DIVINITY, VOL 4, 8 Horror and Fantasy Shorts, comes from 6 countries and across 3 continents. It’s both creepy and sublime, wondrous and forbidding, yet imaginative and lyrical, packed with heroism, supernaturalism and madness.
She did all the right steps, a hand at the neck’s base with a sharp twist to the left, but the rabbit flailed its legs in a reprisal of desperation. Her left hand slipped and she dropped the rabbit to the snow. Panic set in, The Girl leapt atop the creature, cradling it in her arms. She snapped her holster open and slid her blade along the rabbit’s neck. The warm crimson ran down her wrist, and the creature lolled in her hand, its final moments spent in agony and terror. Its eyes had glassed, and the fear she had seen in its eyes faded, replaced with a dead, unmoving gaze.
The Girl eyed her work; the blade had cut a shaky line along the neck and over the shoulder, with dark streams of blood forging rivers in its fur. Each nick and graze on its flawed hide told her tale of inexperience, and the dark gash across the rabbit’s neck reached within her mind, pulling forth the frustration of an unsuccessful hunt.
She swore and swept a rope from her pack, which she then used to tie the rabbit to her belt. Cleaning her knife, she looked to the trail she had left in the snow. The path behind her held secrets of her missteps and tumbles. She kicked at the frost, scattering the path behind her with a fresh layer of snow.
The road home was long, and The Girl thought it wise to begin the journey. It ran through a jagged wood, the trees rearing their leaf-less limbs across the path. The bitter winds of the woodland were fierce, and each leg of her journey was met with piercing cold. The Girl made haste. She knew the dangers of the wood come gloaming and sought to be safe at home before night fell. Fast and afraid, she retraced the steps she had taken: beneath the low-hanging sections of the canopy, and over the rotting spires of an ancient pine. Her journey took her past the henge of her ancestors, and through the lair of the weeping Anashuuk. She had taken these steps for years, each hunt forging a newer, safer path through a pained and dying wood.
It took her some time to navigate the gnarled undergrowth and so the sun, weary from its work, lay its light to rest along the horizon. The Girl quickened her steps, the wicked eyes of the foliage lingered on each of them. She thought she heard shouting a few hundred metres away, but The Girl had learned better than to trust the ‘helpless wanderers’ of the wood; travellers’ cries were often an illusion, and it was never long before those who followed them vanished amidst cries of pain.
She chose a quicker route home, and the path lead her near a small clearing. The canopy bowed low at the edges of the space, the trees’ dead limbs knotting together in a ring, as if it were some unnatural stage. She’d have paid no mind to the place – after all, she had passed it many times – but the centre of the clearing caught her eye, as it was blackened at the base of a mound. She leant against a tree and studied the strangeness from a distance. The black – or deep crimson, as she now could observe it to be– had pooled around the corpse of a deer that lay in the snow. She had thought this strange, deer didn’t frequent this part of the wood, no grazing beasts at all were foolish enough to search for food in her dying lands. She made sure the way was clear before pushing through the snow toward the body. The sun’s light faded with each minute. Time was running out.
The Girl was eager to find the cause of death, and it didn’t take long. Two wooden arrows: one below the neck, and the other between the deer’s upper ribs. The fletching on both arrows were worn and well-used, the wood on both didn’t match, nor did the skill used to craft them. It looked as though the first arrow was of more careful craftwork than the other, and possessed the mark of a more experienced fletcher. She saw that the deer’s tracks led away from the west, meaning it had run from more nourished ground, likely to flee its pursuers. She cast her eye to the sky and saw the first stars gleaming, preparing for night. Her breath quickened, and she swept her gaze around the clearing.
She knew the wood did not care for those wandering after dark, yet she stayed all the same. She had thought a noise had come from behind her, but she kept her eyes forward. Looking too far into the woodland’s night will assure an unwelcome guest. The cruel and malicious gods of her homeland were not so above revealing themselves from their worshippers, and it was not uncommon for their impossible forms to prowl the woods at night, rustling their bones and performing old dances for pagan worship. She hurried and removed the knife from its holster before flaying the deer’s shoulder muscle.
