Winter’s Thaw

          Icicles shot up from the wet snow as Tabor let out a frustrated growl. He glared at the frozen spiderweb clinging to the pine tree, its chittering music filling the forest clearing, mocking his pain. He scraped his hands down his face and through his shimmering silver hair.

          He had weeks; weeks to get his first contribution for the Water Festival to work. Fists planted on hips and he took a few deep breaths. Kiel would have had the whole forest sparkling by now, but then Water Song had come more naturally to his best friend. Everything came more naturally to Kiel. Tabor’s chest squeezed as he remembered the Fire Fae explosion that had killed him three years ago. The anger and bitterness had never gone away.

          Tabor had to get this right. For Kiel’s sake.

          He took another steadying breath as he picked out a new patch of pine tree to practice on. He paused, then whistled out the Water Song command for the hundredth time. Nothing happened. His flexed arms crossed. Then delicate drops of dew began to collect on the needles, dripping down and connecting to gradually form a watery imitation of a spiderweb.

          “Yes!” He pumped a fist in the air in victory. With a quiet crack the spiderweb froze. His arm fell. His lips pinched. With a roar he stomped around the clearing smashing every infernal frozen spiderweb he’d made that afternoon. More icicles shot up in his wake, obeying his rumbling commands.

          “Looks like winter likes you.”

          He stumbled, then spun around the forest clearing until he spotted a wisp of red Fire Fae hair peeking out from behind a tree. His eyes narrowed.

          “What would you know about it? Spark?”

          She flinched at the slur and the wisp disappeared. He smirked. Fire Fae didn’t belong in the snow anyway.

          “I just noticed the snow tends to follow you.”

          Tabor frowned. Sure enough, it had started to snow again. He hadn’t heard the flakes’ tinkling melody over the booming of the icicles.

          “Wait, have you been following me?”

          After a moment, the wisp reappeared. “The Water Fae fascinate me.”

          Tabor’s hands curled into fists and he marched across the clearing. The scrawny Fire Fae girl cringed when he came around the tree. She couldn’t have been more than eight or nine, with so much bushy red hair he could hardly see her face. Had she even gone through metamorphosis yet?

          “And what exactly do you find so fascinating about us?”

          Two piercing blue eyes bored into him through a curtain of curls.

          “What? I think I deserve to know why you’re watching me.” He swiped a hand at the annoying flakes swirling around his head. A smirk flashed behind the red fluff. He glared and it disappeared.

          “All I know of Water Fae is what I’ve heard. I wanted to know if it’s all true.”

          His glare softened with concern. Had the Fire Fae been blaming Kiel for the explosion?

          “What have you heard?”

          The girl crossed her arms and jutted her chin out. “No better than what you’ve heard of us.”

          The twitchy smile growing on his lips froze. “What would you know about it? Have you even morphed yet?”

          “What does my metamorphosis have to do with it?”

          Tabor looked her up and down. “Not a thing.” With a growling purr, he sang icicles up from the snow to pin the girl’s clothes to the tree behind her. She tugged at them as panic widened her eyes. She was trapped and at his mercy. “Some of us don’t need to hear things to know what Sparks are like.”

          She flinched at the term again. “My name is Felicity.”

          “I don’t care, Spark. See some of us have first hand experience of the damage your kind cause.”

          She sneered. “And I thought some of you might be understanding.”

          “Oh, I understand plenty.”

          “Yeah? And what is it you understand?”

          He growled again and a new spike rumbled up to point at her middle. “I understand that a Spark killed my best friend.”

          She stared through red curls, then smiled wearily. His chest squeezed. Why did he feel like he’d just lost?

          “So it was you,” she whispered.

          “What was me?”

          “You’re the one who convinced the Guerri to punish the Fire Faerie.”

          Tabor crossed his arms. “Of course they punished him. He needed to be brought to justice.”

          Her chin fell. As her face disappeared behind red curls, he again felt the twinge of an argument he’d lost.

          “I take it no one told you what happened after he was exiled.”

          How did a pre-morph kid know so much about all this? He waited for her to continue. After a long pause, blue eyes reappeared through all that red.

          “The day after we left the village, I found my father in a creek, impaled on a spike of ice. It was the middle of summer. I was five years old.”

          Tabor’s stomach clenched.

          “Apparently someone didn’t think exile was enough punishment for an accident.”

          Tabor swallowed the bile rising in his throat a few times. For three years he’d shut out everything but the mourning. For three years he’d allowed his heart to freeze over. For three years he’d thought of nothing but his own anger. Only now did it occur to him to see it from another point of view. With a quiet purr the spikes melted away, setting the girl more firmly back on her feet.

          “I, uh …”

          She tugged on her now damp shirt, digging her toe into the snow. “Yeah.”

          The snow hushed its tinkling. The nearby creek paused its low warble. Even the trees, whose Earth Song he could sense but not hear, seemed to hold their breath. But how could he just let go of three years of anger and hate? His prejudice may have been proven unwarranted, but his best friend was still dead.

          “Who was it? Who killed your father?”

          She swept a hand through her curls and for the first time Tabor saw her face clearly. Sunken cheeks, clenched jaw, and blazing blue eyes reflected all his hurt and bitterness.

          “I don’t know. I’m only eight. Who’s gonna believe an eight year old spark?”

          Her glare seared his skin, burning away the edge of his anger. He growled a melody and swiped at the flakes collecting in his hair. The snow between them compacted with cracks and rumbles until a tiny flame made of ice sat at the girl’s feet.

          “I believe you. Felicity.”

          After a tense moment, she bent and lifted the sculpture in her small hands. She blinked a few times. The tiny smile that stretched her lips softened the harsh light in her eyes. He found himself smiling back.

          “Thank you.”

          “You’re welcome.”

          “I guess the Water Fae aren’t all bad.” She winked.

          He chuckled. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

          They nodded their goodbyes and he watched her disappear into the forest, vowing to ensure her family was cared for. It’s what Kiel would have done.

          As he returned to the clearing and the one frozen spiderweb he hadn’t smashed, he sighed. The world had made a lot more sense when he’d first made it. Water Fae were good, Fire Fae were bad. Now he was wiser, but more confused. He blew out another sigh and closed his eyes to refocus on making spiderwebs. At least those were still simple.

