The Power of Red
The world wakes up and goes to sleep depending on where you live. People rise to start their day while others retire after a long grueling day. It is a cycle humanity has lived in for centuries. Some see the day as an opportunity, others a grind to “just get by’.
Unemployment reigned, wars escalated, hunger remained rampant, and disease was never-ending. The world and its inhabitants live in a vicious cycle with no clearcut way out.
There was a time when Chuck Reynolds was just your average guy, living an average life. He was like many people. He would play the lottery every week, never winning, but he kept thinking one day he would be on easy street. He worked at a restaurant as a cook. He had an on and off again girl he would date. He paid his bills on time. There was a time for concern for his health when he contracted Covid, but with time and patience and a few shots, he was back in business again.
Every day, his life plodded along, and Chuck always had a belief his life wouldn’t be near as bad as it had been for others. He had plans. Not big plans, but plans for his future, his retirement one day and living what he would consider to be a good life. An okay life.
But one day, his life and the world he knew—changed.
He had a vacation coming up and decided to take a trip to witness the Aurora Borealis on the southern border as that was the best place to view this marvel. It was one of those places that was on his bucket list.
It was on his third day, or in this case, night, when his life took a turn. Gazing upward at the streaming colors that floated across the night sky, green cascading lights, the deep blues, sparkling baby blues, deep purples, pink and red hues. It was approximately 1:35 in the morning when a shift in colors happened. Very few people were out that early dark morning, but they witnessed a phenomenon unlike anything ever experienced, but most of all, Chuck became the inadvertent cause.
A rift occurred in between the colors and lowered itself over Chuck. This is something that never happened before, and Chuck remained immobilized at the sight and found himself immersed in the rich vibrant colors. Then he felt his body changing, he started to tremble. What had once been a green light—changed. The green became a bright, resonating red.
Normally, according to scientists, solar particles react with oxygen at higher altitudes, generally above 150 miles, meaning they should never reach out where Chuck stood.
But it did and Chuck was turning red. He didn’t feel pain, but he did feel a newfound strength he never had before, but the strength was different than what might be expected. It was a strength of resolve, calming.
What few people that were there, broke out their cell phones to record what was happening. It was a moment that otherwise without proof, would never be believed. As they videoed him into the four-minute mark, that was when they witnessed his disappearance.
Chuck again felt no pain, but what happened to him went beyond incredible. His body began to separate into minute red molecules and was pulled upward in a spiraling, almost circular motion, and beyond into the green hue that stretched across a vast night sky.
Chuck was gone.
And yet, Chuck had knowledge of what was happening to him. He knew he wasn’t dead, and he knew where he was going and why, for a voice no one could hear entered his mind.
“Have no fear. You are safe. Soon, you will be coming home.”
Six months later, Chuck returned from the place he was drawn to—Zylar; a not known planet that lay behind Saturn. A planet filled with the greatest minds people on earth could never fathom.
When he returned, people would stand in awe of his appearance. He was different in his looks. His hair, eyes and skin were a deep red. And when he spoke, he gave the world a message of what to expect in the coming years. He spoke of how to rid the world of disease and hunger, where everyone could live in peace.
He gave instruction to scientists, educators, the medical world, and humanity.
“Follow these instructions and your life will be blessed. Ignore them, and your life becomes forever held in the dark mysteries of the what if. Take advantage of what is offered. You will not get a second chance.”
When Chuck was finished, he disappeared again, never to be seen again.
That was thirty-five years ago. Today, more people visit the Aurora Borealis in hopes of either seeing Chuck again, or, being taken away as Chuck had been. But the green night hues never again produced any red solar particles that reached out for another human being.
What really became of Chuck when he returned to Zylar, no one can say. We would like to think he lives in peace and is happy.
If people knew, they would be envious. Chuck would live forever and never age. He would remain happy with each day that passed and not want for anything. One couldn’t ask for more than that.
Here, on earth, the world took his advice, his knowledge, and put it to good use. Hunger and disease were eradicated, hatred turned to love, and everyone had a place to live and work, but—five years ago, things started changing back to the way they were before Chuck reappeared.
It just shows that people cannot handle a good thing.
Blue and Red Roses
It had been many years since the villagers of Vale had thought about the Blue Witch. She had faded into the realm of myth, though she still roamed the wood as alive as he had in those days. She did not look a day past twenty. Her name was Kyamra, though no one paused to learn it, and she was blessed or cursed with immortality and eternal beauty. Spending her time roaming the wood wild and free, she sang as she gathered herbs and tended to her hidden garden of enchanted azure roses. But, for all the beauty of nature surrounding her, she craved something no one ever offered. Kyamra was lonely.
On one of her walks in the wood, she hummed and plucked fresh blossoms and berries for her alchemical studies; she heard an unfamiliar sound. She had lived here in the wood long enough to know every sound of the beast, gusts of wind, or babble of the brook. Never had she heard anything like this before. It was a moaning followed by ripping sobs. Investigating, she discovered something wholly unexpected. No older than eight, a little girl sat stained in blood from head to toe. Moved by compassion, Kyamra checked the girl for wounds.
"You are uninjured," Kyamra muttered, primarily for her benefit, "You are safe with me, child," She cooed, trying to be as kind and reassuring as possible, but the girl continued to weep and wail.
She took off her cloak and wrapped it around the quaking girl, pulling her into her lap and rocking her back and forth in vain to comfort her. The girl's eyes were wide as though reliving some unseen horror. Kyamra sang softly to the girl until the child's eyes began to droop in exhaustion. For a moment, it crossed Kyamra's mind to put the child down and abandon her in the woods, trusting she would find a way to survive, but her conscience and loneliness would not allow it.
Taking the girl into her arms, she made their way back to her cottage. Breathing deeply, Kyamra inhaled the deep musky scent of her azure roses before wrinkling her nose at the acrid metallic smell of the girl in her arms. Then, laying the girl down with the cloak beneath her, Kyamra began washing away the blood with a rag and bucket of water. Then, clothing the child in one of her extra nightgowns, she wove a spell over the girl that would grant her dreamless sleep.
Knowing the child would not awaken for some time, Kyamra returned to her studies outside the cottage. When Kyamra was hungry, she made sure to make enough food to feed them, a hearty stew. Then, eating some herself, she reserved the rest for the girl when she woke. Finally, settling down into the chair, Kyamra dozed, startling awake to the sound of skittering feet and the clatter of a lifted pot lid. Seeing Kyamra stir, the girl dropped the pot lid and retreated back to the room's bedside.
"I found you in the woods," Kyamra stated, giving the girl a small smile, "Are you alright? May I know your name?"
"I'm Cerise," The girl replied, fidgeting with the sleeve of the nightdress.
"I'm Kyamra; why don't you have some stew and tell me your story? I promise I am a friend and mean you no harm."
