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Stellar

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Stellar last won the day on March 17 2017

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3,101 You Wish You Were Me

About Stellar

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    Sexycakes

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  • Gender
    Male
  • Sexuality
    Gay
  • Location
    New Zealand
  • Interests
    movies, music, gaming, online gaming, writing, finding purpose and meaning in all facets of life

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  1. Stellar

    New Beta

    I have no set plans beyond the immediate completion of Spirit of Fire. There is not even a guarantee that the next thing I write will be the final part of Aspects of Dawn either, because there is more than one possibility following the current book. So, if you are holding out to somehow be involved with the trilogy end, please do not consider it a sure bet at this point for my next work, because it isn't -- not right now. Beta work is a longer term commitment as far as I'm concerned. It's inconsistent timing-wise, but I'm kinda looking for someone who at least somewhat fits the description in the original post and will be available into the future. Obviously, you would get earlier access to my new chapters than most, though you'd need to be helping me in some meaningful way. If you think this might be something you can do, then please message me.
  2. Stellar

    Strength Of Faith

    I appreciate your compliment on the quality of what I'm doing. It is nice to see that it is being enjoyed. However ... I will be honest about that second line: my work is both time consuming and difficult to create at best; I produce fiction that is complex and full of layers. I don't earn money from it and although I produce a mountain of notes and plan as much as I can, there isn't always the time, energy, or inspiration to get things quickly done. Still, I love my writing and I put a lot of myself into it, so to receive commentary about the time taken when I have put my mind through the wringer to give the audience a chapter of the quality required ... is disheartening, to put it mildly. To summarise: I try to be as fast as I can, but I'm often not. If this is an inconvenience, people are free to wait until the book is done in its entirety to read it without interruptions. Otherwise, I don't feel as if I should be apologising for any reasons other than my own self-imposed ones.
  3. Stellar

    Strength Of Faith

    Thank you for your confidence, though the purpose of a beta for me is about providing perspective to what I'm writing as much as the technical aspects. What I mean when I say this is: I can be too invested in my own work to recognise things that are problematic and having someone to provide an intelligent counterweight to how I'm writing and what I'm saying, can be very helpful. I'm willing to consider anyone who might be a fit. Check out the forum posts I linked in the chapter footnote if you haven't already, and if you think you might be a good addition, send me a message.
  4. Stellar

    Awake And Asleep

    Two? Well, it may be a little more complex than just two. There is a connection between everything you're reading -- of course there is! -- but the basics remain: what, how, and why? As for the dragon's name, you'll just have to read on in order to find out, as it will take a chapter or four until it's revealed. Re: wyverns versus dragons. I like both, and the biological design of a wyvern makes more sense in purely non-fantasy scientific terms; evolution phases out redundancies, so why have front legs AND wings, when the wings would naturally adapt over time to do both? There is an awful lot about dragons that is borderline or actually impossible -- everything from how their breath works, to their weight and ability to fly when considering ultra-massive creatures, and so forth. However, fantasy is fantasy, and evolutionary problems, along with certain scientific principles that cause issues, can be explained under the guise of 'it's magic!' -- and I am a purist in that my instinct is to make the physical design a lizard that has sprouted wings, not a bat. Additionally, the ability of having 'hands' for object manipulation and combat broadens possibilities. So, while I love the wyvern in all its fabled joy -- Smaug was the best part of The Hobbit film series -- I had to go with the traditionalist version of the dragon.
  5. Stellar

    Where It Began

    There will be some detail to follow, and more descriptions when warranted about physical progression, though this information is largely situational -- and the reason for this is quite spoilery, so I'll say no more. The voice? Well, that's a major plot point of its own that I really shouldn't touch.
  6. New Zealand has had a mass shooting at a mosque. For me to write such a sentence produces an anger that I cannot describe. It disgusts me that such poisonous ugly thoughts are apparently alive and well in my country.

    1. Show previous comments  1 more
    2. Stellar

      Stellar

      Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate it. It's difficult to fathom the scope of this event, because we are a peaceful nation. Individual homicides would sometimes make the national news because such things aren't the norm.

       

      Yet, here we are ... with a death toll that rivals tragedies in the USA, committed at a place of peaceful worship. You are entirely correct -- there is nothing 'right' about this situation.

    3. Bleu

      Bleu

      I offer my condolences to you and the New Zealand nation. The news are all over French media, especially since far-right "theoretician" Renaud Camus seems to have been an inspiration for this despicable act. 

    4. Stellar

      Stellar

      Thank you Bleu. I have not heard anything about the man you mentioned, just that the main perpetrator was an itinerant Australian who idolised Anders Breivik and -- apparently -- felt emboldened by the attitude and statements of the current American president.

      To be honest, even though I understand, in the coldest subjective terms, the point of the attacker's message, I don't much care what the reasons were, nor the basis for motivation at any level. Killing innocent people invalidates whatever political statement is being made, because it regresses us to barbarism and denies the essential humanity of modern enlightened civilisation.

