Thursday, August 28, 2014

"The Hanging Tree" Deleted Scene #1

Note: I'm freewriting this right on the "New Post" page. This is both a rough draft, and something I don't see making it into the main novel. I'm just trying to find the voice for the character, and worldbuilding in the meantime.

This will be rough. Both in grammar, and in prose. So please forgive me for that. 

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Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this piece. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.

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The Ishura River had always been the font of life in the valley, mother of the modern world. Not a day passed on their travels that Remial failed to see some marks of an ancient people.

Here, a few broken columns, made featureless by the scrubbing of unforgiving winds, all that remained of an ancient palace. There, blasted sandstone, stained even now with soot from the fires, the last remnant of a temple devoted to The Merchant, and the site of a grisly massacre. Here a half-broken statue in alabaster, little more than a torso with flowing robes and the suggestion of a beard. There, a monolith with words in a tongue even Mistress Vithia could not identify, worn to near-illegibility.

A dry moat where once there had been a canal.

Cobbled stone poking out from underneath the black soil.

A single aged oak where oaks were not known to grow.

A circle of large, jagged rocks.

Today it was a gigantic stone face, half-covered in thick skins of moss, with a circlet atop its head. Mistress Vithia pointed to it, sweeping long, silver-streaked bangs back from her face. "Remy, what material is that?"

Remy squinted against the sun. "Looks like marble, Mistress."

A brusque nod from Vithia. "What does that tell you?"

"Well..." Remy took a moment to think it through. Mistress Vithia preferred a delayed response to a thoughtless one. "Not much. Marble's been used for statues quite a while. But it's worn, and buried, and probably not in one piece."

Remy looked at the statue, whose good eye was a blank expanse that seemed either blind or all-seeing. The Old Gods had often been depicted without iris or pupil; since, it had become synonymous of divine wisdom, given to rulers more often than not. Remy's eyes traced the vine climbing up the lopsided form, reaching out from the edge of the moss to cross the figure's narrow, hooked nose.

"I'd say that this is is a statue of Choraa Lunn, Mistress. And the people would be Phoellen."

Mistress Vithia paused, turning to face Remy. She smiled slyly. "You're getting harder and harder to stump, boy. But it wasn't Choraa Lunn, it was her great-grandaughter, Choraa Amee. Notice the pock above the temple; Amee had a scar there."

Looking again, Remy nodded. He'd first dismissed the flaw as damage from the years it had sat, but now that Vithia had mentioned it, it was too deep and too thin to have been accidental. A sigh escaped him.

"What's the matter?"

"I should have seen that," Remy said evenly. His face burned, as it always did when he did something foolish. He wished the feeling wasn't so familiar.

"Nonsense. You identified the people and the time. You were within fifty years, and it's been nearly six hundred since the people who made it were finished off."

"I suppose." Staring at his feet was easier than meeting his mistress's gaze. When Mistress Vithia started walking again, Remy followed, finally managing to bring his eyes to the pack on Vithia's back.

"I tell you, boy, you're far too hard on yourself."

Remy said nothing, plodding along in the unseasonable heat of the early autumn morning.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Doors: A Short Scary Story

DOORS
by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this story. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.

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Doors were a constant source of horror to me as a child; it was my thing. Yours might have been different—a shadow under the bed, the basement, stairs—but you had one. One of those irrational fears that none of us can explain.

Mine was doors. I had night terrors in which things sneaked out from the gap beyond an open door, out of that inky blackness past my nightlight’s reach. Unspeakable things, things whose bodies blended into the midnight-dark silhouettes of my bedroom. I spent many long nights hiding under my blankets for fear that the doorway-creatures could get me.

My parents tried to console me, first with the aforementioned nightlight, then by leaving the bathroom light on, then by letting me sleep with my lamp on. But always, always there was that taunting void where light grew just dim enough to harbor secrets—to harbor dangers.

Don’t mistake me. Darkness never scared me—or rather, only ever a specific kind of darkness. Drop me in a closed room in the dark, and I’d be nervous. Drop me in a lit room, with a doorway that led to darkness, and I’d be petrified.

It wasn’t long before my child’s mind invented a history for the creatures. They were invaders from a universe in which light did not exist. They had no eyes, and they wanted mine, so they could see in this world.

In the end, the only thing that could calm me was that the doors were closed. Every one of them. At all times. If it was noon in the summer, and someone left a sliding glass door open, I would leap up to shut it. The very sight of an open door made my skin crawl. They were there, not watching me, but listening, sniffing, feeling for me, for weakness, for opportunity.

My fears carried into adulthood. When I went to college, my dorm mate learned about my phobia, and harassed me by leaving doors open wherever he went—knowing I would chase after and close them. Then, he started opening doors that I had closed. He never admitted to it, but I knew it was him. We argued bitterly for the last weeks of the first semester. I switched rooms after my first finals.

I found a dorm mate who was much more accommodating to my phobia, as long as I squashed the spiders wherever they appeared. My grades rose immediately, once I was able to focus on my studies. I met a girl, and we started dating. I even took up guitar, though I only ever learned to play as far as the first chorus in “Stairway to Heaven”.

But then…Then, my new dorm mate started leaving doors open. He made a point of closing them firmly behind him, where I could see him, but it seemed like every time I turned around a door was open. I didn’t do much about it, but close them, and start throwing him resentful looks.

I tried to resist closing the doors. I really, really did. Immersion therapy, it’s called—I took a semester of Psychology. But, after my foot started tapping, after my teeth started to grind, after I bit my fingernails to raw stubs, I could never resist closing them. I could almost swear I heard whispers, in some alien language. Was I hallucinating? Was my new dorm mate even worse than my old one? I moved out, onto near-campus housing with my girlfriend, before I could decide.

Finally, I’d found someplace to relax. Someone who was diligent in closing each and every door she came across. She would look at me, and smile, and we’d listen for the click that meant it was shut. I knew she did it for my benefit, but it worked. For the first in a long time, I slept well, and could concentrate on my studies and on the part-time job I’d taken on to help pay for the apartment.