Cerise's eyes grew large again, but there were no tears this time. Instead, she explained that men came to her home. They were monsters, draining the blood from her mother and two sisters. She did not know what to call them. Finally, one of them tugged her deep into the wood, where she managed to escape. Kyamra listed to Cerise's harrowing tale before responding, tamping down her own strong emotions. Cerise appeared as if there was more she wanted to tell, but she devolved into tears. Kyamra had to hear that this girl had no family to return to make up her mind. Instead, she would grant the child a place among her treasured roses. It was as though the gods had given her an apprentice.
"You will live here with me, do errands, and go into the village since I cannot. If you perform the tasks I give you without question or hesitation, I will teach you all I know as my apprentice."
Cerise nodded in acceptance, wondering what she would do first. Kyamra's instruction began almost immediately. Cerise proved herself to be a quick learner and rapidly mastered every task set before her. Before long, ten years had passed. Cerise matured to womanhood, and Kyamra did not age a day. But, with maturity came a restlessness within Cerise about her family's demise. Something within her longed for justice, and she poured over Kyamra's tomes of magic for a spell to suit her purpose. Gathering the components required by the ritual in secret, Kyamra quickly found her out. Admonishing Cerise's wish to perform such a problematic ritual spell, Kyamra eventually caved.
"This ritual will remove your humanity and replace it with apathy. It will grant you insight into the world of the monsters who murdered your family. You will become merciless and cruel if you walk this path."
"I wish to avenge them."
"It isn't your duty to avenge the dead."
"I have to do this for myself, don't worry; I will return to you as soon as I hunt them down." She promised.
Cerise's promise lightened Kyamra's heart for a moment, allowing hope as she began to ritual. All went according to plan. Cerise's humanity was removed from her and placed into a moonstone prism around Kyamra's neck for safekeeping. When Cerise returned, Kyamra would make her whole again. Cerise, when she exited the circle of blue roses, her face as cold as stone, eyes crimson and glassy like a living doll, it took all of Kyamra's strength to move toward the hollow Cerise. Kyamra handed her a backpack full of things Cerise needed, including an enchanted flask of the sweetest blood. The flask would flow forever, ensuring she would not fall to the same craving for blood the monsters Cerise hunted required.
"A last word of caution, Cerise, your proper name holds power, anyone who knows it can tether you to them like a servant. Therefore, I have prepared three enchanted items for you. The first is the ever-flowing flask of blood. The second, this mask, is enchanted so that no one will remember your face. The third and final gift is a sword to protect you and allow you to enact your vengeance upon those who have wronged you."
Cerise said nothing but nodded as she departed, equipping the items Kyamra had given her. She ignored the cerulean eyes boring into her back; Cerise wished she could say she felt something at abandoning Kyamra. Still, because of the curse, Cerise felt nothing but burning vengeance. Kyamra fell to her knees in her garden, her grief overwhelming her, dropping tears upon her beloved enchanted roses. Every tear turned the blooms from azure to crimson. Every year, they would blood red, reminding Kyamra of hope and Cerise's promised return.
The Rocking Horse Kid
The setting sun was purple shadowing the sagebrush when The Rocking Horse Kid moseyed on into the town of Moist Gusset to go a courting his sweetheart, Miss Fanny Dimples.
He rode a white maned and tailed appaloosa with black spots painted on its hindquarters, like polka dots on a neckerchief, he called Joiner. Joiner Dots.
Twin leather holsters held a pair of pearl handled revolvers. Not that The Kid had ever shot anyone. He didn't need to. When the bad guys heard he was in town they skedaddled for the hills as fast as their ske could daddle.
A white stetson hat kept the sun out of his eyes.
His cowboy boots had pointed, silver tipped toes.
He wore a pair of fringed chaps for fringing the high chaparral.
A cow hide vest with a sheriff's badge pinned over his heart.
And spurs that jingle jangle jingled.
Miss Fanny Dimples lived in a two room tar-paper shack behind the respectable tearoom where she helped her widowed mother. When The Kid jingle jangled through the tearoom's door, Miss Fanny looked out the window with its blue gingham curtains.
Where's your horse? She asked him.
The hitching post was already taken, he told her.
Moist Gusset was a one horse town.
The Kid's full name was G. Russell Horne. Miss Fanny had soon shortened it to Rusty. Rusty Horne and Fanny Dimples were often seen parading, arm in arm, down Main Street. Moist Gusset's only street. Her twirling a yellow parasol all the way from Paris. Paris Texas. And him trying not to trip over his spurs.
On Sundays after church, Rusty would hire a surrey from the stables to take Miss Fanny picnicking by the river. And if he played his cards right, she might even allow him the familiarity of dunking his jam fancy in her pot of cream.
Everything was satisfactual. Little bluebirds were doo-dahing their zippeties. Miss Fanny was the belle of Moist Gusset's annual harvest barn dance and christian ladies' mud wrestling contest, taking home the winner's blue ribbon.
Down in the barnyard
Swinging on a gate
Take your girl
And don't be late
Chicken in a bread pan
Picking out dough
Swing your girl
With the corner maid
Meet your own
Two by two
Now walk 'em home
Like you ought to do
Here we go
Heel and toe
Hurry up cowboy
Don't be slow
Swing 'em high
Swing 'em low
Turn 'em loose
And watch 'em go
Bow to your corners
Weave the ring
Cats can't fiddle
And dogs don't sing
Rusty was proudly promenading Miss Fanny in step and in time with the other heel kickers when Pecos Pete tapped him on the shoulder.
Pass on through, said Rusty. Nobody's handling my Fanny, but me.
Pete had been drinking. Corn-jugged to the eyeballs, he wasn't about to take no for an answer. He swung a wild haymaker at Rusty's lantern jaw.
Rusty ducked. Pecos Pete just about swung himself off his feet. His punch found the preacher's wife instead. Reverend Lamb was a peaceful man of God, but he couldn't abide to stand there and turn the other cheek. Snatching up a bottle of elderberry wine from the refreshments table, he smote Pete a mighty blow crying, Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord!
Stumbling backwards, one of Pecos Pete's windmilling arms knocked the fiddle player's elbow. And while the wallflowers wilted, the young bucks yee-hawed and waded in. All hell broke loose. Tables were overturned. Chairs were thrown. A smashed lamp set the stacked strawbales ablaze. And the fiddler struck up Bonaparte's Retreat as the barn burned around them.
Hoisting Miss Fanny over his shoulder, The Rocking Horse Kid done git while the gittin' was good.
There was nothing Rusty Horne would have liked more than to sit in the tearoom, eating jam fancies, and talking about Fanny, but then the tearoom door crashed open and the barkeep from the Floating Nugget staggered in.
We need you down at the saloon! He hollered. His face behind the handlebar of his beeswaxed moustache whiter than his crisply starched apron.
Remembering his manners, The Rocking Horse Kid folded his napkin and brushed the crumbs off the blue gingham tablecloth into a saucer before excusing himself to Fanny’s mother. He picked up his hat. Loosened his twin pearl handled pistols in their holsters, just in case, and moseyed on down to the Floating Nugget to see what the trouble was.
