Flash Fiction Challenge: The Ritual of Souls

This flash fiction challenge, posted over at Chuck Wendig's terribleminds.com, had one stipulation: incorporate "there is no exit" in some way. Thematically, as literal dialogue, or whatever.

And so I whipped up The Ritual of Souls (in 1.5 days, so go easy on me). It ended up like a Saturday morning cartoon, but slathered in blood (which is pretty cool). 

***

Blood rushed to Kelly’s head as she hung upside-down, hands tied behind her back. She stared into the emerald eyes of Nagazhul.

“You can’t stop it now,” Nagazhul said, his voice echoing deep in his throat.

The swirling violet crystal behind him hummed, emanating light to the chanting acolytes encircling it. Beyond, Kelly could see the cityscape, each window like the light of a firefly. Those people had no idea how close they were to death.

“Ritual’s not done yet,” Kelly said, writhing against her bonds. She shimmied her hands to the knife hidden in her belt.

Nagazhul reached out with a clawed hand and ran blackened nails along her cheek, he inhaled, as though smelling her scent. But Kelly knew he was tasting her soul, just the edge of it. Being an agent of the occult, Kelly had an iron will that meant shitheads like Nagazhul couldn’t work their magic on her.

“Eight million souls, agent Kelly, all in a matter of seconds.” Nagazhul turned his back to her, staring out of the skyscraper's windows. “It will be death on a scale so sweat, so unimagined. I will ascend. Can you comprehend this? Godhood awaits me, in a matter of moments I will be a breaker of worlds, eater of eras. And you will be my mortal witness. You’re terror will ripple throughout purgatorium. It will taste so sweat,” Nagazhul inhaled. “There will be no exit, no escape from my will.”

He turned to Kelly, his emerald eyes glimmering with delight.

Kelly stabbed him in the eye.

He reeled, clutching his bloody socket.

Kelly, arms free, cut the ropes around her feet, hit the floor with a roll, and charged at the ritual crystal. It hovered in the air, spinning faster and faster, radiating blinding light.

Nagazhul roared, his voice echoing with the power of a thunderstorm. “Kill her.”

The chanting acolytes turned as one, staring at her from shadowed hoods, jagged serpentine blades held high, screeching.

Kelly drew her boot knife, twelve inches of carbon steel, and slammed it to the hilt in an acolytes gut.

They swarmed her, kicking and biting and stabbing. Kelly’s blade flashed, arcs of red splattered on the floor, on the ceiling, on herself. She reached into a shadowed hood, and felt the chill void on her flesh, and then she clutched his windpipe and squeezed. A soft, wet gurgle escaped the acolyte.

Kelly broke bones with kicks from her steel toed boots, her knife dug through robe and flesh. And Kelly shoved the bleeding acolytes aside, charging for the now spinning crystal.

She reached up, an unspeakable force pushing against her, trying to drive her back. Her fingers inches from the crystal. Just. A. Little. More.

Got it.

Kelly tore the crystal from the ritual circle with a crack of thunder. Nagazhul bellowed, but she was already running for the window, crystal under her arm.

The acolytes leaped for her, trying to grab her arms and legs, and each time she barreled past them, kicking and punching them aside.

And then she hurled the crystal into the window. The window shattered, and the crystal pin wheeled to the street below, exploding into a thousand pieces.

“Rituals done,” Kelly said.

Nagazhul stared out the window, hand outstretched, mouth agape. Then, his brow furrowed, his features contorted into a bestial countenance. He inhaled, and as one the acolytes bowed to him, their souls draining away like blown mist, spiralling up into Nagazhul’s mouth and nostrils. The acolytes slumped, their bodies drained, dead. Nagazhul glowed with their power, glowed from the surge of strength it gave him.

He set his emerald eyes on Kelly and breathed deep.

Pain lanced through Kelly’s body, piercing from the inside out. Her hands melted away, dissolving into mist, pulled into the wide maw of Nagazhul. Then her legs dissolved, her torso, and it crept up her neck until her sinuses burned and her eyes watered, and then blackness.

Solid blackness beneath her, miles upon miles of blackness surrounded her. Kelly breathed, and no air entered her lungs, but somehow she lived.

Nagazhul tilted his head, a beacon in the darkness. “Curious,” he said. “How do you persist?”

Kelly was an agent of the occult, her spirit iron willed. And unlike the others Nagazhul had eaten, Kelly’s spirit was weighted with the will of her determination.

Nagazhul hadn’t expected Kelly to lunge, but he especially hadn’t expected her grasping hand to have weight, to clutch his robe, and to throw him to the ground. Nagazhul shrieked, confused. Kelly drove her knife into his heart, and his face contorted into a visage of primal pain.

