Where The Owls Blossom

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She walks in flowers: a swirl of spring perfumes, the soft flutter of pale petals. A gentle season walks with her scattering broom, meadowsweet, and oak blossom in its wake. She is beauty. She is love. But pure beauty can be callous and love embraces shadow as well as light.

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Alan grabbed his camera and ran out into the bright sunshine of an unnaturally mild spring morning. Every year he tried to photograph the cherry blossom, really tried to capture its fleeting and fragile beauty, the fresh air no-scent of the blooms, the pink cloud mass of blossoms that looked like it should feel like silk candyfloss. He loved it, adored it, was obsessed by it, but could never do it justice. Every year, however, he tried.

He was taking photographs of the trees in the park when he saw her: slim on the cusp of frail, a delicate heart-shaped face, apple blossom skin and angel blond hair – his dream girl. She didn’t look old enough to be labeled a woman. She was standing, head thrown back, arms raised, innocently immersing herself in the beauty of the blossom. She immediately became his new obsession.

He took photographs with her in them, surreptitiously took photographs of her, followed her discreetly and eventually worked out where she lived. Now he could watch and photograph her at will. For a while it was enough, but only for a while.

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Her beauty is timeless, as is she. She has existed since Mother Nature births her in a flurry of flowers, feathers, and blood, as humankind first experiences something they will later know as emotion. She is ephemeral as cherry blossom and as lasting as death. Rumours of her stalk pre-history and more recent millennia, emerging as myth and legend and fireside tales told when the night is dark. She is love and passion. She is loss. She is betrayal and hate and vengeance. She is a frenzy of flowers and contradictory emotions, the softness of feathers, the terror of beak and claws and, because she is born of nature, her soul is veined red.

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The photographs of the girl, Alan still did not know her name, were all over his flat. They were good, but they were not enough. She was like the cherry blossom. The pictures were pretty and, in the case of the girl, arousing, but they did not capture the truth of the subject. The photos of the girl did not do justice to her beauty, delicacy, and vitality. He needed something more.

Alan hung around outside her house, discreetly, of course. He didn’t want her noticing him. Not yet, anyway. He didn’t know how long he’d have to wait, but most mornings she went for a run, often just to the park and back, but sometimes she took a longer run in the direction of the downs. He hadn’t followed her on the longer run, but he’d watched her head off. This morning she came down the front steps of her house and headed towards the park. She was dressed in black lycra running shorts and a pale, tight-fitting pink vest top. He took it as a positive sign. Pink was his favourite colour.

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Flypaper

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For many summers when I was a girl, my family visited a cabin. While triple-digit sunshine fried neighborhood lawns and sidewalks, it stayed green and cool in the woods. I felt safe there before I learned of the tiny invisible things that lurk in sunless crevices, waiting to rot their surroundings. This happens to neglected places. Neglected people, too.

I shake off a sweaty doze, rejoining time. The cabin’s a dozen years in my past. It’s after midnight in my apartment. My phone’s about to ring. I sense the psychic trash fire of my ex-husband Paul, who calls when he’s strung out and can borrow a friend’s phone. Somehow, he hasn’t killed the brain cell that stores my number. The digits are tattooed in his limbic system, next to the controls allowing blackout drunks to find home. I’ve blocked two of his phones and six belonging to his friends. I won’t change my number because fuck him. He’d wheedle it from another mutual acquaintance who’s not up to speed on our relationship. Huntsville’s not a big town, but big enough to lose touch. The day I get serious with someone new, I’ll take permanent steps to blot Paul from existence. For now, psycho-baffling technology lets me blacklist his avatars at will. Hateful chatter is all that remains of him. He’d never have the stones to confront me in person. If he can’t bully, he shrivels. I doubt he can hold down a job. He might scam some disability pay, but he’ll be dead soon.

Despite all self-assurances my breath falters. I drive a fist into my mattress. “Damn, damn, damn you!” I hiss, meaning the curses for Paul but grazing myself. I’ll outlast him, but meanwhile he wakes me up every other hour in the middle of the night. I’m losing my cool, pissed off but not afraid. Get it together, Claire! You can’t be afraid! Mopping my eyes, I tell myself with fading conviction that every abusive overture is a gratifying reminder of how Paul has unraveled. I summon memories of life before him, including the cabin, but when my eyes close, he lurks there too.

