Fiction Friday – Five Knocks for a Light

Howie was five when he heard the voice in the wall.

He didn’t think much of it at first. A disembodied male voice was nothing compared to that life-sized monster under his bed, the one that was always hungry and came with a funny smell.

It wasn’t until the voice spoke his name one night that Howie paid attention. Before, the voice had just been making odd noises for attention. A gusty sigh, an irritable tsk!, a low ululation that Howie found annoying, particularly when he was watching cartoons in the afternoon.

This time, though, Howie heard his name. Not a question, but a quiet statement out of the blue, as though the speaker was considering it most carefully. The voice came from the space between his bedside table and toy cupboard, where Howie was just able to squeeze into.

A series of raps – two slow, three quick – came at a hollow corner of the wall. “Howie,” the voice said again.

Howie inched towards the corner, pushing an errant toy train carriage out of the way. “It’s not fair that you know my name but I don’t know yours.”

“You can call me H.”

“That’s my name.”

“Now you’re just being pedantic.” Howie didn’t know what pedantic meant, but he didn’t share that information. “You wouldn’t by any chance have a light, would you?” H said. “It’s immensely gruelling to be trapped in here.”

Howie didn’t know what immensely or gruelling meant, but he did have a light. He totted over to the store cupboard where all emergency kit was kept and reached for the torchlight, then hurried back to his room before his mother could notice he was up past his bedtime.

“Why do you need a light?”

“Have you never been trapped in a wall before?”

“No.”

“Well, lucky you,” H begrudged. “It’s the pits in here. I’m dying for a smoke.”

“Mommy says smoking is bad.”

“You sound young. Are you young?”

“I’m turning five in a week.”

“That’s young. Where’s my light?”

Howie shone the torchlight at the wall.

H gave a shout, letting out a few angry-sounding words Howie once heard his father say. “Put that out! Are you trying to blind me?” Howie switched off the torchlight. “I didn’t mean a torchlight, I meant – never mind. Just don’t do that again.”

“Are you a monster?” Howie stole a glance at the pair of gleaming eyes watching him from behind. “The monster under my bed is afraid of lights, too.”

“I beg your pardon. I may not have won pageants, but I certainly am not monstrous.”

“A ghost, then?”

“That’s insulting, too. Do I sound dead to you?”

Howie was beginning to get very annoyed with H. “Then what are you?” he yelled, before remembering to keep his voice down. His mother slept very lightly these days – sometimes not at all – and he didn’t want to get in trouble for staying up past his bedtime.

“I’m the same as that thing under your bed.”

Howie took another peek at the monster. It was still watching him silently, almost possessively. He turned back to the wall and whispered to H, “He’s very troublesome, but he makes good company when I hide there.”

“Why -“

“Shh!” Howie hissed, his ears pricked. Footsteps. Coming down the hall.

H made an indignant noise, but obliged to stay silent.

Howie scrambled into bed, ducking under the covers. The door creaked open. It had been a while since the door hinges around the house were oiled.

Howie kept his breathing evenly spaced, hoping that he would still find H where he was after his mother left. He needn’t have worried, though. H’s constant moaning filled the room. Howie feared his mother might chase H out of the walls – he had only just made a new friend – but she only pulled the door shut and headed to her room.

After his mother left, Howie kicked off the covers and leaned over his bed.

“How come I’m the only who can hear you?” he said. “Daddy thought I was lying about the monster, and Mommy looks at me sadly all the time now. She thinks I’ve gone crazy.”

“The monster lives inside you, Howie. That’s why you can see it.”

“And you? Do you live inside me too?”

H didn’t reply. Howie figured he had no answer for that.

After that first encounter, Howie would hear from H three more times. Each time, H showed up whenever his father visited. Each time, he sat with Howie and told him stories of all the old tenants until the fighting outside died down. On nights when H wasn’t around, Howie would crawl under the bed with the monster. Even its silent presence was comforting.

There were monsters that turned into companions, and horrors that turned into confidantes. There were people who wanted more of you – grow up, Howie! speak up, Howie! for God’s sake, stop crying! – and those were the monsters who stole your voice and ate up your dreams.

Eventually, his father stopped visiting and his mother sold the house. Howie and his mother moved to a smaller apartment next to a busy street.

Some nights, out of nostalgia or foolish hope, Howie would peek under his bed and knock on the walls, hoping for a sign of the monster or H. By then, he had known to look in the mirror for the real monsters. But he kept a light in his pocket anyway, to welcome the horrors home.

