starving man

“Did I tell you what Maurice the blacksmith said to me?”

“No.” Roland said, leaning her back against Oliver’s cart, boredly scanning the crowd. All day it’d just been her, stood here, listening to Oliver. No break in the tedium by way of customer or brawl. Rare, for New Tarmac.

“Well, I mean, I can’t remember exactly what he said. But man was he trying to lord over me because he’s a blacksmith and sells, like, actual wares. What’s he trying to insinuate?”

“That you’re a trash dealer?”

Roland glanced over and met his eyes, before looking pointedly at the assorted garbage he’d lain out on the cart for display. She of anyone could vouch for it being garbage, because she herself had pulled much of it from foliage at the side of the road. But in Silesia, anything could be a treasure to the right person.

Or at least that’s what Oliver always said.

He had the typical assortment: old swords rusted into their scabbards, leather armor half rotted away, a shield with what looked to be a sizeable bite taken out of it. But he also had things brought through from other worlds and left discarded. A small statue of a scaly monster with tiny arms carved from what Roland had heard called “plastic.” Something large and rectangular and glass with a crack splitting its reflective surface. And countless other things that could serve nobody any use, here.

Oliver shrugged.

“You’re mouthier than other guards I’ve had.”

“Well,” she said. She smiled vaguely. “You’re not paying me to stay quiet.”

“I’m not paying you at all.

She arched an eyebrow and looked away. Back to the milling crowd. Beyond that, the woods where they’d likely be staying tonight after accruing zero profit from Oliver’s trash cart.

“I’ll be right back,” she said. “Nature calls.”

Oliver grunted something noncommittal as she walked into the press of people. They parted before her, none of them giving her much thought or attention.

She stepped into the woods and then walked further, frowning over her shoulder at the continued burble of voices from behind her. The trees grew thicker. And then they began to die.

She didn’t notice it at first, but the bark peeled too easily from the tree she touched absentmindedly on her passage. Frowning, she pulled away a hand covered in rot and maggots. Then she noticed. The trees pressing in on her, as well as the trees ahead and behind, had all fallen to rot.

Roland knew what happened next. She’d heard the stories. All Names, God of the Death of Nature, stood in their private luminance against the squalid black of the woods. The great white stag, a tangible glow exuding beyond the tips of their fur, stood in a clearing just ahead and looked back upon her with their dead crimson eyes.

She’d been trained in martial arts first by her father, and then in broadsword. She’d be an effective combatant with several varieties of weaponry, given a few minutes to get her bearings. She’d defended Oliver before just using the half-eaten shield he’d had on sale, today.

But now, she trembled. Drawing a steep breath, she stepped toward the dead god. It was said in New Tarmac that All Names precipitated death in those they met. It was also said that they never met anyone by accident.

The god turned and walked away from her. She knew only that she must follow, and so she did, walking gravely in the stag’s wake. They passed through the trees like preacher and acolyte, her boots making narrow footprints in the splatters of blood All Names dripped onto the forest floor.

Another point of white appeared through the caliginous woods, and Roland recognized this one as well. The God of All the Worlds, Nosturi, crouched on his knees between two trees. If Roland thought it possible for a god, she would have thought he were hiding. He turned to them as she and All Names broached the trees, and in his ice-pale blue eyes lay such bald despair that Roland stepped backward.

“She is not enough,” he whispered. He met her eyes. He looked on the very broken edge of tears.

Footsteps crunched through the undergrowth and heralded the arrival of a stranger. This one Roland did not recognize. She stumbled backward and ducked behind a tree, her dutiful guardian’s mind picking out all the weaknesses of her position. For one, the luminance shedding from All Names lit her up like the light from a full moon. She also had no weapon or shield.

She sensed something from the stranger—a grim, uninterested sort of malice. He swept the surroundings and smiled a little, but it was the smile of a snake who’s just dislocated his jaw to devour his prey still squirming.

“You brought an audience.”

The stranger stepped forward and put a hand against Nosturi’s forehead. The god did not resist. He closed his eyes, and ceased to be.

Roland, aware she was not really hiding, looked around the tree and met the man’s eyes. Beside her, All Names continued to stand, unperturbed. The stranger said nothing, just took a step backward, turned, and walked back through the woods.