I mistake a buzz in my ear, just after dawn, for more bad tidings. I thrust a hand from under my sheets, but my cell isn’t ringing. The sound circling my ear is a housefly – one of those giant chrome-green bastards that smash open like nasty pimples.

I grab a hefty Ann Rule paperback. My vices are mini-mart powdered donuts and true crime. Sugar dust in my living space attracts bugs, but big blocky murder books are excellent for clubbing them to death. I swing the book backhand over my face, feeling it connect. Nailed it! No entrails on the spine – a clean blunt force kill.

Checking my phone as the coffee pot brews, I delete several chapters of pornographic mind-puke from Paul. There’s also a message I was hoping for, from Brian Adler. I thought he must have changed his number, but I got through. He says give him a shout in the afternoon.

Brian’s family owned the cabin that looms in my memory. They weren’t blood relatives, but close enough, until the Adlers and my folks had some falling out. I tried keeping up with Brian and losing touch with him is a concession I regret making for Paul’s sake. Brian never acted resentful, but it must have hurt his feelings for me to vanish down my black hole of a marriage, bound to a jealous prick who denied me any male friendships. Considering a reversed scenario with Brian as the husband, Paul the castoff playmate, Paul would have cursed me for a faithless bitch as he now does anyway.

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The Chronicles Of El Dorado

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After finalizing his divorce following the death of their 2yrs old daughter, nothing in life seems to make sense. He had shutout the world blaming everyone and everything. The only place he now found solace was in spending long hours driving around and exploring new places whenever he wasn’t working. He was angry with life, destiny, fate and anything that had an influence over his existence that he couldn’t control.

Today wasn’t suppose to be any different from the other days that he had spent driving for long hours at the outskirt of town and sometimes hiking except that for the first time in two years, he was lost without a map because the best part of his routine drive and hiking was the thrill of discovering new places with the element of surprise still intact. The presence of a map or a GPS only took away the thrilling part of his trips. Sometimes he spent the nights in a motel before heading back home. He had been so absorbed in his trance of daydreaming that he had not paid attention to the routes he had been travelling in the last few hours after grabbing his backpack and deciding to go for a hike in the forest. Currently his situation was further complicated because he had no juice on his mobile phone whose battery was already dead. He checked his wristwatch and to his disgust it wasn’t working. He was sure he had been walking for some few hours in the forest and his quartz wristwatch had stopped at 5:13pm but he knew it was not yet dusk because a chainsaw was still audible from a distance. He kept his eyes fixed on the two-lane road that snaked up into some trees as he deliberated on what to do next. It wasn’t long before he made his decision after hearing the howling of a wolf from a distance. He took the right lane and hurried through the forest circumventing trees as his heartbeat accelerated with the thought of having a run-in with a pack of wolves on his mind even though he had no idea where he was going. The irony was that today he had no one to blame but himself.

He lost track of time as he jogged without a destination but with hope of finding a route that could lead him out of the forest. The forest was slowly becoming dark as night gradually approached. He could no longer hear the sound of the chainsaw and the only sound audible to his ears was that of his heartbeats and the constant howling of the wolves.
The collision was sudden and unexpected and he fell to the ground. Without wasting a minute he picked himself up but froze when he saw the double barrel of a shotgun pointed at him. Earlier he thought he had run into a tree. Slowly he put his hands up in surrender. She asked him who he was in an authoritative tone. He told her he was a hiker who had lost his way in the forest and he meant her no harm. At first she seems reluctant to put down the weapon but she slowly lowered the shotgun. He asked her what she was doing alone in the forest but she ignored him as she dusted herself.

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Sands Of Ruin

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The sky was set ablaze as the sun set over the desert of Herah. Winds weighed heavy by the scent of jasmine and metal rummaged through the empty expanse and shadows shifted over the golden dunes cast in a sheen of crimson as birds of prey flocked to their nests, and creatures of the sand retreated to their shelters.

A torrid breeze brushed past Mena, the sand it carried scraping her cheek. Her scarf had offered little protection from the onslaught of the afternoon sun, so she had tied it across the mane of her qar’ga. The mare neighed as the sand caught in her inky fur, and Mena wondered whether the horse thought itself superior to her.

“Quiet, Hilsa,” the roaring winds carried her voice, “we don’t want the entire desert knowing of your unfortunate circumstances.” The mare neighed again – a loud, boisterous sound that set Mena’s aching head pounding.

