serial fiction

The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 4

Sharon Ledwith’s short story continues! If you missed part 1, here it is. If you want to learn more about the author and her books, check out her website. Then, keep reading!

 

“Where is he?” Shu-Tu asked, surveying the manicured grounds outside Thoth’s private grotto.

Under the light of the half moon and stars, she could make out a giant circular garden, all the flowers closed and bowing in deep contemplation. A bubbling spring on her right gave off enough steam to dampened the air and make her unbound hair frizz. She licked her lips, tasting the saltiness in the air from being so close to the ocean. Shu-Tu’s skin tingled. Her thin, sleeveless dress stuck to her body. Perhaps this is a mistake.

“Thoth said he’d meet us here, and his word is true,” Amiee replied, glancing around.

“True or not, Thoth better show his face soon,” Segferd said, hiking up his silk trousers to sit on a gleaming granite bench. “I’m not accustomed to be kept waiting.”

“Honestly, sometimes I think we came from different mothers, Segferd,” Amiee said.

“That would explain many things,” Segferd said, grinning. “Like your gigantic feet and monkey-like hands.”

Aimee snorted. “Or your tiny ears and bird-beak nose.” She glanced at her palms.

Shu-Tu rolled her eyes. She rubbed her arms briskly just as she heard a thunderous crack behind them. A dark green creature double the size of full grown horse charged out of the thicket. The creature screeched, the sound going through Shu-Tu like shards of glass, and then snapped its reptilian jaws. The moonlight caught a forked-tongue slithering out of its mouth, lapping the air in search of fresh blood.

“Oh Poseidon, a wyvern!” Amiee shrieked. “It must have escaped from its breeder!”

“Quick, into the grotto and down the stairs!” Segferd picked up a chunk of rough-cut quartz crystal. “It’s too big to follow us!”

Segferd hurled the quartz at the wyvern’s bulbous serpent head. It snapped at the crystal in mid-air and spit it out. Translucent wings beat a path toward them while the wyvern’s hawk-like feet curled up into its leathery body. A long tail with a barbed end—poisonous to the touch—swished furiously as the wyvern got closer to the three classmates.

“Move, now!” Segferd shouted, leading the way.

Stumbling, Amiee tripped over her bejeweled sandaled feet at the mouth of the grotto.

“Amiee!” Shu-Tu screamed. She stopped to help her friend up, and dragged Amiee inside.

Hot, rancid breath from the wyvern’s open mouth rolled across the back of Shu-Tu’s neck and arms. The wyvern screeched and snapped its powerful jaws, its tongue desperately trying to reach her, taste her, but the wyvern couldn’t fit in any farther. Shu-Tu shivered just as the ground tremored. Her eyes widened. An earthquake! Oh please, Poseidon, have mercy! Holding onto Amiee, Shu-Tu reached out to grab a statue of Poseidon’s mortal wife Cleito sculpted from the rock above them. The wyvern retreated as fast as it had attacked, the beating of its wings signaling the creature’s departure. Falling pieces of rock and crystal filled the entranceway, and snuffed out the moonlight. Shu-Tu’s throat tightened. There was no way out. Suddenly, the earth ceased shaking. Shu-Tu blew a sigh of relief. At least the quake only lasted three short breaths.

“Shu-Tu? Amiee? Are you okay?” Segferd asked from the bottom of the rock-cut stairs.

Shu-Tu coughed. “I’m fine.” She released the smooth, stone statue and blinked a few times to adjust her eyes to the darkness.

“I…I think I’ve twisted my ankle,” Amiee said.

Groping in the dark, Shu-Tu bent down, and brushed away Aimee’s soft gown. She placed her hand over Aimee’s foot. “She’s right. Her ankle is starting to swell.”

Aimee growled. “This…this is all your fault, Segferd!”

“My fault?” he asked, his voice echoing. “How so?”

“You attacked the wyvern first!” she snapped. “Who in their right mind does that?”