  7. Stellar

    Awake And Asleep

    What I was looking at was not meant to be there. Everything I knew told me it shouldn't, couldn't, and didn't exist. It was a thing that lived solely in the imaginations of dreamers; a mythic symbol decorating history, appearing on coats of arms, flitting across the pages of fiction and through the big and small screens of movie, television and video games. Now, here it was, born in front of me, alive and present. Real. A dragon hatchling. Stunned beyond further reaction, I slid downwards, my hoodie dragging over the rock, until I was sitting on the ground, back against the cave wall. For moments, it stood motionless in its initial pose, then it turned without any other consideration for the environment to look directly at me, knowing exactly where I was. The irises were gold, the pupils black and slitted like a cat's eyes, and the gaze seemed to penetrate right through me. There was an innate shrewdness in its attention that was weighing what I was worth. For a creature so new and young, the level of perception, how acute its senses were, and the obvious potential for what it could become, were in combination actually terrifying. I stared right back, unnerved. The head tilted and leaned forward a fraction, still observing as it made some kind of private internal judgement. I blinked, swallowing uncomfortably, but I did not look away. It leaned back slightly, curiosity unfinished, and then stepped out of the egg's remnants, dropped onto all fours and began to approach. Stay still, I told myself, and don't do anything to alarm it. The egg had been about the volume of an oversized American football, and the hatchling was no larger than a small housecat. The front limbs had the familiar three joints of shoulder-elbow-wrist, but the rear had a reversed fourth joint between the knee and ankle. The extra joint compacted the longer back legs so the body was basically even as it walked. It was nimble and quick, the basics of movement coming easily and naturally, with no extra practice needed. Born ready to survive. From a purely visual inspection, it was at an ideal midway point for physical proportions. I had seen all sorts of depictions of dragons; everything from long, thin, serpentine shapes with overextended necks and tails similar to those in Asian cultures, to shorter heavier shapes with squat and stubby extremities that were built like a tank. This one had a structural design that was a perfect balance of weight and shape. There was enough mass for it to use raw physical power if required, but not so much bulk to restrict its ability to move and react. The neck and and tail were counterbalancing evenly, and as a whole it gave off an aura of both elegance and strength, despite the fact that it was a newborn. And then ... there was the head. Narrowing, triangular, it was a focused predator's skull. My first image was of the dragons of Skyrim; tiny nostrils on the end, a modest upswept nose horn on the tip, with smaller mirroring downswept spurs on both sides underneath the jaw. Bony ridges surrounded the eyes, on the cheeks below and the bridge of the skull above, rising backward into a pair of immature curving horns. Like the rest of its body, it was a vivid scarlet from top to tail, with the exception of dark dirty-charcoal claws and two shocks of bright gold, each running on either side of the head from ear to neck in a brilliant gilded seam that narrowed and vanished at the shoulder. Just above and behind, the wing joints and the wings themselves; four bony 'fingers' with a membrane like a bat's between them, coming off the main skeletal branch of the 'arm'. Each of those fingers ended in a spiked claw, the same grey as the other claws, with the arm itself possessing a hooked thumb spike at the junction where it split into the fingers, a practical tool for grappling with. Idle, the wings sat half closed, not required for balance while it walked. In its entirety, it was sight to behold. Beautiful, and with a future deadliness that would only grow. Undaunted, it ambled directly to me and did not pause as it climbed onto my legs and up my torso. The claws went right through my clothing and my skin. It wasn't enough to properly hurt me, but it was kinda painful, like a mischievous cat digging in but much worse, and I suppressed the urge to cry out in pain and throw it off. Reaching my head, it raised itself so it was looking straight into my eyes, less than an inch away from the tip of my nose, the wings spreading to grip my shoulders so I really couldn't do anything much to get away. "Hi," I whispered, trying not to show how intimidated I was by this little creature. The moment was pivotal. There was the very strong feeling that if I did the wrong thing, it would not hesitate to kill me. We both continued to stare. For close to a minute it was eye to eye. The discomfort from where I was bleeding in a dozen places from its climb was distracting and unpleasant, but I ignored it. At last it broke, rearing back a couple of inches, then suddenly, the jaw opened displaying a line of teeth, and it hissed, loud and threatening. Um, alright. I didn't flinch. Five more seconds of judgement followed, but it was satisfied, because it turned away, then pulled itself onto my left shoulder, then climbed around behind my neck to lay its head onto my right. The tail dangled lazily down over my chest and it got comfortable across the material of the hood, draping itself around me like a reptilian version of a fur stole. What the fuck just happened? I could feel the weight of it, the dragon who had just taken my shoulders as its own lair, and was quite happy staying there. It didn't shift at all as I very carefully and slowly stood, and tried to retrieve my scattered items. The box, book and MP3 player were stashed into the school bag and all the while I kept my body as even and flat as possible. Still, it didn't so much as stir. No more claws were digging in, as it had found its equilibrium and was simply resting, the motion of my movement too small to be a bother. There is a baby dragon asleep on my shoulders. I repeated this to myself a few times, the bag in hand, making my way out of the cave and down the slope. There is a mythical creature that should not exist and it is lying on me, right now. It is a thing, and it is real. Approaching our back fence had my nerves going crazy. Our back yard was well walled-off, as most of the neighbouring yards were, but the public council land was in the open. At a distance, there was no reason to think anything of my appearance, but if people got close? I'd rather not be on national television any time soon. At least, not for something like this. Slipping inside our section's boundary was a relief, but then another thought, one that was dogging me as I walked back: what was I going to do with my newly acquired visitor? There was no way I could take it inside. 'Oh hi mom, glad to see you're home! Hey, I just found this wandering around on public land, can I keep it?' Yeah, there's no way that's going to work. There has to be another solution, and I think I know what it is. In one corner of the yard, there was an old pre-fabricated equipment shed. It was mostly full of gardening tools and random items related to home DIY that my mother hadn't finished nor got round to doing. There was a workbench and a big wall-rack for the implements, plus the lawnmower in storage. Most importantly, it had a good floor space and area to set up bedding. This will have to do. It took a single trip into the house, my passenger still paying no notice, to gather what I needed. Then, back out to the yard with items in hand. A long time back, we owned a Jack Russell terrier, and though my mother loved animals, she had been too busy to look after a new dog after ours had died four years ago. The dog bed, however, was still stashed away, and with it I created a nest of blankets on the shed floor. Hopefully this will be good enough. Poking it gently with a finger, the creature stirred in response, emitting a soft rumble of complaint, the only sound I'd heard apart from the earlier threatening hiss. Abruptly it was moving around my neck, a warm scaly mass with a faint pinch of claws, a much less intrusive grip than originally. In a moment it plunged off my shoulder and to the floor, landing with the awkward half-managed balance of a kitten who has no idea how yet to properly fall from any height. It cast its attention over the room in a mere second, and then promptly went for the freshly-constructed bed, recognising it as the sole point of interest. Sitting dead centre, another lordly glance was given, simply to affirm the right of ownership over the newly acquired equipment-shed kingdom, and finally it turned to eye me intently, leaning back on the haunches. Expectant. So, what next? You have somewhere to sleep, you're inside and safe from anything that could be dangerous. All you should want now is, um ... oh. Right. Food. What was I going to feed it? I didn't need to be a genius to know it would eat meat, but reheated ravioli and whatever else our fridge contained wasn't going to be suitable. Certainly not right now, and not in the coming future; there wasn't any easy way to explain food vanishing without saying where it went, especially since there were only the two of us at home. I needed another way and I didn't have one yet, but ... I did have an idea about where to try. -o-0-O-0-o- The location was an office building on private property within a walled lot, towards the edge of the city. It was quiet, out of the way and in a commercial district with dour disinterested neighbouring businesses. There was very little traffic, pedestrian or vehicle, and no distractions nor interruptions. It was exactly how they preferred it All the same, he still used street parking, and just like the instructions suggested, he went directly to the ancillary entrance, designated for the service staff. The uniform was in place, the look was styled just so, the knowledge and attitude required incumbent in mind. He was ready. This sequence of actions would presage what was to come, and it was a glory to shoulder the great esteem his part bore. It was truly honourable. "Who're you?" The duty guard was balding, heavy-set and slightly overweight, though an equal part muscle to fat. Sitting at a little security desk behind double glass doors, he was frowning, an explanation expected. "Ain't nobody on the schedule for tonight." "Fresh blood." He smiled, and it was strained expression, though he forced it to be as genuine as he could manage; a difficulty given who these people were. "They assigned me here today. Can't have sent the paperwork through yet." "Really?" The guard was a skeptic, and he rubbed his jowls, squinting in a combination of suspicion and uncertainty. "You tryin' ta tell me that Jody and Mr Quilten on the desk have screwed up the admin roster again this month? Because that's damn unlikely." "Hey, it happens." His imitation was flawless, the intonation just right, the emotion pitch-perfect and layered in such a way that it was impossible to know how fake it was. "Only here to earn a buck and some pair of glasses screws it up and makes life tricky, am I right?" The superficiality of his charm was added leverage, and he saw the guard's will waver then cave. The man chuckled. "Ain't that the truth. Well, I'll buzz ya in," he hit the release while they were talking, the door clicking as it unlocked, "but you gotta wait here 'til the upstairs gives the okay, alright?" "Sure," Nero lied, entering the service lobby and rounding the security desk to greet the guard. "If we're going to work together, I should introduce myself. My name is ... John. John Smith." "Vincent Romano, but you can call me Vinny. No mafia jokes, heard 'em all a hundred times." The man offered his hand. Nero shook. "There will be none, I swear. Though, I have one last thing to say, Mr Romano." "What's that?" "Sleep." There was a second of powerful confusion, followed by a momentary internal struggle, then Vinny's eyes rolled back, closing, and he slumped into his chair. It was so very easy and they were so malleable; what a small weak thing the human mind was. Nero unclipped the guard's security chain, with all the attached trinkets, to add it to his own belt. Briskly, he strode off along the corridor. Weak as they were, he would not have long before there was an alarm sounded, an alert given. Haste was important. He only passed one other employee reaching the second floor room his instructions had described, and that employee dutifully ignored him, too engaged in business of their own. The door came open with only a swipe of Vinny's access card, and Nero stepped in. It was an archival storage office or something similar. Three filing cabinets lined the wall, along with an enormous metal safe and shelving packed with journals, folders and books, and a cataloguing desktop computer with an optical scanner. This was the room, the location intended. But ... where was it? The safe was the obvious place, but Nero's instructions had not mentioned it, nor given a combination. There was no expectation he break into it. He sat at the desk, looking at the shelf with some curiosity. It was implied that his target would be easily accessible once this room was located. Still, nothing yet. A bump of the mouse caused the computer to stop idling and come out of hibernation. It activated, the screen growing brighter with the contrast adjusting to a regular level, and visible were a number of expanded digital images. To the untrained eye, they were a chain of hieroglyphs from some long dead language or culture. Nero, however, knew what he was seeing instantly. It was the liturgical tongue of his enemy; rare to see written at all, but even rarer carved in such a manner. The images contained a number of lines of runes rendered onto the flat surface of a stone tablet. Though he could not read the language so easily, he recognised the rudiments of it, the lines in a series of phrases that, in totality, formed the incantation. The entire thing, left here by their benefactor, ready to take. Steal it. Copy it. That was what he was told. It was clear the physical version was impossible to acquire, the tablet itself likely locked in the safe, but this? These images? They were a gift, and definitely ripe for copying. Whipping out a cellphone, he took duplicate photographs of each part of the tablet carvings, making sure to get the runic phrasing in full detail, until he had the whole thing. Start to finish, just as required. Nero was not a fan of modern technology, but admittedly, cellphones were rather useful. He closed the images to see if there was anything else to bother with on this machine, before he left. The desktop was sparse, and there was a terminal usage log and system permissions chart open. It seemed there would be no random lucky extras today, and Nero was about to leave, but at last second, someone in the list of names caught his eye. A name that seemed familiar. Was one of them actually working here? He had no chance to think further, the door opening behind him, privacy gone. A young woman in a business pantsuit with clipboard in hand stepped in, and she started in surprise, not expecting the room to be occupied. "Oh, sorry, I didn't know you were ... " she petered out, her face shifting from surprise, to acceptance, then rapidly to suspicion, fear, and finally, recognition. She blanched, something within telling her exactly who he was, and in the same second he knew his cover was gone. "I, uh, I'll, um, be going." Pretense vanished and she was fleeing; hurriedly the door handle was yanked, and she gave only a furtive glance back, but he stood in that same moment, lightning quick, and dived for her. He managed to grab her wrist, and she gave a yelp of surprise, his strength hauling her back into the room with ease. "Stop! Please! I don't have anything for y- ... mmpph mmphmm. Mmmphrrmmm!" "Don't worry," Nero whispered, hand clapped over her mouth, "I won't kill you. Not today. I have the incantation, and you are the witness. So, you will speak of this to your masters. Tell them to be afraid, for now there is only the last piece of the Fear separating them from total defeat." "Mmph! MMPHH!" "But for now, I must leave, and you," he finished, "must sleep." -o-0-O-0-o- I was almost back home from town when my phone vibrated again. There had been two texts and one missed call while I was out of the house, and there wasn't anyone else it could be. Setting the thought aside, I walked up the garden path to our neighbour's patio and knocked on the door. As part of her job, my mother often used local businesses to supply the events she was expected to organise. Her preference was to support and promote nearby businesses before using any kind of chain stores. This included the butcher at the strip mall about three minutes walk from our house. Her loyalty to the community was appreciated by the owner, and the second he recognised me as her son, he was willing to listen to my request. A story about two new dogs and a dislike of manufactured pet food were good enough to convince him. I had no idea what sort of meat a dragon would like, but he didn't ask too many following questions and his advice was still useful. Regardless, a package of offcuts at no charge was a good deal, and I gladly accepted it. Now, I needed somewhere to put it that wasn't our freezer. "Well, hello Torsten." Mrs Sterling opened the door. An elderly widow in her 70s, she was the textbook example of a little old lady. Straight silver hair was piled into a bun on top of the head, she was a bit hunched over, with slightly clouded rheumy eyes, a long nose, a lot of wrinkles and a pair of full-moon spectacles. Her voice had a sing-song quality and a slight quaver to it, and she could be a little addle-minded at times, but generally speaking she was pleasant company and generous to a fault. "What brings you over to visit?" "Hi, Mrs Sterling. I'm sorry to bother you." "It's quite okay, dear. I was just baking some cookies. They're cooling right now. Would you like one?" "Uh, no, I'm fine but thank you for offering." I lifted the paper-wrapped bundle of offcuts. "I was wondering if I could ask a favour. Our freezer doesn't have much room and, well, we need somewhere to store this puppy food." "Oh, of course, dear!" She ushered me through the lounge and kitchen to a pantry area with a big chest freezer in the corner. "No idea why I bought this thing -- silly me! -- I have so much space to spare." She took the parcel and stowed it in one end of the unit. "Any time you need to come in here, just use the back door. The key is underneath the little statue; the base is hollow." "Thanks, Mrs Sterling." We walked through to the front door. "I really do appreciate it." "It's no problem, Torsten. Say hello to your mother for me." She smiled sweetly. "Don't forget, if you ever need anything, I'm right next door." "Thanks!" I waved to her and trotted back up the path and out to the road. Yeah, don't think I'm going to need much help unless she's a world expert on interacting with dragons. I dumped the second smaller parcel on the kitchen bench, containing today's meal. First though, I needed to take care of something else; something that now seemed a lot more trivial given what was currently going on. Lucy. Flopping down on my bed, I opened my phone and read her last text. All it said was: have you got the sand out of yr panties yet?? It was exactly what I expected from her, and there was only one way to respond -- in kind. Me: yes but only if youve got the stick out of your butt It took about twenty seconds for her to see the new message and reply. Her: you should try it, you might like it Brt in 5 mins. I rolled my eyes. Should have known better than to try that line out. Her house was close enough that I could usually guess, to within about ten or twenty seconds, when she would arrive. She was also the only person that never knocked, being loved by my mother and treated like family. I heard the front door open and the sound of her moving through the house, then her dramatic entrance into my room. The door flew open, bouncing off the wall with a low thud, and she flounced across and plopped onto the bed next to me. "Um, sure, have a seat I guess?" The mockery was thick, with a gesturing wave of the arms to her and the bed. "Make yourself at home." "Thanks," she beamed, her immunity to the deployment of tactical sarcasm on full display, "but we aren't here to discuss the ridiculous softness of your comforter." She leaned forward, like she was about to accuse me of murder, tone a mixture of demanding and thoughtful. "So tell me, what in the hell is your problem exactly? Was it the movie thing? Or bookstore-boy? Or did someone just shit in your cereal this morning?" "What? Bookstore-boy? Uh, his name is Theo, and-" "Theo." She switched to a faux snobby English accent. "How delightful." Ugh! "This. This is what I'm tired of, Lu!" I frowned, folding my arms as she waited for elaboration. "Look, I'm sorry if I snapped at you earlier, but you need to slow this shit down sometimes. You know it takes a lot to get me to react, but this is not helping." "You're probably right. I wasn't trying to piss you off. Sorry if I was an annoying bitch, it gets played up from time to time." She slid her arms around me from the side, drawing me into a hug. "You're about the only person I don't like arguing with, but ... you gotta remember that I won't leave this alone. Until you can look me in the eye with a straight face and say: 'Lucy, I am in no way attracted to boys', I will continue as I have." "Right," I grumbled. "Why would I expect anything else?" "Seriously though," She let go and sat back a bit, "is something going on with you? You know you can tell me if there is." "Well, um, would you be angry if there sorta, kinda, was?" "No." She was sincere and surprisingly not-talkative. "If there's anything to say though, you should." "Well, I-" There, I stopped. I wasn't sure what to say to her. Tell her the truth? Show her what I've found? I wanted to share my experience with someone I trusted, but at the same time I wanted to learn more first. The thought also occurred to me that the more people knew, the harder it would be to keep information from getting out. While it was still just me, the secret was safest. Maybe I had to keep it that way, for the start at least. "-I don't really know how to tell you. I mean, I had this really fucking weird dream," I began to talk quickly, almost babbling, but had to express it somehow. "There was this voice and it was dark, and today at the bookstore, there was this moment with the word, and then later I went on this walk and- ... and I- ... fuck. I know this makes no sense, because what I've just said sounds like crazy talk, but ... can you trust me that I'm okay? Please?" "Crazy talk, huh." Her expression was calculating and she certainly didn't seem to be arguing with the 'crazy' part. "So, you want to keep it to yourself and not share with me, your bestest of friends, this information about your life that I should rightfully know. Mhmmm. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this definitely is a favour, and what does the law of equivalent exchange have to say about that?" "Oh god," I groaned, clenching a fistful of bedsheet. "What do you want from me?" Lucy had the most syrupy goofy smile I could imagine. "You," she cooed, candy-sweet, "have to text Theo." "Really?" I squeaked. "That- ... that's it?" "Nope. Nuh-uh." She went on, nailing me with a look that was simultaneously saccharine and extortive. "You have to be nice, you have to try to make friends, and you can only stop when you come clean about what's going on, or ... if you can tell me, truthfully, that you liiiike him." "Okay, okay! I'll text him. You're still too hopeful. I've never said anything about boys." "You've never said anything about girls either." Smug as ever. "Until that day comes ... " "Go home, bitch." "Jock." "Ouch! That one hurts!" I stuck my tongue out. "I'm definitely not a jock." "I know, your brain actually works." She glanced down at her phone, checking the time. "You're right though, I do need to go home. The old man is making ribs and he was yelling at me not to be long when I left." She pocketed it into her cutoff jeans and stood. "You can come over, if you want. He always makes too much anyways." "I'm fine, mom left something for me, and I need to take a shower and do school stuff." "Whatever you want, though if you change your mind, you better be quick." She turned and waltzed out the bedroom door, her voice floating down the hall. "See you on Monday. Don't forget to text! You promised!" "Yeah, yeah. Bye!" I listened to her depart, the front door slamming and footsteps fading away. That was actually less painful than I was expecting. Sitting up, I grabbed a bath towel from off the top of my dresser and stripped off my hoodie. Underneath it, the t-shirt was ruined. The hoodie was thick enough to not really notice the damage, but the shirt? It was littered with slits in the fabric and I could feel the air moving through the perforations. Stripping off the t-shirt too, I took a good look at myself. Scattered from groin to collarbone were a score of little curved triangular punctures. There was a rough pattern to them that showed where the hands and feet had been, and though none were bleeding, some had light bruising around them and were still oozing red. Seeing myself shirtless in the mirror was more than a bit creepy; it looked like someone had stabbed me in the front a bunch of times with a really little knife. "Dragon claws," I whispered to myself. It did this without even meaning to. It wasn't trying to hurt me, it just happened. Collateral damage. Then it occurred to me, the latent concern and apprehension and buried sense of foreboding coming right to the front. If this is what it does unintentionally, what might it do when it gets larger? What might it do if it gets ... angry? "Fuck." A disheartened mumble and I sighed, dabbing at a cut that had narrowly missed my left nipple. A droplet of blood ran down my index finger, and across my palm, leaving a trail over the number written in red biro. Shit! Theo's number. Need to get this down while I can still read it. Opening up the address book on my phone, I punched it in and saved it for later. Grabbing the towel once more, I stood, took a step and ... ... looked back at my nightstand, where my cellphone was sitting. Then to the door. Then my phone. I ... did promise her. I should keep that promise. Shouldn't I? Ah, to hell with it. I sat down again, created a new text message, addressed it to Theo, put in one word and hit send. Hi. -o-0-O-0-o- "I was going to email this, but the old-fashioned way is the surest." Nero handed his device to the man in the suit, parking lot's street light glinting off the lapel pins, the night warm and breezy. "These marvels of invention are all well and good, but machinery is limited." "We will use their tools for our purposes, for as long as they may serve." The man hit a button on his own cellphone and in seconds, the images were transferred across and stored. With another tap, he opened them to see for himself. Nero was accustomed to the poker-face expression of someone playing a very long unfathomable game. There and then, just for those moments, a tiny spark and a lusting thirst was visible, not quite hidden behind the ambition and manipulation. "You have done well. This strengthens us immeasurably." Nero dipped his head, respectful, the satisfaction being enough reward on its own. "There is little privilege greater than a task so critical. There is another thing to tell you." The man handed Nero's phone back, querying, and so he went on. "One of their elders is working directly with the Order. I saw a name, one I have not come across in years." "An elder, you say? Are you certain?" "Yes. Without doubt, it is an alias, as is the custom in these times, but I have no second thoughts that it is one of them." He nodded at the image of the runic text still on the phone's display. "What will happen next?" "I will seek out the counsel of the rest of the Conclave. This elder must be dealt with accordingly, and the incantation translated. They can provide the resources to achieve this. After, we will find the Fear and do what we must, to seek our justice." "What we must," echoed Nero, "to bring back fire to this world."
  8. Stellar

