Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge: Love’s Breath & Sorrow’s Retort

There are fools, and then there are fools in love. Give me the normal fools, for love makes the foolish more so. Who am I to speak such words of sanity amidst the worship our society heaps upon fleeting ephemera?

My name is Emerald. No other moniker required or desired.

For years, I have watched the besotted flock to my door in search of just a taste of that phantasmal creature known as “love.” From the meanest beggars to the bluest-blooded, they all come. To one and all, I give it to them.

But it costs, as everything does. That is one thing the poets and minstrels rarely make plain. I am neither, so I am free with the truth. As I’m not one to make claims without justification, I will give you a tale.

It will cost, however. The price is for you to decide.

My story starts as so many others do:

Once upon a time there was a beautiful maiden. She wandered the village with gay abandon, her smile straightening the backs of peasants bent from toiling in the fields and reddening the cheeks of the eldest widow jealous of those enjoying what time stole from them. Promised to God, her habit brought peace and comfort to the poor villagers.

One day, a prince rode through and spied her skipping about her devotional duties. Eros, always the trickster and bitter at the old gods usurpation, fired his arrow straight to the royal heart, but left her untouched.

The smitten lord spent months in the village, trying to woo the fair nun. Roses by the thousands were delivered to the nunnery, with promises of riches, lands, and titles. He declared the day he first laid eyes on her a holiday. He followed her on her duties with knee ever-ready to bend, only to rebuffed at every turn by her sweet, “I am promised to God, my lord.”

Despondency and desperation go hand-in-hand. When word reached him of a hedge-witch who specialized in potions that melted the hardest hearts, he rode three days and three nights through the Dark Forest. Bandits, ogres, and goblins fell before his blade on his perilous journey, until he reached a small hovel in the middle of the forest.

Fearless, he strode inside with nary a knock and pronounced, “I am searching for the witch! Come out in the name of the Prince!”

A young woman with ancient eyes glided out of nowhere, greeting the royal with an equal’s nod. “Highness. What may I do for you?”

“I need a potion to make the woman I love love me in return. I will pay anything!”

A gleam entered those aged eyes, a warning the smitten prince failed to recognize. “And the woman does what?”

“What does it matter? Make your potion and name your price!”

She clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Magic is delicate, milord. A happily married woman would be much more difficult to enchant than say…an orphan girl with no family. I need to know so I can adjust the spell accordingly.”

The prince ground his teeth, but spat out, “A nun.”

A slender eyebrow raised. “Ah. Well, that will take a strong potion indeed.” She clapped her hands and smiled. “Very well. Bring me that cauldron over there and do exactly as I say.” Her smile grew wider. “Payment we shall discuss…later.”

Once the prince set the cauldron on her table, she poured a cup of water in it and grabbed several vials. “Essence of baby’s laughter,” she muttered as she poured the contents of the vial. “Mist of a rainbow and a unicorn’s tears of joy. The breath of true love’s first kiss.”

She glanced at the prince and handed him an empty vial. “Prick your finger and squeeze ten drops of blood into that.”

The prince grew suspicious, but did as bade. She poured the crimson drops into her concoction and stirred. She lowered a flask into the cauldron. “This potion is potent. Let the contents breath under the light of a full moon, then pour the remains into a cup of rose tea. Have her drink, and she shall be yours.”

The prince snatched the flask from her and hurried back to the village, forgetting about asking about her payment in his haste. He followed the witch’s instructions, and wooed the peasant nun. She broke her vows and traveled to the palace with the prince. They married in a ceremony celebrated by the whole kingdom.

Time passed, as it does, and the new princess found herself lost amid the castle manners and intrigues. She knew nothing of the world in which she found herself. The prince’s ardor for the simple young woman faded, sated now that he’d acquired that denied to him. The couple, married during the throes of passion, found little in common.

