SEED: The Coming of the Dark

“Every house has them. The dark corners where light never seems to reach.” I click on my flashlight. “Where even if you shine a flashlight into it, the Darkness doesn’t disappear, so much as shift away from the light, oozing back in after the beam has chased it away.”

The stair tread under my foot groans and I glance down and shift my weight off it, gesturing with the butt of my flashlight for the benefit of both the clients and the camerawoman. “Watch that one.” Taking care not to disturb the cobwebs between railing and wall, I take the last five steps to the basement floor as quick as safety allows.

Stairs are not my favorite thing. Too often they’re the very place I’m looking for, and you can never tell until you’re halfway down them. I keep an eye out for hanging cobwebs as the light from Sara’s flashlight, tethered on her belt, jogs crazily. She nods at me once she reaches the bottom and steadies the shoulder camera. The couple hovers behind her, keeping out of the shot as instructed.

“This house has many such places. The Dark has gathered here, grown strong with the desperation of reality and the bones of memory.”

The man snorts and the woman shushes him. He waves the cobwebs aside as he comes down the last few stairs, wiping the sticky webbing on his business casual slacks. His wife has a hand on his arm for balance, cringing away from the dirty railing.

I ignore them. “It seeks the dead places first. Places where the sparks of life rarely intrude. Attics and basements are the most dangerous.”

“You didn’t find anything in the attic.” The echo of the man’s voice is muted by the ceramic block and plaster on the walls, leaving a heavier silence in its wake. I recognize the silence and use my peripheral vision to scan the open area.

The woman glares and swats him in the arm. “Shut up,” she hisses.

“This is ridiculous. He was wrong about the attic.”

Sara grins and winks at the wife. “Ren likes to check the attic first. Less bugs up there.”

Whatever I sensed is gone now. There’s too much talking, too much life. It retreated and now I have to track it down or flush it out. “Sara.”

She has the decency to blush. “Sorry.”

I gesture at the dark space under the stairs. “There first.”

The man mutters, “Oh for gods–”

“If you’re uncomfortable, sir, you can wait upstairs.”

He clamps his lips into a firm line and becomes a crutch for his wife again, letting her pull him along and use him as a shield from the threat of spiders dropping from overhead. I can sympathize with her. Ceiling spiders are terrifying.

The stairs have closed steps, but the space under them is open to the room. A few cardboard boxes, spotted black and sagging with damp are piled near the plastered wall, but there’s plenty of space between them for the Dark to hide. My light pushes it back, and it slithers around the cardboard, filling in the shadows as the light moves on.

“There’s one here.”

The man sighs with all the put-upon drama a businessman can produce, but doesn’t speak. Sara juggles the camera for a better angle as I move my flashlight to play with the Dark hidden behind the boxes. It has plenty of shadow to keep it safe, but instead of just edging around the boxes like I expect, it slides to the underside of the stairs, leaking into the space under the bottom step full of cobwebs and accumulated debris. Shit.

I back up and turn in place, canvassing the area with the beam from my flashlight. The couple protest as they shield their eyes, but Sara just looks at the ground until my light stops moving. She edges closer to me, trying to catch the underside of the stairs in the background of her shot.

“What’s wrong?”

Bless her. I remember her coaching in time to glance at the camera lens instead of her. “It’s a nest.”

She peeks out from behind the camera, raising an eyebrow. “Seriously.”

I refuse to rise to the bait. It doesn’t matter if they don’t believe me. It’ll target the man, I’m sure of it. The woman is too worked up by the story. I start to make my way through the basement, shining the beam along antique furniture and boxes of whatever these people were willing to forget about, but not let go.

I see a few small Darks flicker away from my light, but nothing more dangerous than you’d find in a bedroom closet or pantry cupboard. They’re enough to make you uneasy, give you a prickling feeling across your neck. Those kind are still growing and often get themselves glimpsed out of the corner of someone’s eye.

I hear the woman whispering to her husband as they follow us, and return to my memorized script.

“People think we developed fire as our defense against the Dark, but that was only part of it. Fire keeps it away of course, as light keeps all darkness at bay. But we also developed stories, to turn the Dark into something harmless… impotent.”

The man grunts again. By this point I’m thinking he deserves it, but I stay in character. “The creativity of stories strikes at the Darkness itself. It’s an armor we wear, a weapon we wield.”

I flick the beam of my flashlight into a corner and it reveals a handmade shelving unit of two-by-fours with too many nails holding it together. Plywood shelves are mostly empty, sagging and streaked with black mold. The dust is so thick I can see traces of mice trails across the surface. Shadows cling to the angles of the wood and the wall behind it. My eyes want to look away.

Found it. You can never see the big ones until it’s too late. The little ones– they catch your eye, trigger your defenses– but the big ones sit like a fat cloud of menace and your mind just wants to be somewhere else. They don’t need to run from the light. They dim the beam if you shine it right at them, and bear the thinning to make you think you’re safe.