The blackness below him opened. Tentacles thick with bloodshot eyes writhed and wrapped around Nagazhul. He pleaded, begged for mercy. “Don’t send me back there. Please. I can’t take it anymore.”

“You don’t have a choice. Enjoy a century of nightmare, fucker.”

Kelly twisted the blade, and Nagazhul was pulled through the rend, consumed by the writhing, bulbous mass of the eldritch domain.

And then she was alone. The blackness crowded around her, pressing against her like water filled sacks, suffocating her. She dug her fingers into the darkness, pinpricks of light emerging from her finger holes, and she tore it in twain.

Nagazhul’s flesh fell to the floor, shed like a false skin. Kelly stood in the skyscraper, bathed in blood, surrounded by bodies, hair whipped by the broken window.

Just another job done.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Narrative Structure

There’s a lot to love about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, but what pulled me in was how intertwined all the character arcs were. Each character had room to shine and grow, as well as moving the plot forward. None of it felt bloated or needless.

But I want to talk about a few of my favourite aspects of the movie.

***Spoilers Below***

 

YONDU AND STAR-LORD

Yondu is the core of GotG2. The entire plot revolves around him, although it might not seem like it.

The relationship between Peter Quill and Ego (his celestial dad) occupies a lot of this movie. But I think its real value is in how it builds up the relationship Peter had with Yondu. With Ego, Peter starts to fulfill all his idealizations of what a father/son relationship is like, and in that it is a manipulative relationship in its too-perfect-to-be-real nature.

Yondu, on the other hand, is the hardass that threatened to eat Peter. Their relationship is the complete opposite of what Peter experiences with Ego. But Yondu is the one that was trying to protect him, and is the one that ultimately sacrifices himself for Peter, whereas Ego wants Peter to be sacrificed for him.

Yondu loses something to protect Peter, his reputation. His treatment and ultimate betrayal by the Ravagers is all because of his initial instinct to do right by Star-Lord. Ego is again on the opposite end, he takes something away from Peter, his mother. Though Yondu is a curmudgeony hardass, he gives to Peter as best he can, while the charismatic Ego takes from Peter as much as he can.

It’s a story about father and son, but without Yondu it would’ve only been half a story. Star-Lord pines for the perfect father/son relationship, so much so that he overlooks the one he had with Yondu. Yondu is the real, messy version of parenthood (with a space pirate twist), Ego is the larger than life pile of bullshit.

 

YONDU AND ROCKET

Rocket in GotG2 is starting to push his friends away, not because he wants them to leave him but because he’s falling into a defense mechanism. When he meets up with Yondu, this comes to a head. Yondu, being older, knows exactly what Rocket is doing and sees right through it. Rocket, after this, sees some of himself in Yondu. And there’s fear there, because Yondu has been cast aside by his Ravager crew, and that’s what Rocket is afraid his friends will do to him. It’s only when Yondu dies, and the Ravagers show up to his funeral to respect his memory, that Rocket realizes he doesn’t need to be afraid of dying alone in obscurity, because his friends won’t ditch him as long as he does the right thing, just like Yondu.

This is a great example of how the two character arcs are woven together. It comes off as though they’re just meeting up for some adventure, but heir meetup is necessary for their growth and the final moments in the memorial scene. It’s another reason I think Yondu is the heart of this movie, because his story intersects meaningfully with both Star-Lord’s and Rocket’s arcs.

 

“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

The gold people (I can’t remember their name, but I like calling ‘em the “gold people”) just kept coming back. In any other movie, they would’ve been relegated to a ten minute goof at the movie’s beginning, and then forgotten. Here, they are a constant threat, moving the story forward with each appearance. Their repeated failures even have long lasting consequences for the Marvel cinematic universe. Some reviewers thought they were a frivolous addition, but I think they added a lot to the movie and were a good way of propelling the story forward.

Nebula, much like the gold people, just kept coming back. But in her case, she had a close tie to Gamora, and their family conflict is integrated into the action, so that not only does Nebula act as a man-with-a-gun, but as development for her and Gamora’s relationship—as well as insight into what an asshat Thanos is.

Drax and Mantis have a similar function, but from the other end of the spectrum. Instead of conflict, they get along and learn about each other through comradery. Mantis, in a way, mirrors Ego’s disarming nature. And as we’re getting to know Mantis, we’re also learning that she’s hiding something. It’s her building relationship with Drax that pushes her to tell the truth. She’s both being developed as a character, building upon Drax’s character, and providing a revelation to the overall plot. (Also, Mantis is just dang cool.)