Pushing through the batwing doors of the saloon, Rusty realized, too late, that the barkeep was right behind him. The spring hinged doors swung back, lifting the man off his feet and sending him flying through the air to land with a wet SPLAT in the mud of Moist Gusset’s Main Street.
The barkeep wasn’t alone in his predicament for long. Old Corky Sniffter, who was Moist Gusset’s town drunk, came windmilling through one of the Floating Nugget’s two plate glass windows, with their expensive gilt lettering, to land head first in the sludgesome quagmire.
Inside the Floating Nugget was a riot of splintered furniture and cracked skulls. Men sprawled everywhere, black eyed and bloody nosed, nursing bruised ribs and even more bruised egos. And in the middle of it all stood Moist Gusset’s blacksmith, Dolorous Dire.
Dolorous like Delores: Only the spelling was unfortunate.
Dolly Dire wasn’t a mean drunk, Rusty knew, and she wasn’t the type to start a bar room brawl. But she knew how to finish one.
Meanwhile, back on Main Street, the barkeep had managed to extricate himself from the sticky situation he’d been in and pushed through the batwing doors, only realizing, too late, that Old Corky Sniffter had also unpredicamented himself, and was right behind him.
It really wasn’t Corky’s day.
Who’s going to pay for all the damages? The barkeep quavered like an asthmatic soprano.
Don’t look now, Dolorous said to Rusty, but Pecos Pete is standing right behind you,
What’s he doing? Asked Rusty, cucumber cool.
He’s pointing a gun at your back.
The Kid’s palm scraped his stubbled lantern jaw. You don’t say?
I guess he really didn’t like you kissing his Fanny, said Dolorous.
The barkeep had already absconded as fast as his ab could scond and was crouched, snivelling falsetto, behind the bar.
This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, said Pete, thumbing the hammer back on his six shooter. Putting your hands on my Fanny was the last thing you’ll ever do, gravelled Pecos Pete. Say your prayers.
Back on Main Street, Old Corky Sniffter was snapping his braces and setting his shoulders, ready to make a run at the saloon doors. The thirst was on him something powerful, and nothing and nobody was going to stop him!
He hit them like a runaway locomotive.
Barrelling through the batwings.
And ploughing into Pecos Pete.
Causing Pete’s finger to tighten on the trigger.
The gun fired.
The bullet ricocheted off a spitoon to part the barkeep’s toupe straight down the middle before it shattered three bottles of whiskey and one of tequila on the mirrored shelf behind the Floating Nugget’s spit polished mahogany bar and PINGED off a brass lampshade.
Where it went after that nobody knew...
Until Rusty hauled Pete’s head up by a fistful of lank hair and grinned at him. And there, clenched between The Kid’s teeth, was the bullet.
A Special Plant
Once upon a time there was a little cottage that had a garden. The garden was large and beautiful. Flowers waved gently in the breeze all spring and summer long. Tulips, lilacs, daisies, sunflowers, bleeding hearts, crocuses, buttercups, violets and many more grew there. Cobblestone paths wound about the garden, with benches under shady trees. A pond with goldfish swimming in it sparkled in the sunlight.
The owner of the cottage was a gardener; he was old and gray-haired but his shaky hands were gentle when they touched the satiny petals of the flowers. The flowers all adored him greatly and were rivals for the most attention. The kind gardener distributed his praise evenly between them all.
In the early morning hours you could hear his voice saying, “Ah, daisies dear, how much you have grown! And how fresh you look, violets…” as he went down the paths and greeted them all by name.
The flowers all knew each other well. The violets were quiet and unassuming; The daisies were cheerful and happy; The lilacs were somewhat more sophisticated and tended to stay apart; The crocuses were happiest in colder weather and complained of the heat on warm days; The buttercups spent their time in the sunlight laughing and singing; The bleeding hearts whispered sadly together; The tulips gossiped all day long; The sunflowers were bold and somewhat impolite. But they all knew what the characters of the others were, so they lived in contentment together.
On a usual day all the flowers were awake and over the garden was a hum of voices. They were always talking, unless the gardener was in the far corner of the garden, for there, beneath a little white gravestone, lay the gardener’s little girl, Rosalynn, who had just changed from a gentle child to a delicate young lady when she fell ill.
All events in the followed the same pattern year after year. Or they did until the day the gardener came in with a scraggly little plant. He carried it over to the corner and, using a trowel, carefully planted it. He watered it and tended it attentively. The other flowers grew envious; for the new plant was receiving more attention than any of them. They watched her grow day by day, and mocked her ugliness.
“Look at her!” scoffed one of the tulips, “See her thorns on her stem?”
“She never says a word!” declared one of the daisies “Is she too ‘distinguished’ to have anything to do with us?”
“Maybe she thinks that she is a princess.” a buttercup said scornfully.
“Perhaps she is shy, and that is why she is so quiet.” suggested a gentle violet.
The others laughed and said that was ridiculous. They spent their days taunting the poor little unattractive plant. She never said a word, but sat there silently and cringed slightly when their laughter grew loud enough to reach her.
The poor little plant was shy and dared not say anything in her own defense. She treasured the moments when she received gentle words from the gardener. But she wondered why she was so hideous. It was true that the little plant had thorns, but she did not choose to have those! The plant fought back tears as she whiled away her time alone in the corner. Slowly she crept closer to the little white gravestone next to her. She was very lonely, and there seemed a kind of companionship in the little gravestone. She felt, somewhere deep down in her roots, a connection with it. The little plant tried her best to shade the gravestone from the burning sun, and sheltered it from the pounding rain. She protected it carefully, and began to feel that perhaps it wasn't too lonely in the corner of the garden.
Days went by and the little, brave plant slowly struggled and grew. She began to grow over the gravestone and she got bigger and stronger. Yes, she had the thorns still, but no longer was she scraggly and weak. Buds began to form on her. They were at first a soft pink and then they began to darken to a lovely crimson. The other flowers still mocked her though. They were not close enough to see the buds. Though perhaps even if they were they would not have seen them, for they had blinded themselves to any beauty in the unwanted plant. They could not see a use her since she did not compare in loveliness with them.
All continued until one dawn, when in the early morning light, the buds unfolded. Deep crimson flowers lay bright against the white gravestone and contrasted against the green grass. The little plant gazed down at herself in amazement! The gardener stepped down the path, and leaned over. His gnarly fingers gently brushed the petals of the flowers. And his eyes filled with tears.
Softly he whispered, “Ah, now my little Rosalynn has roses to keep her company. You know,” addressing the little plant, “You have a very important job: keeping my little girl company. She was your namesake, so you are very fit for the job.”
The little plant raised her head high and thought proudly, “I am not just an ugly thorny bush! I am a rosebush!”