The prince’s attentions wandered and, like a rose cut from the stem, the former nun soon wilted from neglect. She withdrew from to her parlor, barred from the outside and the people she’d once served, and alone except for when her husband tried for an heir.

The king passed and the prince became ruler of the land. His wife, barren and faded, but devoted by spell to her husband became queen. So the unhappy couple stayed for several years, the new king searching for any reason to divorce the peasant he married, but foiled by her unwavering fidelity toward him.

One day, the witch, untouched by the years, came before the king. “It is time for my payment, lord.”

The king dismissed his court except for three guards. “I have a new deal for you, witch.” He gestured and the guards grabbed the witch’s arms. “Create a potion that will kill my wife, so I may marry someone of breeding. Do this, and I won’t have you executed for witchery.”

The witch grinned and the temperature of the room dropped. “Of course, my lord. If I may have a place to work?”

“Take her to the dungeon. She can work there.” The guards led the witch to the bowels of the castle, and she did not resist their rough handling.

Once ensconced within her cell, she told one guard she needed a cauldron. He left, but a different man returned with her request. She asked for water from another guard, and a different man brought her a pitcher of water. The two new guards turned on the third guard who carried the king’s secret and killed him.

The witch laughed and set about her task. She pulled various vials out of her dress and added them to a new spell. “Echo of traitor’s promise, a serpent’s tongue, some tears of a fallen angel, and…” She pulled out one last vial, remnants of the former prince’s blood used for the original potion, and stirred it in. When finished, she dipped in a flask and handed it to the guard. “Give this to the king and let him know he must bury it with a freshly hanged murderer for seven days. Then he need merely baste the queen’s dinner meat with it, and he shall have his reward.”

The king followed her instructions, hanging the guard who brought the witch’s potion and burying the flask with him. A week later, the king desecrated the grave to retrieve the flask and finish his heinous undertaking. He smeared the witch’s cocktail on his wife’s dinner and dismissed the servants to deliver it to her room himself.

He watched as she at, an unaccustomed smile creasing his features despite his revulsion at her doe-eyed looks of love she lavished on him. She finished and stood, falling upon her bed as dizziness engulfed her. He rose from his seat and tossed her into a semblance of repose. Once he finished, he readied to call the guard, but her eyes snapped open in fury, startling him.

He backed away, but she stalked him across the room, picking up the knife from her dinner remains. With a speed and strength unexpected from so small a frame, she pounced upon her former false-love. The knife rose and fell over and over.

He never had time to scream.

In the dungeon, the witch cackled and disappeared…

So ends my tale. I’m sure disbelief will be your reaction, visions of fairy tales with happy endings smothering the truth of the events.

So be it, for I am not one to force my views upon anyone. Believe what you wish, it makes no difference to me.

As for the price…payment will be discussed.

Later.

***

For Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge over at terribleminds. This week the challenge is to create a cocktail, give it a name (to be used in the title), and incorporate it in a way vital to the story. This week he’s giving us 2,000 words to tell the story. Check it out and give it a try!

Hope you enjoy.

Happy Reading and Writing!

J. Milburn

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New Order of Light: The Candidate

Blessed silence reigned in the throne room. Meat-puppets, devoid of all desires except those of their master, stood sentry, sightless eyes staring in eternal guardianship. Rags from states that no longer existed decorated the walls, mute testament of the New Way. The Lord and Master, black-cloaked and silver-eyed, reclined in his chair behind the used-to-be judge’s bench, catching a moment’s respite from the war.

Heels clacked along the former courthouse’s floor, drawing a frown from his shadowed face. Doors opened of their own accord, allowing one of his lieutenants entry. The athletic woman, clad in black leather with multiple buckles and stiletto-heel boots, floated into the room, kneeling when she reached the railing. “My Lord Majstro.”

“Speak, Súcubo .”

“We have word of a candidate.”

Storm-clouds gathered across Majstro’s dark features. “This is certain?”

Her tongue ran over blood-ruby lips, small fangs flashing during the movement. “The Augurs assure me it will come to pass.”