Not too close now. I gesture at the couple, waving my flashlight so it seems like I’m directing them instead of pushing back at the Dark. They obediently move to the corner, the woman putting the man between herself and the dirty shelves, wrinkling her nose at the scent of mouse scat and insect skeletons.

I give Sara a brief nod and she steps back to get the couple in the shot as I turn my light to a pile of boxes well out of range of the Dark in the corner. A few smaller ones slip into deeper shadows, repulsed by my light. Sara clears her throat to get my attention and rolls her hand, mouthing nonsense words where the couple can’t see. Start talking.

I run through the scripts in my head. “But the Darkness craves the very thing it fears. It doesn’t consume flesh and blood. Animals don’t fear the Dark, because they don’t have what the Darkness hunts.”

I glance at the couple, and and the woman is clinging to her husband’s arm, absorbed in what I’m saying and fairly quivering in movie-worthy horror. The man isn’t paying attention. Something on the shelf has captured his interest and his eyes are locked on whatever it is.

“The Darkness wants that part of us that dreams.” I flash my light at the little Darks, driving them away from me and Sara. “The spark that makes us who we are. Our–”

The man reaches out for something on the shelf and shadows flicker over the skin of his hand. He looks confused for a moment, then even his cynical brain realizes something is wrong and he jerks his hand back, wiping at the skin like he’s trying to brush away cobwebs.

I motion Sara closer, my script forgotten as I watch the man’s face flicker through disgust, confusion, and a slack-jawed emptiness.

“Are you getting this?”

Sara nods, her eyes wide. The woman looks between her husband, who is seemingly freaking out about his hand, and the camera. She takes a step away from him to avoid his flailing elbows.

“Bill? What are you doing?”

The man screams once. A shrill, piercing noise from the back of the throat that bounces around the room and makes everyone wince. Then he settles into a dazed slouch.

The woman shakes his arm. “Bill! What–”

The Dark reaches out from the shelf.

I step to Sara’s side and push her to the center of the room and she starts to bring down the camera but I put a hand under it and raise it back up. “Keep rolling!”

The woman takes one step away from her husband, staring at the shadowy haze billowing off the shelf like dust. But it wasn’t dust. I raise my flashlight and the Dark doesn’t even flinch as the beam hits it and dims, like when you try to shine it underwater.

“Ren,” Sara whispers, “what do I do?”

“Keep rolling.” I take a step toward the woman and hold out my hand. “Maggie, right? Come away from it.”

Sara whispers, “Megan.”

I glare back at her, but focus again on the woman. “Hurry up. Just leave him there.”

The Dark expands, and I notice the corners aren’t as full of shadow as they were. It’s moving in the open. I glance at the camera to make sure it’s pointed in the right direction and catch a little Dark slip past my shoe. I stamp my foot at the thing, even knowing how stupid the reaction is, sweeping my light around on the floor.

The woman doesn’t go as quietly as her husband. Maybe because she has more to be taken, maybe because she’s so invested in my story, or maybe just because she has time to be afraid of what’s happening. She well and truly screams. It’s no reflex noise that startles the listener, but a knowing howl protesting a lesson learned too late.

The Dark covers her. It doesn’t hinder her movements, even though she brushes at it and nearly rips her own clothing trying to escape its touch. It follows her as she stumbles back and then lurches forward. When she looks up at me, I meet her eyes for a moment and see the light behind them blink out like a switch being flipped.

The screams stop and the woman sways in place. Everything is deadly quiet for a few heartbeats, and I recognize the silence. It has weight to it, intelligence, and malice. The Dark moves closer.

I shove Sara toward the stairs. “Go!”

She clutches the camera to her chest and runs ahead of me, dodging around boxes with Dark shadows between them, past furniture with Dark shadows reaching out from under them. The light from the flashlight on her belt spins wildly around the room like a sad disco ball with only a single bulb.

I’m right behind her, sweeping my light in front of us and stealing looks at the Dark behind us. Sara takes the stairs two at a time, I take them in threes. We crash through the kitchen and out the back door, where the rental car waits in the afternoon sun.

I pull Sara’s arm to stop her, bending over to catch my breath and checking the open door behind us even though I know full sunlight is too strong for the Dark to ignore. I can see shadows in the kitchen, but from here I’m not sure if they’re Dark ones or not.

My heartrate is finally starting to slow and I drop my eyes to focus on the locket dangling from the gold chain around my neck. It must have fallen out from behind my shirt. As the locket spins, the tiny picture of my wife appears with each rotation. Smiling. I tuck it back under my shirt.

Sara touches my back. “Jesus, Ren. What the hell was that?”

