To Catch a Dragon (Part 1)

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As I’ve been working through my novels, I ocassionally take my characters on a “test drive” in different scenarios to see how they’d handle them, if there’s any chemistry, etc. I thought I’d share some of those on the blog. Let’s me do some character development, and gives you some (hopefully) fun short stories.

As always, comments are welcome.
To Catch a Dragon

Ndrek sat behind the bar, sizing up each of his mid-afternoon customers. Some had started drinking early, others had rented a room for the night and were just starting their day. Boredom itched.

Now was as good a time as any to start work on the new spell he’d discovered.

As he slid off his stool, the door to the bar opened and the man that entered had to stoop to get under the doorframe. His shoulders matched his height, and the gold dragon on his breastplate seemed to glow in the dim light.

The archetype for the Knights of Valor.

Sir Leopold grimaced at the sticky floor.

“To what do I owe this…” Ndrek paused. “Honor?”

The Knight leaned against the bar, his back to the wall as his faded blue eyes surveyed the tap room. “Don’t believe for a minute you’ve settled down as a barkeeper.”

“That is not what brought a High-Knight to my humble establishment. Perhaps you came for a Fire and Brimstone? My establishment is said to make the very best.”

Leopold looked at the pristine glasses behind the counter. “At least those are clean.”

“Too much cleanliness would scare away my best customers.”

Leopold’s eyes narrowed. “Not what I came to see you about, though I probably should.”

“What has brought you here?”

The Knight reached into his cloak and withdrew a sheaf of papers imprinted with the wax seal of the dragon church.

“A writ?”

“Interested?”

Ndrek sucked in a breath as he looked at the sealed documents. “You have an army of Knights blessed by Dracor Himself. Why would you have need of me?”

“We’ve been issuing more of them lately. Not enough Knights to oversee all of Tamryn and the eastern provinces.”

“Then you need more Knights.”

“That’s up to Dracor,” Leopold said.

Ndrek bit back his quip about fickle gods.

“Figuring you’re getting bored about now. This’ll keep you busy and out of trouble. Pay’s not bad either.”

Ndrek grinned and took the papers, but he frowned as he read them. “This is a goose chase, as you Tamarians say. Dragons have been extinct since before men walked these lands.”

“Locals of Kelleran don’t agree with that assessment.”

“A dragon.” Ndrek rocked back on his heels as he tried to wrap his brain around the thought. “Are you sure?”

“Nope, but that’s where you come in.”

“Would not the followers of the Dragon God Dracor wish to be first on the scene?”

“Already sent a contingent of Knights.”

“Let me guess. They did not return?”

“Of course they did. They didn’t see any dragons, and they didn’t find any proof that there’d ever been any.”

“Then why send me?”

“Found a few things that made some folks worry there might’ve been a dragon. Knights couldn’t tell if it was real or a hoax.”

“Would not the Knights know this best?”

“Dracor might take the form of a dragon, but dragons are magical beasts.”

“No wizard was with the team you sent?”

Sir Leopold shook his head.

“So you think I will be able to tell for sure.”

“That’s the reasoning, anyway.”

Ndrek looked at the bundle of papers, including the generous payout. Far more interesting than tending bar.

Sir Leopold pushed off the bar. “I’ll send Knight Kailis over. She was on the original expedition. And Priestess Vaiya.”

“Was she on the original expedition as well?’

“No, but I figure if you find a dragon, you might want the healing skills of Priestess of Thalia on your side.”

Ndrek frowned. “You think there might actually be a dragon.”

“Doesn’t much matter what I think. It’s what you find that counts. I’ll send Knight Kailis over in the morning.”

Ndrek watched the High-Knight leave and looked down at the papers in his hands.

If Sir Leopold thought it was a goose chase, he wouldn’t be sending Ndrek, a Knight, and a Priestess of Thalia to investigate.

Sir Leopold hadn’t become a High-Knight by being wrong.

 

Loving a Mage Lord: 1

I received some feedback on the blog that people wanted to see little more of my fiction writing, so I thought I’d give it a try. This is supposed to be an author’s website, and I really do write. A lot, actually.

I figure I’ll post a little fiction on Fridays. Something fun before the weekend.

Let me kow what you think in the comments section. Figure if the experiment doesn’t work, it’s easy enough to return to my previous ramblings and ruminations.

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Loving a Mage Lord: 1

Aenwyn focused on her magical tome as a maid tugged on her hair. Wincing, Aenwyn tried to ignore the maid and concentrate on the arcane symbols. The young wizard didn’t much care what she looked like for the Oakenvale ball, but figuring out the nuanced spell dancing across the pages captured her complete attention as she tried to learn it.

Escadia closed Aenwyn’s book. “How do you expect to marry an earl when you won’t hold still to get your hair done?”

Aenwyn glanced up at the duchess. “I was studying that, Your Grace.”

“You’re getting ready for a ball.”

Sitting up straight, Aenwyn sucked in a breath and her lungs filled with the tang of magic and beeswax. She glanced up toward the towering ceiling with its swooping curves and large windows as massive crystal chandeliers illuminated the room with magelight so bright it made evening feel like afternoon.

Aenwyn grimaced as the maid coiled her hair. “I’m not interested in marrying an earl.”

“You should be,” Escadia said. “Then you wouldn’t have to hide from my mother.”

“Are the rumors true?”

“Don’t know, and I’m smart enough not to find out.”

Aenwyn stroked the cover of the tome. “I don’t want to marry. I want to study magic.”

Escadia took both of Aenwyn’s hands in her own, the duchess looked unusually serious. “The Empire needs more wizards like you, and I know you love spending time with those dusty old books. Caewyn Oakenvale can give you unimaginable opportunities, and his family has one of the best, one of the oldest, libraries in the Empire.”

“So do you.”

“Mine comes complete with my mother.”

Aenwyn pressed her lips together. “I don’t know him.”

“We’re going to fix that.”

“What if I don’t like him? What if I don’t fall in love with him?”

Escadia squeezed her fingers. “Marriage is not about love.”

“It should be.”

“Caewyn is smart, wealthy and capable,” Escadia said. “He’s also a decent elf, and there’s few enough of those.”

“If he’s all that, why would he want me?”

“Because you’re amazing, and you’re a mage. His family needs him to make a match with magic. That’ll smooth over any issues with you not being nobility.”

“You have a strong magical talent, Your Grace” Aenwyn said. “You’d be even better at magic if you tried a little more.”

“And you’d be better at dancing. Now stop all that ‘your grace’ nonsense. You only do it when you’re mad at me, and you should be happy I’m helping you.”

Aenwyn resisted rolling her eyes. “If Lord Caewyn is so wonderful, why don’t you marry him?”

“Because I would never give my mother the satisfaction of me making a suitable match, much less a desirable one.”

Aenwyn glanced up at her reflection as the maid twined her thick red hair into an elegant coif. She reached a hand toward a brilliant white orchid woven into a braid, but the maid stopped her.

“Miss mustn’t touch,” the maid said.

Aenwyn sighed and endured the rest of the torture the maid inflicted on her, including cinching her into one of Escadia’s silk gowns. The fine silk slid over Aenwyn’s lithe curves and made a soft shushing noise as she moved.

“How do you breathe in these?”

Escadia smiled and liked arms with Aenwyn then spun her around the room. While the duchess’s steps were graceful and fluid, Aenwyn stumbled after her. The wizard mumbled something about the cold marble floors on her slippered feet then yanked back her hands and let herself fall onto the over-stuffed silk cushions of a white chaise.

“Remember to let Caewyn lead,” Escadia said. “And ease into sitting. Think of yourself as a haughty cat rather than a farmer’s hound.”

Color crept over Aenwyn’s cheeks, and she pressed her lips together. Even after years of taking dance lessons with Escadia, Aenwyn moved like a human rather than one of her own kind. But then, she’d never much liked dancing and had only done the minimum the tutors required. Like Escadia and magic.

“You look stunning,” Escadia said as she pulled Aenwyn back to her feet and turned her towards a mirror.

Aenwyn smoothed out the emerald silk of her borrowed gown and peered into the silvered glass. While Escadia looked as stunning and regal as she always did, Aenwyn barely recognized the woman standing beside the duchess.

Her over-sized mage robes had been replaced by a gown of the latest fashion that bared her neck, shoulders, and a generous amount of décolletage. The dress made her eyes look greener, and the maid had tamed her unruly red hair into an elaborate and elegant coif.

Aenwyn could pass as one of the noble ladies that moved in Escadia’s rarified circles. As long as she remembered to say little, smile often, and ignore the servants.

Escadia dropped an ermine cloak over Aenwyn’s shoulders. “Caewyn is going to be smitten.”

“I think he already is.” Aenwyn raised a brow at the duchess.

“Stop being silly and come along. We’re already fashionably late.”

Aenwyn shook her head but followed Escadia down to the waiting carriage.

Flash Fiction: The Blood Lottery

My entry to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge.  There have been a lot of really sad entries to these challenges of late, so I thought I’d try a different take.

The Blood Lottery

 Helena shivered as the cold spring breeze cut through her thin cloak. The scent of freshly tilled earth and young growing things filled the air. A time of rebirth. A time of blood sacrifice to keep the monster from devouring the calves, lambs and newly planted fields.

Even standing in the center of the crowd, Helena felt alone. Her mother had been sacrificed first, then her older sister had been taken by the blood lottery five years later. Her younger sister’s name had been called last spring.

No one stood up for them as most were happy it wasn’t their friends or family. And who would miss a poor washer woman and her impoverished children?

Helena suspected that the lottery was not random as it was supposed to be. It had been a long time since a merchant had been chosen and longer still that an aristocrat had.

The poor, the misfits, the criminals unfit for hard labor. Those were the ones that somehow were chosen time and time again. And she fit two of the three criteria. Helena assumed the only reason she hadn’t been chosen yet was Lord Lothar’s lustful interest in the washer girl who read books. But that shred of protection was gone when she’d refused to jump into his bed. She’d take her chances with the rigged lottery.

Fear knotted her chest as she watched the sheriff roll out the silver basket filled with names. She knew, and yet, it was supposed to be a lottery…

She held her breath as the priest reached into the basket and drew out a name.

Her name.

The crowd parted like a sea around her, afraid to get too close to the condemned woman. She swallowed back the fear. Time to join her mother and sisters in the great beyond.

