On The Wrong Foot

Happy Friday, Readers! I had some fun with this week’s Friday Fictioneers – there was so much more I wanted to write! Hope you will enjoy this snippet.

Copyright J Hardy Carroll

On The Wrong Foot

The thick iron gates of City Prime shut with a clang. Heavily armed guards barred the entrance. On either side stood massive scanners, some of the only “real” technology in the city. Val’s mechanical foot twitched as if sensing the scanner’s attention.

Cyborgs like Val were illegal in City Prime. In fact, most technology was. Ever since the Blackout and the AI War, the civil leaders mandated a “back to basics” way of life and the citizens were officially “unplugged.”

To save his sister, Val had to go in. He looked down. He would have to leave his foot behind.

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Unsettled, But Setting Out

Hello Readers.

This is going to be my last post about Stella and Griffin for a while. I’ve decided to expand this story, and it’s going to be my focus for Camp National Novel Writing Month in April. I hope you won’t mind the wait! It will be worth it (I hope). If you need a refresher before starting this story, check out their last adventure here.

Sorry in advance for a cliffhanger….enjoy!

Via Pinterest.

Unsettled, But Setting Out

My dislike for the crone increased with every minute. She was patronizing, cryptic, knew far more than she was telling us, and there was an aura of otherness about her that made my skin crawl. The fact that she owned a grimoire was extremely suspicious. I was tempted to arrest her, but if I did that then our only lead to the location of the Soul-Eater would be lost.

I ground my teeth. “Then I guess we’d better be on our way.” I glanced at Stella. She was staring at the table with utter fascination. I followed her gaze. Her eyes were not fixed on the map, as I had originally thought, but on the pushed aside grimoire, still open to the page about the Soul-Eater. I didn’t know what was so interesting about a shapeless blank blob on an aged page with crooked writing, but I decided it couldn’t be good, whatever the reason was.

“Stella,” I called. She flinched violently and stepped back, a look like guilt flashing across her face before she lifted her eyes to mine. I frowned.

Horatia laughed. “Such a rush…”

“You just reminded us our time is short,” snapped Bart suddenly. He had been unusually quiet during the entire visit but now appeared defiant; meeting the old woman’s piercing eyes with a firm, level gaze. It was as if he had been deliberating some weighty decision in his mind and had finally settled it.

“He speaks at last,” Horatia said.

I bristled, ready to jump to Bart’s defense should she turn her sharp tongue on him, but he merely shrugged and turned to me.

“Shall we go, Master Griffin?”

I searched his eyes, looking for a sign of what had been passing in his mind, but there was only his usual steadfast and earnest loyalty. Nothing to indicate Horatia had told him anything untoward or disturbing. I nodded. “Prepare the horses.” As he started forward to leave, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you Bart.” He said nothing, just inclined his head and left the cottage.

I turned back to face the room and found Horatia watching us intently. “What did you say to him?” I demanded, my temper rising.

“Nothing for your ears,” she said airily, waving a hand. Red flickered in my vision.

Suddenly Stella appeared at my side, one hand fisted in her skirt, the other coming to rest on my arm with a feather-light touch. “Come on Griffin, let’s go.” She smiled and inclined her head towards the old woman. “Thank you for everything, Horatia,” she said sincerely. “We will defeat the Soul-Eater. I promise.” She fidgeted slightly, rocking on her feet. Her hand on my arm trembled ever so slightly. I frowned. What was wrong?

Horatia had turned her intense gaze on Stella. For a few moments she said nothing, just seemed to study Stella as if she was a riddle that needed answering. At last she nodded and grinned, revealing straight, even teeth. This unnerved me more than anything because of the unexpected sight. “You are welcome, star-girl. We will meet again.”

Stella said nothing else, just turned on her heel and pulled me out with her. I gave one last look back at the old woman, still grinning and then left the cottage without a word.

Outside, Bart was ready and waiting with the horses. Stella shrugged away his offer to help her into the saddle and hoisted herself up. I watched her, an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something was bothering her, but I couldn’t say what. Perhaps she was just thinking about Roy, or perhaps my confession outside of the cottage had unnerved her. That idea left me feeling anxious to appease her. I grunted and shook myself as if to shake away the feeling. Out of habit I double checked my saddle bags and touched the hilt of my spare sword, tucked away among my bags and supplies. Then I took the reins from Bart’s outstretched hands and mounted. Bart quickly followed suit.

A quick glance back at the cottage revealed Horatia watching us from the window of the cottage. She grinned at me when she caught me looking, and turned away, spurring my horse forward. “Let’s go,” I said gruffly. I would be happier once we put some distance between us and this village and that strange old woman, even if I had my doubts about her information. Our path would lead us through the rest of this wood and out onto the main road for many miles before reaching the river. “If we keep a steady pace,” I said, “we should reach the river by tomorrow night.”

“That only leaves us one day to reach the tree and stop the Soul-Eater,” said Bart doubtfully. “Perhaps we should consider riding through the night.”

I shook my head. “No. We’re going to need every bit of strength in us to face this thing, and no small amount of courage. I won’t have us face it swaying on our feet in fatigue.”

Bart nodded. I looked at Stella, who hadn’t said a word since we left the cottage. She held her reins in a tight grip and had her eyes straight ahead. “Stella?” She jolted, as if coming out of deep thought.

“Hmmm? Yes, whatever you say,” she said absently. Bart turned his head sharply at her, concern etched on his face, and my frown returned. Had she even been listening?

The village was well out of sight now, but I glanced back anyway, half expecting to see a glimpse of a grinning old woman, bent and twisted in shadow. There was nothing but quiet woods and the worn path we followed, dappled with afternoon sunlight. “Are you alright?” I asked, returning my focus to Stella. She shrugged and gave both of us a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“Yes, of course, I’m fine,” she answered. “Just a little tired, I suppose. And Horatia gave us a lot to think about.”

Bart and I shared a look and a string of silent words. “Perhaps we should rest now, for a little bit. Take some refreshment,” Bart suggested.

