The Ruins of Listening Post Five – Part 3

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 3. Read Part 1 here.

Clouds of pale pink mist punctuated the darkness where Phoibe had finally rolled to a stop under stories of wreckage. The space was no higher than a crawl. Davi had lost his light stick while bouncing on his way down, which was somewhere in rubble above. They had come to rest on a thick mat of the bioluminescent growth, this writhing carpet swollen with mature flowering spores that burst when disturbed. While the fungi were a pale green color approaching white at a distance, the dust released as a deep hue of violet before igniting into luminous pink in a suffocating foul odor. Phoibe could hear Davi no more than a meter from where she lay, coughing quietly, but could see nothing but the glowing cloud. It felt like a trick on her eyes to see the spot illuminated so clearly by the fungi, his gasp of breath in arms reach, and no sign of Davi.

She began to reach out a hand biting back a sudden flash of sharp pain in her arm. Even in the half light she could see her arm looked terrible, streaks of black already visible from a break. Trembling with severe pain, she clutched her arm close and low to her chest, using her good hand to scoot closer to where she thought she could feel Davi was in the patch of floating spores. Touching his back, she was relieved when he responded. He was completely invisible to her but for a faint cool grey dust that seemed to adhere to moisture on his face and elsewhere. He was regarding his own hands with wonder.

Phoibe pouted with a soft cry, seeing some of the wet on his face seemed to come from a swollen cut on his brow, but smiled through tears at his perpetually cheerful expression. He somehow always looked happy even when he was showing concern, as he had noticed how she was holding her arm.

“You’re hurt!” he protested her attention, but they were quickly interrupted.

Footsteps. Something massive was walking nearby, and it had the gait of one tall or upright. The footfalls were so heavy they could feel each step distinctly by the way the ground yielded. It was a slow, deliberate step. Something searching.

Through a gap between layers of concrete ahead of them they could see a larger chamber completely taken by the unusual growth, an eerie spectacle of contrast between neon glow and the black pools of settled water. There was a waver in the air itself of suspended dust and spores that moved like fog. They could only make out an interruption in the light, a passing shadow of the beast, but it was colossal.

Before they could act or think, the pile of concrete slabs above them was roughly disturbed, being cast aside like they weighed no more than sticks. With nary a split second to flee they hurried out from the spot of thick growth before they were crushed, the silhouette of the towering beast above them. As Phoibe dashed into the first patch of cover she could reach, an even thicker mat of growth that had raised like tall stalks of bulbous grass, she caught just the profile of the beast’s feet and legs – chitinous plate and gruesome carapace – it stood like a man, but tall as a house.  

A short distance away she spotted Davi, grey dust drifting away from him as the effects of the spores wore off, revealing him. The oldest of the alien fungi nearby quivered like it was alive, a darker shape moving within it that made a sticky wet sound. At the base, fist-sized larva wiggled oblivious to her presence. She recoiled from the noxious mass, keeping a close eye in the direction she had last seen the beast.

The room they had fallen in looked like it was at the lowest level of the collapsed main facility they had entered at; below the spot their football had rolled to when they got into this mess. Up a steep scramble of debris she could see the freight elevator, still stuck where they left it by a beam lodged beneath it. From the shattered space above it she could see a hint of moonlight.

Close by, Davi drew her attention to a series of blight coated burrow-like tunnels, made by something about their size. The pungent stench like acid they had smelled when they first entered the facility was strongest there, glistening like mucus on the oozing membrane walls. As if to answer her next question about what made the tunnels, they heard echoing through the tangle the chattering whine of the first creature that had been stalking them since they entered. Or from what they could hear, several creatures.

The sound of claws skittering became numerous, the behemoth in the chamber with them stepping faster to another pile of rubble, over turning it as it continued to search. Phoibe looked to Davi, and then the tunnels. The beast had not seen where they went, yet. The tunnels were far too small for it to follow and were how the other creatures would have been navigating the ruins. Davi opened his hand to show Phoibe he had picked a second violet flowering bud from the fungal mass. He handed it to her, eyes steady in the direction the monster was digging. The crash of concrete and steel was thunderous.

