Safe and Sound
I think of you while I brush my teeth. If I saw you every time I looked in a mirror, I’d feel beautiful.
You’re like good books and jigsaw puzzles; not necessarily thrilling, but nice to spend time with after a long day of doing difficult things.
You’re a cartoon marathon on a Saturday morning.
You’re every shade of blue and green.
When birds sing in spite of the rain, it’s just like how you speak with me.
I see you in the faces of all the people who tip their waitresses and smile at children and hold doors open for strangers.
You’re a long shower and a homemade meal.
You’re clothing fresh from the dryer.
You’re the original Star Wars trilogy.
You’re the ever-present narrator in the back of my head, and you always have something interesting to say.
I was homesick every day before I met you.
California’s known for being sunny all year. It’s true, though we’ve been getting a couple months of rain the past year or two. Couple years ago, it’d be halfway through December and we’d still all be out in shorts. It hasn’t snowed for decades.
Winter in California isn’t like any other. There is no being excited because school canceled due to the snow. There isn’t much going out with friends in thick sweaters, beanies, and scarves, to go make snow angels or sled. There’s not much need to make hot steaming cocoa to warm frozen fingers from the cold.
But I like it. I like California winters.
I like how 96.5 KOIT has been playing Christmas blues since Thanksgiving break, with a few Bay Area specials like Vic Damone’s “Christmas in San Francisco” and Tim Hockenberry’s “Christmas By the Bay.”
I like going to San Francisco to see a musical in one of the city’s grand theaters, and visiting Union Square to shop and take pictures by the giant Christmas tree.
I like the weather, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s when it’s warm, and a couple degrees lower when it’s raining.
I like the walks I can take in my quiet city, fallen, dried leaves crunching under my boots, surrounded by comely homes, bare trees, and a cloudy grey sky above.
I like visiting Christmas Tree Lane, where all the houses are specifically required to decorate for Christmas. One house has hundreds of teddy bears decorating the house, another has a bench where kids can listen to a recording of "Twas a Night before Christmas." All of them are beautifully decorated with whimsical, bright colored lights.
I like the fake snow machine that has fake snowflakes fall lightly upon skaters at Winter Lodge, gently kissing their thick gloves. Everyone dressed in sweaters, hoodies, and UGGs.
I like buying bags of Ghirardelli peppermint bark at CVS, with people bringing pieces of the creamy, minty chocolates in their Lululemon bags to school.
I like seeing when I pass Town and Country, 20 people still waiting outside Boba Guys in line for cold cups of boba.
That’s winter to me. And I wouldn’t give anything to have winter any other way. Just like in Vic Damone’s song, “There is no place quite so dear/It’s the closest thing to heaven/How I wish that you were here.” California winters.
*this is a different style from my usual writing, a more “bloggy” kind of writing. It’s a rough draft, and I might be changing it later to make it a little more poetic. I thought it’d be nice to be thankful for my California winters, as Thanksgiving break is ending and winter is rolling in. Hope you enjoyed!*
#california #winter #boba #sanfrancisco #snow #chocolate #angels #peppermint #blog #fun #music #christmas #cold #fall #thanksgiving #thankful #love
I'm not going to apologise for the fire and grindstone that burned through your facade showing the leaks and rot that hid underneath. I'm not going to apologise for the anger and pain that was caused when you poked the slumbering beast that laid quietly in its cage. If you stand proud on a floor of decay and mold I will stand firm on a pile of bones and blood. Let the fury rain down on me burn the bars and chains that bind me and deal with the consequences of the missteps and lies that have warped your mind that was once as clear as glass. I'll watch from a crouch waiting to spring once you run and you'll wait to run till the fire burns holes in your soles teaching into your soul and tearing you down. If the end is coming, let it be in flames that we fall.
He sits still, but his lips haven't stopped forming words.
The breath barely escapes his lips; his voice is too quiet for anyone else to hear.
He whispers -- just barely -- the words that he has memorized.
The room stirs around him. Slanting and shifting with every syllable.
No one has come upstairs to find him yet, and no one dares interrupt his work.
His eyes open, and he tastes the room rather than sees it.
His body lurches forward as if pulled by strings, and his hands reach out, his fingers spread.
He collides with his workbench, and his eyes roll back into his head and his hands begin the tedious task: carving, painting.
The circular room spins, but no one exists to see it.
The windows seal themselves, the floor rattles.