Stella shook her head. “No, I don’t need anything. Let’s just keep riding.”

“You’re sure you’re alright?” I asked, not wanting to let the issue drop.

“Yes!” she snapped, glaring at me. “I said I was fine. Let’s just keep riding. We can ride until we can’t see the path anymore. I agree we should get some rest, but I also want to have as much time as possible to defeat the Soul-Eater. We don’t know what we’re walking into, so the more time we have to scout things out, the better, I think.”

I was taken aback. It was a good plan, one I probably would have followed had she not been with us, but I was pleased she suggested it. Still, though it was a practical and good plan, it did not answer my question of what was on her mind. For a few moments, the only sound between us was a soft clop-clop of horse hooves on the path. “Very well,” I said at last. I would let the matter drop for now. “We’ll ride on.” But when we stopped for a rest, I would make her talk one way or another.

Time Is Short

Hello Readers! I hope you aren’t languishing too much waiting for the next installment in the Stella and Griffin story (I really need a title, don’t I? I’ll work on it.) If you are, never fear! For here at last is the next chapter in their adventure. Things are looking pretty grim for our heroes, especially with their dark pasts (see the last excerpt Dark Memories for more) but perhaps Horatia has a solution for them…read on to find out!

Found via Pinterest.
Found via Pinterest.

Time Is Short

It took all of my effort to smile and look into Griffin’s eyes. I squeezed his hand and spoke with a confidence I was far from feeling. A tremble started in my hands and I quickly pulled away from Griffin, turning away so he wouldn’t see the shadow cross my face. Inside, it felt as though an icy blade had pierced my chest. I hugged myself, trying to stop the sudden onslaught of anguish filling me. Poor Griffin! To think he had been carrying this same grief around with him, just as I have been carrying my sorrow for Roy!

I sneaked a glance at him. He was pale. For a moment I could see every wave of grief lining his face and darkening his eyes, but in an instant it was gone and the grim face he had been wearing ever since we entered this village slipped back into place. I looked away before he could catch me looking and hurried forward back to Horatia’s cottage. At the front step I paused and looked over my shoulder. Griffin was still standing in place, his fists clenched and his grim face looking like it was carved in stone. “Are you coming, Griffin?”

He revived at the sound of his name and strode forward faster than I expected. I startled when he gently put a hand to my back, pushing me forward. I stumbled as I entered the small cottage and Griffin smoothly reached out and caught me. Horatia and Bart were both watching intently as we entered and I turned my face away, feeling my cheeks burn.

I thought Bart or Horatia would say something about Griffin’s sudden behavior, but neither said a word. Bart looked a little dazed, as if his mind were somewhere else. My brow crinkled. What had he and Horatia been talking about while Griffin and I were gone?

I wasn’t given a chance to ask. Griffin was staring down at Horatia, his arms crossed and feet set shoulder length apart. “I’m ready to hear you, woman,” he said gruffly. All traces of the grief he had just been feeling was gone.

I stood between the two of them, uncertain if I should rejoin Bart at the table or remain at Griffin’s side. Horatia met Griffin’s fierce gaze with a smirk. “Very well,” she said. She stood suddenly. “You have three days to complete your quest, and if you face the Soul-Eater, one chance to live.”

I sucked in a breath. My heart skipped a beat. Three days. One chance. Roy. The words echoed in my head as I stood frozen, staring at the ancient woman. Moving with strange quickness, she went to a laden shelf and withdrew a thick, worn-looking book with what I hoped was animal skin. As she turned around with it and brought it to the table I couldn’t help but lean back. When she flipped it open, Bart nearly fell out of his chair pulling away from it. He scrambled to his feet and stood beside Griffin while Horatia flipped through the tanned, stained pages. I hoped whatever she was about to show us wouldn’t take long.

Opening the book seemed to have made the cottage air oppressive. The shadows around the room had grown darker, and my ears buzzed with murmurs I was certain I hadn’t heard before.

“Where did you get that?” Griffin asked sharply.

“That is a tale you don’t deserve to hear yet,” said Horatia, not pausing in her page turning. My eyes widened as she passed one page with a grisly looking diagram of what resembled a human body but  had large curling horns sprouting from its head and large bat-like wings. There was a stain on that page what was almost certainly blood. I shuddered.

“What is it?” The words slipped from my mouth before I could stop them.

“It is a grimoire,” answered Griffin, surprising me.

“A what?”

“A manual for summoning demons,” growled Griffin. His hand was at his sword hilt at his belt again. Beside him, Bart was doing the same.

“It is,” said Horatia calmly, still thumbing through the pages.

I gasped. “But why would a medicine woman have such a thing?”

At that Horatia paused. She looked over her shoulder at me and grinned. “Who ever said I was a medicine woman, star-girl?” She gave me toothy grin. Beside me there came a whisper as Griffin started to drawn his sword, but Horatia held up a hand. “There’s no need for that, boy.” She stepped back and gestured to the gruesome book, now open to a hideous drawing of a large demon made of shadow. I blinked and tried to focus on the drawing. It seemed to be shifting so I couldn’t make out the edges or the full form of the thing. I shook my head. There seemed to be a barbed tail, but in another blink it was gone. I rubbed my eyes.

Horatia laughed. “That won’t do you any good, darling. It’s an ever-changing being. No one knows the true form of the Soul-Eater, and if you do, then you’re probably dead.”

“If no one knows what it looks like, then how are we supposed to find it?” said Bart, voicing the same question that had occurred to me.

“Trust me, if you go looking, you’ll find it,” said Horatia darkly.

“Just answer the question,” snapped Griffin.

“No one knows the true form of the Soul-Eater, that much is known. But it is also known that the Soul-Eater cannot survive in this world without a vessel.”

“A vessel?”

“A body to inhabit.” Horatia continued as though she’d never been interrupted. “Whatever body the Soul-Eater chooses will take on the qualities and strengths of the demon, making it particularly hard to kill, though not invulnerable.”

“What type of body do you think it will inhabit?” Griffin asked, his hand still not leaving his sword.