Shu-Tu used the cool, granite wall as a guide to stand. “It’s all right, Amiee, your brother did his best to protect us.”

“You must learn to stop sticking up for him,” Amiee said, grunting to stand. She squeezed Shu-Tu’s hand. “T-Thank you for…saving me.”

Shu-Tu shrugged. “You would have done the same for me. Can you walk?”

“I…I think so.”

“Here.” Segferd passed a wooden staff topped with a glowing crystal to Shu-Tu and Amiee. “This will help Amiee walk and give us enough light to navigate the pathways to find another way out.”

“Where’d you get these staffs?” Shu-Tu asked, the orange glowing end illuminating her features.

“They were leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs,” Segferd replied, holding out his hand to his sister. “It’s like someone left them there for us to find.”

Amiee swatted his hand away. “No thanks, I can manage without your help.”

As they made their way deeper into the grotto, the only light source, other than the glimmering crystals on the staffs Segferd found, came from the effervescent springs swirling below them. The damp, pungent air inside the grotto was a welcome relief from the humidity above. The smooth passage led them down and around, down and around, like the actions of a perfect spiral.

“Where do you suppose this goes?” Amiee asked, limping.

“There’s talk among our servant hybrids of a secret natural labyrinth called the Hall of Illumination,” Segferd said, holding out his staff. “Initiations for the highest order of magi are held at the far end of the hall. I wonder if this is the place they were speaking about?”

“I don’t think such a hall truly exists,” Amiee replied, grunting. “Hybrids have a tendency to fabricate things. Besides, those half-breed creatures were created to serve us, not teach us.”

“But, Amiee, what about what Thoth has taught us?” Shu-Tu asked, wiping damp hair off her forehead. “That everyone, and everything has a purpose here. That we are all an inseparable part of one Whole.”

Amiee snorted in laugher. “If you to choose to believe that you’re one with a hybrid, Shu-Tu, then as Poseidon is my witness, I’ll throw you into the churning springs below us.”

“Wait, do you two hear that?” Segferd stopped. “It sounds like chanting.”

Shu-Tu listened. A steady, monotonic mantra lulled her, invited her to come closer like an invisible wagging finger. She smiled. “Reminds me of a verse Father would chant.”

“Whoever it is must know a way out,” Amiee said.

“Agreed.” Segferd pulled at his silk tunic. “Come on, it’s not too much farther.”

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The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 1

You are in for a treat! While we read through submissions, you get to read a short story in roughly 10 parts by the talented and prolific Sharon Ledwith, author of The Last Timekeepers series and now the Mysterious Tales from Fairy Falls series. This short story is a prequel to her fantastic time travel series and we’re sure you’re going to love it! Here’s part one:

 

“Please, children, don’t stand too close. The frequency will be too much for your young minds to handle,” Thoth said, waving a long, golden rod topped with a fashioned baboon head.

Shu-Tu stood at the back on her tippy-toes behind her classmates, trying to catch a glimpse of the large six-sided figure known to her people as the mighty crystal. All around them a sparkling metal—the color of storm clouds—lined the walls of the massive domed building to protect and ensure Atlantis’s safety from the crystal’s unpredictable vibratory forces. But even knowing this, Shu-Tu’s scalp prickled incessantly. She craned her neck. Heads—some the size of melons—bobbed up and down in front of her, obscuring her vision. She set her jaw, reached out and grabbed a fistful of red hair belonging to a tall girl with hunched shoulders, standing in the front row. Shu-Tu yanked hard.

“Ouch! Let go, let go!” the girl yelled, stumbling back.

“What goes on here?” a human-animal hybrid with the head of an ibis demanded. “The Crystal Dome is a place of respect!”