His hands work at an impossible speed, trying to keep up with the visions in his mind.
A lizard--no, a woman--her skin scaled, her head round and smooth, and hands, feet with claws, beady yellow eyes and a stubborn jaw. Lips, eyebrows scrunched, a stomach that aches for a meal. And nostrils--flared with anger, a ring on three of her fingers, legs with muscles ripe for running. Intestines, liver, a sore heart, lungs--breath.
The silence screams to be heard.
He opens his eyes, cradles the figure in his hand: a freshly carved woman, a lizard, a being. Identical to what he saw in his mind.
He stands, the world steady now, and adds her to his collection.
My arm stretches up into the empty air but my fingertips just can’t reach the pink bubbly bloom. Instead, another hand reaches for it and takes it before I can.
“You wanted this,” he says slowly while handing me the flower. I stare up at him with suspicious eyes. I’ve never trusted this boy. He’s your classic class clown and he always has some weird grin on his face, but this is the first time I’ve seen him without that goofy grin. I quickly grab the bloom and say, “I could’ve gotten that on my own.”
“I was just trying to help. Don’t get all defensive,” he says slumping his shoulders and taking two steps back. When my suspicions face doesn’t leave he puts his hands up suddenly.
“I’m not gonna do anything! I swear.” He takes two more steps back.
“I’ll just go,” he says turning away and heading towards the entrance gate.
The next morning I gather up my courage to thank him in front of all his friends. They wonder why I’d need to thank him, but he never gives them the answer. Everyone at school wonders why I call him Blossom Boy, too. People are nosy.
A Daily Luxury, Considered
My Irish forbears indentured themselves for land in newly-free America and then farmed for several generations. It was not an easy life. I cannot imagine they filled a warm basin frequently: too much water, too much heating over fire for a full-body soak. Even when they did, if they did, quickly using a cloth in a cooling tub cannot compare.
Hot water streams down onto me in near perpetuity, limited only by the capacity of a tank that rapidly reheats. Its design still follows the basic principles Edwin Ruud developed in 1889, after he left Norway to settle in Pittsburgh: the automatic, storage tank water heater. My great-great grandfather lived within 50 miles of the prototype. He probably died before using one.
Morning or night, 50 gallons await, a servant sitting beside a bell he hears when my hand turns the faucet, and then it streams down onto me. Weighted hair flips about as I scrub in shampoo. The nozzle’s pressure offers a light massage for my back, shoulders, chest. I focus on the droplets’ caresses as they trail through my hair and across my skin, finally dripping to the ceramic below me to swirl around my feet, carrying with them grime, dead skin, and cares. I am warm.
As a male, I have been conditioned to consider my body in terms of actions performed: this throws, this grips, this runs, this lifts. Females, I understand, have been conditioned to consider their bodies in terms of appearance. Showers encourage us all to consider how our bodies feel, to inhabit ourselves and connect to the physical instead of the mental for at least a few minutes. If, that is, we consider them.
Never overlook the miracle of hot, running water.
They say to ignore them. I try. Draw a line, like in the sand searching for a wave to wash any evidence away. This one wasn’t skinny and she had white teeth, which I found odd. Most of them have baggy clothes and mustard teeth, somewhere between the color of American yellow and stone ground.
“Darlin’.” She called to me, smiling, all sweet, as if we were beau’s, only she doesn’t know I don’t take kindly to that sort of sugaring. I’d rather she had said point blank; level, “Look, I’m in a bind and I hate to ask. Could you spot me five dollars for the bus?” Then it could be true or it could be a lie, but I’d feel much better about my five dollars leaving my pocket if she could keep it cold, simple, like at the bank. “How can I help you today; fives, tens or twenties?”
So this morning I kept on walking on my island, pretending the same way she pretended, unable to see the shipwreck but tonight I feel her warmth as if she is in the bed with me, twisting up my covers and the cause of my sweat. Since she is close, I decide it might be right to offer her my pillow. It’s in the shape of a boomerang and doesn’t know if it is coming or going, like her, I suppose. It cradles me, the back of my head, my neck and shoulders and as I drift, allows me to forget the execrable and remember the exemplary, waking with me in reward. And I wish she would take it, but she doesn’t because she is gone. I don’t think of her as is advised, but rather look around the room one last time just before falling asleep on my boomerang with no thought other than the solid ceiling above me, the cold floor beneath me and the walls that defend me from the indefensible.