          Felicity’s soft smile floated up in his mind and he whistled out the command one last time. The dew and snow surrounding him answered, but he kept his eyes shut and continued whistling. The music grew and grew, melodies and themes layering on top of each other until the whole clearing crescendoed and Tabor ran out of breath. The music continued, though a bit subdued and he took a nervous breath before opening his eyes. His jaw dropped.

          The entire clearing sparkled and shone with so many watery spiderwebs, Tabor had no hope of counting them all.

#WriteWars

I recently took part in a fun game on Twitter called #WriteWars.


How it works is the organizer, Sam Baker @SamBakerWrites, has sorted the contributing writers into three different groups (Yellow Faction, Blue Faction, and Green Faction). On predetermined weekends she gives us a prompt with which to build a story.  For the next two days each group writes their own story on Twitter. At the end, whichever story is shown to be the most popular wins that individual battle. When the last battle is over in December, all the wins will be tallied and the #WriteWars champion crowned.


I’m one of four writers in the Yellow Faction and I was so proud of the story we put together (in two days, no less!) that I thought I’d post it here for all of you to enjoy. And if you’re on Twitter, be sure to show some love to Jack @MrGuiver, Laura J @ljrwritenow, and Laura G @LauraKudey whose contributions were invaluable. It was a group effort and wouldn’t have come together this well without them. And yes, our story won the first battle!

A bit of context before we begin:

I’ve written the story here as close to what it was on Twitter as I can, which means that nearly every line break indicates a new tweet. Some lines were split into two tweets though, so I’ve combined those. Otherwise it should read just like it does on Twitter.

I’ve also done a little editing to fix concessions made toward fitting tweets into 140 characters (this was before Twitter gave everyone 280 characters). That is the only editing I have done though, so each writer’s unique voice is still evident in their lines.

Lastly, remember that this story’s most impressive feature is the fact that four people wrote it from conception to final form in two days, and in an unconventional format. It’s not perfect, but given the circumstances I find it an impressive effort!

Now to the story.

#WriteWars Battle 1

The dawn broke through the rich velvet drapes, casting distorted shadows on the stirring figure buried in comfort.

Kelsea tucked the down comforter tighter as she tapped at the tiny screen, desperate to save her comrade before the day demanded her return to normal life.

Normal life? Kelsea considered her life. Is this normal, she wondered? How normal is it for a seventeen year old’s life to be in the hands of parents?

She heard a gentle knock on the door. “Kelsea, your dress fitting is at 10:00. Would you like breakfast in the dining room with your parents?”

I’d like to not go to a dress fitting for a wedding that shouldn’t ever happen! She wanted to scream. Make that, won’t ever happen.

She pounded the screen, slicing her lightning sword through the shoulder of the 10 ft. Mechdroid cornering Daewon.

The blade melted through metal. The robot’s arm fell, vibrating her screen as it hit the ground.

At least Daewon and his world allowed her moments of escape from her own disappointing existence. “Take that filthy beast!!”

The mechdroid fell at her feet and she let a cry of triumph pass through her lips. “Kelsea!!” Her mother shrieked.

Kelsea was strong enough to defend herself in one world, yet powerless in another. She needed to apply her battle skills on the home front.

Kelsea planted her feet on the floor and straightened herself, bracing for the real battle with her parents and their plan to marry her off.

“What’s for breakfast then?” Any starter that took the conversation away from ‘that dress’ would do for now.

“We need to keep your figure flat for the fitting, so your dad made a one egg white omelet with spinach and half a grapefruit.” Kelsea grimaced.

She stomped down the stairs with a grumble. The sooner she got it over with, the sooner she could get back to her conquest with Daewon.

“Nate, sound the horns and ring the bells, our daughter is up.” Shar called out in derision.

Nate turned to his daughter. “You look lovely honey, our young bride.” Shar wasn’t in such good spirits. “You’re late! Breakfast is cold.”

“It’s spinach and grapefruit mother. For pancakes and bacon I’d have moved a little quicker.” Her dad’s favourite might keep him on her side.

“Well, stop complaining and hurry up. Your sisters have left without you already. What good are bridesmaids without a bride?”

“That’s true though, Shar,” Nate offered with a chuckle. “It feels like a pancakes and bacon kind of day.” Kelsea smiled as her dad diverted.

Shar gave him a look Kelsea still couldn’t decipher and her dad clammed up. So much for him being on her side.

“You know mom, maybe it’d be best if I skipped that fitting today …” Her mom gave her a menacing glare. “Ah … well … I can do some some work here.”

Kelsea choked down the disgusting calorie counted meal and wondered how her virtual life had come to feel more real than this nightmare.

Suddenly she was startled by the phone ringing. Her dad answered, then quickly hung up. “Well, it looks like you’ll get your wish Kelsea. Your mom and I are needed to deal with a … well it’s an emergency, we’ll leave it at that. The fitting will have to be postponed.”

A triumphant shout leapt to her throat, but she clamped it down. “Oh? That’s too bad.” Her lips trembled.

Her parents pulled on coats, muttering about unmarked packages and incompetent mailmen. The door clicked shut and Kelsea raced to her room.

Kelsea raced through the castle, back to her beloved game, whispering, “Daewon, I’m on my way. Wait for me.” She had dodged the bullet of her parents, the dress fitting, and a future in a merged kingdom where her powers would be diluted for now.

Daewon greeted her warmly as she entered the game. Before she knew it they were assaulted by a hoard of green and blue cannibals!

“What took so long?” Daewon asked as he blasted another green droid. “Your parents still being pieces of goh-se?” Kelsea gasped.

“Language, Daewon!” He just chuckled and pounded a blue cannibal in the jaw.

Satisfaction filled his body as he saw the blue cannibal slump to the ground.

Warmth grew as the blue cannibal fed the flames of the battlefield. Kelsea’s cheeks changed from pink to red. She considered the reasons.

It was more than the heat of the rising blue-tinged flames. Her eyes met with Daewon’s dark chocolate eyes, the flames flickering nearby.

“Kelsea.” The name came out rough. That world might be virtual, but his fingers grasping for hers felt more real than the carpet beneath her feet.

