Once Upon A Never: A Playground Tale

This playground never existed, but it might have. Introducing: Ashara, Lady of Mysteries. Sort of.

"Heave-to, lads, we're almost to the Lost City of Gold!"

There comes a tiny grunt, like a child straining under a weight. "Corwinne, this weighs a ton and you keep squirming! Quit moving around so much!"

"Jaspar, stop being so grouchy. It's not like it's just you down there."

"Yeah, but Darkleaf keeps kicking me in the shins and then sticking his tongue--OW, he did it again!"

"Did not," comes the retort. "And anyway, I'm always happy to help carry a Sky Captainess' airship around."

"There's no such thing as a 'Captainess'. And anyway, it's just a wooden crate--OW!"

"Less complaining, ye scurvy dogs, or you'll feel my lash again!"

"Corwinne, if you hit me with your belt one more time, I'm totally going to drop you."

"Aww, is widdle-baby Jaspar gonna cry? Is he--OW, hey!"

"No more of that talk, Mister Darkleaf, or ye'll walk the plank to yer doom!"

Whispers: "Can we dump her?" "Yer goddamn straight we can dump her. She used the end with the buckle!" "Well, you were being mean." "Not to her, jeez!" "Yeah, you're always really nice to her. You know she doesn't like you, right?" "Does too!" "Does not!"

"I think you should dump her." The voice is somehow older than its body, feminine. "Come on, Jaspar, I want to play princess."

"Uh, hey, Ashara. Um, I'm kind of..."

A shrill screech from above. "Ahoy! It's the vile kraken, lifting its hideous tentacles from the deeps and trying to steal away my crew! Row faster, lads!"

"Ugh. Corwinne, you're such a sky cadet."

"Oh yeah? And what's 'playing princess'?"

"Jaspar likes it when I play princess."

"Does not!"

"Ugh. I'm leaving. Jaspar, are you coming?"

"I, uh..."

"I'll stay and play Sky Captains with you, Corwinne. OW, what the hell?!? Seriously, what is with the buckle?!?"

"I hate you, Ashara!" A crash as an airship becomes a wooden crate on the ground, and the sound of small feet running away.

"My, my, I didn't think she'd tear off sobbing like that. Now I feel just terrible."

"You don't look like you feel terrible."

"Jaspar, I swear, you are such a grouch! Are you going to be my prince or not? Well?"

"It's not that I don't want to, it's just that--ah, dang it, Ashara, wait up!"

"Nice going, grouchy."

"Shut up, Darkleaf. You suck."

"Maybe, but Ashara still needs a prince. See you around, loser."

Flarph Against the Zombies

When your name was Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third, you did not expect to be eaten to death by zombies. Well, Flarph supposed, probably no one expects to be eaten to death by zombies, at least, not until several moments before it occurs.  But I will definitely be the first Hacklebee to hold that distinction.

He was unenthusiastic about the possibility, which was why he was now holding an empty drawer, knee-deep in Maid Felicity's lacy underthings.  Which, as it turned out, proved to be quite distracting.

He envisioned Felicity returning at just that moment, and an awkward conversation played out in his head.

"What on--?"

"No, I can explain!  Please don't, er, do... whatever it is that device does... to me?"  The last came out as a kind of question, more for the oddity of the thing that the imaginary Felicity was holding in her hand.  He held the drawer like a shield before him.

"This," imaginary Felicity explained impatiently, "is a hair curler.  It was the first thing that was at hand when I discovered someone was in my house.  Which you are, standing amidst my underwear, while zombies are trying to break in."  That last came out as a statement that implied a question, with a certain sort of dangerousness to it that suggested that, depending on his answer, he might discover heretofore unimagined uses for said imagined hair curler.

"Yes, well, you see," he shuffled, dislodging something that contained a large amount of black lace except that it didn't contain large amounts of much of anything, "I got back to my house in time to put out my ancestor candle which then tried to attack me and I wound up hacking it to bits with a fireplace poker and felt very good about myself until Vincenzo Caiaplante burst in the door missing half his face and groaning and then he tried to attack me and the fireplace poker didn't do much good and so I ran out the back and fell down the embankment and was sure I was going to die but landed on one of the Bancourt's cheese wagons and--"

"Which explains why you smell like Gorgonzola," imaginary Felicity smiled with bared teeth, holding the hair curler in what looked like a fencer's grip.  "Now.  Skip.  A.  Bit."

"Your house is the last one in the village!  I was covered in cheese and had nothing to keep me warm and figured I could hide here for a while and get my bearings!  We have to get out of here," he added breathlessly.  "I think those shades that tried to attack you turn people into zombies when they kill them.  Most of the village... maybe all of them..."

She softened.  "Mister Hacklebee," she said, "you have to escape.  I am a figment of your imagination.  I am really on a steam-powered airship, flying far away from here and forgetting all about my unfortunate life here.  Though I would be very sad about the village, if I knew about it."

Flarph sighed, and the image faded from his mind's eye before he could finish explaining why he had been rifling through her underwear drawer.  "Rifling" was the wrong word, anyway.  "Frantically dumping on the floor" might have better characterized the activity, though Flarph did have to admit that he'd been taken aback for a few moments by the myriad straps and strange buckles and tiny things held together by string.  He hadn't encountered such wonders firsthand before, and wished that he had a bit more time to make a study of them before he died.

Maid Felicity certainly had a diverse collection of bedroom attire, though he had never heard of her needing the opportunity to use them with any man in the village.  Perhaps her imagination was as inventive as his own?  Where had she gotten all of these, anyway?  And why --

-- fingers, tracing their way along the shoulder strap, tickling a little as they went.  The blonde woman giggles, and nibbles at his neck while he plants a finger one one side of the bra and uses his others to unclasp it and pop it off with a deft motion --

Flarph shook his head, alternately hot and then cold.  He looked around: the room was still empty: no blonde woman, no lover, though at least no zombies.  That hadn't felt like his imaginary Felicity, and he had never met the blonde woman he'd just seen so clearly.  He had smelled her, all sweat and perfume and pheromones.  That hadn't been his imagination, because he was sure he couldn't imagine what a woman in the throes of passion smelled like, nor would he have even thought to do so.  That had been like... a memory.  His fingers mimicked the movement unconsciously, and a scent lingered in his nostrils...

