you're looking for? You know what She'll do--"
     "She won't catch us," Medea repeated, turning back to her frenzied search. "And I'm looking for a key."
     "...Have you looked behind you?"
     She shook her tanned head as she caught a toppling candlestick and stood it haphazardly back on the desk. "It's none of those. It's in a box."
     "A box?"
     "Yes, a box." She ignored the empty candlestick as it fell again. "Small, about the size of a book, red, with the thing etched onto it, that thing, the round thing--"
     "The strophalos?!" Arta hissed; Medea winced. "What are you--"
     "Shh! Stop panicking! Either leave or help me look!" She didn't glance back to watch Arta's indecision. She continued shoving, lifting and tossing things aside while the younger disciple hesitated behind her, until she heard her tut, mutter, then move up alongside to rummage through the neighbouring cabinet.
     For the thousand keys adorning that back wall, Medea knew hers wasn't among them. Not one of those was a key of consequence - nor indeed were any of them the Key of Consequence. But that one was a prize for another time.
     Whatever the case, nothing so important would be left so easily accessible, if such a term could be used in this strange, ever-moving place; they'd all be locked away themselves, behind even more complex systems. But she had a means of breaking through this one. She'd researched it. She'd experimented. And, if all else failed, she had allies. She just needed the box.
     ''Just need the box'. As if it's that easy... Ugh. One step at a time, lass. One step at a time.'
     She hadn't thought this through as well as she'd have liked, and she was big enough to admit that; just what she'd do once she'd gotten into Tartarus and found what she was after, she still wasn't sure. But she would work it out. She had to. Because, for all the necessity driving her - and never mind what the others might say - even she wasn't unaware of the danger.
     The thought of what the goddess of boundaries, ghosts and witchcraft really would do if She caught her sent a shiver over her skin and a numb dread through her muscles.
     She steeled herself and moved along to another cabinet. But she couldn't help sending the nervous, rummaging girl beside her a brief glance. She really shouldn't have stayed. In fact, she should probably make her leave...
     But: four eyes were better than two.
     Medea shrugged it off, then a lurch in her stomach told her the library had sped up along the ethereal tracks.
     "It's not like you to get travel-sick," Arta said as Medea heaved.
     She waved her away while she fought to settle herself, and steadied against the wood with another weary curse as the library tilted again. "I wish She'd stop this bloody thing once in a while," she muttered.
     "What was that?"
     "Nothing at all." Medea dug her way through boxes and trinkets into the dark of the unnaturally deep cabinet, where the smell of  musk tickled her nose and sent a spinning jolt through precisely one third of her head. She recoiled immediately, then squealed in disorientated fright as a polecat leapt out from the black. She narrowed her eyes at it as it bounced and squeaked its little war dance around her knees, until she batted the angry little menace aside. It soon scurried away to find somewhere else to sleep - and undoubtedly somewhere else she'd end up disturbing it.
     "That was unlike Gale," Arta frowned. "She usually loves you."
     "She must be coming into heat," Medea grunted through the curl of her lip, then returned her attention to the search. Between the two of them, they'd be done all the sooner.
     For a library, there was an awful lot of junk. Tomes lined the walls, certainly - and, in some cases, constructed the cabinets themselves - and inkstained leaves were scattered over most surfaces. But beyond the books, the keys and the plants were seashells of glistening turquoise and deepest black, skrimshaw bones, and shards of black glass that looked remarkably like fragments of brain. There were skeins of hair, dried animal feet, small vials of life fluids; there were golden things, platinum things and one or two tools made from whole pieces of opal. And there were other, stranger things she couldn't place the use of: rods, rings, wires, tongs and calipers, some imbued with so much power that they physically hummed when her hand passed near. And, of course, there were boxes: green ones, black ones, oak; some bare of carvings and others absolutely overrun with them.
     But not one of them was red, and not one bore the strophalos.
     With every failing moment, Medea's patience thinned. She barely managed to bite back the foetid curse when the library lurched again and cast her forehead into the edge of the concealed cupboard she'd moved on to. Books rained down on her head.