“Hey,” came a voice from above. “In case you two lovebirds hadn’t noticed, we’re in a war here!” Kelsea looked up and smiled. Their golden angel had arrived.

At that moment they were snapped back to the fight as the drumming of blue hoards cresting the hill on the horizon echoed through the valley.

Only this time their golden angel had their back. The enemy surely didn’t have a chance with the three of them charging together!

Deawon thundered brazenly beside her and their friend, the golden angel, beat his wings fiercely from above. Kelsea gave a war cry, but then she saw it…to her right a second hoard appeared on the horizon. This one painted with green war paint. “Don’t worry, Kels, we’ve got this.”

“Which of them is closer?” Daewon asked, knowing that charging one hoard would expose their backs to the other.

Kelsea scanned the area, looking for anything that might help. Her smile grew mischievous as she spotted the droid arm she’d chopped off that morning. “I’ve got an idea.”

Grasping the droid arm with each hand, she split it into equal shards of metal. Tossing one to Daewon, eyes locked on his, they yelled “Yes!”

Together they were stronger. There’d be time for exploring that strength later. After defeating the blue cannibals and the green mutants.

The three chose to charge at the blue hoard first. Thunder clapped as armor met the enemies’ metallic scaley skin. Victory seemed eminent but Kelsea’s hope soon plummeted as green mixed with blue and red flashed before her eyes.

“Daewon!” she shouted. Before she could leap to his aid, Golden Angel dove. Time slowed as the blade aimed at Daewon sliced into the angel’s side. “No!” With her agonized shout, brilliant golden light exploded around her.

Green and blue melted away against the onslaught of her awakened power. Kelsea fell to her knees, nearly every drop of energy depleted.

The enemy finally ran in defeat, but instead of feeling the joy of victory Kelsea was consumed with anguishing pain and sorrow as she beheld her fallen friend. Daewon ran to her side and propped up the golden angel to help ease his wheezing lungs. “Why, why why!?” She shouted.

Golden angel grasped her hand and smiled through the pain. He whispered “I’m not going anywhere until we feast on those pancakes and bacon.”

Kelsea gasped. “Dad?” His smile turned sheepish. “Hey, sport.”

Golden Angel’s eyes blinked slowly, as if in Morse Code. Kelsea couldn’t decipher the message. Daewon crouched nearby, his eyes like saucers.

“Golden Angel is your father?” Daewon touched an escaping curl from Kelsea’s blonde braid. The angel’s eyes fluttered shut, he fell asleep.

Kelsea knew the healing power of rest. She leaned over, kissed her father’s cheek, & turned to face Daewon. Smoldering fires surrounded them.

What had once been bright blazes of blue & green, were now only crushed embers. In contrast, the fire between Kelsea and Daewon grew hotter.

Kelsea reached up curving her fingers around his neck, pulling his lips to hers. Their first kiss! The rest of the world faded for them both.

Until it invaded again. “Hey!” her father interrupted. They broke apart like they’d burst into flame. In some respects, they had.

“You couldn’t wait until I left first?” He shook his head, then stopped with a groan. “Dad?” Concern quickly replaced embarrassment.

“I’ll be fine, Sport. You two can close up the game.” He winked at Daewon. The boy rubbed the back of his neck as his cheeks reddened.

“I’ll head out and get this taken care of at home.” Kelsea frowned in confusion. They usually returned to base to refuel for the next battle.

“Sport, this isn’t just a game. It’s never been just a game.” He winced. “Sir?” Daewon sounded just as confused as Kelsea.

“I’ll explain everything when we all get back home. Now get on with it already.” Her dad gave them both another wink then faded away.

Alone together again, Kelsea wanted to kiss Daewon again. She reached for him but he grasped her hand and started walking. They felt crunching underfoot as they marched over the traces of blue and green burnt shards. They climbed together, matching steps up the mountain.

At the top he dropped to one knee to profess his love. Tears rolled down Kelsea’s cheeks. “My parents have promised me to Little Peter in marriage.”

Daewon should’ve been angry but the name Little Peter made him laugh. “Is that his name or a description?” Daewon smirked, still holding on.

Kelsea’s tears stopped as they laughed together. “I’m not marrying him! I won’t! And BOTH, to answer your question. Come back with me.”

“What do you mean by ‘back’?” Daewon stated with confusion. Kelsea’s face fell. “I thought, I hoped when I saw my dad … aren’t you real?”

“Of course I’m real! I’m as real as the blood on your chest, as real as the armies we just vanquished. I’m as real as the three moons there!”

Kelsea dropped Daewon’s hand and backed away. “No, don’t do this to me. I was sure of our love! How could you be simply a part of this game?”

With that, Kelsea removed her virtual head set and collapsed in sorrow and a flood of tears. She longed to die and be reborn into the game.

“Kelsea! If you don’t get down here and try on this dress right now, there will be hell to pay!!” Couldn’t her mother give her one moment?

She pounded the carpet, cursing whatever higher power had decided to torture her. Little Peter didn’t deserve her, no matter how advantageous the match might be. Kelsea stood and scrubbed the tear tracks from her face. She was done being her mother’s plaything.

Kelsea steeled herself to face her mother. If only Daewon was here for moral support. She only had two weeks until impending doom – the wedding.

“Where’s Dad,” Kelsea asked. She stood in front of her mother, hands poised on hips looking ready for another life-or-death battle.

“On an errand, I expect him back any time. Peter will be here for dinner.” Kelsea glared. “Fine, we can tell him over dinner – no wedding! Mother, I’m not letting you ruin my life. Little Peter may be coming for dinner, but that will be the end of this immensely awful idea!”

“Not this again. You know what this marriage means for our country.” Shar’s voice dripped with derision.

“I know it means becoming someone else’s slave and I’m not doing it.” The door banged open and her father stepped into the hallway. “Change of plans, dear.

“Shar, Kelsea doesn’t belong with Peter.” Kelsea looked like a death row inmate who had been pardoned by the governor. “Daddy! Thank you!”

“There’s someone else we all need to thank for his part on the battlefield, keeping Kelsea and I safe today,” Nate added, looking at the door.

Kelsea couldn’t believe her eyes as she followed her dad’s gaze. A rugged, tall, and familiar looking gentleman walked through the door.

His clothes looked foreign on him. She was used to battle armor. But the green tunic brought out his chocolate brown eyes. “Daewon?!?”

