First Place: Steph
When I was fifty, and the prime of my youth was just beginning to take hold, I was more in tune with the heart’s moral dictions than any solid ground in the antithesis of Logic. The times looked upon my erratic sentiments with contempt, for I was, to be certain, not more than a young boy. When a fit of despair (a common guest in the house of my mind) seized me, I was sent off to the wood to “level out.”
“Fen,” my mater would say warningly, “better find yourself a place to level out.”
On one such occasion, I was sprinting along the narrow dirt path, trying to leave my anger behind me, to abandon the hunger for a dispute back with Mater, back with the neighbor and his self-assured Regent son- oh but that pompous little leech! My ears shot up in contempt, and I lowered my head, running faster and faster, my bare feet a reddish blur beneath me. Level out, level out, level out.
I was dimly aware of the weather turning sour above me, the fine summer sky darkening, the bizarrely violent shaking of each tree’s leaves, the uneasiness in the air. I was dimly aware, but my heart’s fury compelled me not to take much note. Leagues away, Mater was calling frantically, “They’re coming! Oh, Fen, Fen! They’re coming!” For she knew not how far I dared venture.
Thunder crackled overhead, but still I heeded it not. Only when a bolt of lightning crashed to earth feet from me did my muddied feet falter. I crumpled in shock, gasping for air. Leveled out, I said to myself. I glanced skyward and did a double-take.
I had never seen one of them before.
She was just a babe, miniscule, round-cheeked and sure. Her wide eyes, such a radiant violet, held mine and did not let go. Her step was graceful, for a babe’s.
“Cherubin,” I began politely, but she halted me, a finger to her lips. I bowed my shaggy head in assent.
Watching with tremulous surprise, I saw her extend a hand, moving ever closer to my folded form.
“Me?” I asked, unsure. She nodded, shaking out her sunny locks.
With power that seemed to come from deep within me, I righted myself, never taking my ocher eyes off hers.
“Fennel fox,” she deemed with all the dignity of a Regent though the articulation of a youngling.
I reached her hand and clawed at it desperately. Her slender fingers closed around the sharpened ends of mine. And then we were running, gliding to the Far Edge. The tips of grass skimmed over my feet, gently brushing dirt off, cleansing me inside and out. The vegetation grew clear, and I knew we had reached the spot I was never to cross.
“Cherubin, please!” I cried out, but her grip merely tightened.
“All is well,” she said in a different tone, hypnotic, sensual. “You’ve leveled out, my dear fennel.”
“I beseech you, I go no further!”
Yet she would not yield, and we tarried on, the tips of our toes just kissing the earth now. I made promises, then, to Mater, to the neighbor’s son, to all the Regents. I avowed to be their Good Fen, to put a cap on my transient emotions. I would be perpetually leveled out, if this could all be a night-vision, some phantasm of the storm.
Her little hand loosened and I thought, Oh thank you!
We had reached The Fable. A fortitude of rock, rising up into the air of their own accord, a tall pinnacle with a blaring yellow light at its conclusion. Every bolt of lightning seemed to hit just at the structure’s peak, crashing with the force of Fae.
“Fae!” I screamed. Her countenance dimmed at the hated name, her irises turning darker, lines appearing under her eyes, her cheekbones hollowing out.
Her voice was harsh then, all her words harsh and clipped.
“It won’t be long now, fennel fox. The Fae are coming, and they’ve sworn to make bones out of you.”
Second Place: Kristen Smith Selleck
. Twenty-seven minutes left of life, and in the afternoon light that found its way through the cathedral roof of the forest, all was green and golden. I could breathe at twenty-seven minutes.
The druids were in the woods that day, waiting for sundown to begin the solstice party. They were thoroughly modern druids, and spent their time waiting in waterproofed octagon-like tents that kept safe their laptops and cell phones. I had already seen one of their less-than-enthusiastic offspring shed his robes, revealing jeans and a plain tee, and bugger off in favor of his hand held video games.
