Happy Valentine’s Dead (1)

As always, she delivered. There was never a trace, never a mess.

Honestly, I don’t know how she did it, and I never cared to ask.
She came referred to me by someone she used to work for; they parted on bad terms, and she shot him in the knee, but even then, he admired her work.

“Best I ever saw.”

“Rate?”

He told me. It was up there, but workable.
”All right.”

 

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

 

She came in looking like new pearls; guess that made me the swine.

Short red dress, body like a tight spring, killer legs, not too made up, soft perfume, the whole nine, then nine more.

Now I realized why he kept her after she shot him; she was the kind of woman who could do that to a man and be forgiven instantly. Hell, I forgave her, then and there, and she never even took her gun out.

She crossed the killer legs, let me look my fill and travel my way up; when I finally got to her eyes, they were amused, and she was smiling like the Cheshire Cat.

“Do I pass…inspection?”

“With flying colors.”

She uncrossed the legs and leaned forward, eyes no longer amused, and told me her terms.

“I work alone. No cops, no tails. If I get wind of anyone, anyone, I’m giving you a refund, but I’m coming after you.”

I sat back, steepled my fingers, intrigued.

“You shouldn’t tip your hand so early.”

“I don’t care; I need to get to Mexico.”

“Why Mexico?”

She looked at me as I’d just fallen on my head and changed color.

“Why not Mexico?”

I shrugged. “Why not?”

I told her the job, and gave her a down payment, the rest to be paid upon completion.

“So, just to be clear, I work for you now?”

I held out my hand: “You can always give it back.”

We locked eyes for a few moments, before she brightened, smiled, and winked, all flirtatious play, like a shark bumping a hole in your sea cage.

“See you later, boss” she said, and left.

She did it in two days. No trace.

I paid her double.

 

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

She went on to do a few more jobs.

I liked her sass; you didn’t see girls with sass anymore; in my day, I might’ve held her for a bit, but she’d have burned me like acid.

I’d have melted away a happy man…

“My money?”

“Right there, Valentine.”

I pointed to the briefcase.

“Yes, they’re not marked, blah blah,” I said waving a dismissive hand.

“I trust you, Kent.”

“You should. How long we been together now?”

She smiled. “A gentleman remembers her birthday, never her age.”

“Ha, listen to you. You’re still in diapers, and you didn’t make that up.”

“I read, peasant.”

I laughed.

“Anything else for me,” she said.

“Might be, Valentine. Gimme a day or so.”

“You’re the only one that calls me ‘Valentine,’ Kent. Everyone else says ‘V’ or ‘Val’.

I got up, stretched, yawned, then said to her, “I ain’t everyone else. I like the way your name sounds. I like you, and I’d love to…well, if you’d let me, but that gets…”

“Expensive?” she teased.

I cleared my throat, then answered her.“Costly.”

She laughed then. “Charmer.”

She picked up the briefcase.

“Til next time, lover man.”

“If you’re ever feeling lonely…”

“I’ll call you.” She turned and blew me a kiss. “Promise.”

I never saw her again.

When they found what was left of her, I bawled like a kid.

Back Where I Started, but It’s All New

Blogging 101: Assignment 1  Introduce Yourself

I started writing late in life, after some things had happened, after some losses and victories, after some pain, after some memories were made. It’s been an interesting journey, and this is not where I saw myself in my younger days.

There are a lot of us who can probably say that, but it’s what you do with it when you realize it that matters.

That being said, I’m glad I’m here. I’ve learned some things about me on the way, things that I liked about myself, things I achieved that I didn’t think I was capable of, and I’m looking forward to what the future holds for me.

There have, of course, been setbacks, but I’m not the type to sit down and accept defeat. I guess I got that from my father, and watching him do his projects. He never took a short cut when it got difficult, and a shortcut was available. And the one time he was tempted to do it I was so surprised that he even told me he was thinking about it, he changed his mind, and we did it the right way.

But I knew then that he was slowing down…

So the characters and lands and stories are here; the young and old are here; the lovers and the warriors are here, the men and women, the children, the dragons, the demons, the magic (both dark and light) are all clamoring to get out while they can, and since I don’t believe in holding onto things or people against their will, I’m going to free as many as I can in the time that remains.