Thereafter, the little rosebush was very happy. The other flowers apologized for their rudeness, and of course, being the sweet little plant that she was, the rosebush forgave them. They all grew to be great friends, and everyone confided their deepest secrets to the lovely, sweet and caring plant. And on soft summer days, she leaned close to the little white gravestone. So captivated and absorbed did she look, one would swear that wonderful secrets were being whispered to her. And who knows; maybe they were!
Youth and Lightning
Once there was a man.
The man was old, and he sat on his creaky rocking chair and stared out at his desert of a lawn. The young boy he'd hired to take care of his lawn hadn't come in weeks.
Ah, to be young. He'd probably found a girl and ran off to the movies, maybe gone out and gotten into trouble alongside his friends. Tasting the bittersweet flavor of rebellion for the first time. The boy was young, and he was exploring, and he had no time for such menial things as mowing an old man's yard. The old man understood this, as he was once a boy. Now youth and exploration had slipped through his fingers, and left him confused and alone, until eventually he became an old man on his own in a two bedroom ranch house, wondering what his hired help was up to at the moment.
Was he sneaking a cigarette? Making love to his latest sweetheart in the back of a car, or maybe going to dinner at her house so he could meet her parents? Was he running through private property, reveling in the thrill of breaking the law? Loving the chase, believing he could never be caught.
To be young.
The old man's arthritis-riddled hands twitched at the memory of a time gone by, and for a moment his straw-colored grass became the great green carpet of the house where he'd lived as a boy. he remembered smelling the sweet grass after a fresh morning rain, dew soaking through his shoes. He remembered the tree he'd found, split down the middle from lightning, that had given him nightmares for weeks. The tree had been large and tall, as any old tree is, and at some point had held a tire swing, but the rope had rotted and the tire had rolled away long before his family had moved there. He remembered the way it looked after it had been split apart, the center blackened and charred like a smoker's lung. each branch had become a mere splinter, bowing to the power of the storm.
The old man couldn't remember why the tree had given him nightmares, but he remembered the dreams, and he would wake up still seeing imaginary smoke curling up from his pure, unburnt arms.
He understood now, though, that as a boy he was terrified of death. The idea of standing too tall and being struck down out of spite horrified him. And for the rest of his life he walked with a hunch.
No longer did he fear death, the end of his life was now a cherished inevitability. Eventually, lightning strikes us all.
The old man saw the mother on the street before she saw him, but she did not seem surprised to see him when she looked up and found him staring. Her eyes met his and he recognized the face of another lightning-struck soul. For some people are struck by the great beam of lightning long before they are buried, and they live out the rest of their days in fiery agony, charred and blackened like the tree but never seeming to lose their remaining leaves.
The old man wondered, often now, if he'd been burning ever since the first time he saw that tree. He wondered how long he'd wandered, burning, just waiting for the smoke to finally ebb and leave nothing but ashes behind.
The woman turned up his driveway and started towards his seat on the porch. She only cast one short look towards his empty husk of a lawn before she turned away, as if the barrenness of it horrified her.
She no longer met his eyes.
She handed him an envelope containing just short of two hundred dollars, a name scrawled on it in rushed pen.
He could not understand, so she handed him a second envelope, this one with a much neater, almost resigned handwriting.
The young boy had written a letter to the old man, telling him that he'd saved every penny that the old man had given. The boy was going to use it to go to college, or so he'd written. But now that he could no longer take care of the lawn, all the money, so he said, was a waste. The young boy had written that the world had changed. Youth was no longer a celebration of exploration, youth was a curse and it had trapped this boy in it's grip. The boy had returned the money to the old man, because he would no longer go to college. He would not go to the movies with his girl or go drinking with his friends or walk the length of the abandoned railroad tracks.
The boy had given up on such frivolous things and turned to a darker ambition. Because to rise tall meant to become a lightning rod, and the boy had beckoned the lightning just like the tree from the old man's childhood.
He had begged for lightning to take him, and when lightning refused he built his own thunder, tied it into a noose and hung himself from a ceiling fan that would now forever be just a bit wobbly every time it was turned on.
He understood now why the mother had ashes in her eyes.
Lightning doesn't just strike the old, it strikes the young as well. It burns and it kills, and everyone knows lightning is contagious.
The old man thought, lightning will strike this woman soon enough. Because she was a mother, and without that she was now nothing at all. Her motherhood had been struck by lightning too soon, and she would spend the remainder of her life craving the lightning, just like her son. She would stand in the water and stretch her tall metal heart to the sky, just waiting for the lightning to finish her off.
And the boy would take his noose of thunder and extend it down to her as a gift. Indeed, he might try to give it to the old man, too, if the old man was any younger.
Lightning strikes us all.
Love in the Tinder Forest
In the Tinder Forest there lived a marvelous bunny rabbit. What marked him as marvelous was his fantastic set of ears. They were grey and fluffy and had a marvelous sheen to them, like little flecks of silver had been distributed throughout by a particularly tasteful hand. And as the marvelous bunny hopped through the forest the other animals whispered to each other, “Such fantastic ears.”
The marvelous bunny didn’t particularly love his fantastic ears, he thought they were a tad ostentatious, but rather than spend his time arguing about why he wasn’t marvelous, the marvelous bunny accepted the perks they granted and went about his days. It was these marvelous ears, after all, that afforded the bunny his lackadaisical and romantic lifestyle. The marvelous bunny’s fantastic ears wrapped him in the warm blanket of having something that the other bunnies in the forest, undeniably, did not have.
Day after day the marvelous bunny hopped from one grove of the forest to the next, meeting female bunnies and spending the night with them. Then awakening the next morning to the sound of the crickets chirping, the little birds singing, and the jealous frogs croaking “Bounce on bunny, bounce on bunny. How can you be satisfied with just her?” And our marvelous bunny happily obliged those voices, hopping to the next grove or clearing, and repeating the charming and wooing all over, and then waking up the next morning to the sound of the crickets chirping, the little birds singing, and the jealous frogs croaking “Bounce on bunny, bounce on bunny. How can you be satisfied with just her?”
The marvelous bunny and his fantastic grey ears continued on like this, never questioning or regretting his wanton ways; awakening each morning and hopping away. His epic love and curiosity sated him. Exploring the great Tinder Forest was his true love, and each nook and cranny he uncovered made him feel full.
It was not until he came across a small clearing with a beautiful pool of still water that the marvelous bunny took pause. In the middle of the reflecting pool his image stared back at him. Good gracious, he mused, how beautiful these ears have become. And it was true; the midday sun shone down and caused his grey -with silver flecks- ears to shimmer relentlessly into the pool. They were coruscated on a wavelength hitherto unknown to him. Just then, he heard a rustling in front of him, and, almost as if by fate, a gorgeous brown bunny hopped out of a bush into the clearing. They spent the afternoon admiring themselves and each other in the pool. Then they bounced happily around the clearing and surrounding trees throughout the evening. By the time the moon had reached its peak in the serene night sky, the two rabbits were curled up together in a little burrow just past the clearing, behind a little bush, and around an oak tree.