I walked out when I found a door ajar. She seemed to almost understand, as I curtly explained about the door. She looked sad, pitying. I berated her that I didn’t need her pity, driving her to tears. Finally, as I walked out, she shouted the words I had expected. “I know I shut that door!”

The apartment I’m in now isn’t too impressive. A living room, bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom, with a little hallway in between. Four doors, in all. Cheap and thin, no good against a burglar. But they all have shiny little knobs, with nice new locks. No one was there to leave doors open, to open them up behind me. And I kept the keys safe, on my person. No chance of someone leaving them open. Not a chance.

Living alone for the first time is rough. I always worry. I can barely afford the crummy apartment on my salary, even after I switched to full time after college fell through. I can always hear my neighbors, whether they’re fighting, watching TV too loudly, or knocking their bed against the wall. I hardly ever get any sleep. When I do, it’s full of nightmares.

I’ve become absentminded, lately. Too much stress. Not enough sleep. Little things, mostly. Forgetting which key goes to which lock… Leaving coffee on to boil… Letting food sit spoiled in the fridge because I forget to throw it out. But it’s only in the last couple of days…

That I’ve been forgetting to shut the doors.



Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Perfect"

PERFECT
by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this story. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.

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It was…Perfect.

Aliyah stood back for a moment, just looking at the sculpture under the light. A naked man in alabaster stood on its pedestal. Slim, wiry with muscle, its figure was sculpted with such precision that she could see fine white hairs on its arms. She could see the veins under its skin, could see its pores. Its face lined in exaltation and mourning, it cradled a nonexistent lover in its arms. Its hair rolled down its shoulders, mussed and wild. It didn’t glow, precisely, but Aliyah knew that it would still be visible in the darkest night, clear, bright, beautiful.

It had stood on its pedestal for more than four hundred years, seconds from weeping, seconds from falling to its knees. It looked the same, she knew, as it had on the day it was made, the same as it had every day since.

Perfection is eternal.

The Creator who had sculpted it was gone. All of them were. Penoctema, the Creator, had been pulled halfway across the Kingdom, to another of the endless battlefields. He waged war in her name, in the name of all who had yet to achieve Perfection. Most people never would. No, most would strive for it their entire lives, would die before achieving their goal. Perfection is demanding.

It wouldn’t be that way for her, or so Penoctema had promised. She would achieve Perfection, and would gain eternity. She would become like those rare Creators, sent to the endless battlefields, fighting the eternal wars. A kingdom counted its strength in its handful of the Perfect. Eternal, untouchable, they swept aside flawed blades, struck through imperfect mail. They cut elegant, bloody paths through the mortal enemy. She had witnessed such battles, seen such paths, tended such victims.

And that awaited her. Penoctema, her father, had promised.

A harp sounded on a stand to one side, each note clear, and clean, and sweet; each note plucked with a precision impossible for mortal fingers to manage. The melody didn’t sit in the air like normal music did. It caressed the air, instead, flowing on winds that weren’t there to whisper in the ear. Each note spoke to her, sang to her. This, it said, is Perfection.

The song reached its end, and the room stood silent for a second, two. Then the melody started anew, as it had for a hundred and seventy-five years. Its Creator had been buried in a mudslide three years ago. There had been attempts at rescue but she hadn’t been found. Aliyah couldn’t imagine the horror: buried, smothered, silenced. Still alive, though, always alive. Shivering, Aliyah turned from the statue.

She’d been in this museum a hundred times in the last fifteen years, had heard that song a hundred times that. She knew its every note, just as she knew every muscle and hair on the statue her father had crafted. She started down a long corridor lined with Perfect paintings, hung with Perfect tapestries. She passed more instruments playing other Perfect songs, each clinging to her mind in turn, each filling her to the brim with bliss.

A thousand creations filled these halls. This was the largest gallery in Svora, the largest in all of Millean. But it was only one. Each of the great cities had a museum; by definition, a city could not be great without one. All over the continent, all over the civilized world, Perfection was displayed in white-columned rooms and marble courtyards, surrounded by Nature’s own wild and fleeting Perfection. The number of Perfect works the world over baffled the mind, the number of Creators on the battlefields, beyond number.

Harps and sitars, drums and violas and tambours, all faded away as she neared the small cove in one corner of the museum. Tall, well-tended bushes served as walls on two sides, the single cobbled stone path leading in and out of the corner. Finally, the last notes fell away behind her. She stopped for a moment, smiling at the silence. This cove, alone in all the museum, was a place of peace. The lullaby she hummed seemed a desecration of this place. But it was the only peace she had.

The lullaby Had been in Aliyah’s family for generations almost beyond number, passed mother to daughter, mother to daughter, like Aliyah’s mother had taught it to her. Dead for almost ten years, in full service to Nature by now, her mother still seemed to return when Aliyah hummed the tune. She could hear her mother’s voice, see her smile, feel her embrace. Even facing the prospect of failure, or the prospect of eternity, it was hard to be afraid when she hummed.

Slowly, she continued on, until she fell under the shadow of the centerpiece in the cove. The sculpture, carved out of the trunk of an ancient oak, was three fourths the size of a man, but resembled nothing else she’d ever seen. Sweeping lines borrowed from nature, bulging curvatures stolen from animal, several sharp spines for fur along what might have been its back. She could identify neither limb nor skeleton, and saw nothing resembling a face. No matter how she looked at the thing, it seemed to glow; like a candle, flickering, when you only watched the shadows. No matter how she looked, it hurt her eyes.

But the Silent Ladies had their own tastes, and when they touched a thing, humankind was not to disparage.

Aliyah knew the Creator responsible for this Perfect monstrosity. Cilora, from the south, where the wars now raged on the Plains. A hundred and fifty years younger than her father, a lover he had kept on occasion, Cilora was small, graceful, beautiful…and in a word, insane.

Sitting back on a small stone bench against the brick wall, Aliyah looked at the carving for a moment, as she often did, just trying to make sense of strange angles and nonsense edges that folded back into curves. She never could. There wasn’t any sense to be had.