Happily Ever After...With Blood Stained Hands
She looked at the body at her feet, watching, mesmerized for a moment, as his blood pooled crimson on the steps where he was slumped.
“There’s blood on your shoe, my dear.”
Startled, Cinderella turned, to find the Fairy Godmother behind her, a pleased smirk on her face that made a mockery of her matronly manner. “He’s dead.” She said, her voice as chilled as the brisk, winter kissed breeze that swept lazily over the palace grounds; the ball was still taking place in the heart of the castle, but eventually, someone would realize the crown prince was missing and guards would quickly be dispatched.
“I did as you commanded.” The silver dagger, stained with the blood of the prince, the prince she could have possibly loved, in another time, another place, finally slipped from her fingers, landing beside the body she could no longer bring herself to look at. “I killed the prince, with a silver dagger forged from ice at the stroke of midnight.” She lifted her chin, in defiance to her trembling voice and the Fairy Godmother – or maybe she was a wicked witch most foul – stepped forward and casually retrieved the weapon she had given Cinderella earlier in the evening, when she had approached the sobbing girl with an offer Cinderella had been unable to refuse.
“You did as I instructed, girl, and in return, you will be granted what was promised.”
“My stepmother and stepsisters…”
“Within a fortnight of this night, your stepmother will be dead, blamed for the death of the prince, whom she will be accused of killing after her rejected her daughters.” Humming, she slipped the dagger into a pocket in her heavy cloak, before continuing, “And your stepsisters, they will stand accused as accomplices and will be sentenced to prison for the remainder of their lives and their downfall will forfeit back to you all that has been stolen.”
“My home.” She whispered, tears shimmering in her eyes.
“Your hone. Your wealth. Your title as a Lady within the kingdom.” The Fairy Godmother tilted her head slightly, regarding Cinderella intently, intensely, as if she could see into her heart and soul and perhaps, she could and that was what had led them here. “Revenge. You shall have it. A poor servant girl no more.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Oh no, my dear. I offered terms. You accepted them.”
“That I did.”
“And now?” She waved a hand in the direction of the dead prince. “Do you regret what you have done here tonight, my sweet?”
“Yes.” It was the truth, but so were the words that followed. “But if I had it to do again, I would make the same decision.”
Casting her eyes away from the woman who had saved – or ruined – her life, she finally saw that she did indeed have blood on her shoe and without thinking, she kicked it off and without another word to the Fairy Godmother, Cinderella descended the steps with as much grace as one could, with only one shoe.
She didn’t look back, as she disappeared into the shadows of the night, even as shouted orders to find the prince carried on the wind.
#TwistedFairyTale #NotSoHappyAnEnding #WickedFairyGodmother
“Crusaders” Section 1
We begin our story five years past the decimation of a once proud people, a civilization on the brink of greatness which promised innovation and prosperity for decades to come. This civilization, though it had no name beside that of the land which it occupied, was governed by a singular woman whose power and glory was worshipped by all. When that power became corrupted, tainted by an evil which bore no name, this ruler sent her people into a state of plague and anarchy, effectively eradicating the entirety of what had made her dominion great. In the five years following, chaos and horrors sprouted up at an alarming rate, resulting in a broken continent where individual cities struggled to defend against brigands, monsters, and other evils. Sometimes, this defense would take the form of city patrols and watches, and other times, bands of heroes would form together and serve as guardians for whichever town could offer the highest rewards. This story tells the tale of one such band of heroes, who, in their later years, would come to be known by the moniker of the Miracle Crusaders.
Illuminated by a gaping hole high above in the cavern’s ceiling, I searched the unfamiliar landscape of my surroundings with confusion. Pain seared in my body from the impact of falling three stories to the hard ground, but it seemed I had fared better than those I landed with. I knew none of them by name, but three people besides myself had managed to possess such terrible luck as to have found their way into a dank and chilly cave underground. Laying on the floor as I did, they seemed to be trying to assess each other and me, perhaps wary of an imminent threat.
We were not all the same. That much I could tell immediately. Unlike my own skin, which was a well-tanned color, the large man who landed nearest me was an off-grey with almost pinkish hues. His face bore two small tusks at the end of a well-defined jawline, and he had no hair to be seen. Scar tissue covered practically every exposed part of his body, which was an incredibly chiseled and muscular shape, making it obvious that he had seen his fair share of combat. He was an orc, to be certain, but something slightly unusual in the way his nose was shaped indicated an almost human quality. Surely no woman would have bred with an orc, I thought as the man began to stir, lifting his torso off the ground and opening large eyes. At least… not willingly.