The marvelous bunny awoke and stared lovingly at his gorgeous burrow-mate curled up so gently against him. But soon his happiness turned to anguish, he remembered that, as it did every day before and would every day after, the morning would arrive soon and with it the sound of the crickets chirping, the little birds singing, and the jealous frogs croaking, “Bounce on bunny, bounce on bunny. How can you be satisfied with just her?” The thought terrified him; he didn’t want to bounce on. This gorgeous bunny was the singular rabbit that he wanted to be satisfied by, to love and to snuggle, for the rest of his days. How could he prevent those terrible morning calls?
Unable to sleep, the marvelous bunny hopped over to the peaceful pond. He gazed at himself, even more beautiful in the silvery moonlight than earlier, and began sobbing. It wasn’t long before he heard behind him, in a startling baritone, “Hoo, Hoo. Young rabbit, hold your tears. Hold your tears. How could something so beautiful be so sad?’ The marvelous bunny, quite shook, could see from the reflection in the pool that behind him was a tremendous grey owl. The tremendous owl, perched in a tree at the edge of the clearing, continued, “Pray now, young rabbit, tell me what it is that has brought out this melancholy. What is it that troubles you?”
“You see,” replied the marvelous bunny through tears. “You see, I am afraid of the sound of the crickets chirping, the little birds singing, and the jealous frogs croaking, ‘Bounce on bunny, bounce on bunny. How can you be satisfied with just her?’ Tomorrow morning. I am sure that it will break me away from my beloved, just as it has every morning prior and just as it will every morning for the rest of my life.”
“I see,” she said after a long pause, ”I see what you fear, but it is easily solved. For what you fear is just a sound, and if you cannot hear the sound you shall not be tempted.”
“But how can I ignore such a racket?” snapped the marvelous bunny.
“All you must do,” replied the tremendous owl, “is give me your fantastic ears, and you will be troubled no more.”
The marvelous bunny, taken aback at the suggestion, peered at himself again in the moonlit pool. His ears shimmered; they were as calmly perfect and peacefully elegant as ever. But, he thought, the tremendous owl is right. Until I get rid of them, the grotesquely beautiful things, I will never be at peace. I will hear the call every morning and bounce on, away from my beloved. Our marvelous bunny had made up his mind.
“Yes owl, I accept, I will give you my ears. But how…” He turned around to face the owl, expecting her to be on her perch. Instead she was towering over him, having silently glided down to the pool while the marvelous bunny had been thinking to himself, and extended a massive talon, pining our marvelous bunny to the ground.
“And may you never hear such a racket again,” said the tremendous owl, as she reached out two talons and clamped them onto the marvelous bunny’s fantastic left ear. Then, pinching and puncturing, she tore the ear from the marvelous bunny’s head. The bunny was shocked, too quickly rent to make a noise, as the tremendous owl began the process again with the other ear.
After finishing, the tremendous, marvelous owl lifted herself into the air with the bunny in one foot and his fantastic silvery ears in the other. She eclipsed the moon with her tremendous, marvelous silhouette, dropped the bunny into the pool, and flew away. The bunny, weightlessly drifting down into the water, was still for a moment before all of his functions came cautiously back to him. He paddled to the edge of the pool, lifted himself onto the bank, and shook himself dry. He gingerly felt the now smooth spots where his ears had been. He peered back into the pool, still rippling, and saw something like himself, but not quite the same. The bunny hopped away in a thick mist of questions, not sure what to make of himself and the events of the night.
The next morning the bunny awoke cuddling his beloved. He looked around with trepidation, expecting the worst, expecting the sound of the crickets chirping, the little birds singing, and the jealous frogs croaking, “Bounce on bunny, bounce on bunny. How can you be satisfied with just her?” But he heard nothing, and his beloved, gorgeous bunny turned over to face him and they smiled together and spent the day hopping, and jumping, and bouncing to and fro- together and happy.
That night they cuddled comfortably. Their burrow was now more complete and inviting. Our bunny could not imagine a more perfect moment. The moon rose over the pool and lowered back to the earth, as they passed the night curled up as one. The next morning, once again, he did not hear the sound of the crickets chirping, the little birds singing, and the jealous frogs croaking “Bounce on bunny, bounce on bunny. How can you be satisfied with just her?” and smiled. He turned over, excited to see his beloved, gorgeous bunny next to him and begin another perfect day. But she had left. Gone, just like his fantastic ears.
I'd just relocated to the countryside. The fast-paced city lifestyle wasn't for me; I felt burnt out. Belmoral was tiny, with only one main street and a population of 3,000.
On my second night, after moving in, I decided to go for a stroll down Piper Avenue, where everything could be found.
Feeling hungry, I entered the restaurant Cheerful Hippo. It was packed, families occupying tables everywhere.
Awkwardly, I sat alone at the back, towards the kitchen, where I could hear loud voices barking instructions.
After ten minutes, a waiter arrived at my table, notepad and pencil in hand.
'Apologies Mister, we are very busy tonight,' gesturing around at the packed room.
I smiled. 'No problem. I'd like to order fettucinne carbonara, thank you.'
'Water will be fine.'
I was the only solo diner in the restaurant. It was something I'd gotten used to, back when I lived in the city; there were places I'd discovered that were more accommodating for the solo diner than others.
The meal was delicious, but after paying at the front desk, I decided I likely wouldn't be back as I'd detected mutterings from nearby diners regarding the fact I was the only solo diner in attendance.
Two days later, 12pm. I was relaxing on a bench in Rosewood Park, which was just a couple blocks down from my apartment. Smartphone in hand, I was also looking for any potential job openings, but after half an hour I gave up.
The park was close to Piper Avenue, like everything in Belmoral. Being lunchtime, it'd be easier to find a spot more accommodating to the solo diner.
I passed by Cheerful Hippo, feeling awkward, possibly because I doubted I'd be returning, and knowing I'd have to walk past there many times in the future.
Eventually I came upon a tiny Japanese eatery called Bententei, who specialized in bento boxes.
I opted for bento box A, which included karaage chicken, gyoza, a nori roll, and salad.
Given the time, the place wasn't as busy as I expected, but at least I could eat undisturbed.
The food was delicious, and I left a happy customer. I'd definitely be back again.
As I mentioned, Belmoral was tiny, so there wasn't much to do. There was a school, a post office, a park, a supermarket, the Cheerful Hippo and Bententei, and not much else.
So I walked back to my apartment and opened Instagram, then performed a search for Solo Dining Adventurers.
You may be surprised, but there's a lot of people who, even if they don't choose to at first, eventually embrace the idea of dining alone. So they check out different restaurants, cafes, bistros, and document their experiences online as a solo diner.
