short stories

The Silent Serpent by J.A. Dowsett – Part 4

If you missed Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3, follow the links. Otherwise, read on! (This is a sci-fi short story by J.A. Dowsett that you don’t want to miss!) 

***

The Silent Serpent surged out of the Jump Gate into regular space and slowed immediately, though still moving far faster than the well-worn ship could have managed under its own power. Nell was back in the pilot’s chair and Xendri stood behind her, eager to see another new region of space. However, no sooner had Nell caught sight of what awaited them in this sector did her gold-flecked black fur stand on end. Whipping her tail around, she used the metal tip to tap the button that allowed her access to the ship-wide communications system, setting it to high-alert, while every other part of her remained focused on the ship’s controls.

“Xendri,” Nell said, tension making her voice clipped, “get the Captain. We have a problem.”

Before Xendri could so much as turn around, Nell knocked the controls forward and the old cargo vessel lurched, nose pointed downwards. Weapons fire was visible in the cockpit’s narrow window, but it made no sound until it grazed the side of the vessel, where it sounded like metal grinding against metal and sparks.

Xendri’s breath caught in her throat, but she didn’t let the stop her. “Captain!” she yelled into the rest of the ship as she exited the cockpit, clinging to any handholds she could find on the ship’s metal interior.

Captain James Claw stumbled into view just as Nell was righting the ship once more, sending the Terian shoulder-first into a metal wall. “What’s the prob-” He stopped mid-sentence, cleary able to see the issue for himself.

Xendri turned around to see what he was looking at and she finally was able to understand fully what Nell had grasped in those first few seconds out of the gate. It wasn’t just one ship firing at another or some sort of defense system they were on the wrong side of. They’d entered into an active warzone.

Ships of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions flew this way and that, defending the gate and the nearby space station from the largest ship in the area, which looked less like a ship and more like a floating platform atop which sat a silent, technologically advanced city. It was massive, as large as the space station itself and oddly square in shape, not like most of the vessels that flew around it. It was also…lifeless-looking. There were a few minor lights here or there, mostly near the guns, but otherwise the vessel was dark and unornamented as it drifted slowly through space.

“Delkrit,” Captain Claw whispered as he pushed absent-mindedly past Xendri.

Even being from one of the more remote corners of the galaxy, Xendri recognized the word. Everyone had heard of the Delkrit, though it was rare for anyone to have seen one, let alone survived to tell about it. They were the modern-day boogeyman. Tales that were told about the horrors that lurked out in the black of space to keep pilots and captains from venturing too far out into the uncharted parts of the galaxy. Not exactly a race, or even alive in the traditional sense, the Delkrit were machines with an AI hive mind programmed for one thing: to destroy all organic life. They were said to be the scourge of the galaxy.

Despite herself, Xendri followed the Captain back into the cockpit and squeezed herself beneath the wall and his arm so she could see what was going on. Nell had brought the ship around to join with the multitude of ships that were arrayed in a semi-organized fashion in their united goal to keep the Delkrit from destroying the gate. No matter which race this sector belonged to, the Delkrit were everybody’s enemy, and if the gate fell anyone within it would be stranded somewhere between here and the gate they left from, with no way to know how far they’d been tossed off course. And that was if they survived the gate’s collapse at all. It wasn’t lost on Xendri that had they not exited the gate when they did, that could easily have been their fate. As a spacefaring vessel, they owed it to whomever might be travelling through that gate to do what they could to ensure it didn’t shut down unexpectedly.

“Captain?” Nell questioned.

“You have any skill with guns?” Claw asked her and she nodded without taking her eyes off the task ahead of her. “Then use your best judgement,” he told her.

Xendri held her breath as Nell brought the Silent Serpent within firing range and strafed to the left, using the ship’s lasers for all they were worth. She left a few small explosions in her wake and managed to avoid being shot out of the sky. Xendri allowed herself to breathe again only when they were again skirting away from the horrifying cold and impersonal-looking Delkrit city, which fired at them only because its sensors detected their proximity, not because it ‘felt threatened’ or even felt anything at all. Xendri shuddered.

Just then, a team of Enbi ships swooped past them, so close their sudden appearance took Xendri’s breath right back out of her and Captain Claw swore audibly. Tiny one-man vessels, the Enbi fighter-ships were like a swarm of bees compared to the Delkrit city and just as angry, but as Xendri learned a moment later, they weren’t what had Nell or the Captain’s attention.  