Daewon’s grin lit up Kelsea’s world like a Christmas tree. “But, how?” She exclaimed in rapturous joy.

“Your father is a true Golden Angel,” was his simple response as he produced a wrapped package from behind his back. “I have something for you.”

“Your presence is gift enough!”

Nate piped in, “I think you’re going to like this gift, Kelsea. Daewon found this on the corpse of a blue cannibal. A lost Christmas gift.”

He winked. “This present suites you immensely more than whatever girlish monster the intended target was.” He chuckled while Daewon waited.

Nate looked at him, got the message and nodded. Daewon took Kelsea’s hand. Shar began to weep as he got down on bended knee and opened the box.

Kelsea covered her mouth and began nodding before he could even ask the question. “Kel, will you -”

“Yes!” She threw her arms around him and sealed the promise with a fierce kiss. For the first time, her future was in her own hands. And it was bright as gold.

The End

I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as we enjoyed writing it. It was an exhilarating experience, for me especially because I’m such a hardcore outliner. I’m not used to starting and just seeing where the story takes me, so I learned a lot and look forward to seeing what we come up with in the next battles.

Did you like the story? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

Siren of the Void

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

The door to Sam ’n Joe’s bar slid away as the gruff captain approached and he stumped through. A quiet ding informed him that he’d passed the age scan. Ed grunted. That stupid ding just reminded him how old he’d gotten. And thinking about his age reminded him of how much he’d lost since leaving Earth. The people he’d lost. Well, one person. One impossible, one-of-a-kind woman.

He thunked into his usual seat at the end of the bar and rapped a knuckle against the grungy stainless steel. A holographic screen flickered on and he punched in his order, swiping his wrist over the scanner to pay. Most customers just told the smart bar what they wanted, but he never opened his bushy mouth if he didn’t have to. A minute later, a slot opened in the counter and his usual beer popped out.

“I swears over my memaw’s grave. She came floatin’ right up to the port window. I could hear her sweet singin’ all the way through the walls.”

Ed’s ears twitched. Without drawing any undue attention, he creaked his head around to peek at the unknown speaker. The young greenhorn waved his arms around in the small booth, nearly toppling his buddies’ drinks. They both grabbed the bottles and rolled their eyes at each other.

“At first I thought I was dreamin’ so I smacked myself to see if I’d wake up, but I didn’t so she must’a been real. She looked like a ghost woman only the most beautifulest woman I ever did see.”

His buddies turned to each other, then burst out laughing. Ed turned back to his beer with a twist to his lips. They didn’t know what they were laughing at. For that matter, neither did the greenhorn. Most beautiful woman, indeed. If the kid had seen her on the other side of the barrier, he’d have dropped dead of shock. Ed nearly did the first time he’d seen one of them in their incredible, natural form.

Her name was Savensa and she was the reason he’d stayed out in space longer than any other miner. Not long after getting fired at the bar back on Earth, he’d heard of an asteroid mining company seeking entry level workers. After all the jobs he’d lost, space had started to look like his last chance to do something fun. The novelty had worn off almost as soon as he’d gotten out there.

Then she’d found him.

He’d been out on an unauthorized spacewalk, watching the stars, trying to manufacture some semblance of adventure. She appeared out of nowhere and he nearly shit himself. She was glowing and hazy and a lot of her wasn’t even visible. Most of her was sort of bluish, but he could see traces of other bright colors, too. Like the greenhorn had said, she looked like a beautiful ghost. When their eyes met, his blood flowed south and his brain pretty much shut down. She cocked her head curiously and he got lightheaded, like that one time he’d drunk an entire bottle of rum in one night.

Then she disappeared. He blinked and looked around stupidly, as if there was a corner somewhere she could have ducked behind. He nearly emptied his oxygen tank waiting for her to appear again, but she never did.

After that, Ed made sure to get as many spacewalks as he could. Weeks went by, but the need to see her again never faded. If anything, it grew stronger and stronger the longer he waited. She appeared a few more times after that, but it was always too brief. All his free time he spent fantasizing about her, hearing her voice, touching her skin, tasting her lips. She was driving him mad.

He’d snuck out while the rest of the crew slept when she appeared that final time. He blinked a couple times, not quite trusting his own eyes. There was more of her this time, more definition. Her arms ended in fingers instead of wispy trails and her legs … well, that’s about when his brain shut down again.

Her head cocked and a ridiculous grin spread across his face. Then she spoke. It was like a jolt to his spine, so beautiful it struck him like lightning. He couldn’t understand any of it, but that didn’t stop him from reaching for her. His whole body ached to touch her, to hold her.

Her eyes widened as he neared. That tempting mouth started babbling a mile a minute and her hands fluttered around anxiously. All he could think was how adorable she looked, but he held back, not wanting to spook her. He waited as her rambling tapered off. She met his eyes, then seemed to take a deep breath and tentatively took his hand.

He felt a brief tugging before being sucked through her and into unconsciousness.

Later on he learned that he’d been pulled through the barrier to her alternate universe. When he came to, it was to smooth, bright colored trees which turned out to be huge strands of fur. Light fluff all over the ground that he eventually learned was dander. But what he’d truly never gotten used to was Savensa.

She’d appeared seconds after he’d first opened his eyes in that world. As if the world itself wasn’t amazing enough, seeing her in full form had nearly knocked him out. She’d begun rambling and fluttering again. And it looked so damn cute on her, he didn’t bother to check if he could breathe the air before ripping off his helmet and covering that pretty, golden mouth with his own. She froze, and he silently cursed himself for being too forward. Then like chocolate held too long in his hand, she melted against him, filling in all his cracks.

He swept his fingers into her glittering, silver hair, groaning when they tingled like cold hands under hot water. He pressed her to him, clutching a fistful of her petal soft dress. Finally holding her, finally kissing her; it felt like coming home. Which only made their abrupt separation some time later more painful.

He still had no answers for why he’d been ripped back through the barrier so soon after coming through. He hadn’t had nearly enough time with her. But he hadn’t given up so easily. He’d spent every minute since leaving her world looking for another way back in. Every spacewalk he lingered in the hope that she would appear. Every quadrant of the system in which they’d met he’d mapped and scoured.