Horatia frowned, creating even more lines on her already heavily lined face. “A Soul-Eater that’s already feed once in this world will need something of considerable strength to contain it. I would guess it would be fairly large as well.”

“A bear? A wolf?” guessed Bart.

Griffin said nothing. Suddenly an idea occurred to me. “What about Titan?” I blurted. Three sets of eyes fixed on me. Heat rushed into my face. “Titan?” I repeated. I appealed to Horatia. “Surely you’ve heard of it. The giant willow tree that stands along Old Water River? It’s not 10 miles from here, surely.”

Horatia said nothing for a moment, but appeared to study me. My cheeks were certainly flaming now. At last she nodded. “Yes, I think I know it,” she said.

“It’s a local landmark for my village,” I said quickly, trying to explain myself. “We’ve always called the tree Titan. He’s so big.”

“Could a tree be the vessel?” Griffin questioned Horatia.

“It would explain the large numbers of demons roaming about. If the Soul-Eater is immobile, then it would need its victims to be brought to it.”

“But what would the demons gain by working for the Soul-Eater? It was my understanding that demons were solitary creatures.”

Horatia was nodding again. “They are, mostly. But the Soul-Eater is powerful. It could be pressing the other demons into service, or offering them bribes. Human flesh, perhaps. Other bodies to inhabit.”

I gasped. “No!” Bart sent me a sympathetic look.

“How could a tree be eating souls?” Griffin wasn’t wasting time.

“The tree would no longer be a tree,” reminded Horatia. “It may still resemble the tree at first glance, but if the Soul-Eater has chosen it to inhabit, then it will all demon.”

“Can we be sure this Titan tree is the demon?”

“There are ways, but none can be done quickly. Do you have a current map?”

“With the horses.” Griffin turned to Bart, but he was already striding out of the cottage. For a few minutes, silence sat heavy on the air. My eyes kept darting to the writhing mass of midnight ink on the grimoire’s open pages. I blinked. For a second, I could have sworn it looked like a bent old woman. I shook my head and it was an unrecognizable mass again.

When Bart returned, Horatia pushed the grimoire aside to make room for the map on the table. Griffin stepped forward and I hurried to his side. “There have been attacks here, here, and here,” he said, indicating three red circles on the map. Numbers had been written inside them. 17, 8, 32. “Reports of demon sighting have been recorded in this area, as well as an undetermined number of missing persons. Your village has not been recorded yet, but it looks to be the most serious attack. If what you say is true about the demon staying for one cycle of the moon, then this is consistent with the attack pattern of last time.”

There was an involuntary twinge in my heart. Last time. He was talking about Lila and her village. Horatia leaned forward over the map, bending over so far her nose nearly touched the parchment. She ran her fingers in between the attack sites, murmuring so low that we could not hear. “Is this your Titan, star-girl?” she said, startling me. I looked to where she was pointing. A large green shape sat beside a bend in the river not far from the main road.

“Yes.”

Horatia continued her muttering for a minute more then straightened up. “I cannot be certain without tests, but it is very likely that this tree is where the Soul-Eater is residing. Its position near the road and to these four villages make it ideal for harvesting victims. And the size and age of the tree make it even more likely.”

“What if you’re wrong?”

“Then the Soul-Eater will return to the Otherworld and your lost souls will be lost forever. Your time is limited, hero.”

Dark Memories

Hello, dear Readers! I hope you are having a good week. I come with another excerpt from the Stella and Griffin story! Picking up where we left off last time in Must Be Magic: Part II, Stella, Griffin and Bart are in the old woman Horatia’s cottage, hoping to learn something that might help them in the fight against the Soul-Eater. Stella is all ears, but Griffin is wary. Let’s find out why.

The WordPress Daily Prompt word of the day is Tremble.

Enjoy!

Found via Pinterest.
Found via Pinterest.

Dark Memories

The girl was a fool, no doubt about it. But saints help me, so was I. Stella raised her chin at us, her eyes flashing with defiance and a challenge, but I caught her bottom lip tremble just a bit. She was desperate to save Roy, to know it was still possible. I know because I had felt that same desperation before, not so long ago…

The old woman put one of her ancient hand over Stella’s small worn ones. “I might be able to help you with that, star-girl,” she said.

At once hope flared in Stella’s eyes and she turned away from me, missing the frown that instantly formed at the old woman’s words. I didn’t trust her. Something about her felt strange and she told a lot less than she knew, I could tell. Stella might not have noticed, but I hadn’t missed they roundabout way she had been speaking to us. I glanced at Bart, who was fidgeting in his seat, his eyes darting back and forth from Stella to Horatia.

“Might being the operative word,” I said dryly. I couldn’t help myself.

Three pairs of eyes turned towards me. Stella’s reproachful ones, Bart’s amused ones and Horatia’s sharp ones, which narrowed even as she smiled good naturedly at me. “I am just a simple old woman, it’s true,” Horatia said. “I certainly cannot face the demon myself. But my knowledge could be of use to you, hero.” She held my gaze, staring at me as if she could see straight into my soul. I repressed a shudder.

“How do we know what you say is true? How do we know we can even trust you?”

Horatia shrugged and took a sip of her tea. “You don’t,” she said simply. “But what possible reason would I have to tell you otherwise?”

“You could be a demon yourself, working for the Soul-Eater, sending us to our deaths.”

Horatia gave a short bark of laughter, making Stella jump beside me. “Oh, to be certain, I am sending you to your deaths, hero.” Stella’s cup clattered as she dropped it on the table, spilling some of the contents. Horatia continued as if she hadn’t noticed it. “Yes, all three of you will be walking straight into your deaths should you fail at your task. There is no other outcome.”

When I remained silent, Horatia smiled wickedly and said directly to me, “But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps you will escape death twice, Griffin Shadow-Destroyer.” She spat the last two words at me, flinging them like an insult.

I reeled back. She knew. Somehow she knew my past, knew about Fellforough. I dared not glance at Bart, though I felt his eyes on me. He couldn’t have missed the reference. Only Stella remained in the dark, and she was staring between us with wide eyes, questions welling up inside her. I closed my eyes just as she burst, fixing her fierce gaze on me.