She had managed a few strips of flesh and a sizable hunk of meat by the time she heard voices approaching from the west. The sun’s final, sickly hues highlighted a pair of men wading through the fresh snow toward the clearing. She snatched up her pack and flew to a nearby tree, along the way her chest was met with a hefty smack as a she was struck by a low-hanging branch. She gasped, and her vision danced and she watched the branch that struck her slither back toward the darkness and vanish. She darted forward and crouched amidst the shrubs. The men, now meters from the clearing, spoke in quiet voices.
‘What do you mean you didn’t hear it?’ said one, ‘Clear as day, someone’s in there, I hear ‘em breathing.’
On the Winter Solstice, the wind whispered. It roared and blew across the world, and reached even the Heavens above. With it, the great cold of winter flooded across that higher plane, and the gods staggered. Slowly, they felt the golden dust of their divinity drift away from them. They heard the message of that wind clearly…
This Winter will never end so that the Earth will.
Many of the minor gods quickly fell ill and perished within years. The greatest of human civilizations fell into decline and collapsed. With the passing of half a century, only a few of the greater gods remained, and only two major human civilizations persisted: Arashi, an island nation in the East, and the once-great Kingdom of Volhynia in the West. Little hospitable land remained, and neither the gods nor the two civilizations could seek help from elsewhere. With unwavering optimism for the future of humanity, the gods collected together a portion of their diminishing divine power to form a bridge of ice between Arashi and Volhynia. In response, humanity sent two of their greatest swordsmen to investigate: Izagui Reinato from Arashi, and Aeso Mstislav from Volhynia.
“Return safe and bring back whatever spoils of conquest you may happen upon,” the Emperor told Reinato. “May the fires of Kagutsuchi burn within you, always.”
Reinato adjusted her scabbard and bowed deeply towards the Emperor. Of course though, she knew that Kagutsuchi, Arashi’s god of fire, was already dead like the many gods that perished before him. Indeed, it was Kagutsuchi’s sacrifice that made Arashi’s current existence possible. Had he not loved Arashi deeply, their nation would’ve been one of the first to fall before the Eternal Winter.
The thoughts fell upon Reinato harshly, and she clenched her teeth as well as the grip around her sword. Hiketsueki had been forged from Kagutsuchi’s corpse, and the remnants of his divinity formed within the blade. His smoldering heat lived on through Reinato’s sword, through Hiketsueki, for that was all that was left of him.
“Thank you very much,” she said in response. She kept her head down, feeling each snowflake fall on her with the weight of steel. Finally, the Emperor left, returning to his procession. She lifted her head as she felt a hand fall on her shoulder.
“Don’t die,” the man said. He stared at the Emperor’s back, then back to Reinato’s bright eyes, still filled with the optimism of youth. “Don’t die, Rei.”
She nodded, opening her mouth to speak, but found no words. He dropped his hand from her shoulder and walked away.
“I won’t,” Rei heard herself murmur. Then, louder, “I won’t die, Taki! I’ll travel to the other side of the world and find warmth and riches that history has never imagined! I’m nineteen years-old as of today, and I’ll be the one to undo a century of strife!” Taki had disappeared, faded into the snow. His footfalls grew fainter and fainter until it seemed to come from the Heavens instead. “I’ll undo it all…”
Behind her, the bridge of ice crackled amidst the howling of the storm that raged beyond it. Rei turned to it, the sleeves of her blood red silk dress fluttering beneath her thick wool coat. She was surprisingly scantily dressed given the weather, with her calves, hands, and neck completely exposed to the cold. When questioned about it, she claimed that the fire of Kagutsuchi kept her warm. Most simply accepted that she was insane and that she was making a mockery of the strife that humanity faced, a mockery of the Eternal Winter.
They’d forgotten that Rei was the head of the Kenjūsatsu Clan, and that it was her who had freed Arashi from the chains of the Roku Shogunate. They’d forgotten that the once great gods of Arashi had acknowledged her and allowed her to forge Hiketsueki into a divine blade.
She convinced herself that they’d all forgotten her great deeds, for why else would they scorn her so? Why else?
On the other side of the world, Aeso Mstislav shattered his last bottle of ale against the stone floors.