Majstro crooked his finger, calling wisps of smoke before him. The strands danced to his command, whirling to form a faceless woman clad in white robes.  “Efemera Murdisto, go forth and destroy whomever Animo-Luc has chosen.”

Efemera rose through the ceiling, flying away from the blasted hellscape once known as Charmsburg.

***

Sam fought to control his wheezing, his father’s old AR-15 heavy in his shaking 15-year-old hands. He peeked out the broken window of the looted drug-store where he and his sister, Melody, hid. “Damn it!” he whispered. “I thought the Free-Lifers cleared this sector of Revenants.”

Melody gathered scattered pills from the floor, blowing off years of accumulated dust before sticking them inside a rat-skin pouch. She felt her big brother’s gaze and shrugged. “Not many places stay clear of Revs for long. Complaining about it doesn’t change things, so how about you help me scrounge up meds for Doc before this place goes full morgue and we have more than two to deal with?”

“Probably irradiated and useless anyway,” Sam muttered, slinging his rifle. He opened his pouch and shoveled stray pills in with sweeping movements of his arm, despite his grumbling. The two of them made short work of the slim offerings from the old pharmacy in the afternoon sun.

Danger

Sam whirled, rifle raised. A Rev stood at the door, bringing it’s weapon to bear. Sam’s Colt barked, the bullet slicing through dead eyes. The Rev fell to its knees, gray dust escaping from the pierced orb.

A double-tap startled him. He rolled and swept the perimeter with his rifle. Melody’s M1911 pointed at the shattered window, fire-smoke curling from the barrel. The second Rev lay on the ground, charcoal-smoke pouring from a shattered skull. “Nice shot, sis.”

“Not bad yourself.” She holstered the pistol handed down from her grandfather. “Trust in God…”

“…swear by Colt,” Sam finished with a grin. “How did you know they were there? I didn’t hear a thing.”

Ocean-colored eyes narrowed. “I thought you warned me.”

Sam gaped at her for a moment, but the deepening gloom shunted his mind back to survival. “We need to get back to Fortress. Talons will be out soon.”

He hoisted his weapon, checked the streets, and hustled down the debris-strewn sidewalk, Melody in rear-guard. The siblings cleared the five blocks to their waiting Grizzly ATV without incident.

Neither noticed the increasing chill or small white cloud that followed them as they roared out town.

***

Efemera drifted over the high walls of the settlement mortals called Fortress. Narrow paths, easy to block against intruding enemies, wound around stone houses. A large cathedral, bustling pub, and countless chimneys belching haze from hearth-fires testified to the thriving civilization these humans rebuilt after the Futile War.

A parapet guard shuddered as she passed, pulling his jacket tight around his throat. She paused, toying with the idea of draining him.

Do not dawdle, Efemera. The candidate. NOW! She writhed and lost form for a moment as Majstro’s voice thundered through her being. A tendril snaked out to caress the sentry. He groaned, falling to the wooden planks, once black hair turned white.

Stabilized by the stolen life-force, she extended her senses, searching for the taint of the Animo-Luc. A small cabin, as separate from the main village as one could be in a society hemmed by walls, glowed with the soft yellow-orange of Animo power. Wind gusted, gliding her closer to her quarry.

***

Sweat gleamed on Sam’s chest. Hands clutched thin sheets as visions of Melody being pursued by a ravening darkness subsumed his being.

Awaken

He jerked upright, tumbling out of the cot. Fumbling fingers found the matches and he lit the lantern on his nightstand. Flickering light threw shadows on the wall and he pulled his rifle out from under his bed. “Show yourself.” The barrel flicked from shadow to shadow, searching for the unknown voice.

Danger. Flee.

“WHO ARE YOU?” His door flung open and he trained his weapon at the entrance, trigger-finger tightening. He jerked the gun toward the ceiling when he registered the sleepy countenance of Melody. “Are you playing some kind of game, Mel?”