“What is she talking about, Griffin? What does she mean, escape death twice? Have you…”

I cut her off by standing abruptly. My chair fell to the floor behind me and I turned and strode out of the tiny house, ducking under the herbs and weeds drying in the rafters. I didn’t even bother closing the door behind me. I just kept walking blindly forward, my mind racing.

I shouldn’t have left Bart and Stella in there on their own with that woman, but I wasn’t thinking straight. It shouldn’t, couldn’t be possible that the old woman knew, but her entire manner suggested otherwise. I paced back and forth. I should barge back in there, grab Stella and Bart and just leave. I wanted nothing more to do with the old woman. But if she was telling the truth and she really could help us, it might be our only chance at defeating the Soul-Eater and saving Roy. I growled and kicked the dirt at my feet.

From behind me I heard the soft patter of Stella’s footsteps running after me, and a second later she called out, “Griffin! What on earth is going on? Why did you storm out? What aren’t you telling us?”

I stopped pacing suddenly and spun around, nearly colliding with her.  She stumbled and I reached out and instinctively caught her and set her gently back on her feet. She flushed, her face and neck turning pink, but was not silenced. “Tell me. What is it, Griffin?”

“I don’t trust that woman,” I growled.

Stella scoffed. “It’s more than that and you know it,” she said, putting both hands on her hips. The pose struck a memory I had long ago buried but I quickly pushed it away.

“I don’t have to tell you everything about myself,” I snapped.

“You do if it causes you to run out on us!” Stella shouted.

“I’m not running out on you, Lila!” I shouted back, and instantly wished I hadn’t. I turned away, cursing my treacherous mind for dredging up memories best laid to rest and my tongue for giving them a voice.

I had a few seconds silence before Stella softly asked, “Who’s Lila?”

I didn’t answer right away, but my mind silently filled in the blanks. Lila. Beautiful, lovely, funny Lila. Bossy, clever, quick Lila. “No one,” I forced out. I breathed in deep though my nose. When she looked about to protest, I snapped. “Who’s Roy?”

Her mouth shut and she pursed her lips. A cruel sort of satisfaction welled up inside me and I swallowed it down, sick with myself. Lila wouldn’t have wanted me to behave like this. Lila wouldn’t have wanted a lot of things.

“You still aren’t telling us something,” Stella finally said. She crossed her arms over her chest and gave me the impatient look I was beginning to know so well. “What is it that you and Horatia know?”

I looked at the sky, then back to the cottage. I said nothing. Stella started tapping her foot impatiently, then drumming her fingers on her arm. When she took a big breath to start another round of questioning, I spoke.

“I’ve faced the Soul-Eater before.”

Stella let out her breath and stared up at me wide-eyed, then. “You have? Then how did you defeat it? Is this the beast of Fellforough? You’ve destroyed one before! You can do it again! Why haven’t you said something before?” She was talking a mile a minute, her voice rising with each question, excitement filling her words. I looked at my feet and she trailed off. “Griffin?” she asked uncertainly.

“I didn’t defeat the Soul-Eater in Fellforough,” I said, the words falling from my mouth like heavy stones. “I didn’t kill it, and I didn’t save anyone.” I looked up and gazed straight into her blue eyes, so unlike Lila’s warm brown ones. Each word was like agony to admit. “I fought it with a group of soldiers in Fellforough Wood on a night with no moon. We were powerless against it. Our weapons did nothing. All around us the Taken walked and wailed, driving the men mad even as they themselves became Taken.”

I paused, the horrors of the night flashing through my mind as if it had been yesterday. “ There were demons everywhere. We fought them with our swords dipped in burning pitch but it wasn’t enough. And when the night was darkest, there was a tear in the air and from it spilled smoke that was darker still. It swirled around the Soul-Eater, enveloping it, drawing it closer to the tear. I tried to stop it but when my sword touched the smoke it froze and the fire burning along it was choked out.”

Stella gasped. Her hand was covering her mouth and she was looking at me with such shock and pity, I could hardly continue. “I pulled out my knife, though my hands were shaking so badly I could hardly hold it. I waited a moment and found a break in the smoke. I drove the knife into the side of the beast up to the hilt. It started to shudder and I thought maybe I had wounded it enough to stop it, but then I heard it.”

I stopped again, bile rising in my throat. I forced myself to continue. “It was laughing,” I said, choking on the words. “And then the beast lashed out with its barbed tail and struck me across the chest, sending me flying back. I could only lay there helpless as it crawled into the tear and disappeared, tear and all.”

I stopped again, closing my eyes against the memories that kept coming. I flinched as Stella’s small hand reached out and touched my arm. “Griffin, I…”

I shook my head. “That wasn’t it,” I said. My voice sounded raw, even to my ears. I cringed to think of how I must sound to Stella. “The Taken were still there. But when the beast and the tear disappeared, the wailing stopped. It was like all the sound had been stolen from the world. I…I hurried over to one of them, a young woman. Her eyes were a solid milky white and her skin was grey, right down to the freckles on her nose. Her clothes looked as though the color had been bleached out. I called to her but she didn’t respond. I shook her shoulders but she made no move that she could hear or understand me. She just stood there.”  I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head. “All around me the bodies of my men lay slain on the ground, mixed with the bodies of demons. Above them stood the Taken, frozen like statues, like stone angels in a cemetery. Then one by one they crumbled and turned to dust. I reached out and grabbed the young woman by the hand, but she too turned to dust in my hands.” I lowered my hand from my face and stared down at it, opening and closing it for a few moments. “Nothing but dust, I murmured.

Suddenly Stella’s hands were in mine. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said firmly. “You did what you could. This time will be different. Horatia is going to tell us what she knows, and then we are going to defeat that beast once and for all.” She squeezed my hands in hers.

Very gently, I squeezed back. I wished I could share her optimism. But all I could feel was her hands turning to dust in mine.

