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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

Thursday 4 March 2021

Ardeyn's Shine

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
     Ardeyn cocked his head while a frown flickered over his brow.
     The tiny light glowed back at him.
     A curious hum lilted in his throat. Carefully, he raised the sheet of bark to eye-level, watching the silver speck hover and pulse just above the map like a firefly, and ever so slowly crept his hand in above it. But it didn't shrink away. He teased his fingers through it as it flickered, and his teal eyes narrowed with the purse of his lips.
     He tipped the map sharply. It still didn't move. Then he shook it, but aside from loosening a few flakes of lichen, nothing else happened. The light hung devotedly over the bark, just above the long, winding etching of the river.
     A curious smile wandered over Ardeyn's face.
     With a satisfied twitch of his ears, the faun rose to his hooves, held the map open in front of him, and meandered off through the black of the night's trees, soft earth squelching beneath his steps and the damp, green, pattering smell of the forest tickling his nose. He wove among the dense tangle of trunks, past the foxfire and fireflies, beneath the ancient arcing roots, between the moss-covered rocks and through the draping curtains of ivy and tanglers, until the forest suddenly broke open and the thick air eased. Only feet from the edge did the sound of trundling water lace through the night.
     But he didn't sigh and throw himself down on the soft, grassy banks like he usually would. Instead, he crept closer to the edge of the black, tranquil water, his doe eyes widening at the spot that was simply impossible to miss: a single silver glow hanging below the jet-black surface, right where the light said it would be.
     His long, red braid trailed through the lazy current as he knelt over the edge, his orcein-painted reflection peering back at him, and he watched it glimmer and shine. Slowly, his fingers slipped through the water, but this light didn't flee, either. Then, they closed around it.
     His heart sang with the sudden pulse, hum and flicker of its warmth, and he pulled it out and cradled it against his chest.
     "What a marvellous thing," he murmured, "but you are not mine to keep. You wanted rescuing, and I have rescued you." He turned, then, and carried it a safe ways back from the bank, where he scooped a hole in the soil and planted it. "Be one with the earth again."
     Then he wandered off with a smile on his face, following the smell of rain.

     The glow Ardeyn buried soon sprouted, and when he wandered by again, following the trail of a sparrow, he found the thin, wispy reed towering twice his height, with drops of pure silver glinting from the tips of its sparse leaves. And when his curious hand reached out towards them, they dropped willingly into his palm.
     His wide eyes drifted back to the river, ears twitching, eyebrows shifting crooked, and he hummed a question to himself. Slowly, he wandered to the edge and dropped one of the silvers in. It broke the surface with the faintest plop, sank to the bed, and glowed all the brighter. And when the others in his hand tinkled with delight, he smiled and scattered them out in a wide arc to join it. The water shone with the tiny lights, glittering like diamonds in the flow, and Ardeyn breathed a marvelling little sigh.
     He stepped back to the plant before he moved along, and peered down at its tapered leaves. There were already more drops glinting at their stem.
     "What a marvellous thing..." And he trotted off after the sparrow.

     Ardeyn returned to the river many times as he matured, and the reed sprawled and branched in tandem. Every few months, he collected and scattered the drops along the water, and the night soon shone with flecks of silver. It wasn't long before others came to notice its brilliance, and they charmed Ecine's eye in particular, a woman so beautiful that Ardeyn felt his heart flutter high enough to escape with the butterflies every time he saw her.
     But for all his desperation, he couldn't find the words to speak to her.
     So he embraced another method instead.
     He visited the stem and gathered its drops more often after that. But rather than scatter them as freely as he used to, for the waters were already perfectly speckled, he arranged them into pictures beneath the surface; tales and stories written in light to capture her heart. And they worked a wonder.
     The dimensions of his art grew with the passing of the seasons, and glowed brighter with the depth of their love. And the day she agreed to join with him, he ran joyously along the riverbank, trailing them in a great, long, dusty streak beside him. The sun shone even brighter on his life.
     But the clouds soon rolled in.
     Ecine fell ill some years later, and he consumed himself with finding a cure. He asked the birds, the foxes, the trees, the rocks, but nothing worked. And when she passed into peace, the stories and images Ardeyn had so meticulously created for her crumbled to a halt. He became listless, wandering his sylvan charge blindly instead, and the forests, the rivers, the stones and the sky wept as he mourned in a cloud.
     But the power with which he tried to forget, to shield his heart and wall his mind, seeped into the world around him. And it rose with the summer heat.
     The sky and the river conspired; one night, the lights in the water shone back from the black expanse above, illuminating the world with his love for her. And when Ardeyn looked up into that mirror from his lonely riverbank, he smiled for the first time in a year. A single tear fell and stirred the twinkling waters.
     The lights have shone every night ever since.