“More!” he demanded, slurring his words. There was no one left to quietly inform him that there was no more alcohol left. Aeso slumped in his throne, feeling the coldness of the pale stone pierce through him. The throne room was dark and empty, save for the sad and drunk ninth prince that mumbled to himself, “Aarhus is the northmost city. You can’t blame me. No one can blame me.”
He broke out into a laughter of drunken stupor.
It had been a week since Aarhus fell to starvation, being now the first of the Last Nine Cities of Volhynia to fall, far earlier than it was predicted to. It had been three days since his father, Tsar Mstislav, had informed him that he’d been chosen to investigate the bridge of ice that had formed on their coast. Aeso declared that he would only do so once the stores of Aarhus had run clean out of ale, and now that time had passed.
Aeso felt the pounding at his door, the responsibility that beckoned him forth. He ignored it with a dull feeling in his head, and with each passing moment it grew louder, stronger. Finally, the doors smashed open against the hostile tempest, sweeping through the grand stone hallways of Aeso’s castle until it reached him. The gust blew back his long blond locks of hair back, revealing his young and handsome features. The cold chilled him down to the bone.
“Fine!” he roared back. “I’ll do it! Damn!”
Aeso’s voice raced back across the skies, and the gods nodded with sad smiles. Aeso Mstislav, the greatest of the nine demi-gods of Volhynia, the one granted with the greatest divinity, and with the greatest responsibility of protecting Aarhus. His failure changed nothing; the gods would send him to the bridge, granting him a chance for redemption. He was the strongest, there was no doubt, and there was no time left in the world to doubt.
Izagui Reinato and Aeso Mstislav both took their first steps onto the ice bridge at the same time. Opposite sides of the world connected in this one breath, and the bridge crackled with excitement.
Rei and Aeso marvelled at the bridge along their journey, remarking to themselves of the wonderful craftsmanship of the guardrails, of the curves and corners. It was both beautiful and spectral. An azure glow ran through every crystal of ice, emanating a pure divinity that could only come from the gods.
She reached out. He was nestled under the duvet but, if she wriggled her fingers enough, she could just about touch his back – a small spot beneath his right shoulder blade. Awareness of her sudden daring thickened her breathing. There, she’d done it. The warmth of another human being emanated from the sleeping skin just under her fingertips, in turn filling her with borrowed heat.
Holding her own breath she felt the pulse of his. She exhaled, trying to match her rhythm to that of her sleeping husband.
Softly, pioneering fingers were joined by the heel of her hand. She realised that it now occupied a spot she couldn’t remember ever having touched before. She must have done so at some point of course; after all, they had been married for over thirty years. Somehow though, the touching had stopped. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember when.
His breathing changed and he moved. She withdrew as if scalded. Now they were separated again, she didn’t know why she had felt such a strong need to reach out in the first place. Casting her mind back a short while, she seemed to remember being stuck in a grey, featureless Broadstairs High Street. It was a place she knew well but, in the here and now of her dreamscape, the familiar setting had been stripped of all colour.
As her mind started filling in more of the details, a memory of extreme thirst slammed into her. She seemed to recall desperately trying to reach the multitudes of colourful bottles and other goodies on display in the shop windows. Enticed by wares that were sparkling like jewels she had tried to get into one shop and then the next. But, it was the same everywhere; doors were closed and windows barred. The High Street had turned into an arid place of wandering, with nowhere to assuage her thirst.
Then, she remembered suddenly catching a glimpse of brilliant red out of the corner of her eye. It had come while she was unsuccessfully wrestling with the door on Crusties the bakers. And, although she hadn’t been sure, it had seemed as though a figure, clad in top to toe vermillion, was turning the corner into the town’s other main thoroughfare, Queen’s Road. In the expanse of monochrome dullness, the flash of warmth it afforded was heartening; something that both was and wasn’t but, at the same time, offering the promise of something real. So, girding metaphorical loins, she followed.
Shortly afterwards, she found herself back in bed again; the need to touch her husband; to feel that there was life beyond herself, overwhelming in its intensity.
