The Ruins of Listening Post Five – Part 2

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

The last rays of the setting sun refracted a muted orange through time-worn windows far above. The group of children huddled low beneath rows of broken shelves, petrified in silence as they listened for whoever, or whatever, had made the guttural chatter and footsteps they were sure they heard just beyond the room where they hid. The path back the way they had entered now barred by the failed freight elevator, Galen and his friends studied the exits from the room they found themselves in for another way out.

Just meters away in a clearing resting atop a mountain of rubble from the floors that had collapsed above was the football they had climbed down to retrieve. It would be a quick dash into the open to get it, but there was no indication any of the passages out of this room would be intact given what they had seen on their way down. They looked to each other, communicating as best as they could without making a sound as they listened carefully for the creature stalking them.

Noor’s gaze had been fixed on the depth of the shadowed corners in the chamber the ball had fallen into until she was certain that each dark shape and twist of metal beam had not moved. She exchanged a look with Peyton, who had been doing the same, then Phoibe who was watching the ledges above them. Davi clung close to Noor, shielded by the teen’s shadow. Galen stared intently in the direction they had last heard the sounds.

It was silent except for the continued drip of water somewhere just below them. It could have been from an old pipe or seeping ground water, but what caught Galen’s ear was how the drops seemed to echo. One by one the group dared to peek out of cover, spotting the largely undamaged utility corridor that seemed to be where the sound of water was coming from. Galen made a motion with his hand for everyone to be ready.

He tiptoed out of cover, craning his neck as he turned to study the rest of the chamber for any sign of the source of the sounds they had heard. Noor followed, stepping through the dying shaft of sunlight to where the football lay serenely. The others cautiously came out from their hiding spot. Noor let out a breath she felt like she had been holding for minutes, only to immediately retract it. A sound, quivering and wretched, a whine-like wheeze and the clicking of claws. It came from the wreck above, no more than a room away past a conduit they had climbed over to get down where they were just minutes before.

Noor picked up the ball, quickly looking to Galen and then to the utility corridor. They seemed to agree, and the group made a quiet dash for it. Someone, Galen didn’t see who, kicked a piece of crumbled concrete as they ran which echoed in the room behind them. Their predator made a sudden sound in response, followed by quick steps of its taloned feet. Suppressing their screams, they quickened their pace into the dark tunnel. Ahead the sound of water was becoming clearer.

Peyton retrieved a light stick from their sling pouch as they ran. Davi stopped, a gasp of surprise as he eyed the bright single-use torch. Peyton winked, retrieving another as they passed him the first. Phoibe huffed, impressed but not totally surprised by her friend who often showed up with a lot of things they were not allowed to have.

Together they listened as they reached a split in the tunnel. From far behind they had heard just a faint sound of the creature and then nothing but the echo of water. It was unclear if it had followed them. Unfortunately, bright as the lights were it only intensified the further reaches of dark beyond several meters and rendered even nearby shadows long and black. The reflection of the light in the water danced on every lit surface like ripples.

Of the two hallways one seemed to slope lower, the full width of the floor soon covered by water. It was also wider with traces of a painted interior finish unlike the utility hallway, perhaps opening into a larger room out of sight. It was difficult to tell from the slope how deep the water would get, but it was not a welcoming sight. The second path went up narrow stairs to a mostly closed steel door. It was unremarkable except for a faded set of painted signs that looked like others they had seen in a section of the collapsed installation behind them. One of the signs included a marking for what would have been an aid station. Surely nothing of value would still be left, Galen thought, but it was not unheard of to stumble across something from the pre-collapse age in a wreckage like this. Davi’s gaze wandered to the same door, while Peyton was already checking around the corner of the other hall. Noor read the situation and took a breath to warn them, but Davi and Galen were already walking to the stairs.

“Are you crazy? Don’t split up” Noor hissed in a whisper, flinching at the echo of her own voice. There was no sound behind them but water, which seemed to drown any other noise in the corridor. Galen responded with a shrug and pleading hand motion, drawing a scowl from the older girl. Together with Davi they pushed open the steel door, which moved only a few inches before hitting an obstruction.

 A pale green glow emanated from the room, some manner of bioluminescent growth that had set in the ancient cabling exchange and a larger room beyond. It cast a soft, shadowless light. Jammed behind the door lay a split red canister that had burst into a plant-like metallic growth known to the vagabonds as spinmetal. It grew much like sage, reaching for an unseen sky from a single thick stem into numerous branching blossoms. It was very valuable with traders and prized by any who did business with the Vanguard of the Last City, provided one had the tools to cut it.

Peyton and Noor studied the hallway behind them warily. The water they had passed was still, undisturbed. Cautiously they stepped through the exchange further into the adjoining chamber. It seemed to be a central room of some sort, one wall which looked to be columns of ancient digital readouts opposite tiered rows of terminals, some still with rolling chairs undisturbed where they were left an age ago. In one sat an intact skeleton, slumped sadly as if still reading the tiny vacant display in front of it. They looked with fear and wonder at the departed, then slowly around the rest of the control room.