My goal, quite simply, is to write full time for the rest of my life, and leave a body of work that helps, entertains, provokes thought, and establishes across our man-made boundaries of insignificant trivialities (race, class, religion, etc) a common bond.

I want  my readers to be, in a word, immersed in the worlds of my imagination, and to come out better for the time they invested there.

It’s a lofty goal, but why aim low?

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

The Muse came into my office, looking like new pearls.

Guess that made me the swine.

She moved in close, her hands over my shoulders. I stood up, not wanting her to trap me. I had other things to do…she closed the distance again, standing a little away from me, but close enough to be distracting.

That perfume…like a new book at sunrise.

“But Alfred, don’t you understand” she said, her hand cool and soft on my cheek “it’s difficult to find an agent?”

I took her hand away, walked back across the office behind my desk, took out a pack of Luckies and a lighter.

“Yeah, I do. So let me ask you, doll,” I lit the cigarette, squinting at her curvy beauty through the unfurling, infernal smoke. … “When was it easy?”

 

The Making of Vy Rill (2)

2:

She was very much aware of his presence, though her body had been sleeping.

He did not realize that there was nothing he could do to her that she did not allow, for as he smeared her blood across his fingertips and tasted her, a thread of his dead spirit filtered in through her, and initially corrupted, then enhanced her nature.

Enduring the sickness, she did not let him see her tremble, and through some miracle, managed to hold her gorge.

He was not merely old, but ancient, and smelled of the dust and bones of ancient catacombs long buried and forgotten.

She also felt the essence of his lust, a thin, light band of energy over the corruption; she saw the faces of women, lovely and in their physical prime, saw the bodies writhing beneath him, grinding over him, and what he did with them when it was over.

Multiple abattoirs dotted the landscape where he’d been at work.

She made a silent vow to avenge them all.

 

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

   “Janyris,” said her father, “this dabbling in things mortal is not for you; it will come to no good end. You must be ready to ascend your station when your mother passes.”

   For awhile, she complied, and played the dutiful daughter until her mother actually passed, not in the traditional sense; she merely went to the underworld and never returned.

   Her father was suspect that she had gone voluntarily, to be with the gods that dwelt there, but he dared not go after her, for fear of finding out if that were true.

   He’d been a good father, but as to husband, Janyris couldn’t say.

   She left too, unannounced, unsuspected, and left her father to fend for himself, and find succor where he would.

   She observed the mortals for awhile, creatures of habit, and routine, much like ants and migratory birds, scattering in panics when crisis came, then banding together to rally and rebuild, if they could.

   They were boring, but she admired their tenacity to survive and keep their mundane species in existence.

   In time, they came to amuse her, and she was content to meddle in minor ways, until one day, she saw something that piqued her interest, and went into a deeper world.

   A small boy was sleeping, the moonlight soft on his innocent face, and she saw a shadow in his room detach itself, and come to stand by his bed.

Its eyes were open, and a pale violet shade.

She grew intrigued, and looked closer.

The shadow reeked of death and evil; she dared draw no closer, lest it sense her presence; indeed, it had already looked up at the ceiling twice, sensing something, and she wasn’t sure she’d hidden in time, but as it didn’t pursue her, she knew she wasn’t seen.

   This was the sort of being that killed when discovered.

   He took the boy’s hand, and pricked the skin of his index finger with a long nail of his own.

   The child thrashed under his covers, then grew still, and the shadow retreated.

   As the sun rose, the boy’s body simply dissipated, skin melting into bone melting into the dust motes in the light of the morning sun, and his body simply drifted apart, his soul taken and his flesh removed.

   The parents were in agony, and did not last long together, and in their isolation, grew despondent, and died not long thereafter.

   She wanted to go to them, but she dared not.

 

Then came the fateful night they met, and she made her vow in front of him.

He saw the glimmer of something in her, and showed his true face, and she knew in that moment she had him.

And now he was a part of her, and she of him.

It was going to be glorious fight.

Ah, my dear Rillion, you don’t know what you’ve done. Taking your soul will redeem my own, and the damnation that awaits you is beyond description.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.   2015

The Making of Vy Rill

1)

By the light of a single candle, she lay sleeping.

He knew from what she’d told him before that the glow made her feel warm inside, the color and motion of the flame always pleased her eyes; she’d fallen asleep watching it.