He had started snoring now. Worried that his loud, rattling breaths would wake the neighbours she tentatively reached out again, bringing her hand to rest on the soft flesh at the top of his arm. Leaving it there this time, she must have sunk into a deep sleep as, when as she opened her eyes next, the first rays of a spring sun were pushing their way through the slatted venetian blinds of the shared bedroom.
Reluctantly her gaze was drawn to the corner of the room where a desk, situated just in front of one of the Victorian sash windows, was slowly being infused with the golden glow of the morning. It had only been yesterday evening that another ‘ever-so polite’ agent Email had popped up on her screen – informing her that her novel was being rejected for the thirtieth time. Deciding then and there that she wanted to match this landmark occasion with some kind of action on her part, she had conceived of the plan to replace her writing space with a dressing table.
She remembered re-reading the damning Email for the umpteenth time while wistfully fingering the dreamcatcher hanging from the bookshelf – kept for books she thought would inspire her best ideas. Having returned with her from a visit to Vancouver, the flat, woven disk with its trailing feathers paid homage to a First Nation cultural heritage. Over time she had come to believe that it inspired and directed her writing.
Propping herself up on her pillows, she looked over at it again; supposing as she did so that, she ought to put it away somewhere also. After all, once the furniture was rearranged, there was no need for it to be there anymore. Anticipating that, in order to complete the removal, she would need all the strength her, decidedly flaky, fifty-five-year self could muster, she turned to get some more sleep. Oddly though, the dreamcatcher seemed to demand her attention, the soft light of its red beads insinuating itself behind her eyelids, even as she was trying to close them.
Finally, driven out of bed to peer at it more closely, she noticed that the colour of the beading in fact, matched the red she had followed in her dreams. Even the webbed pattern of the leather tugged at that half-memory. A sudden wave of emotion robbed her of strength, and she found herself needing to lean on her desk for support. After a few moments in this vaguely supplicant position, she couldn’t help but run regretful fingers over the closed laptop in front of her. It was here that keystrokes had infused her characters and places with life and purpose – while keeping her own hopes and dreams safe within its silver confines also.
She glanced down at the bongo drums she had used to frame some of the narrative and actions of Martha, the middle-aged failure whose transformation her book had been built around. Oddly, the drumming that had started as research had ended up bringing a greater sense of direction to the book as a whole. Not that she had ever dared play them when anyone else was in the house, of course!
Well, she was used to endings. And, at least, she had done what she set out to do. Her book was finished and if it wasn’t possible to get to market, so be it. In the same way that she had dealt with the bereavement of her two children leaving home, yesterday she had closed the lid on her life as a storyteller.
The first sighting occurred on my way home from the British Library. Having first seen the He-Goat, attempting to graze in the rush hour swill outside Russell Square station, I glimpsed his horns above the crowd a further four times in the duration of the 30 minute walk I take south to Waterloo. Unhurried as he went about his business, upright on his hind legs, he moved unseen or ignored by the crowds; stopping to peruse the newspapers outside the corner shop, trying unsuccessfully to hail a taxi at Holborn, and sitting outside The Wellington perched on the edge of a busy table, tapping a hoof up and down agitatedly. I bulleted over Waterloo Bridge, eyes to the pavement hoping I’d lost him, and threw myself onto a seat on the top deck of the bus, peering out the window and breathing heavily.
I spied him in the crowd at Elephant & Castle, queuing patiently to get on the bus. He lay stretched across the length of the back seat like a large dog. He didn’t acknowledge me, just got on with cleaning himself, swaying along with the movement of the bus as we were carried down the Old Kent Road. I took out my paper and assumed reading in the same way I would if a loud drunk came aboard, keeping my eyes absolutely fixed on the page while the words swam in front of me. I took a last glance at him before getting off at my stop, and alighted unaccompanied while the bus swung him away towards Catford. I experienced nothing further that night.
The He-Goat seems to be living a parallel existence, very similar to my own. I have seen him inspecting fruit in bowls outside the corner shop deftly with his hoofed feet, coming out of the off-licence (empty-handed ), crossing roads and on stairs and escalators, mostly travelling the opposite way to myself. He has never acknowledged me and I try to be inconspicuous. We are people who simply live in the same area, (though the sightings stretch right across the capital and once in the Lake District) and though we may see each other regularly enough to acknowledge one another, we do not wish to have to start engaging in pleasantries.