Inching towards the slimy pathway, listening for any sudden movement, they heard another sound. Noor, Galen and Peyton were calling out for them from somewhere through the largest impassible section of the debris pile the tunnels seem to intersect through. The scurrying sounds of the predators moved together in the direction of the other children. Phoibe and Davi exchanged a look of horror.

They entered the first tunnel that seemed to climb upwards, although just in a wide curve to another section of the same unstable section of wall. It connected to several other burrows, ahead in which they could hear a clamor of claws and teeth headed the other direction. As Davi emerged from one side with Phoibe close behind, they could see Galen and friends had found their way to a dead-end ledge a little higher, near the direction of the ventilation shaft they had fallen from. It was a sheer drop from them down to a heap of broken concrete below. The whine of the hunting predators grew into a frenzied pitch. Davi and Phoibe could hear the other children begin to panic as the sounds raced towards them.

“You have to run!” Phoibe called up to them frantically. “They can see you!”. The behemoth made an alerted snarl, then began to roar as he turned toward Phoibe and Davi just a few dozen meters away. It was an unearthly sound not like a beast that drew air, but as if it emanated from within. It sounded like pure agony and twisted hate. It stomped into the moonlight, revealing in full terror the might of the colossus and its massive, bone axe rent like a singular cruel thought. It was the visage of a heavily armored man, or the mockery of one, twisted horns and rows of black spines.

Quickly, Phoibe burst the violet blossom covering her and Davi in the spores just before the spot where they stood was fully launched into the air by the earth-rattling charge and swing of the beast’s axe. Tons of concrete, steel and fungi rained down across the chamber, causing the main pile of debris to shift suddenly until the entire installation was shaking violently in a landslide. Noor, Galen and Peyton’s screams mixed with a deafening roar of rocks and beast alike as the behemoth surveyed the clear spot for the children. High above, the beam barring the freight elevator had dislodged. The elevator made a jolting movement and loud buzz, a dusty yellow indicator light near the switch clicking on and off a warning. It was still stuck between floors on the heavy chain and pulley lift.

Davi and Phoibe, still shrouded by the pink vapor, emerged from a now severed length of burrow several stories higher from where they had vanished. “Galen!” Phoibe called out, knowing the beast would also hear. “The elevator!” The creatures pursuing them were drawing near, fast.

Galen looked up the shattered interior of the installation’s frame where the lift was stuck, and then to direction Phoibe’s voice had come from.

“They can’t see us, either” Phoibe remarked to herself after seeing Galen’s expression. The beast too had turned to look without immediately spotting them. The spores were already beginning to turn to dust and fall away.

Davi moved further into the open, getting a clear view of the lift and switch housing. The spores drifted from him in a cloud of dust as he was illuminated by the moonlight. The beast’s gaze snapped to him as it began navigating the uneven concrete platforms up to where he stood. Davi held his position, although not without a bit of a tremble in the knees.

“Galen!” Davi called out, relieved when Galen could see him. “Pass me the ball!”

With only a moment’s hesitation, Noor and Galen realized what Davi could see. Noor lobbed an overhead pass to Davi, who caught it and quickly turned and threw it at the switch box. A hit, but it did not depress the switch. It bounded far below with a hollow bounce as everyone’s hearts fell.

Phoibe spared not a second, sliding down the slick filth of the burrow to the bottom. “No way this works..” she whispered to herself before rolling to a stand, cradling her broken arm. “Hey!” she shouted at the beast.

Everyone stopped. For a split second even the sound of settling rubble was quiet. The beast turned for just a brief glance back at her as Davi bolted from where he stood. Phoibe ran at the ball with a skilled heel strike pass back to Davi, who spun to kick it back up. It sailed past the beast, striking the switch with force before rebounding further away. The elevator buzzed loudly and began to descend.