She couldn’t leave the qar’ga by a stream without earning an earful from her king. “I lend you one of the finest mares of our legion,” she could hear his voice, “and you leave her to rot in the desert. Why do you and my sisters seem bent on robbing me of my cavalry?”

Mena was certain she would be sent to scrounge the desert by foot tomorrow, but she wouldn’t bother correcting him about how a soldier had happened to jump into the path of Sehr’s arrow and earned a bleeding arm.

The qar’ga’s shadows engulfed the ivory of Mena’s cloak as she mounted the mare, swinging her legs over the broad back of the animal and securing the reins. Before the animal could draw a nest of snakes to attention with her brays, Mena tapped her foot to Hilsa’s chest and coaxed her into a lope.

Shadows swarmed beneath the qar’ga’s feet, and the mare lurched into a run that sent her heart throbbing in her throat.

As the wind whipped through Mena’s hair and led her through the currents of the baad, Mena was reminded of why qar’gas were the Temer’s prized possession. The creature of shadows deemed every challenge too small and remained indifferent in the face of the surging night winds that originated from the deep ravines in the heart of the desert, thrust upwards and out by unknown forces.

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Divinity – 2021 Vol 1

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Divinity – 2021 Vol 1, 10 Horror and Fantasy Shorts, comes from 6 countries, across 3 continents and includes Winners from our Go Green Prize, Fantasy Prize and Horror Prize. It’s both creepy and sublime, wondrous and forbidding, yet imaginative and lyrical, packed with heroism, supernaturalism and madness.

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Humanity Restored

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Where now all that remains are ruins and the desolation of ash, once stood a great, prominent and prosperous civilization. Cities of stones and gold, rich lands of plentiful harvest and, of course, the prodigious race of Man. Kingdoms were built, warmongering at first but peaceful in time and as such, wars became stories of the past as men learned of empathy. And, in the center of it all rested the Silver Capital of the human world, built upon the very birthplace of mankind: the Cradle of Humanity.

Alas, the sacred tenets, these virtues written by men ironically guided them against their own nature, thus the Taint of Ash spread across the lands, foretelling the end of the human race in its entirety. As the bodies and flesh of the living turned into cinders, their minds too began to rot. The ones that were not consumed whole by ash slowly crumbled into lifeless husks, spared of the grasp of death only to wander amidst a world asunder. Years after years, the great crowns that once guided humanity forward splintered and fell to chaos, as the desperate kingdoms led their afflicted armies towards the Cradle of Man. There, they hoped to find an answer to their undeserved suffering. Yet the watchful knights of the Silver Capital, even in their pitiful state of ashen flesh, incessantly carried their eternal allegiance towards the protection of the birthplace of Man, sovereign and unyielding. In the end, war destroyed all that ash did not. It seemed there was no hope left for mankind, for indeed the very Soul of Humanity was tainted beyond recognition.

Some, however, were not. These very few souls were known as the Untainted Ones, for they had not fallen prey to the curse that had been set upon Man. Neither years nor steel could kill them, as each time one passed unto the next world, their spirit reemerged elsewhere.

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In the deep chasms of a lost dungeon, darkened by the ash-covered sky, awoke a fallen knight, a wandering warrior, carrying a worn armor of plate dusted by time. His sheathed sword spelt rust, and his helmet sorrow. For a brief moment, the man chose to fall into slumber, as to never have to live and die again. Yet, when the crying plea of an infant echoed through the dark chambers of his prison, the fainted eyes of the knight opened anew – and the dungeon was silent once more. Again, the Untainted One arose, for after each death the thought of giving up seemed oh-so very enticing, yet each time was chased by the sombre memory from a bygone era.

The unnamed knight had done this before. His soul was forever fated to live again, destined to find the unseen path to the scarred corpse of his belongings in a perpetual cycle of rebirth. This time was no different. He stood up, and walked. Walked amidst the abandoned corridors of an ancient prison, crushing the bones of the dead beneath his boots, and to the wooden doors leading outside, to a desperate world left to ashes. As he opened the portal to unwanted freedom, the fresh wind of the sea stirred his torn cape, for the dungeon tower he had found himself in was built on the verge of a perilous cliff. The reborn man sat his gaze inland, standing over the vast plains of the once great empire of mankind, a world of endless desolation.