I ignore her and walk to the car. Before touching the door handle I hesitate and crouch to peer underneath the car at the shadows made by the sun, then into the backseat. Shaking my head at my own fears, I get inside and slam the door shut. “We’re done here.”

SEED – Dog Days

I was asked to write a piece today by a friend of mine, and base it off a popular meme where people are like elves to dogs because we seem to live forever to them. (If you’re interested, the meme originated here. There area a lot of feelings in that thread, so bring tissues if you read it.) So here is my mini-story, which I call Dog Days.


SEED: Thoughts On Being Evil

“I don’t want to be evil!” She dropped to her knees and sank her face into her hands, sobbing so her shoulders bounced and the noise coming from beneath her hands was a gasping honk interspersed by snuffles.

Ven stood over her, watching her cry with nothing more than a tightness at the corner of his mouth to give away the empathy he felt. He let her sob until all that remained was sniffling and she dropped her hands into her lap, then he spoke with a tone that was soft, if not gentle.

“Why do you think this power makes you evil?”

She raised her gaze to meet his, face blotchy red and lids swollen. “It’s the power of death and darkness. How can it not be evil?”

His eyes narrowed in disapproval. “Death is not evil. Nor darkness.”

She eased her legs out from under herself, drawing her knees up and wiping her hand across her nose and cheeks. “You’re going to tell me about how death can be a relief or something.”

“No. If you didn’t already know that I wouldn’t have bothered teaching you.”

She frowned and looked away from him.

“Evil is what people do with power. It’s easier to do evil with some types of power, yes, but it’s never the power that’s evil, it’s you.” He looked around the cozy room, touches of her personality everywhere. Blankets were folded by the fire because she liked to study there, a row of rocks on the windowsill she’d picked up on the trail because they were pretty, the scent of apples coming from the kitchen. “You aren’t evil.”

“This power will make me do evil.”

“Are you that weak?”

She flinched and he sighed, squatting in front of her and catching her gaze.

“Being good or evil… that’s a choice. People are constantly making that choice, whether they have power or not. Your choices might be harder, or more limited, but they are still choices. If you don’t want to be evil, then don’t be.”

She stared back at him, eyes as eager as the first day she’d come to ask him to teach her, deep enough to hold the world if he’d only show it to her. Eyes strong enough to bear that weight, but wavering. He kept his hard and hoped it would steady hers. “Your power is not you.”

“Are you evil, master?”

He blinked. Her question wasn’t as simple as it would have been from anyone else’s mouth. He’d answered it many times, from many people, for many different reasons. He could tell her he was not, try to reinforce his point, but she would hear the lie. He could tell her he was, and sell their differences, but she knew better.

He kept his expression cold and steady, all seriousness. “Not today.”

Her brow wrinkled. “That’s not an answer.”

“It’s a faulty question.”

“If you can say whether I’m good or evil, surely you can say whether you are.”

“Are you asking if I’m mostly evil? Then yes. I’ve made easy choices. They get easier, the more of them I make.” He looked around the room again, a place he’d built to hide from the consequences of those easy choices. “It’s unfair maybe. You make the hard choices, and yours will only get harder.”

“Maybe you only say I have a choice because you have to believe you do. You have to blame yourself for the ones you made.”

He widened his eyes and sat on the floor, resting an arm over one raised knee. “I’m impressed, little bird. I hadn’t realized that before. All my life has been a game of self-blame and regret. You’ve opened my eyes. The student has become the teacher.”

She frowned and glared at him.

“The truth,” he said, “is that there is no truth.There is only what we believe to be true. Wise men spend lifetimes searching for an ultimate truth that doesn’t exist, and in searching for it they build it.” He reached out and touched a finger to her forehead. “This is your truth. If you want to know about good and evil, look there.

“I can tell you my truth, and it’s pretty good considering I’ve spent many lifetimes building it, but it’s going to fail you when you need it most. Look to yourself, little bird, and before you ask whether you are evil, discover what evil is.

“I’ve tried to teach you to seek. There is no question we should fear, and no answer we should hide. Discover who you are, accept it. Then everything you’re worrying about right now won’t matter. When you see what I see, you won’t need to ask the question at all.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better now.”

“What lie do you want to hear? I’ll say it.”

She rested her chin on her arms. “If truth doesn’t exist, do lies?”

That one made him smile. “Very good. Keeping asking things like that.” He pushed himself to his feet and dusted off his pants. “But try to think about it as you do your chores.”

SEED: Rojen’s Beginning

He alighted at the edge of the barren plateau, the downdraft of his wings making billowing clouds of dust, and the setting sun glinting off his black scales so it looked like he was drenched in blood. He was well aware of the effect, and had used it to his advantage in the past, although he could have done without those evil connotations today. The other dragons cleared a path for him to the center of the gathering, averting their gazes as he passed. While it would have been an insult to bind him or set a guard over him, they still made it clear he was a criminal to be judged.