Dotting the edges of the room and base of support columns were thick patches of a strange fungal growth. Clouds of free-floating dust spores emanated a soft light, in places bright enough to read by. In one corner where the growth was thickest, ghostly white moths fluttered without sound around the brightest light. The reverent silence between the children was mutual, standing here felt like they had walked into a tomb.

Davi seemed to detect something unnoticed by the others, stepping carefully up the stairs that joined the rows of terminals to near a blocked hallway leading from the room. “Do you smell that?” he whispered.

Phoibe climbed up to the spot where Davi was searching, sniffing. “Smells like wildflowers,” she murmured. “Air from outside?” she guessed. Her eyes came to rest on the obscured panel she was standing on, one like others still in the ceiling above them. She looked up, spotting a wide opening into the overhead ventilation shaft. The vaulted ceilings were quite high, but Davi was already looking for a way to climb up.

Phoibe gently retrieved an overturned rolling chair, pausing to stare at the skeleton at the next terminal as if she may somehow disturb it. It was heavier than it looked, taking both her and Galen to carry it up the steps to the top of the room near a column close to the ventilation. Davi, smallest of the friends was the first up, scaling the column high enough to disturb a ceiling panel until it fell, freeing a useful handhold. Noor and Peyton continued to watch the dark entrance they had come in through for any sign of movement.

Moving from the first panel recess to the next, he reached the open ventilation with an enthusiastic cheer. The friends could hear he was encouraged by whatever he could see from up there. Phoibe was next, with Galen and Peyton holding the chair sturdy. She paused reaching the top handhold on the column, looking back down before attempting the reach to the panel recess.

“Don’t look down,” Galen reassured her, seeing she was second guessing herself.

With a lunge she reached and grabbed the support between panels, her legs swinging from behind her. Galen held his breath. She pulled herself up until she could hook a foot into the ventilation opening, and with a shift of her weight was able to catch Davi’s hand and pull herself in. The group breathed a sigh of relief.

“Can you see anything?” Noor called up, still nervously watching the entrance below.

Phoibe and Davi situated themselves in the vent to look ahead, which to the children waiting sounded like there was not a lot of room to maneuver once you climbed in. All they could make out of the two was their sharp shadows in Davi’s stick light. The thin metal of the vent shaft buckled loudly in protest. “Let me see,” Phoibe called back, voice carried from what sounded like somewhere above the next room.

Galen looked to Peyton, who was shuffling anxiously. “Ok, you next”.

Peyton made a timid glance up. The chair shifted on its wheels precariously as they slipped reaching for the highest handhold. Phoibe and Davi could be heard indistinctly from further down the shaft calling back that they could see something, followed by a rattle of the unstable vent. Peyton looked down to Galen.

“Just put your foot there and push up,” Galen guided. “Twist left,” he continued “yes, and grab there and pull yourself up.”

Peyton beamed with relief as they pulled themselves up, clearly uncomfortable with heights. The ventilation shaft groaned again, followed by a jolting sound. Everyone froze. Down the passage Phoibe’s voice carried back what sounded like a warning, followed by a series of loud crashes. With no further warning the length of vent holding Peyton came free from the mounted brackets, dumping them back onto Galen in a heap and hard knock of heads. Both cried out.

From beyond the next room the crashing sounds continued. Galen, Peyton and Noor could hear the joined screams of Phoibe and Davi falling further away amongst a cacophony of debris.

Continued in part 3

The Ruins of Listening Post Five

short fanfic set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 1.

Thick motes of dust hung suspended in air deep in the remains of the installation, shafts of late day light dimmed by decaying glass. A sleepy groan of old steel echoed through the vaulted chamber as the group of friends peered down into the ruins. Discovering the stairs and most of the underground floors had collapsed some stories lower, Galen peered over the catwalk handrail. He eyed their lost football in the rubble far below with a soft whistle.

“Nice going, Galen” Phoibe teased. She was just days older than him, and a close friend since as early as either could remember.

Galen made a dismissive sound as they moved cautiously around the edge of the chasm, peering into dark side rooms and utility passages for any other way down. Even many stories down the ball seemed too near to just leave. They just needed to get it and get out, Galen repeated to himself. It would be bad enough they were caught defying the rule for entry into the fenced-off property but returning without a ball that belonged to an older sibling would mean having to explain how they had lost it; or lying to cover it up.

No, the youngest of the group, Davi, would tell the truth. Galen, Phoibe, Davi and their friend Peyton had been showing off trick kick shots when the ball unluckily sailed through a gap in a broken window. Phoibe and Galen exchanged a long glance as they circled back to the top of the stairwell where they had begun. He wondered if she was thinking the same thing, thinking of the lecture they would get when they got home. They both looked to Noor, the oldest of the group, anticipating she would tell them to leave. The ball belonged to Noor’s older sister that her mother sternly suggested she should share. At times a killjoy, Noor had to be the responsible one because her mother was strict. While doubt did weigh on her face, her eyes instead came to rest on something in the far corner of the still intact portion of floor they stood on. A power junction, resting open, near a freight elevator.