While living in the city, I got into solo dining as a way of finding peace and time for myself. When you're dining alone, there's no one to bother or rush you, you can go at your own pace, and it quickly became my favourite manner of dining.
I didn't have many friends in any case.
The following day, once more Bententei was my lunch spot of choice. I discovered they offered okonomiyaki, Osaka-style savoury pancakes. The ingredients consisted of shredded cabbage, egg, spring onion, and topped with a special okonomiyaki sauce, mayo, powdered nori, and Benito flakes.
If that wasn't enough, the lady serving me asked if I'd like any additional ingredients, such as crispy bacon or karaage. I said yes to the latter.
While waiting, an older lady entered the eatery and proceeded to order the exact same thing as myself: okonomiyaki, with extra karaage. Trying not to look surprised, I kept my eyes locked on my table.
A few minutes passed, and I received my order. As I made my first bite, I felt somewhat self-concious, hoping the woman wouldn't notice I was eating the same thing as her.
Upon finishing, my mouth felt dry, so I bought a Mount Franklin spring water to quench my thirst. The lady was almost finished with her okonomiyaki when I returned to my table and had a sip of water.
I paid at the front and when I turned to leave, the lady was standing in my way.
'Oh, sorry,' I stammered. It had long since become instinctual for me to apologize to people.
'No need,' she said, smiling slightly.
I stepped past her awkwardly, and outside to Piper Avenue. As before, I couldn't think of anything to do, so I decided to head home.
Before I could, though, the door from the eatery opened behind me, and I saw the woman appear from it.
'First time I've seen you around,' she said to me, totally casual.
I blinked. What should I say?
She smiled. 'This is a small town, as I'm sure you've gathered. When there's someone new around, they're easy to spot.'
I cleared my throat. 'The food here is good.'
'Agreed. And it seems we have similar taste.' She winked.
The sky was dark and overcast, and as forecasted the rain began to tumble down. The lady waved goodbye, and we turned in separate directions, my mind full of various thoughts.
Bententei wasn't open tomorrow, unfortunately. I spent the day indoors, listening to the steady pounding of the rain.
The day after, the rain had stopped at last, though the weather was very cold. I wondered if Bententei made miso soup? It would really be ideal on a day like this.
Stepping inside, I asked them as much, and the owner confirmed that yes, they do make miso soup. Tofu or no tofu? Tofu, please, I replied. I hoped it'd be especially chunky tofu like they served at a place I went to in the city.
Bententei was busier today, and it was soon filled to capacity. There was still a chill in the air, though as my soup was served, I could see the sun breaking through the clouds.
It was around this time that the lady entered the eatery. She quickly noticed me, and walked towards my table.
'What did you order? Miso?'
I nodded. 'Seemed ideal on a day like this.'
She smiled. 'Agreed.'
Walking up to the counter, the lady ordered herself a bowl of miso soup, then noticed the place was completely packed.
'Can I sit here?' she asked, placing her hand on the chair across from mine.
I smiled. 'Of course.'
'My name's Meredith.'
Pool of Placidity
Sometimes I got angry. It wasn’t pretty.
When others got angry, some bad words were said, some doors were slammed and some plates were broken. Nothing more. Yes, when others got angry, only small things got destroyed. That’s why others didn’t need to go into The Pool.
I was told my father was no human. That’s because my mom didn’t like ordinary things, they said. Seems I was getting too ordinary for her because she rarely gave me the time of day. At first, it made me angry. Not anymore. Now I got angry when she did.
My house was big and beautiful. I had everything I ever wanted and more. My room was spacious and shiny, my bed soft and bouncy, and my closets full of the finest clothes. I had a wide palette of everything I set my eyes on: from shoes to tiaras, from food to hobbies. I wasn’t an official princess, but I was a princess. My mom was the perfect queen in my world: rich and powerful, but cold and distant. And I was anything but cold.
Despite having it all, I still got angry. Even over minor things. I got so angry it completely overtook me, spreading through my body like a disease and poisoning my soul. I didn’t know what happened next. My mind went blank and when I woke up, something was ruined. Something important. I never knew what or why or when, all I knew was that it happened and that it was my fault.
My mom called it ‘my red side’. My eyes turned red and everything around me did too. She said my dad had it as well and that it shattered him. His red side made him red I didn’t want to end up that way. I didn’t want others to end up that way.
“I want you safe,” mom told me a long time ago. “The only way for you to be so is by protecting you from yourself. I built you something. You have a shelter now, a place you can take your anger to. The place you can drown it in. Go meet The Pool.”
It was love at first sight. The tension washed away as soon as my body got immersed in cold water. My soul cleansed. I felt the liquid shift around me, ripples running down the pool. In this place, I could be serene. In this place, I discovered placidity.
Years passed. Every time I felt like bursting into red, I closed my eyes and went to The Pool. Every time, it worked. Sometimes I’d swim in it, sometimes I’d lay on my back and listen to the hypnotic voices of the waves, singing to me under their breath.
And sometimes, only sometimes, I’d submerge my head underwater. It’s where the real treasure laid, where all my rage was quenched, all my troubles fleeting. I found peace.
It was only recently I found something else. I heard it before I saw or felt it, it sneaked up to me. It was so loud it pulsated through the walls but despite the intensity, I knew it was only in my mind. Not an illusion, not imaginary, but something only I was meant to hear.
“My skin was dust
My blood was rust
Long before I was dead
My soul is sole
My soul is whole
Still bright and burning red”
Song with a rhythm of a heartbeat. My heartbeat.
I was sitting at the very bottom of the pool, training my underwater breathing. I practiced it regularly and could stay beneath the surface for five whole minutes, but the unexpected encounter forced air out of my lungs. My eyes opened wide.
I saw white with tones of blue, then red. The red orb was flowing around me like a shark, like an eternal bubble escaping my throat. It was the color of blood and I was blood in the water. The last bubble ran away and dived out, gasping for air. My peace broke along with the surface, my body floating and my heart sinking. I got out and ran to safety, droplets falling as I went.
My mother disliked my change of heart. I tried to explain what I saw, explain I was in danger, but she wouldn’t listen. Maids went to check on it and found nothing: no red balls or water spirits, just a normal pool filled with normal water.
“I don’t understand why you’d do this,” she said. “You love that pool.”
“I loved it, yes,” I said. “But now it doesn’t calm me. In fact, it makes me uneasy.”
“I built that pool to keep you afloat,” she said. “It helped you all those years. You need it.”
“I need a new solution,” I said, trying my best to keep my composure.
“Actually, I think you need it right now,” she said and clapped her hands. I knew what that meant.
“Mom, no,” I said, feeling my insides warming up. It was happening and it made her right. Two bulky men lifted me and carried me out of the room. “Mom, please!”
She turned her back to me. “I can’t go back there! It’ll find me! You can’t do this!”
But she could and she did. The water splashed when they threw me in. I heard the lock click as I was falling under the surface. It didn’t hold me. Tears joined my wild heart and I knew what my heart could summon.
