The half time show played out on the field. Cheerleaders bounced in front of a modest marching band while the sky darkened to a deep turquoise. Swarms of flying bugs formed halos around the stadium lights above metal bleachers packed with small families and packs of teenagers. Their conversations fought with the noise from the band. Overall, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Angela and Kim were trying, their two teenagers less so.

Seated next to her family, Vera hunched over her phone refreshing her apps. Sparrow, their son, looked bemused as the cheerleaders stacked themselves into a pyramid in front of him.

“I thought you wanted to come, sweetie.” Angela asked her daughter after another long minute of Vera’s agitated finger flicks against her phone screen. The teenager paused, like she’d been caught.

“I did.” Vera said the words slowly,  something else waiting on her tongue. Alone. Angela caught Vera’s hungry sideways look towards the groups of chattering adolescents surrounding them.

“Vera wants to be a cheerleader.” Her brother, hunched over crossed arms and still frowning at the field, announced.

“I don’t–shut up Sparrow.” Vera hissed at him.

“You do?” Angela asked. Her wife, Kim, leaned forward to looked puzzled at their daughter. This was the first time they’d heard anything about this.

“No–maybe, its not a big deal. I just wanted to watch the game. I didn’t know you wanted to come too.” Vera flicking her eyes across her assembled family with a guilty look.

“Its a family outing. And these high school games are so popular, we figured…” Kim trailed off and looked around, noting the large standing groups of teenagers and the older couples enjoying thermoses and blankets by themselves. “Sorry sweetie, you can go hang out with your friends. Its okay.” Kim said encouragingly.

Vera made a strangled noise and shook her head. She went back to her phone with determined focus.

The two women exchanged looks, commiserating over their miserable teenagers. This hadn’t been their first choice for a Friday night either, but football, even the high school games, was absurdly popular this far south. The community rallied around the local games, and Angela and Kim wanted to set down roots– for as long as they could at least. If they belonged, it would make it easier for their kids to do the same.

The band started up another song.

“I’m getting a soda.” Vera stood suddenly and hoped down to the next row, her sneakers reverberating the cheap metal. Angela almost said something, but Kim put a gentle hand on her wife’s arm. The three of them watched Vera hustle and duck through the other teenagers.

Sparrow looked at his helpless moms and sighed. “Don’t mention friends. She hasn’t made any yet,” he said, quiet enough under the noise not to be heard by anyone else.

“That’s not–” Angela’s gentle rebuff died on her lips. The siblings were close and Sparrow had yet to develop the mean streak so often characteristic of adolescence. He was probably just telling the truth as he saw it. “We’re still new in town. It takes time.”

Sparrow’s expression creased with deep skepticism even as he turned back to the assembling football players with disinterest.

Kim managed another bated minute before she asked, “What about you? Are you making frien–”

Sparrow snorted loudly. “No. Its okay though. If I made friends I might have to come to more of these.”

Anegla couldn’t help it, she barked a laugh. “Alright then. This is probably our last one then. Lets make it count.” And with that she shared a smile with her son, and leaned comfortably into her wife’s shoulder to watch the second half of the game. Vera would come back soon enough.

Hunting Ground

Unlike those who huddled inside their hovels and homes protecting stuttering candles, Cullen stared out into the wet fog, wondering why its wisps never stroked his windows or crept under his door. It would not even pass his fence.

Cullen frowned out over the softly churning grey waiting for sense to return. No one wandered in a fog; at best you’d lose yourself and find a quick end at the bottom of ravine or below dark ice, much worse you’d fade off chasing something calling your true name.  Cullen knew he should back away inside, stoke his forge awake against the chill, and wait for it to pass as all in the little township did in the repressive weather.

And he almost did retreat. His hand was back on the door handle when the smell hit his nose, sharp and sweet as granny smith apples. It made his mouth twist as the sour flesh broke under his teeth. Summer past nine at night but the sun was still shining orange between blushing clouds. A mother’s laugh, a child’s delighted shriek. The memory was as sharp as the apple on his tongue.

Cullen jerked back towards the fog.  Like a hound to a scent, his muscles tensed at the sight of the shifting shapes forming from the thick mist. There was no apple, no sun, no people save the dead ones in the mist. Even as he shook the unfamiliar voices and things and sour taste off himself, he could feel more waiting just beyond the fog bank.