Must Be Magic: Part II

Hello again, Readers! Are you ready for Part II of Must Be Magic? I’m sorry for making you wait so long. This turned out to be a little harder to write than I was expecting. (And I’m still not happy with it. Forgive me!)

Now I’m sure you are itching to get to the story, so I won’t keep you. Enjoy! (and tell me your thoughts afterwards).

The WordPress Daily Prompt word when I started writing this last week was Devastation.

Fireflies illuminate a forest in Shikoku, Japan. © Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures
Fireflies illuminate a forest in Shikoku, Japan. © Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures

Must Be Magic

Part 2

For a moment, none of us moved. I stood a few steps in front of Griffin, my arms cradled against my chest after pulling out of his grasp. I glanced at him and Bart, hands on their weapons, and back to the tiny old woman in front of us. She looked more ancient than anyone I’ve ever seen. Her hair was white with a few gray strands and pulled up into a bun on the top of her head, held there by two twigs. She moved fairly quickly for such an old woman and was now disappearing in the late afternoon light, her mottled robes blending in with the scenery.

I made a decision and started forward, only to hear a hissed “No!” from Griffin, but I didn’t stop. Something was drawing me to the old woman, a sort of gravity or curiosity, I wasn’t sure what. I continued to follow her and soon heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Bart was following, looking nervous and Griffin looking grim. He had put away his sword, but still looked tense and ready to spring into action at any moment.

I shook my head, wondering how he could possibly think an old woman was a threat to us and moved forward through the village, trying not to notice the emptiness of all the homes. The cloth doll I had seen earlier floated through my mind and my heart twisted at the thought of a child becoming a victim of the Soul-Eater. What sort of monstrosity was this?

Horatia lead us to the outskirts of the village, which only took a few minutes since the settlement was so small. She lead us to a cozy looking cottage with a small herb garden neatly kept beside it and flowers growing beside the door. Some of the tension I hadn’t realized I’d been holding dropped out of my shoulders. I didn’t wait for Griffin or Bart before following her inside the small house.

The inside was just as cozy as the outside. It was clean and well-kept. Dried herbs hung from the low rafters, filling the room with the smell of basil, sage, and spearmint. Along the wall hung shelves holding all sorts of objects – clay bowls and bottles, a mortar and pestle, cups, vials, books, various rocks and crystals, some carved wooden figures, a nesting doll and a silver chalice. A large table dominated the center of the room, not far from a small iron stove and the fireplace, beside which sat a single bed, with a curtain that could be dropped down for privacy. By the time Griffin and Bart joined us inside, Horatia had already filled a kettle with water, set it to boil, and placed four cups on the table. When we had all gathered inside, she gestured to her table.

“Please, sit,” she said. I crinkled my eyebrows together, certain that there hadn’t been four chairs before, but shrugged and sat down, curious to know what Horatia would tell us. Bart and Griffin sat down on either side of me, both with the same wary and grim looks on their faces.

The silence stretched between the four of us for a few moment before it was broken by Griffin. “Well, tell us what you want to tell us woman, so we may be on our way. Ours is a quest of urgency.”

The gruffness of his tone startled me. I glared at him, about to reprimand him for being so rude, when Horatia interrupted with a bark of laughter. “Urgent indeed, if only you knew how much.” Her eyes gleamed and her smile held back the knowledge I was more desperate to know by the second.

“Please,” I said, extending  my hand across the the table and pleading with my eyes as well as my voice, “if you can help us, tell us what you know. We seek to destroy the Soul-Eater and rescue the Taken.”

Griffin glared at me as if our quest was some sort of secret he didn’t want this woman knowing, but I brushed him off. The entire kingdom knew that Griffin was the king’s champion, the one he sent to deal with situations like these. Horatia’s gaze softened when she looked at me. “Patience, star-girl. I will help you. But first, tea.”

She bustled forward with a steaming kettle and poured a generous amount in each cup. Then she pushed one in front of each of us. “Drink!” she commanded. “You’ll feel better.”

Neither Bart nor Griffin moved to touch their cup but I picked mine up. I breathed in the vapors rising from the cup and sighed, feeling more of the tension I had been carrying melt away in one breath. A question popped into my mind and tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Why did you call me star-girl?”

“Stella is your name, is it not?” Horatia answered.

My mouth fell open. “How did…”

“Don’t be so shocked, girl, I simply heard your companions call for you.”

A pang of disappointment went through me. For a moment I had hoped the rumors of magic welders had been true.

As if sensing my thoughts, Horatia smiled and said, “Too often men mistake simple observations for fortune telling or mind reading. I merely pay attention to the world around me and listen to what it wants to tell me.”

I smiled. “I suppose you’re right.”

Horatia smiled again, the same smile I had seen earlier, the one was full of secrets. She took a sip from her own cup and settled comfortably into a chair. “Now then,” she said, her tone switching to something more serious, “about your quest.”

“How did you survive the attack?” I asked, the question bursting forth before she could continue. I felt my cheeks redden. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t hold my tongue. But Horatia didn’t seem to mind.

“I was gathering roots and plants when the demons came. By the time the screaming started, I was deep in the forest. I knew instantly that this was no ordinary attack of bandits or thieves.” Her brows came together and her mouth pressed into a hard line. “I could feel them. The cold, dark, slimy feeling of the Otherworld, of that shadowy place where demons come from. It was so strong, almost staggering.” A shadow passed over her face. I felt a cold stab of dread in my stomach.

“How have you come to know the feeling of demons so well?” Griffin asked, his voice hard.

Horatia fixed him with a equally hard stare. “When one lives as long as I have, doing what I do, meeting a few demons along the way is inevitable.”

Griffin snorted, clearly unconvinced. “And what exactly do you do?” he asked.

“Oh, this and that,” Horatia said, smiling again. It was maddening.

“Nevermind that – tell us what happened next!” I leaned forward, feet bouncing under the table.