He held his head up proudly, his talons clicking on the sun-baked stone as he came to a stop before the most ancient of his kind. He lowered his body so his belly almost touched the warm rock, his head curled down in submission. He waited that way for some time, until the elder chose to acknowledge him.

“Rojensyrahae, Night Shadow, Bane of the Eight Tribes, Bringer of Eternal Darkness… you have defied the will of the council too many times. For this we will punish you.”

He kept his head lowered, hiding the mocking curl of his muzzle.

“Rojensyrahae, you were warned. The humans are not yours to play with. We were cursed once for interfering, we will not suffer a worse fate because of your obsession.”

Against his better judgment, Rojensyrahae raised his head. His nostrils flared and his eyes burned. “A worse fate? What fate is worse, elder? The gods have forsaken us.”

“We still have our lives, young one… and our power.”

Rojensyrahae fairly shook with rage. “So we can languish through life with hope until we are sent into oblivion? Bah! They should have just ended it!”

The elder reared up on his hind legs, extending his wings to their full spread. His voice reverberated from the canyon walls around them, stilling even the black dragon’s complaints. “Enough! It is the will of the council that you be punished!” He dropped his foreclaws back to the earth, shaking the entire plateau. The sound of rocks tumbling down the cliff’s edges echoed around them.

“Since you enjoy human life so much… that will be your punishment.”

The air around the plateau thickened. Rojensyrahae peered up into a swirling ring of smoke. He heard the elder begin to chant and knew what spell he was casting. He had used it many times himself. This variation sounded much more permanent.

With the final word of the spell, the swirling cloud dropped around him, beginning the change. Moments later he stood on the plateau, his bare human feet warmed by the stone. He flexed muscles different from those of his true form. His hair, black as his scales had been, blew in the wind. He was already starting to sweat in the desert heat, and he could feel the sun glaring down on his unprotected skin.

The elder peered down at him with an expression of sorrow. “This is the form you will carry for the next thousand years. Where you go is up to you.”

Rojensyrahae clenched his fists, averting his gaze from his people as they vaulted from the plateau, soaring up on the warm air currents running through the canyon. They whirled in the air above him and he gave in and looked up at a sight he likely wouldn’t see again for some time. They darted through the sky with the grace of birds, even though they were a hundred times larger.

He drew in a deep breath and screamed a string of curses at them, knowing full well even if they caught a hint of his voice on the wind they wouldn’t be able to make out the words. When they had all gone he walked to the edge of the plateau and started the long climb down.

SEED: What Can I Call You?

He sat staring into the dying fire, his face calm as the light from the flames flickered across his cheeks. He stared at the fire as if it were an old friend, comforting and more welcome than the food. The girl cleared her throat. He looked up at her, shaking off the dazed expression and raising an eyebrow. “What?”

She fidgeted with her food, turning the half-eaten vegetable in her hands. “I still don’t know your name, nor you mine.”

He grunted and tossed the stick from his last roasted vegetable into the fire. The sparks floated up, but the stick didn’t do much in the way of feeding the blaze. “I don’t care much for human names.”

Her brow furrowed as she stared at him. “You speak as if you weren’t human yourself.”

“I’m not.” He held his hand closer to the fire, feeling the heat flow around his skin.

“Then what are you?”

He glanced over at her, gauging whether it was wise to tell her the truth. In the end it really didn’t matter. She was just a silly human girl, and nobody would believe her anyway. “I’m a dragon.”

She smiled and bent her head, taking a bite of food and chewing slowly. She swallowed and looked at him from beneath her eyelashes. He didn’t look very happy with her reaction. He looked angry. She wiped the smile off her face. “So, do you have a name then?”

He stood and scuffed dirt over the fire, smothering the coals and stamping them out. “Forget it.”

She scrambled to her feet as he started to walk away, grabbing up her bundle of roots and berries and carrying the vegetable she hadn’t finished eating yet. “I have to call you something!”

“Fine,” he called over his shoulder, “your people call me Night Shadow. Or, if you prefer, the dwarves refer to me as the Bane of the Eight Tribes. The elves, fluffy dreamers that they are, credit me as the Bringer of Eternal Darkness. I am known by all these names.”

The girl laughed. “You mean to tell me… you think you’re the terrible black dragon of legend? The one from the stories of my childhood?”

He glared back at her, but didn’t say a word.

“You must have a name. Surely there’s something your family once called you? Maybe something your friends know you as?”

He stopped suddenly and she nearly ran into him. When he turned around, the look on his face chilled her. It reminded her of pain, and rage, and horrible guilt. He stared at her for a moment and the look faded into the annoyed expression she was more familiar with. His voice was little more than a whisper. “My name is Rojensyrahae.”

She swallowed and nodded slightly. “Rojensir- Rojensara-“

He sighed and rolled his eyes, turning and starting to walk again.