Shu-Tu pursed her full lips to one side. Her green eyes swept over the lowly hybrid—a servant of their teacher, Thoth. The hybrid’s long, hooked beak, beady yellow eyes, and s-shaped white-feathered neck moved back and forth in vigilance. Human hands gripped the looped end of a crossed-shaped ankh made of pure orichalcum—the sparkling copper-colored precious metal mined only in Atlantis. The hybrid ruffled his neck feathers, and made a severe clicking sound with his beak.

Shu-Tu shook her head. Her ivory tendrils swept across the back of her neck as she said, “I’m well aware of that. I couldn’t see, so I took care of the problem. There is no disrespect in trying to see my teacher.”

“See, no. But causing harm to others is not respectful, Shu-Tu,” Thoth said, moving through the group of parting students. “And what you give out, you get back, so in essence you are disrespecting yourself, young lady.”

“But…Shu-Tu has a point, Thoth. I couldn’t see either,” the brown-haired girl next to Shu-Tu blurted. “Someone had to move that red-headed giant out of the way.”

Few students giggled, but most remained silent.

“I was not speaking to you, Amiee.” Thoth wagged his rod at her.

“Shall I escort these two trouble-makers outside, Master?” the ibis-headed hybrid asked, bowing.

Thoth turned, making his dark, red robe swirl around his towering frame. “That won’t be necessary, Djeuti, unless…”

“Unless, what?” Shu-Tu interrupted, inclining her head.

“I do not hear an apology coming out of both your mouths,” Thoth replied, his sapphire eyes staring down at them.

 

Death Takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 6

My apologies for this being the only post this week. I’m just recovering from a short illness. As always, you can find part 1 of this short story here. Or if you like David McLain’s style, please consider his hilarious time travel fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum

Then, keep reading… 

They stopped for dinner in Gary, Indiana, at a place that specialized in Fried Chicken. William felt better than he had in weeks. Checking his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he noticed that his eyes were clearer looking, and that his shoulders looked a little broader. His hands were distinctly less gnarled, and his fingernails didn’t have that yellow quality that they’d had in recent years. He looked like a man of seventy, maybe sixty five. Death looked better too. They looked less like two men at the end of their lives, and more like two guys in their golden years who were enjoying life. There was no doubt about it, the car might be going forward, but the miles were rolling back.

“Where are we staying tonight?” William asked.

“We’re near the city,” Death said. “I thought we’d find someplace nice.”

They stayed in a beautiful hotel in Downtown Chicago, where their room had a giant flat screened television and a little kitchen. They had a few drinks and some dessert in the hotel restaurant before heading upstairs. A young waitress with crooked teeth took their order, and was very nice to them. William found himself in a good mood.

“You’re a good guy,” he said to Death after his second drink.

“Thanks,” Death said.

“Most people don’t like you,” he added. He probably shouldn’t have said this, but it seemed like a fairly obvious point.

“It’s never a good day when I come around,” Death said. “But that isn’t my fault.”

“Is this just what we do now?” William asked. “Drive around from place to place, having a good time?”

“No,” Death said, and he had a serious look on his face. “This is merely the journey.”

This sobered William up a little. “Then what comes next?” he asked.

“You’ll see,” Death said.

In the morning William was pleased to see that some of the hair had filled in on the top of his head. It wasn’t so much that you’d notice, or really care, but it was nice to see. Some of it, he noticed, was brown instead of gray. The veins which had seemed so close to the surface in his hands and his feet seemed more subdued.  Death was still getting younger too. They got up early, had breakfast in the hotel, and headed for downtown Chicago.

Death was clear that they didn’t have a lot of time to waste, but Chicago is a beautiful city, so they stopped and went to the art museum. William had never been there before, and he enjoyed wandering around, looking at priceless works of art. Somewhere in between an Edward Hopper painting and a Suerat, William thought of something.

“All these painters,” he whispered so that only Death could hear. “They’re all dead?”

“Yes,” Death said, “I suppose that they are.”

“So you met them all?”

“At one point or another,” Death reflected.

“How’d they take it?” William asked.