This was the only work the museum had recovered from Cilora, though she had finished a handful of Perfect pieces in her lifetime. Usually, she didn’t work in wood. Usually, sand and clay were her mediums. Usually, she built them up directly on the ground, which made it impossible to separate, impossible to recover. It was against the regulations, of course; in fact, the very first guideline was to work from a movable platform. But Cilora didn’t pay any mind to the laws or fashions of the lands. She simply continued to create.

When Aliyah had asked her what she’d been meaning to make when she started this masterwork, Cilora had claimed she didn’t know. She’d said that she had never put in her years for Perfection, never served a true term of Apprenticeship. As a result, nothing she made ever turned out like she meant it to, and in the century between making it and being asked, she had forgotten entirely. Aliyah had laughed at that, sure the woman had been joking, at the time. But then Cilora had given her such an odd look…

Aliyah wondered even now whether it had been a joke after all.

She’d reached the end of the lullaby. Almost without thinking, Aliyah started humming another note, another, another. The first was certain, the second unsure, the last faltering. She did not hum a fourth. She never did.

Nine years had given her one note, possibly two. Her mother had added a dozen in her lifetime, which impressed Aliyah. She’d died while still relatively young, while Aliyah was hardly more than a child. She’d been gifted. Aliyah forced down the bitter thought that her mother should still be the one adding notes, rather than she herself, and started the lullaby over again.

Adding to the melody was a tradition as surely as was the passing of the melody itself. All the contributions of all the women in her line fit loosely, fluidly, rightly. It reminded Aliyah of Nature, and her beauty, her Perfection. There was none of that in the Perfection of man. Man’s Perfection was devious, dishonest.

Her eyes were again on that carving. Whatever else she wanted to say about Cilora, she had to admit: whenever something entered Cilora’s head, she wouldn’t be dissuaded from it. How had such a tiny woman wrestled this sleek, if twisted, form from the trunk of an oak?

When she looked at the carving, her eyes blurring in an effort not to trace nonsense lines, Aliyah thought of her father, of his telling her the story of how he met Cilora. It was one of his favorite stories to tell. He told it the same way, exactly the same way, each and every time. Aliyah had learned it by heart before her tenth birthday.

As fond as she was of the eccentric little woman, Aliyah thought she would go mad if she ever had to hear the story again.

“I found Cilora on the streets of the Compolien. It was a summer night, sometime—oh, going on three hundred years ago, now. Her feet were bare, her face and hands covered in dirt. She was begging alms from the sailors in her tattered pink gown. The most beautiful vision I’d ever seen. Ahem, this was before I met your mother, mind.

“Sailors on shore leave aren’t the company for a beautiful young woman to have of a night. A Creator was better, I thought. So I invited her to stay in my manor. I didn’t ask her to leave again for seventy-odd years.

“She wasn’t yet twenty, on those first few months, but she showed immediate promise.”

“Promise of what?” Aliyah had asked for a while, when she was between the ages of asking the question and being prepared for an answer. Her father always looked away, clearing his throat and almost seeming to blush. Not that that had stopped him from saying the same the next time he told the story. Eventually, she had started asking the question just to see her unflappable father flustered.

“In any case, I took her under my tutorage, taught her to create, provided her fees. She was more than worth the cost. For the first time in a hundred years, I had companionship that counted.  She had natural talent in the arts, more than any of my previous apprentices. But she frustrated me.

She painted these nonsense pictures. Every time I looked away, she snuck off to play in the mud! Her music contained no meter, her dances were wild and unrefined. She would never, I thought, be a true Creator if she did not learn to apply reason and moderation to her works.”

“But you were wrong,” Aliyah usually said. Her father always gave that roar of a laugh.

“I was wrong,” he acknowledged. “I returned from buying fresh bread—there was a place down by the corner, and it made the finest I’d eaten before, or have since—and I returned to find Cilora changed. Perfected.”

Aliyah had again reached the end of the lullaby. The first note came without thought, and then the second, slightly different than she had given it before, slid smoothly alongside. She managed a small smile, despite the memory she knew would follow, the rest of the conversation she’d had with her father about Cilora.

To armor herself against the memory, she tried to focus on the melody. How had that last note changed, and why? She didn’t know. To her father’s chagrin, she had refused to learn about music. Refused to taint the lullaby, and her memory of her mother, with the examinations that had so ruined other art for her, examinations that had allowed her to pick creations apart, piece by piece, to find imperfections.

Music would remain sweet, and gentle, and powerful, mysterious and beautiful, infinite and wise, her breath and her pulse. It was life to her. The whisper of grasses on her feet and the wind in her hair, the sun on her face and the cool spring rain. She refused to make something so natural cheap and ugly in straining for Perfection.

The memory sparked again in her mind, refusing to be rebuffed. She started humming more quickly, but memory intruded.

“Really?” Aliyah had retorted a year ago, just before her father had set off to his latest battlefield tours. “Is that why she gets drunk, covers herself in red paint, and dances naked under the new moon? Because she’s Perfect?”

“She’s from a different time,” Penoctema had blustered.

“She believes the Sisters will suck my soul out through my nose if I don’t eat an onion, whole, every month.”

“So she’s superstitious,” he said, less confidently.

“She bathes in leech ponds and drinks goat blood!”

“You don’t understand.”

“Then make me understand!”

“I can’t!” Her father’s face, usually bright and smooth and vital, was lined and aged with frustration. “I can’t understand the woman. How am I supposed to make you understand?” When he sighed, scrubbing his grey-speckled growth of a beard, he looked as old as an Age, if not quite as old as he really was. “I’m telling you this because I love you, Aliyah. I doubt any other Creators have told their progeny.”

Aliyah gave him a look that spoke every word she was too wise to say aloud. In response, he leaned close, patting her hand.

“When I became Perfect, I gained more than you could ever know. Time. Authority. Acclaim. Freedom. Yes, freedom more than anything. No worries, no rules, no urgency. So much.” Her father’s eyes held hers, unwavering, unflinching. “But for days, weeks after I was transfigured by the Silent Ladies, I wept for what I’d lost.”

“Wept?” she’d asked. The word tasted strange on her tongue. Wept, upon gaining eternity.