    Where It Began

    Everyone in this world has a story. No two are exactly the same. Life is full of struggle and triumph, anger and joy, fear and love. Each experience, each circumstance, is the product of a million little things that are as unique as the individual living them. These were wise words from my grandfather to me, when I was a little boy. He used to tell me I would be famous one day. Successful and accomplished, the world would be at my feet. You've got the right mind and the right heart, my lad, he would say, and you will go far. Never doubt it. I don't. I didn't either, though I was still young enough that the future he had described was a dream, a distant goal to work towards. Undefined, it was just a thing that I would shape and one day achieve. Still, of all the futures he might have imagined for me, what happened instead was ... something very different. You see, other people can introduce the story of their life with a few basic facts, and I guess I can do that too. I'm sixteen years old. I live with my mother and go to high school. I enjoy soccer, fantasy novels, online RPGs and have taken up archery as a hobby. I don't have any living grandparents, and I'm not fond of my father; a man who I have not seen in years. I only have a couple of close friends, and the closest is a girl. Yet ... that's not real. It is accurate if you consider facts, but in the end? It's just background noise that's not telling you anything important. If you want the true introduction to what has -- and is -- defining my life in a meaningful way, then it's short and simple, and goes exactly like this: My name is Torsten and right now, I am witnessing the beginning of the end of the world. This is not an exaggeration. I should explain what I mean, because there is a lot to explain. For that, you'd need to know my story from the start. For me, it all began with a really strange dream. -o-0-O-0-o- Since I was barely older than a toddler, I have had an active imagination. Dreams were part of that package, and I had plenty of them. Dreams about the latest book I had read, the latest TV show I had watched, about people from my life in situations that made no sense at all. There was the occasional nightmare too, which was basically inevitable. My dreams were sometimes strange, sometimes scary, sometimes just plain nonsense and stupidity. All in all, it was pretty normal. That changed one day, months ago, when I had a dream that was different. From the second it began, I knew. I didn't have to wait until I was awake to understand what was going on and reflect on it in the light of day. I was fully aware of what was happening as if I was conscious, even though I was still fast asleep. I had heard of lucid dreaming, but this was beyond that. I had stepped onto another level where there was perfect clarity. Asleep, but awake. I was standing on a hillside at night, with darkness all around. Above, the sky was cloudless and dim, and not a single star visible. In front and below where I was standing, there was the faint outline of buildings, streets and an urban sprawl. It was a town or a city, only barely detectable; as lightless as the sky and my surroundings. All of it had an aura of expectation, a scene held in suspense until the cameras could roll and the sound and light would begin. There was potential. Then, behind me, there came a presence. I didn't know what it was, or where it came from. I simply knew it had arrived. I could tell in the same way you can feel when a storm is approaching. The taste is on the breeze, the pressure shifting, skin prickling and sky murky. There are signs that are small but significant. This was the same. A wind rose and fell in erratic bursts in the space trailing, before it evened into a steady gust; the leftover currents off a hurricane's fringe. The air swirled, the eddies dying away with the final moments of arrival, the hints of a magnificent force coming to calm, and then, I heard a sigh of exhaled breath. I was no longer alone. That moment, even within a dream, I knew beyond doubt that this presence was there. It wasn't a phantom, it wasn't imagination, it wasn't something dredged up from my brain's subconscious. Asleep, in my mind, that didn't matter. It was real. I stepped back from the darkened hillside, and began to turn around. Afraid of what I might find, I moved slowly. So very slowly, not knowing what kind of horror to expect and what I would see. But ... there was nothing. Just a wall of black, the same featureless dimness; space with no starlight. Even so, there was still something there, right in front of me. Something big. It spoke, a voice rising out of the dusky silence. It was no more than a whisper, but it seemed to echo and reverberate around me in stereo. Deeper and with more dimension than the heaviest bass of a movie supervillain, it was neither menacing nor friendly. There was no readable tone and no possible way to tell its intention. Enigmatic, it gave nothing away, except for a strange sense of restraint, a desire that was only just held back. Dear child, I waited too long for this time. Ages came and ages went. I watched the empires of man rise and fall. Each season of war and peace has come and gone, but now, it exhaled again in heady anticipation, savouring the moment, no longer. The waiting and watching is done, for here you are. "Wh- ... who are you?" I could reply, though barely. "What are you?" It did not address my words, and continued as if I had remained silent, the question ignored or unheard. You. A warm mist brushed my face, almost a reverent touch, a gentle caress. You are the only one. None are as faithful. None are as pure. It is you, dear child, that will set right the broken world. It inhaled, then exhaled yet again, revelling in it. It is close now, so close to real. No more silence and solitude. No more the realm of haunted shadow. "What do y-you mean?" I stammered, staring crazed up at the enormous formless thing that was right there, the proximity undeniable, but still ... not. "What is this? What's going on?!" The voice chuckled, a rich throaty laugh of inexplicable amusement. Soon, dear child, you will know. The misty warmth began to wane and with it went the feeling of vicinity, the voice fading in tandem. Soon, it sighed, the time comes. "Wait!" I called, desperate to know anything. "Just- ... just tell me who you are, if nothing else! Please!" Light. It fell to a hum, the atmosphere dispersing with it. Truth. No more than a dying murmur, it gave me only a single final word, in the most hushed undertone, before it was gone and I was once again alone. Fire. Then, I woke up. -o-0-O-0-o- "Yo." She punched me, the thump of it a jolt. "Dude. Focus!" "Hey!" I complained. "What the hell? "You were spacing out." Lucy grinned, and hiked her school bag up. "Don't make me lay the smack down on your bitch ass yet again. Pay attention." I rubbed my shoulder, glaring at her, and she shot back a 'what are you gonna do?' look of no-fucks-given. "Jesus, Lu. Why are you taking it out on me?" "Torsten, you look like shit today. You didn't even respond to old lady Sterling when she said good morning, but nothing will excuse ignoring me." We were on our way to school, halfway down the street I lived on. It was about a twenty minute walk from my house, and twenty-five from hers. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I was exhausted, my sleep completely messed up by the extremely crazy dream I'd experienced just an hour or so earlier. I was in the company of one Lucy Atkinson, my closest and best friend. As far as friends went, there were a couple of other boys in my year that I sometimes hung out with at school, but they weren't as close as Lucy was. She was unique in more than a few ways, and was never going to be part of the crowd. Our introduction was in kindergarten, and in typical fashion even so young, she took no shit from anyone. Another kid had stolen one of my toys and when he and his friends refused to return it, she took matters into her own hands. Violence ensued and of course a teacher was called, but the end result was three crying boys, a victorious Lucy, a returned toy and a disappointed parental phone call. It was the beginning of a long friendship. She was fierce, stubborn, opinionated and perfectly capable of beating up boys -- and girls -- two to three times her size. Though she was just 5'6 high, wiry and something of a tomboy, Lucy was well practiced at kickboxing, knew basic self-defence and played soccer with me for fun. Fiercely protective of family and friends, she was as frightening to our school's population of bullies as an avenging demon, and even though I was quite fine on my own, having those idiots give us a wide berth did make life easier. Appearance-wise, she was what guys considered to be 'cute'; an impish innocent look, hair cut short in a pixie style, and a preference for jeans and t-shirts instead of 'all that girly crap the others love'. She did have a hidden feminine side, though it was well concealed and only showed up in ways that most people didn't see. Except for me, of course. "So, as I was saying, there's a new guidance counsellor after Mr. Cohen resigned last month. It's a shame, I liked him. He let us do anything we wanted when he subbed health class." She shrugged wistfully. "Whatever. There's new students too, I heard. Weird to start on a Friday though, right?" "Mmm," I mumbled, still not really concentrating. "Oh, hey, speaking of Friday, you wanna go see something tonight? Your mom isn't home 'til late, right?" I shook my head, trying to properly wake myself out of zombie status. "Uh, yeah, she'll be back at like ... 9pm. What did you wanna watch?" "Well, there's this new sci-fi movie just come out, based on this book series I've read. I saw the trailer for it, and damn, does it look sweet." Her enthusiasm was irritating, and she knew it, but she kept on anyhow. "The boy they cast as the lead role is perfect, I don't think they could have chosen better." "Uh, really?" I rubbed my face, trying to decide whether I was going to regret asking. "Is he a good actor or something?" "I dunno," Lucy grinned, shrugging, "but he is adorable. Like, total pretty-boy with the hair and the eyes, and let us not forget the most important thing: his butt. Oh my god. It's amazing. It looks so round and bouncy. I wanna play the drums with it." She mimed in front of her with both hands in the air, a gratuitous squeezing motion. "Mmmm. Squish, squish." "Really, Lucy? Really?" I blinked, not sure what I had just heard. "Are you trying to traumatise me?" Before she could answer, I continued. "Wait, isn't that the online series by the guy with the alias, the one you mentioned to me a couple times? Don't remember the name but wasn't it basically a B-grade sci-fi slash fic?" I wrinkled my nose in aversion. "You've got such perverted interests." "It's called Secret Moonlight, it's not B-grade slash, and I'm not perverted," she huffed. "It's quality fiction, and besides, jocks fantasise about lesbians fucking all the time and everyone's all 'haha boys will be boys!' like it's no big deal. So, what's wrong with my enjoyment of the same, genders flipped?" She punched my arm again, much less roughly than the first time, the message clearly outlined. "The correct term for a girl of my refined tastes is a fujoshi, my young padawan. You need to be educated on these matters." "Whatever," I shrugged back at her. "Sounds like another badly-written piece of space-porn. The internet is full of that stuff. You're still a weirdo for being obsessed with guys screwing each other, and for liking sci-fi that much. Fantasy is more my thing; I'll take Lord of the Rings over Star Wars any day of the week." "Please?" She stepped ahead, turning around to walk backwards right in front of me, a salesman trying to pawn off a used car. "Please come with! Who else is going to see it if you don't? Jessica? Danielle? Louis? Can you fucking imagine?" She pulled a disgusted face at the thought. "I don't have any other open-minded intelligent options. You might even like it. Come on!" "I dunno, Lu," I sighed, frowning, Lucy managing to keep pace in front, even in reverse. "Can't promise it's something I'd like. I'm really tired, and not in the mood for this, but ... since I'm such a nice guy, if we go to the bookstore first, I'll think about it." Her eyes lit up. "Is that a maybe?" "It's an 'I'll think about it'," I grumbled, "so don't get your hopes up." Deft and quick, she turned back, resuming the normal path forward along the pavement next to me. "It's totally a maybe. It's going to be a yes. You just have to accept it, Torsten." "We'll see." -o-0-O-0-o- The mid-morning sun glinted off the pond. A flotilla of ducks was dispersed through it, chasing thrown bread from children, whilst the occasional swan sailed past, idling in bored regality and plucking at the reeds. Passersby were infrequent, but the park was still busy for the ending of the week, and the foot traffic sporadic. He sat down on the bench, and gazed at the view. Next to him, the man in the suit reading the newspaper turned a page. Neither looked at one another and no acknowledgement was given, but the man immediately began to speak. "You are late, Nero." He gave a low rumble, of irritation and defiance both. "You would rather I be identified? Caught?" "I would rather you be less careless and more punctual." The reply was measured, but with an acerbic note of caution to it. "If only you were more like-" "Spare me," Nero interrupted, not caring to hear the incoming lecture. "Why did we come here?" He drew a breath, a contemptuous angry lungful of air. "Being around so many of these ... people ... it incenses me. Their hubris, their self-interest; it is revolting. It urges me to their destruction." "We are here," murmured the man, "because all that I have learned tells me this town is where our future will be realised." He turned another page, browsing the local herald with a mild curiosity. "However, you will be pleased to know your next task will take you away some distance, at least temporarily." A hand went into a pocket, and then a slip of paper was placed between them. "On good authority, I have the exact location of the incantation." Nero took it, and pocketed it himself. The implication was clear, and a keen hungry grin widened, his mood lifting. "The incantation. Oh, yes." His perpetual anger was turning to thirst, the idea of acting openly too appealing to ignore. "You wish me to steal it from under the enemy's nose?" "Steal it. Copy it. Burn the place down for all I care. Just make sure you are not captured and that you return with the whole thing, start to finish." "Of that you may be sure," he growled, "for I could never ruin such an honour." "Good. This piece is essential and the opportunities have become slim, so you must not fail." The man in the suit stood, folding his newspaper and with not a word more, walked away out of the park. The incantation. The time was getting closer. -o-0-O-0-o- Most of the rest of the day was a blur. Thankfully, Friday was a quiet day. By the second to last period English class, I was nearly falling asleep and barely noticed the couple of new students being introduced. One was seated right next to me and I was dreading being forced to pay attention and speak with my new neighbour, but the teacher didn't bother me about it. I was one of his best students and he must have noticed how tired I was, because even half-slumped over my textbook and folder, he didn't say anything. The final period following that was a complete blur, and as soon as the bell went and school was over, I was packed up and out the door with the crowd, not bothering to wait. Lucy caught up to me when I was passing the cineplex next to the mall, which was only a few minutes walk from the school. She was just as talkative as in the morning, glad to be finished for the week, and though I was too, my desire for conversation was at an all-time low. She could tell and simply didn't care, and I just humoured her, my responses as brief as possible. Entering the bookstore was a relief, as we split up in search of our own interests. This particular store, Fantastic Things, sold many genres of fiction but it specialised in all kinds