High above, the moon shone what light it could from the cratered crescent slice hanging in the heavens.

Her raven braids, thin and intricate, languished across the pillow that cradled her head.

Her honey brown skin glistened with amber highlights.

He looked at her form, outlined in the covers; it was curvy and full, and if he’d still been mortal, he’d have found himself stirred as in the days of old.

She was beautiful, but it wasn’t enough; she was good, kind, loving, even-tempered, patient, and loyal.

Long were the months he watched her, through seasons, through years, past her first decade, just short of her full second. He observed her almost daily then, interacting with the people in her life. The times she lost her temper, her composure, and control were rare, but she was human, after all, and he’d seen those times as well.

Even then, she would not lash out; she would cry and rail and scream, but she never hurt anyone, or anything. For the most part, she carried out her tantrums in the privacy of her room.

In his last choosing, he’d chosen an exceptional girl; she’d been so in every way, but he soon found there was nothing to mold, nowhere for him to begin to groom her for who she was to become.

Her inherent arrogance, combined with her beauty and her newly bestowed gifts, made her insufferable, and in the end, in a violent, savage act, he took her life.

This girl, while above average, would prove to be more pliable; her heart was naturally giving, and that would be to his advantage.

He was indeed grateful they’d evolved; no longer the red, messy biting and tearing, however subtle and sublime, of tender flesh, warm to the touch, the coppery ambrosia of life flowing into, and down, sating hunger, inciting passion, as lips, teeth and tongue formed a trifecta of perfect murder, picturesque deaths.

Now, he had but to take her hand, so he did.

She didn’t wake, but stirred, undulating under the covers, a soft little moan on her sweet lips. She instinctively pulled her hand back, and he let it go.

The deed was done. The pinprick of his fingernail had drawn her blood in through the flesh pads of his fingers. He smeared her blood across them, felt the warmth of it, saw the soul-glow inside of it.

 

He licked his index finger and almost swooned at the taste. It was tempting to take more than he needed with this one. Her blood was as sweet as her personality, but he refrained.

There was something else in her blood,, something he didn’t expect.

There would be others to draw from soon, and he would have his fill, but this one was special.

He’d met her years ago as a child, and there was something in her eyes that recognized him for what he was, yet she’d shown no fear.

She was enchanting, until she told him something that piqued his curiosity.

“I’m going to kill you one day.”

A pinprick of rage briefly altered his features into the demonic, but it was only a flash.

She was the only one who saw it, and she grinned.

He saw the red glimmer of the seed in her eyes as she looked at him, and vowed he’d come back for her.

This was that time; he was calling her to him, and would mark her as his.

If she could still kill him after that, it would be no small feat; her power would be great indeed.

Greater than his.

And that, he could not allow.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015

Choose Them Wisely, Guard Them Well (continued)

“Dr.Chen?

She was startled out of her reverie.

I have to stay focused. Caroline is the mission now.

She did, however, have some questions for the General.

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“I just heard that…”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Do you–?”

“No, no. There was nothing to be done for it.”

She looked around, then back at Harris. “For any of it, really.”

He nodded. “Are you all packed?”

“I’m ready to go, yes.”

“Follow me, please. I know you know the way, but there are clearances that  you don’t have. They seem pointless, now, I know, but everyone seems determined to embrace the comfortable until the end.”

“I understand.”

She followed him.

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

General Williams was waiting at the dock.

“Teri, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you, General.” She straightened her shoulders. “I do have a question: if I’d requested my family be evacuated and brought here, was there anything that could have been done?”

Williams didn’t hesitate, and his own eyes clouded a bit as he shook his head.

“Nothing is going to be done for any of us. I won’t see my family again. My grandkids…”

“Oh.” She looked down, and her voice sounded small and far away. Of course others have family that are not going to see them before they go; at least you got to see yours, and you know what happened, and when, and why. There are so many others who will never have those questions answered.

He continued. “And to what end, doctor? You said it yourself, destruction is imminent. Make peace with it, Teri. With yourself, too. We’re going to need you now more than ever.

She lifted her eyes to his. “I will complete the mission, sir.”

Williams smiled. “Unfortunately, we’ll never see the outcome, but I have every faith in you.”

A faint tremor vibrated the floor beneath them.