As they each turned to look, they then examined the precariously narrow section of floor they would have to cross to get to it. “There is no way that still works,” sandy haired Peyton spoke up. Of the five friends none had been more excited to sneak into the facility as they had daydreamt so many times of doing.

Tucked into a nook in a stretch of valley known for an abundance of wild hare, the ancient structure was hidden from view unless you knew where to look. Miles from any wreckage worth scavenging or any structure to speak of, those that built it an age prior did not want it easily found and left it sealed and heavily barricaded. So it had laid for an age, returning slowly to dust.  On any other day the danger was no worse than a possible cut from old fence wire, anything worth finding was long gone. Amongst the children it was a poorly kept secret as the grass choked remains of the above ground lot adjacent to the structure was renowned as a spot to meet, play ball or when necessary; hide.

A shudder and sigh from the flooring beneath them drew a collective sharp breath. They listened to the echo, and Galen wondered if the underground tunnels fabled to run under here were still intact. This was just one of Peyton’s many random facts they had heard from somewhere about the facility. Most of the time Galen thought they were made up, but what they were looking at now definitely seemed to fit the tall tales.

“Just go!” Phoibe said impatiently as they all inched back. Galen gingerly stepped along the wall and uneven floor that remained until he reached the lever. No one dared move as Galen looked back to see them watching him. With a grunt he pushed the heavy arm into the closed position with a crisp mechanical click. The sudden hum of electricity startled everyone. Somewhere above ventilation fans squealed into motion, along with one or two flickering lights.

“That’s impossible,” Peyton exclaimed.

Dust swirled as the long undisturbed air began to move, and with it came a terrible stench. “Why does it smell like that?” Davi exclaimed, each of the children raising their shirts or scarves to cover their mouth and nose. It smelled like scorched metal, or acid. It was a sharp odor that made Galen flinch when it hit his eyes.

Noor approached the guardrail and control box for the freight elevator, the others following in suit as they loaded onto the lift platform. As she pressed the button the floor jolted, the motor and chain loudly kicking into motion just above them. Combined with the progressively louder roar of the ventilation fans and pulley chains, the lift wheels felt deafeningly loud as they descended. After several floors the lift abruptly stopped with an even louder alarm buzz, followed by a loud click as the flickering lights switched to dim red. The sudden silence was unnerving.

They each looked around quickly for a way up or down from the lift, spotting nearly at once a portion of the floor they had passed on the way down that connected to a section of the stairwell that seemed to be less collapsed than above. The floor lower was difficult to see from their vantage but enough of it remained it seemed like a promising search for a way down to the ball.

Without a word further Davi climbed first to the ledge above and ran over to the stairwell. “Stairs!,” he beamed triumphantly. One by one the others followed, clamoring up the shaft to the ledge of the floor leading to the stairs. At a glance, Galen saw that Noor’s attention had been drawn by the dark corners in the spaces below and ahead of them.

The structure groaned, a long tremor from someplace deep under them followed by many loud creaks of stressed metal. It was an unsettling amount of noise without a clear source, and each of the children froze for a moment while it subsided.

With shared dread they moved down the stairs as quietly as they could, finding this particular flight went just one floor further down. The machine room it opened into fell at a steep angle pointing into the earth, rows of ancient tape-fed computer hardware and communication equipment resting nearly on their sides. A sturdy conduit pipe looked like their safest way across to the next opening, and with luck, a way down.

Across the pipe they climbed down over two large shipping containers, each producing loud footfalls on the hollow steel before reaching a well-lit portion of collapsed floor near the center of the chasm. Nearby they could hear water dripping from somewhere. Further from the safety of the walls, the tangle of stacked rubble ahead was devoid of any hand rails and had few places to safely step without risking a long fall. For a moment no one moved as they looked twice for an alternate path. Phoibe dared a look closer to one edge and began motioning happily to point out a way down when they were interrupted again by a new sound.

The series of creaks seemed much closer than the others, one after the other from the same place, like something moving. No one breathed. Following it a lower sound, like a rasp, then clicks. Claws.

This story continues in Part 2

A Bit of Fan Art

I recently acquired a Wacom Intuos M tablet and am starting the long process of relearning to draw in digital medium. I have a lot of fan art to catch up on, I may even go back and add an illustration or two for some of my short stories. Here are my first pieces done in Clip Studio Paint.

“Varinsdottr”

Eivor of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

“Lidochka”

Destiny 2 Hunter and Ghost

“Zihra-17”

Destiny 2 Warlock and Ghost – from the short story “Machine Sisters”

“Celeste-3”

Destiny2 Titan & Ghost

“One Who Sees”

Eris Morn – Destiny 2

Machine Sisters

For the love of unnecessary character backstories – these from Destiny 2

 

“I saw you die.”

Celeste-3 studied the warlock’s expression for acknowledgment of the encounter, any glimmer of recollection of the ill-fated expedition. Her machine sister by batch, Zihra-17 had been counted among those killed in action years prior. Celeste could not read Zihra’s face, a burning intensity in her crimson eyes. She waited for a witty remark, any sign of the sibling she had lost on that day. The hum of the ship’s automations was punctuated by the precise rhythm of the refurbished ion propulsion system. Below the din, a soft clink of glass as the Drifter poured a drink.