The stag stepped forward, walked to the spot where Nosturi had vanished, then continued walking until they had darkened to a glimmer between the trees far ahead. Roland watched them go, before sliding down to her knees, the bark of the rotting tree rough against her palm.

She knelt there for a long time. Long enough that in time she heard Oliver begin to call her faintly from the direction of the market. She couldn’t summon the strength to stand for several minutes after that, and even as she walked in the direction of her friend’s voice, she couldn’t fathom what she would tell him.

Something had happened. She couldn’t explain it. Cold panic writhed in her gut—she had to travel to the Hall of the Gods. She had to see if the rest of them were still there.

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0103

She’d given him a name. Perhaps it could be argued she’d also given him his freedom, but Aegis saw no use for the thing, so he didn’t consider it a boon of knowing her.

He didn’t know how to use the name, either. It carried a strange flavor in the back of his throat. So he just didn’t introduce himself. There was little enough need of names in Vegasia, so it’d been a simple thing to leave the city without anyone learning his. It felt as stuck to him as the red sand that stuck to the streaking sweat on his face.

Standing at the crest of a canyon, the wind pulling at his jacket, Aegis blinked dust from his eyes and considered.

“0103?”

The thin, young voice from behind him was the one his imagination had assigned his brother. He knew that if he turned he would see the apparition, real as if he could hurl a handful of dust and strike it.

“My name is Aegis now.”

“Why?”

“Because—“ He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Because that’s what she told me.”

“She doesn’t own you. She didn’t even tell you her name.”

Finally he turned, eyes tired from the constant sun falling on the boy. The back of his mind whispered that the boy had died. The reality before him contravened this. He lifted his shoulders in an abject shrug.

“Nobody does, now. Nobody owns either of us.”

“So where are you going?”

He wanted to shrug again. He didn’t want to make the decision. Didn’t want to speak it aloud.

For a long moment, he didn’t. They watched each other. He knew that if he wandered the desert much longer, his sanity would tilt forever. He’d never recover from the delusion of his brother, following him. Free.

He had to get out of the desert.

By the time he’d loosed the canteen from its belt and raised it to his lips, the apparition had disappeared.

Aegis wished he could claim to be traveling across the desert to avenge his brother’s death. But the truth wasn’t that simple.

barren land

novel concept came about from this song

It felt wrong, touching the gilded throne. Asim draped his fingers over the delicate metalwork, narrowing his eyes at the glitter of halite studding the seat’s stone. Things so achingly familiar to behold, that fit so perfectly into the framework of his life, that it made his father’s absence more glaring by half again.

When the pharaoh’s absence had stretched from one week to two, the rumors had begun. The whispers delivered to him by spies secreted amongst the servants and laborers that the masses expected him to ascend to the throne. Fortunately, he thought, none of these whispers had suggested he had a hand in his father’s missing. They thought well of him. They thought him his father’s son—a guardian, a steadfast servant of righteousness.

They were right to think so. He’d had nothing to do with any of this.

It made everything almost worse. He struggled with the sense of helplessness. At least if it’d been some grand conspiracy, he’d feel more empowered. Perhaps he would feel less scandalized to even behold his father’s throne.

In the antechamber, a dog barked, its metallic voice hollow in its copper throat. Asim stiffened, drawing himself straight, trying to force his presence to be commanding and effortless in one moment. He felt that he had failed by the time the door opened, dumping his servant and two guards into the throne chamber.

“This is unheard of!” the servant sputtered, even now trying to push the guards back out the door. The three dogs that customarily traveled with each pair of guardsmen moved to separate servant from guards. They moved with such eerie silence, their eyes bright with alchemy, with whatever living force powered them.

“Pharaoh, it’s at the Jitaki border,” one of the guards said, disentangling himself from the confusion. “Two refugees made it through.”

Jitak, just to the north of Mait. Where his father had gone two weeks ago in pursuit of some information the scholars in Jitak’s capital had uncovered. The elder pharaoh’s unheard-of mission of cooperation had resulted in him now being lost in a country that did not exist.

“I don’t have to ask if my father was one of the refugees.” His voice felt hard as stone in his throat.

The guard’s mouth drew into a grimace. He bowed his head.

Asim’s gut clenched but he fought not to display a reaction.

“Is it visible?”

The guard looked up and nodded sharply.

“Barely. It’s not crossed the border yet. But it’s there.”