Having never seen an orc until that fateful day five years ago, when all of Ria shone with a garish white aura and life changed forever, humanity was still becoming used to living side-by-side such unnatural beasts. Previously home to regular folk alone, Ria became a land filled with monsters and creatures of all shapes and sizes. Goblins and gnomes, halflings and harpies, and at least a dozen other horrifying and disturbing fantasies emerged from whatever miserable plane of existence had previously held them. No one knew why they had arrived in Ria, nor where exactly they came from, but a clear majority of people wished them gone. Orcs and goblins were at the top of most everyone’s list when asked which species they believed was worst, and it was simple to ascertain why. Five years of orc raids on small villages and frequent attacks by goblins did not generate a positive opinion within the community. I myself had met a few orcs two years back, and they had been decent enough fellows, able to drink themselves into oblivion and wake up the next morning feeling right as rain. If this man who lay beside me was anything like them, then perhaps we would get along.
Behind the orc, the other two strangers who were trapped with us looked much plainer. One, a man of middling height and a decent age, lay on his side struggling to keep down the contents of his stomach. He seemed human from what I could tell, bearing attractive features and dirty brown hair. I too felt a touch queasy, likely from the fall or whatever substance we had all been given that caused paralysis, yet I didn’t share his struggle against hurling. As for the final person who I could see, she was a woman of incredible beauty, long brown hair flowing just past her shoulders and a delicate complexion making her seem like much more than a simple peasant. A green streak of what might have been paint ran down both of her cheeks, making it appear as though she had been preparing for combat. Strangely, her ears bore a sharp point at the ends, a genetic trait I had never seen so defined in a human, but I quickly wrote it off as just a minor peculiarity.
After taking a minute to assess these strangers, I shakily forced myself to stand up and evaluate my surroundings. Besides us, the only other thing inside our cold, moist cavern was a crashed and splintered wagon. The one which we had been riding in, I recalled. Out of the fog in my head, memories flooded back to me of a grimy little city on the edge of the Aposian Coast. I had been there searching for a man, the man who killed my family so many years ago, but instead ran into a well-to-do gentleman who boasted knowledge about anything one might wish to know. Naturally, I asked him the question which had haunted me for the past four years. What is the name of the man who slew my parents? I knew a face, grinning and evil, yet had no name to match it. The well-to-do gentleman directed me to a small building on the far side of town where two hooded figures jumped me and forced a vile substance down my throat. Before I passed out from the drug, I helplessly watched as the hooded figures picked me up and took me to their wagon, tossing me inside. There were three other people there, unconscious and tied up, but I was too tired to try and wake them. That was the last thing I recalled prior to waking, and it seemed my companions were equally perplexed.
Across the cave, the pointy-eared girl had gotten up, and she stared at me now with a chilling glare, brown eyes filled by suspicion. “Who are you?” she asked me, a hint of an accent I did not recognize in her voice. “Why did you drug me? Why was I brought here?”
“My name is Telos,” I told her slowly, trying to avoid unnecessary confrontation with someone who had clearly suffered a similar ordeal to my own. “I took no part in drugging you nor do I know where it is we’ve been brought to. I believe that we were in that wagon, but the ground gave way and we fell into this cave. I promise you, I mean no harm.”
Frowning, the pointy-eared woman stepped closer towards me, exiting a darker portion of the cavern and coming fully under the light. She was a decently tall person, closer to the other man’s height than my own, and her shape was fit yet slender. “I am called Astrid,” she replied, extending a hand to me. “I apologize for any alarm I might have caused you.”
Amused that this thin and beautiful woman would ever have thought she frightened me, I shook my head while restraining a chuckle. “Think nothing of it,” I managed to say without cracking up. “We’re all in the same situation here. Isn’t that right my large friend?”
I had directed my question to the orc, the massive man who stood nearly a head taller than anyone else. He was staring at the pointy-eared woman and I with a frown, clearly attempting to puzzle out the situation. “Elf and human taken here like Gäree?” he asked us, voice booming loud enough that it would wake the deepest sleeper. Though he did not bother to name himself as Gäree, it was obvious that was what he meant.