An interesting addition to the ‘off-pagers’ was Goya’s Saturn sidling up to me one day in Burgess Park. I acknowledged a weight next to me on the bench and I turned to see a bearded chap, completely naked holding what appeared to be a dead chicken. Poor Saturn looked utterly wretched and I gave a small smile, hoping to show some humanity while praying he didn’t try and engage in conversation. He emitted low rumbling moans, like a small growling animal, and sat there next to me with pleading eyes, while I continued to stare out determinedly towards the lake. It was only after he stood up and started slowly making his way round the perimeter of the water, did I realise it wasn’t a chicken, headless and bloody, it was the carcass of his dead baby son, being dragged behind him like a rag doll.
My research lies in the point where the conceptual meets the figurative. That exact moment where the recognisable becomes unrecognisable, I believe, causes certain incidents to happen and certain sightings, neither real nor unreal but something entirely new altogether, to be born.
The Black Paintings were not part of my original research. Goya was not one of the artists in my proposal. But the books came. Handed to me at the British Library desk, ordered under my name but not by me. Half asleep and distracted by some bold knitwear choices in the queue in front of me, I took the huge stack of books to my usual desk and only realised the error once I’d sat down. Sighing I noted the large queue that I would have to join to return the books. It would be quieter in half an hour once the morning rush died down. I started absent-mindedly flicking through the pile in front of me.
Painted directly onto the walls of a farmhouse outside Madrid, where Goya was holed up following an acute bout of illness and still processing the trauma of the Napoleonic Wars. The murals were later ripped from their foundations on the orders of a French banker looking to make a quick buck, and tacked onto canvas to be sold, undergoing heavy handed restoration in the process.
Was the only thought on my mind after the few seconds my pod went silent in the diamond-covered cosmos. Aligned between dozens of other personal transports that floated above, below, and beside me. All of our capsules’ windows faced towards the projected show stage. Earlier was better than later, and I had wrangled a position far better than the strangers around me. With lights brought down to a dim glow within and outside the pod, I was able to step away from the control board and set on the edge of my bed.
Nice could describe the dazzling arrangement of drones with their holographic, preshow, presentations floating advertisements before the impatient audience. The colorful, evil words to have you buy anything from oil to chewing gum blended together into a space designer’s canvas when your focus pulled back. It could describe the wood, smoking pipe in my wrinkled hand. So that every time I went to relight the delicious leaves, the sparkling metal around my finger reminds me of all of life before reaching this very moment. For most of us waiting for the travesty, nicely described the opportunity we had to buy a set of coordinates to stale our ships, allowing the ones with families to not even have to get dressed to witness such an expensive, overground showing.
Yet, my mind only followed what my eyes saw while I sat in the dome-like window. Engaging in filling my cabin with smoke faster than the ventilation could be rid of it. I did not dally on the preshow drones, because what would an elderly man need that he didn’t already have? An acceptance that the travesty has a final act is only satisfying to me when I know there are more operatic performances somewhere else in the current era cosmos. New life is what my eyes sought and found in the ship beside me. An illustration of youthfulness that no longer possesses and that the travesty performed by drone slightly conjure.
Ricky was the man I saw leaning against his ship’s dome, looking glass. Holding himself up with an arm on the window, either half-asleep or half-drunk from the looks of his drowsy composure. The young man was reckless and stupid, but not evil unlock the dogs that we’re presenting this showing. I saw the kid at the ports years ago when he bought that space pod, for I was purchasing the same model with what was left of my late wife’s savings. To take myself to the place I had yet to see. My excitement for the purchase was stalled by Ricky’s forged bills he attempted to slide by the porter. Bills he could have only acquired through dangerous means, despite having the actual money to buy the pod. The risk was something that never crossed the boy’s mind, and his child across the cosmos kept that observation accurate with every passing year.