The ghosts inside the dark mass shrank back from him as he moved forward, but their darting fear spurred him faster. He stopped at the gate, the fog retreating from him like he was the sun burning it away. Cullen’s lip rose, angry with confusion, and suddenly hungry for whatever waited in beyond his yard.

The rusted chain and lock forced him to remember his fingers, and he fumbled with it before throwing open the fence gate. The fog still crept from him, its dark shapes merely suggestions of people deep inside. Cullen licked his lips and plunged into the hunting ground.

Thank you Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie for another wonderful Wordle Prompt. 

Cards to Count

She rubbed the black stone between her fingers, all the movement in her bony frame concentrated there while her lips mumbled silently in unfamiliar patterns. Reid watched his boss and patron sideways, wishing he could see the working more closely. His job however, as always, was to keep watch in greasy light of under alley stairways. Fifteen, and all he was ever allowed to do was play lookout.

Rooted deep in coastal cliffs, the city proper stacked itself on the bones of its former self, climbing ever upwards in webs of bridges, balconies, and open-air plazas. As new levels were built, it darkened the ones below it, until the lower levels lost all contact with natural light. Above them, the sun might shine but they had no way of knowing here. The dark provided enough cover for Kirra’s schemes, Reid reasoned. He shifted his attention back trying to make sense of her arcane syllables.

A pressure grew between his eyes, it rippled along his skin, and a discordant instinct twitched in him to do something–

“Put that away,” Kirra commanded and the pressure vanished. Reid stared down in alarm at the knife in his hands, he didn’t remember drawing it. Her raspy voice was pitched low with disappointment. “And I told you, keep watch. This is not for your eyes.”

Reid replaced the knife in his pocket with a shiver and did as he was told, keeping his eyes from the strange unspoken words on her lips, or the strange tension in her fingers. He watched the winding ways ahead of them until she spoke again.

“Come, this way.” Instead of beckoning him further up the stairway, towards the lifts that would take them skyward, she turned back the way they’d come, further into the city’s deep warren. Reid naturally repressed his lanky stride to stay in step with his boss.

“Why don’t you live skytop with the rest of the mages?” He asked after they’d turned down a new set of busier pathways and circumvented a loud market of hanging goods, each with their own colored lanterns denoting what they sold. It was a pleasant sight tucked in the dingy darkness of the warrens, but the loud hawking and many listeners were not good for conversation. In the quiet of another descending staircase, she eyed him, obviously deciding whether to answer.

“At this time, they wouldn’t have me.” Kirra answered. At the low arch that separated one level from another, she paused to pass over a coin to the Brigada family guard manning the territory divide. The young foot soldier barely glanced at them beyond an envious look at Reid’s obviously off-world street coat. It had been a gift from Kirra, brought back from her home realm, Tellus.

“Why not… you’re a mage? You can read, and speak and understand those words—or whatever they are.” Reid pricked his attention backwards as they walked in case the young foot soldier decided he liked Reid’s coat too much to be sensible.

“I didn’t study in their halls.”

“Off-world mages still live skytop,” Reid pressed. He’d seen them, picked up supplies and odd items for Kirra from them in their cylindrical townhomes and studies. While most of his jobs for Kirra kept him in the warrens, he wasn’t some sunless gritter.

“Those mages live in skytop, so they can be watched. And they are so blinded by the sun and the ocean, they don’t see it.” Kirra paused to make her way down a rotting ladder to a small landing set next to a roughly hewn, natural wall. They were deep and at the edges enough to encounter the thick stone the original city had been carved from. Kirra narrowed her eyes at it. “My work shouldn’t have an audience… yet.” She twirled her finger, commanding him to turn around.

Reid did so, imagining the barely murmured syllables that would make his mind writhe. When he turned back there was a way down, but unlike the rotting bridges and crumbling tower-fronts of the warrens, the smooth staircase into the rock was precise and formed of clean stone. She smiled at his nervous look, the soft winkles at her eyes deepening. “Don’t worry, you’ll like me in a crown. But that’s years away. Now come on, we still have cards to count and time to bide.”

The dark was so deep and present it swallowed her up as she stepped inside. With a deep breath and a mental reminder that this was job, Reid followed the mage.