The beast roared in anger, breaking into a full charge at Phoibe. Phoibe let out a scream and gave chase, running across the opening to a newly exposed gap in the collapsed layers she had spotted. Davi made a running jump and caught the edge of the lift, now low enough for him to reach.

The creatures burst from the system of tunnels behind Galen, Peyton and Noor who were still pinned against a sharp drop. They were forced to jump with a terrified cry. They hit the slope in a tumble, howls of pain as they crashed uncontrolled into the wreckage. The enraged beast having lost sight of Phoibe now turned to them. Above the creatures had already adjusted route, losing almost no ground in their pursuit.

Phoibe emerged from another partially blocked hallway near them, motioning urgently for them to follow. They then arrived at the same conduit and stairs they entered by, the inhuman creatures now only meters away. The friends raced to Davi, who quickly hit the switch twice to reverse the direction of the lift. Galen made the leap first, then Peyton and Noor. Together they helped Phoibe up, gasping at the pain in her arm and shoulder.

The lead creature made the jump, knife-length claws tearing into the edge of the lift. It was not much larger than any of them, protruding spine and faceless with rows of hideous sharp teeth. It was a color like jaundiced flesh, coated in the same mucus as the tunnels. Its shrill whine drew screams from all of the children as it climbed up, swinging wildly at anything in reach. It tore into Noor’s leggings and boot. Peyton and Galen pummeled it with kicks, pushing it back. It struck Peyton in the leg, knocking them down as blood spilled from an open wound. Noor grabbed Peyton pulling them away as Davi landed a kick hard enough to knock the beast almost completely off the lift. Phoibe could see the other two nearest predators were quickly taking alternate routes to the top floor to intercept them.

Galen and Phoibe continued kicking with their boot heels until the beast lost its grip on the edge, plummeting below.

 


The children emerged from the facility into moonlight, Galen and Noor supporting a badly injured Peyton as Davi helped Phoibe. They were running as fast as they could, but no where near fast enough to outrun the second and third of the creatures. The roar of the behemoth could be heard deep from inside. Across the grassy lot was a sudden burst of bright halogen lights. It was Noor’s mother, riding her hoverbike-like sparrow.

She dismounted the sparrow and unshouldered a long rifle in one smooth motion, the practiced aim of a seasoned sharpshooter. Two shots rang in the night, felling the pursuing monsters only steps from the facility. She kept her rifle steady on the exit as the children crossed the lot to where she waited. Others from the village soon arrived, embracing and tending to the children.

Noor stood by her mother, who did not look away from the direction the beasts had emerged. One by one, the words waiting on Noor’s lips fell away, watching instead her mother’s expression. Even as the others mounted up and started to ride back to the village, Noor and her mother remained there until it was quiet. Once they were alone, Noor’s mother finally turned to her.

Her expression was more of relief than disappointment, but Noor felt both just from a glance. She turned back to her sparrow, freeing a small, rolled rug from the side which she then laid out. As it unrolled, Noor could see inside a long stake fixed to a sealed radio housing and an expensive-looking antenna. She recognized the rug as one from their home that had been undisturbed at the bottom of a stack but had never seen the unusual piece of equipment. On the housing she recognized a symbol she had seen on gear used by soldiers of the Last City. From another saddlebag her mother withdrew a canister of reflective paint.

Noor watched quietly as her mother painted a large symbol on a clear spot of concrete barricade, two concentric half circles over a shape like a doorway. She then planted the device firmly in the ground nearby. With a click, she activated it. It started a steady blink and chimed out a distinct radio tone.

Her mother turned to face her, neither saying anything until after moment. “What of your sister’s football?” her mother asked finally.