Flash Fiction Friday – Infernal

I realise nothing may ever come out of these free-writing pieces, and a lot of them don’t make sense or have much of a plot, but whatever. I’m just having fun!

Short stories are brilliant in that they don’t require as much commitment as novels, so there’s little stress in “getting it right”. You can give free reign to your imagination. It’s freeing, writing with so little expectation and pressure; it lets you rediscover your love for writing fiction. At least, it does for me.

And now, thanks to this song,

I just had to get this story out.

*

Infernal

 

 

 

The fire-breather had three lives in total. One for discovery, one for degradation, and one for redemption – and only after he had undergone the last stage could he find peace among the ashes of his people.

 

Lately, though, he was seriously reconsidering that option. Redemption was far too complicated a route. Up in flames seemed like a glorious way to go. No aftermath, no room for regret. Many a fire-breather had failed to make it to the final phase, being run out of their minds by their sins. He had heard tales where they set themselves on fire in an effort to purge themselves, only to remain in cinders for all eternity, scattered by loose breezes that whispered their names –

 

No, he thought as he caught his torches before they clattered to the ground, their blistering breaths roaring close to his ears. He would not end up like his predecessors; he was stronger than that.

 

Your strength comes not from what you hold in your hands, but what you hold in your heart, the old emperor had told him. He was still trying to fathom his words.

 

All he understood now was the malaise in his mind, and the steel cage that was his body wrought tight with age and helplessness and regret. Fire was the only remedy, the only gratification, his only friend.

 

When he spotted the gypsy, watching him with a quiet intent, his first thought was that she might be his redemption. Her eyes seemed to promise that.

 

There in the bustling courtyard, she should have gone unnoticed, lost in the milling crowd that had gathered to watch his performance. But there was no missing her. She moved with a feline grace that was at once otherworldly and inhuman. With her face shadowed by her veil, he couldn’t discern her age. Her eyes were eternal, like jewels in the night sky. They conveyed a message he was unable to read. He had never felt so wrong-footed by a single glance before.

 

His older self might have approached her instantly, unapologetically. But now he only observed from where he stood, trying to retain his grip on his torches. The world spun on its errant heels around them, and it was far too long before his performance came to an end.

 

Instead of waiting for the audience – particularly the women – to lavish their gifts and adoration on him, he pulled out from the crowd and slipped into the evening fog after the gypsy.

 

In the cobbled labyrinth of narrow, winding alleys, the walls leaned close with their overheard secrets.

 

She was waiting for him. It occurred to him that she could be one of Them. The Old Ones, with inextinguishable souls and calcified hearts. The ones who were untouched by anything, even fire. Weren’t they rumoured to have eyes like hers?

 

It suddenly seemed like a foolish thing to do, following her here.

 

Her first word to him, though uttered low, struck him hard. “Khushka.”

 

Kushka. It took him a while to recognise the cadence of his name, the clatter and slither of the consonants. It had belonged to a tongue lost during the old war.

 

“How do you know my name?” he said. The question came out in a growl.

 

“I know a lot more about you that I shouldn’t have to, even though I am only a messenger.”

 

Just an errand girl. The fire-breather felt his muscles unclench, although not entirely. Her eyes told a different story that he was equally willing to believe.

 

He sent her a look askance. “Which begs the question of whose messenger you are.”

 

“The emperor’s.”

 

“That is no emperor,” he spat. “That is a war-monger. A despot. His father remains the most worthy ruler of the realm.”

 

“Whatever he is, the fact remains that you are our last hope. The world has run out of fires to kindle and magic to plunder.”

 

“And the world is better for it. How presumptuous of us to go around taking that which doesn’t belong to us.”

 

“Your skill, your weapon” – her gaze flitted to his extinguished torches – “can save us all. Every day you spend entertaining crowds with cheap tricks on your matchsticks, the forgotten kings remain buried under the ash city.”

 

His extinguished torches hung limply by his sides, and not for the first time he felt incredibly exposed under her long, measured gaze.

 

It wasn’t long before he felt his insides freeze over. Winter blew swiftly into his heart, threatening to destroy him from within with a fire completely opposite of what he knew.

 

She was one of the Old Ones. He should have known. Those eyes were fire and ice, flame and frost. They contained an ice storm more savage than any fire he would ever wield. To think the emperor managed to find an ally in these isolated mountain dwellers who never used to concern themselves with taking sides in their war.

 

His lips were numb – was this what frostbite felt like? – but he choked out, “Why are you helping them? What’s in it for you?”