This week I picked a song I’ve been obsessed with for the music challenge, Billie Eilish’s you should see me in a crown. The above is my response, see Judd’s here. 

Beneath Sacred Stone

This is Part III, Read Part I (Bastards… Barbarians) and Part II (Oaths and Old Magics) first!

The ether lantern was more than bright enough to fill the burial warren’s narrow entry chamber. It’s light spread over the smoothly carved floors and low ceiling, faltering only at the three open doorways that seeped cold from the deepest parts of the temple. Cen glided over the floor, urging the light forward with the lantern before her.

Oakby’s let the rifle hang at his side as he followed her towards the center doorway, mouth parted and eyes roaming around the chamber. He hesitated before the middle path. “How do you know to take this one?”

Cen shrugged a lazy shoulder, already on the steps leading down. The golden points of the tools in her belt glittered sharply in the cool ether light. “I don’t,” she answered and continued, hips rocking slowly back and forth as she drifted downward, taking each step slowly so the lantern’s light glided with her. Oakby followed in her wake, nostrils and mouth tight with displeasure.

“How do you know its safe?” He asked after the entry chamber vanished behind their small circle of lantern light. The burning ether’s pale glow only suggested the presence of walls, and it felt much more like the depths of a silent ocean, chill and dark in all directions. Cen’s gentle footfalls paused.

“I don’t,” Cen said, flicking the words back at him before continuing down with the same sure, hunting cat steps.

Oakby handled the silence for another set of breaths and then opened his mouth again. “But how—”

The door materialized from the darkness abruptly, a great stone thing barred with wood and carved with reliefs of battles as well as what looked to be—Oakby blushed and made a noise of disgust when he got close enough over her shoulder to see the lurid details. “These people, was it really all sex and death, en masse apparently?”

“And upheaval and conquest.” Cen drew her fingers up to the carving, skimming the scenes set in wide banners across the door. Her lips twitched over a bit of script set over her head, where most’s eyes would be. Cen hummed with interest and ignored Oakby’s affronted mutterings. The script was in Urahi, which Cen had never studied, but knew enough useful phrases from her work raiding their dead.

“For the unflinching,” Cen moved her lips around the words as she inspected the handle mechanism buried in a hollow at the center of the door. To even touch the smooth lock inside she had to insert her hand unseen into the mechanism fully past her wrist, and she did so slowly. As her fingers wrapped around the unseen metal handle, something clicked deep inside the carved portal. The mechanism cinched around her wrist so tightly she felt her pulse kick against it. Cen went as still as the stone around her.

Oakby swore and flinched back from the door as if it might bite him too. “Why would you— we could have gotten a worker, a local– ”

“Shhh,” Cen breathed, face inches from the carved surface. The vice was painfully tight around her wrist, the mechanism holding her fast with something sharp that she could feel the edges of. Cen imagined hidden blades caressing the skin where her pulse beat. But she still had the handle in her grip. Very slowly, Cen tightened her hold and pressed forward.

The door unlatched smoothly, releasing Cen’s hand and clicking open forward. She flexed her fingers and glanced to her sputtering captor.

“You do understand them, I’ll give you that – these vulgar barbarians who make a death traps.” Oakby snapped the ragged words, but for the first time there was something like regard in the words. His fingers curled tighter around the rifle. “Not that its a comfort.”

“Isn’t it? You have my word, not even the brave break oaths so deep under sacred stone.” Cen rolled her shoulders, easing away the tight panic at being caught so.

“I suppose– and there is something here. Look.” Oakby gingerly pressed the door open revealing a chamber much larger than what had come before. The walls, shadowed in the limited light from Cen’s lantern, were carved like a towering beehive, stone cells stretching to the ceiling in a gentle arch until they met above them. In each of the cells desiccated remains clothed in rotted leather and dull armor clutched weapons to their chests. As they stepped inside, their light reached farther revealing the bits of gold and silver glinting at hilt, crest, and and skeletal fingers. Oakby forgot his caution, eyes growing wide and bright as he hurried to the first of the cells and a solid, but gilded, spear there.

Cen let him go round the room’s edge, her attention elsewhere. The floor beneath her wrapped sandals sloped gradually towards a sunken, carved pit at the chamber’s center. Deep grooves led along the floor towards the indent, multiplying as they branched off their fellows, many rivers leading towards an ocean. Or a drain.