Despite the panic, The Pool calmed me as always. At this point, one drop of its water could heal my suffering. Mom was right, I needed that pool. Without it, I was a fish out of water, I was burning in the fire of rage. I was laying on my back, breathing heavily. Tension dissolved, leaving me like the toxin it was.
Stripped off all my emotions and pushed into placidity, I almost forgot why I ever wanted to abandon this place. Then I remembered.
The song was the same, and it got louder by the minute, following my heart. I flipped from my back but didn’t get out. Locked in here, I was bound to face my fears one way or another. I was determined to pick my way.
“Who are you?” I asked into the crimson. The sphere was solid and shiny, beaming like villains’ eyes in old cartoons. Like my eyes. I stared back. “I asked you something. You can’t barge into my pool like this. It’s mine!”
I felt the rage return but this time it was called for. The source of my power. When I got angry, something got ruined. I was counting on it. “Answer me or you won’t get another chance.”
I didn’t move but the red did. It slowly wallowed towards me, fearless. I had to change that.
“I’ll count to three,” I said, my fists trembling, my eyes sharp.
“One.” It stopped for a moment but continued.
“Two.” It was right in front of me, almost touching my shivering skin.
“Three.” It touched me and the water became clearer.
I could finally see my own reflection. I knew what I was always intended to. Closing my eyes, I felt our heartbeats syncing. My anger vanished in a blink of an eye.
He didn’t need to answer, I knew. Our souls – our red sides – recognized each other.
After that, I rarely left The Pool. Mom thought she’d taught me a lesson but I would soon be teaching her one. Dad and I had to make up for the time lost. We swam and dived together, our souls sharing secrets and telling stories. We didn’t need to say a word. We only sang one song.
“Our skin was slick
Our blood was thick
Long before we were tied
Our souls are done
Our souls are one
Passed to the bright red side”
It was a crowded day at the theatre with not an empty seat to be found. The estimated capacity, according to the usher, was about 200; so this was certainly quite the turnout. I don’t know exactly why I bought a ticket. They were reasonably priced and gave the promise of a memorable performance; so perhaps I was simply bored. As I sat in my seat, patiently waiting for the show to begin, a man called out to me. He was sitting in the seat directly behind me.
“Quite the turnout, isn’t it?” The man said to me. As I looked at him, I was surprised to see that he had a striking resemblance to a man from my hometown. I paid it no additional mind. Despite the resemblance, he clearly was a different man. There was something in his eyes, a certain kind of knowing.
“Certainly is. Hopefully the show lives up to the expectations.” I replied. The atmosphere among the crowd was a bit unusual. Sure, there was the typical chatter, but there was a sense of urgency. The theatre-goers came with eagerness, that’s for sure. Perhaps the lighting affected the mood as well. The room was dimly lit, and the lighting within was a deep blue. This shall be an interesting show indeed.
“Oh, no worries there. I’m sure they’ll be quite entertained.” The man said ominously. I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t. I simply waited for the show. After a few minutes, a blue light shined upon the center stage, revealing a lone man.
“I bid you all welcome!” The showman exclaimed. He was very sharply dressed. He had a black and white tunic, though the white appeared rather blue due to the lighting. The showman continued. “In lieu of my master’s arrival, I’d like you all, if you please, shift your attention to the quill and paper sitting in the trays in front of you.” Surely enough, I looked and saw a quill and paper sitting in front of me, though I didn’t remember them being there before.
“I want each of you to write down your heart’s desire. Then fold your notes and place them in the cup to the left of the paper. Our assistants will come and collect the cups shortly.” The showman said. I looked and saw a cup. Something was certainly off; I definitely didn’t see a cup before.
“Choose wisely.” Said the man behind me. I barely had time to think about my answer before a woman, presumably an assistant, came to the end of my aisle. I quickly folded the paper and placed it in the cup. An odd thing happened then. The paper melted into a liquid that sat in the cup. It looked and smelled vile. As I stared at it, baffled, the fellow next to me cleared his throat, subtly reminding me that he was waiting. I handed the cup to him to pass it down. I helped pass down those from the people on my right as well.
“Keep an eye on your cup. Don’t lose sight of it.” The man behind me said. I planned on keeping track of it anyway. I watched as the woman set down the cup on a table. It was on the front-right corner, so it was easy enough to remember.
“Excellent!” The showman said with a clap of his hands. “Now, my dear patrons, your greatly-appreciated patience is about to pay off! My master, Lord Niu, has finally arrived!” As the showman finished speaking, a large, blue apparition appeared behind him. It was humanoid with large, bulging white eyes. Though it appeared quite resplendent with its dull blue glow, those eyes betrayed a hungry animal lying within.
“Now!” The showman started. “It’s time to begin the main event! I shall announce the name of an animal. You are to imitate that animal as best you can. The one in the crowd who does the best impersonation shall have their cup drunk by Lord Niu, and their wish shall be fulfilled!” The showman walked up to the front of the stage with the light moving with him. “The first animal is...parrot!” He announced.
I watched as the crowd lukewarmly started imitating the colorful bird. They didn’t seem too convinced of what the man was saying. There were a few arm flaps here and a squawk there. I myself didn’t care to participate, so I stood there, content with observing. One man eventually perched upon the top of his chair and squawked a mighty squawk while aggressively flapping his arms. Then he screamed. “SQUAAAAAAWK! THE FIRST ANIMAL IS PARROT! ANIMAL IS PARROT!” The showman laughed at the enthusiastic display and applauded. He turned to Niu, who nodded.
“Wonderful!” The showman exclaimed. “Indeed, the parrot is known for repeating that which it hears. Well done!” I watched as Niu approached a cup and drank from it. Apparently, he already knew which cup was the right one. I looked over at the parrot impersonator and saw that he was now attended to by many beautiful women. The crowd saw this and many had the look of envy in their eyes. I looked back to Niu and he seemed to be glowing a bit brighter than earlier.
“Alright! Well done for our first victor! Now, the next animal is…dog!” After he announced the animal, I noticed people were much more enthusiastic this time around, including those on either side of me. I watched this show for over an hour as people tried their best to get their wishes granted. I noticed that each round went a bit longer than the last. It eventually got to the point where people never stopped acting like animals, even in between rounds. Also, even the people who received their wishes continued to act like animals, perhaps seeking even more of Niu’s favor. As this was going on, Niu appeared brighter and brighter while the light around the crowd became darker and darker. This has clearly gotten out of hand.
“My friend, come with me.” The man behind me said. I’d forgotten about him, though it seemed he retained his humanity as well. After growing disturbed by what I saw, I decided to follow him. We stepped around the others across the aisle. They didn’t seem to even notice us, being too busy trying to imitate a horse. The man took me up to the stage, right in front of Niu and the showman.