Her father only nodded. “When we gain who we are—who we will be forever—we lose who we were. All of our imperfections, weaknesses, flaws… They are either polished away or grown to features in their own right. You see now? I don’t love her, Aliyah. Not for who she is. I love her for who she was, who she can’t ever be again.”

Aliyah realized her whole body had tightened with the tension of the memory. Her eyes were closed tight, her jaws clenched, her fingers balled into fists at her skirt. Slowly, she loosened, eased, straightened. She opened her eyes, smoothed her skirts. Standing, turning resolutely away from the masterwork monstrosity, she stepped into the shadows of the bushes, where she could see nothing but the greenery.

Nature. She called to Aliyah, soothed her. Beautiful yes, but never reaching for anything more. Nature was content. Nature was happy. Fleeting, yes, but also eternal, in her own way. And every life had been touched by her unplanned Perfection.

Nature had been wise when the Silent Ladies had ascended. In love with the grasping for Perfection as much as they were with Perfection itself, the Ladies had forestalled offering Nature eternity, waiting to see what such a creature could produce when at her most determined. When, finally, they knew that Nature did not deign to pursue them, the Ladies offered Nature their gift if she would only promise to continue her good work.

Nature refused. And when the Silent Ladies scolded her, reminding her that they would be present when her children’s children returned to dust, Nature laughed, and promised that those children would have children, too, and that her sons and daughters would continue forever to vex the Sisters with Perfection, and by living short, beautiful lives, rather than their own grotesqueries.

Aliyah found herself smiling, again. Humming, too. That third note wasn’t right. She didn’t think about it, not really, but she wanted the lullaby to be even more beautiful when she taught it to her own daughter, years from now, than it was. But she would have to try something else, with that third.

Nature’s Folly, the story was called. Wherein Nature is portrayed as a fool, for refusing a gift given freely. As a child, Aliyah had guffawed at the arrogance of that choice. After all, when the Silent Ladies touched a thing, it was not for anyone to disparage.

Now, however… She started toward the exit, but halted when she reached another masterwork, this one easier on the eyes, and on the heart.

A woman was drawn in charcoal with fine gray lines, her eyes dark and intense, her hair light, wispy, almost floating.  There was a tiny scar along the jaw, captured so precisely from the model to the paper that she could almost see how it had faded against the skin over the years. Her neck was graceful, leading to a necklace of pearls and gold, down to a fine silken collar at the edge of the paper. But while the lines of the drawing were always fine, the farther the artist drew from the face, the fainter and less detailed the sketch grew. The woman’s eyes drew all the attention, so deep with light and shadow, traced with reflections, as though they held the very woman’s soul inside. Her expression was bright and loud with the joy of the moment. She had fallen for this artist, this Creator.

Yes, this was a picture drawn by a master, yes. But almost as importantly, it was clear how much he loved his subject, how he had studied her every imperfection in order to capture them all Perfectly.

She only had one memory regarding this drawing. Well, two, but the second was just her father repeatedly recalling the advice he had given her the first time.

“You have to love what you’re working on. You’ve got to love it as if it were your child. Because until it’s finished, it is a child. Ever growing, changing. Vulnerable. Relying on you, as Creator, to shelter it, to raise it right. If you abandon it, like an infant, it will die of exposure. You must guide it into what you want it to be, what it’s meant to be.”

She had never told him the truth, but she was sure he’d suspected. She’d never loved anything she’d worked on to appease him. Not the paintings, not the pictures, not the sculptures, carvings, or dances. Nothing. She didn’t have room in her heart for that. She wasn’t strong enough to love something with all her being, and then be told, by dreaded silence, that it simply was not good enough. The very thought almost drove her mad.

It was then that she had decided that she would never attain Perfection. She wasn’t strong enough, or crazy enough. It was Nature who had been wise, who had been right. The true freedom was not in attaining others’ Perfection, but in striving towards her own.

Even so, the drawing was sweet, pleasant to her eyes, sweet to her mind. She hadn’t even realized she’d started humming, until she reached that dreaded third note, her voice climbing almost higher than comfort to reach the note that she felt might fit better.

The note locked into place, not with the smooth, fluid rightness of the others, but with a solid, rigid finality.

The world tilted under her feet, and her knees crumpled. A sting raced along her palm where she’d broken her fall onto the stone path; raising her hand to her face, she found a raw, red patch of scraped skin. Blood already sprouted to the surface. But her mind wasn’t on her pain.

The world was still turning, turning, turning. Beyond staying upright, beyond bearing. She fell onto her back, continuing to stare at her palm as the blood weighed heavier with each beat of her heart.

She could hear her pulse thudding in her ears, more quickly than any of the drums in their masterworks. She could feel the blood shooting through burning arms and legs, into pricking fingers and toes. She could feel that desperate, urgent vitality, that mortal thrum.

She could hear her breaths racing from her throat, heavier than any reed flute could manage, harder than any pipe. She could feel the air in her chest, swelling her with what sweet, new life. Her whole body sang with it, even as the world spun out of control.

And then it all…stopped.

She watched her hand until her eyes burned. The wound was gone. It wasn’t raw, like she had blotched it dry, or scabbed, like she had let it stop on its own. It wasn’t scarred, like it had happened months or years past. It was smooth, and clear, and soft, like it had never been.

The world stopped spinning more slowly than it had started. She didn’t trust the ground to stay where it was, yet, and didn’t trust her legs any more than the ground. But that wasn’t what kept her on her back on the cobbled stone floor.

Silent. It was all silent. From where she was, she couldn’t hear any of the motley melodies provided by the masterworks. But it was the absence of other noises, closer noises, that startled her.

Her blood.

Her air.

Neither filled her with their fleeting joy.

Instead, the joy just…was. Singing in her skin, her every inch alive with it. Alive. Like she had never been, like she’d never known what it meant to live.

And then, as the minutes passed into what might have been an hour, there was that other feeling, slowly building, like she had held her breath for too long.

She covered her face with her arm and gave in to the growing need.