 

FAMILY AND FORGIVENESS

All of these threads come together to be about family and forgiveness. Forgiveness that’s earned through mutual respect (Ego doesn’t get a free pass for being a blood relative). Rocket, Yondu, Star-Lord, and Gamora and Nebula all fall into this theme. Each woven into separate threads that come together to a singular thematic point. Even when one of the plot threads has to go careening through warp space to get from one solar system to another.

No movie is perfect, and GotG2 has its flaws, but man, I really loved it.

The Writing Schedule

THE PLAN

Over the course of three or so months (including June*), the plan is to write about 90,000 words of my current work in progress. I’ve been using a word tracker app to set monthly goals, it shows how much you have to write each day to hit your word count goal, and it’s been extremely helpful in motivating me to stay on track. (The app I’m using is an old one called WriMo Demon, I don’t think it’s available for download anymore, but I’m sure there are other similar apps.)

After I finish the first draft, I’m going to set it aside and hunker down to finish The Underbelly War. My goal will be to write another 30,000 or so words. At that point the story should be finished, and then I’ll set it aside.

After that, I’ll dive back into the inevitable mess that the 90k novel will be, and start rewriting/editing it.

Throughout this I’d like to carve out some time to write a few short stories that’ve been knocking around inside my head. 

 

THE GOAL

Get some shit published.

So yeah, that’s the current plan. I might provide some progress updates along the way.

Are you working on anything, from a short story to a beefy epic, and if so how have you planned out your writing schedule? 

 

*I started about a week into June, but as of today I’ve written 23,000 words of the 90k novel.

E3 2017 – Highlighting some of the Smaller Games

E3 had some awesome announcements this year. Stuff like Assassin’s Creed Origins, God of War, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, a Beyond Good and Evil 2 cinematic, and a weirdly good looking Mario + Rabbids tactical RPG.

But, there were a lot of other awesome games that are flying under the radar. So, setting aside all the big announcements, I’d like to highlight some cool games that aren’t getting much attention.

 

Tunic

Tunic is an adorable yet whimsical top-down action game. I really dig the aesthetic of this one, mixing retro Zelda with a new slathering of paint. The combat looks to have a targeting mechanic, which can add a lot to this kind of top-down game. There seems to be an emphasis on dodging and doing combos. We’ll have to wait and see how it all comes together, but this is definitely one of the standouts.

 

A Plague Tale: Innocence

This is more like a teaser. The setting of medieval France beset by a plague of rats is intriguing. From this trailer, it seems like you’ll have to manage your light source to keep the hungry little critters from munching on your face.

Read an extended gameplay impression here.

 

Extinction

Attack on Titan meets giant ogres? Yes please. The look and themes are really cool, but it’s the gameplay that shines here. The movement reminds me of Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, but mixed with tactical dismemberment. Extinction has a lot of potential, and I'm really excited to see where it goes.

 

Unto the End

Another World meets Shank with a dollop of Banner Saga, Unto the End might’ve been my favourite trailer out of E3. From the trailer, the combat seems meticulous with an emphasis on defense while biding your time. But what really pulled me in was the sense of quiet, how the environments felt like they had room to breathe while you silently wander the wilderness. I got the sense it’ll start out ordinary, and as the game progresses the insanity is going to ramp up. I’m very excited to see how this one turns out.

Read more about Unto the End here.

What games shown at E3 are you most excited about?

Wonder Woman is Really Good

I finally got to see Wonder Woman (later than everybody else), and it was really good.

It was nice to see one of the DC movies have a hopeful hero. One that isn’t bitter and angry at the world. Wonder Woman even touches on that at certain points by having [minor spoilers] the realities of war threaten to turn her into the equivalent of a brooding Superman [/minor spoilers].

I could gush about the movie endlessly, both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine were fantastic, as well as the whole supporting cast, but you don’t need me to tell you it’s a good movie.

I hope the other DC movies learn something from Wonder Woman, because right now the only DC movie I’m interested in watching is Wonder Woman 2.

What did you think of Wonder Woman? And where would you rank it compared to the other superhero movies?

Tarr of Tarrs

This story takes place in the same world as The Horned Scarab, but follows the Tarr and one of his bodyguards trying to evade an assassination attempt. Other than sharing a secondary world, the two stories don't connect in any way. Although, in theory, Tarr of Tarrs takes place while Arn and Rohqim are dealing with the Horned Scarab.

***

Tarr Oben, Tarr of Tarrs, regarded the land of his empire from a balcony of his temple fortress. Green fields spread before him, cut by mountain ridges and deep valleys. The mighty swing of the river Rund touched the horizon.

Eldara watched from behind silken curtains. Light from the noonday’s sun gleamed off her bronze cuirass. The Tarr had power, a power that was unseen to the eye, but heard in the depths of his voice, and perceived in the stride of his gait, the set of his shoulders, the pits of his eyes.