of comic-book stuff too, including toys, figurines and the associated geeky accessories. I found a quiet row and began browsing through their library, not really looking for anything in particular. "Guardians of the Galaxy, huh? Are you a fan?" I looked up at the interruption, comic in hand. The interloper was another boy. Taller than me, athletic and lean, he had a straight nose, serious hazel-brown eyes and a respectable but tidy mane of ruddy chestnut hair. In cargo pants and a t-shirt, schoolbag stylishly slung over one shoulder, he was holding a comic too, and he gave a half-smile, the left side of his mouth curling upward slightly in a weird knowing expression. For some reason, my breath caught for a moment and my mind went blank on what to say, but it didn't matter because he spoke again. "Unless you just like Jean Grey." The Guardians cover had the aforementioned mutant on it, exploding in a burst of psychic heat. "I, uh ... no, not really. I mean, they're okay, I guess, but I wouldn't say it's a favourite." "Me neither. Not quite my style." He held out his hand in casual easy friendliness. "I'm Theo. It's Torsten, right?" We shook. "How do you know my name?" "I was sitting next to you in English class, though you were too busy studying the desk to notice." "Um ... crap." I shook my head, apologetic. "I'm sorry, I wasn't paying much attention to class. Short on sleep." "It's fine." Theo brushed it off, airy and forgiving, and he smiled properly, fully, this time. It had a magnetic warmth to it and an effortless awesomeness. My breath caught again and inexplicably, my heart fluttered. Despite my fatigue I felt drawn to talk to him. What- ... what's going on with me today? "The phoenix is an interesting mythological creature," he continued, "but comic-based superheroes are overrated. I like more ... standard fantasy." "Standard?" I blinked, placing the comic back on the shelf, and he mirrored me, doing the same with his. "Do you mean Harry Potter standard or Forgotten Realms standard?" He raised an eyebrow, smile widening. "I appreciate Ms Rowling's ability, but no, something a bit darker and more adult than that, like George R R Martin or Brandon Sanderson." "Martin is good," I agreed. "I like both the show and the books." "Favourite character?" "Jaime Lannister. It's an odd choice, but I have my reasons." A shrug. "Who's yours?" "The Kingslayer? Huh." He mused, thoughtful for a moment. "He is an odd choice. Mine? That's easy. There could only be one, and that's Daenerys Targaryen. It's because she finds a way to get what she desires, and," he locked eyes with me as he finished the sentence, "she has fire on her side." The way he was looking at me, the way he spoke, and the subtle intensity that filled that word made me mentally recoil in pure shock. It all seemed a little too direct, too focused. Am I going crazy? Fire. The same word, the same hidden suggestion of meaning that I didn't yet comprehend. What the hell is happening? I didn't know what this was all about, but I wanted to leave. I had to leave. My emotions had bounced between good, bad and freaking-out over the course over the last couple of minutes of conversation with Theo and I wasn't in the right state of mind to deal with the impossibility of the day's events. None of it seemed to make sense or even be normal. "Hope you don't mind if we exchange numbers. I like making new friends. Always fun to talk to someone who shares interests." Theo's hand was on my wrist, the skin unexpectedly warm, and he was writing a number on my palm with a red biro. "You should text me sometime." "Y-yeah," I stammered, pulling my hand away as soon as he was done, hiking my bag up at the same time. "Don't want to be rude, but, um, I have to go. I'll see you later." I barely noticed his reaction in my haste, though his voice followed me as I exited the aisle, oddly unsurprised and undisturbed at my swift departure. "Sure. See you later, Torsten." Got to get out of here. I felt like I couldn't breathe. Something bizarre was going on. Want to leave this place, to go away from people. Outside the store and halfway down the street, Lucy caught up to me, evidently having seen me leave in a hurry. She was carrying a paper bag and seemed oblivious to my mood, launching straight into an unwanted and unstoppable conversation as soon as she reached me. "Wow, you are walking quickly, what's the rush? Oh! So I found a new paperback I haven't read yet," she jiggled the bag, just in case it wasn't already totally obvious what was in it, "but much more importantly: Torsten. Dude. That boy was flirting with you." I stopped straight away and turned to glare at her, incredulous. "What? How did y-" "In the next aisle, heard him say hi," she interrupted without a beat, "I won't lie, I kinda eavesdropped and I'm not even sorry, but I stand by it. He was hitting on you, hardcore." "I don't t-" "He was totally into you. Who else approaches a stranger to talk about random shit like that? He was trying to get acquainted and I mean, he gave you his number." She grinned like a puppy that had just found a shiny new chew-toy. "To top it off, he is fine as hell. If you don't text him, I will be very disappointed." "Lucy, fucking STOP IT!" My outburst shut her up immediately, the surprise clear, but I didn't finish there. "You don't know what's going on, and I'm sick of this badgering. This isn't a game for your amusement." "Whoa, slow down." She held up a hand. "You need to chill out. I'm not s-" "No," I snapped, cutting her off. "I don't. What I need is to be left alone. I'm going home." I took a deep breath and practically spat the final word. "Bye." Then, I turned and walked away, leaving her standing on the street. -o-0-O-0-o- The whole walk home, my mind was a confused mess. The previous day, my life had seemed kinda boring, but today? It was a combination of unreal and mysterious. Mysterious because of Lucy's pushy suggestions and unwanted stage management, and also because of a chance meeting with a new classmate that made my emotions dance like a marionette after mere seconds of knowing him. Unreal because of that one word and, not least of all, the dream that preceded it all. The dream. I still couldn't wrap my head around it. What did it mean? What was that ... thing ... that spoke to me? It was definitely supernatural and I had no doubt that it was real, but I wanted some clue to explain all this. Something to piece it together. There was a note stuck to the fridge from my mother. Pulling it free, I read it as I walked to my room to dump school stuff, and nearly tripped over the box sitting outside my door. Hi honey. I'll be back around 9.30 tonight. Left some ravioli to reheat for your dinner. If you don't have any homework, there's a box of your grandfather's things outside your room. It was hidden away in the attic and it must have been sitting there since the lawyers wrapped up his estate when you were little. I know you don't have many memories of him, so I want you to have a look and see if there's anything you might want to keep. I'll be doing a proper clean-out this weekend. Have a good day and don't do anything silly. Love, mom. xoxo Curious to see what was in it and glad to have something to temporarily take my mind off the day's events, I threw my bag to the floor and plopped down on the bed, opening up the storage container. The inside was dusty, my mother apparently never having opened it, or at least not for a long time. There were a bunch of old photos of my grandfather with her when she was a lot younger, including one when she was pregnant with me, and more of him in Asia, a couple of decades ago. Also, there were a number of papers, most of which seemed to be copies of some kind of official documents used in his work. With those papers were several diaries; undecorated, with plain leather covers and tightly bound. Lastly, there was another smaller shallow wooden box with a carved hinged lid on it. I cracked it open, carefully, and peered inside. Oh, wow. It contained an assortment of rocks and stones from all over the world. I knew that my grandfather was a geologist from my own scattered memories and what my mother told me, but here was concrete proof. Each item was tagged and labelled with a paper slip attached by string, that listed a date and location. All were precious stones of some kind, of varying quality and size, though most were pebbles or small enough to fit inside a clenched fist. Some had no more than flecks of colour or veins inside actual rock, while others were much more filled out, either partially or nearly completely pure. Out of the collection, the two most noteworthy were also the largest by far. One was smooth on the surface, close to flat but with a slight convex curve. Almost like a polished roof tile but smaller, it was maybe four inches long and three wide, and less than half an inch thick. Pale sky blue and slightly translucent, the stone had a gorgeous vibrant colour, and although it was the only one that didn't have a label attached, I knew enough to make an educated guess that it was probably a sapphire. The other had an uneven surface and was a long thin shape. The edges were rough, like it had been a part of a bigger formation before being broken off. Angular ridges protruded along the length of it, and it was about five inches long and one in diameter, a long asymmetrical splinter that was nearly sharp enough to cut the skin. More opaque than the sapphire, it was a rich bloody red. This one did have a label, and it said 'aluminium oxide, chromium repetition (red corundum/ruby) -- Thailand, July 2009'. It's beautiful. I stared at it, the way the light glanced off the surface and was highlighting the planes and facets of the gemstone's odd shape. It wasn't uniform or perfectly clear like a gem you could find in a ring or necklace, but the lack of imperfections in the stone itself and the strength of the colour was mesmerising and I found myself turning it over and over in my hands. If this was given the right treatment by a professional, I bet it could be worth a lot of money. BZZZZZT. The buzz of my phone vibrating snapped me out of it. A glance told me all I needed to know. Ugh. She just won't fucking quit. I didn't want to read her texts or hear whatever stupid justification she was going to make, so I turned the phone off and dumped it on the nightstand. Slumping back on the bed, I stared at the ceiling and gritted my teeth. What if she decides to come here because I'm not texting back? She'd probably do something like that. I didn't want to speak to anyone. I wanted to be left alone, so I could clear my head. I wanted to understand. It took all of ten seconds to make my decision. Sitting, I emptied my bag of its academia-related contents and put the collection box in it, along with my MP3 player, a blanket and an unfinished novel. Then it was to the kitchen, grabbing an apple and a bag of potato chips, and following that, out the door. Our town, Mirrorvale, wasn't really small, but our house happened to be on a bordering side right next to the hills that half surrounded the suburban area. Crossing the back yard and over the boundary fence of our property, it was onto public council land, an undeveloped stretch of grass about the length of a soccer field. After that was a tiny drainage creek, not more than a dribble of murky swampy water, and then the thick brush and thin ranging trees that cluttered the lower slopes. I had explored this area a few times before and never once run into any people. The forest wasn't really good for hiking or anything much; it was very closed in, the branches were scratchy and tangled and the ground could get slippery and muddy in the winter. Nobody was going to come find me, and that suited perfectly. Still, I was looking for a particular place to sit and contemplate for a while, and I knew that there was more than just trees. Further up, there were several limestone rock cliffs, well hidden under the forest growth. Some of them had cracks in them and a couple had more than that; full limestone caves, disappearing into the hillside. The smallest were only big enough to crawl into, but the largest had enough space to fit a modest-size truck inside. It was this one that I was searching for, and once I found it, I retreated back until I saw a shelf elevated high enough to sit on, laid down the folded blanket as a cushion and sat back, leaning against the cave wall. Sunshine filtered in from outside, and there was still plenty of light though I was a few feet back from the entrance. Earbuds went in, the MP3 player was turned on, and the apple retrieved. I bit into it, glancing around my shelter. The floor, walls and roof were fairly flat, with only a couple of little cracks making inroads into the rock here and there. A few stalactites clung to the ceiling, though these caves had long ago dried out and the water formations were small and stunted. A half dozen little shelves, like the one I was sitting on, poked from the walls, and close by my feet was a scratchy depression filled with a few oval-shaped rock bubbles, in appearance a bit like the surface of a geyser or mud pool, only frozen into immovable stone. I balanced my backpack upright on the ground and pulled out the novel and the box. This was my own little private spot that no-one knew about, and I was glad I had never shared it. Not that I was expecting to use it to escape from my best friend, or anyone else for that matter, but I definitely needed some solitude. A chance to think. The dream. The voice. The new boy. Fire. What does all this mean? Still leaning back against the wall, I idly opened up the box and gazed at the contents as I thought over my day. Grey, brown, white, orange, green; muted layers, stripes, dots and splotches of colour and texture. Common stones, rare stones, precious stones. Blue and red. Turning the ruby splinter over and over in my fingers, tracing the irregular surface and feeling the solid hardness of it, I shut my eyes and sighed. I had the impression that someone was messing with me somehow, but nothing about my day had seemed orchestrated or fake. I just want to know what the fuck is going on. What explanation could there be? Where did this come from? I was still pondering those questions and more besides, the sliver of precious stone in my hand, my mind churning over what was probable and possible, when the fatigue and my lack of rest began to finally take hold. Completely without meaning to, and with the box in my lap and ruby in hand, I relaxed against the cool limestone wall of the cave and in moments, fell asleep. -o-0-O-0-o- It was a sound that woke me up. I gave a jerk of surprise and sat up straight, blinking. Light was still coming in through the entrance, barely any dimmer than before. It would not have been more than an hour at most, and I rubbed my eyes, grimacing at the discomfort in my back and neck from the posture I was sleeping in. Before I could even muster a coherent thought, the sound repeated itself, louder and more demanding. The crackling of rock as it snapped and broke. It was coming from right next to me. Looking down, something was happening to the formation on the cave floor. The closest rock-bubble was glowing red-orange hot and the surface of it was breaking ... and moving. In shock and surprise I jumped up, the box falling off my lap, the backpack tipping over as I tripped and stumbled, coming about to press myself against the far wall at the absurd and mystifying sight. WHAT? The surface of the bubble pushed up, the rock fragmenting as something thrust through it from below. The protrusion widened and the surface gave way as a shape began to emerge from the glowing oval. A living shape. It was at this point that my stupefied brain started to understand what I was seeing, and it was not a thing I ever expected to see in reality with my own two eyes. Impossible ... With a shove, the top of the egg burst completely, the heated protective corona of birth finally giving way, and the creature climbed from within. It rose on its hind limbs through the wreckage, forelegs clutching at air, thin reptilian body drawn as tall as it could muster, a tiny pair of wings extending on either side in a defiant greeting to the world.
  9. Stellar