Voices were raised, and the mood instantly grew more somber and intense, and not a little fearful.

“Time to launch, sir.” said Harris.

“Thank you, captain obvious.”

They all laughed.

“Teri?” Williams extended his arm expansively, inviting her to go aboard, as if he were the captain of a cruise ship, and not the doomed general of yet another science facility that wandered too far from its walls.

“Kyro’s already strapped in,” Harris said, extending his hand. “It’s been an honor, Teri.”

She watched him closely, but his face betrayed nothing but fondness, and a trace of sadness they would no longer be working together. Beyond that, there was nothing she could decipher. Either Kyro really wasn’t his son, or he was gifted at deceiving.

She took the proffered hand. “Same here, Ken.”

She released his hand, and turned to board. Glancing over at Kyro, his head had lolled to the side, so he was already asleep. Good, she didn’t feel like engaging an assassin. She looked out at the black, weightless expanse of dotted with white fire.

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

No family. No longer a wife. No longer a mother. Just these children now. And Caroline, who will cause no end of grief on the new colony.

If it weren’t for her, I would’ve been able to join them,  see them, hold them…but she has given me a life devoid of meaning. With no one to share with, to spend time off with, to do anything with; I’m going alone.

Her evil intentions mean nothing to me, but because of her, I’m forced to go on, when all I want to do is die.

So I will stop her. I will make her pay for what she’s done to me; every day I stay alive, I will make her pay. Every memory, she will pay.

The stars blurred, and she realized she was crying. This time, she didn’t bother fighting it.

“….three….two….one….we are launched. All automated systems are functioning normally.”

“Safe journey, Dr. Chen.”

“Goodbye.”

Her voice came out more than a whisper, less than a sob; it was not just meant for her colleagues. It was to everything that had made her up to this moment.  She wasn’t just on her way to a new colony, but on her way to becoming something else.

Chapter 3:

The tremors were becoming more violent. Williams and Harris could’ve enlisted the help of others, but they’d either left or were trying to find a place to exit, though where they’d go if the ground was crumbling, Harris had no idea.

“The Naissance is ready, General.”

“Thanks, Harris. Caroline?”

“She’s in her pod.”

“Is there any way to extract her covertly?”

Harris gave him a grim smile. “She changed all the protocols, sir. You said it yourself, she’s ten steps ahead of us.”

“What I want to know is when did she have time to do all this, and if someone helped her. Have security run video from the last thirty days on all the bay doors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If Teri can’t get to her, maybe one of the others will do us all a favor and stab her in the back.”

Harris looked away.

“I’m sorry, Harris. That was out of line.”

“What was, sir?”

Williams smiled.

Another tremor boomed, and the building swayed like an empty swing in a storm wind.

Both men lost their footing, and when the tremor subsided, they pushed themselves up along the walls behind them, the portion that remained intact. As they were in the northernmost station, it could only mean that now the entire planet was all but consumed from within.

No one knew if it would be another hour, or another day, but they all knew they were living on borrowed time now.

“General?”

Williams had gained his feet, and helped Harris up the rest of the way.

“I’m listening.”

“We still control the launch, sir. We don’t have to send them.”

“I’ve thought of that, but to kill all for the sake of one…as I said, they may do it for us, and we’ve already programmed them as well.”

“Just an option, sir. Still on the table as long as we don’t–”

An alarm blared through the station, but there was no tremor.

“What in the hell–?” WIlliams blustered.

“Naissance has pre-launched. Repeat, repeat, Naissance has pre-launched!”

Williams and Harris found the nearest com station; the young attendant was punching keys but coming up empty.

“Onscreen, young lady!”

“Trying, sir! Please give me a minute…”

Harris put up a restraining hand, and Williams backed away.

The screen flickered, went out, flickered again, and flared to life, stabilizing.

The ship came into view, and the shot of its interior showed the floor was empty.

They watched as the ship sailed over the station below, the shadow blocking out the starlight glittering like strewn gems spilled in ink.across the top,

“Retractors?”

“Offline, sir. Damaged.”

“We’re going to lose it.” The ship was past the station, clearing the harbor.

A hologram of Caroline sitting in the captain’s chair filled the screen.

“Hello, General Williams. I managed to gain access to the ship’s computers days ago, when the tremors first started.