“Shit, is that a Terran dreadnought?”

Between one breath and the next, by far the largest ship Xendri had ever seen popped into the sector, blocking out her view of this system’s sun. It was easily the width of the Delkrit vessel, if not wider, and it towered upwards as well, like a giant ark without sails. The words, ‘The Olympus’ were painted on the side, each letter easily the size of their own meager cargo ship.

“Wait, that gives me an idea,” Claw declared. “Nell, open up a communication to that Terran vessel.”

Nell’s eyes went wide at the command, but she followed it and hailed the Terran ship, even as she kept them moving, so as to make a difficult target for Delkrit guns.

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The Silent Serpent by J.A. Dowsett – Part 1

It’s time for another short story! This one’s not a pre-quel, or attached to any book at all, it’s a stand-alone sci-fi adventure following a group of characters that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. Please, enjoy! For more about me, just look around, or check our authors page here. 

***

The Silent Serpent hurtled through space at a speed only made possible by Jump technology. The old cargo hauler shuddered in protest at the velocity, but the pilot, Nell, paid the vessel no mind. Instead, her golden-green cat eyes were narrowed lazily over the cards in her hand as she deliberated her next play, her metal-tipped tail twitching idly.

Xendri watched her carefully, but the black and gold tortoiseshell cat, or Pentaurii as her race was called, gave nothing away by her expression; she was good at this game. Nell played the Queen of Spades, placing it on the foldout tray between them in the cockpit. Xendri frowned, looking between the cards at play and the ones in her hand before realizing all of a sudden that she’d been outmaneuvered. There was no way she could win now.

Xendri clicked her tongue in displeasure, speaking a few less-than-polite words in her native language before standing. “I’m going to check on the cargo.”  

“Cargo?” Nell questioned. “We’re mid-jump. It’s not going anywhere.”

“Yeah, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

Nell rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself.” Yawning, she put her hand of cards down as she turned to inspect the ship’s controls, absently going through the motions her job as thes ship’s secondary pilot required.

Xendri left her there and swung out into the main body of the ship, nimbly making her way to the ladder that led down into the detachable cargo bay.   

“Hey, Kiddo,” a deep male voice rumbled, catching her off guard. “Where you goin’?”

Looking up, Xendri found one of the loaders, a human man named nicknamed Quattro, looking at her curiously. He was much taller than her, six feet to her four, well-muscled, and he wore a impressive-looking pistol on his belt. Despite all that, there was no malice in his expression or in his glowing purple eyes, so she decided to let the ‘nickname’ he’d chosen for her slide, for now.

“Looking around,” she answered briefly. “Stretching my legs.”

Quattro nodded. “Yeah, gets a little boring in Jump-space, doesn’t it? Alright, go on then. Can’t hurt nuthin’.”

But Xendri wasn’t listening to him any longer; her eyes had fixated on the other device his belt contained. “Hey, can I borrow that?” she asked, gesturing with her chin.

Quattro looked down, confused. “You mean the scanner?” He unhooked it and tossed it to her. “Sure thing, Kiddo, knock yourself out.”

Xendri nodded, catching and pocketing the device before scurrying down the ladder, dismissing the burly loader from her thoughts. She took the ladder rungs two at a time and jumped the rest of the way to the floor of the cargo bay, landing gracefully on all fours before standing and making sure she was alone. The cargo bay was quiet; the only sound the occasionally creak to remind her that they were still moving very very fast, even if the floor beneath her feet felt stationary. She tapped the metal-plated floor with her foot as if to test the artificial gravity, but it felt the same as standing on any other surface. Space travel was weird that way, the universe had no up and down, but people made their own. Xendri wasn’t sure she’d ever really get used to it. She shrugged and pulled the scanner device out of her pocket, fiddling with the dials and buttons until she got the display to show what she wanted.

Walking slowly between the long cargo containers that filled the bay, Xendri let the scanner device do its thing, even going so far as to climb on top of one of the massive containers to scan closer to the middle.

“That’s odd,” Xendri muttered after some time spent in contemplation of what the hand-held device was telling her.

Eyes still on her findings, Xendri climbed back down off the crate, then back up the ladder to the rest of the ship. There was no sign of Quattro, but she wasn’t looking for him anyways; she went straight for the Captain’s quarters.