    Spirit of Fire

    Some biology lore for my Spirit of Fire readers. I'd recommend not touching this until probably at least chapter 17, for safety's sake, though there is nothing super spoiler-y in here anyhow. In either case, you've been warned.
  10. Stellar

    Strength Of Faith

    It took all the effort he had to rise enough to sit, his hand touching the perforated skin, trembling on the slickened surface. What magic he could summon flowed through his fingertips into the wound, the agitated energies of his draconic spirit fitfully attempting to draw the riven tissue and torn membranes together. He could feel it, not just as he was, but in the dormancy of his true form. The ruin of Kaia's blade was worse than anything a human could do to him, and the small innocuous length of enchanted steel had been a lance driven through the thickest layer of scale and muscle deep into his innards. Sebby let go, collapsing again, fresh spasms of pain shooting through this stomach and chest as his back met the ground. He had neither the skill with healing, nor the strength to overcome such an injury. It was not enough. He had known this could happen, from the first moment he had set eyes on Torsten and glimpsed the marvel of insight and possible futures, but never, not for a single second since then, had the prospect made him reconsider. His task was a gift of divine inspiration, a pathway lit by wisdom that came from above, carried upon the shifting currents and born in an awareness drawn from the sight of a million observations. What was his understanding compared to that? He would not, could not, question his purpose. Yet, there he lay, soaked in his own blood, his life ebbing even as his faith remained strong. Faith. "I call to you." He spoke aloud in his native tongue, his attention fixed above, voice wavering from the hurt, but determined, the draconic language bouncing off the buildings near him. The words were forced out, the psychic distress imbued into them with as much amplifying vigour as he could give. "I beseech you, heart of the sky." He shuddered, energy sapping, but continued nonetheless. "Hear me, Celestial Mother. Hear me, I pray. Hear me, I beg." The speech echoed between the structures, seeming to hang in the afternoon air; an entreaty to the wind, an attempt to offer restitution in a final appeal to the greatest authority he knew. It was all he had. Still, nothing moved. Nothing changed. Was this really the end? He lay where he was, wondering for a brief moment, his eyelids fluttering in weariness, if this was the last he would know before he became one with nature once more. Then, beside him, the air shifted. An eddy appeared, the swirling motion of it growing until it was a contained vortex. Within, a ghostly figure formed, hardly visible; a translucent featureless shape that was no more than an apparition tinged with a barely discernible sheen of pale light. "Child." A soft barely-audible whisper emitted from it, the churning wind worn around the phantom like a cloak. It was echoing and strange; an errant strand of thought transmitted from an immense distance, remote and half-attentive. "Your plea is heard." "My- ... my lady." He coughed, weakening further, but still staring at the holy manifestation. "Forgive me. Forgive my weakness. I am dying." With that, the air slowed, calming. "Dying?" The query came, and with it a focused sharpness. Before he could manage another word, the wind picked up again, but this time it was completely different. He felt it, all the way to his bones. To that one faint thread of extended connection that was her presence, a multitude of others joined, score upon score uncounted. From hundreds and thousands of miles in every direction, the sky and reality itself were distorting. Everything pulled inward, the span of a continent's worth of elemental soul compressing into a human shell scarcely an arm's length away. Closer, magnified, the vastness of divine essence was concentrated before him, the influx a monumentally perception-warped implosion of arcane power. The potency of it was beyond what he imagined, and when it stopped, the vortex had finally coalesced into a solid form, and the disjointing of existence terminated. In that moment, like elastic, the world snapped back into place. The explosion of hurricane winds and blinding light tore leaves and branches from trees, blasted away organic litter, pulverised the wall of the adjacent office, the remainder of it collapsing from unfortunate proximity. The goddess had arrived. Overawed, he could not speak. She was tall, svelte, but undeniably feminine; unshod, a cascade of snow-pure hair falling upon bare alabaster shoulders. Clothed in ribbons of living white silk that flowed around her limbs and torso in an ever-changing tableau, the only part of her he could not distinguish was her face. It was bright, a dazzling illumination, the star of her nucleus undisguised. The sight felt like home. Lowering, she knelt next to him. "My faithful child," she murmured, "what have they done to you?" "I have failed you." His breathing was shallow, his time nearly done. "The Conclave's servants ambushed us. I- ... I was not fast enough, strong enough." He lifted his right hand, shaking nearly uncontrollably, and reached out. "I ask for your grace ... one last time." Her head shifted, beholding the wound, but she did not take his hand. "No." It was as simple as that. "I do not accept this apology." "My ... lady?" In a whisper, defeated, denied, his hand fell away, his eyes beginning to close, hope leaving together with his vitality as the very limit of it drained away. "I ... am ... so ... sor- ... -ry ... " "No, child." She told him. "There is nothing to forgive." She placed her own hand on his chest. "The failure is mine." Her power exploded into him, the eternal spark of the Celestial Mother filling his every cell in a glowing tide. "What goddess abandons her chosen to die?" The wound in his side closed instantly, the flesh knitting perfectly, returned to how it was. "What goddess forsakes the most loyal of her own?" She let go and stood, as the stained and ripped material of his vest was purified, woven together. He sat, abruptly, gasping, his body restored, reinvigorated. "I will not stay idle when my brother's chaos seeks to reign again." Swiftly, he rolled over from semi-prone, then came to a genuflected kneel, his head bowed. "Rise, Sebakâli. Stand before me and know my gift." She had given him back his life. There was nothing he could say that would convey his reverence and adoration of her. "Yes, my lady." He rose, standing to greet the Spirit of Air. Unexpectedly, the brilliance of her features was somehow observable, even if just barely, and he could see the curve of her chin, the line of the nose and lips, the subtle concave of her eyes. It was beatific and humbling and exciting and terrifying in the best possible way, and his belief was renewed as his body had been; vindicated and fortified by the ordeal of his near-death. "Your trial is done, and no more are you simply an agent unanointed. I name you as I named Tiranî, the slayer of Antiris." Tiranî, the legendary figure and sainted firstborn ancestor. "You alone of my children have earned the title. You are the Sword of the Heavens, and I have empowered you with my blessings." "Goddess," he dipped his head in recognition of the singular honour given to him, "what is your command?" "Continue on your journey. Aid the Order. Protect the boy. Love without prejudice the clear-hearted. Strike without mercy the fallen and corrupt." A pulse of light beat through her countenance, a second's worth of royal anger showing like sun between clouds. "Your skill is greatly expanded by my boon. Any spawn of fire that challenges you, show them my wrath." "As you will it." He nodded again, hesitating a moment to ask, though she preempted him. "Speak, my child." "It is ... your sister, my lady. Water sees fate as we others cannot, and her seers have long foretold his return. Through these many years, their knowledge has never foundered, each prediction becoming real as presaged. Is their first and most significant forewarning truly as inevitable as all that has gone? Do we fight the inescapable?" There was a silence, and the unreadable visage of his goddess gave no clue why, causing him brief worry that he might have spoken beyond his purview, but she did reply. "Prophecy is a mighty burden, drawn from the flowing river of time into the seer's consciousness. It touches the fabric of everything, and the certainty of its prevalence is absolute. It is implacable, unyielding and monumental, encompassing and beyond scope." She moved closer so they were nearly touching and spoke softer, and he felt like he should wither from her radiance so near, but it did not hurt. It also seemed as if she was smiling, though he could not tell for sure. "Yet, there are some in this world, a rare few, who can find the smallest fractures in the flawless facade. Through such cracks, the starlight of hidden paths is glimpsed and the possibility of an alternative becomes more than a fevered dream." "Then," he breathed, "there is still hope that we may prevail." "Dear child," she murmured, the dulcet of her answer a melodious lullabye on the winds, her hand extending to indicate the sky and the distant hidden perils of their adversaries, "there is always hope, but you must go forth ... and fight for it." -o-0-O-0-o- The location Minato Yoshida had chosen for his observation was a good one. Remote, heavily forested, the Corridor ran between two satellite outposts. Surrounded by broken terrain and trees, there was a cleared flat strip directly beneath the passage, dividing the pair; a makeshift airfield for small light planes to use. Each station had a single story utility support building, with the dishes sitting on top, focused skyward. His team was four Order agents, and he had positioned everyone inside, but within easy viewing of the Corridor's thoroughfare, and placed at the ideal spots for springing the trap on the right target. Station A, as it was designated in his briefing, was on the western side of the air strip, and he and Agent Fenton were watching from there. Station B was on the eastern side, with two more, and lastly his deputy, Braun, hidden in a utility shed next to the southern stretch of the runway. Minato had sighted four adult dragons passing by in the days since he'd begun this operation at Crawley and Celeste's urging. Either the branch of the Corridor they were watching wasn't a popular one, or the dragons of the Seventh House were all hiding, because he'd been certain that the individuals witnessed were all Fifth House, and made no effort to trap them. It was the fifth incident where everything changed. In the middle of the afternoon, Minato and Fenton were sitting in their spots by the window lining the airfield, lounging as they bantered away the time. The agent was telling a particularly boisterous dirty joke, when Minato heard the telltale sound of wings. Quicker and closer than normal, a dragon burst out of the Corridor's fog to the south, visible for a brief stretch only. The wings were huge, the body and tail grey, snaking past as it cruised by like an oversized passenger jet, low and unusually close to the ground. Minato lunged for his companion, clapping a hand over a surprised Fenton's mouth, cutting off the sound. Eyes wide, they watched the elder skim the length of the airfield before disappearing again from view, continuing on northward into the Corridor, the moment finished. "Jesus." Fenton murmured when Minato let go, the agent pale. "That was a big bastard." "Don't really wanna tangle with that. Very low, damn close." Minato breathed out, tense, and touched his earpiece. "B, any sign it saw or heard us?" "Negative, sir. No indication it slowed or turned before we lost it." "Okay, good. Keep your eyes peeled for the next ten, just in case. That was too tight for-" He did not get to finish the sentence. Dropping directly down from the magical haze above, the dragon landed on the weathered tarmac with a bituminous crunch. His head flicked left, to Station B, and fire streamed through the windows, the glass exploding and the interior flooding with it, the agents vapourised. Minato was up, and running for the door just twenty feet away, Fenton only steps behind him. He dived through the open exit as the dragon fire was turned on Station A, the whoomph of it loud and near. Minato rolled over, patting out his pants hem that had caught from the heat, flattening himself against the building wall. Fenton hadn't emerged, and he knew the agent was dead. "Minato?! You make it?" The frantic query from Braun sputtered into his ear. "Fuck! That was from nowhere." "I- ... I'm out," he whispered, bringing his breathing under control, "but the others're ... gone." Little ape, I know you are there. The elder's voice bounced between the burning satellite stations, and across the surrounds. The rest are burned, but one of you, at least, remains. I can smell it. "I can see him. I got a good line. I- ... Minato ... I think he's from the Seventh." "Braun," Minato hissed, creeping to the building's corner to make his own assessment, "he's too big. We're equipped for sharks, not whales." "He's right in the middle of the runway. Just needs to be closer." I was here when your kind colonised this land. He continued conversationally, as if addressing an audience, his centuries of experience and fearlessness typical for such an aged creature. It was beautiful and clean, but you arrived and spread across it like a plague. A swarm of half-evolved monkeys, killing and polluting and claiming all the wonders as their own. "We can't do this on our own!" "We can," insisted Braun, voice crackling through the connection, "we just need to trick him." There is nothing so disgusting, so infectious, as man. Your pride is unwarranted, your strength exaggerated, and your religions fiction. Our gods live among us. Where are yours? "Boss, you still got the trigger ready, right? You can spring it. We need this blood. I'm gonna get his attention." "Braun. No!" It was too late. His deputy had already made up his mind. Pushing the utility shed door open, Agent Braun strode onto the tarmac, a stocky figure dressed in the uniform of an Order operative. He marched into the middle of the runway, and began to walk northward, in direct plain sight of the dragon Ah, there you are. Do not worry, Smoke-touched will see that your death is quick. "Will you?" Braun shouted. "Then come closer and let's find out!" To Minato's shock, the dragon gave what sounded like a chuckle and began to walk on all fours down the runway, and he fumbled for his belt clip, flicking open the sealed cap to expose the trigger. It took only three seconds for the massive creature to reach the mark, before Minato squeezed it, and the trap deployed. From four anchor points, two on either side of the runway, glowing magical ropes were launched. The first two wrapped around both forelegs, immediately going taut, the limbs pulling forward so the dragon crashed onto his front, prone. The third and fourth went around the skull from both sides, pulling the jaw closed, the same method for neutralising a crocodile. Fuming smog began to swell out from the dragon's body, but it wasn't produced by fire; it was emanating from the dragon himself. In seconds, it was a thick cloud that covered the width of the runway, but Minato wasn’t about to delay for more magical tricks. Aiming the collector at what he thought was the softest point on the dragon's neck, he pulled the second trigger and it fired. A harpoon flew out from a concealed railing on the ground, embedding a couple of feet into flesh. Smoke-touched gave a grunt of displeasure at the pin-prick, the arm-sized syringe attached to the harpoon drawing out blood as the plunger automatically retracted. The barrel filled with it, and as soon as it was half done, Minato hit the disengage, and the harpoon was yanked out, the length of metal pulled rapidly in a reverse course back to the launcher. "Braun, get OUT of there! This won't hold, and it's done!" He spat it in a furious whisper. Clever ruse little ape, but your traps are too