She followed the grooves’ path to the pit and looked down. Not deep, Cen might stand below and still peer over its edge at the rest of the burial chamber. At its low center, a sword of reddish metal lay flat and encased by an arcane mechanism. Bands of stone and gold in the likeness of angry serpents leashed the short sword to the floor at the center of the pit. Cen cocked her head and then slowly set the lantern on the ground, replacing it in her palm with one of her sharp golden tools from her belt.

“Oi, what are you doing? Stay away from my finds.” Oakby had the rifle half up as he jogged the distance between them. His alarm ebbed away when his eyes caught on the strangely captured weapon below. “What is that?”

“A sword for a warrior.” Cen struck smooth and quick as a snake. With her golden tool’s sharp point, she ripped Oakby’s shirt and skin open from hip to hip. Swift as she’d gutted him, Cen stepped back smoothly to keep the guts from splattering her hem and wasting blood. Oakby gasped and gaped like a fish, his hands twitching in front of his opened abdomen. He fell next to his bowels, still gurgling curses. From the vulgar words, he managed to snarl at her, “sacred stone — your word–”

“That I would not lay a finger on you. And I have not.” She fanned her clean fingers, still holding the blood-stained sigil tool. “Just this. The Urahi were specific on wording, any decent Captain who works in their valley should know that.”

Cen wasted no more words on him as he expired, more interested in his blood coursing through the grooves and into the pit. As the viscous red pooled around the bands of stone and gold, something clicked, like a weight being set. The sword’s prison folded back on itself, retreating back from the sword’s reddish metal and curling beneath it. The stone and gold reforming to create a small dais, complete with the serpent motif from before, on which the sword rested.

With careful, reverent steps Cen lowered herself into the pit and approached the sword. Cen allowed herself a purr of pleasure as her fingers curled comfortably around the sword’s grip.

Her mood was interrupted when above her the ceiling shivered, and Cen jerked her head up to watch motes of dust drift down in the light from the — sword. The lantern at the edge of the pit no longer glowed, for the sword had stolen the ether light and now shown bright enough to throw its own shadows against the burial cells.

Another tremor, and Cen quirked her lips, wondering how her men were managing Oakby’s leaderless company. There would be time for the rest of the temple’s ripe treasures later once Oakby’s men were successfully cowed and working for her, but for now, she wanted to see what the sword could do. Cen left the pit, chamber, and stairs with pleased rolling steps, a golden tool in one hand and a glowing sword in the other.

In Play

Lark missed his old music room. The airy glass doors, the always present breeze from the shore, the faintest bustle of the staff from several rooms away. The sun-livened room sacrificed acoustics for aesthetics, but Lark had never minded.

His prep school on the other hand, remained uninspired. The music room was perfectly planned, designed for its accomplished students to hear themselves in the most complimentary acoustic light, and stocked with the highest-end instruments its affluent benefactors could write-off. It was also perpetually dim, floored in dismal greenish wood, and designed by someone with the atrophied imagination of a medieval vicar.

Still, Lark dutifully arrived and unrolled the cover on the grand piano. After making sure no others had meddled with the delicate instrument, it was easy enough to ignore his dismal surroundings in play.

Eyes half-lidded, Lark moved his wrists in graceful undulations. Long fingers wove gentle and precise patterns over the keys. A calm settled in his chest, not the usual dark numbness his parents sent him to shrinks for, but a true calm that breathed with the lull and lilt of the music.

He was into the second composition, some vanity project the music teacher had created and was stuck depending on students to bring to life, when the music room door flung open wide and released adolescent braying into the mix.

Lark stopped and twisted in annoyance. Jayden and Preston’s uniform leather shoes slapped and echoed through the room’s acoustics. The two stopped short before the piano dais, perfectly positioned so that Lark could look down into their grinning, red-veined eyes.

“Lark—what the fuck you doing in this dungeon.”

“You hiding from Madison? She’s fucking pissed.”

“Practicing.” Lark answered the first question, because it had a simple answer and he didn’t trust his peers with complex affairs of the early-adolescent heart.

“Cool, cool—look Abby’s parents are gone this weekend, and they left her upstate at their beach house—with the yacht. So, that’s where we’re going.” Preston jerked his head towards the door. “Come on. My brother is letting me use his driver.”