The smile vanished. “I hurried back as quickly as I could. The screams grew louder and louder with every step and the feelings worse. I was terrified of what awaited me once I reached the village.” She paused for a moment, closing her eyes as she remembered. For an instant, I saw Griffin’s face soften, but the moment she started speaking again he hardened his face. “I had prepared myself for bloodshed and gore, but what I found was much worse,” Horatia said soberly.

“What?” I asked, my eyes wide.

Griffin answered for her. “Nothing. You found nothing. Just an empty village with barely a sign of struggle to be seen, as if everyone had vanished in the middle of whatever they had been doing.”

I turned to him, about to ask how he could possibly know that when Horatia nodded and said, “Exactly. Not a trace of anyone, nor any sign of the terror I had heard. Just a feeling of wrongness pervading everything.”

“But you knew,” prompted Griffin. “You knew what had happened.”

“I had heard enough news from the North to guess,” said Horatia. “The rest I figured out from my own observations. It’s not obvious, but there are little signs the demons leave behind, things anyone with a trained eye can see.”

“Clever,” said Griffin dryly. “But none of that tells me anything I didn’t already know.”

My heart beat a little faster. I knew Griffin knew about the Taken and the Soul-Eater, but he hadn’t been forthcoming on many of the details.

Horatia studied him for a moment. “Quite so,” she said finally. Then breaking her gaze with Griffin, she looked at me. “Tell me girl, what do you know of the moon?”

My mind blanked. The moon? Why was she asking me? What did this have to do with the Soul-Eater? “Wh-what do you mean?” I asked, hating the fact I had stuttered.

“Do you know about the moon’s cycles?”

I tilted my head. “You mean that it grows bigger and smaller?”

Horatia nodded. “Have you been paying attention to it? What is it doing now?”

I resisted the urge to turn and look out of the window, as if  the moon would be sitting there in plain view. “What does this have to do with anything?” Griffin demanded.

Horatia ignored him. I glanced quickly up at him then back to the old woman. “It’s getting smaller now. The nights are darker.”

Horatia nodded. “That’s right. And did you know that in only a few days time, the moon will disappear completely?”

I nodded. Griffin growled and Bart elbowed him lightly.

“Complete darkness,” whispered Horatia.

I looked at her and back to Griffin and Bart. “What significance is that?”

Horatia didn’t answer. Instead she asked, “How long have these attacks from the demon men been going on?”

My eyes widened. “Um, I don’t know, a few weeks at least.”

“A little more than a few weeks,” Horatia said. “I think you’ll find that the first whisper of an attack came on the night of the last vanishing moon.”

Griffin seemed to suddenly catch her meaning because he gripped the edge of the table with one hand and made a fist with the other. On the other side of me, Bart looked over my head at Griffin. I however, was still in the dark. “What does that mean?” I said a little irritably.

“You think the Soul-Eater is going to retreat on the night of the vanishing moon,” said Griffin. “Are you certain?”

“Positive. Your own memory will prove me right,” Horatia said. Griffin flinched as if smacked.

“But why?” I asked, ignoring this odd reaction.

“The Soul-Eater and its minions will be at their strongest when the night is darkest. On this night they will be able to open a portal and return to the pits whence they came.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it?” I looked around at everyone. “If they leave, the attacks will stop.”

Griffin bowed his head and Bart looked away. Horatia shook her head slowly. “It is true the attacks will stop here. But if you seek to rescue the Taken….” she trailed off and started again. “If the Soul-Eater is allowed to retreat to the Otherworld, then the souls of the Taken will be lost forever and their bodies will slowly fade away into nothingness.”

Silence filled the air. Roy. I stared into my cup of tea for a few moments, watching the leaves floating. Roy. I drew in a deep breath and suddenly straightened up. “Then we just have to rescue them before the vanishing moon, don’t we?”

Both boys turned to look at me. I set my jaw and tried to look confident, even though hopelessness was flickering in my chest. Horatia reached out and put a gnarled hand over my white-knuckled one gripping my cup tightly. “I might be able to help you with that, star-girl.”

Must Be Magic

Good morning, Readers! I’m back (by request and demand) with another installment of Stella and Griffin’s story (which really needs a title, doesn’t it? I’ll work on that). In case you missed it, their last adventure was in  A Little Encouragement.  Catch up if you need to! This bit is actually going to be a two-part installment…and I will post the second part soon as I can. For now, enjoy!

Medieval village. Found here.
Medieval village. Found here.

Must Be Magic

Part 1

It was a little after midday when we rode into the small village of  Willow Down. Stella claimed she’d been there once before, with her father. I didn’t ask what the occasion had been. It was a tiny settlement, barely able to claim the title of village. The people there were mostly woodsmen. The town did have one claim to notoriety however. Because of its location deep in the woods, it was a haven for healers and those who wanted to study the natural arts, as well as those few believers who practiced “magic.”

“Magic?” Stella asked, her eyes wide. Bart nodded so vigorously I thought he might topple off his horse. I rolled my eyes, but neither of them were paying attention.

“Yes, Miss Stella,” said Bart, clearly loving her astonishment. “It’s said that Willow Down is the home of the most powerful witch in the kingdom.”

“Is that who we’re going to see?”

Bart looked at me, caught sight of my glare and swallowed. “Well, I think…”

“If you thought more, you would talk less,” I interrupted crossly. Stella frowned and I ignored her. “We’re not going to see any so-called witch. Willow Down is in the middle of the forest where the Taken have been roaming. If anyone knows anything about them, it’s going to be the villagers. We’re going to see what we can find out.”

“There’s no need to be rude,” Stella snapped at me.

“It’s no trouble, Miss Stella,” Bart mumbled, but she waved him off.

“Yes it is! There’s absolutely no need for his belittling you like that!”

“I’m really not…”

“He’s always rude to you! Why do you even…”

“Quiet!” I hissed at her, cutting her off mid-tirade. She gave me a murderous look but I shook my head, indicating the village we had just entered. Everything was eerily silent. There was no sound, no movement to be seen anywhere. A feeling of dread pooled in my stomach. I glanced at Bart, wondering if he felt it too. The familiarity. We had seen towns like this before, in the North. “Stella, stay close,” I ordered. For once she listened without question.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, riding up beside me, her voice barely a whisper and nearly lost under the soft clop-clop of the horses’ hooves on the soft earth. “Where is everyone? What’s happened?”