To be continued… 

Unmoored by Justine Alley Dowsett – Part 5 of 6

Find Part 1 here

Sure enough, there was a brawl on the street ahead of him. Patrons of The Crow’s Nest, including his friend Dagan, were out on the street en masse, caught in a one-sided fist fight with a bunch of armed soldiers. The fight was one-sided only because the other side was using swords, not fists.

Renaud grabbed the nearest soldier to him by the plume on his ridiculous-looking helmet. Catching the man completely off guard, Renaud was able to knock him over and relieve him of his pointy metal stick. Launching himself onto the next man, he pummeled that one with his fists, striking any place he could reach.

It didn’t take long for the invading army to realize they had a madman in their midst. Renaud fought with abandon, breaking noses, biting fingers, and kneeing the stupidest of men in the balls. Didn’t your fathers ever teach you to guard your stones? He made a mental note to teach his own son that very lesson as soon as he got home.

Renaud was an unstoppable force, until several of his victims began to recover and he found himself in the middle of a pile-up. He took a foot to his ribcage, a knee to his left kidney, and an elbow in the eye before Dagan and some of the others were able to come to his rescue, pulling him free of his attackers and leaving them to wrestle one another.

“Thanks, man.” Renaud clapped Dagan on the shoulder. “I owe you one.”

Dagan grinned, one of his front teeth missing. “How ‘bout you give me a posting on that new ship of yours and we’ll call it even?”

My ship! He belatedly recalled that he was Captain of his own ship now. That’s right! I don’t have to stay for this. I can be out on the water and away from Ismera before this civil war, or whatever this is, gets any worse.

Though something about what was happening rubbed Renaud the wrong way. Turrellin declared itself as neutral in the conflict between the King and those who want to dethrone him. Why would Vance Chappelle attack his own people?

Suddenly eager to return to his ship and sail home to Saegard, where the world made sense, Renaud found himself looking back toward The Crow’s Nest. He watched as the barkeep, Ginny, tossed a pot full of boiling hot stew in the face of one soldier before retreating within the inn and shutting the solid oak door tightly behind her. She’ll be okay, Renaud realized, and I’m right, this isn’t my fight.

“Dagan,” he held a hand out to his red-headed friend, “you’ve got yourself a deal. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!”

Renaud and Dagan made their way down the hill much faster than Renaud had initially run up it, despite the stitch in Renaud’s side and his rapidly swelling eye. Once his feet were firmly on the docks, though, Renaud felt his pain and worry melt away to be replaced with a sense of duty and purpose. He was a Captain now, and his ship and crew were waiting for him to lead them safely out of here.

He was within shouting distance of The Clover when his eyes happened to notice something out of place on the lift, way up at the top of the cliff edge. Is that a person?

“Why are you stopping?” Dagan demanded. “That’s yours there, with the four-leaf clover, right?”

“Yeah,” Renaud answered somewhat distractedly. “You go on. I’ll catch up.”

Dagan shrugged and resumed his forward motion, but Renaud’s eyes were glued on the lift far above. At this distance and in the failing light the form he saw was a small lump. It could be a pile of supplies with a tarp over it, but when it moved Renaud knew better. It’s a child, he realized with a sharp intake of breath.

He watched as a small white hand, stark against the dark fabric of the cloak the child was wearing, darted out to grip the lever that would activate the lift. Renaud’s breath caught in his throat. The lift usually has operators to run and monitor it. What is she doing?

Renaud couldn’t explain how he knew, but he had a sinking feeling in his gut that told him the small child who now had both hands on the lever and was pulling as hard as she could was the girl he’d seen this morning; the one with the bouncy dark hair and perfect young, happy parents.

As he watched, the lift mechanism gave way and the lift plummeted.

***

Subscribe or come back next week for the final installment of this short story!! 

The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 7 (of 8)

Have you been keeping up with this serial short story? If you’re just getting started, Part 1 is here. If you want to learn more about Sharon Ledwith, here’s her website. Sharon Ledwith has two great series worth checking out. This short story is a prequel of sorts to her The Last Timekeepers time travel series. The character of Shu-tu reappears in Legends of the Timekeepers.