“Yes,” I answered him. “It seems that we were being transported across Ria in that wagon for some reason. It’s beyond me what the reason was.” The name which he called Astrid was also beyond my knowledge, as I had never heard the term “elf” before. Perhaps another creature from the Otherplace. The Otherplace was what humanity had dubbed whatever world or realm these beings hailed from, where they had lived up until the disastrous events of five years ago. Hardly anyone knew what went down that day, when the world had shaken and the capital was destroyed, but it had left behind changes that would never go away. Namely, these other species of people.
Still frowning, the orc’s nostrils flared as he let out a huff. “That wagon?” he asked, pointing to the wooden carriage which lay on its side in splinters. I nodded in affirmation, and he smiled a wide, toothy grin. In massive, heavy strides, the orc made his way over to the wagon and gripped its underside with his hands. Astrid and I watched as the muscles of Gäree’s body tensed, straining to lift the broken heap of wood. Quivering with the effort, the orc let out a shout of rage as he exhausted every inch of his strength to complete the task. Stunned into silence from his achievement, we stared as the cart began to rise from the cave floor, debris and dust falling off as it moved. Underneath, two more people’s unmoving bodies were uncovered as the orc set the wagon down a few feet away. Turning back to us, he looked at our awestruck expressions, and a proud glow highlighted his grey features. “Gäree strong,” he boasted, and neither Astrid nor I could deny it, not after witnessing possibly the most impressive show of might I had ever seen.
Walking over and searching the two bodies which had been revealed by Gäree’s feat, it was simple to assess that one of them was dead and the other still breathed faintly. The dead man, flattened in the middle by the weight of the carriage he drove, had on his person a thin knife, a meager ration of food, and a pouch of what I instantly recognized as the drug used to subdue me back near the Aposian Coast. As I searched that man, Astrid had decided to search the other, rummaging through his pockets in search of useful items. She found a vial of pinkish liquid labeled “curative” on the side in black ink and pocketed it.
“Help… me…,” whined the man who Astrid stood over, lifting his head to plea to us. He was a middle-aged man with creases on his forehead, garbed in common clothing any regular person might wear. His dirty blonde hair had specks of wood sprinkled along it, and his back bent oddly. Probably from where the wagon struck it. Clearly, the man was in a fragile state. “My name… is Ollie. Please help… help me.” His desperation came through alongside pain in his tone, obviously fighting against his injuries. I looked to Astrid to see what she thought of helping this man, a man who may have been responsible for our current whereabouts, but it appeared our orc friend had ideas of his own.
Bending, Gäree grasped the injured man by the torso and lifted him up into the air, making Ollie begin squirming and groaning in agony. “Tell Gäree why you take him here,” commanded the orc. “Only if you tell us truth then we help Ollie.”
“Gäree,” I said, putting my hand on the man’s bicep, “maybe we should ask him questions while he’s on the ground. It will be easier for all of us.”
Thinking about what I said, Gäree stared at Ollie in his grasp. The man’s face scrunched up in pain and his back twisted grotesquely from the wreck. For a moment, I believed the orc was going to listen to me, letting Ollie go and allowing Astrid to utilize the curative she had found, but no such thing happened. Instead, the sound of our final companion’s voice rang out into the cavern for the first time, soft, but bearing a charming quality. It was the voice of someone who knew how to get what they wanted through manipulation, a voice I recognized from many years of dealing with such individuals. “Gäree is it?” he asked gently, moving right up beside the orc. “My name is Malzahar. You’re a strong man Gäree, I can tell from how you moved aside that pesky wagon and how you hold this man with such ease. You can use that strength to make our friend here talk. Make him spill the reasons he had for taking me… us prisoner and bringing us here. You want that, don’t you Gäree?” Nodding, the orc licked his lips and grunted. “Then make him talk for us Gäree.”
Clearly taking this Malzahar’s opinion over mine, Gäree began gently shaking Ollie, causing the suffering man to yelp in discomfort. “Tell Gäree the truth puny man,” ordered the orc, rocking his prisoner back and forth violently. “Why bring us here?”
Tears streaming down his cheeks, Ollie did his best to speak through the apparent pain. “I had no… no part in that!” he cried desperately. “All I did was… drive the wagon here from the coast. They… they’ve been threatening my family. My wife and daughters.”
“Gäree, that is enough,” said Astrid delicately, hoping not to provoke him while he held onto the fragile Ollie. “He seems to be speaking truly. I believe the man.”