Noor’s expression sank. The lengthy story of what they had been through inside danced across her features until she looked down, defeated. Meeting her mother’s eyes again she spoke up. “It’s still lost in there. I’m sorry.”

Her mother lifted Noor’s chin and pulled her into an embrace. She looked to the stars, and then the horizon. Noor looked too; her mother seemed to be scanning the night sky for something she expected to see.

“You’ll get it back”

Thank you for reading!

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

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

The Bookworm – part 2

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 2

 

Removing her headset, the security analyst had a question formed on her lips. On one monitor to her right, the scene at the chapel sat frozen with Hadda speaking to the Vikings, digital lines tearing through the image. What had they just watched?

“No, you cannot ‘alter’ history,” the senior analyst standing behind her began. The two perched at the machines at her desk with windows overlooking the metropolis behind them. There was virtually no one else on the floor and the lights were dimmed to minimal. Hers was the only station active out of rows of hundreds of desks. She had lost track of time; it was now past midnight. She nursed her coffee.

“The sequence record at rest is immutable,” he continued. “But by examining the attacker’s patterns and movements we can target and omit key data in transit in a way they might not immediately detect and lead them to draw conclusion they might not otherwise had.” The sharply dressed middle aged gentleman shifted as he explained further. He was boundlessly polite but had a manner of stepping into her space that could not be accidental. It was the body language of someone who knew power imbalance favored them. “Cautiously, though.”

He reached across her to pick up a glass bowl of assorted nuts and chocolate from her desk she had filled the prior morning. He shook it for effect, listening to the sound. “See, if I reach into this bowl and retrieve nothing, I will know right away there was a mistake.” He eyed her, popping one into his mouth. A storage array nearby clicked softly. “But if I reach in and retrieve only cashews, I might conclude it was a bowl of cashews.” He smiled, setting the bowl back down and taking a few steps to pace. “I love cashews.”

He is toying with you, she thought to herself while retaining her composure. Columns of data on the rogue animus frame danced in the corner of her eyes. She stifled a follow up question but could see in his eyes he read her intent. The puzzle was laid out before her, but to ask was a trap. He knew she would find something.

“What of the triangulation?” she changed topics. They had isolated both the circuit and geolocation of the attacker.

“Save it. Do nothing for now,” he said curtly. “This is the mistake the last team made, going to ground. This nuisance evaded us twice, they are too paranoid to fall for it a third time.”

“And their access?” She persisted.

“Leave it,” he stared out the window. “No firm could provide us the same data on the vulnerability as efficiently.”

She forced a sip from the bottom of her now cold coffee with a wince. She brought the data transit display to the forefront, eyes picking up on the strange phenomena she had noticed before. She restrained herself not to make eye contact with the senior analyst. Then a fresh slew of information began pouring in.

“Ah, the next sequence has begun,” he concluded. “I will get you another coffee?”

 

 

Hadda tapped the hull of the longship with her new boots idly as they cut across the glass smooth waters of the inlet. Boarding the swift vessel was even grander than she remembered it, filling her with a wild mix of butterflies and exhilaration. The cool sea breeze whipped at her hair. The men aboard greeted her as an esteemed guest; men that had unwavering loyalty to the woman who led them. Flush with garrison supplies and food, the fast attack ships now returned home.

Ahead rose rolling hillsides, many terminating in cliffs that crumbled into the river. It was not long before she could see their destination built into a sprawling wooded hillside above the estuary. Many great wooden homes and fortifications dotted the slope above a crude sandy dock. Partially constructed ships lined a stretch of the water, shining proudly in the early evening sun where workers continued to shape the wood.

Disembarking as they arrived, Hadda breathed deep the late autumn air. Up the slope a wiry older Northman stepped out from a covered forge and anvil near the shipyard. He looked down through the crowd of men to where she stood. With a nod from the woman who led the raid, he smiled wide.

“Hadda!?” the old shipwright called out in surprise, stepping carefully down towards her.