She hurried to catch up. “Do you mind if I call you Rojen?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Call me whatever you wish, I don’t care.”

She smiled and stepped up so she was walking nearly beside him. “And my name is Coralyn, but everyone calls me Cora.”

“Good for you.” He avoided her gaze, keeping his eyes on the shadowy trees ahead. The woods were quiet except for the occasional birdcall or tattering squirrel. As he walked, he mentally kicked himself for taking the human along. The death of one more of them wouldn’t have bothered him in the slightest. He didn’t know what had possessed him when he agreed to let her come.

SEED: The Open Book

The book rested in my arms, so much dead weight with the smell of old leather and the bite of hard corners against my skin. It was heavier than I thought it should be, even if it did fill my arms. Maybe it was the way they made paper and ink back then. So much heavier. My thumb rubbed along the spine as I held it, feeling the ridges in the leather where the thread bunched underneath.

I knelt on the floor, setting it in front of me with reverent care. Old things were awesome, and old books were double awesome. I ran a hand down the leather cover to feel the rough under my fingertips and it made me sigh a little. The corners were capped with hammered metal protectors, tarnished and lifting away from the surface in places. I reached forward and lifted the cover.

A voice shouted in front of me and drew my attention. Kelvin was sprinting toward me, his face pale and terrified, his hand reaching out.

“No! Don’t open it!”

I frowned and sat back on my heels as he skidded to his knees on the other side of the book. “Why no-“

He rocked forward as he slid to a stop and glanced down with wide eyes. A light pulsed between us and for an instant everything seemed frozen. Kelvin had his arms flung out for balance, staring down at the book. His face was still full of shock and dread. The light enveloped him, shimmering across his pale cheeks.

Then he… faded… into the book. It wasn’t so wet as melting, but was like he turned into dust and fell into the light coming from the book.

Everything was quiet and the light flickered out.

I blinked at the place where he’d been, afraid to drop my eyes to the open pages. Reaching out a shaking hand, I groped for the edge of the book and flipped it shut. I swallowed the lump in my throat.

“That’s… probably not good.”

SEED: Blood of Space

The lights of the space terminal were dimmed to simulate the night cycle. The rows of empty benches and the wall of windows looking into the coldness of space gave the room a deserted atmosphere that Deacon rather enjoyed. He ambled across the room to the section of seats near terminal 72A and stood looking out the windows, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

There were ships docked here and there along the length of the station, but they were all as dark as the terminal he stood in. As he stared into space, he heard the trudging footsteps of a weary traveler. Turning his head slightly, he watched the person coming closer out of the corner of his eye. The last thing he wanted right now was company.

The man stopped beside him and put his hands in his pockets. “Quiet night, isn’t it? Are you waiting for someone?”

Deacon kept his arms crossed over his chest, but turned to face the man, his trenchcoat brushing the tops of his boots. He smiled widely, revealing the long, sharpened fangs that were the mark of his vampiric heritage. “Actually… yes, I was.”

The man paled and stumbled back, crossing himself as he turned to flee. When the man had run out of sight, Deacon chuckled and turned back to the window. A few minutes later, his eyes were drawn to a movement off to the left. A ship was nearing the docks.

He grinned and slipped the edge of his trenchcoat aside, drawing his Colt Glazer and checking the pistol’s energy level. He casually stepped behind a column and waited for the ship to dock. The sound of the inner airlock doors whooshing open broke the silence in the terminal and Deacon tensed, his pistol held ready.

He heard the footsteps of four men in heavy boots and the lighter steps of their prisoner, then the airlock whooshed closed. They were making it too easy for him. He edged around the column as the footsteps neared, waiting until they were in line with him so it would be harder for them all to shoot back. Then he drew in half a breath and spun around the column, his Glazer raised.

He fired on the near man without hesitation, the laser leaving a smoking hole in the policeman’s chest. The others trained their weapons on him, one of them shouting orders and another reaching for a comm unit at his belt.

The young woman who had been surrounded by the policemen raised her manacled hands into the air, spreading them as far apart as she could. Deacon aimed his pistol at the link connecting the manacles. The laser easily cut through the metal, sending sparks showering down onto the girl, who turned her face away.

With the link broken, the girl drew herself up, her orange prison jumpsuit and short black hair whipping around her as if a hurricane blew through the terminal. Her eyes began to glow and she raised her hands again, chanting in a language few people in the galaxy understood.

The policemen started to panic. One of them shot wildly at Deacon with a pulse rifle and one of the shots seared through his trenchcoat into his right shoulder. He glanced down at the wound with a grimace.

Electricity sparked from the girl’s fingertips and the wind around her died off suddenly. She brought her arms down in a graceful arc, her eyes still on fire. With one final word, the flash of lightening lit up the terminal and the three remaining policemen were speared by three separate bolts. They screamed and shuddered, falling to the floor with mingled thuds.