And now, after all the years, he found himself listening to a bunch of knuckleheads scoffing at a fantasy he’d never stopped believing in.

He knocked back the last drips of his beer and tossed the empty bottle into the smart bar’s recycle chute. His sore muscles strained as he stood and turned to the greenhorn and his buddies.

“I hear you saw a siren of the void. Mind tellin’ me where?”

They all blinked up at him stupidly. After a quiet minute, the greenhorn stuttered out the coordinates. Ed nodded his thanks and stomped back out of the bar, suddenly tempted to throw out a fist pump. He was finally going home.

We’re Going To The Zoo

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

I yanked on the old Honda Odyssey’s sticky sliding door and nearly hit the pavement when my four year old launched himself out of the car.

“Grant!”

He skidded to a stop and I blinked in surprise. Apparently he’d actually heard my voice instead of the gibberish his kid filter usually turned it into. He turned around, staring at the asphalt rather than at me.

“Do you want to see the surprise, or not?”

He nodded.

“Then tell me what the one rule is.”

He looked up at me with eyes so droopy he looked like a Precious Moments figurine. My heart squeezed, but I stood my ground.

“Stay with Mommy.”

“That’s right. Now, do you think you can follow that rule?”

He nodded, transforming from a Precious Moments into a bobblehead.

“All right then. Let me get your sister out of the car and we’ll be ready to go see the surprise.”

“Yay!”

After ten frustrating minutes wrestling with the stroller, we were ready to go to the zoo. Grant danced with one hand on the stroller while Eloise bounced and squealed. While we inched our way through the line, I shook out my watch and swiped to the right app. We stepped up to the gate and I held out my wrist to the admittance scanner. The little box squawked its approval and the bars slid away, allowing us through. As I shoved the stroller into the park, a flashback of my pudgy six year old hand holding out a paper ticket to the gate attendant popped into my head. A smile tugged at my lips.

“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

The memory was instantly replaced by the huge crush of people Grant was trying to yank us into.

“Okay, okay. Stop pulling on the stroller. Do you want to see some animals first or should we go straight to the surprise?”

“Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

I rolled my eyes. Asking this kid to wait was like giving him a death sentence.

“All right, all right. Let’s go.” I bent to retrieve the tiny stuffed unicorn Eloise had thrown over the side, then pointed the stroller toward the aviaries.

Our path took us past the mountain goats, arctic foxes, the zoo’s lone pegasus, and finally a bunch of exotic birds I never remembered the names of. Eloise bounced in her seat and clapped every time she spotted a new animal, but we didn’t stop at any of them. I did promise her we’d come back after the surprise, though.

As we approached the aviary, more people crowded the path until we had to stop. Grant danced with impatience as we inched closer, but thankfully didn’t pick up on any of the excited chatter around us.

After enduring the test of patience Grant had hoped to avoid, we reached the stairs leading to one of the aviary’s viewing platforms. We both groaned. The entrance was as packed as the walkway outside.

“Where’s the surprise, Mommy? Are we almost there?”

“Yes, we’re almost there. I promise, just a little longer.”

A tinny voice drifted toward us from the platform, repeating all the info everyone had been discussing while we’d waited. I rolled my eyes as Grant failed to hear the recording repeat the creature’s name several times. When we reached the top of the stairs, bypassing the maglev ramp for regular strollers, I was relieved to see the platform was not nearly as crowded as I’d expected. As we neared the windows, we began to see more trees and bits of cliff through the spaces between people. I grinned in anticipation of Grant’s reaction.

“Is the surprise in there? Is it? Is it?”

I chuckled.

“Yep. They’re in there somewhere.”

Grant pushed forward, stretching his arm, still gripping the stroller, as far as it would go. We weaved our way through until, finally, we were right in front of the window. I panned my gaze back and forth over the whole forested enclosure, trying to spot them while Grant tugged on my sleeve asking where they were. It took a couple passes, but I spotted them by a pond on our right.

“There, Grant!” I pointed and he squashed his nose against the glass.

“See them? By the pond.”

“Yeah,” he said, looking in the opposite direction.

“No. Grant, over there. Look where I’m pointing.”

He glanced back at my outstretched arm, then followed it to the pond.

“Oh.” He frowned. “What are they?”

My arm drooped. “What do you think they are?”

“Um, Iguanas? Lizards?”

“Close.”

“I don’t know, Mommy. You tell me.”

I sighed. “They’re dragons, Grant. Like in your favorite bedtime story, remember?”

He frowned again. I watched him for a moment, trying to figure out his response. I’d thought he’d be more excited. Then I looked back at the dragons. Perhaps if I could see them the way he did, I’d understand.

There were three of them, all about the size of a Labrador. They were all pale brown, almost tan, with dark brown stripes across their backs. I could see how their size and coloring might be underwhelming. Then one of them opened its wings and several people around us ooh’d and aah’d. While most of it was colored for camouflage, its wing membranes were a collage of varying shades of red. Then another dragon growled before spitting fire across the water at its third sibling. I glanced hopefully back down at Grant, but he’d backed away from the window and was staring at something on the other side of the aviary.

It was my turn to frown. They were dragons, for crying out loud! Didn’t every kid dream of flying one? I know I did when I was Grant’s age. And that was back when everyone still thought they were mythical.

“Let’s get a little closer.”

He nodded absently and I nudged the stroller toward the right side of the window. At least Eloise was enjoying herself. But she bounced and clapped every time the trees moved, so it was a bit of a hollow victory.

We squeezed right up to the glass and discovered that the fire-spitting dragon’s wings were covered in swirls of bright green. I nearly sighed at their beauty. Grant started playing with another kid his age, oblivious to the wonder of mythical beasts come to life. Then I did sigh.

“All right, Grant. What do you want to see now?”

He continued running around with his new buddy. My voice had turned into gibberish again.

“Grant! We’re leaving.”

That he heard. He squealed in alarm and rushed after me, throwing a quick goodbye over his shoulder. As we stepped back into the sunlight I asked Grant where he wanted to go next.

“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”

My brows lifted at his sudden resurgence of enthusiasm. I shrugged. It would be selfish to let my disappointment about the dragons affect the rest of the trip. I pulled up the map on my watch and, after swiping around for the right path, pushed the stroller in the right direction.