Asim’s fingers left his father’s throne. He moved through the guards and their dogs and the servant like a stone through clear water. They followed him as he went out through the antechamber and onto the balcony. He leaned over the edge and there, a cloud of sand against the darkling dusk of the horizon.

He couldn’t see it yet. Just the result of its inexorable march. Any other day the miles-high wall of dust may have been another sandstorm—an ordinary calamity. But this—the thing they called the cataclysm—had demolished every country north of Mait, including now Jitak. In his imagination, his eyes peeled back the billowing, still-distant sand and he saw the great black thing. He saw the great fangs it projected downward into the earth as it came on, as recounted in the reports pouring in from countries Mait hadn’t heard from in generations.

What a thing to unite them.

It occurred to him, belatedly, that the guard had called him pharaoh.

the river

more with Cam/Eden/this wip: camaraderieListen, my son

At the bank of the wide river, someone had tied a canoe. Cam hadn’t ever seen one before, but he’d heard the word, knew the concept. He hadn’t seen a canoe or a river, in fact—just the little fetid streams that trickled through what had once been natural areas, that fine sheen of oil and garbage resting on top. So the noise of the water startled him and he paused, allowing Eden to overtake him.

She passed him and then returned, stared at him for a second, snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.

“Hello? There’s no way I can row this thing on my own.”

Cam blinked and shook his head.

“I’m used to the freighters they ship supplies in on,” he said.

“Wait, the canoe is what you’re reacting to?”

“Well,” he said. “Never seen moving water this big, either.”

“There’s a world of things for you to see,” she said.

She grabbed his forearm and pulled and Cam went without protest, his eyes still fixed on the canoe, until the moment Eden pushed him down into it.

“Now, here’s my thought. If we both row, obviously you’re much stronger than me, so we’ll go in circles.”

She looked at him askance as she settled into the canoe facing him.

“I’ll row.”

He hefted the oar and touched it into the water. He didn’t have any idea how to operate the thing. Leaning onto the handle, he pushed and the canoe jolted forward, its prow kicking up a spray of river water that shimmered across Eden.

“What the hell?” she said. She sounded more incredulous than angry, which was becoming a pattern for her.

“Ain’t got many skills besides operatin’ a firearm,” he said.

“That’s becoming clear to me.”

He tested the oar again, holding back, pushing slower—the canoe jumped again, but less jarring this time, and the next time hardly at all. They moved out across the river, sending ripples out into their wake.

“At least you learn fast.”

“Yeah, I been told that.”

The river widened as they went and Cam idly watched the landscape—the woods on both sides, the frothing whiteness of the water as it spilled over rocks that jutted up from the river’s bottom. He was aware of Eden observing him but didn’t think much of it. Eden liked to observe things. With him, these periods of reflection usually ended with derision, but Cam also thought little of that.

Worse things had happened to him than some mild ribbing from the strange woman he’d been traveling with.

“You’re boring to travel with,” Eden said.

Cam looked up at her. “Oh yeah?”

“You don’t talk. You just follow me around like some big dog.”

“If I’d been talkin’ instead of followin’, you’d be dead.” Cam picked up the oar as the river’s current resigned itself to carrying them along. “So there’s that.”

The canoe abruptly careened sideways. With a catastrophic crunch, it ran aground, spilling Eden out onto the stony bank. Cam felt himself heaved forward as well, but kept his feet. Dumbfounded, he turned toward the canoe.

“Idiot,” Eden spat, staggering to her feet and brushing the sand from her clothes. “You have to steer, too!”

“I never been in a canoe,” Cam said. He shrugged. “I told you that.”

Fall

prompt: “Black Lake Nidstang” by Agalloch

My sense of magic faded and then collapsed altogether. I stopped in my tracks as the path melted beneath my feet. I found myself standing on an inch thick layer of detritus—grey leaves withered and curled, bones secreted away at the bases of the trees. A fox lay stretched across the ground a few feet in front of me, its body flung outward as though it’d been in the middle of fleeing when it died. I did not feel afraid. I felt the forest and its eyes upon me, eyes old as the ages opening and blinking and awakening and fixing upon me. I felt honored to have come into their presence.

I lifted my eyes from the fox and found All Names standing on the bank of a wide black lake. I do not mean black in that night had fallen across a primordial forest. The water projected black. The water did not glint or shimmer when it moved. The air hung limp and dead around us, and yet the water moved—it shifted with the gentle wet slap that water makes as it laps against rocks on the shore.