Amiee rushed after Shu-Tu, tackled her to the stone floor, and then straddled her thin body. Shu-Tu hit the back of her head, yet still held the firestone tightly to her chest. A sharp pain went up her neck while Amiee tried to wrestle the six-sided crystal away from her, bashing her back against the cool, hard stone floor. Suddenly, Shu-Tu lost her grip and the firestone was in Amiee’s possession.

“I…I saved you from the wyvern, and this…this is how you repay me?” Shu-Tu wiped away her tears. “How…how could I have been so blind not to see this side of you or Segferd?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, Shu-Tu.” Amiee smirked wickedly. “In a moment, you won’t be able to see anything.”

Amiee raised the firestone over her head and whacked Shu-Tu in the middle of the forehead. A pain she had never known before seared through her eyes to the back of skull and down her spine. Shu-Tu started twitching as soon as Amiee got off her. Suddenly, she felt her eyes move around and around, as if they were immersed in a goblet of water. Warm liquid, she knew was her own blood, dripped down the sides of her face. Panicking, Shu-Tu slapped the cool stone floor repeatedly, trying to fight off the pain, trying to understand what was happening to her. She sat up, roughly wiped away the blood from her face, and placed both hands over her eyes. Shu-Tu’s skin tingled all over. She could feel her eyes moving quickly, spinning around in their sockets, juggling and bouncing, until they both crossed. Her purpose, the reason why she had been born, everything became crystal clear. Her sight became her insight, her sacrifice became her gift.

Shu-Tu inhaled deeply, and pointed at Amiee. “You will bear a dark-hearted son named Belial who will teach Atlantis to worship pleasure and ease over love and respect. Unfortunately, Amiee, you die during childbirth, and will never know him. And you—” she pointed to Segferd, her eyes spun around and around “—were responsible for preparing a tainted crystal pellet to give to your father to poison the water my father drank. That is the reason why you away from class last week. You, Segferd, will be swallowed by the earth by the next full moon.”

“Have you gone mad, Shu-Tu?” Segferd asked, squeezing the rod.

“By the looks of her spinning eyeballs, I’d say she’s half-way there,” Amiee said, snickering. “Maybe you should put the poor child out of her misery, Segferd.”

He nodded sharply just as the ground started to shake again. The crystals above vibrated to such a degree of high intensity, Shu-Tu swore a chorus of the best singers in Atlantis were in the room with them. She reached out to stop herself from shaking. Surprisingly, she wasn’t afraid.

“If you both want to live to use the firestone for your noble acts, I suggest you leave now,” Khem said calmly. “I will take care of Shu-Tu for you. After all, hybrids are here to serve.”

Segferd shoved the rod’s forked end under Khem’s throat. “Now you’re getting the idea, baboon-breath. Kill the girl with this rod and leave no trace of us being here, or you’ll wish you were never created.”

Khem put his hands together. “As you wish.”

Segferd sneered, then tossed the baboon-headed rod at Khem’s feet. Shu-Tu jerked at the metallic clanging sound.

“Come on, Segferd!” Amiee yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “Let’s get out of here before the chamber caves in!”

The last thing Shu-Tu heard was the sound of hurried footsteps running up the granite stairs before the world as she knew it turned pitch black.

The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 6

Here’s part one. Here’s Sharon Ledwith. Then, keep reading…

Shu-tu’s throat tightened. “H-How do you know me?”

Segferd stepped in front of her. “What trick are you playing here, hybrid? We don’t know you, and you don’t know us!”

“Don’t I, Segferd?” Khem asked, smiling and exposing a fang.

“Listen, hybrid, you better not be threatening us,” Amiee said, clenching her fists. “My brother and I are from the House of—”

“Beliar,” Khem cut in. “Yes, yes, I know. Is that supposed to impress me, Amiee?”

Amiee’s fair face turned ashen. Khem dipped his human hand into his pouch and pulled out a glittering six-sided crystal, the likes Shu-Tu had never seen before. The rainbow colored crystal, about the size of a small pomegranate lit up Khem’s features, making him look more human, than baboon.

“This is my price,” Khem said, holding up the six-sided crystal. “The only price you will pay is the consequences of your actions. The rule of the game is simple. I get to ask each of you the same question, and whoever has the best answer gets to keep this firestone.”

Amiee gasped. “A-A firestone?”

“How do we know it’s real?” Segferd asked, his mouth falling open.