We took our time getting there, stopping to let Eloise shake her little hands at the other animals, as I’d promised. I knew we’d reached the tigers when Grant shouted.

“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”

I stood and watched him as he pressed his face to the gate bars. The tiger didn’t seem particularly amazing. Orange, black stripes, claws and teeth. Nothing I hadn’t seen a hundred times.

Yet somehow, to my little boy this simple animal elicited all the wonder the dragons failed to conjure with their best performance. Somehow, what appeared ordinary to me was, to him, extraordinary.

The Currents Of Life

 

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the abridged audio narration at the podcast 600 second saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

 

Somewhere above the endless sparkling blue of the sea floated a regal osprey. It had been a long exhausting day of hunting and he had nothing to show for it. The summer was almost over. He could feel winter’s encroaching fingers clawing at him more and more each day. The once abundant buffet below him was now no more than scraps left over by the sharks and dolphins. Scanning the glittering, undulating waters beneath him, he spotted plenty of loose kelp and bits of flotsam, but only the smartest fish must have been left because he couldn’t spot any lingering near the surface.
For a moment he allowed the flow of the wind to distract him. He tipped his wings just slightly and spun in a wide, slow circle, rising in altitude. Avid bird-watchers might have contrived some complex purpose for the movement – from the precise angle of the wings to the exact height to which he rose – but to the casual observer he appeared to have done it simply for the enjoyment. Casual observers were right more often than they realized.

He leveled off and, with a sense neither bird-watcher nor casual observer could ever be aware of, he zeroed in on one small spot of ocean. To untrained eyes it would seem identical to every other watery ruffle. To this predator, it was a target. He tucked his wings and sank, cutting through the wind and spray like an arrow.

A snap of suddenly outstretched wings.

A splash.

The fish wriggled and squirmed in the hunter’s claws. Somewhere in its tiny brain it was aware of the great peril, but that awareness didn’t leave enough room for devising a way of escape. All it could hope for – though there wasn’t any room left in its brain for hoping either – was the slim possibility of a larger predator attacking the owner of the claws wrapped around its slimy body.

Then a loud screech split the air and the very thing the little herring would have hoped for – had it had any brain left to hope with – happened. A massive albatross swooped in on the now less regal looking osprey and the fish was free.

Another splash and the herring took a deep breath. The cool, tangy water flooded through its tiny body while salt, algae and other unwanted bits filtered out through its gills. It twitched through the water for a few seconds as its various systems got back into working order after the shock of all that stark air. Then it simply floated down toward a small bed of coral where it would hide for the foreseeable future. However, given that it was incapable of foreseeing further than a few seconds, it was unlikely to remain in hiding for very long.

The trip south was mostly unremarkable. The shallow water held not much more than algae and plankton and as the herring floated down, the sea simply grew murkier with added particles and minerals. Then it began to swim away from shore, following some mysterious instinct that told it where its safe haven was. And as it pushed further and further out, the murkiness began to fade away.

When the view finally cleared, it honed in on a small cluster of coral and mollusks a few yards away, though measurement was far beyond its limited capabilities. Had its brain capacity been slightly larger it might have been able to appreciate the vast beauty surrounding it. Its little heart might have warmed at the undulating shades of blue and green beckoning the courageous to explore. It might have sighed at the vibrant colors covering the ocean floor, the sandy bottom teeming with life of all kinds. It might have paused to take in the gentle sway of the kelp and seaweed as the tide pulled it to and fro. Perhaps it would have taken a scenic route, past all the sea star and muscle encrusted rocks and stopped to chat with the hermit crabs digging in the sand.

As it was, this particular fish was not equipped with the necessary brain synapses to appreciate, or even notice, the surrounding magnificence. In fact, it was so oblivious to its own surroundings, it failed to spot a new predator lurking in the shadows. Though, in defense of the simple fish, poor eyesight could have easily lead it to believe that the turtle shell was really just another rock.

The poor thing didn’t even make it past the first outcropping.

For such a large creature, with little to no streamlining, the sea turtle was remarkably fast. She was hailed as the best hunter in her bale. The rest of them were content with whatever food was easiest to get. She always went for the best first. The tough, stretchy mollusks couldn’t go anywhere, so she risked nothing by starting with the crunchy, textured fish.

Of course, once she snapped up the herring, the rest of the fish caught on and scattered, hiding in all the cracks and crevices she couldn’t reach. Oh well. She’d come back for them another day. Most fish had terrible memories anyway.

She yanked up a couple of the boring mollusks to finish off the meal, then with a swipe of her flippers, spun up and away from the rocks, heading to the surface for a quick breath. When she dove back under, she turned her tail east and swept toward her favorite ledge. She was going to take a nap.

Unlike the fish she’d just eaten, this dark green turtle took in the sweeping vistas around her as she stroked through the water. She luxuriated in the feel of the cool currents rushing over her face and flippers. She even spun around a few times, creating currents of her own.

Then the edge of a huge reef came into view to her right and she slowed. At this distance it was difficult to spot any critters along the sandy bottom, but she knew they were there. Only the smallest and least nourishing creatures lived that close to the nearby trench, though. She turned slightly and noticed a new patch of kelp growing just a few yards away. Another swipe of her flipper and she sailed toward the swaying plants. Closing her eyes, she let the soft strands glide along her belly as she swam over them. A cloud of rockfish swarmed out and she snapped up a few of the slower ones.

After one more dip to the surface, she turned back to the reef and her ledge. It was closer to the trench than most would be comfortable with. That trench hid many large predators. She probably should have been more wary, but she found the solitude peaceful. Besides, she’d never actually gone into the trench.

But she didn’t need to go in the trench to be spotted. The ledge itself might have been well hidden from larger, stronger predators, but she simply wasn’t prepared for the few predators smarter than her.

As she approached the reef, a strange untethered harpoon shot through the water. Before she could look up to determine the source of the strange eddy, it sank into her neck and through her body to pierce her heart.

She was just inches away from her ledge.