Why Ricky was at the travesty production of a script I know he had had never heard before, I have no idea. Perhaps he was here to make a deal with a nefarious associate of his. It would make sense that such a rough, quickly planned showing that was created by vagrants attracted the likes of themselves to the audience. It piqued my interest enough to push my old bones off the straw-filled mattress to better see the man. When I did, through the smoky window, I could see a woman standing on his left. However, I could not see the metal, beading that would reveal her to have an artificial body. If the attractive girl didn’t then how she stood in only her undergarments did, and she was fake in mind.
Unlike the illuminating adverts and the familiar ship of his, I could not conjure similar memories when looking at the couple. How rushed their courtship must’ve been made me ache when compared to me and my deceased own. I’ve learned to hold my judgmental tongue. Even in metal, oxygen precious cells waiting for heavenly lights to distract us for a few hours, the end for them would be the same as it was for my wife and for me in just a couple years. Yet, despite never speaking to the boy, I wished I had and I wished I could beg his parents, wherever they are, to keep him in school so that he could charter a legitimate course through the cosmos. Instead, he dodges authority as much as responsibility and I can only foresee how such a life will be imploded by its surroundings.
I interrupted my own prodding thoughts by dumping the ashes onto the riveted floor before grabbing the hemp lined pouch. My eyes never left the two in his cabin. How they passed a clove cigarette to each other while they stared at the preshow lights. It was usual for a while and peaceful enough for me to strike a match for the pipe.
Darkout – 2020 Vol 1, 9 Horror and Fantasy Shorts from the January 2020 Publication.
The collection includes stories from:
Francesca Taylor, a writer from UK, Winner of our “2019 Horror, Fantasy, Gothic, Mystery and Adventure Short Story Contest” and author of horror short story, “A Letter From The Grave”:
“I like to leave the end open and questioning, whether that be with a character’s death or something else…”
Katherine Duncombe from Canada, author of horror short story, “Evil Eyes”:
“…short stories as dreams, or, in the case of horror stories, as nightmares.
King Ogun watched over his kingdom with concern. He commanded lands as far east as the Trident Sea and as far west as the Velcorn Mountains. His lands were known for their splendor and beauty. But he was growing old and worried his son cared more for adventuring than ruling.
“I will host a festival and invite all the neighboring kingdoms to find you a wife who can help you rule when I’m gone,” King Ogun said to his son, Ioan.
The most splendid and valuable part of Ogun’s kingdom were the lakes surrounding his castle, which were warmed by the ground underneath and sought for their rejuvenating powers. Lords and ladies traveled far to sample the unique waters, bringing wealth and prosperity to the kingdom.
But within his borders dwelled the Voador, gigantic beasts with skin that sparkled like the surface of the crystal sea. Their whiskers grew as long as galleons and their beards hung low enough to plow the fields. On their backs were two mast-like wings that spread wide as the moon eclipsing the sun.
The Voador also enjoyed the lakes. They loved the heat, for their bodies lacked feather or fur. Their magic would leave them shivering and pale when they cast even the simplest spell. When the Voador bathed, which was often, the water could be used for nothing else.
The festival was to be the grandest event, with feasts and jousts and baths to refresh the body and spirit. Invitations were sent to every kingdom, carried by experienced messengers riding the fastest horses. Yet with the festival days away, Ogun had not heard a single reply.
“Father, maybe it’s for the best,” Ioan said. “I do not wish to marry, as there is still much adventuring to be done.”
“The time for adventuring is past,” Ogun said. “It is time you learned to rule.”
The day of the festival arrived, and while thousands of nobles and their retinues were expected, fewer than a hundred were in attendance, and none brought maidens eligible to marry a prince.
In his council chambers, Ogun complained to the general of his army. “These Voador have ruined our festival. They feed on our livestock, destroy our forests, and scare away traders. My son remains unmarried for no maiden will cross our borders for fear of these terrible beasts.”
Ioan rose from his seat beside his father. “Let me fight them, and I will win glory for our kingdom.”
The general stepped forward and bowed. “I fear there is no army here or beyond the mountains that can defeat creatures such as these. Their might is too strong.”
“That would mean more glory for he who triumphs,” Ioan said, grasping the hilt of his sword.