They were a nuisance, but a harmless one. In America, they had hippies. Kids that acted out the behavior and beliefs of a generation fifty years past its prime. In Britain, logically, we had grown-ups that fancied the dress-up games of a group who had lost their relevance thousands of years ago.
On that day, I had thought to tour Stonehedge, but learning of the druid swarm there, had opted for Avesbury instead. Their stone circle may not have been as impressive or as…hedged, but it was very probably as old and quite a bit bigger in circumference.
At thirty minutes, I had entered the wood to the east of the village and at twenty-two had first seen the little boy in the white robe. Only a toddler, he was running down the forest path ahead of me. No parents in sight of, course, and the wee fellow was running in the opposite direction of the tents.
I called out for him to stop, but he did not deign to notice me, and if anything, hurried along faster.
At twenty minutes, I felt the first twinge in my heart. It was terribly familiar, in an awful way, to watch the little boy run. Like my own son, Roland, all those years ago, running toward tragedy with a smile on his innocent, apple-cheeked face.
And at eighteen minutes, it was that thought that drove me to chase after him, though my knees were less than worthless, and my heart was already skipping about in a dodgy sort of way.
I finally caught the rascal, but only because he had stopped to investigate an overly large toad just off the path.
And as I approached, the boy turned.
Five minutes left then, and the sun on his white hood made my eyes lie…for it was Roland. Forty years and a week to the day he drowned, and he stood before me with the cherubic face of a three-year-old.
“Boy,” I mouthed, my throat too dry to make the sound…and this was strange. I tried again and couldn’t make any noise at all. I opened my mouth and tried, and nothing would come out. My chest felt tight, and then came the ripping pains down my arm and across my chest and all the way into my heart.
And still there were two minutes left. Pain and more pain, and when I couldn’t draw breath, I knew it was final, and perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad when it was over, because wasn’t my boy here? Wasn’t he come to take me home?
The last second passed, and the pain passed with it. The ground shook something awful, the sky shook, the trees thrashed about in a way that made it seem they would be ripped right from the ground, and I reached for my boy, but he was gone.
The wet earth spewed upward, a thick column of hard churning mud and rock spinning like a tornado in reverse, coming from the ground to assault the sky. It reached higher and higher and the base grew larger and larger, until the ground I lay on began to break apart and fly away.
I had to run. It didn’t hurt, and I could run faster than I could ever remember having run before. I didn’t stop until the ground ceased to shake.
Out of the woods, where the village should have been, and now wasn’t, a young man stood, rocking on his heels with his hands in his pockets, whistling a tune.
“Oy!” He greeted me.
“Hullo,” I called back, finding it strange that I didn’t feel the least bit winded after that run.
“Don’t matter how many times a body sees that happen, always bloody amazing, every time,” he grinned.
I turned then, and saw what the bloke meant. An impossibly massive tentacle of earth had shot upwards and curled around in a question mark sort of shape. Even more impossibly, a lighthouse balanced on the very edge of the end, at the thinnest point. It defied any law of physics or gravity the old boy with the apple and the curly wig had ever dreamed up.
“What…what is that thing?” I asked.
“Oh that. That’s what they call the Light on the Point,” he answered very cheerful-like.
“The light…on the point?” I repeated.
“The lighthouse on the point of asking. Pay attention to it too. Looks like a question, because you need to ask yourself a few things…and that lighthouse is the only warning they give you here. Lighthouse warns--s’what they’re for, you know-- you can’t go back, only forward, always forward.”
As though to underscore the fellow’s ominous message, the beacon of the light glowed to life and began to turn slowly.
Other Entries – No Particular Order
“Alright, so here’s our official story.” I say to the strange little boy next to me.
“Our story for who?” He asks, and I sigh. We’ve been over this.