One that would get him killed if he pondered it for much longer.  He could hear groans from the street now: low, aimless moans that communicated only an empty hunger.  He gulped, and peeked out the window of Felicity's upstairs bedroom, hoping for a good view of the street below.

One of the shades was flying by, hunting.  Who it had been, Flarph couldn't guess.  Its whole body was engulfed in flames, the flesh blackened and unrecognizable.  When it saw the flicker of movement, its whole body turned, bit by bit: first the head, then the shouders and torso, and then the legs, as if it were made up of parts that all moved independently of one another.  Then it flew at him.

Flarph flung himself aside, landing on the bed and bouncing straight off of it onto the other side.  The shade came through the window with a crash, scattering shards of glass everywhere and bringing with it the reek of sulfur and death.  Its pounce brought it straight into the pile of Felicity's underwear, and it seemed to slip on something, getting tangled in the mess of straps.  It thrashed and screamed, and Flarph scrambled on all fours past it through the door and into the hall.  He pushed himself to his feet and half-ran, half-plummeted down the stairs at the end of the hall, into Felicity's living room.

The contraption the he'd been assembling there was not much to look at.  It amounted to a wicker yard chair bound with dozens of yards of twine to a patchwork canopy of burlap sacks and floral-stitched dresses sewn together with the same twine.  It wasn't exactly Tailor Soukin-quality work, but Flarph had been working feverishly, and had to use a crochet needle in any case.  He'd run out of dresses about two-thirds of the way through, and had been in Felicity's bedroom searching for something else he could use to make his getaway.

Floating underneath the canopy were balloons, dozens of them.  Each was filled with a green gas that sparkled and pulsated, which had made Flarph nervous at first.  It didn't help that they seemed to pull towards him; he'd only had to reach up with a hand and one drifted through the air of its own accord and pressed itself into his hand.  Rounding them up had been child's play; hacking together a balloon chair to make his escape had taken maybe ten minutes.  Some of the balloons had a greasy, green residue on the outside of them, and it had tingled when it had touched his fingers.

He'd heard Felicity mention something about "thaumiol", back in the village square, before the strangers had come.  He knew that thaumiol was magical fuel, but not much else.

As he careened down the stairs, one of the balloons slipped out from under the unfinished canopy, and flew at him.  He staggered into it, and with a nosy BANG! it popped, coating him with the stuff of magic.

It tasted like cinnamon.

-- the man wore robes of woven gold, smooth as silk against his skin.  With a wizened hand, he added a handful of powder to the flame beneath the glass bauble of the precious green liquid.  The flames flared, and soon the contents of the glass were beginning to emit a green haze.  Carefully, the wizard reached out a candle over the sparkling smoke...

The resulting explosion destroyed the majority of his laboratory and several priceless volumes of magical theory from the Third Interregnum.  His robes were untouched, but several hairs on his beard were badly singed.  The explosion had penetrated even his mystic shields.  Most interesting...

Flarph pulled himself back, more consciously this time than before.  The vision of the woman had ended abruptly, leaving him dizzy and confused.  This time, he was able to end it, pull away from the scene playing out in his memory of a thing that he had never witnessed.  He could still smell the singeing of his beard -- no, the wizard's beard -- and his mind felt flooded with strange knowledge.  Much of it was slipping away already, spells and incantations and the names of demons, but one thing remained.

Fire.

And there was a flaming shade, just upstairs, that any second would be coming for him.  Unless Flarph got him first.

He reached out his hand, pulled another balloon out from under the canopy.  With a whisper whose meaning faded from his mind even as he was uttering it, he released it, and the thaumiol-filled balloon flew with a purpose up the stairs, moving as if a gentle breeze blew behind it.

The front door crashed in.  Vincenzo and half a dozen other undead villagers fell through it in a heap, moaning and eyeing him with hunger.  Flarph jumped into his wicker chair and tugging loose the knot that had held it to the ground.  The chair jerked up toward the ceiling, which wasn't very high.  A few of the thaumiol balloons slipped out from under the unfinished canopy, and Flarph made a grab for the burlap edge, but couldn't reach it without pitching from his chair.  Vincenzo was getting up, staggering towards him.

This was going to be close.  Either he was going to die very quickly, or...

With a deafening roar, the shade met the balloon.  The explosion tore the roof off of the house and sent timbers from above crashing down onto Flarph's balloons.

"No!" he cried out, as he watched his escape torn away.  Jagged wood beams crunched downward, tearing through his canopy and bursting the balloons left and right.  Flarph saw Vincenzo and the others pinned under debris from the collapse of the second story, and barely had time to register that the thaumiol gas from the balloons was pouring into him, being drunk in by his skin like a sponge soaks up water.  He felt swollen with it, but had no time to appreciate the feeling as another timber came straight for him...

... and he woke up, somewhere else.

  Flarph will return.  "Flarph and the Marvelous Mnemonic Mystery Machine", coming soon!

Moon's Children

Moon was very sad, because she had no children of her own. Earth had the dwarves, stocky, solid, all mirth and curiosity.  And Tree had elfkind, wispy and full of dream.  Sun had humanity, who were so real that sometimes it hurt to watch them.

"At least," Sun said to her once, "you do not share the fate of poor Oceana."  And then he shook his gleaming head.  Moon agreed.  Better to never have had children, then to face what had happened beneath the waves.

Or so she told herself, but she was lonely.  She would visit her siblings by day, and laugh and tell wonderful tales about things she had seen in their childrens' dreams while she watched them sleep.  Sun marveled at his humans' ingenuity and creativity.  Earth rumbled with joy at the creations his dwarves had yet to build.  Tree just smiled and nodded, because she knew well the dreams of her children, but she liked hearing Moon tell of them, because Moon told the best stories.