She felt a spark of recognition. He had been the smithy of her childhood settlement. She was barely tall enough to see onto his workbench at the time. He had not changed at all. She felt her eyes welling with tears at the sound of her name. “Torben?” she remembered.

“Giantess indeed!” he cried as he wrapped her in a warm embrace. “You are so tall!” he exclaimed, looking her over with a smile that split his face. She was just a hair taller than the heavily tattooed, bald elder.

Further up the hill a lone figure stood, robe flapping about him in the breeze. He supported himself standing with a shoulder-height apparatus of wood. He was not of Northman build, with tightly groomed black hair. Hadda felt a sudden chill as she realized he was staring down at them on the bank. He had one good leg: the other lost above the knee.

“That,” Torben paused as his expression became more serious. “That is Able. He is our scribe.” The began walking up the sandy approach. “He won’t bite, but I wouldn’t get too close either,” Torben winked with a grin.

Near where the first houses began Hadda could see others working in fields or preparing fish on several long hanging lines. An open sided stone grain mill sat opposite a large area with a few recessed stone ovens and cooking pits. The great lodge was nestled in trees beyond a wide-open circle where all the walking paths met at a well. Near the well a Northman stood with his daughter, Hadda would guess about ten years of age. Above them on one of the massive weight-bearing lodge beams, a single raven let out a resounding click.

The young girl approached Hadda at her father’s instruction, introducing herself as Brita. Brita was kind with piercing hazel-green eyes. She led Hadda through the village and introduced her to what seemed like every living soul before showing her where she would stay and keep her things. She had her own room and learned of the sad story of how it came to have no occupant.

Darkness had fallen and many gathered to eat and celebrate the successful raid. Brita led Hadda at last to the Viking woman who led the settlement; now sat at the mighty chair at the end of the long table in the lodge hall. In a corner Hadda spotted the scribe Able, who as before seemed to carry shadow with him.

“Hadda,” Brita began her introduction. “Meet Eivor, Wolf Kissed”

 

continued in part 3

The Bookworm

Art commission by @javi_draws

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

 

The Bookworm – part 1

 

Absolute Silence. Hanna peered through the thin gap at the door outside at the thick billowing fog that had settled in the dark hours before dawn. It was eerie how it seemed to suffocate all sound. She had been lying awake, but the long absence of even the creak of a tree limb alerted her to what else she could not hear, her warden’s horse. The same she had been responsible for putting to stable the prior night. She’d have no skin left after the lashing she was sure to receive.

Moving from near slumber to alert in an instant she quietly slipped out the door, confirming immediately her fears. The horse was no where to be seen, and the unusual fog and predawn false light seemed to have swallowed the entire village past the low stone fence at the edge of the yard. Even the bare limbs of the great tree she woke to every morning were but suggestions of a shape in the mist. She pulled her worn blanket over her arms and made her way into the yard.

She was afraid to call after the horse only to wake her warden or his mean-spirited son, Brandon. She scowled at the thought of his mocking sneer. Her cheek and eye still hurt from where he had struck her with a rock, but she got even. Her scowl twisted into a smile as she recalled his expression when he was told he would also be whipped for the rock fight he insisted she had started. So, what if she had? He was not the only of the children in the village who was mean, just the meanest. They teased her for being tall. For not having a family, and for where she was from. Most days quiet indifference stung worse than words, but Brandon clearly resented her.

She walked gingerly through the thorny grass in her bare feet until she had checked everywhere close to the small home. Winnifred had left, which was uncharacteristic for her after dark. Or Freyja, as Hanna would call her in solitude; as they both had two names.

Hanna made her way up the worn path toward the middle of the village, where the weathered stone chapel towered over the surrounding village and small garrison nearby. This was where she would usually walk the horse each morning. With a sigh of relief, she found Winnifred eating flowers near the great wooden chapel doors. She patted the horse lovingly as her gaze wandered to the darkened glass windows above. To her surprise there was a faint flicker of light from inside. She looked both ways, in one direction a lone watchman struggled to stay awake under his torch, and the other way not a soul in sight. Then she noticed one of the great wooden chapel doors was slightly ajar. Whispering a kind word to the horse, Hanna stepped closer to peek inside.