 

She answered his question with another chilly stab in his gut. “Not everything is about personal gain.”

 

In the midst of the brutal snowstorm she had inflicted on him, her unspoken words hailed like a call of the wind. You will save this world because you know it’s the only way you can live with yourself.

 

In his wildest dreams and deepest desires, he had hoped for redemption. Never had he expected it would come in the form of setting the world ablaze.

 

Flash Fiction Friday – Renegade

Flash fiction isn’t meant to be written in more than one sitting. It totally throws your momentum off, and what you end up with is a derailed story without focus.

Case in point: the short story I tried writing as a result of this prompt

And this book (which I’m currently rereading to jog my memory before reading the final installment):

[Speaking of the final installment in the series, IT’S OUT! DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS IS OUT!!! If you haven’t read the first book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, yet, GET STARTED. Seriously. It is epic fantasy at its best. You will not regret it. Oh, Laini. Why are you so awesome.]

 

*

 

Renegade

 

She had folded up her wings for good, tucked them away into the groove of her spine. She still felt the solid, packed weight resting between her shoulder blades, a reminder of the life she had turned her back on.

For years – how many moon spans had it been? – all she had known were the close quarters of the hut she had built on her own along the sea-ravaged coast. This part of the kingdom was far flung and forsaken enough that no one would think to look for her here. And that was exactly how she preferred it.

The first sign of things starting to change was the collection of shells, teeth, bones and claws she found on the barrier island a little ways away from her hut. For some reason, on this spit of land, someone was building an altar. And that could only mean one thing: the renegades were back. It was a custom unique to her people, pooling the relics of life together before drawing on their blood magic.

It struck her as strange, how they were so close to where she hid but hadn’t yet found her. The renegade army never left any stone unturned or home intact.

Still, the sight of the collection, more familiar than she would have liked, triggered a flood of memories that she tried valiantly to outrun. She now wore her human feet with considerable ease, but running in the sand still took some getting used to, and she charged home in an awkward stagger-sprint. But it was impossible to be free of the memories, the bloodshed, her past.

It wasn’t until she had left the barrier island and was safely (although that remained to be seen) back in her home that she realised she should have destroyed the altar and its potent assortment of beast and human remains. Remote as this place might be, the possibility of the altar chanced upon by the wrong people was enough to draw her back out to the island.

But as it were, she stayed in the comforting shadows of her hut, praying to the sky goddess for protection even though it had been long since she believed in Yussa.

When night fell, she kept her eyes peeled for shadows in the sky and her ears pricked for the rustle of wings. Her own rampant heart drummed a jarring rhythm. She had been their leader once – there was no reason to fear them. But the memory of the final call she had heard from her subordinates – turncoat – hissed and scorched like an offending spark.

I was right. I was right to walk away. I have nothing to fear.

But her dread was poison in her veins.

When the visitors – or perhaps intruders might be the better term – appeared, it wasn’t in the flurry of wings or the shriek of raptors. Instead, it was the scratch of talons on wood – the equivalent of a civil knock, she thought wryly, so she had no choice but to answer it or risk having her door clawed to shreds. The frantic scrabbling died as she approached.

They stood before her, a brood of calamitous souls, ravaged and sustained by the long drawn out war. In all manner of beast and creature, furred, clawed and horned, her ex comrades appeared like a motley assortment. But their intent gazes belonged to one and the same person –

The same person who cut through the armoured throng with purposeful solemnity. His hulking figure threw a shadow over those in his immediate vicinity; it blotted out the moon entirely from her view.

Despite being – used to be, she corrected silently – second in rank to him, his presence never failed to make her shrink to a fraction of her size. She remembered the way he would snap his canine jaw too close for comfort whenever she questioned his orders.

“It’s been a while, General.” There it was – that growl, that pair of flashing crimson eyes that haunted her dreams. He scanned the scant inner of her house. “This is a pitiable refuge you’ve pieced together for yourself.”

She held her ground. “No less pitiable than the life I used to lead.”

His eyes flicked back to her. “Your services are required.”

“Whatever you need from me, the answer is no. I turned my back on that life a long time ago.”

“I think you misunderstand me.” He took a step closer, so that he filled up doorway completely. “This is not a request.”

In his eyes she saw the desolation of their city, ruined by the terrible magic of the sea children. Ruined by her desertion, her betrayal. She should never have aided the escape of the prisoners. It was by the mercy of the Hound that she hadn’t been sentenced for her crime.

Mercy of the Hound. Now that was a notion she had never thought possible, she thought wryly.

The Hound continued, his obnoxious snout bearing down on her, “The Drowned City lives, and every second I waste here is another second our enemy gains advantage over us.”

The Drowned City was a myth. Everyone knew that.

And yet … Hadn’t they believed that eighteen years ago, before the sea children’s rebellion caught them all by surprise?

He slid neatly into the sliver of space her hesitation spared. “Welcome back, General,” he said, even though she hadn’t agreed to return to them. But with his teeth bared in a savage grin, she knew she had no choice in the matter. “We have work to do.”

*

I think it’s terrible. But we can’t all have good writing days every day. At least this helps me figure out what I want to do – and can do – with my Shiny New Novel.

Yes, it’s fantasy.

Yes, it has something to do with wings.

Yes, I’m still working out the kinks.

No, I will not let it suck again.

Happy long weekend! :0)

Short Story – The Road Back

She had been here before countless times, but never had the town square looked so foreign to her. Something in this labyrinth of dusty corridors and stone archways seemed to have shifted in aspect; even the paint peeling in flakes overhead and pools of water gathering in the rough uneven ground served to throw her off.

In the narrow back alley, she had to simultaneously sidestep a puddle and duck beneath an archway on several counts. The only light came from the crescent moon that sliced the sky above, and the pearly unearthly glow of his silhouette. She kept a tight watch on that glow, afraid to lose sight of him.

He moved swiftly ahead of her, a strapping figure cutting through the fog, and she struggled to keep up. Occasionally, he would glance back to see if he had lost her, then reassured by the sight of her, advance along, never once breaking stride.

Not since her thirteenth birthday had she ventured out alone at this time of the night. Yet, even in the darkness, this place felt as familiar as her backyard. Not for the first time, she wondered what had made her decide to follow him here when she knew close to nothing about him. Her father would have an embolism if he found out.

She heard a low murmur, and realised he was muttering to himself as his eyes swept across the doors they passed. It only occurred to her that the doors were marked with what appeared like claw marks, three blatant slashes raked into the worn wood. She had never travelled through these back alleys, but she was certain the embellishments hadn’t been part of the doors. What did the shopkeepers suppose of their doors being damaged this way – assuming, of course, that someone else had done the scratching?

He was saying something in a more audible tone now.

“Yesterday was a story, today is a statement, and tomorrow is just a rumour. Everything else is buried.” He spun around to direct his moonlit eyes on her. “Do you know the answer to that?”

Caught off guard by the urgency in his gaze, she could only blink and stammer, “I – I don’t….”

“It’s a riddle,” he explained, resuming his stride. “A clue.”

“Clue to what?” Her voice jerked as she started jogging to keep up with him.

“To the place we’re looking for. To the one who can bring you back.”

“Back where?” she pressed, but he was too fixated on searching for the right door. She decided to focus on the riddle instead as she tried to trail behind him as closely as possible. Her footsteps slowed as the answer dawned on her. “There’s a fortune-teller next to a newsstand just around the corner,” she called. “And next to that is a bookstore!”

He whirled around and peered at her curiously, his brows pulling together to make out her meaning.

“A rumour, a statement, a story. Where can you find those things? A fortune-teller’s, a newsstand and a bookstore,” she explained.

“And the rest is buried?”

“There’s a basement in the bookstore. The other two are boarded up. Maybe –”

“Lead the way,” he said.

*

The frayed old bookstore stood at the end of the street like a survivor, flanked by a pottery shop and the newsstand. It seemed more morose than comforting in the dark; she had spent countless afternoons in Between the Pages and never had she seen it this way.

They stood in the face of the crumbling edifice, separate in their respective reveries. A part of her meant to tear down the lane where they came from, back to where she was safe in her ignorance of this secret life she never knew belonged to her. But another part, one that wrestled for dominance in her, forced her to stay where she was, insisting that she would get the answers she sought – finally.

Next to her, he glanced about furtively, eager to duck out of the light. The streetlights burnished his pewter eyes and she found herself unable to look away from the feral glow in his flitting gaze.

Before either of them could calculate their next move, Roy emerged from the depths of the bookstore. The door rasped behind him as he peered at her through his left eye, the one that wasn’t clouded with cataract, then took another glance at the stranger by her side. He must have found an answer of some sort in their faces, because a shadow slipped over his face.

“Roy, this is…” She considered how to introduce him, but Roy only stared up at her companion, his face lined with a mix of emotions she struggled to identify.

At length he said to the tall, silver-eyed stranger, as if he had known him forever, “You brought her back.”