Then, every night, she would rise, and watch over her nieces and nephews while they slept, peeking in their windows or peering through gaps in the treetops, or just feeling the rise and fall of their chests while they slept in dark barrows far beneath the sky.  She loved them, as a good aunt did.  They were fun, and charming, and so beautiful, each in their own special way.  Sometimes they would look up at her, and marvel at how pretty she was, at how she always wore a new face every night, at her soft glow, and her steady presence.  They missed her, she knew, on the one night each month that she took for her own purposes.  They always looked relieved to see her when she returned.

But still, she was sad.  And so she went to visit her other sister.

"Oceana," Moon curtsied, entering her eldest sister's chamber.  It smelled of a salt breeze, and seemed to go on forever when you looked around, always filled with shadow and mystery.  And uninvited guests, which was why Oceana's siblings did not often come to call.

Moon's sister did not turn, or acknowledge her, just sat on her coral throne and held her head stoically erect.  She had been there so long, Moon doubted that Oceana would ever be able to rise again: her throne had grown around her arms and legs, and it cut her whenever she moved, so that Moon could see little trickles of her sister's blood running in red streams off into the dark.  When she did not make an effort to drown it out, Moon could hear the lapping of strange tongues off in the darkness.

"Sister, I am so fortunate, to be spared your pain," she began, and regretted it when Oceana winced.  "I see them, you know, every night, your children.  I watch them struggle and my heart breaks, because I love them too."  Moon shook her head.  "I cannot imagine what it must be like for you, their mother, to know what they go through down in the deeps."

A tear trickled down Oceana's face, but her sister said nothing.  Moon faltered.

"I want to," she said, simply.

Oceana's head dipped then, for the first time that Moon could remember.  Another tear fell from her downcast face, and then more followed it.  Moon was startled.  Ever since... then... her sister had held her head high and refused to bow, no matter the pain.  Could it be that she was wrong, that it was too hurtful, that children of her own would destroy her?  She was carefree, always changing, quick with a laugh or a story, always there to lend a gentle hand to show the way in the dark.  Would children of her own hurt her so?

No.  She wanted this, and faced her sister, even knowing what had happened to Oceana's babies.

"Oh, Moon," whispered her sister.  It was strange, hearing that voice for the first time in so long.  It rippled, like a stone cast into the water, but even in a whisper it was deep and powerful.  "Oh, sister, you know not of what you speak."  Moon waited, and her sister did not raise her head.

Then: "But you could not."  Oceana was impossible to read, had always been so.  In times before, her moods could strike from nowhere or be absolute calm in the face of a world on fire.  Oceana rarely gave counsel even then, and these were more words than Moon had heard from her in eons.

"Wolf.  He misses you still.  I hear him sometimes, and his voice haunts even me, my sister."

Moon shuddered, remembering Wolf's touch.

"But do not stop with Wolf," instructed Oceana.  "My mistake was to dally only once.  You wear many faces, and can have many children.  Go to Wolf when he needs you most, in the fullness of your most radiant gown.  Touch him once, and his children will never stop honoring you."

"You must also visit other hunters of the night.  Bat, and Owl, and Panther.  Show each of them a different face, and they will love you, sister, and their children by you will love you as well.  Go to Boar as well, for of all animals he hates death most fiercely.  His children will not honor you, for he honors no one, but sister, no one will ever pull you down from the sky for fear of what Boar's children would do if they found you thus."

Oceana trembled convulsively then, and writhed in her chair, howling in fury.  The chamber shook, air reverberating with anger.  More blood poured away from the mistress of the waves, and Moon watched in impotent pain as her sister struggled.

Finally, after Oceana's wrath was spent, she raised her head, locking eyes with Moon.

"Because, sister, I will not last here forever.  Those who have sought to overpower me will someday do so.  And then they will come for you, and Earth, and Tree, and Sun.  They will come for all of our children."

"The others, and myself, we were not prepared.  Our children are not prepared.  Sister, your children must be fierce and terrible, the things of all dark dreams.  They must make Those who seek my downfall fear to emerge from the waves."

"No," started Moon, "that's not what I--"

"Do you see me?" screamed Oceana.  "Do you know what they have done to me?"  She raged on her throne again, thrashing and throwing herself against her bonds.  Moon backed away in fear as the room shook, unable to bear it, and took leave of her sister.

Oceana's last words followed her.  "Do you know what they have done to my children?  They will do it to yours."

And that, children, is why we must fear the things that go bump in the night.  Because they keep Those Below safely beneath the waves...

First Contact

The wedding had been fine, very fine indeed, reflected Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third.  The bride had been radiant in her mother's gown -- altered tastefully by Tailor Soukin to bring it more in keeping with current, high-collared fashion, but preserving the classic pouffed shoulders and man-length train that Princess Francesca Amanova had made popular in, what was it, the Year of the Gryphon?  Yes, that was it.  Ahh, those were the days, with knights and pegasi and damsels, just as the tales said, not like the days you had today, no sir, although Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third had to admit that Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook was indeed fair, and her husband did have a sort of knightly straightness to his nose, if he was only a cheesemaker. "Hey, Flarph!" called Vincenzo Caiaplante, making Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third wince at the sound of his nickname.  Vincenzo was only a cobbler, but his great grandfather had invented the double "D" buckle that practically every citizen of Highmont wore on his or her clogs these days, and his wealth gave him a sort of cheap respectability.  At least he could tell a white wine from a red.  By his breath, he hadn't been so discriminating tonight, however.

"Must you be so forward?" Flarph harumphed, but Vincenzo simply clapped a meaty arm around his shoulders and began to steer him back in the direction of the festivities.

"Flarph, I've told you since we were boys, nobody knows your whole name.  There's a Parsnip in there somewhere, right?"  He waved away Flarph's attempt to dignify an answer.  "Never mind all that, Flarph is a perfectly good name.  And, aaaaand..." he wiggled his eyebrows gleefully, "Maid Felicity was overheard admiring the cut of your doublet this very night.  Clearly, she's had a bit too much sacrament, buuuuut..."