Her lifeless body sank to the sea floor, tracked by a hidden pair of strange intelligent eyes. With a speed surpassing that of the odd harpoon, the strange creature darted out of the shadows to trap the turtle in a small fishing net. His tail seemed normal enough, though one didn’t usually see a dolphin shaped tail covered in scales. With the dexterity of an octopus, the creature’s crustacean-like arms quickly wrapped up his kill. His oddly shaped head turned from side to side, seemingly watching for larger predators. Much like the turtle, his head looked as if it had been mashed onto the end of his body. No tapering, no streamlining, aside from the three fins on top with the center one trailing down his back.

But none of that detracted from his superior hunting abilities. Though most predators were larger than him, his species were by far the smartest in the sea. Smarter even than the dolphins, some believed. Superior to the sea turtle, the herring, perhaps even the osprey and the albatross. But the undines were still a simple species. Smart certainly, but lacking the passion and ambition that would drive them to seek to rule.

Not a single creature could become so elevated that a greater predator couldn’t knock them back down. All who lived in the sea or depended on it knew this. And so, as the hunters went their separate ways, the journey of life, the fight for survival, went on.

The Apple Tree

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

    Flowers and leaves swayed in the breeze as Ann strolled through the gardens. It had been a lovely morning, until something hard landed on her head.

    “Ow.” She bent to pick up the bright green apple, then peered up into the branches above her. She sucked in a gasp.

    “Nic, what are you doing up there?”

    The prince perched in a most undignified manner on one of the thicker branches of the large apple tree. He grinned sheepishly.

    “Um, picking apples?”

    Her eyes narrowed. “Picking apples.”

    “Uh, yes.”

    She stared at him for a moment.

    “Any particular reason you are picking them instead of one of the gardeners?”

    “Um … uh …”

    She crossed her arms, waiting for his poppycock excuse.

    “Okay, so I’m not just picking apples.” After darting glances around them, he launched into his explanation, which was, indeed, poppycock. Then he had the gumption to invite her to help.

    “No!” she replied, her forehead wrinkling in consternation.

    “But it’ll be hilarious.”

    “Nic, your pranks are always hilarious to you and annoying to everyone else.”

    “I know. That’s what makes them so funny. Oh, come on, Ann. Don’t be such a stick in the mud.”

    Her hackles rose at the insult. She shot him one more glare, then hiked up her skirts and climbed up after him. He let out a quiet whoop in triumph.

    “I will have you know,” she spat when she reached the branch he was perched on. “I’ve seen plenty of ‘sticks’ flower quite beautifully when simply ‘stuck in the mud.’”

    Nic just rolled his eyes and continued picking. She wrinkled her nose at him and started pulling fruit from the branches as well. He could be a pest sometimes, but he was her best friend. Her only friend. When it seemed like all the world was out to get her, he could always make her laugh. And even she had to admit, his little prank would be funny if they could pull it off. Soon, they’d created a sizable pile of apples at the base of the tree.

    Then a quiet cough came from below and they both froze.

    “Something tells me you’re not picking those apples for the pies Miss Bridget is making for the feast tonight.”

    Ann gulped. It was her father. She knew helping Nic with his prank was a bad idea.

    She dared a peek down toward him. Would she have to scrub the dishes? Go to bed with no dessert? Surely he wouldn’t make her attend the ball tonight. That would be horrid. Her brows pinched in confusion upon finding him staring at their pile of apples. His hands rested on his hips and she couldn’t see his face.

    “Uh,” she heard Nic say above her. Her head whipped up in panic. “Sure. Sure it is. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

    “Uh-huh,” her father replied skeptically.

    Finally he looked up at them. His lopsided smile baffled her, but not nearly as much as the wink he gave her before turning around and disappearing out of sight. She sat frozen. Should she stay and take the punishment, or try to escape and risk making it worse? She didn’t have enough time to answer the question, though, as her father returned within moments, carrying two huge boxes. As he set them down she was able to peek inside. What she saw only confused her more.

    Nic gasped and when she looked up, his expression was all delight and excitement. She looked back down at her father, who gave her another wink. She looked back at the boxes. Then, as her father began to help with their mischief, she suddenly understood and nearly let out a chirp of laughter. Sometimes being naughty could be fun.

    It took them most of the morning to finish picking all the apples, then a good bit of the afternoon to get through the contents of the boxes. They were all exhausted and sweaty by the time they were done, but they looked up at the tree in pride. Her father held the boxes, now containing the apples they’d picked, Ann carried more apples in her flower baskets and Nic propped his hands on his hips.

    “This is going to be epic,” Nic whispered.

    A creaking in the distance spurred them into action and they all raced back to the rose covered trellis they’d decided to hide behind. The apples were tucked underneath a particularly large rhododendron and they all crouched by the opening in the trellis, Ann and Nic on the left and her father on the right. Just then, Miss Bridget came bustling into view carrying a box much like the ones Ann’s father had brought, only this one was empty. Ann glanced up at Nic and smothered a snicker as his face turned red from suppressed laughter. She turned to her father on the other side of the path and he gave her another wink before turning back to watch Miss Bridget.

    They all held their breath as the cook reach the base of the tree and set her basket on the ground. She straightened, peered up into the branches … and gasped.

    “Pears? Pears?! When did my apple tree start growing pears?!”

    At that point they were clutching stomachs and biting fists to keep silent. The shock and befuddlement on Miss Bridget’s face made all the effort entirely worth it. The ties her father had found blended so well with the branches, no one would know with a cursory glance that the pears weren’t indeed growing on the apple tree.

    Miss Bridget stumbled back a step and made the Saint’s sign of protection against evil and Nic let a snort escape, apparently unable to hold it in any longer. Miss Bridget’s gaze snapped in their direction. Ann gulped and glanced at her father with a worried frown. Would he abandon them? He looked back at her and his eyebrows rose as if to say ‘oops, I guess she caught us.’ Relieved, she returned it with a grin and a shrug.

    Miss Bridget marched right up to them, slamming her fists onto her hips. Nic guffawed in renewed laughter and fell onto his behind, wrapping his arms around his middle, tears streaming down his face.

    “Think it’s funny, do you?” She glared at Nic and Ann, then turned and gasped in surprise to find Ann’s father. He gave a guilty shrug, trying and failing to appear contrite.

    “Not you too, milord! What’s gotten into you?”

    “My humblest apologies, madam,” he replied, rising and giving her a polite nod. “I believe the apples you seek are beneath the rhododendron there.”