“I programmed the ship to override the safety protocols and release the locks if the magnitude went above four-point-five. If you’re seeing this, then the ship is already loose and on its way.”

All three of them shook their heads in wonder; they’d badly underestimated her intelligence; in no way they measured it was she able to pull this off.

“I had no idea, of course, if it would actually work, but I guess I’ll know if I wake up dead,” she smiled at the weak joke,  “or if we’re still in that hellhole you call a station. And if the magnitude of the tremors is beyond that, then the creature is about to tear the place apart.

“I hope it doesn’t come after us, General, but so be it if it does. Either way, I won’t be able to send those reports I promised you.

“Farewell, sir. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to my father.”

She leaned forward, and the camera zoomed in on those dark, glittery eyes.

“Never.”

The com went blank again.

“Shoot it down, sir?”

Williams said nothing.

“Sir?”

“Check the weapons.”

The young attendant pushed more buttons.

“Nothing, sir. Offline.”

Williams felt his shoulders slumping yet again.

Outwitted by a thirteen year old girl…

Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d been wrong to sign up all those years ago.

A loud rumbling filled the hall, and things began to sway and rattle and fall and slide.

The floor bucked beneath him, and he flipped over backward, catching the corner of a moving desk, the corner cracking a hole in his skull; he could see the blood running from under his head as his vision began to fade.

I thought it was the right thing to do. ran through his mind as he passed into oblivion.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

Choose Them Wisely, Guard Them Well

“Are you sure, Dr. Chen?”

“Yes, General. All signs point to imminent destruction. We’ve done all we can to stop it, but it keeps finding ways to advance; either it keeps attacking the structures we’ve already managed to put in place, or it finds a weak spot, or it grows something to get around and find a new path.

“Those concern us most, because we can’t keep pace, and it advances most quickly when it’s unobstructed. It’s infiltrated too much of the planet, and when it pulls itself into the core, it will push outward.”

“What happens then?”

“It will be nearly double in size, but then it won’t be able to sustain itself with the depleted energy from the core, and it will push the planet’s hemispheres to either side, ripping it in half. Then it will move on to the next planet it deems edible.”

“And then?”

Dr. Chen shrugged. “It’s been an honor to work with you, sir.”

He sighed. “You as well, Teri.”

They shook hands, and he walked away, as Chen turned back to what remained of her duties, more to fill the time until the end than have any real hope of stopping the creature that was leeching on their planet’s core from the inside.

“General Williams,” Lieutenant Harris said in greeting. “They’re ready, sir.”

“And the maternal units?”

“Ready as well.”

“Hunters?”

“All of them, sir. Every facet, every child has been pre-programmed to fulfill their duties on the new colony.”

Williams nodded. “Well done, Harris. I want Teri to go with them, too. Is there room?”

“Dr. Chen, sir?”

“Yes.”

“With all due respect sir, may I ask why?”

“With all respect taken, lieutenant, you can ask away,” Williams smiled. “The need for formality is somewhat moot at this point, Harris.”

Harris visibly relaxed.

“The children are going to need a physician; she’s a medical biologist, a pioneer in genetics, and she’s got a family of her own that she won’t be able to get back in time to see. She’s resigned herself, but I don’t see the need to waste her talents and abilities. There are things she can train the children to do medically that may be needed later on.”

“I understand. But she’ll be the only adult.”

“Who said that? What about the others we were sending down to build the structures, and provide for the children until their pods were safe?”

“It’s a little hard to explain, General.”

“Then try hard, lieutenant.”

“Caroline said she didn’t want any adults, sir.”

“Caroline? She’s thirteen years old! She’s–”

“She’s going to be the planet’s ruler, sir. She’s light years ahead of the others in intellect, in potential, in physical superiority. Her father–”

“Messed with her genetics, I remember. It’s why Teri replaced him.”

“It’s also why she’s…resentful…of anything you recommend.”

“Let me talk to her.”

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

The com flared to life.

Caroline’s face filled the screen. Everything about her was dark, as if an aura sculpted her form. Raven curls draped over her shoulder, caramel colored skin, exotic, dark eyes that glittered with intelligence, and something of amused condescension in her attitude toward the General.

“General Williams. It’s an honor, sir.”

“What the hell are you doing, kid?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me that again. That will be your only warning.”