The night was crisp and thrilling, and a late snow had left the tips of the trees and tops of the houses frosted with white.  The ridge of the mountain loomed high and close over their town, and the town square was festooned with the first flowers of spring, woven into floral braids and bound into neat bouquets placed at each of the five cardinal directions around the edge of the square.  (More of a wobbly oval, really, but they were on the side of a mountain, for God's sake, and nobody wanted to gather in "the town wobbly oval".)  Fat family candles snickered in the windows of all the homes lining the road, so that the ancestors might see the joyous occasion as the processional had ascended from the lower edge of town up to the square where the Church loomed, overshadowed only by the mountain, and by God.

Well, candles lit every window except one.  Maid Felicity's window, down near the edge of town, had only a small gas lamp.

"It is most unkind, sir, for you to say such things about a respected lady of the community.  Despite her," Flarph coughed, "uncertain parentage, Miss Felicity has built kites in the classical Highmont style, just the way Master Quince taught her, for long enough to have proved her stature to our humble town.  Additionally, my doublet is in the style of the third Lord Byrun, a man much prized for--"

"The third Lord..." interrupted Vincenzo, whose family emigrated to Highmont in his great-great grandfather's day, and so he didn't appreciate some things.  "Didn't he die two centuries ago?"

"Three.  It is a classic style," corrected Flarph, which caused the other man to laugh and laugh.

When he could draw breath again without giggling, he declared, "Flarph, you are a classic, crooked teeth and all.  Now, go talk to Maid Felicity, and try to get lucky."

Somehow, Vincenzo's arm had navigated Flarph to within several paces of Maid Felicity, who mercifully wasn't looking in their direction.  Flarph prayed that she hadn't heard Vincenzo's drunken exhortation: he was certain that the luck of which the other man spoke had been of a lascivious nature.  He took a tentative step toward Felicity, who was waving one arm in an animated discussion with Annabelle Bancourt, the bride's young sister-in-law.

"And then you heat the solution to a boil, which releases the thaumiol in gaseous form into the containment vessel -- the balloon -- but I'm not quite sure yet the best method for storage.  I've got dozens of the dratted things floating around my ceiling, which I'm pretty sure is a recipe for disas--"

"Good evening, ladies," Flarph interrupted, a bit shaky on the details of what he was hearing, which made him nervous.  "I, er."

"Oh!"  Felicity gave a little start, and then giggled girlishly.  Her companion -- who, at thirteen, had not yet mastered the art of politely extricating oneself from a conversation -- heaved a sigh of relief, and with a mumbled curtsy, bobbed off to find her sister.  The slightly older woman, whose age Flarph guessed was perhaps closer to Annabelle's than his own, tucked a dark curl back behind her ear, and gave Flarph an unpracticed curtsy as well.

"I crave your pardon, miss, I did not mean to startle you."  Flarph waited for his apology to sweep her off her feet.

"Ah.  Well.  Good," she began, "it would be very rude if you had meant to startle me.  What did you mean?"  Her brown eyes sparkled quizzically.

"What did I... hah!" laughed Flarph, managing to add, "What a strange question!" before realizing that she actually meant it as a question.

Indeed, it wasn't the sort of question any other woman in the town would have asked.  Perhaps there was more that set Maid Felicity aside from them than her unblond hair and unblue eyes.

"I, er," Flarph repeated.

"And I surmise that you probably weren't coming over to have a chat with me about methods of thaumiol extraction, which is what I was talking about just now.  You are aware that it's rude to interrupt?"

"Young lady, I--" Flarph tried, but her eyes lampooned him.

"And now a lecture from an elder?  What a delightful way to spend an evening!"  Suddenly, she laughed merrily.  "Ah, me, Master Quince tells me I mustn't be so incorrigible.  I corrige wretchedly, though."  Flarph thought that maybe she would reverie long enough for him to escape, but her eyes fixed on him again, pinning him once more... but gently, this time.

"You don't have a lot of experience with women, do you, Mister Hacklebee?" she asked, not unkindly.  "Would you like to start over?"

At the mention of his proper last name, Flarph got a jolt of hope.  Perhaps there was a chance!  After all, he was one of the only eligible bachelors in all of Highmont...

With an ear-splitting shriek, Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook burst into flames, and came flying through the air at him, arms outstretched, fingers like daggers.

It was hardly just.

A lancing bolt of energy from the sky caught her just before she reached him -- or perhaps Felicity, it was hard to tell with his eyes closed -- blasting her into a million pieces and leaving a crater in the cobblestones of the town square.  Flarph was knocked off of his feet, skinning his palms as he landed.  Ears ringing, mind ablaze, he looked up to the sky, whence the blast had come.

A strange creation swept in.  It looked to Flarph like a steel balloon, with windmills attached to either side.  These were spinning like mad, kicking up a hellacious gale that whipped at his face and tore at his clothing.  There appeared to be all manner of cogwheel attached in odd places, for no fathomable purpose that Flarph could discern.  Over the din, he could just barely make out a hiss, and he saw puffs of steam emerge from a series of vents along either side that looked like a row of enormous trumpets.

Emerging from the thing's underbelly was a ramp, and on that ramp stood a man... or possibly a yeti, for Flarph could tell even at a hundred paces that he was a monster of a man.  He would have had to be, in order to hold a weapon that big.

Flarph had never heard of a Light Amplification Searing Excrutiation Ray, but there was no mistaking the sleek barrel, fitted grips, ammo tube leading to a shoulder-mounted power harness, or the smoke pouring from its dragon-shaped mouth as anything but weaponry.  He gulped.  Then he thought about the cloud of dust nee Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook, and gulped again.

The balloon-craft swooped in low, and the ramp extended downward.  The man with the enormous weapon clomped down off of it.  He had a strange set of goggles over his eyes, with opaque lenses and small wire rims that extended back over the ears, where a normal man would have a leather strap.  He swept his hidden gaze across the courtyard, and suddenly, the place was bathed in dozens of spotlights emanating from the craft.  Flarph could see his fellow townsfolk staggering under the gale emitted from the ship's windmills, clutching at their clothes, and shielding their eyes from the bright lights.  The flowers that had festooned the square moments ago were blown into the night, and the family candles were all--

That was odd.  Despite the gale, the family candles were still lit.