small. They will not keep me. The straining bonds around the jaw snapped, and the head rose, the body pulling up and breaking the tethers on the legs as he did so. Braun was running, his distraction done with, but the grey dragon was upright, and with a short leap forward, he lunged, his head angling, and in a single snap of the jaws, swallowed the agent whole. Gone. Minato threw himself to the ground, hidden by the longer grass in the shadow of Station A, as the grey dragon turned on the spot, casting an eye over the area with his predator's attention to detail. Satisfied the job was done, Smoke-touched crouched, then launched up, wings beating, and was gone, re-entering the obscurity of the Corridor, the human nuisance dealt with. Feelings numbed, Minato retrieved the sat-phone from the equipment stash, and slumping against the wall of the burning outpost, he dialed Crawley's number. Memories of the past, of dead friends, mind control, and monsters made of fire danced through his head the second he closed his eyes, waiting for the agent to pick up. "Yoshida. What's the news?" "H-hey," he breathed, his hands trembling, his nerves shot, "We- ... I- ... I've got the blood you need." -o-0-O-0-o- The room that was revealed when the blinders were removed was more hospitable than expected. The walls were stone and curved, the chamber circular, a modest height and comfortably furnished. Bookshelves, chairs and a table, a low couch for sleeping on, and a window that saw only the sky, indicating they were at some height above the ground. Then, Kaia, sitting in the chair right in front, facing him. Just her. "So, here we are." She leaned forward, no more than a foot away, watching him keenly. Her long grey hair was wrapped around itself into a tight bun behind her head, and her attention and focus on him was harsh; eyes emotionless, senses raptorial. "Are you prepared to confess your sins before your punishment is meted out?" Araziah glared at the female dragon, the collar on his neck and manacles on his wrists and ankles weighing heavy, but not so much as the pure hatred he had for her and her entire family. "No?" It may have been mockery, but Kaia was not smiling, and there was no levity in her attitude. "Nothing to say?" She inhaled deeply through the nose, exhaling slower by mouth. "Thyndorag was one thing, but ... Faye, my dearest Farigul? I am direct, disciplined, but she was the creative sister, the innovator, always finding new ways to capture and kill our sire's foes. We hatched together, she was my twin, and a true daughter of the Seventh House. I should have paid more heed to Darren's approach, should have allowed more credence for his caution against one so precocious as you. We would have been best served to simply execute you at that first encounter and be done with your miserable insurrection." He did not speak, his eyes fixed on her. "Still nothing?" She cocked her head, examining his expression. "It wasn't a lie when we complimented your shape and pedigree. Your breeding is impeccable -- Kitrax was from a storied branch of our lineage that had earned every portion of its accolades -- and you could have ascended with the rest of us. You have the best blood -- our blood -- and yet you chose the usurper's mantle and bondage to a slave race. A worthless, weak species." "When your torture fails on me," he snapped, a sudden reply, "you will die, and I will see this place destroyed." "There. There it is. Every time." Her lips curled into a snarl, her right hand raising in a fist like she wished to strike him. "You threaten, as if you were the judge of death itself. You call ruin and mayhem upon us, and it NEVER arrives. Your heretical righteousness and the wasted potential of your life is sickening, but ... I will fix that." The left hand went between the layers of her jacket, the top few snaps detached, the material loose. She pulled free a small circlet made of gold, woven like a triumphal wreath of laurel, and held it directly in front of Araziah. "This is your punishment: the mind clasp. It is the companion artifact to the one the seeress wears. Normally, these devices are tuned for efficiency; the application of pressure at maximum speed without damaging the prize. It takes days or weeks to break into a dragon's mind. Too much, too fast, and the consciousness will be mangled by the process into a mess that can offer no useful information whatsoever." She bit her lip and her bitterness, her sadistic desire, was easily seen in the gleam of the eye, the tiny expectant exhalation of breath. "But ... I need nothing from you. I do not care about what you know. Oh, no. Not at all. For you, it is different. I have modified this clasp to be many times more potent than the other. It will crack your paltry resistance in minutes, seconds perhaps, rip through your defences, and then ... then ... you will be lost forever. Do you know what you will become? A mindless, gibbering beast; a shell full of madness and destroying flame that possesses no wit, nor guile. You will be a blunt weapon, your ambitions gone, your intellect removed. Chained and hooded in a vault until the god returns, then to be released onto the human cities, a rabid berserker who knows naught but propagating our father's reckoning of fire." She placed the circlet on his head. "Farewell, Araziah. Your end is here, and you cannot escape it." The magic took hold instantly. Around him, the room seemed to fade, the perception of the physical world dimming to a half-recognised murk. In the distance, the principle mechanism of the clasp had activated, and he could detect it. A barrier, beyond which lay nothing. It was some way from him, but centred on him; spherical, impenetrable, intangible in any real sense, but entirely too tangible in this mental state. A pure void, that extended into infinity. Immediately, it began to shrink. At first, by inches, then the contraction was faster, at least a foot a second. With disquieting speed, at half a minute gone the bubble had constricted to where the edges of it slid soundlessly through the inconsequential walls of the room in which he sat. The orb of collapsing sane reality was pulling at him like a set of claws gouging through his feelings and thoughts in a horror of abandonment, and he could but watch as it dwindled that final stretch. From all sides, it came. A dozen feet, then half a dozen. Close enough to touch. Then, it was upon him. Then ... Araziah understood the true nature of this cage. Everything was gone. There was nothing but ... nothing. It went every direction. It inhabited all space, all time. There was no life, no colour, no reprieve. Nothing at all; forever and ever, and he was marooned here, isolated for eternity from everything and everyone that mattered. An endless sea of night. The crushing of the clasp's effect was a weight like nothing else, and the psychic signature that was his mind, his very existence in this place, was mere moments from fracture. It drove into him from everywhere, the crippling distortion of any ability to rationalise the experience acting as a hammer slamming into dozens of invading spikes. Fragmentation meant the death of who he was. He could not succumb to it, but ... ... it was too late. The mind clasp completed its task. Each skewer thrust through, shearing, crumbling, shredding, and his psychic presence was turned into a loose agglomerated ball of energy. His mind was broken. Yet ... not. The globe did not disperse as an entity disintegrated, but it clung together, splinters floating but still connected, still kept close even when the tearing force should have ended it utterly. He held on, the continuation of his very existence contingent on his ability to not let the smashed flotsam of his mind be dissipated. Unfettered resolve. Somehow, he was still there. From outside, from somewhere else beyond, the only thing that could infringe whispered into his barely-cognisant shattered remnants The voice, the one provocation that would follow him anywhere, no matter how distant nor strange. Araziah. A single message, in a deafening whisper that vibrated through every part of him. Light! Light banishes the dark! That was all. The latent magic of the clasp pulled at him, seeking to separate, scatter what was left; a thousand needling fingers murdering his soul with a gentle inexorable brutality ... but he held it all together. Yet, something new was growing in the miasma, was overtaking the clouding despair and the suffocating decline into madness. It was a kernel of emotion. It was anger. It was focus. With the straining effort of raising a mountain upon his back, the pieces came together, the bloodied shards of his psyche pulling into union. With every fibre of his being, he commanded it, rejecting the notion of failure, the ball condensing and then fusing into a sole entity again. It sealed shut, becoming whole, and the intruding venom of the torture device was pushed out. Araziah's truth solidified it, made it impervious, indivisible. With a thought, his spirit ignited, and the unyielding blackness that had never been defeated in its purpose was, for the first time, forced to retreat. Light, from fire. There was a heat -- a real heat -- and the void evaporated as if it never was. Reality was restored, the room about him flicking into clear view, just as it had been. Melted, contorted beyond recognition, the clasp slipped off his head, falling to the floor with a dull metallic thwink, no more than a broken trinket. She was staring at him. Shocked. Fearful. "YaaaaaaAAAAH!" He cried out in rage, voice rising, his fury climbing with every passing second, the bonds at his wrists starting to weaken, buckle. "DARKNESS CANNOT DESTROY ME! I AM FIRE!" "Impossible! It's- ... it's IMPOSSIBLE!" Kaia stood, not understanding how, knocking her chair over in haste, a hand flying to her hip to unsheath her blade. "NO MORE CHANCES! You die HERE, NOW!" Kaia lifted the weapon, swift, her aim fixed on his chest, prepared to impale the sacrilegious abomination in front of her with a strike to the heart, and- THUNK. -a gleaming diamond dagger stabbed directly through the side of her skull, into her brain. She spasmed once, her own knife tumbling away, body following it, and the dagger pulled free. A spray of blood spattered the furniture, the corpse thudding on the carpet, to reveal the air dragon Sebakâli behind where she had been standing, now glaring scornfully down at the second, and last, of the Ash Sisters, his voice coming out in husky growl that was laden with contempt. "The sky goddess bids you farewell." Araziah pulled forward, free of the chair, the manacles at his wrists and ankles snapping, and he rose, coming upright. Straightening to his full height, standing free, his eyes met those of the other, and they regarded each other in that inconceivable moment. Two dragons that should have been dead. Between them, Kaia's body caught fire and began to burn. Ignoring it, Sebby leaned forward, reaching over, a stolen key device in hand, and deftly fitted it into an indentation on Araziah's collar seam. Twisting clockwise, the lock clicked, the collar coming open, and with a gentle shake it fell to the floor, landing beside the wreckage of the mind clasp. "You live." The dragon before him was unhurt, and Araziah could feel a difference, an increase in capability that was notable, and inexplicable. He glanced down at the immolation of her death, then back to Sebby. "She claimed the kill, yet you returned." "Faith." A simple reply, and no more explanation than that. "I live through strength of faith." In turn, he gestured to the defunct torture device, where it lay. "How did you survive? Nobody has endured such torture without insanity and death." "Strength of will." Araziah took a step forward, his soles crunching into the brittle ashen mess of her body, heedless of the carrion flames that licked at his ankles. His voice was calm, but the ferocity and the violent passion were an evident undercurrent, barely kept in check. "I am unbreakable, but you ... you, also, are more than expected." He was having fresh insight, and it told him of Sebby's necessity. It was crucial for the action that was to come. "I see it. For today, you are an equal, and I can rely on no other." Araziah held out his hand. "I offer a compact. Join me in this battle, and we will deliver them a terrible vengeance." Sebby took it, their fingers clinching in a tight grip. A bargain was struck. "They will know defeat, I swear it." The air dragon let go, turning, the smaller leading the way to the room's window, the larger following. He wiped the blood off his dagger, still held in the offhand, and indicated the sight outside. "I sense your fury, but you can see this place is a fortress. You must channel that wrath, to direct it when and where they are weakest. Use it with a controlled mind, and their defences will crack." Araziah stood next to him and took in the view. They were high up, in a tower, and below were walls, connecting to other towers, replete with sentinels, patrolling Scourge, and magical countermeasures, forest and hills beyond that. To call it a fortress was accurate. "This is their sanctuary. The seeress is undoubtedly here," Sebby continued, "but so are Torsten and Lucy. Their safety is paramount." "There is a greater problem." Araziah was watching the other towers as he spoke, noting in particular that each had a sentinel human-form dragon atop it, keeping watch. "Lucy found a piece of the Fear inside Overmountain." "She ... found it?" "Yes, and now they have it." The fire dragon turned to the other. "You locate Torsten and the girl. Your stealth is best suited for this, and he must see you are alive. I will hunt for the Fear and kill the defenders. Nero's trespasses against us need answer. His authority must be cast down. He is his brother's pawn and the resident lord of this castle. It shall be decorated with Conclave dead, so I may properly earn my title of kinslayer." "It is not Nero that concerns me. I wish for revenge on him too, but Kaia said something before she delivered her supposed fatality; a taunt, meaning for the knowledge to die as I did. It was about Mordred." Sebby paused a second, the words coming back to him. One day, he will be king. The suggestion and potential implications were both ambiguous and disturbing. "I do not understand yet what she meant, but it matters. Whatever else happens, the Grey Prince cannot leave here alive." "I have not forgotten him." Araziah nodded, then looking out over the vista of what they were about to contend with. "His sisters are gone, but his attempt on my life is a debt owed. I intend to collect it." -o-0-O-0-o- I didn't see anything of where they took us. We were kept literally in the dark, both during transport and after we arrived at the destination. It was only after we were delivered into a cell that the hoods were removed. Stone walls, floor, ceiling; not more than ten by twenty feet, a low bed, a thick steel door, and a tiny high window. I slumped onto the bed, back to the wall, drawing my knees up to my chest, my head in my hands. Despite the hopelessness of the situation we were in, all I could think about was what had happened at Overmountain. He's dead. Lucy's weight was right next to me, and then her body leaning on my right side, her head on my shoulder. I didn't want to cry, but I couldn't get it out of my mind. I'm never going to see him again. The thought physically hurt, like a vice clamping on my ribs. "Hey ... Torsten?" She whispered, hesitant. "Do you- ... do you recall, um, two years ago, when Jonathan broke up with Eva? We were only fourteen, but he started involving us with all those pranks, and, uh, playing soccer with us waaay more. D'you ... remember that?" "I ... uh, yeah," I managed. "I- ... I guess." "You know, he never really liked her. He didn't like soccer that much either." She sighed. "He liked you though. He was just trying really hard to impress his crush." "W-what?" Me? "He made me promise not to tell you, but it didn't matter. You never noticed him that way. You never noticed anyone. I always thought that you'd eventually show some kind of interest in somebody, like everyone at school, but you ... didn't. Nothing seemed to fit