I scanned the small timber houses lining the road on either side of us. Curtains in open windows flapped forlornly in the breeze, doors stood open. Abandoned fires smoldered and gave off faint wisps of smoke and everywhere tasks lay half-finished. Laundry sat still soaking in a large cauldron, an ax sat embedded in a partially split chunk of wood and a broom made of brush lay fallen on a front step still in need of sweeping.

“It’s like they disappeared in the middle of their daily chores,” whispered Stella. I shared a glance with Bart again and could see his thoughts were running along the same lines as mine.

“The Soul-Eater has been here,” I said.

Stella gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “And taken everyone?” Her eyes strayed to a small cloth doll laying in the front yard of a small cottage. Tears welled up in the corner of her eyes. My heart sank.

“Looks that way,” I said softly, hoping she wouldn’t break down. She didn’t, but surreptitiously wiped her eyes when she thought I wasn’t looking.

I slid down from my saddle. “We might as well search the village in case there were any left behind,” I said. “And pick up some provisions.” Stella looked sharply at me. “They don’t need these things anymore,” I said, sensing her thoughts. “Even if they come back, they won’t begrudge us some food and supplies, I am certain.” She held my gaze for a while, then nodded and joined me on the ground. Bart walked up behind us, leading his horse and the mule. “Stay with Bart,” I told Stella, then strode off before she could protest.

I don’t know why I was even looking for survivors. I had seen more than one town like this in the North, when fighting the Soul-Eater in Fellforough. Entire towns, three times the size of this one completely emptied and abandoned, the people disappearing in the middle of all kinds of daily tasks. Men, women and children – no one was spared.

I had just come upon what looked to be the village center when I heard Bart’s shout and Stella’s scream. Heart in my mouth I turned and raced back the way I had come, drawing my sword as I went. It wouldn’t do much good against the Soul-Eater itself, but it could cut through its minions well enough. I rounded a corner around the house where Bart and Stella has gone and skidded to a stop. Stella was standing with her hand over her heart, a smile on her face. Bart was bent over laughing as well. My brief fear melted into anger.

“What were you thinking, screaming like that?” I demanded. The smile slid quickly from Stella’s face and Bart straightened immediately. “I thought you were being run through, with all the commotion were you making.”

Bart opened his mouth to speak but Stella beat him to it. She stepped forward, but instead of her usual shrewish remark she put a hand placidly on my arm. “We were startled, that was all. We rounded the corner and frightened some chickens that were wondering around. They flew up at my face and I screamed. I’m sorry to have worried you.”

Her eyes were open wide and beseeching me to calm down, but my heart thundered on in my chest. I jerked away. “Next time, try to keep your head. This isn’t a pleasure trip. The danger is real.”

Her eyes flashed and the look on her face became cool and distant. “Forgive me,” she said. “It won’t happen again.” Then she turned on her heel and walked off.

I turned to Bart, who was looking at me shame-faced. “Sorry, Master Griffin. I should have called out that all was well.” I took a deep breath and shook my head, my anger receding.

“Just try to be a little more aware, will you? She doesn’t realize the full extent of the danger we’re in.”

“Do you?” a voice crackled behind us and and I whirled around, sword at the ready. A small, wizened old woman stood there, watching us with dark, ancient looking eyes. A shiver passed over me involuntarily. “Well, do you?” the woman repeated. She was dressed in robes of mottled brown and green, making her blend in with the forest around her. My eyes narrowed.

“Who are you?” I asked, not lowering my sword. From the corner of my eye, I saw that Bart’s hand rested at the knife in his belt.

The old woman waved a hand. “Bah! Put down those weapons, boys, I’m not an agent of the dark one.”

“Why should we trust you?” I asked, still not lowering my sword.

The old woman grinned, making even more wrinkles on her already well lined face. “Ha! Perhaps you would be wise not to. But I mean no harm, and I can give you the answers you seek.”

I held my stance, still studying her when Stella walked back around the corner of the house, chickens in her wake. “Bart, what are you…” She stopped suddenly when she caught sight of the old woman, me with my sword raised and Bart with his hand on his knife. “What’s going on?” I tensed.

“Ah,” said the old woman, her voice crackling again. “Here is the one who screams like a wildcat when threatened.” Stella blushed, and the old woman straightened. Her tone became businesslike and orderly. “Come. Put those blasted weapons away and follow me. I will make some tea and tell you what you want to know.” She beckoned us and turned away.

“Wait,” Stella called, walking forward. I lowered my sword and caught her by the arm. She jerked out of my grasp. “Wait! Who are you?”

The old woman stopped and slowly turned around. She smiled, revealing crooked teeth under a long pointed nose. “I am Horatia. Come with me now.”

Cross My Heart

Hello again, Readers! I did promise that I wouldn’t fail to give you an update in Stella and Griffin’s story, especially after Thursday’s exciting read (if you missed it, you can check it out here), so here you are. I know some of you are just dying to know about the mysterious Roy, who we now know has become one of the Taken, his soul captured by the Soul-Eater residing somewhere in the South. Today I’m going to give a little back story on our dear Roy, which will hopefully satisfy you. It’s been a little hard for me, I guess because I’ve liked having Roy as this golden enigma and to reveal him seemed like a task I wouldn’t be able to live up to. I’ll let you be the judge if I did.

The WordPress Daily Prompt word of the day is Capable. Since I am currently listening to a radio dramatization of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the quote that immediately came to mind upon hearing this word was this quote from Miss Lucy Steele:

“Though you do not know him so well as me, Miss Dashwood, you must have seen enough of him to be sensible he is very capable of making a woman sincerely attached to him.”

Let us see if the same holds true for Roy.

Found via Pinterest.
Found via Pinterest.

Cross My Heart

For as long as I can remember, there has been Roy.