“Why am I here ?” muttered the helmed knight, as he took out of his pouch an iridescent powder of curious nature. As if it responded to his words, the powder shaped into hovering specks of light above his gloved hand, like a strangely antizing ember floating in the air. At the voice of the fallen knight, the mysterious sparks of light took flight and drifted east, towards the destiny of every Untainted One.

Even more fleeting than the strange light was the memory carried by the Untainted. The knight could remember his mortal existence, in a remote age before the world had fallen prey to the Taint of Ash, but had little to no recollection of his previous lives, nor the manner in which he had died each time. Always, for every death and rebirth, the Untainted Ones were guided by light, by use of an odd powder litting up their path towards their unknown goal, towards the Cradle of Humanity. None knew the purpose of their immortality, nor the reason for their purity of flesh. Either they could choose to fall into eternal slumber, losing themselves completely and, doing so, joining in likeness the fate of the tainted carcasses wandering the ruined kingdoms… or they could choose to perpetuate in their journey, blind, towards the light, nearing, with each life and death, their untold destiny.

In this new life, the fallen knight first traversed the desolate ashland of the west, vast fields that once yielded bountiful crops and abundant harvest. In the distance, dark figures hovered the plains of cinder, scarecrows, whose silhouettes hidden amidst the storm of ash appeared now more terrifying to men than to the black birds who had taken over their outlines.

The fallen knight stopped by an abandoned farming cabin before sundown, less the darkness of the night swallowed his path whole. The shack was not inhabited, as the knight found, on the ash-covered bed, the bones of a father, a mother and a child. He was no stranger to loss himself, and in thought fell to slumber.

As the first light of day shone through the dark clouds of the ashen sky, the knight was awoken by the same plea coming from the mouth of an infant baby. Once again he rose, and continued down his journey westward, inland.

On his path, the fallen knight came upon the lost village of an unknown nation. Few remaining inhabitants feared his arrival, while others praised him, prophicizing the Untainted as the saviors of mankind, the fighters of all evil, the enemies of the Taint.

“Untainted One. I recognize your attire.” said a blind old lady, her very chest, ridden by ash, on the verge of collapse.

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Reticence

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Centuries old and well maintained throughout its life, the Willow Mansion stood tall and beautiful in the darkness of tall pines. The air surrounding it was usually quiet, since the estate sat atop a lonesome peak and watched the town below from a long distance. Several generations of Willows lived and withered away within its walls of stone, until only one lineage remained. Their family consisted of parents Robert and Ariella, and their six-year-old daughter, Molly.

On this particular evening, the Willows had dinner in the courtyard amidst frozen rose bushes and apple trees. Snow was falling from the heavens and had already settled thickly on most of the grounds below. The plants around them were nearly dead from the winter’s cold, but the Willows wore their winter’s finest clothing and sat beside an open fire. The family was served chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and string beans—a preferred meal by the Willows. Yet, the chicken and potatoes chilled rather quickly from the cool air, and the crispy string beans crunched like ice in their mouths.

Ignoring these inconveniences, Robert Willow watched the snowfall in awe. His black hair was well groomed and his olive-colored eyes crinkled at the corners, showing his age. “The fresh air is lovely,” he said to no one in particular. He often spoke to break the quietness that lingered through the course of these dinners. Work occupied most of his days, but on Sundays, such as this one, he wanted to spend time with his family. For this reason, he had insisted on dining outdoors, in hopes the unpleasantness would strike some form of conversation with his wife. “Isn’t the fresh air lovely?” Robert tried again.

Ariella Willow, however, was rarely one to complain, agree, or even speak. She was nearly motionless in her fur coat, with her light-blonde hair tucked underneath a heavy wool hat. She kept her blue eyes down, nodded her head in false agreement, and forked the cold beans on her plate as though she wanted to eat them.

Unnoticed, Molly scowled at her parents in secret from the other end of the table. Unlike her father, she did not favor the cold, but if her mother did not complain, then Molly did not have a voice to either. She did not find it fair: being six years old. Grown-ups never asked her what she wanted. They never even wondered if she was happy, which on this day she was not. Winter was a lousy time for Molly. Her hands were freezing underneath her gloves and her feet were wet from the snow in her boots. She could not run in the sunshine or play in the seemingly endless hedge maze. Friends, though scarce at all times of the year, were even rarer in the winter because the roads were too icy for visitors. Only the groundskeepers and maids spoke to her, but even they were too busy to play.