“You’ll have to take the word of a hybrid, I guess,” Khem replied, shrugging. “But then again, seeing is believing for you humans. Here, hold my rod, Amiee, and I’ll prove that I’m telling the truth.”

Without the staff she threw at Khem, Shu-Tu watched Amiee limp over to grasp the golden rod. A sheen of sweat on her forehead attested to her pain. Amiee grimaced as she gripped the rod, and leaned against it for support. The forked end of the rod scraped against the rock and sent shivers up Shu-Tu’s spine. Khem waved the firestone over her ankle, and chanted an old Atlantean prayer nine times before he stopped.

“Walk,” Khem commanded.

Amiee grunted. “This is ridiculous, I—” She paused, putting weight on her foot. “T-There’s no pain anymore. It’s like I never twisted my ankle.”

Khem nodded. “The curative powers of the firestone have restored your body.”

Amiee glanced at Segferd, then back at Khem. “I’m in for the game.”

“Me too,” Segferd said, nodding.

Shu-Tu’s heart raced. “What else can the firestone do?”

Khem puckered his baboon lips, twisting them one way, then the other before he said, “Whatever you wish. It was one of six harvested from the mighty crystal. Very rare. Very special.”

“Go on then,” Amiee said with urgency. “Ask your silly question.”

“Very well, I’ll start with you, Amiee,” Khem replied, strumming human fingers against his chest. “For what purpose would you use this firestone?”

Amiee licked her lips. “I would use the firestone to benefit all Atlanteans by surrendering it to the high priests and priestesses of the Temple of Poseidon to help promote divine knowledge.”

Khem scratched his hairy chin. “How very noble. What about you, Segferd?”

Segferd straightened. “I would use the firestone to harness the forces of nature and put a stop to the earthquakes that have plagued our country for thousands of years.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Khem snapped his fingers. “Shu-Tu, your response better top Amiee and Segferd’s answers.”

Shu-Tu swallowed hard, and said, “I…I would use the firestone to bring my father back to life.”

She swore she heard Amiee titter. Segferd coughed.

Khem frowned. “I see. You know what you want to use this firestone for goes against the Law of One’s plan, don’t you, Shu-Tu?”

She hung her head, her eyes began to well. “I told you the truth. That’s how I would use the firestone.”

“So, which one of us wins the game?” Amiee asked, banging the rod against the stone floor.

Segferd rubbed his hands together. “Yes, who is your choice, hybrid?”

“Very well, you all played my game fairly, so I must choose a winner.” Khem held out the firestone to Shu-Tu. “It’s all yours, Shu-Tu.”

“What!” Amiee screamed. “Y-You can’t be serious! You said it yourself, hybrid, no one must tamper with the will of the Law of One’s plan!”

“Oh, a sore loser, I see,” Khem replied. “You played the game, you lost. I liked Shu-Tu’s answer the best.”

“But…my answer would have saved so many people,” Segferd blurted. “Shu-Tu only wants one life saved.”

Khem shrugged. “A life that matters to her, one she loves unconditionally.”

Shu-Tu stared at the beautiful firestone in her hands. Rainbow swirls of light danced off of it, warming her body through to the core. Khem reached out to touch her cheek, and she shivered. “Your father awaits you,” he said, pointing toward the altar.

Shu-Tu’s jaw dropped. “M-My father is the body under the shroud?”

“Something is wrong here,” Segferd said, scratching his head. “Why would a hybrid have your father’s body?”

“This is all Thoth’s doing isn’t it?” Amiee asked, pointing the forked end of the rod at Khem’s throat. “Tell us where he is or I’ll spear you!”

“No, Amiee!” Shu-Tu yelled, clutching the firestone to her chest. “Wait until I revive Father!”

“You’re father is dead, and he’s not coming back,” Segferd said, his voice void of emotion. “Give us the firestone. The House of Beliar will use it for the highest good of Atlantis.”

Khem clapped. “Now this is getting interesting!”

Shu-Tu backed up toward her father’s body. “No. I won fair and square. I will use the firestone as I see fit.”

Amiee tossed the rod to her brother. “Watch the hybrid! I’m taking that firestone!”

Shu-Tu’s eyes widened as Segferd grabbed the rod in mid-air and pointed it at Khem. “Go make father proud, sis.”

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.”

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 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.