Williams sighed. ” You’re going to need those people, Caroline. They’re going to build your homes, your roads, and provide whatever else you need.”

“We need nothing these men will provide, General. They are symbols of the old world, and simply have no place in the new.”

“How are you going to fend for yourselves?”

“Let me worry about that; the others will fall into line.”

“You’ll all be asleep.”

She laughed. “Oh, General Williams. You’re adorable.”

He heated at the tone of her voice.

“What have you done?”

“I reprogrammed my pod, sir. I will be the first to awaken, by a day, at least. I’ll report my findings to you as I go. Keep you in the loop; it’s a courtesy of course, and temporary. As the others awake, I’ll have already established myself.”

“Dr.-”

Off camera, Harris quickly shook his head.

“What?”

“Dr. Chen said you’re all ready.”

“We are, sir. I will miss Dr. Chen. And General, please don’t send them down after us.”

“Why would you think–?”

“You’ve read my file, General?”

“I have.”

“I’ve read yours as well. Never mind how.” Again, the condescending smile and tone. “If you send them, I will have them killed.”

General Williams’ shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry we elected to send you, Caroline. We really should have killed you.”

“You should have, but like I said, sir, I read your file. You’re much too ambitious. You were foolish to think you were going to get the credit for producing a prodigy like me. Now, it’s come to nothing, and you’ve given me the opportunity to thrive.

“For that much, at least, I thank you.” Her eyes scanned the ship’s systems, then she looked back at Williams. “The time is near, General, and I don’t think we’ve anything left to say, other than good-bye.”

“Good bye, Caroline. I hope your pod is the first to burn.”

She laughed again, with no mirth, her eyes never leaving his, a light in them that struck a spark of fear in his spine, and the com went blank.

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

“Why did you keep me from telling her about Teri?”

“We’ll have to send her down separately, sir. Caroline can’t know she’s there. Teri has to deprogram her.”

“How’s she going to do that? Caroline is about ten steps ahead of us.”

“I have someone else in mind to send, who can bring her close enough; with his help, they can isolate Caroline, and if they can’t deprogram her…”

“He’ll kill her.”

Harris nodded.

“See it done, Harris.”

“Right away, sir.”

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

“I’m going?”

“They’re going to need a doctor, and we need you to  reprogram Caroline’s genetics. She’s growing unstable, arrogant.”

“I thought that might happen; she was exhibiting, but part of that was also being thirteen.”

“She’s only thirteen physically. Mentally, she’s beyond genius, and even physically, she trounces the kids in activities, even some of the boys.”

“That’s a shame; had she stayed within parameters, we could have had something great there.”

“It’s not over yet, Dr. Chen.” Harris said. “Our last shot to salvage her…is you.”

Dr. Chen nodded. “Understood.”

“But you won’t be going alone.”

“You’re sending an assassin in case the new genetics don’t take…”

“How did you know?”

“I haven’t been working here all this time with my head stuck in a test tube, Lieutenant.”

Harris smiled. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t. Let’s meet him.”

The door slid open, and a young boy of thirteen entered.

“Dr. Chen, this is  Kyro.”

“Kyro,” she stuck out her hand. Kyro took it.

“Dr. Chen.”

She looked at Lieutenant Harris. “He’s a little young to be an assassin, isn’t he?”

“I thought you didn’t have your head stuck in a test tube, Teri. Kyro’s been programmed with the methods and weapons knowledge of the world’s elite assassins from the last fifty years. His options are limitless, his methods impeccable. Blades, poisons, bombs, guns, mines….”

“I get it, Lieutenant. He’s a buffet of death.”

“That’s a rather colorful way to put it, but yes.”

“I’ll go pack,” she said.

She looked back over her shoulder, saw Harris and Kyro conferring, heads close, eyes locked, but just before the door closed, she thought she saw Harris say the word ‘son.’

She went to a computer, punched in Kyro’s name, but nothing came up.

“Of course, he doesn’t exist.”

Chapter 2:

The country was in upheaval, her husband said. Buildings were already falling to the south. It was just a matter of time.

He didn’t cry, and neither did she.

“Let me see the kids,” she said.

He put them on the com; their faces were afraid, but resigned.

“There’s nothing you can do, right mommy?”