The general bowed deeper. “My king, you are wise and gracious. Surely you can negotiate a peaceful arrangement with these beasts, such that war can be avoided.”
Ogun stroked his long, white beard. He believed his general spoke the truth.
The next day, the king rode to the largest lake, followed by a fleet of bannermen carrying flags, gifts, and other symbols of peace.
There rested the most majestic of the Voador, one with scales as reflective and colorful as the crisp water she bathed in. Her eyes flickered as the king approached.
“Your Grace,” King Ogun called from the bank.
“Your Majesty.” Evethe the Voador bowed her ox-sized head, dipping her whiskers into the water. Her voice sounded like a chorus of flutes. “It has been a long time since last you visited.”
“Are you enjoying the comfort of my waters?” Ogun extended his hand, a speck before the creature.
“No better way to spend an afternoon.” Evethe stretched her body side to side, splashing gallons of valuable liquid onto the grass. The king cringed.
“You honor us with your visits,” he said, “though I worry what the people must think.”
“The people? Do they not love us?” Evethe gazed toward the village, raising her neck high above the trees surrounding them.
“That they do, your grace.” Ogun fumbled his lips, hoping his words didn’t anger her. “You are so grand and deserve so much, but the people spend their time admiring you instead of focusing on their work.”
“Your Majesty, I had no idea our presence caused such vexation.” Evethe scratched her chin with talons of diamond-shaped boulders. “Your waters are so warm and pleasing. Your people have been so welcoming, sharing their livestock with us. Such good people. You will see a change tomorrow, so I swear it.”
King Ogun bowed to the leader of the Voador and returned to his castle, proud at how easily he’d found agreement.
Rhythmic shocks along my spine pull me from a dreamless oblivion; disoriented, I slowly register the shocks as a proximity alert. Rolling onto my stomach, I pull up the orbital stream, my right eye rolling towards the back of my skull to investigate the alert. I find the video segment I need, projecting the image onto the ceiling of my home.
At the time of light’s waking, or “0500 hours” per my retinal display, a stealth fighter slipped through the lower atmosphere, touching down about four hundred paces from the Nso Ohia, the Elysian forest. Drone images show a one-man craft, built for speed over strength; minimal artillery; likely to have a larger drop ship and support team in orbit.
Poachers. I sigh, annoyed by both the news and my the tingling in my still-sleeping limbs.
The off-worlder’s proximity to Nso Ohia worries me. There are a dozen reasons why a hunter would be drawn to that region, a few more concerning than the rest. My world has long called to those who seek to turn a profit off of holiness.
My left eye gingerly bats open but doesn’t immediately focus. Reaching up to poke it, I feel the stiff iris dilate and, after a dizzying zoom adjustment, the world becomes clear. I’ve had problems with the gold iris reacting to light variation in the past, but that’s inevitable given their age.
Rising, I do a series of stretches while running diagnostics on my augmentations, pleased when they all report optimum functionality. My augs have to be dated by now, and I can’t expect them to last forever. As long as they keep functioning I won’t worry. When they stop functioning…well, there’s a storage facility for backups, though the idea of repeatedly cutting into my own flesh makes me queasy.
My organic parts, no, my body I remind myself sternly, are stiff but otherwise fine. One of my augs runs timed electric pulses through my muscle tissue while I sleep to prevent atrophy; still, stretching feels incredible and I very nearly purr as my limbs loosen for the first time in almost a year. It’s a blessing the implantation process didn’t knock out my ability to process physical sensation. I’d been warned of that possibility when I was approved from the remaining Ibago to be the Onye isi Agha, the Elysian guard.
Looking around the spartan chamber, my eyes catch on a photo of my mother and father, gazing at each other adoringly. They hadn’t realized I’d taken the picture, and it had been the only keepsake I chose to break up the boab planks insulating the walls. I run my finger reverently along the image’s edge before indulging in a brief shower that does more than the spinal shocks to make me feel alive again.
After twisting my waist-length braids into a knot at my crown, I tap the raised scar tissue behind my right ear. My armor’s emerald scales shimmer into existence, the color bright against the darkness of my skin. The shape of the armor is of my own design, chosen when I reached womanhood and ceremonially became a hunter amongst my tribe. The scales form the shape of wings molded down my chest and back; I pray to the gods that I am as fleet as the birds they are modeled for, as I step into the wilds.