The stag stood across the lake from me and directed their blank gaze away from me and behind me, toward the Hall of the Gods. The first thing I noticed: Ragadar did not stand attendant at their leg. I blinked as though to clear my eyes, thinking for a wild moment that perhaps this were some peculiar dream. Seeing All Names without the child shook my vision of reality. I wanted to speak but no words seemed adequate. The unadulterated presence of the stag proved almost too much for me to handle—my vision blurred, telescoped around the edges. This couldn’t be real.

The stag’s wide red eyes closed and they breathed outward, a low, humid breath that I felt across the lake. And then they opened their eyes and fixed them upon me. Names spun into my mind, hectic and confused, a babbling, maddening, endless stream of names that filled me and sent me spinning to the brink of insanity.

Quiet.

And my brain fell silent. I felt the tangle of names at the back of my brain and knew that if I reached for them, they would return. I focused my attention on the stag. One name pulled loose from the rest and tumbled into my consciousness.

Jack.

It wasn’t enough. I wanted—

Santiago.

I met the stag’s eyes and I wept, then. Silent tears spilled down my cheeks. I stepped forward on legs that hardly seemed able or willing to support me. I walked to the edge of the lake and All Names’ reflection broke out across the black water, resplendent and white, dispelling the ancient curse I sensed lurking in the waters.

This is my curse, they said, each word striking like a gigantic bell inside my brain. This is where I sleep.

I blinked and across from me, instead of All Names, stood a massive bough staked through the bank of the lake. And atop it, the head of a giant stag had been pinned—its mouth hung slack, blood spilling from its severed head and trailing from its lips down its neck. The pink eyes stared toward the Hall of the Gods. I blinked again and All Names stood across from me. I shivered, the tremor shooting straight through me.

Nature is life, and I am the death of nature. Do you see? Even I must die.

Their great red eyes moved past me again.

Nature is sound and I am silence. And when I die, everything must die around me. When I cease to die, the world falls to chaos. Do you understand? You must be prepared.

I opened my mouth and then shut it. Repeated this a few more times. “No,” I said.

I unleash my curse upon you, the voice said, pouring into my brain with unprecedented force. I grunted and wanted to clap my hands over my ears. I am nature and I am the death of nature. I am sound and I am silence. And when I die, such a calamity I shall wreak across the heavens, that it shall unmake the world.

My breath came short in my chest. I clutched at my heart.

A curse upon you. A curse upon you who let me die. A curse upon you.

The voice came louder and louder until it roared through me. It threatened to pull me apart by the molecules. All Names stared at me and their stare was great and horrible. In their eyes all the mysteries of nature spun, and I felt myself spinning among them—

I broke. I fell to my knees and in the waters of the black lake I saw the reflection not of the brilliant stag, not of the pinpoint of white in the dark forest, but of the bough with the stag staked through. I saw the dead eyes staring, staring. The wood stained with blood and gristle. I saw the curse gathering in the waters. I felt it stretching fingers out toward me. I staggered backward and got myself turned away. Without making it fully back to my feet, I scrambled back through the woods in the direction I’d come.

camaraderie

shakin off the dust, had this scene in my head for a while.

“Eden!”

She grunted and Cam didn’t have to look to know she’d made her way to him. The next second her back nudged up against his. It gave him a kind of visceral comfort, to keep her safe. Sometimes he even let her believe she’d done it herself. Like this time, he’d armed her with an extra sidearm he’d charmed (stolen) from Barlowe. She clutched it at her hip with both hands, looking painfully like a rookie in the way he knew she thought made her look like a veteran.

The grimy band of coyotes who’d stolen Morgenrot circled. And at the top of the broken band, Morgen themself, splayed across the concrete with their tatterdemalion brown cloak thrown up over their head.

“Ready?” Cameron said.

Eden braced herself against him, choked up her grip on the gun.

“This is gonna suck.” He glanced over his shoulder at her. She nodded impatiently, her dark eyes meeting his.

He remembered the first time they’d done this. Fought together.

Cam’d just been a kid, then. Ties severed and adrift. Headed toward the river because that’s what he’d heard a drifter muttering about as the way out of the city. Hadn’t expected to be much else besides alone for a while—maybe forever.