The voice sounding the lullaby wasn’t her voice. Hers was quiet and shaky, reluctant to be at all. This voice was deep, for a woman’s, melodic and sure. This new tongue didn’t stumble over the notes as her old one sometimes had, instead navigating the intricacies of the lullaby with the familiarity that was due her. Her throat produced long, loud, clear notes, each one precise, each as it was meant to be. Each note Perfect.

And then she reached the end, and she… kept going. It wasn’t the end, after all, some new part in her whispered. Not like it had been that morning. Now, there were just those last three little notes to finish it off.

She hummed them beautifully.

Her daughter, whenever amid the coming centuries Aliyah chose to bear her, would receive the song to learn by rote. She would offer up a pale imitation of Aliyah’s own. She might add to the lullaby, and with Aliyah’s permission. But any addition would be an aberration, a detraction from the Perfect song that already was. Always there would be a small silence, a distance between the Perfect whole and the foolish effort to expand it. Never again would a member of her line work the lullaby like a puzzle, adding her own complexity to the whole.

Aliyah had stolen countless generations. She’d stolen her future from her ancestral past. This lullaby wasn’t hers. It wasn’t for her to Perfect. Who were the Sisters to decide she should have eternity, when it was unwanted?

At the thought, she remembered Cilora. Had this been what had happened to the madwoman? Had she been striving for Perfection at all? Or had she been deceived into achieving it?

Her next thought was of her father, and she laughed. No. She wouldn’t strain for Perfection her entire life, only to fall short. Her father had made sure of that, just as he had promised.

But she wouldn’t live an eternal life on the battlefields, either. She had promised that to herself.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Garrid's Fall"

GARRID'S FALL 
by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this story. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence. 