The Willows sat through this soundless dinner and when it was over, Ariella grabbed Molly’s hand and led her inside. They left Robert sitting alone in the courtyard, frowning at the snowfall. Molly glanced back at him through the glass doors, but he did not meet her eyes. She wished to speak to him, perhaps to apologize for not speaking, but Ariella did not release her hand until they were in the main hall and she could no longer see him.

Molly’s caretaker, Janet, was accustomed to her scheduled bath time before bed, and approached them from the grand staircase. She was a rather large woman with thick brown hair and honey-brown eyes, and for some reason, she always smiled.

Molly felt too cold for a bath. She glanced up at her mother gravely, but Ariella merely leaned down and planted a soft kiss atop her head. With a friendly nod at Janet’s curtsy, Ariella ascended the staircase in her long fur coat and disappeared off to the master bedroom.

“Come now, my dear.” Janet smiled at Molly when they were alone. “I have prepared your bath.”

Molly shook her head in protest and hugged herself for warmth.

“Do not worry,” Janet said comfortingly. “The water is warm.” She pressed a gentle hand against Molly’s back and led her up the staircase.

Molly never had a voice, not once. Not even with Janet. She wondered if the same had become of her mother, if she too would hardly speak when she reached her mother’s age. She hardly spoke now as it was. The thought frightened her, but she shook it off with a small smile. No, she was not like her mother or her father. Someday, she would find her voice—a good, loud voice—and she would scream at them all.

Janet led Molly all the way to the bathroom and undressed her next to the sink. The hot water caressed Molly’s legs as she climbed into the tub and sat down on its ceramic floor. She stayed quiet during her bath, kept her chin held high, and tried to keep her eyes open as Janet repeatedly scrubbed her and poured water over her head.

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Afterimage

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When Bonnie went missing, we did all the usual things parents do. I called 911; we filed the reports, cooperated with the police. We helped with the search. Late at night now, I sit in the rocking chair in her room and rewatch old footage on my phone. My face is illuminated with blue and white light as I stare at old photos, crime sketches, and news conferences I have memorized.

Mike and I were the parents on TV asking if you’d seen our child. “Ten-year-old female, brown hair, green eyes, last seen wearing a purple shirt and red shorts,” the sheriff said. Posters with her picture went up, and Amber Alerts simultaneously brightened hundreds of thousands of phone screens.

After a while, John Walsh’s group came to help find her. I remember hearing someone commenting on how odd I didn’t cry much, especially on camera. Once spoken aloud, the suggestion caught fire. Others agreed; things got ugly. Sticky sweet gossip clung to us; people stopped looking, convinced I knew more than I was saying.

They were right; I did.

I remembered the dreams. Hindsight accumulated memories into thick shadows that showed on my face and haunted my eyes. I’ve seen the same expression on the faces of other parents whose children have gone missing. There’s a look in the eyes as they scan crowds, searching for a flash of recognition. A hard swallow. A hidden secret that, if ever confided, would confirm insanity.

Folks eventually moved on. More urgent situations took over, and the police moved Bonnie’s picture to a billboard. The side of milk cartons is the old joke, but it’s not like that anymore. Every once a while, the local news station would send a team out to do an interview. The first time it was the main news anchor, then a procession of interns wearing too much lipstick and a plastered look of concern. “Kate, how does it feel to know your child is missing?”

“It’s not something you get over,” Mike would answer for me, voice cracking. “We wait for her every day.”

That’s the truth. Her room is the same as she left it; I haven’t changed a thing. Well, I made her bed. But I didn’t wash any of her laundry until she’d been gone for a full year. That day I sobbed, in private at the washer, loading the last few items of clothing that still smelled like her. I cried as I measured a cup of detergent and thumped the lid shut. What kind of mother washes away the scent of her child?

But when she gets back, I don’t want her to see a pile of rotting clothes. She won’t fit in them, of course. But she’ll be back, I reminded myself; she’s always come back before.

The other times weren’t this long. So, on that day, I thought she’d back in a few minutes. Then, a few hours.

That’s why I waited to call the police, which was the first thing I couldn’t explain. Delays imply foul play, and it wasn’t long before they asked if I was willing to take a lie detector. But I could hardly tell them the truth; they’d have hauled me away in a straight jacket.