Helena said nothing even as the guards swooped in and yanked her forward. Lothar leered down at her from the podium, a dark smile twisting his lips as they bound her arms behind her back. He sat back and watched as they dragged her through the streets toward the Tower of God.

Helena kept her face blank as her heart pounded against her ribs. She’d done the right thing rejecting Lothar. Her mother’s willingness to bed a nobleman and let him sire her three daughters had done nothing to protect any of them. Nothing to feed them. And the nobleman had been quite willing to sacrifice his illegitimate daughters when knowledge of them had become inconvenient.

Steadying her breathing, Helena said a prayer to Thalia. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about how she was going to eat tonight.

They reached the gleaming silver temple overlooking the jagged Dragon Cliffs. Helena had only a moment to take in the glorious windswept valley and jagged peaks before the guards forced her up the almost endless flight of stairs to the top of the Tower of God. The icy wind tugged her mahogany hair from its braid, twisting the shining tendrils as they bound her to the pole.

A guard drew his dagger and sliced her wrist.

Helena yelped, watching her blood flow from the wound and drip down her hand and over her cloak. The only cloak she owned. Not that she would need it much longer.

The moment her blood touched the Tower of God, she heard it. A deep, low rumble that made her stomach climb into her throat.

The guards heard it too and raced back down the stairs.

Growing louder, the rumble filled her ears and shook the ground. The entire temple swayed, and had she not been bound to the pole, Helena would’ve tumbled onto the jagged rocks below.

A moment later she saw it.  Her eyes saucered. As large as the temple itself, the silver dragon glittered in the afternoon sunlight as it glided through the cold air.

Before she could think, before she could offer another prayer to Thalia, it dived at her.

She closed her eyes and screamed.

But there was no pain. She opened her eyes, expecting to be dead, but instead she found herself soaring over forests and streams so fast that they disappeared beneath her in a panoply of color. A wave of nausea hit her, and she buried her face in her arm as she steadied her stomach.

Collecting herself, she took several slow breaths and looked up. A basket made out of strong but flexible reeds surrounded her and protected her from the dragon’s razor sharp claws. Was the beast taking her home to eat her? Or taking her as a meal for its children?

The dragon snorted above her, and Helena fell back against the basket.

I have no intention of eating you, and I have no children to feed you to.

There was bitterness in the words, and she looked up at the beast’s claws surrounding her.

“I can hear your thoughts?”

If I so wish it.

Helena said nothing and tried to keep her mind blank as she gazed down at the blur of landscape below them. The dragon’s flight felt effortless, yet she knew they were crossing in minutes what would have taken hours.

At last his pace started to slow and he spiraled upward. Helena clung to the sides of the basket. The dragon cleared the top of a mountain and descended into the valley below.

Lush, green, and full of life.

Given their altitude, it should have been snow-covered; instead she saw farmers’ fields already sprouting and orchards in bloom. The rich scent played off the cold glacial smell of the dragon.

Another flap of his wings and they were gliding over towns and climbing towards a large castle that glittered like ice.

The dragon circled the castle then landed with a cat’s grace in the windswept courtyard. The doors to the castle opened and a group of revelers raced outside, their arms laden with flowers as they welcomed her.

Helena’s eyes widened and tears streamed down her cheeks as she saw her sisters and her mother running toward her.

“Am I dead?” Helena asked as she hugged her mother.

Her mother shook her head as she brushed away Helena’s tears. “This is Dragon Valley. Lord Ander brought us here, as he brought you.”

“I thought…” Helena said and looked back at the massive silver dragon.

A blast of magic puffed her cloak, and where the dragon had been stood a man with silver hair and eyes bluer than the sky. A well dressed courtier hurried forward and draped an exquisite white cape over Ander’s shoulders.

“Let the feasting begin. The girl is hungry.” Oblivious to his nakedness, Ander left them as he strode into the castle.

“Still not the one,” Helena’s mother whispered. Looking down, she said a prayer.

“Not the one?” Helena asked.

Her mother hugged her. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go enjoy the feast celebrating your arrival. We’ll have plenty of time to explain later.”

Dressed in a warm cape and clean clothes, Helena ate her fill for the first time in her life. Still not totally convinced this wasn’t heaven, she looked towards the glittering castle and wondered about the man that had given her a new life.

Diamond Part 4: Final Resting Place

 DH’s next installment of the Drake Diamond Saga. I am really enjoying seeing where this is going, and DH won’t give me any hints!

Part1Part2and Part 3 are available if you want to read them for the first time or get a refresher.       

Ace

Final Resting Place

The clouds outside are starting to break up, showing irregular patches of clear night sky.  We’re a few blocks away from Frank’s Diner.  Not sure where we’re going, but I figure Betty knows.  Puddles and wet pavement in the street shimmer in reflection of the intermittent moonlight.  I take a deep breath.  There’s always that smell in the air, after it rains.  It reminds me of my childhood, even if it mixes with the adult smell of cigarette smoke in my nostrils.

I frown.  Something isn’t right.  “Betty?”

She tilts her head slightly and gives me a coy grin.  “Yes, Drake?”

“I just took a deep breath.  How is that possible with bullet holes in my lungs?”

She raises one eyebrow at me.  “Really, Drake?  Don’t get hung up on it.  If you think too much about magic it might stop working.  And since it’s what’s holding you together, you don’t want it to stop working.”

“Then you’d better give me something else to think about.  Because thinking about things that don’t add up is what I do.  Cop trained, street honed.  Isn’t that what you wanted me for?”

Betty stops walking, so I stop too.  She looks me right in the eye, then quickly looks around, and even scans the rooftops.  Then she looks me right in the eye again, and beckons me close with her finger.  I take a step closer and lean in.

She whispers quiet enough that if someone dropped a pin, the racket might drown out her voice.  “I need you to find out Papa Thorne’s daytime resting place.”  Before I can say anything, she turns and starts walking at a brisk pace.  The clacking of her heels on the wet pavement is oddly quieter than one would expect.  Magic?  Or just the way she walks?

I catch up to her just as she turns right at the corner, onto Ravenswood Avenue.  Almost no traffic.  Streets are deserted this time of night.  But she’s worried about being tailed.  Or eavesdropped on.  And not taking any chances.

“Finding him isn’t the problem, Drake.  He’s…”  She gives an exasperated sigh.  “He’s my Master.”  She says the word like it leaves a taste in her mouth she can’t spit out fast enough.  “He’s the Master of all the vampires in the city.  If I needed you to find him I’d just bring you with me.  He’s expecting me later.   And he’ll get suspicious if I’m late.”

I shrug.  “So?  Bring me with you.  I ain’t afraid of him.  Like you said yourself, I ain’t gotta worry about dying no more.”

She gives me an irritated look.  “Neither does he, Drake.  For the same reasons I don’t.  Do you know the first thing about fighting vampires?”

“I suppose I don’t,” I admit, “seeing as how I never thought they were real.  You got any pointers for me?”

“Yes,” she hisses.  “Find his daytime resting place.  Where he goes before the sun comes up.  All vampires need one.  Direct sunlight burns us.  And just like we still need to eat, we still need to sleep.”

We walk a few more paces in silence, other than a gust of wind blowing some leaves and trash along the sidewalk.

“Betty…this might be a touchy subject, but are you and he…”

“Occasionally,” she sneers.  “I don’t dare refuse him.”  The disgust in her voice is so clear a deaf guy could hear it.  There’s rage there too, but that’s less obvious.  Easier to miss, unless you’ve got experience reading people.

I let a few more silent paces go by.  I need answers, but some questions have to be asked in a certain way.  But she seems to realize what I’m getting at and pipes up on her own.

“No, Drake, he’s never brought me to his daytime lair.  I don’t think he trusts anyone that much.”

The wind picks up.  I turn the collar up on my coat and tug the brim of my fedora down.  “You said all vampires need one.  Does he know where yours is?”

She frowns.  “I honestly don’t know.  I’ve tried to be careful, but…he has ways.”

I shrug.  “Is there a reason you only have one?  Why do you think he only has one?  That another vampire rule?”  We come to the corner.  There’s no traffic, but the light is red.  Betty stops, looking down at her shoes, so I stop too.

She doesn’t look up as she answers me.  “It’s more than just a place to get out of the sun and sleep, Drake.”  The light turns green and she starts to cross, the wind blowing her coat and hair.  I follow.

On the other side of the intersection we’re walking alongside a tall brick wall with wrought iron spikes on top.  Something about this place gives me the heebies…and I’m already dead.  Then I see the elaborate balustrade of the front gates a ways ahead, and I realize where we are.

“Rosehill Cemetery,” she says.  She grabs one of the cold iron bars of the gate, and pulls it open with a rusty creak that can clearly be heard above the rising wind.  “Come on.”

“This is where you sleep during the day?”  Suddenly I feel hackles rising in my neck.  I’m on edge.  If I still had a heartbeat, it would be hammering against my ribs.  Instead it feels like my body is trying to fly apart, and sheer force of will is the only thing holding me together.  I grit my teeth and ball my fists.

“No.  Cemetery’s too obvious.  Any vampire that makes their lair that easy to find doesn’t last long.”  She tilts her head at me and raises an eyebrow.  “Drake?  You okay?”

“No!  No, I’m not okay!  I’m dead!”  I feel like I’m covered in ice-cold sweat.  Freezing rivulets running down my body.

“Drake!”  It’s Betty, still holding the Cemetery gate open.  She looks real worried all of a sudden.  “Drake, listen to me.  I can help you, but you have to focus on something.  Take out a cigarette, Drake.  Take out a cigarette and put it in your mouth.”

Hands shaking, I do as she says, nearly dropping it with my fumbling fingers.  Holding it between my lips, I reach for one of the books of matches from the diner.  But the wind is too strong.  I’ll never be able to light it in this wind.

I hear the sound of Betty snapping her fingers, and the end of my cigarette glows red hot for a second.  I taste the smoke in my mouth.  My throat.  Feel it in my lungs.  I inhale the smoke, and I feel alive.  Of course, I know I’m not.  Not really.  But the smoke helps me accept that sometimes what you know isn’t as important as what you do.

“Come through the gate, Drake!  Quick!”

I do as she says, and she slams the gate shut.  She’s a lot stronger than she looks.

…And she’s terrified of Thorne.  So how strong is he?