you. Nothing got your attention. I mean, you did the work and hung out with us and participated in the things you had to, but ... it was like your whole life you were just getting ready for something else. Maybe you were? Maybe you were waiting for this without knowing all of it was coming. Maybe you were waiting for ... dragons." Dragons. They were both angels and demons, graceful and fearsome, beautiful and sinister. The literal descendants of nature. Are they truly monsters, or just victims in some divine feud? I wasn't sure I knew the answer. "Lucy, they have the Fear, and S- ... Sebby is ... dead." I shuddered, my arms tensing. "If Araziah dies too, then- ... it's too much- ... I- ... I can't-" "No." She squeezed me, her voice still soft. "Don't think like that. He's better than them, tougher, and you- ... you're going to be the seer." A second squeeze, but harder, mildly painful. "Listen to me. I want to fucking kill all of them for what they did to Sebby, but do you really believe Triskeleth went to that trouble to tell you that important stuff so the Conclave can murder you while you're locked in some shitty cell at the ass end of fuckin' Ohio, or wherever the hell we are? D'you think she sent you on that quest expecting you to fail it? She's the seeress, so I'm gonna go ahead and say that she knows you're getting out of here in one piece." Lucy's ... right. I still had a job to do. "Besides, before they confiscated your backpack and our phones, they weren't paying much attention to me. Turned on the GPS and activated this emergency background app my dad made me install ages ago when I got the phone. I linked it to Celeste's number before we left. If someone doesn't know where we are yet, they will reeeeal soon." She huffed, sounding frustrated as she hugged my side. "Just wish they hadn't taken everything off us. You still need those dragon scales." Dragon scales. I had completely forgotten. In the chaos of our exit from Overmountain, while Ygzardîl was attempting to stop us, I had been worried that something might happen to the backpack. So, I had removed the little bundle containing the pieces of scale out of it, and stuffed it into the bottom pocket of my cargo pants. Mordred and Nero had checked my pockets, but, not all of them. Sitting up, Lucy dislodging from my side, I reached down and grasped at the tiny zip hidden just back from my left ankle. Drawing it open, I extracted what was inside. "They didn't find everything and my pants have a lot of pockets." I emptied the little cloth bag onto my right palm, and out fell three pieces; Triskeleth's sapphire, Araziah's ruby, and Ygzardîl's stone, a dark brown cut with veins of green. Only one missing. I blew a breath of air onto my hand, and the ring shimmered into visibility again, on my index finger. The sight of it caused my throat to tighten, and my breath to catch. Sebby's diamond. "Yes! They're gonna fuckin' wish they had." She pulled on my arm, her mood lifting, and I looked at her. "What are you waiting for -- it's time sensitive, right? You've got what you need here, and you can talk to her now. You have to do it." "I, uh- ... yeah." I stared at my hand, with the four elements in it. "Yeah. Of course." Can't sit here feeling depressed. "I need to do it. Um, I don't know how this will work, but ... I might be out of it for a few minutes. If anyone comes along-" "Torsten." She interrupted, cocking her head quizzically to the right, with a reassuring smile. "Nothing's gonna happen. We'll get out of this. I'm your best friend. I've got your back." Yeah. You definitely do. I clenched my fist, and closed my eyes. -o-0-O-0-o- The grove of the seeress was different the third time I visited. While Triskeleth's position was the same, seated upon the stone bench above the brook, everything beyond about eight feet away from us, was simply gone. An orb of light and colour, in a sea of dark. "There isn't much room left." The butterflies were idling on her arm in a small congregation, and when I sat beside her, they took off again, to orbit her head. "As you can tell, the clasp has drawn close. I am glad you are here." "They- ... they ambushed us-" "I know." Her expression was sombre, but not upset. "Darren has known Araziah's position for some time. It was inevitable they attempt something during a vulnerable point, but what is happening in the outside world is not important in this moment. You are here to become me, and there is little time remaining, so you must heed my final lesson. It is to gain an affinity for the elements that you will harbour. Are you prepared?" "Yes," I told her, "I'm ready." "Then listen well, Torsten Wilde." She held out her left hand, palm up, and a ghostly silhouette appeared over it; a chunk of rock floating in the air. In the middle was a green spark, a source of elemental magic. "Earth. Typically, his dragons are largest, but slowest in flight. Their proficiency is defence, entrapment, and erosion. Their vitality and armour is immense, and their breath is acidic corrosive venom. Their realm is opposed by the sky, indifferent to the ocean, and in normal times, allied with the flame. Be bound, and remember it." The rock apparition floated away from her hand and I watched with surprise as it came directly to me, sliding into my chest. There was a beat of green light through my skin as it bonded with the structure in my body. "Water." This time it was a little blob of liquid, translucent again, with a blue spark at the centre. "Typically, her dragons are close beneath the median; quick, but not lacking in strength. Their proficiency is knowledge, healing, and disablement. Their wisdom and foresight is unmatched, and their breath is glacial ice. Their realm is opposed by the flame, indifferent to the earth, and allied with the sky. Be bound, and remember it." A repeat happened; the representation coming to me and entering my chest, followed by a pulse of blue light. "Air." There was nothing visible around the third element, as the medium was ever-present, though the light was white. "Typically, her dragons are lightest, but quickest in flight. Their proficiency is stealth, misdirection, and observation. Their dexterity and speed is famed, and their breath is a storm's lightning. Their realm is opposed by the earth, indifferent to the flame, and allied with the ocean. Be bound, and remember it." Again, the spark of air floated across to me and embedded itself, a burst of white light after. "Fire." The fourth element was a ball of it, flickering, a point of red within. "Typically, his dragons are close above the median; strong, but not lacking in quickness. Their proficiency is raw power, destruction, and domination. Their might and ferocity is legendary, and their breath is a pure inferno. Their realm is opposed by the ocean, indifferent to the sky, and in normal times, allied with the earth. Be bound, and remember it." As with the first three, the fire's magic came to me, and entered. There was the expected surge of red, then following it another, a cycling glow that rippled with all four colours, before it faded out. "It is done." Triskeleth nodded, seeming to relax slightly, a weight lifted from her, the sense of ceremony easing. "You are secured as my successor. Knowing what must come is one thing, but seeing it occur is still a relief." "I'm not sure what I was expecting." I looked down at myself. "I don't feel any different." "You won't. Not yet." Triskeleth patted my shoulder with her left hand. "There are a couple more things I need to tell you. Three important ideas, actually." "Okay. Tell me." I bit my lip. "I want all the advice I can get." "The first is a concept called true magic. It is the core component of a dragon's soul. It is the factor that governs so much of a dragon's existence. It is the essence of our gods' power inside us, what fuels us, what decides our ability, our strength, our size -- everything. It is our animating energy, and you will hear it called 'true ice' or 'true fire' and so forth, depending on the speaker's origin. It is the source that the true name unlocks, and it is what is found in a dragon's blood, his scales, his breath -- and his breath is especially important. The more magical truth exists within him, the more irresistible is his exhalation; dragon flame is more dangerous than anything a human could make. This principle is one you must come to appreciate, as it explains much of our motivations and reactions." True fire. "Okay. I think I understand." I nodded. "What's next?" "The second thing is-" She stopped abruptly, blinking as if pained, her eyes focusing momentarily ahead, on the perimeter of blackness. "Triskeleth! Are you ... okay?" "I- ... yes." The seeress shook her head, then turned back to me. "I am, but my traction is weakening, and ... resistance is harder. It will not be long now. They are close. Very close." She began to speak faster, the pace picking up. "So, listen." "I am." "The second is precognition. This is the primary means of the seer, and for a dragon it is imagery, visions, of what is to come. The greater context may not always be quite so clear, nor will the vision be easily understood. For you-" She paused, flinching, and half of the orbiting butterflies became wisps of blue light, that instantly fizzled, vanishing. "Trisk-" "No. Just LISTEN." She snapped. "For you, it will be different. You are human. You may have visions, but you may experience something else entirely. I do not know, but it is important you cultivate it, practice it, pay attention to what it tells you." "I will," I told her. "Good. The third is unique. There is the basic randomness of insight, that all dragons have. Above that is our inspired understanding, the foresight of the seer. Both of these you already know about, but, there is something further past that. Beyond lies a ... special thing, the rarest thing. It is the apex of the seer's magic, and it exists in a state of beautiful stasis for your life, only to be touched and used in the utmost need." "What is it?" "It is an ability that gives a temporary perfect understanding of a single situation you are witnessing in the present time ... OR ... one you have foreseen in sufficient future detail. It will not last for long, but the understanding it imparts is very much perfect. Flawless knowledge of all who are present in the visualised situation; their intentions, their desires, their spirit, the actions they are about to commit in the following seconds. It is pure sight. Your power as seer will only permit you to to use this twice in your life. Just two times. Choose very carefully. The right moment could change everything." Pure sight. "What were yours?" "I used the first, many years ago," she said, her eyes lighting up, "and the other? I regret that I waited too long, too cautiously, to employ it. So, here is the second, right now, to complete the fleeting vision I had, of you ... and what must happen to end the war." What?! "How extraordinary," she murmured. "It's not what I imagined. We missed so much." The remaining butterflies about the seeress froze in mid-air, each drawing rapidly inward to become wisps before dissipating. I opened my mouth, wanting to ask what she had seen, wanting to know the answers of cosmic importance that she was witnessing, but her hand shot out and she grabbed the front of my shirt, pulling me closer to her. "It's happening. My last barrier is gone. You can't be connected to me any longer." Triskeleth's voice dropped to a whisper. "Goodbye, Torsten Wilde. The future is in your hands. All I can say is ... when you take the shot: trust your instincts, and do not hesitate." She pushed me, and I was falling, but not downwards, just away, out of the psychic connection. The seeress and her grove faded, a last glimpse of her surrounded by a devouring insanity, her eyes calm but sad as she watched me go. Then, the link was severed completely, the connection to her vanishing, and Triskeleth was gone, purged from my senses forever. -o-0-O-0-o- "This is it?" The Grey Prince gestured to the sealed case on the table in front of them, an heirloom jewelry box no more than four by eight inches in size. "You are sure beyond doubt?" "Beyond doubt, cousin." Nero nodded, his arms folded, an air of smug vindication about him. "The detection enchantments Darren provided were impeccable, as was his intelligence on their whereabouts. If they had anything of value exiting that old Order outpost, we would find it and capture them -- and we did. This outcome is compensation for my innocent fool of a brother, and for your sister's unfortunate loss. So go ahead. The honour is yours." "Cousin." The affection in Mordred's voice was clear, and he grasped Nero's shoulder, a respectful display of gratitude. "You are gracious indeed. You and your brothers deduced this eventuality, engineered it and set it in place with your skill and cunning. The result is destiny, and now we stand on the brink." Letting go, Mordred reached for the box, and clicked the latch on top of it. He lifted the lid with a finger, and pushed it open. Next to him, Nero and a third dragon, Xander of the Fifth House, drew closer to get a good look. They stared. "It is real." Xander whispered, wonder-struck. "I see a holy relic of our father." "You see victory." Carefully, Mordred closed the box again, and the trio turned to one another. "What next? We have prisoners to deal with before we can safeguard this." "Your sister is about to redeem the heretic permanently, so that is one problem solved." Nero shrugged. "The humans? I do not know if we need to keep them. The question is if they have any value." "They are children." Xander was thoughtful, measured, and a patient mind. He was the eldest son of Tomas and heir to the Fifth House, a capable dragon built in the echoing likeness of his ancestor, Ushgorim the Ashbringer. Present at the sanctuary with a handful of his kin, Xander's arrival had been recent and was intended to reinforce the defences while the Seventh House had most of its members occupied elsewhere. "Did you say they are associated with the Order's subterfuge? Family, was it?" "The boy, yes." The Grey Prince agreed. "The girl is a nobody, just his friend. If they have any interesting information for us, they could be dominated and made to speak it. There may also be limited use as bargaining chips." "True." Xander acknowledged. He directed his next query to Nero. "Humans do have that tendency; the wish to preserve life and trade for hostages. Still, wariness may be prudent. Is there not a chance that retaining them could be a risk?" "Yes. The possibility remains, however unlikely, that the Order has some means to track them. I am tempted to learn more, but even a small probability of intervention seems like an unnecessary hazard. I doubt there is anything they could teach us that we do not already know." "My lord." From across the chamber, a Scourge was calling for Nero's attention. The three dragons glanced across to where they were; a cluster of Scourge attending to Triskeleth with arcane devices in hand, the magical bindings still in place on the seeress, the mind clasp resting on her brow. "Forgive the interruption, but ... she is about to break. The time has come." He gave a curt nod, then gestured to the man and another that stood beside him, indicating for them to approach. They did so, crossing the chamber to join the dragons. "I have my decision. You," he addressed the first Scourge, "take a few men, go to the Orient Tower, execute the prisoners and dispose of their bodies. We have no further need of them. Do this now." "Yes, my lord." The man bowed, turned swiftly and departed. "You." To the second Scourge. "You will form an honour guard to accompany the prince. He will shortly be leaving from the Occident Tower, and you will see him there safely." "As you command, my lord." Finally, to Mordred: "Cousin. The seeress is finished. You need only stay long enough to record her translation. Take it, and the Fear, and go to Mirrorvale. It must be you to deliver the prize. When you reach Michael, tell him," he paused a second, considering the message, before breaking into a wide smile, "tell him Nero sends a mighty gift, and that our war is won."
  11. Stellar