Even Mike had a hard time at first, and he’d lived it all alongside me. Mike knows this trial from the first dream to the stab of seeing our little girl’s age progression photo high above us on I-4. It’s been a long twelve years.

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The Moon And The Magic

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The wars ate the 14-year-olds. Such were the days, when young boys wielded swords and died in these dusts. Politicians drunk in the revelry of power and greed, sent more and more elderly and the young to join the army to fight senseless battles in the name of the King. Unbeknownst to whose wars they fought, these soldiers were the perfect cannon fodder, some many moons ago under the hot suns and rising sands of the desert Gulaag. Made up of rippled sand dunes and sporadic barrel cacti, this was ideal land for battles. At a time like this, a baby boy was born. His name was Hajji. His mother named him alone because his father was taken by the imperial force long before his birth. He grew up with his mother without much opulence or opportunity. This small town, in eastern Gulaag, where they lived, was on the border between two warring kingdoms. The wars far from over, the godforsaken Gulaag couldn’​t be appeased any time soon. Royal armies fed on the vulnerable, as did their sinful paymasters. This ever-hungry beast; no number of humans, camels, or horses was enough to satisfy the bottomless gut of this stunning desert.

Hajji and his mother’s fate were tied up with the Gulaag. She lived in constant fear like every other mother on the land, afraid that the army would come after their sons. Hajji had just turned twelve. Jainab surveilled him around the clock and kept him close. Occasionally, she’​d send him out on errands to tend the sheep, far into the desert.

Today, in the pale light of the first morning sun, Hajji took off. He took his flock from the shed at the back of their mud house and headed towards the Gulaag. The army slept at these hours. He walked nearly a quarter of a mile into the desert when he saw a great number of tents strewn across. Soldiers rested in those tents from a long night’​s war-cries, the Gulaag at their feet lay like a sleeping giant. Hajji walked over the placid sands ahead of his herd. Then he heard a small cry beyond one of the rippled dunes. Hajji stopped. It was a feeble cry, almost a whimper. It didn’​t sound like a human voice. He began to follow the sound. It was a human voice. There was a boy here about his age, crawling over sand slides. He appeared wounded and famished. Many cuts and bruises beset his little body. Hajji ran over and sat down by his side.

“​Are you hurt?” Hajji asked.

The boy looked at him wide-eyed and nodded.

“​Who did this to you?” Hajji asked again.

“​Enemy,” he said. “​Water, water, may I have some?”

Hajji looked around. Through serendipity, he found some prickly pears by the dunes. Under and over the sand he searched for something sharp. He found one; a flat pebble.

“​Hang in there, okay?”

Hajji cut some pulp with the sharp edge of the pebble. Then he took the prickles out carefully. He pouched the pulp into the corner of his long shirt; he asked the wounded boy to open his mouth. Hajji squeezed the pulp. Droplets filtered straight through into his mouth.

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The Village That Burned

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It was cold, not the bitter and biting cold, but the still calm cold that follows after a peaceful snowfall. The kind of cold where you could lay in it until the snow melts. To a passerby that’s exactly what she was doing, spending her free time laying in the snow. It wasn’t until you got closer and realized she was covered only in tattered clothing and warm sticky blood that you realised the truth.

The village of Gable was spread out, each neighbor trying to be as far away from the other as they could possibly be. It was a loveless village, built to withstand the cruelty of those around them. The Dwarves resided in the center, their houses were once stacked together as a community but the empty rooms and buildings left crevasses where families once lived. They made up the smallest of the population, for the very reason that they were the bravest species ever to walk the continent.

The Orcs took up the space closest to the forest, their brutish nature keeping most other creatures at bay. Their watch towers spaced apart to watch the most amount of ground possible, serving as everything to them. If not for their weapons, the watchtowers would be the orcs prize possessions.

The Fae’s or Fairies (depending on your take of the entirety of the race) took the inner west side of Gable. They could be found farming or looking for anything else alive that they could make use of. Not typical actions for the magical creatures. But, after all, Gable wasn’t exactly natural in itself.

Lastly, there was ‘The East’ as it was called. The East was empty, it had been for centuries and would remain that way for eternity. The legends say humans once inhabited the land, but that leaves little room for logic and little explanation for the dark magic that hovers over the area.