It hadn’t mattered to him, then. Nothing had.

Even then, Eden hadn’t screamed. She’d just sort of grunted and it got Cameron’s attention. He pulled his hands out of the pockets of his coat and touched the gun against his side. Rounded the corner.

The two of them had her cornered in an alley. Her almost-black hair was disheveled, matted and clumped, a line of red dark against her brown skin. She twisted her mouth into a snarl and lashed out, and one of them cried out so she must’ve hit him with… a knife?

Cam wondered why she didn’t scream. The thought came to him dully as he stepped into the alley and wasted the guy she’d just slashed. He’d taken the heat down a couple notches so the guy didn’t evaporate like his father had. Just sorta slumped backward.

The other one spun and tried to flee but Cameron sidestepped to block his egress and took him out, too.

It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel like anything. It just felt like maybe this lady would go home at the end of the night, instead of dying in an alley at the edge of the city.

She was breathing hard, mouth open, her fingers at the cut on her face. She didn’t have a knife.

Shit,” she said finally, focusing on him. “Let’s establish something, are you going to shoot me, too?”

“Nah,” Cam said, shrugging and replacing the gun at his side. He pulled his coat back over it.

“Well,” she said. “Good.”

He just stood there, not really noticing that he was effectively blocking her way out of the alley now, too.

So her fingers had slid from the cut on her face and she’d walked up to him, and he’d looked at her. She was about as tall as him, with a strong jaw and an unimpressed expression.

“You going somewhere, or are you just gonna stand in my way all night?”

“Oh.” He sidestepped again, pushing his back against the wall. She walked past him to the end of the alley and then paused.

“So?”

He stared at her, uncomprehending.

“You coming with?”

Starting forward, he pushed himself off the wall and followed her. She turned in the direction that would take them out of the city and Cameron thought he would’ve followed her even if she hadn’t.

“What’d you get him with?” he asked after a tense moment of silence.

She laughed, deep and rich. “My nails.”

Had to keep them from shooting Morgenrot in the fray. Had to keep them from shooting Eden in the fray. Somewhere along the line it had gone from Cam, on his own, to Cam, keeping an eye on every damn person east of the river.

The coyotes pulled their circle inward and he kicked out, striking one of them square in the stomach. He blasted another, his thumb finding the heat control and knocking it up a few—probably excessive—but the raw heat immolated the next target and he remembered how satisfying that was.

Somewhere in the midst of it the pressure of Eden at his back had disappeared. Now it was replaced with the muzzle of a gun finding a place between his shoulders, like it’d always belonged there. A sloppy shot. It’d still kill him.

He flung an elbow backward and Eden squawked. The sound of a body hitting the ground, but his elbow hadn’t connected with anything. He pivoted and there she stood, shaking her hand. The gun lay on the pavement a few feet back.

“You almost elbowed me in the fucking face, imbecile,” she said.

“You punched him?”

She made an incredulous face at him. “Uh, yeah.

“I gave you a gun.

She shrugged. And once again Eden lost any kind of transparency. Either that or Cam lacked the emotional intelligence to know whether or not she were playing at being so casual about dropping a coyote with a punch to the back of the head.

Eden walked away toward Morgen and Cam stared at her back.

“Uh, so I guess I’m carrying the moth?”

He startled forward and walked up beside her. They stared at Morgenrot for a long moment. She put her arm over his shoulders, then shifted her hand to his waist and squeezed him in an awkward hug.

Maybe once he would’ve flinched away from that sort of touch. It still reminded him a little of his mother or sister, the sort of warm familial affection that he’d burned away when he’d killed his dad. It still evoked that tickling burn at the back of his throat—guilt and betrayal and rage.

Still not quite knowing the protocol, he hooked his own arm around her shoulders and patted her arm before maneuvering out of her embrace to grab Morgen.

they forget so easily

prompt for 1/31: “You forget so easily.” DAI fanfic because come on, that prompt was made for Cole.

Cole felt cold.

Part of him recognized the dissonance in this, because how could a spirit feel something corporeal as cold? But it lingered, lying leisurely in his stomach, as he watched the rest of them carousing at one of the tables in the Inquisition’s grand hall.