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

Saturday 6 February 2021

An Oath Unbroken

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
     With every step, the moonlight shrinks away behind me, and the dark of the tunnel closes in. It's a different dark from the night, a different dark from an unlit home; there's nothing familiar or reasonable about it, and the only thing that shatters its smothering grip is the echo of my own footsteps clattering across the walls, ricocheting from one side to the other and crashing back upon me like a shadow-born beast. But despite the race of my heart, I keep going. I have a question that needs to be answered.
     The musty air thickens the deeper into the crypt I go. The wind hasn't touched it in decades. Only one evening, the same evening every year for the past fifty, does anything stir the dust that drifts here like rain in the afterlife.
      Suddenly, I swear my own footsteps are chasing me.
     Now the tunnel descends, stone steps with edges so crisp they could've been cut just yesterday. But it's been a century, at least. A century...and yet I can hear something in the distance...
      Only one evening, the same evening every year...
     A meagre glow breaks the darkness up ahead, a smudge of green in the black. And I can smell something burning on the air.
     My footsteps slow; the noise ahead grows louder. I can hear it now, a dull thrumming, rough-throated voices, and a soft, rhythmic banging...
     My heart is in my throat, and I stop just shy of the end of the tunnel. The crypt opens out beyond, and the flickering light, shining across ancient glass, casts a green hue through the chamber. Green; a symbol of nature, yet it seems more sickly here. Almost putrid.
     Then a shadow moves.
     My breath catches, and I shrink back into the dark. Suddenly, I come to my senses. I shouldn't be here. I don't want to know the truth of these old tales. I don't want to know if the dead truly rise here at the call of ancient arts. What good will it ever do me to know?
     But even as the lump rises higher in my throat, my hands shake and the itch at the back of my mind tells me to turn and flee from this wretched place, the tremor in my knees keeps me in place. And sheer lunacy compels me to take another step.
     But that one step was too much. The leak of the acrid smoke beyond burns my eyes and lungs. Yet two figures kneel before the small white flames at the centre of the chamber, shrouded in cloaks, tainted by the stain of the glass, hidden as spectres in the light's poor reach, towered over by the four stone statues of Fate Weavers.
     But these two figures live. As does the third, standing on the far side of the crypt, just as shadowed and facing my way.
     I panic and shrink back again, but none of them make any motion towards me. As poor as the light is, it's still enough to blind them, and they're too focused on their guttural chants and deep-bellied murmurings to notice my stifled choking.
     Two others stand to one side, their wrinkles obvious even in the weak glow, plain-clothed and anxious as they look on. But these, the three know are present. And they seem to be welcome. Somehow, that only tightens my nerves even more.
     The two kneeling figures rise and throw something else into the flames. They sputter and flare for a moment, belching another hot, acrid haze into the ancient space. I find myself in another battle to keep from choking.
     It's only in my struggle that I finally spot the source of the constant, rhythmic banging: a staff or something in one of the cowled's hands. It's too difficult to make out, but its vibrations are shaking through the chamber with power. Unnatural power.
     Just as my eyes begin to work it out, the rough words grow louder; words I can't catch, or spoken in a tongue too foreign, bleak and charnel to follow. I find myself torn between straining to decipher them and trying desperately to render myself deaf. Neither effort works.
     And now my heart is hammering in time with the staff. Dust falls with its pulse, trails of crumbling stone trickling with every bassy hum. Then the rhythm changes. What was steady has become a heated, rapid clatter - bang, bang-bang-bang. Bang, bang-bang-bang. Bang-bang. Bang-bang. Bang, bang-bang-bang.
     I can feel it taking over my blood. I want to flee, I desperately want to flee!
     And yet, damn it all, I remain, my breath catching in my throat, if I'd even been breathing at all, and I will myself to become part of the tunnel's shadows instead.
     The air all around has changed, expanded, almost, as though a door somewhere has been opened, and yet it's become denser at the same time, as if another crypt is occupying exactly the same space and time...
     Then, from nowhere, I can hear something else - almost. A sound I feel inside my skull, on the back of my neck, rather than truly hear; something greater than the three voices, greater than the frantic clattering of the staff. Something dragged from the darkness of the Underworld itself.
     But the chanters, and the two by-standers, don't seem to feel it.
     Another sheaf of something is thrown onto the flames, and the smoke thickens. It's moving into coils now, drifting around the chanters with more consciousness than smoke ever should, as if searching for something, or being led. Influenced, whatever the case...
     And the sound is getting louder; rapidly sharpening from a tremor inside my skull to a howling against my ears, still distant yet surging closer, louder, deafening. My hands clamp over my ears, fingernails dig into my skin, and I grit my teeth hard enough to crack my jaw. But it penetrates every effort.
     My heart races. My bones shudder. The chanting rises in pitch and fervour, the smoke thickens and gathers, the staff thunders. The coils tighten.
     A hand reaches out from the murk.
     Then another, clawing desperately out towards the first.
     I feel my blood freeze solid in my veins as two arms emerge, and two hazy bodies follow.
     Then, silence. A dull, deafening, boiling silence. The staff stills. The voices cease. The smoke curls, spins and scatters.
     The three chanters step back, the two observers smile, and as the two lovelorn spirits embrace, all living turn with neither look nor word to the others and make straight towards the stairs. None of them seem to notice me as they walk by. And as I watch the spirits of Monsieur and Madame Alleaume begin a slow waltz, I'm too stunned to follow.

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