Tarr Oben turned from the balcony and strode into his chamber, robes embroidered with gold and silver trailing behind him. His necklaces and bracelets sang a soft clangour. Eldara followed, silent, and stood at the study’s entrance with Dula, another guard. 

“Eldara, come and look at this.” The Tarr’s voice resounded deep in Eldara’s chest.

Eldara obeyed, approaching the Tarr’s side, peering at the maps on his desk. Eldara gave the Tarr her counsel, in a soft, quiet voice. Her lips brushed the Tarr’s ear. He nodded to her, and without another word she returned to the doorway and stood alert. She noted Dula’s sideways glance.

Eldara’s eyes darted to a flicker of movement near the balcony. She took a step forward, and the first arrow flew. Her shield was up in time for the arrow to ping against its hardened bronze. Guards lurking in the shadows leaped forward. Four assailants in black cloth stalked into the Tarr’s chamber, bows at the ready. But the other guards did not engage them.

“What are you waiting for?” Dula said as he charged forward, shield upraised. But before he could reach the black clad men, a guard sliced open Dula’s throat. Dula fell to his knees, blood pulsing from his throat.

Their eyes alighted on Eldara.

She dashed into the study, swung the heavy oaken door shut, and slid the deadbolt into place. The Tarr was on his feet.

“What has happened?”

“We’ve been betrayed.”

He ran a hand over his beard. Then, he regarded her with a questioning gaze.

Eldara said, “the secret passage, it’s the only way out.”

Tarr Oben nodded, and together they moved the large desk to reveal the trapdoor beneath.

They darted through the secret corridor. They came to a barrack’s door. Eldara opened it just enough to peer through the gap. Her heart froze, a pile of bodies was all that remained of the fifth quarter guards. Their weapons and armor stolen.

Tarr Oben lightly touched her arm. “Whoever did this will suffer the Tarr’s justice.”

She turned from the gruesome sight.

Eldara continued down the corridor. “I know an unused passage to Counsel Orla’s chamber, there you will be safe until we learn how deep this betrayal’s roots are.”

“I trust Orla, but I will not hide. Together we will weed out the scum that mean to mock the Tarr.”

A side door opened, and a guard adorned as she was stepped into the passage. Her grip tightened on her sickle-sword.

“Hail,” the guard called. “We’ve trapped the traitors in the Tarr’s chambers.”

How long had they been walking for? This passage cut through complex networks of rooms and servant-ways. Would the guards in this quarter of the temple fortress know what had happened in the Tarr’s chamber?

“Have you notified the fifth quarter?” Eldara asked.

The guard hesitated, “yes.” His hand drifted toward his belt.

A dagger twirled through the air—not at Eldara, but at the Tarr. Eldara leaped in the way and felt the force of the dagger slam into her cuirass. She reeled into Oben’s arms.

He gasped. “Eldara…”

The man lunged. Eldara deflected a strike with her shield and used the deep curve of her sickle-sword to hook the man’s ankle and pull it out from under him. He went sprawling. She struck with the edge of her shield, and the man’s skull crunched and squelched under the force of her blow.

She turned to the Tarr. He leaned on the wall, rattled, but unharmed. Eldara pressed a hand to Tarr Oben’s shoulder. His eyes danced for a moment, and he gave her a weary smile.

She led the way, her shield dripping brain matter.

They came to the door of Orla’s chamber. Eldara opened it slightly and peered through. Orla, hunched and gray bearded, spoke quietly with one of his personal guards. Instinct held her back. Instead, she strained to hear the Counsel’s words.

“Is it done?” Orla asked.

“He escaped into a secret passage. Below we found a dead man, and no sign of the Tarr. He must have turned to a passageway unknown to us.”

“This damned place is hollow with rat holes. Unsurprising he would hide in one.”

Eldara’s heart thrummed. It was Orla who had killed her companions and tried to murder the Tarr. Oben—who had heard Orla’s words as well—nodded to her.

It was in silence that she emerged from the secret passage, and without joy that she struck down Orla’s guard. He did not have time to draw his blade.

Orla screamed. Eldara swung swift and true, and Orla’s head was severed from his shoulders.

Tarr Oben pulled Eldara close and whispered, “bring me Orla’s firstborn so that we might learn how deep this betrayal’s roots are.” His lips brushed her ear.

Monolith

This is an oldie I wrote a couple years ago. It's set in a world that I never fully fleshed out, where a native species of scaled creatures called Goras fight off an invading alien force. And throughout the Goras' planet are these ancient monolithic structures that they revere. Honestly, I can't remember what role the monoliths were supposed to play in the overarching story.

This piece is far from perfect, but I've decided to post it as is. I only gave it a very cursory edit for minor typos and errors. Otherwise, it's presented in all its pockmarked glory. 