“How are you feeling now, Drake?”  The winds is really picking up.  Leaves and smaller bits of paper trash sweep along the ground and against the iron gates.  The branches of the trees in the cemetery sway and twist.  But I can still somehow hear every word she says crystal clear.

“Better, I guess.”  I reach up and take my cigarette out, and hold it between two fingers at my side, flicking it a couple times.  The ashes disappear in the wind.  “Why are we here, Betty?  I gotta tombstone here?  You wanted to show me my own grave?”

She gives me that same look she gave me when I woke up on her marble altar, surrounded by candles.  Scrutinizing me.  Like she’s not sure I’m all right in the head.

“It must have been the iron,” she says.

“The what now?”

“Drake, in those pulp magazines you used to read when you were younger, do you remember any stories about werewolves?  About their weakness to silver?”

I manage to sort of nod and shrug at the same time.  “I guess so, yeah.”

She points to the heavy cemetery gates.  “Old folklore says ghosts can be warded off by iron.  Or harmed by it.  You’re not exactly a ghost, Drake.  But apparently you’re close enough.  Being near those gates seemed to…disrupt you, somehow.”

The wind has cleared away almost all the clouds now, and the half-moon casts it’s silvery patina over everything.  I raise the cigarette to my lips and take another quick puff, and look towards the tall brick wall all around the cemetery.  Those decorative iron spikes along the top must have been what was bugging me as we walked along the sidewalk outside.

“I’m sorry.  I had no idea.”

I shrug again.  “It’s a trade-off.  I’m vulnerable to iron now.”  I point to the bullet holes in my chest.  “But I used to be vulnerable to lead.”

Betty smiles, and it’s oddly like tasting the sandwich at the diner.  My senses are as sharp as ever, but the same sensations don’t mean the same thing.  Betty’s a real looker.  And despite being Malone’s daughter, she’s got class.  But I don’t respond to her charming smile the way a living man would.  It’s just as well.

“You seem fine now that you’re away from the gates.  Come on.  I need to go see Thorne before he suspects I’m up to something.  And I can’t take you with me.  Let’s hurry.”

Now that the sky is clear, the wind is starting to die down.  But for now it’s still strong enough that the trees are swaying and my trench-coat’s flapping.  Betty’s dress, too.  But she either doesn’t notice or mind.  The wind doesn’t slow her down at all.

“Just so I understand: you have to play along with Thorne for the time being, so you don’t want him knowing that you and I know each other?”

“I don’t want him knowing about you at all,” she replies.  “That we know each other, who you are, or that you even exist.”

I drop the butt of my smoke to the cemetery path and crush it out with my foot.  “Fine.  But I’ll need a place to lay low for a bit.  After we’re done here I’ll have to go find a flophouse.  Or a cheap motel.”  I keep forgetting that it’s three years gone by.  I’d swear I was only out a few minutes.  My office, and the small apartment I had above it, are probably leased out to someone else now.

“I tried to take your needs into consideration.”  Betty sounds like she’s apologizing.  It strikes me as odd, considering without her I’d still be an inert pile of calcified remains.  “To have everything ready for you, so you could focus all your attention on helping me bring down Papa Thorne.”  She stops in front of a private mausoleum, and turns to look at me.  I look up and see the family name, carved in marble: MALONE.

I’m confused and I probably look it.  “Betty, I thought you said no vampires rested in cemeteries anymore.”

“I knew you would need a place to stay once I brought you back, Drake.  But Thorne would have found out if I’d rented an apartment, or bought a house.  And I spent a lot of time fixing up the inside…”

“Betty…”

“I’ll find somewhere else, Drake.  I honestly didn’t know about the iron.  But for now you’re far enough away from it here.”  She’s right about that.  But the gates and the spikes on top of the wall surrounding the place means I’m trapped in the cemetery until she comes back to open the gates for me.

“Betty, didn’t you say cemeteries were a bad idea?  Too obvious?”

“For vampires, yes.  You’re different, Drake.  No one will find you here.”

“You don’t sound too sure of yourself.”  She didn’t.

She hesitates for a moment, then nods.  “You were a desperate experiment, Drake.  I really can’t trust anyone else.  But I’d never brought anyone like you back from the Other Side before.  You’ve surprised me in a number of ways already, and it’s only your first night back.  Even though it was my spell that raised you, I’m still not exactly sure what you are.  You’re too solid to be a ghost, and you’re far too smart to be a zombie.”

I grit my teeth and look over the stone construction.  “Betty, I don’t want to sound ungrateful.  I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and you can count on me to bring down Thorne.  But…I do not want to share a mausoleum with your father.”  Dead or not, we’d make lousy roommates.

Betty looks confused for a second, then smiles.  “He’s not in there.  There’s a plaque with his name on it, but the police never found his remains after Thorne’s men murdered him.”

I have to think it over for a few seconds.  “Well, in that case, I guess it’ll do.  For now.”

Betty reaches up with both hands and tweaks one ornate carving while pressing inward on another.  The heavy marble slab swings open revealing granite stairs leading down into a dusty crypt.

“I don’t suppose the other members of your family interred here will mind me crashing the place?” I ask a little nervously.

“I doubt they’ll say a thing,” she replies with a chuckle.

“Betty, I wasn’t cracking a joke.  Whenever I see my reflection, I see a skeleton.  And you don’t have a reflection at all.  And the only reason there’s any spring in my step is that you can apparently do amazing things with candles and chalk.”

She frowns.  “Fair enough.  All kidding aside.  Every Malone in the family mausoleum was given a proper burial.  As a fairly skilled necromancer…and you are proof that I am…I can tell you that it’s next-to-impossible to do anything with someone who was given a proper burial.  You and I are the only up-and-around dead here.  Everyone else should be Resting in Peace.”

Diamond Part 3: Frank's Diner

 DH finished the next part in the Drake Diamond Saga. I like the set-up for this character, but I am biased. hard not to be excited about what DH is working on, but I could see a series of fun, snarky, gritty stories about an undead detective. Flesh out the world. The people in it.

Part1 and Part2  are available if you want to read them for the first time or get a refresher.       

Ace

Frank’s Diner

            Outside, the gray sky matched the wet pavement.  Cold, dirty puddles covered the sidewalk beneath dim, flickering street lights.  I fished my pack of smokes out of my pocket, raised it to my lips, and took one between my teeth and pulled it out.  I was about to light up when I remembered my manners.

“You want a smoke?”  I’d never been raised from the dead before.  Wasn’t familiar with the etiquette.  Figured the least I could offer Betty Malone for bringing me back to the World of the Living was a cigarette.

“Sure, thanks.”  I hold the pack out and she takes one between her fingers.  I notice her nail Polish is the exact same shade of red as her lipstick.  She holds the cigarette up and stares at it for a second.  It lights itself, tiny curls of smoke raising from the now glowing end, and she gives a slight smirk and puts it between her lips.

“Neat trick.”

“Want me to teach you?”  She raises an eyebrow at me, with a coy smile.

“I’ll stick with my lighter, thanks.”

“I thought you lost yours.”

She’s right.  I remember being hit in the jaw by an entire side of beef at the end of someone’s arm, sending me, my thirty-eight, and my lighter in three different directions.  And then some bullets decided to move into my chest cavity, ruining the whole neighborhood.

“Damn.  Guess I’ll have to start carrying matches until I can get a new one.”

“We’re not to far from Frank’s Diner,” Betty says.  “You can get some there.  It’s just as well.  Doubt you’ve got the patience to learn magic anyway.”

Betty’s probably right.  I never believed in it before.  Now, with my reflection in the puddles below an eyeless skull grinning back at me, it’s kind of hard to remain a skeptic.  But time spent learning how to light my smokes with a snap of my fingers is time I’d rather spend tracking down Thorne.

 

Frank’s Diner is one of those places you can tell exactly what it is from the outside, and the inside is just what you’d expect.  Hash browns, steak and eggs, grilled ham and cheese sandwich…you can have whatever you want as long as it ain’t fancy.  Its open late, and never very crowded.  There’s a few other customers there, getting their late night fix of greasy food and cheap coffee.  Betty picks us out a few stools at the counter, down a ways from the other patrons.  First thing I do when I sit is pocket a few books of matches, and strike one to finally give myself a light.

Seconds later, Maxine appears with an order pad and a pen at the ready.  Forty-something, dishwater blond hair up under a hair-net.  Been a fixture at Frank’s for all the years I’d been eating there.  An incurable gossip, she’s both a good source of information, and a bad source of misinformation.  On a number of my past cases, I’d come to Maxine to check what she’d heard.  Can’t always trust her info, but it’s a place to start.

“And what can I get you folks tonight?  The apple pie’s fresh, and we have…Drake?  Drake Diamond!”  It would be cliche to say she looked like she’d seen a ghost.  But saying she’d seen an old acquaintance back from the dead doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

“The usual, Maxine.  And a slice of that apple pie, too.”  I tap some ashes from my cigarette into a tray and turn to Betty.  “You want anything?”

“I am positively ravenous,” she smirks, narrowing her eyes.  Maybe bringing a vampire to a public place was a bad idea.  But then she says, “Pastrami on rye, and a cherry cola.”

“One pastrami on rye, cherry cola,” she says as she scribbles on her pad, “and Mr. Diamond’s usual: black coffee and a fried egg sandwich with ham and Tabasco sauce.”  She winks at me.  “And a slice of pie.  I’ll be right back.”

Betty watches Maxine hustle off and turns to me.  “You two have a history?”

“Nah.  She winks at everybody like that.”

“Good.  Don’t get too involved with the Living, Drake.  You’re not one of them anymore.  It wouldn’t end well for either of you.”         She crushes out her lipstick-stained cigarette in the ashtray.

“Sounds like the voice of experience.”  I don’t mean to pry, but it never hurts to throw out a line.  You never know what you might catch.  Betty looks at me and shakes her head.

“Not me.  I’m not the same as you.”  She glances around to make sure no one’s eavesdropping, and lowers her voice.  “You’re Undead, Drake.  You were Dead, then I undid your death.  That’s what Undead means.  That’s not what I am.  I was never Dead.  Not entirely.  No one Undid anything that had happened to me to make me what I am.”

I purse my lips into a frown as I try to recall what I know about vampires.  Nothing, that’s what.  I never believed they were real.  There were some stories about them in a few of the pulp magazines I read as a kid, but I’m guessing those were more full of misinformation than Maxine on a bad day.  But I think I get the basic idea.

“I’m Undead.  You’re the Living Dead.”  Betty thinks about that for a second, then nods.

“Yes.  And there are Rules for each of us.  But the Rules I have to follow aren’t the same as the Rules you have to follow.  And the consequences for breaking our rules aren’t the same.  You don’t have to drink blood or avoid direct sunlight, like I do.  But trying to reestablish the close personal relationships you had when you were alive…will turn you back into a sack of bones.”

“I…what?”  It takes me a minute before I realize my cigarette has fallen into my lap.

Maxine comes by and gives us our sandwiches and drinks.  “I’ll be back with your pie in a sec, hon!”

Betty waits until she’s gone, then speaks.  “Acquaintances are fine: people you worked with, or passing familiarities,” Betty takes a bite of her pastrami, then continues, “But interacting with any close friends or, worse, loved ones, risks undoing the magic keeping you intact.  I doubt I’d be able to bring you back again after that.”  She somehow has a way of speaking clearly even while she chews her food.  “So…if you and that waitress had anything beyond casual meaningless flirting, every word she says to you…or that you say to her….increases the risk of you getting sent back the the Other Side.”

Taking a bite of my own sandwich, I chew in silence for a long time.  This is a lot to to take in.  The sandwich isn’t very satisfying, even though it’s dripping with Tabasco.  I swallow, washing it down with a gulp of coffee.

“I don’t remember being dead.  I just remembering dying.  Three forty-four magnum rounds to my chest, and the next thing I know I’m sitting up on a marble altar surrounded by ritual candles.  You say I’ve been dead three years but I didn’t feel any time passing.  Now you tell me I can only have professional relationships, or superficial ones.  Any real genuine human connection…could end me?”

Betty shrugs.  “With the Living, yes.”  She takes another bite of her pastrami, speaking with her mouth full.  Still, she manages to pronounce everything flawlessly.  “You know how people who’ve lost a close friend or relative sometimes regret an apology never made, or a hatchet never buried?  Something important that needed to be said or resolved, but they never did, and now it’s too late?”  I nod, taking another bite of my sandwich.  It’s not bland or tasteless.  It’s just that I don’t seem to enjoy the taste anymore.  I don’t dislike it either.  It’s just…a sandwich.

“Turns out that’s one of reality’s biggest Rules: if you’ve got something important to say to someone, you have to say it while you still have the chance.  Once they die, or you die, anything left unsaid stays unsaid.  And you died, Drake.”

“I didn’t die.  I was murdered.”

She shrugs again.  “Getting murdered is one way of dying.  Doesn’t change the fact that you’re still bound by the Rules, Drake.  I know there’s a lot of ghost stories where there’s a spirit that’s restless from some Unfinished Business, and needs it taken care of before they can pass on.  And those are just stories.  If you wanted to Finish your Business, you needed to do it while you were still alive.  I’m not trying to rub it in, Drake, but you’re not alive anymore.  Any Business you left Unfinished is going to stay that way.  You’re not allowed break that Rule.”

Lana.  I never told her…I never…she…

And now it’s too late.  I should…should’ve said…should’ve let her know.  But it’s too late now.  I’m…gone.

I put the fizzed cigarette from my lap into the ashtray and light up a new one, inhaling deeply.  It’s rich and satisfying in a way the sandwich wasn’t.  I look up to see Maxine is back.

“Here’s your pie, hon!  And the check.  Now, don’t you worry.  You take your time and enjoy, and just take care of it at the register on your way out.  Glad to have you back in town, hon!”  She hustles off, other diner patrons to see to.  I’m just another customer.  A familiar one, maybe, but just a customer.

And that, apparently, makes her safe.

The pie is warm and sweet.  The crust is crispy, the apple filling just right.  It’s just not…satisfying.  It’s as if I no longer enjoy warm and sweet.  Take no pleasure in a crispy pie crust.  I take another long drag off my cigarette.  Now that feels good.  Betty’s slurping up her cherry cola through a straw until nothing is left in the glass but ice.

“I thought vampires drank blood,” I whisper.

“We do,” she whispers back.  “But we still need to eat and drink.  The blood doesn’t replace the need for other nourishment.  It’s an additional requirement.”

“What about me?  Do I need to eat?”

“Well, apparently you can eat.  I honestly wasn’t sure about that, before.  But as far as needing to?”  She shakes her head.  “No.  You’re not the Living Dead, like me.  You’re Undead.  It’s a subtle distinction.”

“But apparently a profound one,” I say.

She nods.  “I’ve heard it said that to the Undead, all food tastes like ashes.  Is it true?”

I take another drag from my cigarette and shake my head.  “Nah.  I can taste it just fine.  All the flavors, all the textures.  It’s all still there.  I just don’t enjoy the flavors or textures anymore, you know?  But cigarettes?”  I stop to take another deep inhale and let it out slow through my nostrils.  “Those are just like they always were.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” she says, taking the guest check between a finger and a thumb.  “Food nourishes and sustains Life.  You’re not alive, so it doesn’t do anything for you.  But tobacco is tied to Death.  Now that you’re Undead you may actually get some kind of nourishment or energy from it.”

“Let me get that,” I say, pointing to the check, and grateful to have something so mundane to talk about.

“Drake, you were murdered by one of Papa Thorne’s thugs.”  So much for mundane topics.  “Did you really think that when I found your remains that you were buried along with your wallet?  And that it was full of cash?”

“Err…hmm.”

“Swallow your macho pride, Drake.  I’m paying.”

 

Diamonds Part 1: Ace of Diamonds

DH finished an opening to his story Undead Gumshoe. We met in a creative writing class, and he has been writing for as long or longer than I have. This blog and my own endeavors have inspired him to write again, and I am excited he’s letting me share this update!  

Ace

Ace of Diamonds

Even though the August heat had already won the battle, the air conditioner in the window of my third-floor office refused to give up when faced with a lost cause.  I could sympathize.  No offense to the appliance’s hard work, but I needed to find another way to cool off.  Something involving ice cubes in a glass.  Maybe a little bourbon poured over ’em.  Checking the bottom drawer of my desk leads to the discovery of a bottle that’s still half full.  No ice or glasses though.  Shame, but it’ll have to do.

A couple of swigs later I put the bottle down and loosen my tie.  It’s important to look professional when a client could come in at any time.  Or so I’m told.  Which is why I’ve stopped caring about my tie.

Clients have been scarce since Boss Malone started scaring ’em off.  Apparently he doesn’t like me getting enough honest work.  Fair enough.  I don’t like him getting plenty of dishonest work.  Guess it’s my fault for starting our feud, busting up his money-laundering and diamond-smuggling operations the way I did.

Maybe calling it a feud isn’t right.  I’m still breathing when a lot of folks think I ought to be a dead man.  All Malone’s doing is scaring away my clients.  Maybe he’s enjoying killing me slowly.

That’d fit his twisted mob boss code-of-honor nonsense.  I may have shut down his operations, but I couldn’t get enough evidence to prove he was the brains behind ’em.  It cut off a big hunk of his revenue stream, but he’s still a free man.  So now he’s cutting off my revenue stream, but I’m still breathing.

Like I said, killing me slowly.  So he can enjoy my suffering.  Well I don’t give up that easily.  You and me, air conditioner.  Together, we’ll show ’em.

 

A knock on the office door wakes me up.  I guess smooth bourbon on a hot August day wasn’t the best way to stay awake.  The dark outside the windows tells me I’ve been out longer than it felt like.  A distant rumble of thunder counters that it might just be dark clouds gathering rather than nightfall.

Maybe feeling competition from the thunder, the knocking turns to pounding.  Adrenaline sobers me up quick as I take my thirty-eight out of its holster and clear my throat.  Looks like I may have given Malone too much credit.  To enjoy watching an enemy die slowly requires patience, after all.

“Come in,” I say, ready for it to be some of Malone’s goons.  The knob turns and the door opens….

…And It’s Lana, my secretary.  I put my thirty-eight back in its holster.

“Lana, what are you still doing here?”

“Working late.  Your case files are a mess, Drake.”

“Lana, there are no case files.  There are no cases.  Go home.”  I’ve told her she’s fired a half-dozen times this week.  Not that there’s anything wrong with her work.  I just can’t afford to pay her anything without clients.  She refuses to listen.

Lana prattles some nonsense about ordering more paper clips and file folders, but she takes a pen and a piece of scrap from my desk and writes: FIRE ESCAPE GO NOW

She makes urgent gestures towards the windows, but keeps her voice calmly discussing office supplies.  Damn it, there’s no way I’m running away to save my own ass while she’s still here.

I nod, take another pen, and write: YOU FIRST.  And while you’re at it, keep going.  Don’t come back, Lana.  You’re one in a million.  Find someone who deserves you.

Someone else clears their throat this time.  Ignoring the feeling of a sinking ball of lead in my stomach, I look up at the open door to see none other than Boss Sonny Malone himself casting his shadow.  Well, well.  Either he wanted the pleasure of pulling the trigger himself, or he didn’t trust his boys to do the job properly.

 

“Mr. Drake Diamond,” he grumbles, “Private Investigator.”  He squints at me, and looks around my office like he’s disappointed in it.  His lower jaw thrusts out and he frowns like he’s chewing on earwax.

Seconds pass like hours, and nothing happens.  Lana’s discreetly glaring at me for the audacity of being in my own office, in my own chair, behind my own desk.  The nerve of me.  She’s a good secretary, so I know for a fact she can read the words “YOU FIRST” and know what they mean.  I do some glaring of my own right back at her.  It doesn’t work.  Meanwhile, Malone is just standing there, opening his mouth, then closing it again.  He does this a few more times, and I realize he’s trying to say something but can’t seem to get the words out.

The lead ball in my stomach untwists.  I reach for a cigarette…slowly.  Malone doesn’t react.  His hands are in his pockets.  It occurs to me that he may not actually have a gun on him.  Of course, his goons do.  Maybe he told them to wait downstairs.

I put the cigarette in my mouth, light it, and take a long slow drag.  I exhale through my nose, blowing two columns of smoke down my face, then lean back in my chair.

“Lana,” I say calmly, “go put on a pot of coffee.”

“Drake!”

“Lana, you know it’s polite to serve coffee for our…”  Guests?  No.  “…clients.”

Malone looks at the floor.  He doesn’t move.  He doesn’t say anything.

Lana’s eyes go wide for second, then narrow.  She looks at Malone, then at me, then back at Malone.  She frowns, and walks out past Malone.  He’s still staring at the floor and doesn’t seem to notice she even exists.  In a few moments, I hear her fussing with the coffee-maker.

Malone continues frowning at the floor.  His nostrils flare.

“Mr. Malone, can I offer you a seat?”

He finally responds, looking me in the eye.

“I’d rather stand.”  I give a half-shrug to show that’s fine by me.

“Cigarette?”  He nods.  I take one and hold it out for him.  He takes it and I flick my lighter, holding it out at arm’s length.  He lights it and raises it to his lips, taking a few puffs as he starts pacing.  Several times he’s got his back turned to me.  Tempting.  But I ain’t no cold-blooded murderer.

“I’ve always hated you, Diamond.”

“Feeling’s mutual.”

“I…I need your help.”

“And yet you open with how you’ve always hated me.”

“Well….I have.”

I shrug.  He’s being honest.  That’s worth something, I guess.  I lean forward and put my elbows on the desk, arms crossed.  My chair creaks.

“Well, Mr. Malone, I’ve got to tell you, business has been so bad lately I’ve been thinking of getting out of the private investigations business altogether.  Maybe you should go to someone else with whatever problem it is that you have.”

He stops pacing and turns to face me, hands in his pockets, cigarette hanging from his lips, shoulders slumped.

“My daughter’s been kidnapped, Diamond.”

“So go to the police.”

“I can’t trust the police.”

“I thought you bought the police.”

“I thought so too, Diamond,” he snarls.  “Turns out those rat bastards can be bought by anybody.”

I can’t help but chuckle a little at that.  “Well ain’t that a damn shame,” I say through a smug grin.  “When you can’t trust a cop on the take, who can you trust?”

“The kind of man who quits being a cop when he learns all the others are bought.”

I take a drag and exhale it out my nostrils again.

“Isn’t that why you hate me, Malone?  Because you couldn’t buy me?”

He frowns thoughtfully, then nods.  “Yeah.  But I got no one else I can to turn to for this.”  He drops his cigarette onto my rug and crushes it out with his foot, thoughtlessly smearing hot ash into the carpet fiber.  Classy.

Lana nudges the door open with her foot, carrying two ceramic cups and a pot of fresh brewed hot coffee.  She looks at me, and I can tell what she’s thinking.  I’ve just known her that long.

Her plan was to throw a pot of scalding hot coffee right into Malone’s face, and maybe follow up by hitting the back of his skull with a cup, then we’d make a break for it out the fire escape.  But I’ve taught her the practical virtues of eavesdropping.  She overheard about Malone’s daughter.  I frown at her and shake my head “no” ever so slightly.  She nods and approaches my desk, not looking at him.

Malone’s not the kind of guy who opens up easily about his own vulnerabilities.  And here he is doing just that to me, one of his bitterest enemies.  Lana wisely chooses not to make it even harder for him by making him do it in front of an audience.  She puts the pot and cups down on my desk, and leaves without saying a word.  Good girl.

Of course, what I’d like for her to do is go somewhere safe and stay there.  Like maybe back home to Nebraska.  But she never had the good sense to back down from a dangerous situation.

If Malone even noticed she’d come and gone, he shows no sign of it.  He’s got a faraway look in his eyes, and not a happy, wistful one.

“Can I offer you some coffee, Mr. Malone?”

“I don’t care, Diamond.”  He thrusts his hands into his pockets.

I shrug.  “It wasn’t a sincere offer.  I just wanted to hurry this along to the part where you get the Hell outta my office.  If you wanna sulk because you hate me but need my help, I’m gonna start charging a sulking fee.”

“You’re enjoying this aren’t you, Diamond?”

“Enjoying this!?”  Bourbon I enjoy.  A leisurely cigarette after a meal I enjoy.  A Drama Queen wasting my time I do not enjoy.  “Did you hear the part where I want you the Hell outta my office?  Or did I accidentally say that part in Mandarin Chinese?”  That would be particularly impressive, on account of my not knowing a word of it.

Malone grits his teeth and his face turns beet red.   He smashes his fist into an open hand.  “I want to know where she is!  I want her back!  I want whoever took her to suffer!”

“I’m not one of your goons, Malone.  Making people suffer isn’t a service I offer.”  I calmly crush my cigarette out in the ashtray and pour myself a cup of coffee.

“Fine.  I guess two outta three ain’t bad.  I can handle the suffering part myself.  But if… you can find her, Diamond…”  Oh for crying out loud.  He’s starting to get tears in his eyes.  “If you can find my little girl…then as far as I’m concerned everything is square between us.  I’ll make sure none of my boys ever hassle you again.”

Lana’s coffee goes down almost as smooth as bourbon.  I put the cup down, and consider his offer.  Square things between us?  His idea of ‘square’ is to call off his thugs, and expect me to be grateful enough to stop trying to put him behind bars.  My idea of square is him and his thugs all put away for the crimes they’ve committed.  Not having goons hounding you isn’t a reward.  It’s a basic expectation of civilized society.  Would you go to work for someone if your paycheck consisted of your boss not punching you in the face?

I take out another cigarette, place it in my lips, and flick my lighter.  I’m still gonna take the job.  But I’m gonna be crystal clear as to why.  And as to my rates.  I raise the lighter’s flame to my cigarette, then flick it closed.  A slow deep inhale makes the end glow warmly, then fade as thin curls of gray rise through the air.

“Malone, I am taking this job.  If your daughter is still alive, I will find her and return her to you.  If she’s dead…well, then I will still find her.  And I will still return her to you.  For a proper burial if nothing else….”

He grits his teeth again.  He’s trying not to face that she might be dead already.  He opens his mouth to say something, so I raise my voice.  I ain’t finished.

“But you will pay me in cash, just like all my other clients.”  I take out my cigarette and point at Malone with it.  “My standard daily rate, plus expenses.  Non-negotiable.  I will not accept ‘squaring things between us’ as payment.  Because I ain’t doing this for you, you dirty son-of-a-bitch.  You ain’t worth it.  You’ve brought so much pain and suffering to this city, the way I see it you deserve plenty of your own.”

“Your daughter, on the other hand, has not.”  I stand, and take another puff before I continue.  “It ain’t her fault she was born with you as her old man.  She’s innocent.  And I won’t turn my back on an innocent, no matter how vile their relatives may be.  The fact that finding her might actually help a rat bastard like you feel better is an ugly fact I’m just gonna have to stomach.”

Malone glares at me angrily, his mouth screwed up into a wrinkled frown.  He flares his nostrils.

“Thank you, Diamond,” he sneers with a voice like gravel.  “I hope you can find my girl.  She means the world to me.  But you’re right.  This’ll be easier for both of us if we can keep hating each other.”

I nod.

“I never let my professional obligations mix with my personal feelings, or vice versa.  I ain’t about to start on your account.”

The Choice Part 3: Lost Daughter

The Choice Part 1 and the Choice Part 2 can be found here. This post was inspired by Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge.

 

Lost Daughter

Oblivious to her nana’s discomfort, Sylenea skipped along next to Jyss, Vaundryn’s hand in hers, as they walked back to the kitchens.

Sylenea stared at the long trestle tables, the massive hearth, and the rows of cabinets filled with pots and pans. Rich scents of cooking meats and baking breads filled the kitchen. Rubbing her tummy, Sylenea craned her neck upward as she looked at the high ceiling with thick wooden beams running across its length.

Her eyes saucered. “Our whole house would fit in here.”

“I could show you the rest of the castle, if you like,” Vaundryn said. “This is only a small part of it.”

“After cake.”

Sylenea let go of his hand and clambered into a chair, swinging her legs and giggling when her feet danced above the floor.

Looking down at his now empty hand, Vaundryn frowned.

She patted the chair next to her, and Vaundryn slid into it with a controlled and practiced elegance.

Sylenea’s eyes widened as Jyss brought her and Vaundryn each a large slice of chocolate cake and a glass of milk.

“M’lord, my dear,” Jyss said as she set the cake in front of them.

“Thank you, Aunt Jyss,” Sylenea said between mouthfuls. “This is the most wonderful cake ever.”

“It’s very delicious,” Vaundryn agreed.

Sylenea devoured her cake and gulped down her milk. She fidgeted as Vaundryn cut neat bites before eating them. He saw her waiting and pushed his plate away.

As if that was the magic to spring her from her prison, Sylenea slid out of her chair. “Wanna go play?”

“Play?” Vaundryn asked.

“You know, games. What kind of games do you play here?”

“Chess.”

“I don’t know that one. What else do you do for fun?”

“I have my lessons, there is the library, and I ride.”

“We could play seek and go hide, but this place is so big we’d spend the whole day searching. There’s a big oak tree out front.”

“You will not climb trees while you’re at Aunt Jyss’s,” Rhianna said, her voice sharp and brooking no argument.

“You climb trees?” Vaundryn asked.

“Sure.”

“Why?”

Sylenea shrugged. “Why not? I like to see what’s up there, and sometimes you can find bird nests with baby birds.”

Jyss knelt beside Sylenea. “Promise me that you will not take Lord Vaundryn tree climbing. His father would be very upset.”

“All right, but can we go outside and play if we promise not to climb any trees?”

“M’lord?” Jyss asked as she looked at the boy.

Vaundryn lifted his shoulders. “I can show her the horses.”

“Horses? You have more than one?”

“She would like the stables if it pleases you to show them to her, m’lord,” Jyss said.

“Horses!” Sylenea squealed.

Jyss ruffled Sylenea’s copper curls. “Or I can take her down to my quarters if you have other obligations, m’lord.”

Sylenea crossed her arms over her chest. “You can’t promise horses and then not show them to me.”

“Sylenea,” Rhianna started.

The look of sadness on the girl’s face stabbed at Vaundryn. “I will show her the stables.”

Vaundryn slid out of his chair with a practiced grace and offered his arm to Sylenea.

Grabbing his hand, Sylenea waved to Rhianna and Jyss, then skipped along beside him as he led her back through the castle and out to the stables.

“You like horses?” Vaundryn asked as they walked over the emerald carpet of grass.

“Very much.”

“Do you know how to ride?”

“Nana taught me on Solidar.”

Vaundryn frowned. “What’s a Solidar?”

“He’s a gentle creature, but so very strong. He pulls the cart and helps Papa in the fields.”

“A draft horse?”

Sylenea shrugged, but there was a fondness in her voice. “He’s Solidar. He’ll never win any races, but he’ll always get you there.”

“We have hunters, coursers, rounceys, and my father’s destrier.”

“Destrier?”

“A kind of horse. Father’s has a nasty temper.”

The entered the stables and the rich scent of fresh hay mingled with the earthy smell of horses. The walkways were swept clean, and grooms were tending to the coats of several of the animals. They stopped when Vaundryn entered, and their eyes fixed on the little girl holding his hand.

Sylenea’s eyes widened. “There are so many horses here. More than in my whole village.”

Vaundryn smiled, glad he could make her so happy. He walked up and down the rows with her, telling her about each horse. She listened, enrapt, talking and cooing at each of the animals.

“Who’s that?” she asked and pointed to a massive black stallion stabled well away from the other horses.

“Vlad,” Vaundryn said. “Nasty beast. He’ll only let my father ride him.”

Sylenea walked quietly through the dim stables and stopped outside of Vlad’s stall. The stallion snorted, kicked the stall wall behind him, and bared his teeth. She murmured to him, cooing and talking gibberish.

The destrier nudged forward, flicking his ears as he watched her. Sylenea vaulted up the side of the stable and seated herself on the high wall so she was level with the stallion’s head. She stroked his nose, and rather than biting her, Vlad nuzzled her hand and moved closer so she could stroke his ears.

“He’d like a green apple, if you have any. Not a red one. It has to be green.”

“My father always gives him green apples,” Vaundryn said as he motioned to one of the grooms.

“They’re his favorite,” Sylenea said as a groom handed her an apple.

She laid it in the palm of her hand and offered it to Vlad. He lipped it off her palm and nudged her. The gentle push almost sent her sprawling off the door.

“You don’t know your own strength, do you?” Sylenea laughed and patted his nose. “Now you be good, Vlad.”

Vaundryn watched her slide off the door and land beside him. Vlad nickered and butted the stall door.

“He really likes you,” Vaundryn said. “I didn’t think Vlad liked anyone.”

“He’s a big horse, and he learned he could get his way by throwing his weight around. He misses when he was ridden more, and he’s sad spending his days in the corner all by himself.”

“He’s there to protect the other horses,” Vaundryn said. “He can be very aggressive.”

She turned and looked at Vlad. “If you’d behave yourself, they’d let you back by the other horses. You might even get ridden more often.”

The horse snorted.

“You know you like being ridden. You just don’t want them to know.”

The horse nudged his stall door with his head.

“I’m not riding you until you can prove that you’ll behave yourself.”

Vlad bobbed his head

“What do you think, do you believe him?” Sylenea asked Vaundryn.

“You could never control him. Your feet wouldn’t even reach the stirrups.”

She frowned as she thought about that. “But it’s not about control. More a meshing of needs and wants.”

“There’s a pretty little mare over here,” Vaundryn said as he took her hand and led her away from the destrier. “If you can win over Vlad, you can win her over.”

Sylenea waved goodbye to Vlad and followed Vaundryn through the stables to a lovely grey mare. Within minutes, Sylenea had the mare eating apples and begging for ears to be scratched.

“You have a way with horses,” Vaundryn said as a groom saddled his gelding while another saddled the grey mare.

Sylenea beamed as a groom helped her up into the saddle. “Just have to know how to talk to them.”

Nudging his horse forward, Vaundryn led her out of the stables and across the wide fields surrounding the castle. He tried to set a quiet pace, but Sylenea raced past him as she gave her mare her head.

Vaundryn caught up to her, the exhilaration of the ride rushing through him and being amplified by Sylenea’s enthusiasm.

The breeze ruffled her copper curls and the sun sparkled in her emerald green eyes. “This is so much fun.”

“I suppose it is,” Vaundryn said. “Perhaps because there are two of us. It’s not this much fun to ride alone.”

“You’re not alone.”

Vaundryn glanced back at the stable hand following a safe distance behind them.

“Not what I meant.” She stroked her horse’s neck and tipped her face up to the sun. “It’s so much different to ride a horse that wants to run.”

“I can’t imagine a plow horse would have been much fun to ride.”

“Fun in a different way.” Sylenea glanced over at Vaundryn sitting erect and proper in his saddle. “Race you to the fence post!” she cried, and her mare shot off across the field.

“Hey!” Vaundryn laughed as he gave chase.

Their happiness floated across the fields, and soaked into the castle and its grounds.

Caenner looked up from his work and walked to the window in time to see his son ride past with a smile on his face as he galloped after a girl child.

 

Caenner pounded down the stairs and wheeled toward the kitchens. If anyone would know who the strange girl was, his housekeeper would. Servants scurried away from him, and he ignored them. Throwing open the kitchen door, he stormed in and loomed dark as night in the center of the room.

“Your Grace?” Jyss asked, forcing her voice not to quaver.

“There is a girl in my home that wasn’t here yesterday.”

Jyss paled. “Yes, Your Grace. She’s my niece.”

“Your niece?” Caenner echoed.

“My sister Rhianna Nightstar, Your Grace,” Jyss said as she motioned to the other woman. “She and her daughter have come to visit me on their way home.”

“Home from where?” Caenner asked as his eyes bored into Rhianna.

She swallowed and searched for her voice, but words failed her as she stared into the cold face of Duke Darkshield.

“The Temple of Thalia, Your Grace, up in Two Rivers,” Jyss said for her.

His eyes narrowed to slits, and menace poured from him. Despite the heat of the fire, the room felt cold and his breath puffed around him. “That’s the regional temple.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Rhianna said, her words little more than a squeak.

“Why were you at Thalia’s temple? For what sin were you seeking redemption that a local priestess could not cleanse you?”

Rhianna gripped the table, but she met the duke’s stare. “No sin, Your Grace. I had thought perhaps Sylenea had the Calling.”

“The priestesses at your local temple would have known.”

Rhianna looked down at her feet. “So they told me she didn’t, but I didn’t believe them.”

“And the priestesses in Two Rivers confirmed that she didn’t have the calling,” Caenner said and started to pace. “So you’re bringing her back home.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Rhianna whispered. “But they have agreed to teach her to heal.”

He stopped and faced her again. “They have?”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“Why did they agree to that if she doesn’t have the Calling?”

Rhianna swallowed the ice in her throat. “They called her a life mage, told me to inform my local lord and he would see to getting her properly trained.”

Caenner arched a brow black as a raven’s wing. “Your lord doesn’t already know about her?”

“No, Your Grace,” Rhianna said.

Caenner snorted. “He’s either an idiot or . . .” Realization dawned as Rhianna’s fear clawed through the death magic hanging in the air. Caenner reigned in his temper as he looked at the small woman clasping her hands on her lap. “You’ve been hiding her.”

Rhianna looked down at her intertwined fingers. “Yes, Your Grace.”

“Who is your lord?”

“Lord Emberfall, Your Grace.”

The name balled his fists. Emberfall had not reported a life mage in his lands. He’d reported far fewer mages in his lands than any other lord, and Caenner had been assisting in an investigation into the disparity. Mages were T’analear’s greatest asset, and whether through neglect or something more nefarious, Emberfall undermined the Empire by secreting budding mages.

But only those in the Mage’s Circle would know that, and Rhianna was definitely not in that circle.

“Why are you hiding her?”

Rhianna bit her lower lip and looked toward Jyss who nodded once. “I don’t know, Your Grace, but I never wanted him near her. Was afraid he’d take her from me if he knew.”

“Good instincts.” Caenner stopped pacing. “I want to meet young Sylenea.”

“Her and the young master went out to the stables,” Jyss said. “I can send for them.”

“No need,” Caenner said.

Rhianna smiled as she thought of her daughter. “Sylenea loves horses. Loves all animals, really. Always bringing home injured birds or whatnot and tending them. That’s why I was so sure Thalia had Called her. So sure.”

Caenner nodded once, turned on his heel, and left the two women as he strode out of the castle. His long steps ate the ground to stables, and he walked over to Vlad. As he approached the destrier, he felt it. The golden stirring of life magic. Untrained, undisciplined, but life magic so strong it pulsed against his death magic and sent shivers down his spine as if a thousand ants crawled along it.

“Where is Vaundryn?” Caenner demanded of the stable hands.

A groom slunk out of a stall, bits of hay clinging to him. “He took his gelding out, Your Grace.”

“I know that. Where did he go?”

“The young master didn’t say, Your Grace. Sent a stable hand along with him.”

“Send another to bring him back. When he returns, send Vaundryn to me.”

The groom bowed his head and Caenner strode back to his office. He paced the floor, clenching and unclenching his fists as he waited for his son.

Dragon Fire

Chunk Wendig posted a flash fiction challenge that the story must include a dragon. As a fantasy romance writer, I took this opportunity to work on an idea that has been percolating for a while. 

World

Dragon Fire

“Errand boy. Do I look like an errand boy?”

I like market day. I don’t mind bringing back supplies.

“Only because Kassia brings you sugar cubes. Whoever heard of a dragon with a sweet tooth?” Ceric asked as the cold thin air ruffled his dark hair.

The silver dragon snorted and rolled through the sky.

Ceric cursed and concentrated on staying astride Xensnisir as they soared over the sprawling farmers’ fields, the thick forests, and the high cliffs.

You just wish she brought you sugar cubes. And she would if you’d ask her.

Ceric’s chest tightened as he glanced back toward the cliffs and saw the breeze tangle Kassia’s hair as she watched him and Xensnisir swoop through the darkening sky.

“She’s there again,” Ceric muttered.

She is most nights.

“She should be safe inside her house. The sun’ll set soon.”

She comes to watch us.

The dragon spun through the air, dived, and then darted back into the clouds.

“Show off.”

You would miss her if she did not come. I gave her a reason to keep coming.

“We need to get these supplies back to the Heights, remember?”

We could take her home first to make sure she gets there safely. I would like to feel her on my back.

“I bet you would.” Ceric snorted.

You would like to feel her, too.

He started to argue, but knew it was foolish to lie to a creature that read his thoughts. “She’s Farmer Ennis’s youngest daughter.”

You say that like it means something.

“He doesn’t like dragons.”

No, he doesn’t like their riders. But it’s not him I want on my back.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

It could. You desire her, and she returns your interest.

“Maybe. Possibly. But that doesn’t matter.”

It’s all that matters.

He thought of her luminous sea green eyes and the pretty smile she saved for Xensnisir. Maybe for him, too, if Ceric thought about it. He’d considered offering her a ride on Xensnisir several times, but disapproving looks from her father and Dragon-Captain Corrant’s edict to reduce strife with the locals had stopped him.

Ceric glanced back toward the cliffs where he could see her outline and swallowed back a surge of emotion. “She would be an entanglement, a distraction, one we can’t afford. Especially with our next mission.”

She could be in trouble. Dark Ones have been seen in the area, but they have learned to avoid us.

Glancing at the darkening sky, Ceric cursed, knowing the Dark Ones would be out soon. Thoughts of what they would do to her if they caught her had him turning Xensnisir around. “We’re just seeing her home. No need for another lecture from Corrant.”

If a dragon could grin, Ceric knew his would be.

 

Kassia watched from the high cliffs as Ceric and Xensnisir glided past, and her heart leapt as the dragon somersaulted, dived towards the ground and then soared back into the clouds. Exhilaration flooded her as she imagined slicing through the sky on a dragon’s back with a dragon rider’s strong arms around her.

Not just any dragon rider. Ceric Mason.

A smile curved her lips as she remembered him and his dragon helping with the harvest when the rains came early, and when he’d searched through the night and risked the Dark Ones to bring little Lyra home.

Kassia’s mother warned dragon riders only led to a belly full of child, heartbreak, and shame. Her mother might be right; a dragon rider was purported to be the reason why her cousin Dana’s first child had come only six months after her marriage.

But Kassia’s heart still flew when she saw Ceric.

Foolish to feel anything for a dragon rider. Strong, handsome, and guardians of the lands, they had their choice of partners and were known philanderers. Some said it was the dragon bond that drove them to infidelity, others that they took advantage of their position. Either way, the dragons and their riders were all that stood between farmers like her family and the Dark Ones.

Shivering at the thought, Kassia turned from her perch on the cliff and hurried along the wooded path toward home.

In an attempt to lighten her spirit, she entertained a dozen excuses for talking to Ceric the next time he was at the market and dismissed each in kind.

The encroaching darkness froze such silliness.

The dragon and his rider had come back later than usual, and she’d stayed longer than normal on the cliffs watching their antics. She cursed herself for losing track of time and prayed for Thalia to watch over her.

Darkness fell faster among the trees than it did in the open grasslands by her house.

Things stirred in the shadows, and Kassia’s heart thumped against her ribs as she hurried along the path.

Not too fast, she cautioned herself. Movement lured the Dark Ones almost as much as the scent of human blood.

A branch snapped in the trees behind her, and then a second. The musk of rotting leaves followed her and fueled her fear.

Night sank in around her as the last rays of sunlight painted the land outside the forest crimson. Her breath caught as the sounds slunk closer, and the scent made her stomach churn.

A rustling ahead and to her left. They were circling around her.

Fear slid like ice through her veins.

She ran.

Without thought, without direction, she flew down the path. Going home would only lead them to her family and their livestock. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, do that.

The cliffs. If she jumped, the Dark Ones wouldn’t feast on her, and there was something to be said for that.

As she clambered over a log, it leapt out of the darkness. She raised her arm to shield herself, and its claws raked across her, tearing through muscle and grinding against bone.

She screamed and fell to the ground, the beast’s momentum carrying it over her head and slamming it into a tree.

Blood soaked her shirt and dripped on the ground.

It stood and grinned, its razor sharp teeth glinting in the twilight as its forked tongue licked the blood from its claws.

The smell of rotting leaves intensified as more things shifted and stirred. She wanted to look behind her, but that would expose her back to the one that had already tasted her blood. Her right arm hung at her side, and she balled the tatters of her shirt to press against the gaping wound. The bleeding slowed, but the scent of her blood stained the air.

Surrounded. She could hear them closing in on her.

Dark Ones preferred to eat their prey alive and used the screams to lure other humans, other prey. Thalia hadn’t answered her other prayer, but she said another and begged for a quick end.

She swallowed a scream as a strong arm looped around her waist and a silver sword hacked the Dark One opposite her in half.

The slithering in the forest paused as they assessed this new threat.

With dragon strength, Ceric lifted her and darted back through the forest, using surprise and his inhuman speed to gain distance.

The Dark Ones stirred behind him, snarls and gnashing teeth giving chase.

Kassia’s good arm tightened around him as she buried her face against his chest and thanked Thalia.

They burst through the forest, and she heard a great inhale then felt the whisper of heat.

Shrieks and howls rent the night as dragon fire engulfed the things following them.

More come. The blood calls them.

“I know,” Ceric said as he levered himself and Kassia onto Xensnisir’s back.

“Know what?” Kassia asked.

Ceric shook his head. “Anything we can do?”

If her wound is not tended soon, she will die. We will burn the Dark Ones once she is safe.

“Then get us outta here.”

The dragon obliged, and with two powerful beats of his wings, they were soaring over the top of the forest and back into the clouds.

His heart steadied as the cool breeze tousled his hair and his breathing calmed. Sucking in the cold, bracing air, Ceric cradled her against his chest.

The Dark Ones had almost gotten her. Almost.

A curse stroked his tongue, but he bit it back as he looked into her eyes. Fear made them bright, and she shivered against the heat of his chest. He tightened his arms around her and stroked her butter-colored hair to comfort her.

“If I die,” she whispered, “at least I got to ride a dragon.”

“You don’t get to die. Not on my watch.”

She smiled at the arrogance her father warned her about. But Ceric meant it. He wanted to protect her, to keep her safe, and he was doing everything in his power to accomplish that.

Death stalked her despite Ceric’s efforts, and she silenced thoughts of her father’s recriminations as she enjoyed the rich scent of her dragon rider, reveled in the feel of his strong arms wrapped around her, and exhilarated at the bump of the air currents.

She was flying. With Ceric.

A smile curved her lips as her eyes closed.

Ceric looked down at her slack face, heard her ragged breathing, and felt her blood soaking through his riding leathers. He swallowed back a curse as he held her tightly against him.

The healers in the Heights know how to treat Dark One wounds. Especially Maida.

“Hurry.”

I am.

Impatience nipped at Ceric as Xensnisir raced through the sky. Their trip home took half the time it normally did, but Ceric didn’t notice as they finally reached the Heights.

He half slid half fell off Xensnisir, but he kept Kassia cradled against his chest.

A woman in cinnamon robes stitched with silver embroidery hurried out and examined Kassia’s arm.

“Will she…”

“Seen worse on new riders not careful around their fledglings,” Maida snapped. “Now get her inside.”

He carried Kassia into the bright temple, laid her on the sickbed, and stepped back. Folding his arms across his chest, he leaned against the doorframe and waited for Maida to try to chase him away. She didn’t.

Whispering a spell, Maida touched her hand to Kassia’s chest, and the farm girl’s breathing steadied even as Maida cleaned the wound and rubbed pungent ointments into it. She then stitched it with silver sutures, whispered another spell, and bound Kassia’s arm in fresh linens.

When she was done, she looked at the dragon rider in her doorway and the enormous beast that lurked just beyond. “She needs rest and to keep the wound clean. And no extended dragon flights. I want to see her again in a couple days.”

Ceric nodded and lifted Kassia into his arms.

“She was lucky,” Maida said. “You and Xensnisir need to take better care of her.”

“Take better care of her? She’s a farmer…” Ceric started, but the surprised look on Maida’s face had him whirling toward Xensnisir. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Kassia’s eyes fluttered open, she mumbled something, and then lay her head against his chest as she shivered.

It will wait. Kassia needs you now.

Ceric’s eyes narrowed, but he carried her out to the waiting dragon.

Xensnisir flew them up to their cave and landed as lightly as a cat.

Ceric slid to the ground still cradling Kassia against his chest.

The dragon bowed his head and nudged Ceric’s shoulder. She will be well again.

Ceric rubbed the dragon’s nose. “She will, and then I’ll kill her for being up there after dark.”

Do not be too harsh with her. She was there because of me.

“And you’re going to tell me why Maida thought we should be taking care of her.”

Perhaps.

The dragon curled in front of the entryway to Ceric’s sleeping chambers, tucking his wings into his body as he rested his head on his fore paws and guarded the entrance.

Ceric had never seen Xensnisir so protective. It was unlike his dragon to keep secrets, but Ceric was too tired to pursue it now. The morning, however, would see him getting answers

He carried Kassia to his bed and eased her against the sheets. After gently removing her bloodstained clothes, he quickly tucked a thick blanket around her.

By the Light, she was injured. What was wrong with him?

She is beautiful. I would like to see her naked, too. But not tonight.

“What has gotten into you?”

Xensnisir didn’t answer.

Ceric opened a cupboard and pulled down several more blankets. “Looks like a night on the floor.”

Room enough for two humans. And she will want you close after such a scare.

Exhaustion robbed him of the desire to argue. Ceric stripped out of his bloodstained clothes and slid into bed beside her. Even with a blanket wrapped around her to keep her flesh from touching his, the scent of her whispered around him, taunting, tempting and luring.

As sleep finally claimed him, he could hear his dragon snickering.

The Choice – Part 2

A continuation of the flash fiction I participated in. Rough, much like flash fiction as I didn’t spend a lot of time revising. However, I am finding I rather like these characters . . .

 

Sylenea tugged on her nana’s hand. “You’re still mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you, little one,” Rhianna said as she stroked the girl’s copper curls.

“You wanted me to become a Priestess of Thalia, but the priestesses didn’t want me. I’m sorry they didn’t want me, Nana.”

“It’s not that they didn’t want you. You don’t have the Calling.”

“The Calling?”

“You don’t feel the pull to serve Thalia, and there’s no shame in that.”

Sylenea chewed her lower lip. “The priestesses were nice, but I don’t want to be one, if that’s what you mean.”

Rhianna nodded and hugged her close. “I know, and that’s okay. We’ll figure out what you’re destined to do. I just wish we could do it away from Emberfall.”

“Why? Emberfall is our home.”

“I think there are better teachers for you,” Rhianna hedged.

Sylenea brightened. “But they did say I’d make a good healer one day. They said the priestesses at the temple near us would train me.”

“So they did,” Rhianna agreed. “Do you want to train to be a healer?”

“I do, but you’re still sad. Did they say something else that makes you so sad?”

“Look, that’s where my sister Jyss works,” Rhianna said, changing the subject as she pointed to a castle peering out of the morning mists.

The dawn light colored the turrets pale purple, adding a whisper of mystery to the towers of the keep that looked like cut crystal. High walls encircled the castle, their covered parapets and guard towers promising protection in times of war.

Sylenea’s eyes widened. “Even from this far, I can tell its way bigger than Emberfall Manor. I didn’t think anything was bigger than Emberfall Manor.”

“Lord Emberfall wants you to believe that,” Rhianna said, her derision lost on Sylenea. “But Castle Darkshield is the ducal seat of this province, and Lord Emberfall must answer to the duke.”

“Aunt Jyss takes care of it all by herself?”

“No, but she is charge of the housekeeping staff. It takes a lot of people to run such a large place.”

“Is Aunt Jyss nice?”

“Very nice, and once she sees you, she’s going to fill you up with cakes, pies, and sweetmeats. Her son is about your age. You remember your cousin, Arkanear?”

Sylenea shook her head. “I don’t remember him or Aunt Jyss.”

“I suppose not. You were such a little girl when they last visited.”

Sylenea wrinkled her nose. “I wish Arkanear was a girl. Boys are such a bore.”

“Why do you say that?”

“All they ever want to play is mage battle, and I get stuck being the princess. I’m as good a mage as any of them.” Sylenea crossed her arms over her stomach and stuck out her chin.”

“So you are,” Rhianna said, trying to hide her fear. “So you are.”

Sylenea rubbed her stomach and looked toward the castle. “Let’s hurry. I’m hungry, and you said Aunt Jyss has cake.”

Rhianna laughed, took her daughter’s hand, and they walked to Castle Darkshield.

 

When they arrived at the castle, Jyss ran down the steps of the staff entrance and hugged her sister.

“You made it!” she beamed. She smiled and then hugged Sylenea. “Look how big you’ve gotten. Last time I saw you, you were knee high to a grasshopper.”

“I was never that little,” Sylenea protested.

“Maybe not.” Jyss hugged her again. “Doesn’t my sister feed you? You’re so thin. Come inside, you must be starving after such a trip.”

“Nana said you had cake.”

Jyss laughed. “I do, and fresh strawberry pie as well, but you’ll have to wait until after supper for that.”

Sylenea beamed at her, and Jyss ruffled her copper curls then led them into the stone castle. Holding tightly to her nana’s hand, Sylenea gaped up at the high ceilings, sparkling windows, and lavish tapestries. Her small feet were silent on the thick rugs, and fresh flowers filled crystal vases, their scent spilling through the lofty halls. Sylenea’s eyes saucered as her head turned from side to side.

As they walked through the halls back toward the kitchens, she spied a boy dressed all in black. He was sitting alone in one of the grand rooms, his spine erect as he read a book. His hair was darker than night, and when he looked up at her, she saw his eyes were as blue as a summer sky. His lips thinned when he saw her, and he scowled.

Her cousin Arkanear, Sylenea decided, and he was probably mad his mother had excluded him from the promised array of treats. Sylenea slid out from under her nana’s arm and raced across the hallway toward the boy.

Rhianna’s eyes widened in horror as she snatched at Sylenea and missed.

Jyss laid a hand on her arm and shook her head.

“Hi,” Sylenea said as she smiled and stood in front of the boy.

The boy’s scowl lifted, and he couldn’t help but smile back at her. “Hello.”

“I’m Sylenea.” She stuck out her hand.

“A pleasure, m’lady. I’m known as Vaundryn.” He took her hand and executed a perfect court bow over it.

“You’re not my cousin Arkanear then?”

His scowl returned. “You have me mistaken.”

“Sorry about that. I only ever met Arkanear once, and I was a baby then.” She looked at his pristine jacket, shined boots, and the silver embroidered crest on his lapel. “You’re dressed like you’re going to the temple. Are you about to leave?”

Vaundryn looked down at his play clothes. “No.”

“Good.” Sylenea grinned. “Aunt Jyss is giving us cake. I’m sure there’s enough for you if you want some. If not, you can have half of mine. Then we can go play. Anything but mage battles.”

Vaundryn said nothing.

“All right, we can even play mage battles. But I get to be a mage too.”

Vaundryn set his book aside.

“Well, do you want to come?”

“What kind of cake?”

“Who cares, its cake,” Sylenea said as she took his hand and towed him after her back to her nana and Aunt Jyss.

“Nana, this is Vaundryn. He can come and have cake, too, right?”

“Of course,” Rhianna said, her smile strained as she stared into the face of Duke Darkshield’s only child.

The Choice

(Based on a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig)

Lightening flashed outside, and Duchess Nienna Darksheild drew strength from the storm. With a final push she fell back against the pillows and the cry of a newborn pierced the night.

The Priestess of Thalia smiled as she cleaned the child and handed him to Caenner.

The babe quieted as Caenner stared into the red and wrinkled face. Eyes blue as a summer’s sky stared up and him, and the power of the storm thrummed through the child.

So his son would be a sky mage as his mother was.

The priestess swaddled the child in fresh linens and handed him to Caenner before tending to Nienna.

Caenner trailed a finger over the tips of his son’s pointed ears, and the child grabbed his finger.

A rare smile curved Caenner’s lips.

His son. Nienna’s son.

Caenner whispered as he sat beside his wife. “My darling, brave Nienna.”

Her eyes flickered open, and her ready smile lifted her lips as she looked into the face of her son. “He’s beautiful.”

“He takes after his mother.”

“May he have his father’s charm.” She stroked her son’s cheek. “I love you, Caenner.”

He caught her fingers and brought them to his lips. “You are my world, Nienna, and now you’ve given me a son. By the gods, you are truly amazing.”

She smiled as he laid their child in her arms. “Vaundryn, we’ll name him Vaundryn.”

“So be it,” Caenner said as he smoothed her golden locks. Love bloomed in his chest as he looked at his wife and son. She could ask him for the moon, and he’d try to get it for her.

“You must rest, Your Grace.” The priestess stroked a hand over Nienna’s eyes, and the golden glow of healing magic passed from the priestess into Nienna.

The duchess smiled as the warmth poured through her, and she held her son to her breast to suckle. Nienna’s warm smile remained as her eyes closed and she slept.

Sleep smoothed away the fatigue lining Nienna’s face.

“She’ll be fine, Your Grace. No easy task bringing a child into the world.”

The room wavered, and a man dressed in billowing black robes carrying a gnarled staff stepped from the shadows.

The priestess leapt between Nienna and the dark cloaked figure, conjuring forth the silver flame of Thalia. With a flick of his wrist, the priestess collapsed to the floor.

Caenner shielded his wife and newborn son with his own body. “You killed her.”

“I have no fondness for Thalia or her priestesses, but a prince of shadows is wise not to bring the Light to bear on himself.”

Caenner’s mouth dried as fear hollowed his stomach. “What do you want, Korthuul?”

“You betrayed the Dark Lord, and you ask me what I want?”

“I turned from the darkness two centuries ago. Purified and redeemed by Thalia’s holy flame.”

“Redemption does not mean forgiveness, and the Dark Lord has a long memory.” Korthuul glanced at the sleeping woman with the child at her breast. “And you finally have something to repay the blood oath.”

Caenner paled. “You want my son.”

“Or your wife. That is Uzakiel’s price.”

“A choice I won’t make.”

Korthuul only smiled. “Know thisas you choose. Your wife will bear you no more children. When you die, so will the Darkshield line. Your son will be a great mage, more powerful in sky magic than even his mother, and his death magic will rival your own.”

Caenner stroked his wife’s golden hair and trailed a finger over his son’s tiny closed fist. How could he ever be asked to choose between them? His life had been barren before Nienna, empty enough that he had turned to Uzakiel, and only her love had brought him back to the Light. He could not imagine living through a day without the light of her smile to chase back the darkness.

Nor could he take his son from her breast, end the life she struggled to bring into this world. His son, their son, the future duke and heir of House Darkshield.

“Choose,” Korthuul demanded.

Drawing on all his magic, Caenner hurled it toward Korthuul and stabbed at him with the burning cold of death magic.

Korthuul staggered under the onslaught, then drew on his own magic. He called the storm to him and threw its power against Caenner.

He froze the storm, dropping it at their feet as he unsheathed his dagger and charged Korthuul. Caenner buried the dagger into Korthuul’s chest as the archmage called on the power of the earth to shield him and force Caenner back.

“If only you had brought such passion to your service of the Dark Lord.”

“If I still followed Uzakiel, I wouldn’t have Nienna or my son.”

He couldn’t lose them. He would rather die than lose them.

Caenner drew hard on his death magic, and honing it to a deadly point, he arrowed it at Korthuul and pierced his shields long enough to stop his heart.

Korthuul negated the spell, and threw another at Caenner.

Their magic locked, and the cold of death sizzled through the air, freezing the sweat beading on their brows. Magic clashed and their power burned through the night. Caenner was flagging, his reserves tapped, but still he fought, emptying himself in the fight to save his wife and child.

Korthuul trembled as he called forth the depths of his power, and the force of the spell ripped through him as he engulfed Caenner in a fire spell. The spell burned through the cold of Caenner’s death magic shields and filled his belly, burning away the last of his magic.

Caenner collapsed, gasping for breath between clenched teeth.

“Choose.”

“Take me. It was my choice to serve Uzakiel, my choice to turn to the Light.”

Korthuul arched a black brow. “He doesn’t want you.”

“He can’t have either of their souls. Even with your shadow magic, Mor will come for them.”

“My Lord does not wish their souls. He simply wishes revenge. Now choose.”

A single tear slid down his Caenner’s cheek as he laid his forehead against the cold stone. Pain raked his soul. While the end of House Darksheild saddened his heart, losing his one true love would break him. He’d find a way to explain to Nienna.

“My son, take my son.”

Still trembling from the battle, darkness cloaked Korthuul as he withdrew a razor edged dagger and stepped to the side of the bed. “As the Dark Lord bids, the Countess Nienna Darkshield’s blood in payment for your blood oath.”

“What? You said . . .” Caenner screamed as he dragged himself from the floor.

“You don’t think the Dark Lord would settle for second best, do you?” The dagger arced, and blood hot and red poured from the wound and bathed the child as it soaked the bed and dripped to the floor.

Father and son’s screams pierced the night as Nienna’s lifeless eyes stared at the ceiling.