He was accustomed to watching from the outside, face pressed against the windowpanes. His breath didn’t fog the glass but he wished it would. The ice threading its crystalline webs across the panes reminded him of the mage tower—it reminded him of Dorian with ice at his fingertips. Of Dorian’s laugh. Dorian was laughing, inside, clapping his palm down against the table, probably at a joke he’d told. Dorian found himself very funny—

“A wit such as mine is difficult to find, my spirituous friend,” he’d said. “But then, do you even appreciate humor?”

“I heard a joke once,” Cole had said, but Dorian had found that funny as well and the rest had been lost to laughter.

—“Hey, kid.”

Varric’s hand touched Cole’s shoulder and squeezed. Cole had learned not to jump because it upset Varric. He looked away from the window but the patterns the frost made felt frozen into his brain. Concentrating on the low beat of the dwarf’s heart—like someone rapping their knuckles on a piece of granite—made Cole feel calmer. Varric was the stone—sturdy and sane. He felt like coming back to Skyhold after a long absence—seeing the familiar keep and knowing you were safe. Varric was—warm and welcome, wise and wry. Cole liked him because dwarves kept their pain smothered beneath layers of stone, so it wasn’t so loud.

“I’m cold,” Cole said.

Varric chuckled.

“Nah, you’re Cole.

Cole’s mouth twisted.

“I know, I know. I was joking.”

“I heard a joke once.”

“Yeah, so Sparkler told me.”

Cole looked down, and the brim of his hate shadowed his eyes.

“Alright, what’s the matter, kid?” Varric said. “You know, it really won’t help Cassandra’s opinion of you if you’re always skulking outside of windows. In fact, please avoid hiding in dark hallways or in any closets, too.”

Cole couldn’t catch it, this feeling. So instead he said—

“I feel cold.”

“You gotta help me out a little, kid.”

“You forget so easily!” The words burst from him and Cole hated them—they felt like fire, fierce but fettered, falling to fracture whatever humanity he’d gained in Varric’s eyes. It burned, to feel this angry. “You say you trust me, you want me here, and then you blink and I see it! Every time anyone blinks I can see them forgetting.”

Because the world had always been cruel, Varric blinked and Cole watched the vague, subconscious surprise manifest again on the dwarf’s face.

“It doesn’t happen so much anymore, Cole,” Varric said. “There’s kind of a trick to it. I can talk to everyone else.”

“It makes me feel not worth remembering,” Cole said. “How can I help if nobody knows I’m real?”

Varric shrugged, lifting his hands.

“Why don’t we go inside? I’m cold, you’ve said fifteen times that you’re cold, seems like a good plan.”

Varric stepped to the side and placed his hand on the keep’s great doors, but he paused. He looked at Cole and this time he remembered.

“It’ll come. I think. Look, kid, I don’t even know what you are. If you’re a demon, I feel kind of weird for liking you as much as I do. If not—all of us are trying. And all of us want you here.”

“I’m helping?” Cole said. “Not hurting?”

“Helping.”

Varric pulled the doors open and walked inside, and Cole followed him. His heart beat a little faster when Adaar looked up with an exuberant greeting—but then, when the others began to call out to Varric, he realized what had happened. Varric turned around and scanned the area where Cole stood, his mouth down-turned in puzzlement. Then the dwarf turned back to the table and took a seat beside the Inquisitor.

Cole wandered to where Dorian sat and crawled onto the bench beside the mage. They’d notice him, in time. But it never lasted.

They forgot so easily.

salamander

once again nothing, but you can see more of Samuel here

Their first night together, Samuel awoke to Craiton sitting on a chair by the windowsill. The gentle morning sunlight played across a man nobody could describe as beautiful—his face was drawn in the craggy way Samuel knew well. He sat up and moved to the edge of the bed, ran his fingers over the intricate web of burns across Craiton’s shoulders.

Craiton flinched, the scowl evaporating from his face. For a moment he looked younger—like he had when he and Samuel had been boys kissing beneath the apple tree. When he’d possessed more blind idealism than blind hatred.

“Sorry about that,” Samuel said, allowing his fingers to linger over the burns. When Craiton turned to meet his eyes, Sam gave him a little smirk that said he wasn’t really that sorry.

“No you aren’t,” Craiton grumbled. “Besides, I like when it hurts a little.”

“Must be a mage thing.”