     "We're slowing down..." Arta turned wide eyes onto her. "Medea--"
     "I know; keep looking." She grit her teeth and ignored the throb in her skull, but despite the panic clawing its way up her own back, she didn't slow down. Even when the latent magic of the place tugged and shifted around her, and the mind-bending, lung-bursting traps she'd thought she'd muffled her presence against began at last to react.
     She managed to keep her heart behind her ribs and warded against them as subtly as she could. A brief glance towards Arta revealed she hadn't noticed. She was still searching shoulder-deep in a bejewelled chest with an expression torn between terror and determination.
     Medea didn't let herself breathe her relief. And, as it turned out, she'd have had no chance to finish even if she'd started.
     A presence spun her towards the door at the back, the movement startling a squeak out of Arta, just as the handle turned and a dog-headed figure burst in. His eyes were wild, jowls lifted, bone-crushing teeth bared and two savage-looking daggers in his hands. But he didn't attack, and Medea didn't move.
     "Disciples," he rumbled as ferocity passed to surprise in his eyes. "What are you doing in here?"
     Medea spun quickly back to the library and resumed her rummaging. "There was a thief," she replied hurriedly. "Overrode the traps, somehow, and vanished through the wall." She turned a brief look over her shoulder. "Go! Catch them! Quickly! Or it'll be all of our heads! Or worse!"
     He'd already started through for the wall she'd nodded towards. "What did they take?!"
     "I don't know! But it's best we get it back before She finds out! Go, we'll tidy up in here - hopefully She won't notice..."
     The dog-headed guardian ran, shimmered, and passed through the wall and on into the next wandering room.
     "What are you doing?!" Arta hissed from close beside her.
     "If you want to call him back and tell him the truth, be my guest." She cast her a look as the girl bit her lip, then shortly disregarded her. But the moment she reached to move aside the inexplicable stone-cut ladel, a charge and flash of light leapt from it and hit her hand away. And while she cursed and attempted to disarm this next trap, the sand and shale amphora beside it picked itself up and shifted away. She blinked at it. Then watched the smoking blackwood bell beside it equally skitter out of her reach.
     In that moment, the entire cabinet seemed to come to life.
     The bitter curse broke through her lips this time, and she watched in a panic as the contents scrambled blindly over one another and the dreadful thought coalesced like a thundercloud in her mind: what if she'd already come past it, and it had already run away from her?
     She cursed again, draining the blood from Arta's face with her imagination. Then, as if she'd spoken some obscure magic word, she spotted it: the book-sized, red, wooden box with the labyrinthine strophalos engraved on the lid, running mindlessly into the corner over and over and over again.
     She wasted no moment to think on her luck; she snatched for it and all but glued her fingers to the grain with her grip. Just as the magic around them changed again.
     This time, for one long, chilling moment, she had no control at all over her response. Terror gripped her tightly and wiped her mind clean. It was chance alone that she noticed the change in her skin: all colour and plump of life vanished, leaving her arm thin, grey and familiar.
     The spell was wearing off.
     She quickly tugged her sleeve down and pulled the box from the cabinet, wrapping it up in her robes. But when she turned towards Arta to tell her to flee, she found the girl staring at her in confusion instead.
     "Medea, your skin, your eyes, you're--"
     She watched Arta's expression slacken slowly in understanding, her gaze drop from her own pure-white eyes to her grey, almost inhuman face, then to the bony arms that shielded the box and prepared, if they had to, to weave another spell.
     "You're not Medea..."
     She had no chance to reply. The library screeched and tilted over the rails as it sped up through the realm again, and the baying of nearby hounds froze the both of them in place. Then, slowly, a red cast bled its way into the room.
     "No..." Arta trembled where she stood. "No, no, no..."
     Hekate was coming.
     The unmasked realm-walker cursed again and forced life back into her body. She had no choice. Arta shouldn't have been there. She should've made an excuse, sent the girl away. But she hadn't. Because she'd grown fond of her over the last week. And for that, the girl would pay. And it was her fault.
     No. She had no choice at all.
     The door flew open with a breath-snatching burst of wind. Thunder cracked, lightning flashed, leaves swirled in and every sentient item fell from its shelf and crawled forwards as if called by its master.
     The realm-walker clenched her small teeth, snatched Arta's wrist, and the pair vanished with the box before Hekate could step inside through the storm of fury incarnate.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock