Piece Three – Foes or Friends to Be Found

Curian stood at the base of the stairway, her eyes fixed on the trinket as it floated above the tower in the distance. She looked around again, an uneasy feeling bubbling up in the pit of her stomach. This looked nothing like anywhere near Rivenbrook, nor the Shaded Weald near its edges. Curian had heard rumors of forgotten castles once lorded over by mighty kings and queens, all well beyond the Luminous Gates that surrounded the Westenvale Kingdoms, but they were just that–rumors. Ghost stories to tell greenhorn adventurers to keep them on their toes when venturing into the badlands beyond the kingdoms’ walls.

This looked like none of the places Curian had ever seen or heard of, and she couldn’t help but wonder how far she’d traveled.

“May as well retrieve the damned thing before I get my bearings,” Curian muttered to herself. She took a cautious first step, allowing only her toes to touch the stone first. She shifted more of her weight to her foot until finally she had fully stepped onto the first stair. There was a deafening silence as nothing out of the ordinary happened, and Curian breathed a sigh of relief.

The trinket glimmered in the air far ahead and above, bright even against the clear daytime sky. Curian gathered up her nerve and pressed onward, her goal visible and waiting for her arrival.

The castle ruins were interesting in that they didn’t seem to belong to one castle, but several. Obsidian stonework abruptly gave way to slate before shifting without warning to sections carefully crafted with clay and straw. The craftsmanship of each section was amazing, and Curian couldn’t help but admire it as she walked along. She found herself wondering who lived here that they decided to sample so many styles of building.

Curian almost missed the first royal crest, or at least what was left of it. A charred outline of a shield was all that remained, the thick layer of ash a severe contrast to the surrounding limestone. She wondered how many such things she had missed as she walked along, but her curiosity was not so great as to reverse her progress. She made a mental note and continued onward. It was, she reasoned, not uncommon for a dragon to destroy the markings of the rulers of a castle it razed. Perhaps that was the fate that had befallen this unusual place, she wondered, and her thoughts quickly turned to hurrying to the trinket in hopes that it would take her from this broken husk of what once was and back home, or at least somewhere a little more inviting.

The stairway sloped downwards, evening out until it became a pathway through a spacious courtyard. A fountain towered at its center, and its statue depicting a hero wielding a sword and shield was noteworthy for not having a head. Stagnant water sloshed gently over the lip of the fountain’s base with each breeze, a sickly green dense with plant growth. The gardens were overgrown with wild, grasping vines covered in thorns so long and sharp they could be used as daggers in a pinch. Curian followed the path along to where it forked around the fountain’s base. She felt a chill run up her spine that stopped her dead in her tracks.

Curian looked around. There was a second level overlooking the courtyard. Remnants of the floor jutted out with broken balconies extending further still. Beyond the stretch of floor, however, was darkness. The roof, or what was left of it, allowed for nothing to be seen beyond a certain point despite the sun shining through in a number of places.

A glint of deep purple was visible in the shadows for only a minute, and then it disappeared.

“Nope,” Curian muttered. “Absolutely not.” She turned on her heels and started walking faster. She reached the next portion of the stairs, which climbed along the side of a smaller tower, winding out of sight ahead. She could feel the hair standing up on the back of her neck as whatever she saw, she feared, watched her as she continued her progress towards the trinket. She walked faster still.

Her foot met the next stair, which gave like wet paper beneath her weight. She stumbled forward, grabbing hold of battered stone of the next stair. Three stairs behind her gave way, leaving her hanging on above the void. She clambered up onto the newly formed ledge, cursing the whole way, and once she was safely on part of the stairs she felt was secure and safe, Curian allowed herself a glance downwards. She immediately regretted it. Nothing was visible beneath where the stairs had broken away, or at least nothing was visible aside from the seemingly bottomless chasm that had opened up.

Curian breathed a sigh of relief before carefully getting to her feet. The stairs opened up to a small bridge that spanned between the tower she was on and the massive tower at the ruins’ heart. The trinket looked far closer now than before. Not willing to tempt fate, Curian picked up a large stone and threw it to the center of the bridge. It clicked and clacked along the stones of the floor, throwing off small sparks. The bridge held fast, not showing signs of being any less sturdy than the day it had been built.

“One easy step after another,” Curian reassured herself. “How difficult can it be? Almost there.” She stepped onto the bridge, each muscle moving into each step charged and ready for a mad dash to the other side should the bridge choose this to be its final moments. She reached the bridge’s center, and her fear began to give way to hope as the trinket seemed well within reach.

“How curious,” rumbled a voice from ahead, though Curian could not see who had spoken. More shadows had pooled just at the edge of the bridge, blocking the path to the final stair ascending the tower above which the trinket floated.

“Curious indeed,” Curian replied, a ghost of a tremor in her voice threatening to betray the coy tone she was trying to put on. “And with whom do I have the honor of speaking? The master of the castle?”

There was a horrible sound like millstones grinding to a sudden halt. Curian could feel it deep in her bones, and it took a moment to realize what she had just heard was laughter.

“It has been some time since anyone has come here,” the voice said. “I am not used to guests. I would ask you to forgive the state of things, but it appears you are passing through and not terribly interested.”

Curian tensed. If the trinket was her way home she couldn’t risk whoever–or whatever–she was now staring down taking interest in making it theirs.

“Just a student of the architectural arts passing through, admiring the many varied facets and facades of this magnificent castle,” she replied. “Very interested in the journey. No destination in mind just yet.”

There was a sudden rush of cold around Curian’s neck, along her shoulders. She could feel a presence only a few paces behind her, and the air around it was cold as the worst of winter. She could not muster the nerve to look.

“By all means, admire,” the voice said. There was an edge of something to it that Curian couldn’t quite pin down, but it left her feeling a very strong urge to get the hell away as quickly as possible.

“You have my thanks,” Curian said. “But also my apologies, as I don’t believe I’ve gotten your name.”

More laughter, accompanied by another blast of frigid breath. “No, I don’t think you did,” the voice mused. “A discussion for another time, perhaps, as I must tend to other matters at present.”

The oppressive presence behind Curian disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and the base of the stairway was once again bathed in sunlight.

“To the seven Hells with that,” Curian blurted out, breaking into a full sprint. She took each step along the stairway winding around the tower with great care, though each step touched the stones only as long as necessary. With one last leaping step, Curian stumbled forward onto the circular platform at the tower’s zenith. She gasped for breath, hunched over but her eyes still locked on the trinket.

“I’ve got,” Curian said between deep, gasped breaths. “Even more. Questions for you, damn it.” She straightened up and took a step towards the center of the platform. The trinket, almost as if in response to Curian’s approach, drifted downwards until it was only a couple feet above the floor.

A newly familiar, horrid laugh issued from behind Curian, causing her to flinch.

“The Prognosticarium, here and ready to be taken,” the voice rumbled. “How convenient. And I suspect I owe you the thanks for bringing it to me, so unwittingly and carefree?”

Curian spun on her heels, fists raised. “Listen, you,” she snapped, ready to teach this king among creeps a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. The next words she had meant to say hitched just behind her teeth when she saw who had been following her. The figure depicted by the statue.

He was tall, dressed in an outfit that screamed nobility. A wine red cape fluttered around the deep purple regalia. The silver of his gauntlets shined in the light of the trinket. He smiled at Curian, his purple eyes locked with hers. His head was tucked neatly in the crook of his right elbow, his neck topped instead by a thorny crown of jagged interwoven metal bands.

“What are you?” was all Curian managed to ask.

“Hardly your concern, child,” the creature said. “Step aside. You have no idea with what you are trifling. Once I have made use of the Prognosticarium, however, I assure you that you will be…” He paused, a dreadful smile creeping across cracked lips.

“Rewarded,” he added. The suggestion his tone gave the word did little to put Curian at ease.

She took a step closer to the trinket–the thing he was calling some strange, long, important-sounding name–and raised a hand towards it.

“You don’t know me,” Curian said. “I’m not terribly good at listening. Definitely lousy at taking orders.” She leaned closer to the trinket, her fingers hovering around it.

The creature recoiled ever so slightly, eyes narrowed. “That would be…” he said. “Unwise.”

Curian let out a laugh. “Good thing, then,” she said. “I’m not always the wisest, or so I’m told. Let’s see what happens if I do this.”

The creature let out a terrible, roaring shout as Curian’s fingers closed around the trinket. It was both burning hot and painfully cold to the touch. A burst of light emanated from it, rushing over the platform and spilling out far across the open air beyond the castle ruins. She could feel it shifting in her grasp, but this time it seemed to be growing in size.

Curian could feel parts of the trinket opening up as it moved in her palm until she could hold on no longer and was forced to let go. A number of pieces orbited a core of radiance and warmth, spinning faster and faster, some having changed direction and going opposite of the other pieces. Suddenly, the pieces stopped.

Before either the creature or Curian could say anything, the pieces rocketed off across the open air one by one, until the final piece was left.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Curian muttered as she reached out into the final piece’s path as it screeched through the air. Her fingers locked around it, and before Curian could process what had happened she was lifted off of the platform and into the air. The world below rushed by rapidly, and Curian felt her stomach turn. She shut her eyes, clenched her jaw, and offered a short prayer to any Gods she hadn’t recently blasphemed.

She hit the water just as a wave crested, the cold salt water forcing its way up her nose. The shock of the impact caused her to gasp, and she immediately regretted it. Curian bobbed at the water’s surface, only to sink into its inky depths. She clawed at the water around her with one hand while flailing her fist–still clenched tight around the piece of the trinket she’d grabbed–until she broke the surface.

Curian gasped for air, her eyes darting around madly. There was nothing but ocean for miles in each direction, it seemed, but before she could resign herself to her clear fate she heard a voice from behind her.

“Swim this way! Hurry, or the storm will claim you as its own!”

Curian turned and spotted a robed figure, hood obscuring its face, standing on what looked to be the edge of an island taken up by one squat, dome-shaped building.

With few other options, Curian swam towards the safety of shore.

Piece Two – A Puzzling World

Curian stared intently at the curious trinket on the table before her. She had seen something very similar, if not entirely identical, to it, but so long ago it may as well have been a previous lifetime. She wondered what it could be, or what could be hidden within the trinket, and so with a deep breath and a gentle touch she picked the trinket up and began turning it over in her hands. She listened closely for any sounds, but there were none to be heard.

“All right, you go ahead and be difficult,” Curian muttered. “I’ll figure you out before long.” She picked at one of the small switches only to discover it refused to move, as if it were locked in place. She turned the trinket over in her hands and found another only to be met with the same results. She set it down on the table and sighed. She stepped away from the table, her feet leading her to a small shelf.

She retrieved a stoppered bottle of rum for which she’d traded a story and a fresh baked loaf of bread. The traveler, who had only stayed at her modest cottage for a night, insisted it was one of the finest rums she would ever drink as it had been stolen from the lost temple of some God-King whose name had been forgotten over time and lack of worship, and so it was only to be imbibed under very serious or auspicious circumstances.

Once the stopper was removed the smell hit her like a falling boulder. It was far from subtle, and stunk of very old bananas and spices. Curian tried wafting the aroma to see if that would lessen its punch. It didn’t–if anything, the potency and pungency of the rum’s funk only seemed more intense.

Curian took the small bottle of rum back to the table and set it next to the curious trinket.

“If I have to, and only if I have to, I suppose it’s worth a try,” Curian said to herself, eyeing the drink. She wrinkled her nose. “Not just yet.”

She picked up the trinket again, turning it over in her hands. A dial near Curian’s right thumb felt like it jutted out a little further than the surrounding metal. First, a turn clockwise which seemed to do nothing. She turned it back, then counter-clockwise until there was a soft clicking sound. Curian nearly dropped the trinket, excitement washing over her in a wave at the possibility of progress. She let go of the dial to explore the rest of the trinket, and the dial snapped back into its original position.

“Damn you,” Curian muttered. “That wasn’t very helpful.” She eyed the rum again. She sighed, somewhat resigned, and hoped that the traveler hadn’t been lying.

“Bottom’s up,” Curian said, pinching her nose with her fingers as she upended the bottle into her mouth. It tasted like warmth, first and foremost, followed by a powerful mix of cinnamon, bananas, and porridge. It far more dense than she had expected, but still went down smoothly and left a lingering tingling feeling dancing about her tongue and around her teeth. She set the bottle down as steadily as she could, the spirits already doing their work.

“Forgotten God-King, let’s hope your fancy swill was worth it,” Curian said as she picked the trinket back up. She turned it over in her hands, her eyes probing and poking at every inch of its surface. The dials, it seemed, as well as the buttons and switches all seemed to be at set intervals, grouped in small trios–one of each. They all looked identical, or close enough to identical at a glance, but Curian remembered the dial she had found that seemed to be recessed into the metal. She turned the trinket over in her hands again, feeling around it until she located the dial she sought. Again, she turned it counter clockwise until there was a soft click. This time, however, she held it in place. Gently, she set the trinket down on the table and held the dial with one hand while testing the button with her free hand. It moved into the trinket with a soft pop, and a silver door shut over where it had been.

Cautious, but driven by greater curiosity still, Curian attempted to engage the switch. She nudged it with her thumb, and with little effort on her part the switch moved upwards until it jutted out slightly from the trinket’s surface.

“Finally getting somewhere,” Curian murmured to the trinket only for the stench of banana funk on her breath to hit her nose. She thumbed at the switch again and it snapped downwards into the trinket. A thin line of ruby appeared where the switch was, and before Curian could react the dial slipped from her grasp and disappeared into the trinket to be covered by a small image of the sun.

That’s when Curian heard the ticking sound begin. Something had started to whir gently within the trinket, ticking not entirely like a clock and not entirely like a bomb. It had an urgency to it, and Curian could feel her breath catch as she waited. The trinket grew white hot in a flash, previously feeling cool to the touch. She dropped it to the table, and it rolled and spun gently for a moment before it stopped.

“What…” Curian said before she was cut off. The trinket spun rapidly on the table, the other dials and switches and buttons activating seemingly of their own accord. A gentle chime issued from the trinket as each set of interfaces disappeared beneath its metal surface. By the time the last one disappeared, it glowed like a coal in the fireplace. The ruby lines seemed to crawl along the trinket’s surface as the trinket continued to spin wildly. It snapped to a sudden stop, the image of the sun facing Curian.

The sun had a little face etched into its surface, and Curian was certain the face winked at her.

The trinket exploded outwards into the room in a brilliant flash of light.

“Oh, shit,” Curian managed to say as she was enveloped in the warm, brilliant bloom. Everything was suddenly dark, save for points of light that hurtled past Curian at extraordinary speeds.

Everything stopped.

Curian found herself standing at the base of a long, winding stone stairway that snaked its way through what must have been a wondrous castle at one point, though it was but an echo of its former self. To call it ruins would be generous, with parapets that sloped abruptly into courtyards and towers whose rooms were open to the air on most sides. Amidst the ruined castle loomed a tower higher than the others. The stairway wrapped and wound its way from where Curian stood to the top of the tower.

And in the air above the tower, glowing more brilliantly than a bonfire in the dead of a winter’s night, floated the curious trinket.

Piece One – The Curious Trinket

Curian hurried along the stone streets of Rivenbrook, hands stuffed firmly in her pockets and her eyes focused on a point in the distance. She was, after all, on a mission of great importance. The ring she had acquired–no, liberated–from a gang of Dunbrough Goblins had to be worth at least enough to put dinner on the table for the next month if not longer, she reasoned. Ahead, not but a few blocks in the distance, stood Alistair’s Awe-Inspiring Antiquities and Curiosities, its doors illuminated by lanterns that contained never held a flame.

The door swung open for Curian, as it had every time she arrived there to do business. On previous trips this might have made her flinch or jump a little, but the trickery was familiar now. Perhaps even a little underwhelming on days like this, when Curian’s mind was sharply focused. A labyrinth of uneven, catawampus shelves stood just beyond the doorway, their contents only fully visible when looked at directly and a blur of color and shape when not.

“You’re very nearly late, you know,” echoed the imperious, insufferable tones of Alistair’s nasal voice. He was a wood elf, displaced by tragedy but not removed from his haughty demeanor, and his sense of his place in the world was never more apparent than when he spoke to someone he saw as beneath him. Someone like Curian.

Curian cursed under her breath. She scanned the shelves, following one path to the next. A left at the intersection of stacked umbrella stands containing old and forgotten swords, followed by a sharp right at the colossal aquarium occupied by tropical fish far from their natural home, and then one long straightaway until she reached the great gilded desk.

Alistair peered over his glasses, down his long, gently sloping nose, to Curian. His eyes drifted about her, and Curian could see the mental notes forming. The grime on her face from having fled the remaining Goblins through the Untermire. The thick mud caked on her boots, and the scratching vines still clinging to her aged and battered olive-colored tunic. Sands blown from the dunes just north of Rivenbrook, blown southwards by the ever-more-violent storms that had blown in recently clung to the sweat on her terracotta skin.

“Childling, you look simply dreadful,” Curian said, her words emphasized by her exaggerated scowl.

Alistair wagged a finger. “There will be no business, childling, with you behaving as such,” he shot back. Curian pursed her lips, but did nothing more. Alistair’s curiosity as to where his acquisitions came from only went so far, but the rules of decorum in his shop were immutable. He stared at Curian for a moment longer before holding out an immaculate palm. Long, pointed, recently manicured nails stabbed at the air between her and his hand like daggers.

“I think you’ll be please with this,” Curian said as she retrieved the object from her pocket. She placed it in Alistair’s hand gently and quickly, making sure not to not allow her hand to touch his. It had happened once, and that was enough for him to bar her entry to the shop for well over a month. Though he would not admit to it, Alistair’s disdain for Mountain Dwarves came into play with Curian whenever he saw her even though she had explained she was only half Dwarven, and that there was no reason to be such an asshole about it. Such remarks, naturally, had earned her a week of no entry to the shop.

Alistair’s fingers snapped shut and he pulled his hand close to his face. He opened his perfect, pristine fist and eyed the ring in his palm with much curiosity. It was a simple, silver band, inlaid with subtle runes that only showed when the light struck them just right. A small piece of unpolished jasper glittered in its setting on one side of the ring.

Curian leaned closer, but not too close to the desk, eagerly waiting.

“A trinket like this is a copper a dozen,” Alistair said at last, an eyebrow raised. “What is it you expect me to pay you for this?”

Anger bit at the back of Curian’s neck and around her ears. The heat of her rage crept towards her cheeks and up around her eyes. She took a deep breath, held it a moment, and exhaled.

“That’s no shoddy workmanship and you know that just as well as I do,” Curian replied, her tone as even-keel as a ship approaching stormy waters. “Runes for protection on one side, but when worn inverted they become runes of devastation. Whosoever wears this ring could raze cities or raise cities.”

Alistair nodded along, a hint of approval flashing across his face for less than the blink of an eye. “Well observed, childling, but wisdom like that does nothing to pad my pockets,” he replied. “I’ll give you ten silver and three copper, and not a coin more.”

Curian opened her mouth, fists clenched tightly at her sides, but snapped her teeth shut to keep the words she’d wanted to say locked up tight in their current cage. She would have to release them later, perhaps in the smoky, dark familiarity of the Backwater Bog Inn.

“Fine,” she said at last, holding her hand out.

Alistair retrieved a coin purse from among the heaps of things on his desk and slowly, deliberately began to count out the payment. It wasn’t nearly enough, Curian thought, but it had to do. She couldn’t bring herself to watch him count out such a pitiful sum, and so her eyes began to wander.

Something round and glittering caught her attention. She’d stood in that exact spot a million or so times, she knew, and she had not once ever noticed such a thing. She turned without fully meaning to, and there it was. A perfect sphere, copper in color with accents of silver and veins of ruby. Small dials and buttons jutted out at odd intervals. The longer Curian looked at the object, the more certain she felt it was calling to her. Only when her hand closed around it did she even realize she had reached for the curious trinket.

“Hm? Oh, that old thing,” Alistair said, clearly unable to hide his amusement. “Take it. I’ll keep the copper pieces and one silver from your payment as compensation.”

“Keep it all,” Curian muttered as she turned the trinket over in her hands, her eyes dancing along its surface as she did.

Alistair arched his slim, perfectly trimmed wisps of eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“Keep your silvers,” Curian repeated. She pocketed the trinket. “Until next time,” she added, turning on her heels. She walked at first, moving out of Alistair’s sight as quickly as she could. Once he could no longer see her, she broke into a run.

There was something about this thing worth investigating, Curian decided, and so she exited the shop and ran down the hillside, weaving through the small crowds of people moving about the streets with little to no interest in her. She continued to run as the streets gave way to the fields beyond Rivenbrook, and before long she stood outside of her humble cottage just at the edge of the shaded copse. She threw the door open and leapt to the only seat at her table.

“All right, then,” Curian said. She removed the trinket from her pocket and placed it on the table, curiosity bordering onto madness in her eyes. “What are you? Tell me your secrets.”

2020 Goals (and so on)

Prior to turning 32, a year of no particular consequence by any means, I decided my thirty-second year of life would be one of reinvention, reinvigoration, and rebirth. In short, I would rise from the ashes of 31 and the trials it entailed.

I had a post in mind for this. I stashed it neatly in my thoughts, where it waited. And waited. And then quietly packed its things before leaving. So it goes.

Continue reading

Life, the Adventure – Self-reflection

This post is something that’s been rattling around in my head for some time, but one that obviously hasn’t gotten proper attention until this point. Suffice it to say, some of the words have likely gotten lost or replaced. So it goes.

I have, in the past year or so, come to the following conclusion:

Simply put, life is an adventure. We are all equipped to some degree or another, ready to go forth and save our proverbial kingdoms by way of conquering goals, realizing (and, at times, rescuing) dreams, and slaying our own personal dragons and demons. Looking at anyone who has succeeded thoroughly and undeniably at their life’s quest, it seems like everything should be a linear series of steps forward. It’s also the easiest way to tinge your view with envy, fill your head with frustration, and make your heart ache for a place where you may not yet be – not out of personal failures, but because you simply haven’t arrived there yet.

When I think about life as an adventure, especially with regards to my writing, I find myself oftentimes discounting the steps back. The setbacks. The unexpected mishaps and misfortunes.

Life is an adventure, but hardly a linear one. The path may be blocked or broken, with long and circuitous detours waiting just out of sight. The weather will not always be fair, and the wind will not always be at your back. Sometimes – yes, sometimes – the dragons win and the demons get their time to gloat, but still I continue.

I have been ruminating on a lot lately. Some more personal than I’m willing to share here, and some that’s simply my want to become something with my writing while not making nearly enough time to actually complete my writing.

This is my reminder that the goalposts in the distance – the castle to rescue, the dragons to slay, the victories to be achieved – are all still very much in the distance, and the only way I will ever find my way there is if I stop letting my self-doubt, anger, and frustration stand as walls in my path.

Breathe. One foot, then the other, moving inexorably forward.

I can do this. I simply have to do this, if only for me.

An Unintentional Hiatus, and Remembering to Breathe

Life happens, or so the saying goes, as does work and writing and finding time to exercise. Organizing parties. Dozing off in the middle of the day. And so on.

I’ve certainly kept busy, and sometimes I am kept busy. Sometimes I find myself time to simply be, and sometimes I am reminded to simply be (or, with a gentle nudge and much love from my wife, I am told to simply be). It’s during the downtime of being that I find myself thinking about what I should be doing and what I could be doing, and how I’ve not necessarily gotten any closer to accomplishing those things. On the plus side, I’ve gotten no farther from doing so either. Instead, I’m enjoying the adventure of being a father to two fantastic children, navigating the adventures of marriage with my entirely remarkable wife (who supports my writing far more than I do at times), and so on.

So what’s next, then? What misadventures wait ahead?

There will certainly be more Follow the Ashes sooner than later. Still plenty of distance to travel before we reach our destination with that story.

Introductions to Amira, and her Quest, are probably in order. We’ll see.

Then, of course, there’s a small matter of things to do with ducks, and if that’s confusing to read I promise it was just as perplexing to type.

Those, however, are misadventures for other days. Today, instead, I’m choosing again to simply be and remember to breathe.

Follow the Ashes: Put on a Happy Face part 2

“Put on a Happy Face, Part 2: New Reasons to Smile”

              Cas was surrounded, an island amidst a sea of menacing emoticons. Some of the helmets even depicted knives, guns, and other weapons likely intended for her. One displayed, in minimal detail, a guillotine cleaving the head from a stick-person’s body. Cas glanced around frantically inside the helmet, trying to trigger something, anything, that would act as a saving grace.

              A hand closed around her wrist, and she heard only one word.

              “Run.”

              Without other options present, Cas found herself being pulled through the crowd seconds before it converged on her. She and the person who had rescued her, who Cas noted was shrouded in a number of layered, gray scarves and cloaks, moved through the crowd with improbable ease.

              Cas started to glance back at the commotion over her shoulder, now what felt like a safe distance away.

              “Don’t,” commanded her rescuer without bothering to look back. Cas was forced to run faster as their pace quickened. They were no longer in the town’s center, and they rapidly approached its outskirts. The huts were sparse now, farther apart and interrupted by increasing stretches of barren field. A collection of fallen rock rested, gathered almost as if with purpose at the edge of a cliff.

              Cas realized, as their pace increased yet again, there were only two possible destinations. A sudden stop or along drop.

              “This is some sort of trick,” Cas said, though she was met with no response. She tried to dig her feet into the dry soil, but found no purchase.

              “I said,” Cas began to repeat, only to be hushed. Whoever had saved her from the crowd was hurtling forward at absurd speeds, Cas still in tow. In a fluid motion, only so few paces away from certain doom, the mysterious collection of scarves and cloaks reached down with their free hand and dislodged a rock the size of a grapefruit from the dirt, all while maintaining speed. A deafening crack split the air. A boulder situated at the center of the heap split down the middle. Its halves shifted inwards, revealing a dark doorway. As they passed through it, stone moved outwards past them and closed back in place. Only then did they stop running.

              The darkness was absolute, and Cas’ attempts to catch her breath were the only sound to be heard. A harsh red light pierced the darkness, moving swiftly from the ceiling to the floor. Something shuddered beneath the ground as the light went out, and the room was filled with a dull, white glow as lighting fixtures built into the walls sprang to life. There were a number of metal surfaces bolted to the walls, each adorned with a number of tools and displays in various states of disuse.

              “Thank you for getting me out of there,” Cas said. Before she could say anything else, her rescuer raised a hand to silence Cas before removing the helmet. Her rescuer was a young woman, eyes the color of a sunset moments before night blanketed the land.

              “Don’t thank me yet,” the woman said, her voice carrying a practiced coldness. “You owe me. Before we continue this conversation, I’d like you to take your helmet off so I’m certain I haven’t made a mistake in saving you.”

              Cas placed her hands on the helmet, hesitating. “How will you know you’ve made a mistake?” she asked.

              “This isn’t a good start,” the woman replied.

              Cas removed the helmet, tucking it into the crook of her left arm. “My name’s Cas. I’m sure you can tell I’m not from around here,” she explained.

              “Kaye,” the woman who rescued Cas, Kaye, responded. “Clearly you aren’t or you would’ve known better than to use outdated tech. The Speaker would’ve had you thrown from the airlock.”

              “The Speaker?” Cas asked.

              Kaye shook her head, the short shock of silver hair adorning her scalp swishing gently. “This used to be a bustling farming community,” she said. “Worked out nicely until the air filters started to fail. The short of it?” She pointed to the helmet Cas held.

              “Someone from on high in mission command sent a huge shipment of the things,” Kaye continued. “Easier to display something than go through the trouble of speaking, burning up valuable oxygen. The Speaker stood out as someone everyone could follow.”

              Kaye frowned for only a moment, the sadness sudden but fleeting. “That’s enough of a history lesson,” Kaye said.

              A panel in the wall between two of the tables slid open. An old man, bald and hunched, stepped into the room. He let loose a long, wet series of course, punctuated by clearing his throat and spitting. He looked up, his gaze meeting Cas’s.

              “Brought home a stray, did you? We’ve barely got enough air in here for us, and certainly not enough food,” the man snarled.

              “She’s not staying long, Rel,” Kaye said. “Have you finished what I asked of you?”

              Rel narrowed his eyes at Cas, then shifted his focus to Kaye. “You sure you want to be talking about that so freely?”

              Kaye shot a glare over her shoulder. “The Speaker set a mob on her,” she replied. “The last person who had that happen still lives here.”

              Rel furrowed his brow. “I pull my weight,” he snapped back. “And if you’re so inconvenienced by my being here, you can always kick me out. Leave me to the mobs.”

              “That’s not what I said in the least,” Kaye shot back.

              Cas cleared her throat, and found herself on the receiving end of two severe looks. “Excuse me, but I fear it rude to not share my name as I know both of yours,” she said. “I go by Cas.”

              Rel raised an eyebrow, an amused smirk revealing yellowed, crooked teeth. “Go by?” he probed.

              Cas nodded. “I have a number of questions I need answered,” she explained. “I happened upon this place by accident, but it now almost feels like providence. If I can do something to help with this Speaker, perhaps?”

              Kaye smiled, looking back to Rel for a moment. She pointed, again, at Cas’s helmet. “That’s an older model, and it doesn’t properly interface with the current network,” she explained. “The Speaker depends on everyone being on the current network.”

              “We’ve worked on one such helmet we managed to acquire,” Rel added, continuing, “In doing so, we managed to make a helmet on the network that can potentially override the Speaker’s command over the others.”

              “That sounds simple enough,” Cas conceded.

              Kaye shook her head. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “It’s a battle of wills. Whoever takes up the helmet against the Speaker. He’s been in everyone’s head for so long it will be difficult.”

              Cas stroked her chin, lost in thought. “What do you think will happen if I succeed?” she asked. “Or if I fail? What would I need to do to best this Speaker?”

              Rel and Kaye exchanged glances, the small measure of hope on their faces gone abruptly.

              “Truthfully, we don’t know,” Rel conceded.

              “We’ve been holed up in this facility for years,” Kaye added. “The oxygen supplies are steadily running down, and we’re known by the Speaker. We had to come up with something to make living in the open safe again.”

              Cas clapped her hands together, causing Rel to jump. “If you have the means, I’ll find the way,” Cas said. “I feel like there is a wrong here that I must right.” She felt a fog at the edge of her thoughts. Where the fog only began to obscure the clarity Cas needed was a sense of guilt, as if there was something in this situation she should know more about. Something she was in some way, directly or indirectly, responsible for righting.

              Rel turned and disappeared back into the room he’d entered from, the panel sliding shut behind him. Kaye stood, not speaking, her eyes shut as if meditating. The panel opened again, and Rel returned to the room with a helmet in his hands similar to the one Cas had. The visor’s display was crisper, clearer, and devoid of the cracks and scratches the other helmets all seemed to be marred by.

              “I’ll trade you,” Rel said, a command more than a request. Cas offered up the helmet she’d tucked under her arm and accepted the one Rel had brought in. She lifted it to put it on, but was stopped by Kaye.

              “Don’t,” Kaye ordered. “Not until you’re leaving. The second you’re on the network, you’ll be visible to the Speaker, and he’ll be able to pinpoint your exact location. Leading the mobs right to us.”

              Cas nodded. “Any words of wisdom before I depart?” she asked.

              “Don’t die,” Rel offered, his words met with a sharp glare from Kaye.

              “I don’t have anything I think will be terribly helpful,” Kaye conceded. “Don’t let the Speaker in, no matter what he tries to convince you. Fight him, and fight him with all you have.”

              Cas smiled. “I’ll see you both soon enough, I hope,” she said. She turned and walked back the way she and Kaye had entered. A small, red bank of lights adorned the wall by the door in the false boulders she had come through earlier. She pressed the solitary button on the panel, and the doors slid open.

              As Cas stepped out into the field, she placed the helmet on her head. At first, its interior was completely dark. A thin beam of light shifted left to right across Cas’s field of vision, scanning across her eyes. She blinked away the pain, waiting patiently.

              The interior of the helmet illuminated fully, and the field outside came into view. A small, silver globe rotated in the upper left corner of Cas’s vision. It blinked several times, and a frown appeared superimposed over the globe for a fraction of a second. The town’s center was visible, but only barely, in the distance, and so Cas started the long walk towards her destination. She had no exact plan, but wondered if reasoning with this Speaker was an option. Failing, she considered, and being jettisoned from the airlock was not an appealing outcome.

              She trudged through the field, her eyes stopping on the broken, dried and dead remains of what looked to be more than just tall grass. Specters of cornstalks still stood in perfect rows, their color and life long gone from them. Spiraling vines lay blackening on another mound of soil. The land itself did not appear dry or brittle. Cas found herself wondering what the field had looked like before.

              A small image of a book blinked into her field of vision, its pages opening to reveal fleeting images of vibrant farms surrounding modest huts. A stream carving its way through the farm-town, disappearing beneath the cobblestones before emerging from the top of a fountain in the heart of the village. A gentle breeze swept through, drifting ever higher until it reached the clouds and beyond. For a brief moment, fans were visible in the metal ceiling above the colony.

              The fans shuddered to a stop, and with that the view returned to the current field. Cas furrowed her brow, quick to return to a neutral expression when she realized her visor mirrored the expression.

              “Curious,” Cas muttered. “I wonder.” Her vision was temporarily obscured by the interior of her visor displaying a series of images rapidly, starting and ending with a sad face. Cas shook her head, blinking against the after-image of what had been shown to her.

              “Best keep moving,” Cas reminded herself.

              A crowd had formed at the edge of the village, flanking the main throughway. All eyes were on Cas, who hesitated at the edge of the road. A cursor appeared superimposed on the scenery within Cas’s visor. It flashed a few times before something spoke through text.

              Enter, and present yourself, the words read.

              Cas blinked, but maintained a neutral expression. “Are you the Speaker?”

              The cursor blinked again. The name you speak of is a familiar one, but not one I have given myself, the Speaker said. I have many names. Come to me, and I shall share my names and so much more.

              Cas felt herself compelled forward, each step reluctant but seemingly inevitable.  She found herself approaching the dais in the center of the village, atop which the Speaker waited on an imposing throne-like seat.

              Join us, won’t you? Join our happy village and be free from the difficult existence that is your rebelliousness. All it takes is just letting go.

              The inside of Cas’s helmet flashed and indicated to her the visor was displaying a smile.

              “No,” Cas spat back.

              The villagers moved in, surrounding the dais as Cas felt herself compelled to step up and join the Speaker, the smile still present on her visor.

              My family, my children, we have added one more to our ranks on this day, the Speaker said, now clearly addressing everyone present. The smile on Cas’s visor grew into a manic grin, and she felt the sides of her mouth tug themselves into a matching expression of glee.

              “No!” Cas shouted, her voice seemingly muffled by the helmet.

              Take this newcomer in and teach her our ways, commanded the Speaker. Give her lodging and shelter, so she may never need nor want anything else ever again. She is one of our own now.

              A blackness crept into the corners of Cas’s vision. She continued to smile. She felt a warmth roll over her, and with it an inexplicable sense of peace. She was, she began to realize, where she belonged. She was home.

              Home, she thought again as her vision darkened further. Something flashed before her eyes as if a light in the darkness, and Cas snapped back to her senses. Her visor displayed a smile, but the mouth changed to an ‘x’. Villagers looked to the Speaker, then to Cas, their expressions suddenly a mix of confusion and rage as they attempted to process this.

              Fret not, my children, the Speaker said. Even without a voice, his words seemed to come across as slick as oil.

              The faces turned placid again, and Cas’s vision grew darker still. She felt a wave of panic hit her, followed by another forced wave of joy. Peace.

              No, she thought. This is wrong, she told herself.

              If she couldn’t convince them to see the truth in a face, she thought, perhaps something else. Cas thought for a moment, before her thoughts drifted back to the images she’d seen earlier. She picked one and focused.

              There was a series of confused looks exchanged among the crowd when a fan appeared, still and unmoving, on Cas’s visor. Others mirrored the image accompanied by a question mark.

              Dismiss such thoughts, demanded the Speaker. They serve no purpose beyond distraction from the peace and freedom I offer.

              The Speakers words seemed to fall flat, however, as the image continued to spread throughout the crowd. The Speaker’s helmet switched from its peaceful expressionl to one of rage in an instant. It flickered briefly, static marring its form.

              Suddenly, without warning, there was a rumble that shook the world around the village. It had started high up, and spread slowly to the ground. Another followed, and then another still.

              No! Stop this at once, the Speaker commanded. I… forb…id it!

              “You fear it,” Cas replied.

              You…do not know what…you have d-on3…… The Speaker’s visor became a blur of static, the face intermittently popping back into existence before dissipating just as quickly. The helmet sputtered and sparked before giving off a loud popping sound. A plume of smoke poured forth from just beneath where the Speaker’s helmet covered his face.

              And a gentle breeze blew the smoke away.

              One by one, the other helmets deactivated. The villagers stood in silence as if awaiting their next command.

              Cas inhaled deeply, holding her breath as she removed her helmet. The air didn’t sting her lungs as she had feared it might. There was no foul odor to the air, save for faint stench of burned out electronic components, and she felt no pain as she finally drew breath.

              “It’s safe now, I suspect,” Cas said. “Take off your helmets. Breathe.”

              One by one, the villagers listened. Immediately in front of her, a young woman with deep red hair appeared from beneath a blackened visor. Then a boy with vibrant blue eyes. Each person looked at their neighbors like they were seeing them for the first time, smiling pleasantly all the same.

              “I told you I wasn’t making a mistake,” said a familiar voice. Cas turned and spotted Kaye trotting towards the dais with Rel in tow.

              “You got lucky,” Rel barked back. “Admit it.”

              Kaye leapt up onto the dais and offered Cas a crisp salute. “I knew you could do it,” she said. Cas felt a chill up her spine. More familiarity, and another sudden bout of pain just behind her eyes to push down any recognition she may have had for the moment.

              “Thank you for your faith in me,” Cas managed to say in response. “But now what? What about him? This place?”

              Kaye reached over towards the speaker and tugged at his helmet. There was a dreadful cracking sound, followed by a pungent stench as it separated from the Speaker’s protective suit and ornate robes. Two hollow eye sockets stared from a largely bare skull, its jaw slack in a rictus grin.

              “Whatever was in this,” Kaye said, “Whoever. I reckon they’re still out there. This poor soul may have been smiling, but not with anything behind it I fear.”

              Cas frowned. “I’ll have to find them, then, and learn why they did what they have here,” she said. “More answers to seek.” She sighed.

              The villagers had begun to mill about, talking with one another. The conversations were reluctant and awkward, but gradually grew less so.

              Kaye clapped a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “Walk with me for a moment or two,” she said, her tone more of a request than a demand. Cas nodded, following along. They left the village behind, following a faint, dusted-over stone pathway. It wound along, going over foothills and dipping into shallow valleys that Cas had missed previously. It ended at a sheer cliff, which seemed to stretch upwards endlessly. Cas reached out and touched the stone, and the stone’s image wavered beneath her hand to reveal a plain metal surface. A solitary door rested at its center, adorned with red text reading “Emergency Exit: Authorized Personnel Only”.

              “There’s not likely much more for you here, Cas,” Kaye said. “In time, perhaps, there may be, but I reckon you’d best be on your way now.”

              Cas felt a brief pang of sadness and wondered why, but as quickly as it occurred it seemed to drift off.

              “I suppose you’re right,” Cas replied. She offered Kaye a crisp salute, which Kaye returned. Without another word, unable to find the right thing to say, Cas turned and opened the door. It swung open with a rapidity she expected, and she spun back in time for the door to snap shut behind her.

              The room she had entered was plain, save for a bank of monitors along the righthand wall. A small bank of consoles sat beneath them, their keyboards closed off beneath protective glass locked in place. Another door, similar to the one Cas just passed through, adorned the opposite wall, and on it was a smudge of gray.

              Cas sighed, a battle between uncertainty and certainty that she was continuing along the right path as she approached the door.

              “Suppose all I can do for now,” Cas instructed herself, “is continue to follow the ashes.”

[Message Received]

[Data transmission incoming…Receiving…Please wait…]

[Encryption detected. Reviewing codex library. Stand by…]

[Error. Decryption protocols have failed to decode the message. Please stand by – rerouting through decryption sub-routine Foxtrot Tango Alpha. Stand by…]

[Decryption Complete. Message received.]

……….

[…Don’t forget to Follow the Ashes.]

[Follow the Ashes returns 3/1/2019]

Wandering thoughts

Disclaimer: this post is about to go down a few rabbit holes that involve the endless stream of nonsense I live with running through my head like the news ticker at the bottom of most cable news networks. Shit’s about to get weird. Turn back, or forever regret pressing onward.

At the age of 30, which is apparently just old enough for people slightly younger than me to now make me feel older than I should feel just yet, I have come to terms with the fact that the inside of my head is a much louder place than I am always comfortable with it being. My inner monologue is often actually a rather argumentative dialogue, and as of late it has been particularly distracting. It likes to remind me that the plausibility of becoming an accomplished, published author isn’t very high. That I am disappointing people who should, under no circumstances, be disappointed. Sometimes it likes to tell me I’m fat, but also suggest I eat an entire bag of popcorn with extra butter and then chase it with some ice cream, because reasonably I should balance hot and cold foods. Continue reading