The witty reply never came. Celeste felt renewed heartbreak as the realization sunk in that the horror had not ended for Zihra that day. The silence between the two cut like a knife. The Drifter froze, the steady hand of one who had survived gunfights that started with less warning.

“Zihra, I-“Celeste’s apology was interrupted.

“It’s been a long time,” Zihra interjected.

Zihra’s inflection was not lost on Celeste. The Vex machinations had indeed taken them through both the distant past and one of the darkest of possible futures – Sol itself lifeless and blackened. The proud Sunbreaker Titan, Flag Bearer of the Vanguard, felt an instinctive heat rising. The weight of the hammer in her belt steeled her nerves. The Drifter quietly cleared his throat.

“Tell her what you saw,” the Drifter mediated. It was he who had arranged the reunion after Zihra was discovered at the edge of the solar system – a tip from Dead Orbit scouts.

Zihra paced carefully, stopping to examine the bottle of exotic liquor. “Do you remember the pursuit of Oryx?”

Celeste did. Each time they had faced the manifestation in battle the Taken King had fled into the ascendant realm, untouchable. “Of course,” Celeste replied. “Eris Morn-“she was interrupted again.

“Yes. Eris,” Zihra continued. “Do you remember what she asked us to do to be able to cross into the ascendant realm to end him?”

The Ocean of Storms, Luna. Deep within Hellmouth they had to retrieve essence of the slain god Crota, son of Oryx. Borrowing the uncontrolled magic of the Hive to enter the ascendant realm was the last thing any of them had wanted to meddle with, but the stakes were too dire to refuse. Celeste felt a chill in her systems at the suggestion.

“It was no mere key, sister” Zihra continued pacing. She set down the bottle, and for a fraction of a second there was a trail of dark where her hand had been, like smoke.

Celeste braced for a fight. “You’re,” she hesitated. Zihra waited for the answer. Celeste’s fist closed and opened nervously.

Zihra smirked. “I think the word you were looking for is we”.

Beach Brain Strikes Back

Happy Anniversary, discordianbliss.com. I looked back to the first posts on this blog ten years ago, even then marked with a look back and some uncertainty of what the future would hold. I mused on my music collection, on astronomy and advancements in particle physics, a game innovator who I admired, and I wrote about my love for the beach.

The whole of outdoors is a draw to me, I feel similar about my hikes on and to the top of Humphrey’s Peak Arizona, weekends snowboarding or just exploring the trails in Coconino National Forest. Even still, my feelings about the thin line between ocean and sand have yet to fade, that spot in Topsail, North Carolina in particular. I’ve been to other beaches and enjoyed them, but I feel like I left a piece of my heart there on the pier on the east coast.

I wonder how that quiet beach community has changed in ten years. I feel like it was simultaneously yesterday and a hundred years ago that I picked up a pair of coffees from a local coffee shop there. Would I feel a sense of the familiar if I returned? Or would it be like returning to my childhood home, discovering even the house where I lived in grade school had been razed to widen the main road and the market I bought candy and trading cards at was converted into a gym. There is a metaphor in there somewhere.

No, I don’t think I am headed back to that beach soon. Some things are best left to memory, and the thrill of the unknown is the stronger pull for me today. Somewhere on one of the countless lengths of sand I have yet to visit, the wind whispers to me. Beneath the ocean’s surface, the shipwrecks of my imagination hum a siren song. Enthralled, I will find my way.

To my doom or not, my path lies forward.

My review of “Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices”

Image source: NetGallery.
“Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices” by Swapna Krishna; Jenn Northington

Conversation starting re-imagined short stories of Arthurian legend. Edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, the assorted works by sixteen contributing authors in “Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices” are vibrant, alternative perspectives on classic tales surrounding the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, King Arthur, Merlin and more. Each is just the right length to be read in a sitting, ideal for a casual reader like myself, and every one as thought provoking as the last.

Powerful from the start, I knew right away I would recommend this book to my friends who love to read. I found several of the stories stayed with me long after for their compelling angle on the well-told myth. Even the order and arrangement of the stories is done with care, giving the anthology a sense of flow and creating a positive experience for the reader. The range and style of stories is a journey itself, some that swept me in with fantastic detail, others that made me cackle with glee and one or two that had me blush. LGBTQIA+ inclusive.

Easily a highlight of my reading so far this year, I look forward to picking this up again when it is released July 13.

Ten Years?

Taking a glance at my own archive for “Discordian Bliss”, I noticed the first post on this site was April 2011 – ten years ago next month. Maybe it is time for a new theme, new banner, or a refresh? No time like the present..

I think back to where I was when I started this site, freshly relocated to North Carolina and feeling nostalgic about my first web page ages prior, before Google, Facebook or “the like button” were a thing. I’ve since moved again and am staring down yet another cross-state move, who knows if for the last time. Some things remain the same – my interest in science and technology, my love for books, art, writing, gaming and my passion to keep learning and exploring.

 

The Bookworm – part 5

Art commission by @javi_draws

This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla.