There was another shriek, just as before, and Tailor Soukin also burst into flames.  He leapt into the air -- no, he sort of flew up, under his own power, but with no wings to speak of -- and then dove down at Felicity.  The man with the goggles heaved his weapon to bear, aimed, and squeezed a little trigger on the handle, and BOOM!  Soukin evaporated.

"Wh... what is going--" began Flarph, but the man stomped over and interrupted him.

He reached his hand out for Felicity.  "Come with me, if you want to live."

Her eyes flickered to Flarph, whose eyes were watering with incomprehension and a little bit of atomized tailor that had drifted in from the corners.  She held out her hand to the stranger.

Then she socked him hard in the mouth.

"You are aware," she grimaced, "that it is rude to interrupt?"  She glared at the newcomer, and added, "And also to kill people."

Laughter echoed down the gangplank of the ship.  A voice followed it.

"You know, Culnor, I think she is the right one.  You owe me twenty quid."

The personage that followed it, emerging from the glowing interior of the ship with a flourish, was much leaner than his counterpart, with an academic bearing that suggested that he might at any moment deliver a lecture on the lesser species of brain weevils infesting the upper reaches of the River Irsa.  He wore a double-breasted waistcoat, slacks, and carried a cane adroitly in one hand.

The big man called Culnor chuckled and rubbed his jaw, evidently not in the least perturbed that he'd just been punched in the mustaches.  "You may be right, my friend.  But I think you were right about our timetable, too: we need to get out of here before those candles let any more shades loose."

The other man had ambled up to Felicity, and was eyeing her intently.  She met his gaze, defiant... but Flarph thought perhaps a little less so than she'd been just a moment before.

"You're different from them," he pronounced, not bothering to gesture back at the townsfolk beginning to gather together in protective huddles.  "You've always known that.  You have wild ideas, flights of fancy... dreams that will not go away."  Flarph could feel the intensity with which his eyes bored into Felicity, and he cleared his throat to try to speak, but she answered before he could get anything to come out.

"... yes," she whispered.

"You've wondered where you came from, who you truly are--" Culnor coughed pointedly-- "yes, yes, I think I'm making my point, correct?  Mind always over the next horizon, strange hobbies, feelings of displacement?"

"Er, yes?"

"Sorry for not sticking to the script, but we're in a bit of a hurry."  He smoothly took her by one elbow and started ushering her toward the vessel's gangplank.  "You see, you're a princess, abandoned at birth by your parents in order to protect you from the Grand Vizier--with me so far?--and the time has come for you to return to reclaim your rightful heritage in a distant kingdom.  We're just going to pop aboard my ship, the Kailee here, and take a little trip, and we're going to do it before any more of the candles that these completely, utterly ignorant villagers have been burning for the last several centuries or so burn out, releasing the shades of the original town fathers from their prisons.  Who were put there by your great-grandfather several times over, I should add.  Sad story; I'll tell it to you sometime.  Devil worship, funny hats.  I'm sorry," he paused.  "I forgot to introduce myself.  I'm the Doctor."

"Doctor who?" asked Felicity, looking a bit swept away but not resisting.  Flarph wanted to call out to her, but he was completely dumbstruck.  The family candles... what was this doctor saying about them?

"I told you nobody has heard of you," growled the big man.  "Let's go, already."

"Doctor Mernick Fellthorn, at your service."  He doffed an imaginary hat, and then gestured vaguely with his cane.  Frost crystals began to emerge from the ground beneath one of the town burghers, encasing him in a block of ice in a matter of seconds.  Just as the spell had taken full effect, a fiery burst came from within the ice block as yet another of the family candles burned itself out.

"Right, on our merry," cheered the Doctor.  "The rest of you, sorry about the mess, but you really brought it on yourselves... ask questions, people, don't just bow to tradition!  If I were you, I'd be asking myself how quickly I could get home and blow that candle out..."

Felicity took one long, sad look back down at him as she boarded the gangplank with the two men.  Then, as the platform started to rise up into the sky, she shook herself slightly, and shouted, "Run, Mister Hacklebee!  Run!"

Then, with a blast of wind from the Kailee, she was gone.  Flarph looked around, saw the shocked looks on all the faces around him.  Saw a frenzy of activity inside of a melting ice block.  Saw, in his mind's eye, about how much candle he had left burning in his own home.

Flarph ran.

Flarph will return.  "Flarph against the Zombies", coming soon!

Motherhood [Mature]

She lay atop the sheets, sweat and blood cooling her naked skin. A hand wiped across her brow left a red smear across her forehead, and she heaved a satisfied sigh. The children would be happy tonight.

Thinking back on it, she ran one hand down her breasts, and gasped as her fingertips grazed her nipple, still hard and tender. Her lover had been merciless with the whip, one of the sort who needed to tell her what she was while he hurt her.

"Harlot," he'd panted. "Slut."

It bothered her, sometimes. Not what he did to her body, not the bruises he'd left nor the welts on her breasts, back, buttocks... those never got to her, though her lover tonight had been rougher than most.

It wasn't the hypocrisy, either, as he called her "filth" while his cock was rammed down her throat. She'd barely had time to get his flabby body out of the priest's frock before he'd twisted her arms behind her and thrust himself into her, snarling "whore".

It bothered her that she liked it.

It was heady, exciting, taking her lovers to places like this. Every dark desire, every corruption, the things that they would do to her that they would never imagine doing to anyone else, not to wife nor betrothed nor anyone... these made her ache inside. She loved it, wanted it, needed it; she had to hollow them out of all their goodness, of all their humanity. Let them spend their frustrations on her, indulge their worst, basest needs until there was nothing left of the men they were.

Because her children were hungry. And mama needed to feed them, yes she did.

He'd just been on the cusp of finishing, his bulk pinning her to the bed, tongue panting out obscenities in her ear as he yanked her head back by the hair with every thrust, when she could take no more. He could feel the change inside her, paused for a moment. Casually, she'd slipped her hands from the manacles he had used on her, thinking her tied helpless to the bed. She caressed the side of his puffy face.