Samuel stood from the bed and moved to the windowsill, clutching the edge of it with his fingers curling under. It didn’t escape him, the way that Craiton’s face tightened a little. The erratic, masochistic thing that lived in Sam’s gut made him want to call Craiton a mage again and again, just to see the kind of power he would unleash. He’d witnessed it before—if he’d been anyone else besides the man they called Salamander, it might’ve frightened him.

“So what now?” Sam asked, because it didn’t escape him that Craiton had ambitions that overruled a brief fling with a childhood flame. Craiton had ambitions that involved marrying the king’s daughter. And he’d promised Sam a place within these ambitions, but Samuel didn’t think it involved being a lover. Craiton lifted his eyes, sharp and ruthless ordinarily but with a touch of softness reserved for Sam. He reached out and took Samuel’s hands.

“I love you,” he said.

“But.”

Craiton smiled, the expression breaking across his wide, angular face.

“But you know of my plans.”

“I have no intention of interfering,” Sam said. “I only intend to be a member of your army. A tool. A sword.”

Craiton narrowed his eyes, tightening his hands over Samuel’s.

“I intend for you to be much more than that,” he said. “I would make you my second.”

“Then I will serve you as a loyal and honorbound second.”

“Until your death.”

“Until my death.”

Samuel knew Craiton well enough to detect the note of delectation in his voice. He knew Craiton well enough to know that the man he loved was not a good man.

“This felt right,” Craiton said.

Samuel nodded.

“I would like to wake up beside you in the future.”

Again, Sam nodded. He knew his place had been decided the day they’d first met, as children. His place was beneath Craiton’s heel.

And he’d never been happier.

the cruelest prison

another old prompt from the same novel idea. Sarai and Shai belong to a race discovered on the island that have no discernible sexual dimorphism, so no concept of ‘gender’

The guilt caged her. It’d been something she’d done, she felt certain. Maybe the opium. She hadn’t told anyone, when it’d happened—not even Mr. Lindsey. He’d noticed her scrubbing blood off of the floor in the wash room and hadn’t said anything.

She hadn’t wanted it, at all. Children disrupted things. Made life complicated when Lindsey wanted everything in order. But since, she’d woken up in the middle of the night choking on loneliness. Afraid to go anywhere. Do anything. This expedition had been a reprieve—a way out of the bars that didn’t cage her. It felt wasted, now. She sat in the wan light of her lantern as the rain thundered against the heavy sailcloth tent over her.

Sarai ducked through the entrance, crouched there, blinking their enormous black eyes at her.

“Something’s up,” they said. “The angry one sent me to fetch you.”

Brendan. Always ordering her research assistant around. ‘Research assistant.’ Hah. Prisoner. Saboteur. Minor annoyance. Useful, though. Taller than Lindsey. Able to navigate the living swamp with relative ease. Lindsey stood up and followed Sarai out of the tent, eyes trained on the tall, slender, iridescent shape as they moved through the rain.

“Do you sleep?” Sarai said, pausing to allow her to catch up. Black eyes fixed on her and Lindsey looked away.

“No,” she said.

“I thought humans needed to sleep.”

“Research has shown it to be helpful for—thinking,” she mumbled, shaking her head and continuing on past Sarai.

“I believe that was a joke, Dr. Lindsey,” Sarai said. “But your speech patterns are not as evident as Connor’s.”

“Nobody’s speech patterns are as evident as Connor’s,” Lindsey said to herself, pushing through the brush toward where she saw a couple of lanterns glowing feebly through the black.

“Doctor,” Brendan said, waving her over. She frowned and ducked beneath a palm frond to reach him. The frond deposited a load of rainwater over her head for her trouble.

“Our scout came back like this,” Brendan said. He pointed downward. “Can you fix her? She’s distressed. We need to know what she found.”

Brendan, throwing around his false pronouns as usual. Lindsey scowled but she looked down and her breath caught in her throat. The creature—like Sarai and Shai—sat against a tree with a gash across their stomach. Blood, diluted by the rain, poured down their abdomen and legs. The skin had peeled back from the wound and decayed, and the rest of the creature’s flesh had begun to slough away. Like it did when a human touched them. Sheets of it sliding off. Coated the ground and the tree where the creature sat.