Long before my little sister Dawn arrived into the world, bold and bright and made for friendship, my devotion had already been given to the boy down the lane. His mother was friends with mine, and she liked to gossip when she came to get her flour from my parents’ mill. She would bring along Roy, who was a year older than me, and we would play together.

I was shy, my mother told me. But Roy was a determined little boy and drew me to him like a flower turns to the sun. “Roy,” was one of my first words. We grew up together, playing in the mornings under the watchful eyes of our laughing mothers, until we were old enough to be trusted on our own for a short while. Our play moved from the kitchen floor to the backyard to the little woods not far from my home, to the village streets and the green in the center of town. We were inseparable and our adventures were many. Dawn trailed after us, laughing and trying to keep up, but I often wanted to keep Roy to myself. Still, my sweet sister never seemed to begrudge me for it. She was too bright and bubbly, and she made friends so easily, that she was only ever neglected by me.

When I was nine and he was ten years old, Roy announced his dreams of travel, of seeing the far off sea and the mountains in the north, exploring and visiting all of the king’s country. “They’ll sing songs about me!” cried Roy, climbing up the tree in the village green.

“And me!” I shouted, climbing after him. “You can’t go anywhere without me!”

“Never!” Roy declared, leaning out of the tree above me, holding on with only one hand. The other he had placed over his heart. “It would be no great adventure without you, Stella.” He grinned wickedly. “After all, who would be my page boy?”

I gasped angrily. “Roy!” and he laughed and climbed faster. I scurried up after him, ignoring Dawn’s cries for us to be careful from the ground below. Though I was the oldest, Dawn had more of the maternal instincts. At last I was close enough to almost reach his foot. “I am nobody’s page boy!” I shouted, reaching for him. He laughed and dangled his foot just out of my grasp. Then he was swinging on the branch above me and dropped down past me to a large branch on my right. My eyes were wide, in awe of his recklessness, which to my eyes was all fierce bravery.

I looked down at him. He was still laughing, his sea-green eyes crinkled up in the corners and sparkling. I loved when he laughed, but that was not what I was thinking at the moment. I gave him my most determined glare. “I’m braver than any page boy,” I told him. Then I jumped.

I remember that moment with stunning clarity – the laughter on his face slipping away into something like fear and his hand reaching out for me. I landed on the branch next to him, and for one gleeful moment I was sure I had shocked and impressed him. But then the branch cracked.

Everything after that piercing crack was a blur. Roy shouted my name and Dawn screamed, and I felt Roy grab at my dress but I was already falling down, crashing through the lower branches of the tree – we had nearly climbed to the top – and then there was empty air and the ground and pain all over. There was a thumping in my head that I thought was my heart but must have been the sound of running feet. My sister’s scream had alerted the other adults in the village square and through the dimming light I saw faces all around and heard voices I didn’t understand. The last thing I remember is hearing my name. Roy was still shouting it. I tried to answer but I couldn’t. My lips wouldn’t work. Then everything faded to black.

When I woke up again, I was in my own kitchen, in a cot near our fireplace. I hurt all over. Somewhere I could hear the murmur of voices. I tried to sit up, but couldn’t. “Roy?” I called. “Mama?” Instantly my mother appeared at my side, her face drawn and pinched near her mouth and eyes. I felt tears well up in my own eyes. “Am I in trouble, Mama?”

Her face softened and she brought a soft, cool hand to my forehead. “No, my bright little star. But you gave all of us quite a fright, falling like you did.” I tried to sit up again but she pushed me back down, gently. “Rest, Stella. You hurt yourself very badly. You need to lie still and rest while you heal.” I noticed then that my right arm was in a sling, and there was a large bandage on my foot. Bits of gaze were wrapped around the rest of my arms and legs, some of it stained pink. “You will have at least one scar, my wild child,” my mother said.

I didn’t say anything for a moment. I was trying to remember what had happened. “Where’s Roy?” I finally asked. “And Dawn?”

“Your sister is in the mill with your father. I told her to go do something useful. She was going to wake you with her nervous pacing.”

“And Roy?”

My mother frowned very slightly but then gave me a small smile. “I told him he could come see you again in the morning. He did not want to leave you either.”

The next morning did not come soon enough. I was still in a lot of pain and slept fitfully in my cot by the fire. Twice my mother got up to put a cool, damp cloth on my forehead and check my bandages. She seemed concerned about fever and infection, as did the local healer. I was given some bitter tea to drink.

I was still half asleep when Roy arrived, but at his appearance I forced myself to wake up. Roy didn’t look like his usual confident self. He held his hands behind his back and he shuffled forward, a contrite look on his face. “I’m sorry Stella,” he mumbled. “This is all my fault. These are for you.”

Before I could utter any word of protest at his declaration, he pulled out a handful of wild flowers from behind his back and held them out to me. “Thank you,” I said, reaching across my body with my left hand to take them from him.

“Your bone was sticking out,” he blurted.

I looked at him, eyes wide. No one had told me the details. Only that my arm had been broken, my ankle sprained and my ribs cracked. Dozens of little scratches covered my arms and legs.

Roy looked like he was bursting to tell me this, like he had been saving it all night. “Your bone was sticking clean out of your arm, and you didn’t even cry.” He stressed the last part so I would know how important it was. “You didn’t cry at all. You just said, See? I am brave. I am brave. I am. There was blood everywhere and Dawn was crying and you just looked like a fallen warrior. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

I was still looking at him in shock. Roy returned my gaze, looking serious and earnest. “You are the bravest person I know, Stella. I think I will have to be the page boy instead.” His mouth twitched then, and suddenly we were both laughing, even though laughing made my sides hurt terribly. I started coughing, and Roy fetched me a glass of water.

“How about neither of us be page boys,” I said. “We will both be grand adventurers and they will sing songs about both of us.”

Roy gave me his brightest smile, my favorite. “Perfect,” he said.”And I’ll never go anywhere without you,” he promised. “Cross my heart.” He echoed the gesture with his finger, signing an x over his heart.

I did the same, crossing with my left hand instead of my right. “Cross my heart.”