Deacon rolled his right shoulder, easing his muscles as the wound healed. He strode forward and stopped in front of the girl, who looked up at him with a cold expression as the magic faded from her eyes. The corner of his mouth curled up slightly into a humorless smile. “You’re younger than I expected.”

Her eyes bore into him and she let a few moments roll by before she answered. “I assume you are the vampire?”

He pulled his Glazer up and checked the energy charge. “At your service, missy.” Holstering the pistol, he extended his arm to her.

She looked down at it and rolled her eyes. “Just lead the way. I need to get out of these clothes.”

SEED – River Bridge

He slashed over and over with his sword, keeping a tight hold on it in the pouring rain. Strike left, heave the blade over the horse’s head, strike right, heave it back over, strike left. The steel bit through leather armor into flesh and bone underneath, and his muscles ached already as he pulled it free each time, raising it to strike again. He guided his horse with his knees and his free hand, clinging to the saddle as it reared and trampled the enemy in front of it.

The screams of the wounded and dying were accompanied by battle cries from both sides. The sound of steel striking steel rang in his ears, and the storm was a steady lashing all around him, broken by cracks of thunder now and then. He heard his name, the scream rolling over the other sounds.

He looked out over the battle, blinking away the rain streaming onto his face, to take note of the handful of riders that led his troops. It was difficult to distinguish between his foot troops and the enemy in the dark rain. Some of them still carried torches along with their swords, swinging them as clubs so the fire sputtered and bounced crazily in the throng of fighters. As he scanned the battlefield he caught sight of a mass of torches moving toward them from the hills.

A spear thrust toward him from the left and he threw himself back in the saddle so it slid past his chest, bringing his sword up and chopping down at the enemy fighter. The man fell into the mud, trampled by the horse of one of his troop leaders as it waded through the battle and rubbed alongside his own.

“Captain!” The man’s face was bloody on one side and he was holding an arm tight against his ribs. “They have reinforcements!”

“I see them! Call the retreat!”

“But, Captain-”

He wheeled his horse around, blocking a sword stroke from his right and thrusting the blade into the man’s throat. He called back over his shoulder, “Do it! We don’t need to die here!”

The troop leader fumbled with a warhorn at his hip, bringing it up and blowing an ear-splitting, bleating call that rose over the clash of weapons and screams. He blew three long notes, his face red with the effort.

The battle shifted like a tide. It had been crushing inward, seething at the center and spreading into smaller skirmishes on the outskirts. Now the center washed back as the fighters tried to disengage. The enemy followed in a rush, roaring encouragement to each other.

He wheeled his horse toward the surge, screaming at his men as he cut down the enemy fighters trying to attack them from behind. “Get over the bridge! Go!” His horse climbed over the enemy in front of him, slashing with its hooves and stretching its neck forward to bite. He cut between his troops and the enemy, turning himself into a wedge to give them room to retreat.

His troop leaders joined him, riding back and forth in the growing gap between the two forces and holding the enemy back. Mud flew from their hooves and their swords gleamed in the lightning strikes and the scattered torchlight. His smaller force broke and ran for the nearby bridge lit by torches seen through a wall of scrub trees and rain.

The road funneled them through the brush, pushing them together and over the bridge. Beneath it the river rushed past, swollen by the runoff streaming out of the hills. The bridge, an old wooden cart bridge, was slick with rain. It creaked and groaned under the weight of so many men, the boards rattling under their feet. On the opposite side some of the men broke off and began loosening the blocks that wedged the supports in place. They had prepared for this.

He slashed at the fighters that pressed their horses back. A spear got through his defense and stabbed into his left arm, and he chopped down with his sword, cutting the opposing fighter’s arm so deep it hung limp as he fell back screaming. He reached up and yanked the spear out, tossing it aside and blocking a swordstroke from his right side.

The enemy pushed them back into the closer confines of the brush-lined road and he could hear the river like a dull roar behind him. He fought to stay in front, yelling at his riders to get across the bridge. One by one they turned and rode across, their hooves sliding on the wooden slats that were now slick with mud from the passage of the foot troops. The last two riders fought to either side of him, their horses backing to the edge of the bridge.

He shouted, “Go!”


“GO!!” He kicked his horse forward a few paces, pressing against the men choking the road. His sword rose and fell like an axe, but the blows were force rather than skill because his arm was heavy as lead. He risked a glance back to see the last two riders nearing the far side of the bridge. Putting a boot into the face of one of the enemy that tried to grab his saddle, he wheeled his horse around and kicked it into a canter across the rattling boards.

He crouched low over the saddle, eyes trained on the far side where his men were urging him on. He could feel the horse slipping on the muddy bridge as it ran, its hooves scraping the wood. He grit his teeth and clenched his hand on the hilt of his sword.