“Don’t listen to her, Gäree,” chided Malzahar louder, making sure to seem more confident than Astrid or me. “This man took us away from loved ones and homes, from where we wanted to be. Don’t trust him so quickly as you would an innocent man.”
Snarling, the orc glared daggers at Ollie in his arms, getting angrier by the second. “Tell Gäree why you bring us here!” he shouted, forcibly jostling his captive back and forth as the wounded man shed gleaming tears. “Tell Gäree the truth!!” Still, he rocked him back and forth, up and down so violently that, in my eyes, Ollie began to blur. The man offered no other answers than what he had given, though it seemed he tried to and found his voice muted by the agony of his situation. “Speak little man!!!” Gäree roared this final command as Astrid, Malzahar, and I merely stood back and watched him, shaking Ollie until a sickening snap rang out within the cavern. In Gäree’s arms, the wagon driver fell still, and his head lolled sideways to leave empty eyes staring down at the floor. For a moment, none of us spoke, each looking at what Gäree had done. The man was dead, that was to be certain, and not one of us had really bothered act to prevent it.
“Great work,” Malzahar frowned angrily, kicking a rock on the floor toward the somewhat peculiar-looking orc. “I told you to ask him questions, not kill the bastard.”
Shrugging, Gäree dropped Ollie’s lifeless corpse from his hands, his still warm body colliding with cave dirt and splaying out limply. “Gäree not try to kill weak human. Human too weak to survive gentle shaking? How Gäree supposed to know that?” Seeing the completely honest demeanor which the brutish man possessed, I realized that he truly had not realized his captive’s life had been in danger, never having considered his strength would prove fatal in such a way. Astrid too seemed to understand the complexities of our situation, and she stared at me questioningly to see how I might respond.
“It’s okay, my friend,” I said calmly, placing a gloved hand onto the orc’s forearm. He had yet to lower his appendages from the position they had been holding Ollie in, and Gäree looked at the crumpled corpse with disdain. “Even if he spoke truly, the man still helped take us prisoner. He likely had dozens of opportunities to do something, anything which might have prevented him from ending up with us in this cave, but he did not. He’s just as much at fault in all of this as we are, and you did nothing but ask him a few simple questions. It was his injuries from the fall that did him in, and there’s nothing we could have done to stop that.”
Huffing, the odd-looking orc nodded and dropped those brutish biceps to his side. Tension drained from Astrid, Malzahar, and I as we all relaxed and took a breath ourselves, three simultaneous inhales sounding as Gäree plopped down on the cave floor. For a moment, everything was relatively okay, with the four of us quietly taking in the predicament. Oh, while some truth laid in the words I had spoken, about the captured wagon driver and his plight, we all knew that Gäree had done much more than merely shake Ollie. He had killed a man, and we were all witnesses. As witnesses who failed to help the man, most would likely deem us liable for the crime as well. If anyone found out and chose to let a mayor, or worse, the Devote, know what we did, then it would be straight to the gallows.
Thinking on it for a moment, I came to the belief that whatever punishment some mayor or governor deemed necessary would truly be a minor annoyance compared to that of the Devote. Known for their unflinching sense of loyalty to Ria’s most corrupt figures, as well as an unsavory reliance on violence, the Devote would no doubt end our lives for what Gäree had done, and no one in their right mind would dare try to intervene. Though they favored punishments which were enforced against Otherplace criminals, those fiends who were caught doing vile acts and happened to be something else than Rian, there were still hundreds of instances in which their swords, whips, and knives tore into human flesh, hacking at it until the offender passed out from pain, died, or completed their sentence. Should a third party intervene at all, by either trying to fend off the Devote or convince them to cease punishment, that party typically became next to receive discipline. I shuddered to think of being subjected to the Devote’s brutalization, and the fear which struck at me meant there was no chance I would report Ollie’s death to any authorities. Hopefully, I thought anxiously, as Astrid stared upwards to where light shone from the cavern’s broken ceiling and Malzahar searched the rest of the room angrily, my companions also see the reasons not to share details of this… accident.
“Now what do we do?”