Lindsey tried to breathe but she couldn’t. She clenched her fists and they stayed like that, her throat tightening as she swallowed and then tried to speak and then swallowed again. The scent of it—their blood smelled like a rotting tree after a warm summer’s rain. It filled her nose, filled her senses, that putrid but warm and earthy smell. Different from hers. Different from the wash room and the smell of blood like wet copper, the feel of it warm on her fingers and legs. Chunks of—it—floating from her in the basin. Sobbing. Saying the names she’d chosen without telling Mr. Lindsey. Thomas for a boy. Sarah for a girl.

“Dr. Lindsey,” Sarai said. They touched her and she felt their skin peel off and adhere to her own.

“Nothing I can do,” she said, snapping her gaze back up to Brendan. “If I attempt to treat, will cause further damage to the skin. Can provide opium for comfort. Might become lucid if pain is lessened.”

Brendan stared at her. If he’d been Connor he would’ve asked about her clenched fists and tight, careful breathing. Brendan didn’t care. Lindsey liked him more because of it, even if he insisted on assigning genders to creatures that didn’t have them.

scavengers

Prompt from a while ago, just trying to … infuse some life into this. Prompt was “scavengers.”

From an old novel idea that I still may write, ~who knows~, about a voyage of discovery led by Brendan that turns into a mutiny on an island that transcends the bonds of reality.

The ancient texts, once deciphered, had said that the glass forest gave voice to the memories of the departed. That each fragile filament contained a remnant of a soul that had once inhabited this world—that some contained hints toward what worlds lay beyond.

Brendan stood amidst the trees and felt the leaves’ frigid touch against his skin, cool like ice but without the wet. He’d read all the texts, he’d listened to Connor painstakingly translate them, glasses on, that look of scholarly disapproval appearing whenever Brendan had interrupted him. The memory caused physical pain, a knot of hurt lodged in his sternum. He thought—I wish I’d listened to him, more. Talked less. But the thought was fleeting and he allowed himself to marvel at the world around him, a world he’d conquered but scarcely explored.

He’d scoured the texts but he’d never been to the glass forest. And he’d come here on a whim—woken up this morning and Connor wasn’t there, not even the shell of Connor he’d come to expect and rely on. A memory had come swimming back—

“It is said that the memories of the dead whisper with each flash of the sun through the leaves, and the wind stirring the trees is the voice of the past.”

“Yes, but—strategically, an army led through a forest made of glass would be disastrous.”

Connor glanced up from his reading, lifting an eyebrow archly at Brendan.

“I think you’re not quite grasping how beautiful—“

“I’m a warrior, Connor.” Brendan smiled and he felt ugly, twisted up inside, like being a warrior hadn’t ever been a choice. Not once he’d replaced Connor on the Boadecea. The thought had lashed through him not for the first time—anger at the events that had made him into this.

“I would think a warrior, more than anyone, would long for the whispers of the dead.”

—strange, how it’d taken him this long to recognize the truth in that. He crouched a little beneath the trees, the sun through the multi-faceted, multicolored glass blinking and blinding. Fear gripped him and he didn’t like it—because the whispers of the dead wouldn’t only be Connor. If he stilled his mind he’d hear them rising, the tormented, accusatory roar of those he’d left trampled in his wake.

Strength left him and he sat down carefully, being that the forest floor was littered with shed glass leaves. Now, a scavenger in the world he’d created, Brendan sat still and he listened, but the only noise the wind stirred from the trees was the shrill, grating scrape of glass on glass. No whispers. No voices from the past. No explanation for why the fulcrum of his conquest and then his life had one day begun to waste away. No explanation for why he’d faltered, when—

“Please, Brendan, please give me my sword.” Connor had been sobbing for a while, his eyes bloodshot, his pale skin blotchy and red. He’d woken Brendan up by pushing his shaking fingers into the younger man’s hair, so that the first thing Brendan saw upon waking was the look of tortured longing in Connor’s eyes.

“Why?” Brendan knew the answer.

But Connor didn’t give it. Just stared.

“Go back to sleep.”

The remnants of Connor’s affection had spoiled, turned to resentment and the most pathetic, feeble sort of anger in the weeks that’d followed. Brendan had watched him fade into a husk that he hardly knew and hardly acknowledged, because Connor had exuded the sort of fragile weakness that the warrior in Brendan needed to extinguish. He’d denied Connor the last opportunity to die of his own volition.

He wished he felt guilty. He wished he heard anything in the glass forest.