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.
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The world was frozen; the world burned. The air on the rooftop sliced into my lungs, almost too thin and too cold to breathe. Acrid black smoke burned in my chest with each breath. But I could neither let myself feel them, nor listen to the sounds from the streets far below.
Volen. That was all that mattered. Standing in that slanted way of his against the rail, Volen took another long drag from the cigarette, ignoring me. Volen, my only friend, the only one left who knew I existed. Volen, the monster.
“How could you,” I managed brokenly, the sword trembling in my hands.
The halo around the blade’s keen edge pulsed with each tormented beat of my heart. How long had it been since Volen and I had received the swords, our Nesim? Centuries. My trembles turned to shudders, as Volen sucked in a last lungful of smoke and tossed the butt over the railing, as he watched with rapt attention its twirling course to the ground.
Tall and blade-thin, Volen was striking as always, in some vague way angelic. Clean, neat, composed, he was, down to the last button-closed pocket on his thick denim jacket. Cobalt, of course, to match his eyes. That was Volen, always had been: meticulous, careful. Calculating, even when he pretended not to be. That was why he kept his hair that way, silver spikes in all directions, carefully random, the only thing that clashed with his portrait-permanent perfection.
He half-turned, facing me, and smiled.
When Volen spoke, the sounds of the world faded. Sirens. Gunshots. Screams. The thousand noises of civilization dying, shrunken and mute beneath Volen’s clipped cadence. Koah pressed in on me, a tangible, swelling darkness in the air around me. It clung, and squeezed in my head like a living fog.
“You have always lacked clarity, Garrid. Lacked vision. Perhaps that is why Chasmal chose you.” Volen’s silvered eyebrows quirked at the fierce glow around my broadsword, the sinuous lines running along the blade brighter than any bulb, harder than diamond, hot enough to melt stone. The fog built, smothering. Unbearable. “But don’t worry, Brother. I will help you through this, as I have so many times before.” Panic made a cold rush through my limbs, as my muscles…loosened. The sword started a slow slouch downward.
I grimaced, shook my head, pushed at that suffocating fog. Like a brittle glass, it shattered as my will touched it, broken pieces spilling down to slice into my brain.
“HOW COULD YOU!” Sound swelled back to fullness. My fury swelled faster, burying my shock. Volen had done it, used Koah against me. But then, why should I be surprised that my old friend would break the second prescript? He had reveled in breaking the first.
Nine hundred years, traveling always together, moving every ten to avoid suspicion. A millennium of machinations, guiding a world too frail to stand on its own. So much effort for so long, washed away in a single tide of blood.
But why?
“Please, Brother,” Volen entreated, his voice now quiet. His outstretched hands stopped short of Chasmal, as though he were warming them on its heat. His tone, at once pleading and indulgent, made me want to put my own power to work. But I couldn’t do it, couldn’t rain the Godfire down on Volen, no matter what he was now. Even if I could, I hadn’t used the power since the world had started its slow crumbling, since everything had changed.
What would it do if I tried to draw on it now?
“Please,” Volen said again. Those eyes were on me, studying me, confident. Cold. “Can you not see what I’m doing? What I’ve begun?”
“They’re all dead.” Somehow, I pushed the words through gritted teeth. My face hurt, skin too tight over muscle, muscle too tight around bone. My arms ached from the grip I kept on the sword. “You killed them all!”
Volen’s smile twitched, but he caught it before it slid away. His eyes glinted, though, and when he replied, his voice wasn’t as light as it had been. “They couldn’t see,” he said, voice almost clinical. “They tried to stop me. For the good of us all, they had to go! But it’s okay.” Volen’s hands were up, over the sword, reaching toward me. He had changed again, made his voice once more entreating. “I’ll make it okay. I’ll help you. You can count on me.”
Warmth trickled down my cheek, and I blinked in surprise. My hand moved to the dampness. Tears. I hadn’t thought I had any left.
Centuries. Carefully revising speech, fashion, thought. We’d followed abhorrent pop culture, blasphemous theology, all so we wouldn’t be noticed. After all that…
“You’ve destroyed everything we worked toward! Destroyed our dreams!”
“No!” Volen spat, his face twisting in a rictus. His voice grew deeper, harsher. “Destroyed, Garrid? Destroyed! I’ve created a new world, a new dream! One in which we needn’t puppet foolish mortals, cower behind crumbling thrones! We will rule!” Volen’s eyes burned like molten steel, the first I’d seen of real emotion, but that grin was still there, a skeletal grimace. Mocking me.
I lunged with Chasmal before I could stop myself, before I could think of using the power. Volen stepped adroitly around the wild jab, his hand out to one side.
A flash filled the rooftop with an instant of blinding light, a boom louder than thunder, as Tohu answered its master’s call. Blacker than midnight waters but for splintered scarlet streaks along its edge, it darkened the air around it, as though it sucked in light. It had always been that way, dark and cold, the opposite of what Nesim should be. But those splintered streaks were new. As though it was shattering, as though it bled
Volen swept my sword aside, eyes cold again, a sneer on thin lips. “Careful, Brother. You know how dangerous that is.” There was no sadness in his eyes, no regret. Contempt, yes. Confidence, even—was that hunger? But nothing of the man I had followed for centuries, across the reaches of the known world and beyond. Nothing of my brother, nothing to save.
It was decided, then. My heart was being torn from my chest by some cold, sharp instrument, but it couldn’t change things. Volen had to die.
I took a single step backward on the rooftop, along that painted orange H of the landing platform. Distancing myself. Making room. I tried to steady the sword, and succeeded, tried to swallow that tearing sensation as it crawled up my throat, and failed. “I think we both know you stopped being my brother…the moment you slit Reina’s throat.”
Finally, Volen’s smile shrank. “Can you not see how useless this is?” With a cracking, broken sound, the blades scraped together, showering a thousand sparks on the rooftop. Volen watched them with the same intensity he had afforded the cigarette in its fall, as if nothing else mattered. As if I didn’t exist. “It is done, Garrid. It cannot be undone, and I would not have it back if I could. The world is ours, now, and it is our duty to lead it. Your death, or mine, would only drive the world closer to the abyss.”
There it was, that old camaraderie. It made me hesitate. But then there was the relish lacing the word ours, Volen tasting the word, and liking it. I managed a quick nod, a jerk of the head. My heart twisted in my chest, pushed out at bars that kept it prisoner in a body that would soon kill him, kill the only remaining tie to the world I had loved.
“That may be true,” I breathed, my voice quiet, steel, on the edge of breaking. “But you started this, Volen. You had to know where it would end.”
Volen met my gaze, gave a shrug I almost couldn’t see. Quiet enough that I had to read his lips, he said, “I guess I did.”
That quickly, he lashed out. If I hadn’t spent hundreds of years sparring with the man, the blade would have opened my throat. As it was, I had barely turned it aside when it darted back at me. Time after time, I only just deflected mortal strikes, strikes which a millennium had made quick, and clever, and vicious. Volen’s blade seemed to move all on its own, energized by the murder of ten companions. With each strike, it was closer to finding flesh, closer to killing.
The air blazed with the heat from a million brilliant sparks that bounced and skidded on the roof. The sound of each strike cut into my ears, sliced into the frail bonds that kept my heart from escaping—the sounds of my world shattering all over again. The names of the others, Volen’s victims, fed the flame that kept Chasmal aglow. Fed into my soul, those names kept me moving.
Majian and Tychon and Hiram. Liuhan and Khalid. Tammaro and Aetius, Eolus and Buri’Gal. Reina.
I moved to block a slash at my thigh, and Volen’s blade turned, sliced upward, into my arm. Leaping backward, out of Tohu’s reach, I sucked in a breath. My eyes darted to the wound in my arm, and from there to the man who had made it.
“First blood, Garrid.” Volen nodded to the wound. I spat in his direction. “Mine, as always. Shall we call it, then?”
I remembered. Eleven hundred in the year of our Lord, almost eleven hundred. We’d been pages in the court of William the Red. That was when it started. As pages. In the midst of the war, we’d been trained in battle as much as in etiquette, drilled often to first blood. Those months had seemed dark to me then, under the cruel king’s eye, but they glowed now in my mind, warm, cheery. Volen’s joking smeared them in dirt and blood.
I had hated Volen, then, envied the older, more graceful man for being from a richer family. For flirting with the maids so easily, while I stammered. For a hundred different reasons. I’d fought with him constantly. But I’d also loved him like a brother.
Volen lowered his blade, while I struggled to keep mine raised with one good arm. My other arm hung limp, made useless by the cut at my bicep.
“This isn’t a game, Volen!” My eyes moved back to my wound, helplessly fascinated by the sight of my own blood. “One of us is going to die here.”
It hadn’t been long after that, when that simple time ended, that I had last bled. Hundreds of years between then and now, but I remembered what my blood looked like, how pain felt. This wasn’t pain. Just—cold. Colder than I’d ever been, cold and numb. It seeped across my skin. Was this what they had felt, Reina and the others? And the liquid, slicking my arm around the wound, couldn’t be blood. Blood had never been so black, so viscous.
“One of us will have to die.”
A muscle twitched in Volen’s jaw as silent seconds passed. Then, raising his sword to meet mine, he said, “It seems so.”
With an ease bordering on derision, Volen battered my blade aside, lashed out with practiced, inhuman speed. I strained to match him, strained until my bones ached with the effort, and managed to block some of those slashes and chops. But, first at my shin, then at my shoulder, and then at my side, little nicks added up. Every one of them plunged me into icy slush, drained strength from my muscles. A deep gouge in my calf brought me to one knee, left me struggling for breath with lungs half frozen.
Even then, fury was there, fury and Koah, pumping fire through my veins, keeping the cold at bay.
“You should know better.” Volen smirked, contempt making his voice hollow, his eyes gleam. “After all, Hiram held the power of us all, and I overwhelmed him.” He made a small, spiteful bow. “So it’s mine, now.” Yes, contempt. It was a measure of his contempt that he hadn’t tapped into Koah from the others in the duel.
I was laughing, I realized. It sounded disjointed and strange in my ears, forced and pained and maybe mad. But it was laughter.
“You think he was the one? Truly? The power of us all, and you killed him just like that.” I laughed all the harder, wheezed at Volen’s quiet bemusement. I laughed through my tears. “They called Asufah, remember? When we first got here. You remember what a nuisance it was, to hop a ship right back to England, when we had only just arrived. Why’d they do that, you think? Called all of us together for the first time in six hundred years.”
“Garrid.” Volen sounded amused. “Stop it.” He didn’t understand. Not yet.
“They knew. Two hundred years ago, more, and they knew. You couldn’t resist, you had to play God.”
Laughter faded, tears slowed, and I put my foot beneath me and rose to stand before Volen. A sudden wind blew between us, hot as the inside of a furnace. Volen said nothing.
“But I couldn’t see it. No matter how desperate they’d become, they should never have let you hear Tohu’s call, never should have let you join. No matter how I begged.” Yes, laughter was gone. But so was the cold.
“You’re lying,” Volen said, his voice quiet, not quite shaking. “They wouldn’t wait, Garrid. If they knew, they would have—” His eyes widened, as he answered his own question. Execution required the full council’s agreement. “You…”
I nodded. “Me. And Reina.” Which meant the council waited, and planned.
“Nonsense. You’re bluffing; I know you are.” Volen’s lip curled at the corner, though it never reached his eyes. “I’ve played against you enough to know. It’s your way to bluff after the gold is in the pot. But I’ve already won, Garrid. As I always do.” The jeer was forced. Calling upon our history to barb me was a common tactic, but it was desperate, here. Our history couldn’t make me hesitate. My doubt was gone.
“We wouldn’t believe,” I continued, as though Volen had said nothing, “so they made another plan. You did what they knew you would, what I feared.”
“You lie,” Volen repeated, slowly. “I was there, as you were. I saw. Nesim to Bej’arden, and from there to Hiram. He held the power.” The certainty in Volen’s voice clashed with the tremble in his breathing.
“Did you pause long enough to find it curious, Volen? Why she would be chosen to hold the Star—she, the weakest of us?”
My tone hardened as I spoke of Reina’s death. She had followed the plan much as I had, without believing it necessary. Volen would never betray us, never hurt us. Had she even fought him? Or had she been too shocked to see the blood on his hands, to hear his Voice, to feel Koah pressing in around her?
“Did you think, Volen, or did you just glut on her death?!” Hesitation was gone, weakness burned away. Knowledge sparked in their place. I knew what would happen, how it must happen.
My body screamed as I drew Koah into me. The power of them all burned through me; my heart urged them along in my blood, warming the farthest, coldest regions of my soul. That coldness that passed for pain had melted. All was warmth, and light, and strength. The world slowed to a crawl beneath its weight.
The monster’s human fa├žade slipped in the smallest increments. First, the crease in the forehead eased, the furrow between the eyes relaxed. Then the frown lines disappeared, as the mouth opened and the lips curved upward. The eyes spread wider, wider, until the entire iris glowed cold in their center, the pupils shrunken to the barest dots. Finally, the throat and tongue made the sounds I knew would follow: one last empty jeer.
“YOU CAN ASK HER SHORTLY!”
I moved first, now. Time and space expanded; the trice it took for the blades to meet spread to hours, and the millimeters of skin on Volen’s chest, over his heart, spread to acres.
Thought flooded as power did, so thoroughly that I could only separate one from the last, from the next. The thought became my mantra as the blades met, flashing with enough sparks to light the rooftop brighter than noonday in summer; as power swelled in Chasmal; as the thin white lines spread to overtake metal, hotter than magma, hotter than the cores of a thousand suns. The thought flooded my soul as Volen’s blade shattered along those crimson lines, as the tip of my sword met that acre over Volen’s heart. The thought sustained me as my blade boiled fabric and skin, muscle and bone, like a glowing hot poker through water. That single, miserable thought kept me from crumbling when through the sword I felt Volen’s heart explode.
He murdered her. The thought burst in my head like a mote of dust, clouding over everything, distorting everything.
Volen’s mouth moved to speak, eyes meeting mine, but then his face fell slack, and his eyes glazed, empty. Tohu fell from limp fingers, exploding into glimmering white dust as it hit the roof. And then, inch by inch, Volen’s body did the same.
I stood stiffly still, just watched as all that had been my friend dissolved into that bright cloud. The jewel, Bej’arden,  hit the ground, and the cloud stirred around it in liquid ripples. Like water above a drain, the cloud spiraled down, flooded into the single imperfection on the jewel’s smooth, crystalline surface. As the jewel sucked in the last few grains of power and fell dark, my knees betrayed me, and I stumbled back a step before I could stand again.
A flash lit the rooftop as Chasmal returned to the void before it could fall to the ground. A wordless cry tore from my throat; my heart quivered in my chest. Some cruel, giant hand squeezed viciously. My heart couldn’t beat. I couldn’t breathe.
They were dead. All of them. The world I had loved, had accepted this loathsome eternity for, I’d let be destroyed. All the other worlds, worlds that had been and worlds that could have come to be, I had killed with my own hands. For this. Nothing was left, nothing but the cold above, the flame below. Nothing but death.
Stepping forward, I picked up the jewel from the corner of the giant H, cradled it in my arms as mortals might cradle a child. I peered into those dark depths, into the single, scattered coil of light at its center.