***

The monolith touched the clouds. They swirled around the top of the massive gray column like the clouds of a mountain peak. At the very top, Arlon thought he could see specks of snow. Around its base were skeletons of Goras that had come before him, their corpses mangled and twisted in on themselves. I will not fail.

The monolith had been here since time before memory, since time before time, and all the while it sat silently contemplating. Arlon, feeling the chill seep between his green scale plates and seek out his flesh beneath, reached out a hand and touched the monolith.

Nothing happened.

Am I not worthy?

Arlon had travelled through the grand forests and swamplands and into the realm of the Gora’s enemies, all the while hoping beyond hope that he would be chosen by the monolith. But no visions came to him, no whispered words found his ears, no otherworldly beings reached out to touch his flesh.

Arlon shrugged, his scales screeching against one another, and he craned his head to look toward the monolith’s peak. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps there is a way to show my worthiness.

Arlon marched around the base of the monolith, it was so large it would have taken him days to make a full rotation, but after a few hours he found what he had hoped for--a stair. A series of horizontal stones jutted out of the monolith’s gray stone. They were not connected, and some were farther apart than the others, but Arlon could climb it.

And so he did, reaching one hand above the other to grasp the stones and use those below him as footholds, he climbed. And climbed. And climbed. Arcing through the sky, the twin moons shone on him with soft pale light, and the sun rose once more. And still Arlon climbed, heaving from the effort, never stopping. How many days past he could not know, but soon he felt the cold chill of the monolith’s peak, and reached an opening at the very top of the monolith. Arlon crawled into it, hauling himself over the caves lip and falling to the ground, panting and heaving. And before he could bring himself to his feet, he passed out from exhaustion. How much time had passed he did not know, but he awoke to the sun high in the sky and its light warm on his scales.

Arlon now looked into the cave, it was a smooth and perfectly round tunnel, the sun’s light illuminated it from holes in the ceiling. He took the bladed chakram from his hip, and holding it firm in his hand began the long march forward. It was long and slow, but soon he came to a grand opening that led into a circular room. And in the center of this room was the decayed skeleton of a Gora, one such as him. He approached the skeleton, reached a trembling hand to touch its surface, and felt nothing but dry bone. The monolith had been his faith, the one thing his people could see from all their land, the one hope of another, a better place. And now he had climbed this ancient and holy place to find nothing but a corpse. There were no answers for his people here, no secret knowledge, no whispers from the afterlife.

The room led nowhere, there was no other stair, no secret room. And it was a long and slow walk back to the cave’s entrance. And as he stood at the lip of the cave, he thought, how can I return to my people? How can I tell them everything we believed was a lie. He couldn’t, because he couldn’t bear to break the hearts of a thousand generations with the truth that he was now faced with.

And so, with a hollow place in his chest and a tear in his eye, he stepped out over the precipice of the cave--and fell.

The Orendotsky Bear

I originally wrote this for an anthology submission, the guideline being that the story had to deal with the personification of DEATH. I don't think I leaned into the theme heavy enough, and ultimately ended up with a war story. Still, I like the world and characters of The Orendotsky Bear and would like to revisit it in the future.

***

Ana marched forward. The battlefield around her a fresco of corpses marked by arrows and blades. She had marched for seven days and seven nights. The small elderly man in the distance nodded to her. For seven days she lived when she should have been dead.

Orendotsky Palace loomed over her. A spired shadow of stone and glass. Cries rose up from its gate. The rebellion, her rebellion, were storming the palace.

And they were all going to die. Just like she had.

The old man inhaled from his hookah, pale smoke billowed from his nostrils. He stood over the body of an Orendotsky soldier, running a finger along the blood slick blade.

When the Orendotsky Bear fell, Ana would die.

Smoke billowed from tubes and pipes that protruded from the old man’s back. The smoke twisted and whorled, forming faces caught mid scream, only to fade once more. The old man tilted his head toward her.

Your people fail, his voice like droplets of dew spoke in her mind. The old man’s mouth did not move. Hurry.

 She marched. Her boots crunched the snow beneath her. It fell lazily, resting on her shoulders, mixing with the white of her leopard skin cloak.   

The clangor of metal grew louder. Then the boom of a battering ram against thick oaken gates. This was their final push. They’d known it weeks ago. The rebellion marched forward, even as Ana had fallen.

And still, she could not let go. She had to see it to its end. The bodies around become fresher, until they steamed with the warmth of life they’d lost. They old man inhaled, the smoke whirling into his nostrils. The pipes upon his back sputtered, gouts of mist rising from them.

“Must you follow me?” Ana said, her voice low, nearly a whisper.