“The guards. If we’re to get into the castle, we need a story. We’ve come this far already, so there’s basically no turning back now.” He nods, and I continue, “So I was walking to the castle to meet with the King when I ran into you, and—”
“But that’s not right,” he interjects, confused. “You didn’t even know this world existed 48 hours ago. And I was ordered to seek you out; our meeting was not by chance.”
“Yes,” I say quickly. “But if we’re to infiltrate the castle, I have to have a story. And if you’re to come with me, you must be in it as well, and I don’t think the King will let The Wizard’s apprentice into the castle. So we need to stretch the truth a little. You see?”
“I suppose this ‘truth stretching’ of yours will have to do.”
“Right. So, I run into you on my way to fulfill my duties as a delegate of the 4th kingdom—”
“But you aren’t the delegate of the 4th kingdom. Slyis Otin is.”
I bite back frustration. “I know. But Slyis is passed out and tied up back in my world, and someone needs to represent him while The Wizard rescues him. That’s the whole point of why you took me from the Trail, right? The Wizard chose me.”
“Well, that, and the fact that you were the first person I saw who didn’t appear to be a complete dolt.”
“Right. So, I’m the delegate of the 4th kingdom. You are my nephew who is interested in Kingdom Politics, so I promised your mother I’d bring you along.”
“Okay, I think I understand. You can pass as the 4th delegate because the king won’t know any better. He doesn’t pay any attention to the fourth kingdom except to collect taxes. However, if we were to get caught, the punishments would certainly be unpleasant.”
“Exactly.” I can see the castle in the distance. It defies logic, really, as there is a piece of land that juts out from the earth, rises upwards, and then curls at the end, like a monkey’s tail. On the tip of the earth’s tail, as they call it, sits the Castle of Oprusa, where the King and his delegates meet once a year to discuss issues, such as the behaviors of the trolls and giants and wars that may have broken out recently. We will be marching right up to the castle (using some strange magic of the boy’s, I’m sure), impersonate a delegate and his nephew, and attempt to change the very nature of how this world is run.
A moment of silence passes and we can feel the palpable risk of the task at hand. “Are you ready to oppose the government of Oprusa?” I ask, grinning faintly.
The little boy grins back at me, eyes wide with excitement. “Of course. It’s what I was born for.” Then the boy pauses, takes my hand. “By the way,” he says, suddenly serious. “My name is Luiss. I think someone should know it, if things go…astray.”
I choke back tears, amazed at how much bravery this young child possessed. “Derora. My name is Derora.”
“All worlds begin the same way,” Nanural assured the man on the forest path. “Ilirra was no different. In the beginning there was only silence. Not the same as the silence you believe you hear now. Not the hush that falls over the forest when a stranger walks through. If you listened hard enough, you could still hear a breath or a twitch, or even the heartbeat of a frightened rabbit as he waited, frozen in place, for you to pass. No, I don’t mean that kind of silence.”
“I don’t understand,” Red Pennifield answered. (He’d been called Red his entire life due to the shock of strawberry curls that threatened to swallow his head in one easy gulp. His real name, of course, was Matthew.) “What other kind of silence is there?”
“I’m referring to the total absence of sound,” the boy answered. “It’s what you would hear if you were to sit quietly in a void, for that’s truly how worlds begin. Ilirra began as a tiny void—a very small space that your gods either forgot to put something in, or were saving for something special later on. Just a void,” he repeated thoughtfully, “though even a void is something. Even a void is not nothing.”
Red looked dubious. The kid was fair strange, and he’d have said that anyways, even if the kid had not stopped him on his way to Dunbarrow, telling wild tales and begging for help. He’d be late getting home now.
“Somehow, a small tear occurred in the void,” Nanural explained. “I suspect magic was involved although I don’t know who’s magic. At any rate, as soon as the membrane was torn, the void began to thrum, slowly at first, and then gradually speeding up until it reached a feverous pitch. The sound, at that point was excruciating! There was nothing to absorb it, you see.”