There’d been a night, not so long ago, when it had seemed that all our dreams were coming to fruition. Not even twenty years ago. Reina had brought me to a roof, much like this one. A telescope sat on its tripod; through that glass sat the universe. Planets and moons. Stars, asteroids, meteors. Through that telescope, I first saw stardust, the clouds of the galaxy, eclipsing the beauty of a thousand worlds. Stardust in the void—a cloud that obscured truth. That was what this glow in the jewel’s depths resembled.
A lie.
A single imperfection marred the jewel’s glassy surface, what seemed a crack at first glance. But, much like the squared corners of the jewel itself, the lines of that artifact were too straight, too regular, for nature, and too perfect for the hands of man. Saint John had seen. In his right hand were seven stars and from his mouth he drew a sharp double-edged sword. John had also seen a sword of fire scorching a third of the world.
The jewel glowed hot in my hands; I stumbled backward, clutching the railing to keep from falling over the side. Hot as the sword had been, it pushed inward at my stomach. Clothes and skin didn’t give way, and the jewel didn’t fade or grow less solid, but it pushed its way up and in. In, until it rested deep in my chest. There it burned in me, every pulse of power reminding me what I’d done. What I’d allowed to happen. What I had become.
Asufah.” I chuckled mirthlessly. Assembly, it meant. The council’s grand word for the full gathering, only called when a decision needed to be made—a decision that would alter the face of the world. And I was all that was left of them, of their good intentions. Chaos. All our efforts at using the primordial powers for mankind’s benefit, worse than useless. I turned to hold the rail with both hands as I looked over the city. Wind, cold against my face, raked icy fingers through my hair. Smoke burned in my lungs.
The colossus of glass and steel now wore gaping scars, or bore fiery wounds that guttered thick black smoke. In places, I could see their bones; in places, bones were all that were left. Mine was one of the few that had escaped mortal wounds. The smaller buildings were less lucky.
Hundreds of vehicles choked the city streets—squashed, mangled ruins after their owners’ frantic flight. Ambulances and fire trucks and police cars peppered the wreckage, some still sounding the flashing, whining sirens, others sitting dark and silent.
Bodies. Bodies beyond counting. They were piled on sidewalks, scattered on streets, under cars and in them. They hung from windows and lay against walls, Burnt or broken, sliced or shot, beheaded or disemboweled. Some were days dead, but even those that still drew last gasping breaths were without hope.
The few people who might yet survive moved with frenzy, with malice. A handful ran or hid, scrambling to escape this world gone mad, but the larger portion was hungry, with no thought but satisfying their own whims. Mankind could be like that, sometimes. I’d seen it before: in war, in famine. Under tyranny.
Volen had been a fool. Had he really thought that humanity would bow before us? Would accept us, the superior beings, for rulers? Had he believed that when the world was shown the truth, was forced to acknowledge it, they would fall in line? Or had he thought that, with all our power, the two of us could press the mortals into accepting, using Koah.
The thought stopped me for a second. I clutched the rail tighter, to keep my hands from shaking. With the power I held now, the power of us all, I probably could. If I wanted, I could rule the world, force the most stubborn mortal to obey.
Fear quivered in my stomach, a snake that coiled and slithered, biting my insides. Poisoning me.
And in those days, and in the days after, Nephilim roamed the earth. Born of the sons of God and the daughters of man, they obtained power from Seraphim but retained human souls. They were…abomination. Chapter six of Genesis. I had known that by heart before I became a page in William’s court. Lifting the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, I drew the strings tighter. It wasn’t the cold that made me shiver, though.
Gabriel looked and saw that his sons were full of sin. When he saw what his sons had wrought, he cried to Heaven and asked for forgiveness. God turned from him. It was then that Gabriel took his sword, which was called Chasmal and which was made from fire and from blood, and drove it through his stomach. So Gabriel passed from the Earth, and so his sons inherited his sin. From those days to the end of days, the sons of Gabriel carry his doom in their blood.
Aiga’dah. Legend. A collection of scrolls as old as Genesis, scrolls that had been kept from the ancient books. Scrolls that spoke extensively on Nephilim. It was possible to trace family lines from those scrolls, Nephilim lines. I had been taught every word on those scrolls when Chasmal called to me, before we were allowed to be united.
When Chasmal chose me, I’d been told what it meant. The blood of Seraphim was in my veins, the ancient sin lived through me. But it was only now, as the world burned, that I really understood.
For a long moment I scanned the horizon, watched as it flared red in the light of the evening, the light of the city’s fire. Then my hands briefly clutched the railing for momentum, as I vaulted over the roof’s edge.
The street rushed up to meet me, wind roaring against my body like it meant to hold me up. The squared windows of the building across the street were streaks, but the surface of the sidewalk and the mangled cars below grew clearer and clearer. The wind was like wool pressed tight against my mouth, making it hard to breathe, but, blowing under the hood and through my hair, it reminded me of another time, long ago. If I shut my eyes against this milieu of madness, I was there.
Reina ahead, low on the back of her horse, laughed raucously and shouted for me to catch her. Her hair flailed behind her like fire; her riding cloak danced in the air. She was beautiful. I hadn’t realized how beautiful. Then, it had just been about catching her, about proving that I was her equal. Racing through the lush of early spring, while the air still bit at exposed skin, I laughed along with her, kneeing my gelding faster, faster. She was the one who oversaw my training when I joined the council, the one to teach me what this new life meant. It was then, as I was catching up, as my hand reached for her shoulder and she shied away teasingly, that I learned.
I didn’t know until afterward that my horse’s hoof had caught on thick vines, that it had broken its leg and torn so many muscles that it would not heal. All I had known was that it was gone from under me, that I was flying at a tree headfirst, at full gallop.
My body slammed into the car beneath me. In a single instant, roof buckled, windows shattered, seats collapsed, tires exploded, axles broke. The ground beneath shuddered at the impact. Then, for a moment, there was only the sirens, and the fire. Soon enough, though, the noises of humanity’s fall resumed; they had stopped and watched only long enough to see me die.
My wounded mind stretched thin between the warmth of memory and this cold present. The terror of that moment, and then the smack of skin on bark, the crack of the trunk splintering. The cacophony of the apocalypse.
I cursed as I flipped over off the side of the crumpled car, landing on my hands and knees on shattered glass and black-top. I remembered that day, remembered pulling myself to stand, hearing the cries of my horse in the moments before Reina gave it a quick death. My heart had hammered in my chest, but the pain I expected never came. I knew then what this life meant. Immortality. Freedom from pain, freedom from age, freedom from death. Freedom.
I pushed away the memory; looking on it hurt my eyes. The joy, and awe, and promise. The bliss I’d known in the centuries since, and the knowledge of where it ended, would break me if I let it.
Instead, I focused on the present, berated myself for letting my mind drift in free fall. I could have hit bare street! Then I’d be in the sewer. A rueful smile pulled on me as I shrugged off a last remnant of that cold, as I suppressed the fire roiling in my chest. Putting my feet beneath me, I used the side of the car to rise.
It was time to get moving, to brace the walls Volen had tried to tear down. Time to undo what the fool had done, what all of us had done for the last nine hundred years. I owed it to them.
I owed it to her.

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