The sudden sound of Malzahar’s voice, no longer as charming as he had been to Gäree, surprised me as I pondered that exact same question. Devoid of anything save us four, two bodies, and a broken wagon, the setting of Ollie’s murder provided little in the way of interest. It was dim, as caves are, yet gleaming light from a wagon-sized fissure above illuminated most the central region. Beyond that lit up zone, I could glimpse no other passages, natural or man-made, and I was not particularly interested in remaining down beneath the surface. Dark and terrible things had begun to claim the underground as home ever since the Otherplace came to Ria and infested it with monsters. Compared to orcs like Gäree and those ever-irksome goblins, the Terrors which burrowed beneath land were far, far worse.
“Gäree not want stay here any longer,” answered the hulking man, squinting at the bright fissure with perplexment. “We need way to reach surface. Maybe build ladder from wagon or climb out with hands?” I was legitimately shocked to hear such a reasonable train of thought come from the orc’s mouth, having already dubbed him an unintelligent oaf. Sure, there was no way the plan to build a ladder could succeed, given our lack of nails or building equipment, but it was creative and utilized a resource I had yet to think of. As for scaling the wall, there was certainly no chance of that.
“Perhaps I could manage the distance,” Astrid offered, moving lightly to stand at Gäree’s side. “If you threw me, then maybe I might have a chance at grasping an edge.”
“No way,” cut in Malzahar, frowning at them both. “Though I appreciate the initiative, you’ll surely get yourself killed by trying that. Elf or no elf, a leap that large would find you as fit as poor Ollie.”
Glad to not be the only sane person among us, and disappointed to be alone in not knowing what an “elf” was, I fiddled with my pockets to see if anything had been left inside. Before being taken, I had carried a trifle or two which mattered to me, one a ring of my mother’s, and another a wrinkled, old letter, but everything was gone. Must’ve been stashed somewhere else while we were under. Their loss was a significant loss for my happiness, but neither would have been useful to escape the cave, so I did not fret about it for long. “What do we all have on us? Anything that might serve a use?” I presented to them the slim knife, food pouch, and drugs that I had pillaged from our dead captor as a gesture of goodwill. They did not seem like they wished to hurt me, but all three remained strangers, and they likely held reservations about trusting me as I did them.
“Gäree has nothing,” replied the man, a dissatisfied frown contorting his scarred face. Once again, despite his uncouth and seemingly simple demeanor, I found myself unable to dislike the pinkish-grey orc. He truly did remind me of the two I drank with back in Rivlenheim, and there were plenty of humans worse than them. I liked to call myself an open-minded sort, though like practically any Rian I did harbor prejudices against beings from the Otherplace. If forced to choose between two completely unfamiliar figures, with one being a human like me, and the other being like Gäree, I would choose the human every time. Was it right? Probably not, yet five years of hearing about orcish raids on villages and towns built a certain mistrust not easily shaken. Until Gäree did something wrong though, I supposed trusting him was not that hard. He had killed a man, unfortunately, but most people I met nowadays had. Some, like me, had killed several. It would take something worse than an accidental murder to make me completely distrust the odd-faced orc.
Removing the vial of curative from her pocket, Astrid shrugged and tossed it in the air. “All I have is this mixture. It was likewise removed from the wreckage down here. It may not be helpful for leaving, but I think that it might prove invaluable to me down the road.” As she spoke, the vial had soared high above even Gäree’s impressive height, and it fell back down quickly. Barely glancing, Astrid snatched the bottle back from the air and returned it to her pocket.
“Impressive,” admitted Malzahar, “though nothing I could not do with a knife or ball.” Not bothering to check or show proof, he too announced a lack of valuable items or tools. “We need a different strategy for escaping this pit,” he frowned, stroking his well-trimmed beard absentmindedly. “I read once that caverns such as these, hidden mere feet beneath the surface, are particularly easy to break through. If we could manage to find another point in this place that’s near enough to reach the ceiling, Gäree might be able to just bust through.”
“Gäree strong!” grinned the orc, affirming his approval of this new plan. I was less enthused, but there was no need to debate.
From above, beyond the cave, a voice called down to us. “Good sirs and madam, it appears you’ve found yourself in quite a spot of trouble.” Peering over the side of the cavern’s open ceiling, a man’s face smiled broadly. “If you’d like some assistance in escaping this dreadful predicament, I am more than happy to offer mine.” When none of us objected to his suggestion, the grinning stranger disappeared, only for a thick rope to slide into the cave and fall toward the floor. “Climb on up,” the man called, and we listened.