This is the conclusion of this story – Read part one here

 

The Bookworm – part 5

 

The security analyst could barely remember getting home to her shoebox apartment. You did good work tonight, the senior analyst had told her. She had time for about an hour’s sleep before getting a message on her phone from their boss who had reviewed the data she provided at the end of the last sequence. More praise, and the day off. A long weekend.

She lay in bed and thought for a second about catching up on sleep when her cat began quietly fussing at her to see why she was not getting up. “Fine,” she wrestled the cat playfully with her hand, but she was still thinking about work. The senior analyst who had been advising on her unexpected double shift tracking the rogue animus frame’s activity made little secret he knew more about the data anomalies than he would directly say. He made sure she had seen them, and soon after disengaged. As if he lost interest. Yes, the rogue frame was not the only actor on the network, data he did not instruct to leave out of their report, but how many additional actors?

“She knew something was out of place,” the analyst explained to her cat as she opened a small can of food. “The girl,” she clarified to her captive audience, and then began to stare off into space. “It was painful, physically.” Like a ringing in her ears. The simulation was more malleable than logic would suggest, but the subjects in turn could detect that.

The cat let out a small impatient meow. “Oh sorry,” the analyst snapped out of recollection, placing the food dish down and moving to fix herself a cup of coffee. She looked at her coffee mug and made a face, changing her mind. She had enough last night. She could get something else out later.

She absentmindedly cleared the notifications from her phone, no longer surprised when there was nothing interesting there. She caught herself glancing twice when she enabled her Bluetooth to connect to the tiny apartment speakers. Just checking to see if there were any new devices, but there never were.

She put on something upbeat, long weekend vibes, and started running the hot water in the shower. As the humidity from the steam began to obscure the mirror, she watched her reflection disappear. She could not get the puzzle out of her mind. Someone was helping the girl, too.

No one at the office seemed to notice her when she arrived. She sat down at her desk without bothering to take off her parka. She looked around; it was the usual office chit chat and people largely browsing social media during pointless conference calls. On her desk, an unopened bag of assorted nuts and chocolate. Jerk.

Through the small gap in the cube divider she could see another of the junior analyst’s monitors. Mr. ‘I don’t care if IT sees my social media because I never do anything wrong’, busily engaged in a post on recent political activity downtown. The amateur mobile phone footage at the peaceful assembly began buffering unexpectedly. Just as she caught herself staring at his screen with its buffering circle spinning, she noticed indistinct dark shapes in one of the large downtown trees in the frozen image. Corvids. Crows, Jackdaws or Ravens.

She pulled off her gloves and swiped her access card and pulled up the data transit display. It was quiet. Pulling up the command history, she retrieved the query they had set up for the sequence. Following intuition, she adjusted the scope of the query. Careful, she warned herself. No additional hits. She considered further; she wasn’t thinking big enough. She removed the constraints on the historical date. Anomalies; everywhere. Also, the second phenomena she had tracked. Ancient Greece, London, Italy, Paris. North Africa.

She drilled further into the data, isolating the variance. Senu, is that you?

 

 

A bitter midwinter wind whipped around Eivor and Hadda atop the seaside cliff. Freyja waited idly lower on the path leading up to the spot. Together they managed to arrange the tall stone cairn despite the ever-present push of the trade winds. Below it, a number of smaller tributes. Each to someone they had lost.

It had been a journey of few words, and none since they arrived at the cliff. Even the horse was silent as she tried to find any scrap of grass that could grow in the inhospitable stone. On the ride back Eivor finally spoke. “How was he?” she wondered aloud.

Hadda knew she meant Able, who she had recently returned from checking up on. The other Vikings could not make the journey under the current conditions of war. “He is in good spirits,” Hadda chose her words.

“Able?” Eivor almost laughed. “Who is this other man you visited then?” she joked.

“He misses us,” Hadda began. “But he is well taken care of at the monastery and is kept busy with his work.” She paused, remembering the conversation they had over honey bread. “He was actually excited for what he was working on with the other scribes. An important work.

“He was also happy to see what we had managed to save from his home that was not lost to the fire. Even the partial scrolls.” Hadda continued.

“And the book?” Eivor questioned further.

“He had not seen it since the night we arrived. The clergy did not keep it with the other written works, but rather in a much more secure depth of the fortress the scribes are not allowed to go.” Hadda replied.

It was ironic that one of the safest places to hide something or someone from the King was in the castle-like monastery of his own holy church. The tension between clergy and King was obvious even on the streets. They kept his authority in check, but for how long no one could guess. It was a dark time in Wessex.

“He did ask me something,” Hadda furrowed her brow. “Something I had wondered myself.” She considered again the night she found the book. “What value were just a few pages that was worth more than the whole book?

“Why did he leave the book?”

Eivor considered it, and her expression said she had thought on the same question. “Perhaps the story was worth more to them with a piece left out.”

 

Thank you for reading!