Death considered this. “Most came quietly. A few fought tooth and nail. One or two grinned at me like I was a long lost relative. I tell you one thing though- none of them seemed surprised.”

“Is that so?”

“Not even the ones I had to drag out of bars,” Death said. “Although I suppose if you spent that much time in bars, you shouldn’t be surprised.”

They spent the morning looking at paintings, then had lunch at a tapas restaurant downtown. William had never had tapas before. It was nice. After that, they headed south, toward Saint Louis.

Death takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 5

Find Part One here. Find David McLain here. Find his novel, The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum here.

Then keep reading…

The room they stayed in had been a smoking room at one point, and still smelled faintly of cigarettes. They watched an old movie on television, and went to bed relatively early. At two AM, William woke up. He noticed that Death snored like a chainsaw. ‘I could just run away,’  he thought. ‘What would happen then? Maybe I’d be a ghost.’

There is nothing better for a person than a good night’s sleep. William woke up around eight o’clock. He’d been dreaming about the town he’d grown up in. ‘I guess you still dream after your dead,’ he thought. ‘Good to know.’

Death was in the shower while he woke up. He came out wearing a towel. “Good night’s sleep?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Will said.

“You look better,” Death pointed out.

“I died yesterday,” Will said.

“Anything is better than that,” Death said. “Take a shower, I’d like to make it to Chicago today, and we should stop and get you some clothes, maybe a toothbrush if you’d like.”

Will went and took a shower. The water felt delicious. He dried off with a white fluffy towel. It wasn’t until he got out of the shower that he saw it.

He didn’t notice it at first, since the effect was subtle. The mirror was foggy, and Will was a little out of the habit of paying close attention to his physical appearance. As he dried his hair though, he noticed it- you could see it around his eyes. The skin was just a little bit tighter, and his eyes were a little less watery. His hands didn’t seem quite as arthritic as they usually were, and his back hurt less than usual. He smiled. His teeth looked better than he remembered.

“I look better,” William said, astonished, as he came back into the room.

“Sure,” Death said, which was when Will noticed the second thing. Death was a little thinner today around the middle, and there was just the slightest wisp of black hair. There was no doubt about it- they were younger.

“Does this happen to everyone?” William asked.

“It’s different every time,” Death admitted.

“What now?” William asked.

“I’m pretty sure that the diner we ate at last night will sell pancakes,” Death said. “Why don’t we get some?”

So they got pancakes, which were delicious. The same waitress who had waited on them the night before took their order. Afterwards, they found a cheap department store, where they bought some clothes. Will had no idea where they were headed, or how long they should pack for, but he tried to keep it light, since the MG had a trunk roughly the size of a bread basket. He wondered if maybe he was supposed to buy funeral attire, but Death didn’t seem to care. He settled on a few T-shirts, a couple of pairs of jeans, and a few other necessities, including a small dufflebag. They got back on the road and headed west again. By the end of the day, they’d be in Illinois.

They cut quickly through Northern Pennsylvania and went straight on to Ohio, which had always struck William as little more than an endless suburb. The ride went well, although after three or four hours on the road, William would find that his back got stiff and he needed a break, so they would find a spot to get out and stand up, maybe grab a meal or at least a drink, before getting back out on the road. The car had the radio that it had rolled off the production line with, which meant there was little to listen to other than the occasional AM talk radio station, so Death bought a little transistor job at a truck stop, so at least they could listen to the news as they headed from town to town. The country was flat, and the road was straight, which meant that there wasn’t much to look at, but it was a little warmer than it was yesterday, and the sky was blue. They were near downtown Cleveland when William caught a glimpse of the gray waters of Lake Erie stretching out to the north.

“Can we stop?” he asked Death.

“For a few minutes,” Death said.