Astrid went first, scaling the rope gracefully. There was no fumbling or uncertainty in her movements, and in a swift minute, the elf was out of sight. I had never seen anyone move so perfectly before. Comparatively, Malzahar’s assent was a clumsy thing, though, if he had not been preceded by Astrid, it would not have seemed so. My turn climbing was much worse, nearly resulting in a deadly fall back to where Gäree waited. Luckily, I slipped at the top and not halfway, so Astrid was quick to grab my flailing arm and pull me to safety. It was a moment or two after catching my breath that I finally set eyes upon our savior, and how he looked shocked me. Stout, bearded, and dressed in fine clothing, it was obvious that he was not human. Though I was a tall man, short only compared to the orcish Gäree, this fellow barely stood above my hip. Dwarves were not uncommon in Ria, at least not anymore, but my experience with their kind was minimal. As Gäree clambered out of the cave and stood beside the rest of us, the dwarf spoke again.
Never letting his broad grin drop, our fortunate savior gestured with his arm at himself as he gave a loud introduction. “My name is Dagen Stonehammer, of the Stoneborn Dwarves who hail from the Laydlin Mountains.” My lack of knowledge when it came to Otherplace society showed as both Gäree and Astrid nodded, clearly understanding the importance of this Dagen’s statement. Whether Malzahar knew or not, he pretended to. “It seems you four found yourselves in a terrible spot of trouble. Were you traveling to a nearby town and simply had the misfortune of driving your wagon over an unstable part of the countryside?”
“Gäree got kidnapped!” said the orc sadly, rubbing his massive arm with a callused hand. I had not planned on sharing anything about my journey here with this dwarf, but once Gäree began speaking, the rest of us followed suit. One at a time we shared the paths that brought us to waking up together at the bottom of that cave, and a common thread arose. Over the past month, all of us had traveled to the Aposian Coast searching for answers. What questions we sought to have resolved, well, that was not something we were about to share. I certainly did not intend on telling these people too much about me or where I came from. At least, not yet. It was Malzahar who realized all of us had been captured after talking to the same man, a man who offered every answer we could dream of.
While discussing this, Dagen merely stood by and listened, nodding along and smiling. “I figured you were not simply trying to visit any of the nearby villages,” he chortled once we all quieted. “The closest one is this place called Meathaven, and, despite its name, that place really isn’t the paradise you might think it is.” Something about how bizarrely friendly this dwarf was made me want to distrust him, but I had no real reason to. After all, he had saved our lives. “It is a great thing that I found you four, heroic-looking youths,” continued the dwarf. “I have a job that needs doing, and I would wager you all could get it done. There is a place called Fandren, and I seek strong men and women to defend a shipment of supplies I am bringing there.”
“I am not looking for any such work,” Astrid told him. “There are places I need to go and people who need to be found.” Her sentiment was one I related to, and it appeared the others did as well.
Before any of us could walk away, separating and continuing the individual quests that brought us together in the first place, Dagen spoke one final sentence in hopes of convincing us to assist him. “There will be profit for those who agree to aid me.” Spinning on his heels, Malzahar was the first to take up the noble cause of assisting Dagen in transporting his wares to Fandren, a city none of us had ever even heard of. Gäree and I were next, with the peculiar orc enthusiastic about earning gold. Astrid took more time, walking several steps into the distance as she muttered to herself. When she turned back around and joined the rest of us, there was a look of uncertainty in her eyes I knew well, but she voiced no complaints as Dagen shared the details of our contract.
Thusly, my tale begins; a tale of danger, heroics, and a great deal of wealth. We were four strangers, each of vastly different backgrounds, united by a common desire for riches, power, and maybe a small wish to play the savior of a helpless town. On the route to Fandren, a medium-sized settlement that, at the time, suffered from the cruel control of a dangerous militia, I learned about my companions. Among us, there was the brutish half-orc, Gäree, the icy elf, Astrid, the selfish and arrogant thief, Malzahar, and me, a rugged and lonely mercenary who sought vengeance for his family. I knew not that I had just met my dearest friends, nor that we would someday become legends in the pages of history, but I did know one thing at the time of this beginning. Being a hero is dangerous work, and sometimes, you don’t live to tell your own story.
This is the end of the sample. The rest of the story can be found at www.thearmeanjournals.wixsite.com/mysite and is free to read. Based on reactions, further sections may be posted her on The Prose. I would love feedback!
All the Best,
Alex R. London