“I heard you fall out of bed and talking.” Her eyes widened in fright at his angry glare. “What’s going on?”

He strode forward and grabbed her by the wrist. He leaned in and hissed, “Don’t lie to me.”

She yanked her arm, but his grip held firm. “I promise, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Flee. She comes.

Sam clapped his hands over his ears. “Shut-up, shut-up, shut-up!”

Melody backed away at Sam’s fury. “Sam? Is…is it the…madness?”

Sam sank to his knees, breathing in deep gulps of air. “No. I don’t…think so.”

Melody pointed to the stand. “Where did that come from?” He twisted to look, surprised to see an emerald gleaming in the lamp-light. He grabbed it, then put on a tunic and coat. “Get dressed. We’re leaving. Now.”

***

Efemera heard an engine growl and a cone of light cutting away from the cabin. She shifted to humanoid form and poured on the speed. Dogs howled and garden-plants wilted as she descended on her prey. Gunshots rang out from the back of the ATV. They were no danger to her, but it stirred the people out of their malaise.

Spotlights burst to life, and the populace of Fortress shouted, “Apparition!” Efemera ignored it all, her focus on solely on her rapidly closing target.

***

“Sam! It’s gaining on us!” Sam twisted the Grizzly, heading for the East Gate. Melody popped off several more shots, cursing when the slide burst back. “I’m out!”

“Doesn’t matter anyway.” Sam stood, controlling the 4-wheeler with one hand and waving with the other. “OPEN THE GATE! OPEN THE GATE!”

Gate-keepers scrambled to raise the giant portcullis. Sam calculated the relative speeds of the groaning metal inching upward, their speed, and the speed of their pursuit. “Oh…shit. DUCK!” He suited action to words, leaning forward as far as he could.

They zoomed underneath, one of the pointed barbs tugging Melody’s hood back. Sam gunned the ATV, redlining the motor. “The Never-Glade? You can’t be thinking of going in there!” Melody yelled.

He ignored her, following the directions of the insistent voice taking residence in his mind.

***

Efemera sliced through the night-sky, the machine gaining distance in the open-ground between the city and forest. She didn’t worry about losing them. Power glowed around them like a beacon, making it almost too easy to track.

She worried more about the revelation of her existence among the humans. Long had she served as her Master’s unknown killer, filling his enemies with fears of his power reaching out to slay them no matter the distance between them. She could only hope the death of the Animo-Luc’s pawn would appease him.

Maybe if she murdered all the witnesses of her existence as well…

***

Gnarled branches scratched and scraped as Sam navigated the twisted undergrowth of the Never-Glade. A web glistened with dew in the faint moonlight visible through skies clouded by fallout many years ago, two spiders the size of puppies eyeing them with milk-white orbs. “Where are we going, Sam?”

He pointed ahead to a rock formation. The faint outline of a cave mouth stood at the bottom of the hill. “There.”

Melody stared behind them, looking for signs of their pursuer. “Do you think we can hide from it?”

“No. But I think we can do something else.” He fell silent as the mysterious voice whispered instructions.

***

Efemera sailed into the cave, floating over scum-coated puddles. She passed through a curtain of moss, able to see the power-taint of her victim cowering in the dead-end back. She hovered forward, fingers distending into tendrils.

A boy’s voice, filled with scorn, called out, “Bring it, lapdog. We’re not afraid of you.”

She zipped ahead, fury narrowing her focus. She never stopped to wonder why he held a hunting knife with his hand wrapped around the blade.

Until he yanked it, slicing his hand and squeezing blood onto what looked like a rune scratched on the cave-bed. Light flared, sparking against other markings along the cave walls. The colors of the sunrise wrapped around Efemera like a cocoon.

She thrashed against the bonds, unable to phase through them or shift into a different form. The girl shuffled forward, gaping at her brother with stupid amazement. Efemera calmed, and waited.