    She harrumphed and retrieved the apples, turning to march back to the kitchen. The three miscreants peered at each other, not sure what they were expected to do. Then they all jumped as Miss Bridget shouted back at them without breaking stride.

    “Quit lollygaggin’ and get all those pears back where they belong and report to the kitchen.”

    Ann and Nic peered up at Ann’s father.

    “We’d best do as she says. You know how fond the king is of that woman’s cooking.”

    So, the three of them spent the rest of the day ‘picking’ pears and baking in the kitchen. And when one of those hard won apples somehow ended up thumping Nic on the head, Ann decided it was the best day ever.

An Ill-fated Scarf

(For anyone interested, there is an audio recording of this piece, narrated by Mariah Avix, which can be found through the podcast 600 Second Saga at insani-x.com)

Ann poked her head out the door to the castle gardens.  Her eyes widened as they adjusted to the darkness.  She tiptoed out and shut the door behind her.  The combined scents of lavender and sweet pea wafted toward her and her nose twitched in appreciation.

Cheery laughter drew her attention to her goal.  Just one look at the pretty gowns, then she’d sneak back to her rooms to prepare for the birthday celebration.  Nana would never know she was gone.  She turned toward the courtyard, creeping from shadow to shadow.

Finally, she crouched behind the large sweet pea covered trellis that bordered the fire lit courtyard.  All the ladies.  All the gowns.  And even prettier than her eight year old heart could have dreamed.  Everything sparkled, like they were all floating on a sea of diamonds.  A sigh escaped her lips.

A squeeze on her upper arm was her only warning before she was yanked onto her backside.  She peered up toward the sky and crumpled in on herself when she saw who stood above her.

Princess Stella was several years older than her and much taller, so from Ann’s vantage point, cowering at her feet, Stella practically loomed.

“Spying on the higher class, orphan?” she sneered.  “Hoping to dig up some dirt?  Or perhaps you planned to soil the whole occasion with your lowly presence.”

Ann stammered.  Surely Stella knew Ann had been invited, didn’t she?

“Hey, girls,” the princess called over her shoulder.  “Look what I found.”

Ann clambered to her feet as Stella’s jewel encrusted friends joined them in the shadows.  “I h-have as m-much right to be here as you.”

“Ha, we’ll see about that.  Ladies, how much would you say that scarf is worth?”

Prices were shouted out, each more outrageous than the next and Ann’s hands darted up to cover the glittering fabric that concealed her hair and ears.  Stella smirked and held up a hand to quiet the group.

“Certainly more than a petty orphan could afford, wouldn’t you say?”

This was met with snickers and jeers.

“It w-was a gift, from my father.  He’s the k-king’s Ambassador.”

The snickers elevated to chuckles and guffaws.  Stella’s brows rose in mock surprise.

“Oh, is he now?” Stella mocked, glancing over her shoulder at her co-conspirators.

Ann’s eyes began to sting.  Stella’s eyes narrowed to slits and her lips quirked up on one side.  Ann decided in that moment that she must have been a demon dressed in the princess’s body.  Stella was the only one in that courtyard who knew who she was, but Stella would go to her grave before admitting their acquaintance in public.

“Nellie, what is the punishment for stealing?”

Ann’s stomach turned to sludge.

“For a first offense, cutting off the hand.”

“Well, then.  It looks like you have a choice, orphan.  Give me the scarf, or suffer the consequences.”

Ann gasped and clutched the scarf tighter to her head.  “But I didn’t steal it.  My father gave it to me.”

“Hand it over, or I’ll call the soldiers.”

She shuddered.  She’d overheard stories, seen the soldiers training.  Stella was a kitten compared to them.  Ann lowered her hands to the knot at the nape of her neck, but paused before untying it.

Her father would be so disappointed if she lost another gift.  And Ann was too ashamed to admit that Stella was taking them from her.  Picturing his downcast face as he learned of her missing scarf, her gut clenched.  She’d had enough.

Ann took a deep breath.  She met Stella’s smug stare with icy resolve.  She lowered her hands.  Then spun and ran.

Shouts and crunching footsteps followed her, but she knew the gardens better than any of them.  She was going to beat Stella this time.

She jumped over daffodils, ducked around azalea’s and climbed over short trellises, avoiding the paths altogether.  She paused beneath some draping wisteria and held her breath.  A sharp crack to her left startled her and she stumbled onto the path.  Her foot crunched on gravel, giving away her location.

Panicking, she pushed her way through a row of unruly forsythia and stumbled into the courtyard.  She paused as several pairs of eyes turned to her in surprise.  The sparkly gowns she’d admired moments before, now surrounded her in flurries of glitter.

Then a rustling and shouting from behind made her jump and turn.  A few girls from Stella’s posse tumbled out of the forsythia and spotted her.  Ann bolted for the courtyard’s main doors, ignoring the shouts of the guests.

She didn’t make it more than a few steps, though, when she spotted Stella from the corner of her eye.  The princess charged straight at Ann.  Her feet flew, but she wasn’t fast enough.  Ann felt a sharp tug on her scalp and her feet slipped as Stella yanked the scarf from her head, pulling out a handful of pins and hair along with it.

Her heart dropped into her sludgy stomach as gasps surrounded her, followed by an eerie silence.  Ann turned to see Stella standing frozen.  Stella stared at her like Ann’s eyeballs had fallen out of her head.  Her silver scarf dripped from the princess’s fingers.

She’d always known she looked a little odd, that her hair and ears were a little different from everyone else.  But she’d always thought of her oddities like having a large nose or being unusually short.  Something she could be teased about, but nothing more.

Tonight, as she stared back at the horrified faces surrounding her, she finally noticed what her father had never told her.  The real reason he’d always made her wear her scarves.  Why she’d been privately tutored all these years.

Not a single head in that crowd bore green hair, nor did a single ear show the slightest hint of a point.

Her throat tightened more and more with each achingly silent second that passed.  Then sharp footsteps drew her attention to the courtyard doors.  Her father plowed through the doorway and stumbled to a stop as his terrified gaze landed on her.  Her sludge soaked heart wrung itself dry.  Then a gentle zephyr plucked the scarf from the ground and as it drifted past her, Ann desperately wished she could follow it to the twinkling stars.