The Bookworm – part 4

Art commission by @javi_draws

This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla.

edit: changed one character’s name, which was unintentionally shared by a character from the game

Read part one here

 

The Bookworm – part 4

 

The silhouette of mounted bannermen framed the light regiment as it approached, smoke rising from the razed village behind them. Women, children, and the elderly scattered in the chaos as the Vikings struggled to assemble. Grain stores burned. They struck against the peace accord during the heart of a celebration when they would be the least defended during the first snow of Winter. It was a calculated execution of a people they would no longer tolerate. The calvary did not come to gamble with the veteran raider settlement; it was a show of force flying the colors of the King.

The falling snow swirled thick as the strongest of the Vikings rushed to head off the armored men on horses away from those least able to defend themselves. The thunder of hooves and boots bid Hadda’s blood to run hot. There was something unasked-for, visceral in the sound of steel striking shield that made her senses come alive. She swept up a young child, fearful but strangely silent in the chaos as she surveyed the ensuing battle. In the midst, Eivor struck her first opponent with a force like thunder.

Above the battle, a thin line of the regiment’s leadership watched under banner flapping. The snow and blood mixed on the ground until it ran freely. Sundered shield and splintered spear alike littered the ground as Saxon and Viking fell in a cacophony of death. An arrow pierced a girl through the shoulder just feet from where Hadda and the toddler fled. Amid screaming, Hadda passed the small child to another fleeing woman with a mutual glance and turned to aid the girl who had been struck. The girl with the bundle of small black-eyed yellow flowers now falling out of Hadda’s hair. The wound was severe, but with haste the girl could be saved.

“Torben!” Hadda called out, spotting him on the edge of the skirmish. In his eyes even at a distance Hadda could see the grim determination of a man preparing to die. “Torben!” she called again, attempting to restrain the girl who was fading in her arms. Unable to hear her cries, Torben redoubled the grip on his axe and charged into the fray. He fell two Saxons on foot before a slender-framed rider struck him from horseback. Torben hit the snow like an unbound sack of rocks. He was killed instantly.

She could not hear her own scream. Hadda fought a stream of tears as a strength beyond her own turned to the thick shaft of the arrow piercing the girl she held. She snapped the shaft, and with a bellow pulled the other end through the girl’s torso. She tore her dress into a broad strip until no fabric remained below her knees. She wrapped it tightly as the girl cried out, tying it into a knot before helping her retreat further down the hill towards the lodge. Out of the corner of her eye, something trivial, something otherwise very unimportant caught her eye. The door to Able’s hut was open. The same she had personally closed shut before leaving to the celebration.

Reaching the lodge Hadda and the girl came face to face with the mystic. The same air touched by the Gods radiated around her as she took the girl from Hadda to lead her into the lodge as it was being fortified to withstand a direct attack. A thankful glance from the girl and a knowing nod from the mystic dismissed Hadda as she doubled back to investigate Able’s home. A she raced up the path now obscured by snow it felt as if all sound faded away. She could hear only dull noise over her own footprints crushing snow. Cautiously, she slipped in the door.

Standing the center of a wreck of overturned bookshelves and spilled parchment was a familiar dark figure. Heavy coat framed flowing tunic and belt of a man she had seen before. The man from the garrison of her warden, he who owned the decorative knife left on the chapel table. Laying eyes upon him, Hadda’s ears began to ring louder than any sound she had heard before.

In a corner, Able stood as if turned to stone while falling. His wooden crutch hung suspended in air. In the gaze of the stranger even the dust seemed to freeze in time until he locked gaze with Hadda; deaf with fear. The interior of the home was destroyed. Helpless, Hadda looked on her adversary. Indulgent gold adorned pearl white silk and a radiant red cross. His impeccably trimmed beard and mustache contoured a face wrought by angels. He was a full foot taller than Hadda, blond hair bouncing at his collar. His steel eyes cut her to kneeling. The very earth beneath her trembled. The figure made show of breathing deeply through his nose.

“Intoxicating, isn’t it?” He chimed airily, voice cracking open the heavens above them.

 

 

The security analyst pulled one half of her headset off her ears in frustration, staring directly at the senior analyst. He could barely contain his amusement. She was well beyond asking questions she knew she would not get a straight answer to. The simulation had been modified. She was as certain as the glee on her mentor’s stupid face. She hoped her glare was as icy as it felt. He continued to smile as he lobbed a chocolate into his mouth.

Enough games, she cursed to herself as she turned back to the swarming data transit flashing before her. The second anomaly she had observed was still there, also. Cooley, she returned the headset to her ears and relaxed in her chair as the scene continued to unfold.

 

 

Hadda shook, fighting the shrill noise in her ears. The dark figure paced as Able’s adobe began collapsing around them, embers raining without source until a number of tiny fires started among the scrolls. Hadda’s cheeks were soaked with tears. The man withdrew something from his long coat. A single scrap of paper, which Hadda recognized immediately as belonging to her. The Greek prose.

“Like the very gods in my sight is he who sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness murmur in love..” he read aloud. Bright flames danced around him. Able lay in a heap too close to the blaze. The figure tossed the paper into the flames, where it incinerated immediately. Hadda sobbed. “Sappho,” he continued. “Lost to time.’ He declared.