When the horse flinched and screamed in pain he tightened his legs and held onto the saddle with his injured arm. The animal pitched forward, hooves sliding out from under it, and its shoulder hit the surface of the bridge before it rolled. He felt the crushing weight of the horse on his leg first, then his breath was driven out as it rolled over him. The left rail of the bridge snapped like kindling and the horse pitched over the side, the stirrup dragging him across the edge. His hands clawed for purchase and he kicked free of the strap as the horse fell, its legs flailing as it screamed and twisted in the air before splashing into the river below.

He dug his nails into the boards, the rough edge of the bridge scraping the leather under his arms as he kicked his feet trying to find something to brace himself against. Rain hit his face like needles and he squinted to see the enemy flowing onto the bridge from one side, and a few of his troops starting back across, yelling his name.

He took a deep breath and let go.

The water hit him like a wall, forcing the air out of his lungs, and the cold made him gasp and choke as he was pulled under. He instinctively struggled against the current, trying to reach the surface. His leather armor, already soaked from the rain, weighed him down. At one point he felt something hard under his knee and twisted to push off against it. He shot to the surface and spluttered, getting one good breath before the water sucked him under again.

The river pushed him and spun him around, pulling him back under no matter how hard he tried to keep his head above the surface. Whenever he touched the bottom he pushed off, grabbing a breath or two before being submerged again. His arms and legs felt like they had stones tied to them.

His chest burned. He could see nothing in the dark water, and the only sound was roaring rapids above the surface or pressing silence underneath. Something hit his arm and he grabbed for it, wrapping numb fingers around rope as it pulled taut against the current. The water beat at him, choking him and pushing him under, and he felt the rope slipping through his hands. He twisted it around his forearm and it tightened painfully, but stopped slipping.

He didn’t have the strength to pull. The river stretched him out like a fish on a line and even when he found the bottom he couldn’t push himself up. He didn’t realize he was in shallow water until rough hands drug him to the surface and up the bank. They dropped him on hard ground and he coughed and vomited water, his arms shaking just holding himself out of the mud.

Torchlight came closer and he stared up through the rain, still gasping for breath. The faces sneering down at him were Noshurian. His numb brain had just enough time to register that he was in enemy hands before pain flared at the back of his skull and everything went black.

SEED – Softwired

The statusbot woke me from a really sweet dream where I was proving to a friend that coffee contained the anti-caloric equivalent of donuts, which is why they’re always taken together. And also why people who drink coffee and eat donuts never get fat off donuts. All while a mariachi band dressed like Kiss Redeux played in the corner.

“You have fourteen emails.”

I grabbed a pillow and pulled it over my head.

“Twenty-three unsolicited product offers.”

I knew it wouldn’t help.

“Four hundred sixty-two interactions on Mutter.”

The voice was broadcast through my implant.

“Two hundred eighty-four interactions on FriendStream.”

So I was the only one that could hear it.

“Five private messages.”

And there was no snooze button.

“And one citizen alert.”

I pulled the pillow off my head. “Repeat that last notification?”

“One citizen alert.”

“What the fuck?”

“You have been fined point two five credits for use of inappropriate slang.”

“Whatever… brainbaby.” I sat up in bed, yawning and scratching the back of my head to unflatten my hair. “What’s the citizen alert?”

“You have been selected as a troll hunter.”

I froze in the act of wiping the crusties out of the corner of my eye. “No. No…” I kicked my blanket away. “I decline!”

“Please remain in your current location for collection for the hunter safety course.”

I rolled off the bed and took two steps toward the closet before the implant sent a tiny jolt into my brain and it was once again lights out. This time I didn’t dream about coffee.

The Jade Train

Jade was a hero.

He wasn’t one of those heroes you read about in stories, with the flowing blond hair and servants who clip their toenails for them. He was a real hero.

His armor was dented from use, so much that one dent constantly poked him in the ribs when he turned to scratch himself. His hair was too long because haircuts cost good silver and he lived adventure to adventure and didn’t have silver to waste on frivolous things. He’d tried to cut his own hair with a knife once, but nobody would hire him until it grew out again, so now he just let it go far too long between haircuts.

He smelled like sweat and leather. Don’t believe the stories when they say heroes smelling like sweat and leather are sexy. Sweat and leather smell like a cow that’s been doing hot yoga all day. He was also usually covered in dust and road grime, because real heroes were on the road a lot.

And Jade was a real hero.

The previous week had been pretty good work. He’d killed an ogre and cleared out a troll infestation, netting him a pouch full of silver. He’d decided to splurge on a room at the local inn and maybe finally get the blacksmith to buff out that dent in his armor. He’d also decided to get a good hot meal from the inn’s kitchen, along with a few mugs of their third finest ale.