It was mid rotation the day it was found, freshly fallen snow covered the village and the smell of smoke was on the horizons, making the orcs ever on edge.

“My dad says the snow is a sign of death.” Dergu said, kicking it with his military boots. orc teenagers were known for their short temper and constant need for altercations. His face was already littered with marks. Rusty red scars contrasting to the dark armour they all had to wear.

“You’d think your kind would appreciate it.” Neglorum grunted. “Being that you hide easier in it.” Ah there it is, the grumpiness and bluntness of the dwarf. Already so clearly ingrained in Neglorum’s personality.

“Some of us, like warm weather and fresh air Neg.” Dergu spat. “We don’t all have our heads affected by metal you know.” If not for their usual banter, one might think the two young adults hated each other. An onlooker would assume so, pale orc skin verses the darkness of a dwarfs. But for these two it was business as usual. (Heavens forbid they actually utilize the word friendship.)

“Insufferable.” A fleeting voice said from behind them. But before either boy could turn around the owner of the voice was in front of them. Ail Stone-Shade, or Stone, to people who knew him better than most, wasn’t as short as Neg or as tall as Dergu but his Big black eyes and pointy ears gave him away.

“Would it kill you not to sneak everywhere you go?” Neglorum asked brushing past him to continue on their way. It was the end of the month, and that means all three boys have been sent by their families to tend to the biggest tree on the edge of the forest. If the species could agree on one thing it was that this tree was precious and the most talented of their young should be tasked with its upkeep.

“Just because you insist on trampling around doesn’t mean I do.” Ail said, his light voice coming out as a song in the winds.

“What’s wrong, Stone? Scared the donkeys on your farm will notice you?” Dergu chuckled, slinging his broadsword over his shoulder. Having removed it in a startle when the Fae had first arrived.

“Trust me,” Ail said. “I’ve been noticed by the two biggest donkeys here already.” he said with a signature smirk. And It wasn’t long before the other two were chasing him down looking to push him into the ground for such a joke. But not as friends would of course, because in Gable friendships just aren’t allowed.

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A Long Walk Alone

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His toes are starting to burn, but burning is better than no feeling at all. He wraps his scarf tighter against his nose and mouth, his hot breath beading sweat onto his brow. His nerves are shot – stretched out too thin like strings of a violin ready to be plucked. To play the melody that will be the soundtrack of his death. His swan song. He laughs bitterly as he continues to trudge through the ankle-deep snow.

The snow stretches for miles, untouched and glistening. In the very centre of the beautiful blank canvas stands a lone tree. It is huge and hulking and magnificent. The branches are outstretched and drooping with the weight of the thick cover of packed snow. It looks like a canopy – like a shelter created by nature. A haven in this dismal time.

His fur-lined boots crunch through the snow. His progression is slow and weighty and it makes his heart hammer harder and harder. His pack is slowing him down even more but he can’t risk leaving it behind. His crossbow is his only chance of survival.

He feels exposed in this huge expanse of whiteness. He looks back at his progression, seeing the churned-up trail behind him and he hopes that the thing isn’t smart enough to follow footprints. Tears well in his eyes at the emptiness behind him. He still half expects to see his little daughter struggling to keep up. Her arms flailing as the packed snow refuses to let her pass. Her little chubby face red from the harsh wind. But it’s just him now, and he wonders how long he’ll last.

He reaches the tree and pushes the willowing branches aside. A small avalanche of snow assaults him. Some of it goes down the back of his coat and he grits his teeth in frustration. He goes under the shelter and brushes himself off – his gloved hands slapping away the stuff from his coat and pants. He’s walking backwards towards the trunk, focusing more on getting himself clean than where he is going. The snow is a lot thinner under here and so he stamps his boots to free them of the stuff. The top of his head brushes against something and he assumes it’s a low branch. He turns, and almost chokes on his own shock. He stumbles back, trips on his feet and sprawls out on his back amongst the crisp snow and twigs.

Hanging above him is a body. It’s swinging on a frozen rope. The body itself is blue with frost and missing its legs. Beneath it, the thin layer of snow is red with old blood. Bile rises in his throat and he has to press his fist against his mouth to keep it down.

So much for a haven.

But the snow had looked so neat and crisp. The thing must have at least stayed away since the last snowfall, which was in the night. Knowing there is no other place to rest, he uses his last ounce of energy to climb up the tree as high as he can.

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