"Shh..." she said, "mama's here."

And then the screaming started, the pulling and flailing as he desperately tried to pull himself out from her. But her legs were wrapped around him, and tiny as she was, her strength was many times what it should have been. He gurgled and moaned and plead and coughed blood, and through it all, she just crooned to him, over the gnashing sounds emerging from within his body, and stroked his face.

"Hush now, little ones. Eat well. Mama's here."

And eventually, when it was all done, and her newest baby was flexing itself into the sack of skin that was left behind after it and its still-unborn siblings had eaten their fill, she sang to it in a tongue long forgotten by those who should perhaps remember. She told it of their people, and of their fall, and how the humans had usurped their place in the world. She watched as its movements gradually became smooth and natural, and she fussed with its banded collar and smoothed over its hair.

She'd done well, she could see. The memories her baby had eaten from the meat sack it now occupied would not taint it with any feelings of brotherhood for the humans around it. The darkness in this one had been palpable to begin, and letting it work itself to an animal frenzy on her had left a perfect hollow for her baby to fill. She smiled, and told it that she knew it would make mama proud.

It was only after it had left her, going out in the world to spread misery and despair to the humans and hasten their own fall, that she had begun to feel the ache in her limbs.

How many was it, now? Dozens? Hundreds? She hadn't kept count, but she remembered each one, their faces, their scents. They were out there, her children, doing their good work. She would not see them again. She missed them terribly.

That's the curse of motherhood: you love them all, so much.

Checking out at the Library

The Book was bound in black leather, gold, and iron. The leather and gold formed the cover. The iron came in the form of a chain, with links each as thick around as a man's thumb, and a lock that would have taken a carnival strongman to manipulate. The keyhole suggested that its mate might double as a walking stick, given its obvious size. Which was why Poor Temmy was so surprised when he found The Book open and unbound as he brought his cleaning cart into the Necromancer's Wing of the Geinodes Club on his evening rounds.

The Necromancer's Wing was the last stop, in every sense. Poor Temmy had only to get in and out, knock the wads of obvious dust off of certain very well-marked bookshelves, and he could head home for the night.  The hunched-over cleaningsman always told himself that he shouldn't save it until the end -- maybe do the Thaumaturge's Wing last, which was well-lit and full of wonderful clockwork creations and made no suggestion that its dark places would swallow him whole of their own volition. But that fruity little dhampyr was the only one who was ever around late, and Poor Temmy did not hold with that, no sir.

Of course, he didn't hold much with being consumed by dark nothingness, either, so the Necromancer's Wing usually got only the a series of increasingly erratic of wipe-downs before his hand shook so badly he could no longer hold a duster, and he fled in a near-panic from the place. Every night. It never got better.

Tonight, though, the dark was different. Yes, it was filled with the patina of rot and with shadows that bent after you when you passed, but tonight even the shadows were on good behavior. The Book was on its customary stand, which Poor Temmy was Not To Touch, but whenever he scuttled past it, nothing cold and insubstantial wisped after him. Elsewhere in the Wing, the night held onto every one of its terrors, but near The Book, the dark was just... empty. Empty of light, and of everything else that Poor Temmy had ever imagined it contained.  All those terrors that might have been hiding in the gloom... they simply weren't there.

Poor Temmy lingered.

The Book was... "beautiful" was the wrong word... enthralling. Its pages were each trimmed in gold filigree, and the writing inside was crisp and firm, as if its author were possessed of some absolute clarity. Poor Temmy had never been absolute about anything in his life -- a sin to which he faithfully confessed every sevenday, more from a vague sense of unease than actual fear of the Lord -- and though he had no idea what the strange lettering might say, the straight lines and perfect arches looked as if they'd been planned by an architect.  They made him feel awed, as if looking at a mighty cathedral. They were even easy on the eyes: rather than a harsh black on white as he'd seen elsewhere in the libraries of the Club, these words were a dark brown, on pages almost sepia in coloration. They looked thick, too, those pages, satisfying. They weren't paper, he thought, but something more... human. Poor Temmy imagined that turning one of those pages would feel like an accomplishment.

When he found that he was right, he was not sure what baffled him more: how the almost sensuous crinkle of the page made his spine shudder in delight, or the fact that he'd dared touch The Book at all.

What did not seem in the least odd to him was that the next page was perfectly readable to him. It also seemed quite natural, when he flipped back to the previous page he'd just found to be incomprehensible, that he should be able to understand it with ease.

That is not dead which can eternal lie...

It bothered him for a moment, as his fingers lovingly caressed the pages, when the words began to slide off of The Book and onto his flesh.  It hurt, the way that they tore his skin open to allow fresh blood to seep out to trace those straight lines and perfect arches.  It hurt, but oh, how he wanted them.  They deserved fresh blood, not the dried stuff that had caked those pages.  As he watched them carve themselves onto his flesh, fleeing the bindings of The Book for human skin far more supple than dead leather, he could also feel the words burning themselves indelibly into his mind.

... and with strange aeons even death may die.

His posture straightened.  His thoughts expanded.  His sense of being Poor Temmy, the orphaned boy who'd grown up in the streets of Industry and taken every beating that had been his lot with pathetic pleas of "I'm sorry, I'm sorry"... it seemed very distant.  Distant, insignificant... hard to understand.  The world was so much more than just a flimsy, meaty shell moving about on a rock that fled the inevitable doom of the universe through space and time.

It had order.  It had meaning.  It had the words.

Blood-runes welling all across its body, the thing that had been Poor Temmy approached a glass display case containing several scrolls, vials, and a ceremonial dagger.  For a moment, a cursed language appeared faintly on the glass, which then burst outward from the case in suicidal horror.  The thing reached for the dagger, and methodically cut the scraps of clothing away from its body, revealing the runes to the world.  Gathering clumps of hair in its blood-slicked fist, it cut them away down to the scalp, so that no word should remain hidden from the world.

It turned the dagger over in its hand.  For now, blood smeared only its hilt.  The words... they were not meant to be kept to itself.  They were meant to be shared.

It would share them with everyone.