I will collect your promise soon. The old man, who she knew to be Death, spread his arms to the battlefield. There is much to collect here.

Ana had heard many stories of Death. From the people in the south, to the westerners who thought it a pathway to a paradise, but to her it was Neiz. The spreading of black frost, the oncoming storm, the one and only truth. Neiz came for all, whatever name or form it took, it was the inevitable.

Neiz inhaled from his hookah, I want to see you keep your promise.

“How could I not?”

Neiz titled his head, his eyebrow rising in a curiously quizzical expression.

She continued forward. Ana had thought on it, the deal they’d made, she lived to kill the Bear. But if it were done by another’s hand, then maybe…

The rebels were clustered before the gate. They held shields over their heads as the Orendotsky soldiers rained down arrows from the high wall.

One of the rebels, Igin, turned to her. “You, join the others…” he trailed of, recognition widening his eyes. “Ana, it can’t be.”

“It is.”

She surveyed what remained of her troops. Not much. An arrow struck a man working the battering ram. He collapsed, and another tried to pull him beyond the arrows’ range, to where Igin and Ana stood. Another arrow whistled through the air, piercing the chest of the second man. They both lay on the ground moaning. The others kept working the ram, but there wasn’t enough of them and they couldn’t lower their shields.

“This your idea, Igin?”

Igin straightened, “they would have butchered us if we stayed on the open tundra.”

“They already butchered us.”

“But there forces were retreating to the palace. We pressed on, harrying and taking out as many as we could. We couldn’t let them regroup, we couldn’t let them get behind the palace walls.”

“And did they?” Ana asked.

“Some, but we dwindled their numbers. They haven’t had a proper rest, a proper meal, in days.”

“Neither have you.”

Igin ran his hand over his thick unkempt moustache, “if they recouped and marched on us on the tundra, we wouldn’t have had a chance.”

“A handful of men can defend these walls.”

“We had to try. After you fell…” Igin seemed to regard her, seeing her again for the first time. “You once said even Neiz couldn’t keep you from seeing Orendotsky’s head roll.”

“I meant it.”

“I fear it’s for naught.” Igin turned to the palace, craning his head to see the wall’s top.

“Tell the men to stop trying to force the gate. Focus on staying alive, but make a show with the ram. Make the Orendotskys think we’re still trying to take down the gate.”

“You have a plan?”

Ana looked to the archers, “I need three soldiers. Hulga, Dremlin, and Arstof.”

“Dremlin fell on the tundra, and Arstof… isn’t whole.”

“Just Hulga, then. We’ll clear a path for the battering ram. Tell the men to be ready to break down the gate. No shields, no distractions. When the archers start to fall, the gate has to come down.”

“Yes, sir.” Igin called over a man and started relaying the orders.

Neiz stood behind Igin, Ana could see him over the old soldier’s shoulder. Neiz smiled, taking a long drag on his hookah. 

***

Hulga towered over Ana, a spear and shield on her back. They both had thick coils of rope with grappling hooks on the end. Together they made their way around the castle, crouching low among the mounds of bodies and banks of snow. The archers on the wall were focused on the main gate, they knew there wasn’t much of the rebellion left. An attack on the wall seemed folly, and it likely was.

Arstof waited for them, he crouched beside a mound of the dead. The older man stood, straight backed, and Ana saw what Igin had meant. Arstof’s arm was gone. Severed at the shoulder. A dozen spears were embedded in the ground beside him. He had insisted on helping, and though he might not be able to climb a rope, he could still throw a spear.

Ana and Hulga nodded to him, then approached the east wall. It was out of sight of the main gate. As they approached a guard passed on the wall overhead. He must have seen them, he leaned over the wall’s lip to squint through the falling snow. And Arstof’s spear pierced the man’s neck, sending him toppling backward. Someone would notice that, and then archer’s would be on the wall and Arstof would have to retreat from throwing distance lest he be riddled with arrows.

They twirled their grappling hooks, hurling them into the air. They arced over the wall, and with a screech of steel on stone, took hold on the merlons. They began to climb, pulling themselves up the wall.

Shouts from the other side. Another man looked past the wall, and a moment later Arstof’s spear struck him. Ana made out pieces of muffled shouts, “kill the spearmen,” “cut the ropes.” They climbed faster.

An Orendotsky soldier began sawing at the ropes, while a pair of archers scanned the ground for the “spearmen.” The first archer didn’t see the spear that struck him, but the second let his arrow loose. A moment later, another spear struck that man down.

“How many spearmen are out there?”

“Do they have a reserve?”

Ana’s lips twisted into a smirk.

More archers, but they crouched next to the merlons, fearful. Another spear struck the man sawing at Ana’s rope, then the one sawing at Hulga’s went down.

The archers let their arrows loose.