“Leaving so soon? Wouldn’t you like to see the ending?” The showman said. I had no clue what he meant by leaving. We walked onto the stage, after all.
“No, thank you. I’ve seen this act enough times to know it never ends.” My acquaintance said. I had no idea that he had been here before. What was even more baffling is that he returned to such a place. The showman gave him a knowing smile and nodded. “Ah, well, losing one won’t hurt us anyway. Be on your way now.” He said.
My acquaintance looked at me. “Get your cup and drink it.” He said sternly. I quickly located my cup, but hesitated to drink it. After all, it was still repulsive to my senses. “Hurry!” He said as he drank his. I held my nose and drank it. To my surprise, it was sweet to the taste. In fact, it was absolutely delightful.
All of the sudden, I was no longer at the theatre. I was instead standing in a grassy field. My acquaintance was also there, standing near a tree. “Where are we?” I asked as I approached him.
“Outside the city, where that theatre was.” He replied. “If you hadn’t drunk from that cup, you would’ve been trapped in that show for the rest of your life.”
I took a deep breath, buried my face into my hands, then let go and exhaled. That was certainly going to be the last time I buy tickets for anything. “What made you help me of all people?” I asked
“It’s my joy to go to the show and rescue anyone there who can be rescued.” He said cryptically.
“And what made you believe you could rescue me?” I asked.
“I saw your answer. That’s how I knew.” He responded, then walked away.
I laughed. Who would’ve guessed that submitting a blank paper was enough to pass the test?
The Masks We Wear
It is never silent in the orc war camps. The crackling of bonfires, the roaring of laughter, and the clashing of steel are never absent even deep into the night. I hold up my boot of mead in celebration with the others as we let loose an orcish cry of celebration, sinking deep into our cups as the alcohol replaces the lost blood in our veins.
The orc war chief grins as he eyes the congregation, the reflection of the raging bonfire in his eyes, “Tonight is a night of celebration, my friends! Another triumph against the holy state has acquired us the most profitable mine in Eastfell! To Beowolf! His legion of archers destroyed any semblance of order among the enemy ranks! To Westalf! His traps and deceptions snared the enemy better than we could have hoped! To Granasha! Her footsoldiers took advantage of the opening with ruthless aggression, giving the rival army no quarter!” He raises his boot to each warrior in turn, then does the same to me, “And finally, to Vellash! A one-man army if there ever was one! You may not be an orc by blood, but I’ll be damned if you aren’t always welcome among our ranks. To victory!”
“To victory!” The spirited orcs echo his triumphant cheers, letting the mead and laughter flow freely.
One orc who is deep into his drink leans against a comrade, laughter crackling from his lips, “Finally, we make advances. I told you all when this started, did I not? I said we would be the key to the Dark Lord’s victory. It was that fool Xeros boy, a joke of a son to the Lord who has thrust us back weeks in progress. The Dark Lord claims any one of us can rise in rank if we show merit, yet that incompetent child has the highest rank for no other reason than nepotism. If the lord had not directed so much of our resources into the trap of the son’s capture, we may even have reached the capital by now! But nay, we are expendable, and the Dark Lord’s lineage is not.”
Another chimes in, “Lineage, hah! The Xeros boy is a poor excuse for an heir. If the rumors are true, he has inherited none of his father’s talents in the dark arts. He might as well be a commoner. If he were anything more he would not have needed a score of legions to save him from the clutches of ransom traders. There are certainly others more worthy of having a seat at the right hand of the lord. Vellash is the finest soldier I know, yet he has never received invitation to one of the lord’s feasts.”
The first orc grins, “Aye, now Vellash is a warrior through and through. And he doesn’t need any dark magic to do it! All raw talent he is. Though he must have had some encounters with the Dark Lord, has he not? The weapon he wields was among the lord’s collection once, if my memory serves me right.” He turns to me, “Yes, I don’t believe you’ve ever told us the story of how you received such a mighty blade, Vellash. Was it payment? Stolen? I am eager to learn its truth.”
I smile, my reflection shimmering on the dark blade’s surface, “It was neither. I won it in a duel against General Felmore. May the gods bless his departed soul. He was a worthy opponent, indeed. He wagered the blade, which was to be gifted to him by the Dark Lord, and I wagered my pendant.” I clutch my pendant tight. No one knows its true story, but rumors only grow from its mystery. It is not every day a pendant whispers to those near, after all.
The orc slaps his knee, “Against Felmore? You got more courage than I, lad. He could summon fear in your heart from a glance, silent fellow. He never did share any of his stories before he passed. If anyone deserved the honor of that blade, it was him. But the wager that is a side of him I have not seen. A toast! To the departed Felmore and his worthy replacement, Vellash!” The orcs whoop with cheer, sinking deeper into their mead.
As the night dies down, I bid my companions good night, wandering away from the encampment. I silently slip through the Dark Lord’s gardens, keeping to the shadows as I climb the western tower. I sigh in relief as I reach its zenith. The window to the top chamber is unlocked, just as I left it. I enter through the opening, hiding my blade under one of the floorboards before making my way to the powder room, but I am not alone.
I immediately shuffle to the side, my instincts taking over. I spin around, using my gathered momentum to transition into a grapple, pinning my assailant’s arms to their sides. “You almost had me there,” I smirk, releasing the well-dressed servant.
The servant, Heathcliff, fixes the new wrinkles on his finery, smiling in return, “There was a time when that trick would have worked on you, but you have since learned well. I am afraid I have little left to teach you, lord Xeros.”
I change out of my Vellash armor, removing my pointless eyepatch and shaving my scruffy beginnings of facial hair, “I owe it all to you, Heathcliff. I know you had to defy the Dark Lord’s wishes to train me, his son. Know how deep my gratitude extends for the risks you have taken to train me as well as keep my secret hidden.”
“Speaking of secrets, dear Xeros, your father will likely soon grow suspicious of his missing blade. I hope you have a plan for when that deception fails.”
I tidy up my hair, putting on my oversized lavish robes which make me look much more frail and small than I truly am, hiding the musculature and scars I have earned from my recent campaigns, “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”
“Why don’t you simply tell the Dark lord your secret? Why all the mystery?”
“When I was kidnapped, I tried to escape multiple times. Every single attempt failed. My father sent much more soldiers than needed to save me. He still sees me as a child. That experience will always remain with me. I will not let myself be helpless again.”
“And should the Dark Lord hear rumors about this Vellash character?”
I shrug, “He was a mercenary hired by General Felmore before he passed. Felmore’s silence makes him the perfect alibi. And should by chance Vellash meet the Dark Lord himself, I doubt he would see any semblance of his helpless son in the rugged mercenary.”
“We shall see. Shall we depart for the feast tonight, milord?”
“I suppose we must. I have to keep up appearances, after all. Lead the way, Heathcliff. And thank you.”
“Thank you for what, master Xeros?”
I smile, “For… nevermind. Now with haste! We wouldn’t want to be late to the feast, would we?”