Jogging through fern leaves as long as a man is tall, I head for the Nkume Owara, a series of tunnels created by the Ibago before our race dwindled into memory. The ever present- humidity has my skin beading sweat within the few minutes it takes to reach the tunnel mouth. My stomach tightens with nerves as I approach the lightless cavern; being underground makes me uncomfortable. I shove such thoughts aside. Comfort is irrelevant in the face of duty.
After hours of navigating the planet-wide labyrinth through feel and memory alone, my destination is still a near full day’s walk through the tunnels and I worry about the speed of my progress. I remind myself that life on Ne Uwa, my home world, is largely nocturnal and it’s unlikely the poacher has already tracked their prey. While I’m familiar with the tunnel-system, the faster I move the more likely it is I’ll miss the small markers stamped in the stone walls. Picking up my pace, I take the risk.
When I finally emerge it’s the time of flowering skies (“1800 hours”) and I pause a moment to breathe in my surroundings. The planet of Ne Uwa is lit by a distant sun, but the light is indistinct and appears as a fine mist, hanging in the air. There are no artificial noises, as I am the last of the Ibago and the few agricultural machines we used mostly ceased functioning decades ago. The ancient baobabs of the Nso Ohia reach over a thousand paces into the sky; their shade falling long across the languid lotuses of the Acha Uhie Sea, whose lapping shores skirt the forest edge. The briny smell commands my senses and wakens a fierceness in my belly. My fondness for fresh fish has not lessened with the years.
Any half-decent expert will tell you that there are numerous things you should never say to a gurzzle. They are unusually touchy animals and tend to respond to any form of offense—intended or otherwise—with quick, decisive and invariably violent action. If, for example, you were to criticize the shape and size of their ears, the particular shade of their fur, or the fact that they are the only animal known to science to have three limbs, they would probably feel inclined to shoot out their two, prehensile tongues, wrap them around you until you couldn’t move, and devour you in two or three bites of their very sharp teeth.
And they really wouldn’t care whether or not you were a princess.
Sym found this out the hard way. She and Pryor had been exploring Harold’s Wood, the large semi-enchanted forest on the edge of the kingdom, when they had heard the strange sound from which the animal gets its name:
“Gurrrrzzzzzle,” it said, sounding like a purr, a gargle and a low roar all at once.
“Is that…?” asked Pryor. But before he could finish his thought, Sym was away. She, too, had heard the sound and wanted to see a gurzzle firsthand. She had never seen one before, except for pictures in books.
It was sleeping when they found it. Sym and Pryor crouched behind some convenient rocks and saw it wrapped in its two great arms like it was giving itself a hug.
“It’s beautiful,” Sym breathed.
“Are we both looking at the same thing?” asked Pryor. All he saw was a mass of teeth and fur with a nasty reputation for killing and eating people.
“Hand me your lightbox,” said Sym.
Pryor’s eyes widened. “You want a picture of that thing?”
“Why else would I be asking for your lightbox?”
Knowing it was pointless to argue, Pryor reached into his bag, pulled out the wooden box with its various lenses and other components which he didn’t understand but which very clever men and women had concocted to create lifelike images on small slips of paper and handed it to Sym, who held it to her eye, unable to believe her luck.
“Hurry up,” Pryor insisted. “It could wake up at any second!”
“Wouldn’t that be bril? It’d make a much better picture if it was awake.”
“I’m being serious, Sym.”
“I need to get closer.”
Pryor simply could not believe his ears. “You…you what? Sym, that thing is dangerous!”
“Yeah, for now.”
“Just hush up! I’ll be right back.”
Deaf to Pryor’s protests, Sym inched closer to the sleeping gurzzle. Fortunately, her years of training had made her exceptionally light on her feet and she could move silently. By rather stark contrast, Pryor was having a great deal of trouble keeping quiet, even while holding perfectly still, as every fiber of his being wanted to yell out to Sym to stop doing the enormously stupid thing she was now doing.