“I got one,” an Orendotsky said.

Ana reached the top of the wall, her hand over its lip. A sword raised over her head, ready to strike, but a spear sent the man spiraling backward. She pulled herself up.

Ana was on the wall.

An archer turned, knocked an arrow, and loosed. Ana spun, the arrow thudding into the shield at her back, and drew her blade. She ignored the archer and instead charged toward the man raising his blade to strike down the still climbing Hulga. The blade thrust for Hulga’s head, but Ana’s own sword forced it away. Before he could bring the blade around for another swing, Ana hooked her arm around his neck and spun him to face the first archer.

An arrow pierced into the Orendotsky soldier. The archer lowered his bow, mouth agape. Too late he turned his head to the sound of a whistling spear, it pierced his throat, a gout of red splattering across the smooth cut stone.

Another man charged Ana, but Hulga was there with her spear. She tangled his legs, sending him sprawling, his helmet tumbling away. She stomped on his head, brain matter and skull fragments scattered across the stone.

An archer screamed at the sight, fleeing.

Three remained, and they raised their bows. Ana and Hulga had unslung their shields, and now they stood shoulder to shoulder, shields up. They marched forward as arrow thudded into their shields of wood and steel. Twice the arrow point pierced through, threatening Ana’s face. Still, the two women marched.

One of the archers began to back away.

“Hold!” Someone shouted.

“There’s only two of them,” said another.

Hulga thrust her spear without lowering her shield. The blade sliced the archer’s arm, he stumbled back. Ana had grabbed one of Arstof’s spears, and now she thrust out as well. A slice here, a cut there, and the archer’s were stumbling back. One grew angry, with a cry he drew his sword and charged. Ana thrust her spear through his throat, it protruded from the back of his neck.

She kicked his body off the end of her spear. The other archer’s turned and ran.

“They’ll send more,” Ana said.

“We have time,” Hulga’s gripped tightened and loosened on her spear, “they’ll have trouble believing there are only two of us.”

“Good, better that they think we’re a squad. Anything to relieve pressure from the main gate.” Ana moved to the other side of the wall, the courtyard below bustled with activity. “They’ll be coming soon. Maybe if we can get Arstof—“

“He’s gone.”

Ana rushed to peer past the wall. Hunched over on his knees was Arstof, two arrows protruding from his chest.

A pit formed in her stomach. Is there a point to this if they all die? Neiz plucked a feather from one of the arrows. She looked away, and there Neiz stood atop the wall, kneeling down to caress one of the Orendotsky’s insignia. She had worn that insignia once, draped over steel plate, marching through the snows to the west.

Neiz exhaled smoke and it swirled around Hulga’s ankles, small spectral hands clinging to her fur boots.

“Come one,” Ana said, “we have to keep moving. We need to disrupt those archers so our men can break down the gate.”

 A squad formed in the courtyard below and began making their way to the parapet. They were coming for the rebels. Ana and Hulga took off at a run, darting along the wall to where the archers were concentrated on firing at the battering ram. Two archers didn’t see Ana’s and Hulga’s striking shields, they went toppling over the wall, arms cartwheeling uselessly. Thudding crunches resounded from the impacts.

The other archers twirled, aiming their bows at the two intruders. Both Ana and Hulga let their spears fly. Two more archers went down. Their shields were up as a cascade of arrows whistled past, their shields sang a war song with each collision. The two charged, drawing their swords, and closed the gap between themselves and the archers—who were forced to draw their own blades.

The archers weren’t prepared for close combat, all they had were blades, no shields, and were lightly armoured. Ana struck, digging her blade deep into on man’s chest. Another stabbed at her side, the blade sparked as it hit the steel of her chest plate. She thrust the hilt of her sword into his face, sending him reeling with a bloody nose.

The Orendotsky archers charged. They tried to rush the two women and overwhelm them. But Ana and Hulga had their shields up, and shoulder-to-shoulder on the narrow wall path they were an immovable wall. As the Orendotsky tried to pry their shields away, the rebels lashed out with their blades, cutting streaks of red into the archers.

Booming resounded up the wall, and the gate creaked and groaned.

Men in the courtyard began shouting.

Ana stabbed, a man stumbled, knocking another behind him and the two fell in a tangle of limbs.

Another boom.

Hulga thrust with her shield, but an archer had gotten around her, his blade dug deep into her thigh. Blood pulsed from the wound, too much blood. Hulga whirled, striking him in the throat with her shield. His larynx collapsed, and he gurgled, struggling to suck in air. 

More shouting from the courtyard.

Boom.

Hulga wavered, struggling to stay on her feet.

Ana marched, her blade a whirlwind of steel. Red arced through the air, bone cracked from her shield, and men cried out as they were struck down.