That’s how it happened he found himself in the latrine shortly after sunset, drunkenly trying to get his armored pants down in the dark. Noble knights could afford a squire to pull down their pants for them, but real heroes had to manage on their own. He struggled with the buckles, banging his armored elbows into the sides of the tiny latrine, dancing back and forth and praying he wouldn’t shit himself. He’d have to boil his armor if he shit himself.

He finally bent forward to push his armored pants down, and smacked his helmet on the door of the latrine. His visor snapped shut and he stumbled back, losing his balance and dropping down onto the seat behind him.

Armor weighs a lot. That’s the main reason heroes get so strong, from wearing nearly a hundred pounds of padded metal cookware. Inns are also notorious for the appalling state of their latrines. Let’s just say fate takes what it can get, and sometimes that’s a greasy plate of beef ribs and too much of last season’s ale that makes a hero desperately need the latrine.

Jade sat down heavily, and the boards of the seat surrendered. There was a deafening crack and the floor of the latrine decided it would probably be a good idea to surrender as well. Jade fell about six feet before plopping into the waste below, splattering the gods knew what onto the sides of the hole.

His first thought was horror at his new surroundings. His second was that he may as well shit himself, because nobody would be able to tell the difference now. Thus relieved, he reached for the sides of the hole to climb out.

It was slippery, of course. His armored gloves couldn’t get a grip on the wall. He realized he might have had an easier time with his pants if he’d thought to take the gloves off, but quickly focused back on the task at hand. Heroes stayed focused. He tried to stand up in the muck, but his feet found no solid bottom beneath the waste.

Then he realized he was sinking. He flung his arms about, kicking his legs like a swimmer would tread water, which only made him sink faster. The muck was up to his ribs now, and oozing into his armor. It was surprisingly warm. He threw aside his pride and shouted for help, thrashing about and trying to scrape for purchase on the sides of the hole.

He soon found he was up to his armpits in sewage. He flapped his arms and they plopped onto the surface of the muck, splattering waste and making a sucking noise when he tried to lift them again.

As the sewage began to seep into the slots of his visor, he still couldn’t feel the bottom of the pit, and he could barely move his lower body. He sighed, straining to keep his chin out of the ooze, his eyes watering with the stench.

“Well, fuck.”

He sank beneath the surface.

The bards singing that night in the inn were terrible. The innkeeper liked it that way because people bought more ale in an effort to make them seem better. It also scared away many of the stray cats that hung around the kitchen. So when a sewage covered figure shambled into the commonroom, groaning and burbling, they didn’t notice at first.

When someone finally caught sight of him they screamed and leaped from their chair, scrambling to get away. That was all the spark it took to turn the commonroom into a mob of terrified morons. People swarmed the door, shoving and screaming. Someone fell into the hearth and ran into the middle of the room with his shirt on fire. One of the bards started hitting people with his seven-stringed lute. A serving girl raided the cash box and slipped out the kitchen door.

The many tiny things that live in sewage, finding a vacant host when Jade’s body refused to continue struggling to live, had taken up residency. Even sewage bugs hated latrines. Why else would the smell of a latrine carry for miles if it wasn’t because the sewage was trying desperately to escape? They had hopped on that Jade train and forced it up out of the pit, toward a better existence.

Sadly, they were without a plan once they escaped the latrine itself. This world was a strange place for a few thousand simple sewer bugs, and the people didn’t seem to speak their language. The Jade train shuffled into the mob, hoping to learn its customs and perhaps make a friend.

The mob went crazy. People tried to crawl over each other to reach the door, trampling the drunks and the bards. Although to be fair, they kinda aimed for the bards. The man on fire tried to crawl over the mass of people, which made more people start on fire, and those peeled away from the mob in ones and twos as they ran around the room screaming.

The Jade train didn’t like the fire. Sewer bugs didn’t like fire as a rule, being full of highly flammable gases themselves. The Jade train tried to push its way through the mob to get back out, and some of the sewer bugs jumped off the train entirely, landing on the mob and trying to find new homes.

The front door of an inn is usually the strongest part, mainly because it gets fixed so often after exceptionally bad bar fights. This front door was no exception. It therefore makes perfect sense that the walls around the door gave way first. A gaping hole appeared in the building and the mob was finally free.

People ran across the yard on fire, shedding light for the rest who scattered into the streets with sewer bugs in their mouths and hair. The inn behind them was on fire now, and from somewhere inside the sound of lute strings breaking made an eerie accompaniment to the flames.

In the front yard stood the Jade train. It looked after the fleeing mob and shrugged its shoulders. Rumor had it there was a swamp a few days to the north, and some of the sewer bugs swore their mamas had told them their daddies had been swamp bugs. Maybe they’d go there.

The Jade train shambled to the north and started walking, waving its arms to keep its balance. Armor was heavy after all.