Blade readied, it strode out of the Necromancer's Wing, to begin.

A short time later, after the first screams began, an unseen hand possessed of absolute clarity commenced tracing straight lines and perfect arches onto the empty pages of The Book, in a wet, red ink.

Alone

The room is drab and gray and cold. Uneven floorboards speak of age and disuse. The corners are empty: not even spiders come here. The only light comes through a window at the room's center, filtered yellow through curtains that had not been drawn open since they were put in place. In the center of the room, there is a chair. Atop it sits a girl, wearing a severe gray dress, white stockings, and hard, black shoes. Her skin is very pale, the tone of one who rarely sees the sun. She is almost perfectly still, her knees drawn up to her chest. The only motion is her fingers, toying with her wispy red hair. And her lips, whispering something to herself.

There is a scratching sound at the door.

The girl's lips pause for a moment, and then continue their rhythmic workings. The sound comes again, from down low, but she does not stir. Silence reigns for a while.

And then the scratching returns, multiplied, insistent. Something--several somethings--bump and claw at the door, rattling the handle. The girl's blue eyes go wide, fingers twirling more insistently through her hair, but she does not move from her perch. There is a clattering commotion from beyond the portal, and the door jumps again and again.

The handle turns.

She hears the click of the latch, and her eyes jam shut, knees go tighter into her chest. Her fingers twist themselves into her locks, and she curls up into a ball atop the chair.

Into the room spill an assortment of oddities. There is a teapot with a doll's head and wheels made of old gears, with a pair of tin forks that click together in a pincer motion behind it. An old boot rides atop a quartet of saucers, each attached to a spindly leg made of knitting needles, clock parts, and twine; it makes a high, tinkling sound as it walks. A child's ball rolls to and fro of its own accord, starting and stopping and changing direction, as if there were something inside it, running up the walls.

Altogether there are almost a dozen of these little creations, cobbled from clockwork and children's toys and objects pilfered from kitchen and garden. They are led by a little homunculus of a man-thing, with legs made of a hand-rake and a salad tong, and two arms crafted from long keys affixed together. The head is a hairbrush, with a face made from buttons and string locked in an eternal smile.

Slowly, awkwardly, the little bits of animate detritus form a circle around the girl and her chair. As they approach, a ring of symbols on the floor, nearly invisible before, begins to glow a faint blue, limning the strange creatures from beneath. She opens her eyes, then crams them shut once more, and her tightening fingers suddenly snap in half a worn-down piece of chalk in her left hand. The animates do not cross the symbols, but surround her chair with careful insistence.

There is another sound from outside the room, like something man-sized hitting the floor. Then there is a heavy footfall, and the sound of grinding metal begins to grow in the girl's ears.

The assembled creations fidget as the footfalls clank closer.  Her lips still moving, the little girl's eyes shoot open again, and her head whips around toward the door.  It is now open, but has fallen back so that only a crack is visible, leaving obscured her view of the hallway beyond.

She turns back to face front, and can feel the little homunculus staring at her.  Its button eyes do not blink, nor does its hairbrush head incline in the least, but she knows it is watching, waiting.

She shuts her eyes and chants harder.

CLOMP.  Whirr... hiss.  The sounds grow louder as the thing takes the stairs.  The ring of symbols around the girl's chair has begun to pulse now, in time with the rhythm of her whispered words.  The little creatures that surround her have stopped their small movements, and seem to wait for what is about to arrive.

When the footfalls stop just outside the door, her chant falters.  When the slow creak of the door stabs through her, she draws a sharp intake of breath, and the chant stops.

The thing that comes through the door is metal and gears and pistons and blood.  Its torso is built from an old boiler; its arms are long iron bars with fully-actuated joints, ending in hands that have long, clever fingers comprised of painstaking clockwork and bits of metal hand-crafted to their purpose.  Its head is an antique armored helm, like a knight would wear.  The face shield obscures whatever lies beneath, but there is a pair of flickering green lights from within.  The thing looks like an armored man, and it moves like one: slowly, with murderous purpose.

Blood coats its knuckles, and the girl can see a reddish smear where a hand slid down the thing's chest.  From one hand dangles a man's belt, its buckle wet.  In the other is a scrap of a flowered nightgown.

The girl chokes back a sob, but only just; her eyes sparkle with tears and anger.  The thing doesn't move, watching her.  Carefully, she stands up atop the chair, bringing her close to level with the slit in the thing's visor where its eyes should be.  Her arms end in clenched fists, and now that they are not clutched to her, the welts on the inside of her forearms show clearly.  They are the same width as the belt in the thing's hand.

"Why, Mister Nice-Man?" she croaks, pointing an accusing finger.

The thing holds up the belt.  The smaller creations that surround the girl all stir at the movement.

The girl points again, emphatically, at the thing's other hand.  "Why?"

It lowers the belt hand.  Cocks its head.  Shrugs.  Takes a step forward.

In an instant, it is swarmed with lesser creations.  There is no battle cry, no sound except the clatter of footfalls of the improvised detritus that forms the other mechanical beings.  They crash into it like a wave, clambering over one another to claw and beat at it with whatever limbs they have been given.  The girl gasps as the little hairbrush homunculus makes a tottering leap off of the back of the boot-thing, sailing through the air to land on the larger creation's shoulder, where it starts trying to pry off the helmet with its little key-hands.

The man-sized creation staggers for a moment under the assault.  It takes a step back, and one more, trying to right its balance while dolls and teapots and childrens' toys hang from its limbs and fling their weight about, trying to bring it down.  It totters... and catches itself on the door frame.

For a second, it stands there, unmoving, while the other things batter it.  Then, regaining its balance, it stands erect, and takes the hand that held the scrap of nightgown across its body to grab the doll-faced creation, crushing it with a clench of its fist.  Bits of teapot tinkle to the floor as the thing carries on, flinging the boot across the room so hard that its knitting needle legs snap apart when it hits the wall.  Where the small constructs are just toys and scraps, it is solid metal, crafted with patience and genius and fury.