Boom.

Hulga fell, ashen faced, panting, beads of sweat on her brow.

A thunderous crack, a screech of steel. The gate collapsed. She heard men cry out below, followed by the clangor of steel. The rebels charged into the courtyard.

Ana tore a length of fabric from her tunic and bound Hulga’s wound. The big women wheezed, but a smile played at the edges of her lips.

“We did it,” Hulga grabbed Ana’s arm, “almost there, Ana, we’ve nearly done it.” Hulga’s grip loosened, and her eyes closed. Her chest rising and falling with the faintest of breaths.

Ana held Hulga’s hand. “We’ll do it, I promise.”

The Orendotsky retreated deeper into the palace. Ana marched to a lower parapet, and her soldiers finally saw her. Many grew silent, some whispered prayers, and others spoke of the Leopard who could not be felled. 

“It’s not over,” she called to them. “It’s not over until the Bear and all his cubs are dead.”

They cheered, bloodlust in their eyes. That was all they needed. The Leopard returned to them, and now they stood within the Orendotsky’s palace, its soldiers retreating. The rebels were beaten and bloodied, stomachs empty, limbs tired, but now they were fueled on faith.

They charged into the palace, searching out those that remained, killing all that bore the Orendotsky Bear.

Ana marched through the main hall. Massive double doors, stained glass embedded within, shone with the setting sun’s light.

She knew he would be waiting beyond those doors. He who had once bounced her on his knee, a child, and told her stories of the wilds. He who she had yearned to please while bearing the mark of the Bear.

She swung the doors open. The grand throne room was empty, light spilled in from the setting sun. The very top domed with stained glass, the floor slick marble tiles. And there he sat, the Orendotsky Bear, upon his throne of ivory and gold. He bore a cloak of bear fur, the bear’s head resting at his shoulder, its mouth open in a wordless roar. Orendotsky was a burly, barrel-chested man with dark hair that merged with his bramble bush beard.

His sword, unsheathed, rested across his knees. He smiled at her. She hated the flood of resentment that flowed into her. The feeling of embarrassment, mocking.

“Little doll,” he said. He had always called her that, a pretty thing. “You’ve finally come back to me. You made your point. Stop it. Now.”

“No.”

“No? Funny. Funny how now it’s no. But not when I gave you luxury. Not when I made you the most powerful Orendotsky in the east. Then, it was yes.

Ana was silent.

“No words? How far will you take this, is humiliating me not enough?”

Ana raised her shield and readied her sword. She scanned the room, his Imperators—personal bodyguards—were not there.

Orendotsky tilted his head. He seemed amused. But Ana could see the fear behind his eyes. Orendotsky raised his sword and took a step forward.

They circled. Slow measured movements, each waiting for the other to strike. Neiz took a long drag on his hookah, amusement shamelessly displayed on his features.

Don’t take too long, he said.

The Bear struck, trying to overpower her with his height and weight. Her shield took the blow, and she darted in with her sword, clipping him on the cheek. A testing strike from the Leopard.

Orendotsky growled, deep and guttural. He grabbed the edge of her shield, trying to pull it away. She thrust with her blade, he parried, and in the moment her arm went wide he slammed his forehead into hers.

Ana reeled, stumbling back. Black dots danced before her eyes. He reached out, fingers twisted into a claw, and grasped for her throat. A sliding cut streaked red across his hand. He pulled it close to his body. Ana thrust with her shield, putting her weight behind it. He stumbled, lost his footing, and fell.

Take your prize.

Ana thrust. Her blade dug deep into Orendotsky’s chest. She twisted, watching as agony and realization played on Orendotsky’s face. This is what she wanted. This was why she gave her soul to Neiz, for this moment. To see the pain of her father twisted on his face, to see the realization that his little doll was so much more.

***

Igin’s boots clomped through the grand hall. They were stained black with blood. Men ran at his side. They all froze as they entered the throne room. Sprawled on the tiles lay Orendotsky, the Bear himself. And beside him, on her knees, was Ana clutching the sword that pierced his chest. Her head lolled, her chest still.

“She did it,” Igin whispered. And then louder, “the Leopard killed the Bear.”

The rebels stood in silence. Hulga, aided by two others, approached Ana, knelt, and whispered a prayer. Others did the same, bowing their heads to her.

One of the men approached Igin and said, “what of the Imperators?”

“Let them run, there’s nothing they can do now.”

“One of the servants says they left with a boy.”

“So?”

The soldier took in a breath. “He is of Orendotsky’s blood.”

Igin brushed his moustache, looked to the sky, and then to Ana. “Find them, kill them.”

“Sir, even the boy?”

“In Ana’s own words, it’s not over until the Bear and all his cubs are dead.”