They got off the highway and took a look. It was relaxing to sit there and stare at the water, neither the man nor the supernatural figure said much, they just stood and stared. “Somewhere out there my daughter is making arrangements for my funeral,” William thought. “She’s probably picked out some sort of funeral home. I hate those places. I should call her and tell her to have me cremated.” Somehow he knew that Death would think that was a bad idea. He tried to put his daughter out of his mind.

Death takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 4

The story continues… (You can find Part 1 here if you missed it.)

It was an Indian Casino. Not a very big one, nor very prosperous, but it was big enough to have a nice buffet restaurant attached to it, where a waitress sat William and Death down at a table in the corner, and invited them to help themselves to fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. She didn’t seem to know or care that William was dead, or that he was being accompanied by Death itself. In fact, they seem to fit in pretty well with the casino’s clientèle. Most of the gamblers looked like they were in their late sixties and early seventies- some even looked older than William was. They ate mostly in silence. Death didn’t seem like much of a talker.

“How do you feel?” Death asked.

“Better than I have in weeks, maybe months,” William admitted.

“That’s usually the way,” Death said. “Once you get used to it, most people feel better.”

“They feel better dead?” William asked.

“I’m not saying you won’t miss things,” Death said. “There’s a lot you’re leaving behind. Usually though, at some point, most people say to themselves ‘O.K. I’ve had enough.’ That’s when it’s time to move on.

“It doesn’t feel real,” William admitted.

“It won’t,” Death said. “Not at first,” he paid the bill with a credit card. William wondered if it would be an all black Mastercard or have ‘666’ as the card number or something, but it was a perfectly ordinary bank card. So far, Death seemed almost pedestrian.

“Let’s go,” Death said.

They got back in the car, heading west again. It was still colder than blazes, although William had gotten used to the stick shift. It was strange, driving such a tiny car. In another life William might have expressed concern about driving something so small on the highway, but what did it matter now? It wasn’t like being jack-knifed by an eighteen wheeler would kill him. (In fact, he wasn’t sure what it would do. Leave him like some sort of zombie maybe? He didn’t want to ask.) He drove cautiously, in the left lane, till a little after dark, when Death finally told him to pull over.

“Right here? By the side of the road?” William asked.

“No, no. At the next exit. There’s a Super 8 just off the highway. We’ll get a room. I don’t like driving at night in the winter, unless I have to.”

They pulled over and parked in front of the motel. They were somewhere near the Pennsylvania border, but where exactly William wasn’t sure. The hotel was manned by an enormous man in a polyester shirt, who looked simultaneously tired and dull, as if being forced to wear a polo with his company logo on it and having to smile at strangers was a form of brain death. They took a double room on the first floor with a window facing the dumpster of a neglected Chinese food restaurant.

“You want Chinese for dinner?” Death asked.

William thought about it. Then he did something that he thought he would never do again- he made a choice. “I saw a diner down the road a little bit. Let’s go there.”

So they did. William ordered the turkey club, and Death had a steak, extra rare. The waitress, like everyone else, didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about them, although come to think of it, she didn’t give them much of a look either. It was shortly after they ate their food that William started asking questions.

“So I’m dead?” he asked. He looked around as he said it, like he was talking about committing a crime. The diner was almost empty and the waitress didn’t seem like she would care if he lit his pants on fire. Still, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing you wanted to announce to just anyone.

“Yes,” Death said.

“I don’t feel different,” Will admitted, although on reflection, that wasn’t true. He definitely didn’t feel like he did when he was dying. That was awful.

“You won’t, at first,” Death said. “It’s a lot to take in all at once.”

“There were a lot of things I wanted to do before I died,” William said. “Things I wanted to do, and say.”

“I know,” Death said. “There always are.”

“I guess that’s the way things work,” Will said. Truth be told, he usually had a hundred different things that he wanted to on a weekend that didn’t get done, there didn’t seem to be any reason that dying wasn’t going to be any different. “It’s just hard to believe,” he added.

“I’m sure,” Death said.

“I worked hard, all my life,” Will said. “Some years were good. Some were bad. I left my daughter a little bit of money. That was good, right?”