The cry of a raven pierced the night as Hadda regained control of her senses. Eivor leapt into the fray with a fury of a dozen men. Sparks showered as the stranger parried her twin axe strikes with a blade that shone like pure sunlight. Eivor did not relent. Strike after strike, she tested his footwork until she had backed him out of the open door and onto the path outside. In the distance a Saxon horn signaled retreat. The Vikings had held their ground. “Hadda, get Able to the ships!” She urged.

With a practiced riposte, the dark figure disarmed Eivor, exchanging positions so his back faced the scribe’s home, now engulfed in fire. Hadda drug a still-conscious Able past where the pair faced off. Eivor checked her footing, but her opponent took two additional steps back. Into the flames. With a smirk he disappeared in the inferno. Eivor spent no more time than necessary doubting what she had seen. Towards the sandy shore, ahead of Hadda and Able, a lone horseman rode to intercept.

Hadda recognized immediately the slender rider. The man who had killed Torben. His horse made a restless sound. “Winnifred?” Hadda gasped, out of breath. She lacked the strength to stand, and Able could barely support his weight with help.

“Traitor!” Her stepbrother Brandon shouted. A long moment passed, nothing but the distant sound of burning, the agitated horse and the sea lapping against the hull of the longship. He held his sword aloft. In his eyes, cold intent.

Eivor rushed to Hadda’s side, a long spear held low ready to strike. Brandon kicked his armored heels into his horse’s flank, urging her to charge.

No!” Hadda cried, leaping between Eivor and Brandon. The horse panicked, rearing up and throwing Brandon into a heap of armor and pride. Eivor lowered her weapon.

Brandon gasped for air, struggling at length to remove his helmet so he could breath. Hadda stood as tall as she could muster, weary but filled with resolve. Brandon slowly collected himself and retrieved his sword. “Do you know what happens to horses who throw their riders in battle?” He sneered, slow stepping to Hadda’s left. Eivor studied the two carefully. Her raven called from above.

With no further warning Hadda uncoiled, releasing the river-worn stone concealed in her hand. It sailed the twenty paces between them, striking him squarely in the forehead. He collapsed into the sand, rolling to support his bleeding head in his gauntlets. His voice was hollow with pain.

The horse shuffled anxiously until Hadda spoke to her. Eivor stood tall. “This horse knows you?” Eivor let out her breath. “Your favor with the Gods..” Eivor put a hand on Hadda’s shoulder, meeting eyes with Able as he helped himself to kneeling. “You surprise us all.”

Hadda nuzzled her face into the horse’s neck, sobbing in relief. Brandon struggled nearby. “Eivor, this is Freyja” Hadda introduced her through tears. The horse affectionately stepped towards Eivor.

Brandon pulled himself to standing. “Freak!” he screeched at Hadda, opening crying. Above them on the slope the eldest of Eivor’s raiders ran to investigate, scar over his blind eye.

“Just go,” Hadda pleaded with Brandon. She motioned with her hand for the grizzled warrior to wait.

Brandon’s knees visibly shook. Without another word, he turned to a darkened stretch of the river bank in the approximate direction that the other Saxons had retreated and ran.

Quiet settled before anyone spoke. The older Viking pointed with his sword in the direction Brandon had gone. “A lot of rough swimming that way” He deadpanned to laughter.

Able helped himself to standing with Hadda’s assistance. Several more of Eivor’s best men approached with serious faces. The broad-shouldered warrior held with him the treasured bound book; renowned axe holstered on his back. The others carried supplies for a journey.

Eivor faced Hadda directly, gently straightening her torn dress. “You must get Able to safety. The book cannot remain here.” Eivor looked down, solemn. “War is upon us.” She shuffled her boots, considering her next words. She held forth her hand, revealing the bracelet Hadda was to receive in the celebration earlier that night. “This is for you.” Hadda fought tears. “Hadda, with these men as witness, I declare you a free woman.”

Hadda stood tall, tears rolling free down her cheeks. On the hill above, a silhouette of a woman with antler headdress watched. With trembling hands, she put on the bracelet. She was not sure what to say.

Without a word, Eivor pulled her into a mighty hug. “Go now,” Eivor reassured. “I will care for Freyja personally.”

A brief moment passed as they regarded one another before Eivor spoke again. “Odin is with you.”

 

this story concludes in part 5

The Bookworm – part 3

Art commission by @javi_draws

This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla.

edit: changed one character’s name, which was unintentionally shared by a character from the game

Read part one here

 

The Bookworm – part 3

 

The last full moon of harvest rose and brought with it the first signs of snow. Tomorrow it would be winter. The last of the crops were to be harvested, and that night a great feast; Winter Blót. Hadda’s days were filled both with work in the fields with the other children of age and work for Able, the scribe. She dutifully copied a number of written texts as he produced them from nooks in his tidy small hut.

Able’s collected assortment of scrolls and other papers was an amassment from a variety of places he had collected, or more commonly as brought to him by raiders who could not read and wondered if they were of value. Wooden cross-membered shelves lay neatly along every available wall and even into the loft yet somehow remained in order. In some spots the shelves were lined two deep and had to be moved to be accessed. Only Able could keep sort of it, locked in his troubled mind.