***

“How did you do that?” Melody’s gaze stayed on the still form of the trapped ghost as she joined her brother’s side.

“I don’t know.”

She grabbed his arm. “Do you know what this means?” she squealed. “There’s finally a power to match Majstro’s!” She grinned and strode toward the cocoon. “Do you hear that, thing? My brother found a way to beat your master!”

DANGER!

Sam’s head whipped around in time to see Melody’s foot cross the rune’s threshold. A tendril snapped, grabbing her leg. He burst into motion, slamming into his sister and sending her sprawling away from danger. She hit the stone ground hard, forelock of her hair bone-white.

His arm flew out during the impact, crossing the threshold. He felt stabbing cold wrap around his wrist and pull him toward the cocoon. He used his free hand to dig out the emerald and toss it to Melody. “Mel! Toss the jewel under the ghost…and me.”

“SAM!” Melody struggled up and started to her brother.

“Stop!” Sam croaked out. His skin sagged as his life drained, and his voice sounded like grandfather’s on his deathbed. “Throw the emerald. It’s okay. The voice says…it will be okay.” With his last strength, Sam leaped at his killer, screaming, “NOW!”

Melody threw the emerald, crying as it skittered under the trap. Green light pulsed bright and she shielded her eyes. When she lowered her arms the trap, her brother, and the ghost had disappeared.

She tumbled to the ground. She stared at the spot until the hazy sunlight of dawn highlighted the cave-mouth. Her stomach growling kicked her to survival mode. She grabbed her brother’s rifle and trudged toward the opening, scooping up the now black emerald. She frowned at its warmth, but set the implication aside as she dropped it in her pouch.

The ATV sat, unmolested, where they hid it the night before. She straddled the seat and started it up. “Why, Sam? Why?” she whispered.

It was necessary.

She bowed her head, tears threatening to escape. “You’re the voice Sam heard, aren’t you?”

Yes.

“Who are you?”

A friend. One who can help you free your world from the tyranny of Majstro.

Come, my candidate. 

“My name is Melody Colt. Not ‘candidate’.” She revved the engine and took off toward the horizon. “You and Majstro would be well-advised to remember that.”

********************************************************************************************************************

For Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge at terribleminds. Each week he has various lists of items that you can choose randomly or by hand. This week’s challenge is: THE WHO, THE WHERE, THE UH-OH

Here are the lists he provided:

THE WHO (PROTAGONIST)

  1. Detective
  2. Ghost
  3. Bartender
  4. Dirty Cop
  5. Psychic
  6. Assassin
  7. Accountant
  8. Celebrity
  9. Android
  10. Waiter/Waitress

THE WHERE (SETTING)

  1. Nuclear Wasteland
  2. Amusement Park
  3. Chinatown
  4. Far-Flung Space Station
  5. Mad Botanist’s Greenhouse
  6. Virtual Reality
  7. The Underworld
  8. Trailer Park
  9. Pirate Ship
  10. Casino

THE UH-OH (PROBLEM)

  1. Betrayal by best friend!
  2. Left for dead, out for revenge!
  3. Encounter with a nemesis!
  4. Trapped!
  5. Something precious, stolen!
  6. Lovers, separated!
  7. Warring against nature!
  8. An unsolved murder!
  9. A conspiracy, revealed!
  10. Besieged by supernatural enemies!

The limit is 2000 words this week. If you feel like joining in, pick three elements and create a story. You can even pick twice in the “who” category to add to your protagonist or create an antagonist. Once you’ve written the story, post it and link back to the challenge.

My words this week: Ghost (assassin for my second pick in the “who”)/Nuclear Wasteland/Trapped.

These three words happened to spark an idea on continuing a story I began with Picture It & Write, titled: New Order of Light-The Beginning.

Hope you enjoy.

Happy Reading and Writing!

J. Milburn

I decided to go ahead and link to the Moonshine Grid #144 this week as well.