Death said “That was good,” but he didn’t look like he felt anything about it, one way or the other.

“If my life was about work, and progress, and family,” William said. “Then what is this about?”

“Moving on,” Death said.

Death Takes the Highway by David McLain – Part One

You may recall us featuring some short stories. Here’s a quick list to where you can find them:

The Hunting Dog by Rita Monette
The Queen’s Intent by Justine Alley Dowsett
The Arranged Marriage by Justine Alley Dowsett
The Eye of the Storm by Justine Dowsett

And now, we bring you Death takes the Highway by David McLain, author of The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

-Emily Dickinson

Although no one knew it, William Hershel was going to die at three fifty-eight on January the thirteenth, at Wilson Hospital in Johnson City, New York, just after his daughter stepped out of the room for a minute to go to the bathroom and freshen up a little. The hospice nurse would tell her that this was very common. In as much as people had a choice, and it wasn’t really clear that they did, they seemed to choose to die when their relatives were out of the room, even if there had been someone with them all day, and they had only been left alone for a few seconds. It wasn’t clear why they did that, but the nurse said she had seen it time and time again.

If anyone had asked William Hershel, at say, three fifty four on that same day, why people choose to die during that one moment when they were alone, he would have been glad to tell them. It was for the same reason that you closed the door when you were going to the bathroom, or taking a shower, or making love. When we are forced to show our biological side, we prefer to be alone. Since the age of fourteen, William Hershel’s daughter had closed the door while brushing her teeth, she could hardly expect William to shuffle off his mortal coil while she watched, for goodness sake. If his wife had been there, that might have been different, but William Hershel had no wife. He’d been married once, but that had been over for almost a decade, and his ex-wife had declined to visit him, which was just as well. That left him dying, at three fifty-fifty eight on January the Thirteenth, exactly two weeks shy of his eighty-first birthday.

To look at him was less like looking at a man, and more like staring at an empty husk. His body was broken, his bones were gnarled, his hair was gone. His teeth were rotten, and his organs were failing quickly. There were tubes coming out of every conceivable part of him, and he smelled terrible. Dignity had been the last thing to go, but when it had gone, it had left completely. All you had to do was take one look at him, and you knew it was time. He had heard his daughter making the sorts of plans that you didn’t want to here being made about yourself. He knew that she had been in touch with a funeral home, that she’d talked to the hospice nurse about what would happen next. He’d heard her say something about how he’d worked hard, so very hard, all his life.  He knew that she had her own life and she wanted to get back to it. He felt bad that he had taken up so much of her time these past few years.

In real life, last words are rarely significant in any way whatsoever. In fact, in modern medical terms, just being able to say last words often meant that you were not really ready to die just yet. The closest thing William Hershel had to last words was an unheard gurgle at roughly three fifty-five. It was indicative of a small amount of air leaving his lungs as his organs shut down.     

     ‘I’m still here,’ William thought. ‘I’m still here.’

It is, or at any rate, it should be, a great privilege to be coherent during the last few minutes of your life, and, technically, William Hershel was. He hadn’t opened his eyes for three days, but nonetheless, his thoughts were still there. When his daughter had held his hand and cried earlier that day, he’d felt it and he’d heard it and he knew what was happening. Three fifty-six came and went without as much as a flicker. That left three fifty-seven. What do you do with your penultimate minute on earth? It turned out William Hershel celebrated by feeling his heart stop beating. It was the strangest feeling, a little bit like holding your breath, only much, much worse. His daughter would be on her way back to the room in just another minute or so, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to wait that long.

William Hershel, born in San Clemente, California, died at three fifty-eight, almost exactly, but this was just the beginning.

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David McLain is the author of the novel Dragonbait and The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum. He grew up New York, California,  Transylvania, and France. He studied writing at The University of Massachusetts and at Purchase College, where he also directed a production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He lives in New York with a female painter and a small dog.