    New Beta

    Bumping this topic, because it has become relevant again. Unfortunately, one of my betas has been ignoring me for several months despite best efforts to get a response, so I'm seeking a replacement. The job description is the same as in the original post, with the exception that it will be for Spirit of Fire and future works instead of Veil of Shadow, since that's long been completed. EDIT: I wish to add that the above novel is nearing completion (and currently has a *very* long chapter needing beta work), so there won't be too much work for it before it's done. This is as much about helping with the next book I write as it is about the current one.
  12. Well, looking for a new beta for Spirit of Fire, since one of mine has been ignoring all forms of communication for about four months now, and the other is a little busy with life commitments at current time. It will be for the remainder of the aforementioned book, with possibility of continuing into any future works if the role suits you.

  13. On this auspicious solar rotation just gone, it's Appreciate A Dragon Day! I'd like to take a moment to admire those wonderful creatures from beloved fiction; Smaug, Glaurung, Fafnir, Saphira, Alduin, Drogon, and more besides. I aspire for my creations to be as memorable, even if some of them intend to resurrect an insane god. #FlyingPyromaniacMurderLizard

    1. Show previous comments  1 more
    2. Stellar

      Stellar

      @Valkyrie you could say it's posted here and in the works. I would be referring to this, which is what I've been doing for the last year and a half, or so.

    3. Valkyrie

      Valkyrie

      Cool :) I'll be sure to check it out.  

    4. Stellar

      Stellar

      if you like contemporary fantasy with a young gay protagonist thrown in, you might enjoy it. Though, the plot is as much of an enigma wrapped in a mystery as my other works on here, so you've been sufficiently warned. I'll say no more than that. <_<

  14. It's after midnight.

     

    Happy New Year. 2019! ❤️

    1. ancientrichard

      ancientrichard

      We've still got more than 12 hours of 2018 left in the English East Midlands, and our friends in the USA will still be in bed :-))

  15. Stellar

    Midnight Hour

    Why are you so convinced Mikom will die? Tbh, the humans are far squishier and easier to kill, not the Mishith. Glad you enjoyed it. When Spirit of Fire is completed, this is a possibility for what I do next, though it won't be the only possibility.
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