“No. I really don’t see,” Red answered shifting his weight onto the other leg. His pack was heavy, his feet hurt and he was growing impatient. If the kid really needed help, why didn’t he just get to the point? After all, Red was a busy man; he had more to do than to go around saving small children all afternoon. If he wasn’t gone to the market and back home by sunset his wife would have him by the neck.
But something in the kid’s eyes drew him. There was a strange sense of knowing there, that Red did not feel he, himself, possessed even at the ripe old age of thirty-two. That, and the fact that the kid spoke slowly and eloquently, as if he were much older than he looked, even given the urgency that lay underneath.
Nanural ignored his protests and went on. “And then the void began to push on the larger space around it, putting pressure on trees and air, asking them to move over and allow it a proper space to grow. I honestly don’t know where the things came from that began to fill up the void…the trees, the river, or even Mindost Mountain where the Castle Ithe rests. They were not there, and then with an almost inaudible pop, they were, and looking for all the world like they’d been there all along.
Red sighed and peeled off his pack, setting it near a rock at the edge of the road. It looked like this might take a while. Still…he’d been walking all morning and a rest might be nice. He supposed that this rock was as good a place as any. Wincing, he lowered his weary bones down on the rock.
“Likewise, came I through the void and out of nothing,” Nanural continued. “It was as if I awoke there, called by the magician’s ponderings and I cannot now remember from whence I came nor who I might have been in any other place. In the space of a moment, both I and Ilirra were born. I began to know the Ilirran names of things, forgetting the old words I had used for them before.”
Red declined to point out that the child was speaking perfect English right now.
“I was the first-born, and so became King of Illirra. Others came after—popping in and then invariably glancing around in surprise. It’s so lovely there in the mountain castle that no one ever thought to leave again. We’ve all been together for ever so long now.”
“A king, you say! You are the King?” Red chuckled. He always had loved a good fairy story.
“I am the king,” Nanural stated matter-of-factly. “And that is why I have come. I bear a responsibility to my people. Look there, Mister,” he pointed. “See how the darkness gathers on the horizon?”
Red looked far up the roadway. At first he did not see. The sky looked blue enough to him. But such was the tenor of the young boy’s voice that he actually found himself wanting to see, looked deeper into the blue, and finally, did see. As he watched blue turned to gray and then to an ominous blackness.
“Something evil has made its way into the Chanirra forest,” Nanural went on. “Some of the good things are starting to go missing. First the Wyvern and then the Manticore, and then other things as well. The Root Reed seems to have gone soft, and all of the leaves have fallen from the Bristle trees. I needn’t tell you how unusual that is for this early in the season. Also, the river Assadar has lately run inky in spots and the water doesn’t taste right anymore.
And just last Sabat-day, I went to visit Athe, the tinker and found him sick in bed. It’s an unknown thing in Ilirra—disease--but Athe died this morning.
I fear the worst!
That is why I stopped you on the Mindimla Road.”
Red knew this as the Goethe Forest pathway, but somehow had an innate understanding of Nanural’s words. He knew, without being told, that Mindimla meant ‘the road that leads in many directions’.
“I was told,” Nanural said, “that powerful wizards frequent this path. I waited for hours and hours and saw no one, but at last you have come.”
Red was startled by this. He had almost found himself believing the tale by now.
“But I’m no wizard,” he replied. “I am a simple man; a stonemason by trade and I don’t see how I can help you.”
“Yet here you are, and so you must be the one I have waited for.”
Red could hardly argue with that logic. Still, being Red, he tried.
“Listen, Kid. I wish I could help you but if I’m not home by—“
And neither on that day, nor years later, on this one, would Red be able to tell you what happened next. He only knew that one moment he was sitting there on that rock in the Goethe Forest and the next instant he could see the Castle Ithe off in the distance.
“I am sorry,” said Nanural, “but a King will do what he must to save his people.”