He was not cruel as Hadda had feared, but rather held by a darkness inside as if always with pain. He was a strict instructor; brilliant. Some days he was too ill to leave his home. There was an unspoken boundary that kept Hadda from aiding him when he was low, but she made sure the younger Brita would bring him soup or hot drink if he would take it. Hadda would herself, but Able regarded her like neither Northman nor Saxon. She was like him, a woman of two worlds still alive for a purpose they may not fully know. This nameless distance was mutual, and later grew into respect.

Hadda had much still to learn for reading and more still for writing to express her own thoughts but was quickly taught the more important contextual reading regarding trade and agreements. Contracts, even letters of peace. The Saxons universally regarded the Vikings as lesser men, barbaric and as vulnerable to being manipulated against their own interests. Able was no longer fit for long travel, so Hadda would accompany settlement elders when possible to ensure terms of trade were written as spoken.

Saxons had grown increasingly resentful of the Northmen settlements’ success even in times of peace. Isolated hostilities and disappearances had become too common. Hadda recalled on one such trip to outside York for medicinal herbs the otherwise peaceful exchange with an eccentric traveling apothecary was interrupted by a mounted armored patrol. The roadside exchange was perfectly legal, but it nearly turned into a sudden slaughter. Hadda quickly calculated the tax exchange in her head they should owe had the transaction been held in the city, and while it was at a sore disadvantage to the Northmen, the guards were surprisingly open to the idea of pocketing the tariff. It was not all she won that night.

She kept under her straw bed a single leaflet of strange text. The desert skinned trader had told her it was Greek. There were but a few lines of it, the formatting alone looked less like spoken word and more like art. Prose. She hoped one day to translate it but had not shown it to Able. He had told her once of a great purge of all writing that was not to the benefit of the wellness of the soul, some hundred or more years prior. The burning of the greatest library every known to woman or man. The deep pain in her heart at the thought matched for a split second what she saw in the older scribe’s eyes. In that instant she imagined he had almost smiled to reassure her.

The sun rose on that first winter day, and with it an air of celebration. In a spot of cleared field men worked to prepare a space with stacked bales of grass, makeshift tables and decorations carved from wood. Hadda was only a little surprised when she learned her chores were more than double. Where were most of the other children?

Able added to her work. He was prepared when she arrived with a neat stack of scrolls she had not seen before. With sweat still on her brow she sat down diligently to begin copying the letters that would surely take all afternoon. Soon after she was sat down Able prepared to leave. Eivor had summoned him, he explained.

In the back of her mind she wondered where Eivor had secured the wondrous book they had brought back on that night that now felt long ago. She had first suspected it to be hidden among Able’s other well-kept texts, but over time she concluded there was no corner of the hut she was yet to see where it would have been safe. No, she suspected the Viking leader had a more secure stash, perhaps beneath the lodge, one sealed by something it took several men to move. Smart.

When Hadda had finally finished and cleaned up, she felt like she was the last one left to head towards where the rest of the settlement now gathered. A great carved wooden pillar had been erected in the center of the cleared field; a monument to Odin the Allfather. The sun was low in the sky, she could see visitors from the next settlement upriver were arriving on the bare dirt path into their village. It looked like there would be upwards of more than fifty in attendance. Among the visitors Hadda spotted the enigmatic mystic, the ätts’ selected who spoke with the gods. The mystic was soon busy with the preparation for ritual slaughter of the season’s cattle, the main event of the night.

When Hadda arrived, the other children were already adorned festively. Brita and a second girl closer to Hadda’s age pulled her aside to weave bright string and brilliant poms into Hadda’s hair. They laughed gaily as a group of boys tried to nonchalantly catch a glance at them from nearby. Occasionally a cold breeze would cut through accompanied by a stray flake of snow as if to remind them how cold the night would soon get.

Joining the gathered crowd Hadda slowly scanned the celebration, finding everyone present. Eivor, Able, Torben, the village elders and a number of visiting families she had not yet been introduced to. Here eyes settled on the mystic, who through the crowd was watching her, specifically. Still as the statue who’s shadow she blended into, crowned by leather and antler headdress. The settlement’s resident raven – Eivor’s raven – clucked. Then, the great boom of a drum. Everyone came to attention.

The sun set as Eivor approached the monolith to Odin reverently where the mystic waited. Low lit torches cast high shadows on the carved pillar. In the mystic’s hand a ceremonial plate. Eivor and the mystic exchanged silent words for a long moment before Eivor turned to gathered crowd. “Hadda,” Eivor spoke with authority. “Come forward.” The crowd parted.

Hadda froze. So many people, all looking at her. Timidly, she put one foot in front of the other until she had crossed the space to the outer circle of decorations around the monolith. Eivor stepped to one side as the mystic stepped forward. On the ceremonial plate lay wrapped leather cord set with polished bone and beads fashioned into a bracelet. The mystic’s enlightened face was broad at first with a smile as she watched for Hadda’s reaction, but suddenly turned dark as if she heard something no one else could. Eivor sensed it, and the raven cried out. In the distance a young boy’s urgent voice carried to them. On the near horizon, a lone tendril of smoke rose above a glow of fire.

 

continued in part 4

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