Just as it finishes, the homunculus finds a chink, wedges one of its key-arms into the neck, and pries hard.  The helmet stays on, but the faceplate springs open.  And then, with two quick movements, a hairbrush and a hand rake and a salad tong and a set of keys falls, inert, at the edge of the circle around the girl's chair.

She stares.  "You aren't Mister Nice-Man," she gasps.

The thing makes no answer, just strides through the refuse at her.  Suddenly, it comes up short, as if it had run into an invisible wall.  The runes on the floor pulse brighter.  The girl does not flinch.

"You aren't Mister Nice-Man," she continues evenly, "but you're in him.  I made him... and I can un-make him."

The thing gives out a silent howl now, and its fists beat at the air, pounding at the invisible barrier that separates it from the girl.  They make no sound, aside from the whirring of its motors and gears, but its posture is one of frenzied anger.  Or panic.

The girl begins to speak again, in a strong, clear voice.  Her words seem to vibrate the very air around her, and with every syllable, the thing's fists work faster.  The runes on the floor dim, strength draining as blows rain down, but the girl does not hurry.  She chants on, until a tiny spark of light appears on her outstretched fingertip.

And then the runes give way, and a heavy metal hand lashes out, wrapping around her throat and picking her up off of the chair.  The thing peers into her face, the strange apparition behind the visor seeming to relish the thought of choking the life from her.  It draws her closer.

She reaches out her finger, and touches it on the forehead.  In an instant, all life goes out of it, and it drops to the ground, inert once more.

The little girl rubs her throat, and stands shakily to her feet.  She looks around at all of the components scattered across the room, bends down, and picks one up.

"I'm sorry," she whispers to the hairbrush.  "Thank you."

And then she walks out into the house, head heavy, alone again.

Arrival

Lance Corporal Linus Kolgriv stood as ramrod straight as he could muster. ‘Twas more than arrows could get you killed, in this man’s army. The man in question was Leftenant Commander Holvelak. Kolgriv supposed that the Commander must have a first name, but he was sure that he didn’t know anyone who’d dare tell him, much less speak it aloud. Everyone just called him “The Commander”, out of sheer self-preservation. There was power in names, and Kolgriv would bet his paltry wages that the Commander would hear any words spoken after his name was mentioned aloud, unless spoken in church, or under a new moon.

That was the way, with witches.

“Where,” came the sibilant hiss, “do you suppose they went, then?”

Kolgriv studied the air in front of him with the fervent intensity of a schoolboy whose lector has just called for a volunteer to enumerate the organs of female reproduction. He was damned if he knew, in any case. The bloody elves had just disappeared, leaving not a trace of their passing. A whole village of them.

And he had to admit, he wouldn’t have been able to do much to pick out the organs of female reproduction, either. Might have saved himself some trouble, though at least his sudden new wife was a good Church girl, and Powlish, to boot. That had made things easier on his poor mum.

Hmm… Svelkie should be due soon. Assuming that the Commander didn’t pick him out of the line for—

“Sir,” called out Major “No-Shit” Thunder, whose cheery obliviousness was extreme even for the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade. “I respectfully submit that they have gone to link up with the main contingent, sir, in the face of the 27th’s overwhelmingly superior force!”

The sneer was obvious, even to those like Kolgriv who determinedly avoided looking at it. “Your sobriquet is well-earned, Major.” The Commander turned, and looked down over the fern-strewn descent into the quiet elf village that he and his men had been inexplicably sent to “pacify”.

Even in the full light of late morning, the forest floor basked in an arboreal twilight, broken only by the flickers of white balefire at their backs that formed a perimeter around the elf-city. The scent of two hundred meters of charred forest tickled at Kolgriv’s conscience, but only a little. Good Church upbringing or no, it took a lot more faith than he’d brought with him to insist that a little bit of calculated destruction of the Lord’s creation was against His will, not when so much of that creation seemed to be trying to kill you. The Commander had ordered the perimeter razed “so that even a mole might not cross unnoticed.”

With its usual battery of flame and lightning, the 27th had followed orders with nervous intensity. Two hundred feet of verdant forest now more closely resembled a volcanic plain of barren earth and still-burning fires. At the outer edge stood a twenty-foot wall of unearthly white balefire that had risen up behind the Commander as he had walked the perimeter, forming a blazing shackle around the elf city.

If there were any moles left, Kolgriv was sure that they had better sense than to burrow through that strip of hell.

The Commander laid it out. “We lost twelve men in full thaumechanical battle dress to a hive of bumblebees, Major. A hive that just happened to be obscured from sight by the reflection from a brook just wide enough to catch the sun for the two hours in the afternoon that an advancing force would be likely to arrive, given the only sensible encampment within a day’s journey. A hive that just happened to fall in such a way that those twelve armored men, in an attempt to avoid the bees, stumbled onto a bank of moss so unusually slippery that they lost their footing and plunged down a hill, which just happened to have at its base a quarry of razor-sharp quartzite.” The Commander spat. “Do you happen to remember how long those men struggled to free themselves, before we stopped hearing them cry out?”

“Or,” he added ominously, “perhaps you just happen to remember how we lost the battle tank?”

Despite himself, Kolgriv gulped. He remembered what had earned him that field promotion. He hadn’t had time yet to add a rocker to the single chevron that his uniform had come with.

“No, Major, the elves did not flee us.” The Commander’s voice was flat. “But I submit that you should organize some men to find them, before we learn where they went in some equally grotesque fashion. Lance Corporal Kolgriv!”

Kolgriv’s sphincter puckered. He’d been so close! “I have learned that we will be having guests, on the morrow. A priest. See to it that I am not bothered. I have… other matters to attend to.”

The Corporal stammered out an assent. A priest… might not get him killed. You never could tell, with Church men.

His relief was mixed with a new dread. He had been unable to avoid the Commander’s eye just then, and he had seen something there that he’d never seen before.

Fire. Excitement. Lust.

The balefire that trapped them all in this place crackled at Kolgriv’s back. He eyed its creator, a shudder running the length of his spine. Whatever that mage’s mysterious business, Kolgriv was certain of one thing: the destruction behind him would pale by what else this madman had in mind.