Lark didn’t find yachts very impressive, everyone had one. But still—

“Why are you inviting me?” Lark asked, close attention to any flick or sneer of their lips that would give the joke away.  A childhood spent with thick-necked brothers gave him a good sense for these things. His first year at the preparatory academy had so far been spent on the fringes of the dining hall and classrooms, watching and interpreting the ebbs and flows the social games and contests no one, certainly not his brutish brothers, had prepared him for.

But Preston and Jayden’s blurry looks were guileless and bored. They shrugged, Jayden slurred something about his sister knowing Lark’s brothers, Preston’s look was flat. “Why not?”

Lark hesitated, fingers still resting on the smooth keys. But he swallowed the twist in his throat and made sure to shrug as if he didn’t care. “Sure, why not.”

Lark still replaced the key cover before he left.

Go Play

The first bars of Fur Elise went by with quick perfection, Lark’s mother nodding with the notes next to him on the piano bench. His small fingers stumbled on the return to A, and she cleared her throat. “Start from the beginning. Watch your hands, less bounce.”

He nodded, swallowing the protest that they needed to bounce. His eight-year old fingers were not as long as hers, they got tired. But Lark sniffed and went back to start. He got past the repeat this time—to have the door of the music room flung open and slam against the wall.

Lark jerked his hands back from the keys like they were hot. His mother tightened herself in, chin going up, eyes going down as Lark’s father strode in.

“Does he really need to go on all the time? A single day of quiet—all I ask. This is my house.” Lark’s father always took up the air in the room. Loud, veins showing in his neck and hands, he burned away the space. “I shouldn’t have to remind you of that.”

His mother’s hand closed hard around Lark’s wrist before he could return his fingers to the keys. “Lark will practice another time,” she said, soft and small beneath her husband’s presence.

Lark opened his mouth, now ready to protest. His concert was in two weeks. But his mother’s hand tightened, gracile fingers so very strong. Lark’s hand clawed painfully under the pressure and she silenced his whimper with a sliced warning glance.

“Isn’t healthy anyway- should be out. I don’t know –playing.” His father waived a hand in the direction of the green beyond the rooms billowing curtains. Lark’s lip tugged up contemptuously and his mother’s thumb dug harder into his wrist. When neither of them presented a target, his father shifted, anger brandished but with nothing to attack. “Well what are you waiting for— go. Won’t have that racket starting up again.”

Lark’s mother pushed him off the bench. “Go play,” she ordered softly. Lark frowned at the heating space between his parents, but took one step back, and the momentum took him the rest of the way.

Another music challenge where Raw Rambles and I write something to or inspired by the piece below. 

One Empty Bed

Delia left before yule ended. She told no one, gave no sign, packed no bag beyond the little leather satchel she carried to school. But as the sun crested cold and weak on the first of January, Kirra turned over and saw Delia’s empty bed.

Kirra rose slowly, careful to ease her bare toes to the floorboards and walked shivering to her sister’s unmade bed. The sheets were pushed back, the coverlet and quilt askew. With only a little dawn light from the slated wooden blinds, Kirra bent and shuffled her hands through the bedding, as if she could find her older and grown sister hiding there. Kirra only found Delia’s night clothes.

And the satchel– Kirra checked the back of the door, where the hooks held their school bags and gathering baskets. The satchel was gone, along with her sister’s winter coat. A woman grown and gone, flown away on fledged seventeen-year-old wings.

Kirra’s looked down at her fifteen year old feet as they began to ache. Stuck where they were and bare, it was the cold seeping up from the floorboards. Kirra climbed back into her own bed and drew the covers up over them.

By the time her aunts arrived, Kirra’s feet were just beginning to warm up. There was a great flurry of movement from her aunts, their house robes loose and flapping angrily. One threw open the shutters to note the footsteps and muddy tire tracks leading away from the house. Another leaned over Kirra, claws around her small wrist and demanded sisterly secrets. Mostly they snipped and hissed in the buried tongue, the words scraping against the deep inside of Kirra’s ears.

They agreed, Delia must be brought back before the ungrateful girl was lost to the distant city and its warrens of lights, doors, and smiling men. Kirra said nothing, but silently wished her sister speed, and even more silently, cursed her for leaving only one empty bed.