“If I could, you know I’d kill this thing to protect you.”

“We know, mom, ” her daughter, the oldest, said. “Dad’s kept us safe so far.”

“I wish we could join you, ” her husband said, “but I know they won’t send anything.”

“I could try.”

“I won’t lie to you, Teri: we’re terrified. If they can send anything, then you should try.”

The picture on the com wavered, rocked.

Her husband gave her a wan smile. “Never mind.”

“I love you,” she said. Her vision blurred and her eyes grew hot, “I love you all.”

She put her hand on the screen, and they all placed theirs on it, and they stayed that way for a moment or two, and then the picture rocked again, more violently, and her family fell away from view, her husband’s strong arms still around the kids as they crashed to the floor, and the com went blank.

She didn’t remember the rest of the day.

I didn’t do all I could to save them….kept running through her mind.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015

The War of Canticles

In the aftermath of the devastation, none of the Great Halls remained.

Stone, marble, fine cloth, weapons, and instruments from around the known world lay in smoking, shattered heaps, among lumps of broken bone and shredded flesh, littering the valley, and the smoke, still thick, roiled back on itself and grew larger, like a confused stampeding crowd. Sprawling across the cloud-strewn sky, it hid the bodies from the view of carrion birds, and small fires, safe from the coming spring rain, still burned in protected places, unchecked, but unable to do anymore damage.

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

Singers Hall was completely destroyed.

Lorelei woke up, her throat raw from the smoke, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, her clothes torn, and her thoughts rambling. Her book wasn’t far from her, but it was singed.

Gingerly, she picked it up, lifting with her fingertips; bits of charred paper fell off and flew away, but only from the edges. The book itself was sound, its pages untouched by fire, still readable, with all of her notes in the margins.

That, and the clothes on her back, were all she had.

She was able to stand, and slowly got to her feet, not wanting to be prone in case whoever did this was searching the rubble to kill the wounded.

She took a look around, and tears not born of smoke filled her eyes…

That was good, because it caused her not to focus.

There was a general impression of carnage, of blood, of bodies broken and torn, but she didn’t look at anyone’s face, didn’t allow herself to recognize, and remember, because she’d be paralyzed by fear and grief, and there was no telling who was coming.

So she waited, and collected her thoughts, as the soft spring rain began to fall.

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

Footsteps crunched over stone.

A fallen pillar hid her from view, but hiding didn’t occur to her.

She wanted to see if whoever it was had been responsible for what happened; what she would do then, she didn’t know.

Her throat, however, was still raw from smoke and dust, so a canticle of binding was out of the question. She had her training, but no weapons, so with the only recourse left to her, she picked up a sharpened piece of the fallen pillar.

There would only be one chance.

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

A boy stood on the fallen pillar, but above her.

Shielding his eyes against the rain with his hand, he scanned the remains of Singers Hall, and Lorelei used the time to observe him.

He was brown, all over, from his skin to his clothing, to the small harp in a brown case strapped to his back. She could see the burnished scrollwork at the end poking out of a corner of the case. He was a stranger in these lands, but if he’d made Musicians Hall here, he was indeed talented.

She looked some more.

He was bald, almost hairless to the point of babyhood, and had a dark gleam about him, brimming with some unknown power, but he seemed whole, and strong, and about her age; he wouldn’t need looking after then, but she was still reluctant to reveal herself.

Seeing nothing, he turned to go.

If he leaves, you’ll be traveling alone, for who knows how long, facing who knows what?

“Wait!” She stepped out from hiding.

He turned, surprised, but wary.

She scrambled up the pillar, put herself on level with him, and they stood, taking each other in.

“You survived,” he finally said.

“So did you. Did you see anything?”

“Bodies, ruin, and fire, not much else. You?”

“The same. None of the Halls are intact. I thought they might be walking around to kill the wounded, so I got up.”

“I don’t think they needed to; they were pretty efficient. And it might not have been wise for you to get up, since they would’ve killed you for real.”

“I’m no good at pretending to be dead if I’m not.”

“No,” he smiled, “me neither.”

He walked back toward her, but didn’t offer his hand.

She didn’t take offense; the Musicians never offered their hands, which they held as transporters of their craft to enter this world from the next, so they were sacrosanct, and kept untainted.

“I’m Devon.”

“Lorelei.”

“Now there’s a name for a Singer.”

She smiled, pointed to his back.

“Harp?”

“Among other things, none of which survived; this will have to do for now.”

The rain fell harder.

“Let’s find shelter, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

“We already have shelter.”

He looked at her.

“We can stay right here, under this pillar, and wait out the rain.”

“You could do that? Your friends’ corpses lay here, your teachers…”

“None of whom would mind. Is there any point to blundering about in the rain, not knowing where we are, or where we’re going?”

Besides, I’ve already mourned, in secret, where no one could see.

He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t argue the validity.

She was already scrambling back underneath the pillar.

Intrigued by her practicality, if surprised at the hardness of her decision, he followed.

2:

The rain continued falling, steady, after dark, and they went hungry that night, though they managed to make a fire.

In the morning, the sun came out, the smoke cleared, and a herald crow sounded the breakfast bell.

They left, still dampened in clothes and spirit, and began to try to find a path out.

As they searched, she thought back to her first day.

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

Her teacher was a walking willow stick; everything about her was wispy, like the pink, fluffy candy of country fairs, sweetness without substance, but that was only on the surface.

  “You have been chosen as Singers; you are above the pale and beyond the norm, and this is now your home. Everything, and I mean everything, you need, or ever will need, is here.

   “There is no need to go skulking about in the woods, like trolls and brigands. The sacrifice of your voice in offering replaces what is left of your life. You no longer have families, or friends, or lovers, save those you meet here.

   “You are given no outside indulgences to detract from your training, for while you are superior, you are not yet fully formed.

   “And it is I who will form you, from now on.”

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

The days were grueling, the nights sometimes more so.

   Willow, for that is what Lorelei called her, was relentless, merciless, and sometimes cruel.

  Lorelei had been at turns beaten, starved, made to sleep standing up, and a few things in between, but last month, at the end of her fourth year, Willow had given her the book, Blessed Canticles. Her own copy, signed with Willow’s own hand.

   “To Lorelei, you have been blessed beyond your worth, but you have earned it, and done well.”

   She later found out, when she went to see what Willow had written for the others, that hers was the only book signed.

  Gradually, they’d fallen off, wondering what she’d done to gain such favor, when they had all been equally punished and rewarded, seemingly solely based on Willow’s whims.

   The imposed shunning hurt, the exile to a table of her own as they left at her approach even more so, but there it was.

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

“And now, I’m all that’s left…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Nothing, Devon, just thinking out loud.”

3:

“We’ve flushed her out into the open, Lord Karis; she travels with a bard.”

“A bard? Indeed, two for the price of one. I’m pleased, Jahrin.”

Jahrin smiled; he didn’t like when Karis wasn’t pleased.

“May I ask a question, Lord Karis?”

“You may.”

“What do you want with the Singer?”

Karis looked out the window, distracted, but he’d heard the question.

“I will answer you, Jahrin. If I hear it on the lips of anyone else, your tongue is forfeit. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Lord Karis.”

Karis sighed, and walked over to a table, where he took a book of white and gold, and placed it before Jahrin.

“I…I can’t read, Lord…”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Karis walked away, and began to sing, a minor key, that sounded something like a dirge, slow, sonorous, and foreign sounding, and Jahrin closed his eyes, shuddering in his seat, held by something that frightened him beyond words.

His teeth chattered, and tears leaked copiously from his eyes, and when the song ended, and he was finally released, he slumped forward.

The cover was bleary in his vision, and he clumsily wiped his eyes with an overlarge hand, breathing hard.

And the cover said,

The Canticles of War

 “Lord Karis…Lord Karis…I…I can..”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Jahrin remained speechless, reading the words over and over again, wanting to hug the book to him; he dared not touch it, and ran to the shelves, pulling things at random, reading, books and parchments gathering around him like sand.

Karis, enjoying his servant’s excited mood, stopped on his way out to give him a look.

Jahrin’s eyes were bright with happy tears.

“Now imagine what I could do, Jahrin, if I had her power.”

He thought about taking the words from Jahrin, leaving him illiterate again, but that would be cruel, even for him.

This might be actually prove to be useful, later.

He could hear Jahrin’s laughter echo in the hall, and the crash of more books falling off the shelves.

Quite useful, indeed.