The light came from a few candles at a large table at the far end of the main chamber, where several parchments lay rolled next to a heavy bound book. A book she breathed, staring with wide eyes. The horse continued to graze on the bright petals nearby. Hanna looked twice and slipped into the chapel. Someone had been here just minutes before she was sure, but she could not contain her curiosity. Before she had come into the care of her warden, she had just started to learn letters and remained fascinated by reading. Sometimes she would lay awake dreaming of stories of ancient libraries told to her by the Skald who visited the settlement she grew up in, among her earliest memories which now felt like a life ago. A life when she lived with the Northmen.

She had been told she was of Saxon birth but taken young as a servant to invading Vikings. Sometimes she thought she could remember the longships, but her warden would chide her that she was far too young at the time to possibly recall that. He made no illusion of his disdain for her time there in servitude, which she now only recalled with fond memory. It was hard work, but life with the Northmen felt freer than the oppression she felt today. Since the soldiers saved her, as she was often reminded. Saved, as the settlement she grew up in was burnt and the Northmen scattered or killed. Saved, and given a new name they preferred the sound of.

Her feet had carried her carefully through the main chamber, expecting at any moment to discover somebody there. She reached the large table with no one else in sight. She studied the shadows intently; the candles could not have burnt as such for long. Then her eyes fixed on the prize at the center of the light, the lone massive book. Its reinforced cover was intricate leather work and precious stone inlays. Surely this was too valuable to just be carelessly left out. The edge of the pages shone like gold. Midway through the pages there was a disturbed edge, as if it had been handled roughly. She opened it to the spot. The brilliant colors leapt off the page into her eyes like a vivid dream. Illustrations of men dressed like kings and row after row of careful tight script filled the page. She noticed a bit of the prior page was torn. No, not torn, an entire page was missing but for a corner. Who would damage such a priceless wonder?

She turned her attention to the rolls of parchment. One was held flat by the candle and a decorative knife. This looked like something a man she had seen at the garrison carrying. Neat rows of words paired with numbers. A list of things for the soldiers, she guessed. A sudden waver in the light caught her attention. A draft came from the door, now open wide. She heard hurried footsteps outside, but they were not coming for her. Winnifred made a nervous sound. Next, she heard the village bell.

They were being attacked.

The garrison was alive with commotion as soldiers rushed to down the hill towards the banks of the river where she could hear the first indistinct sounds of men shouting, weapons striking shields and the dull rumble of many boots. She could smell smoke. Then from nearby a familiar voice, Brandon. He had spotted Winnifred and was trying to guide the horse, who was objecting. Winnifred did not like him and when he got frustrated the horse listened even less.

“Hanna!” Brandon yelled out as he struggled with the horse before repeating his cry. He had come searching for her and the horse.

Hanna reverently closed the wondrous book and pinched the candles out as she prepared to quickly leave. Outside she found Brandon red in the face and dressed in a riding coat. In his fist he had doubled the end of a rope and was rising his hand to strike the defiant horse. Hanna caught his fist, gaze locked steady with his. In the eyes of the slightly older boy a flicker of fear, quickly replaced by anger.

“We have to go,” he shouted at her. “Now!”

Hanna took the tack and bridle from Brandon and helped put it on Winnifred, soothing the horse until Brandon was able to mount. She caught herself looking back into the chapel at the now dark table and book. Her feet felt heavy, something was amiss and even with the approaching din of battle she felt compelled to sort out why. Who had been there minutes before her looking at the book?

“Come on!” Brandon bellowed at her. Then, a burning arrow struck near where they stood. The glow of burning roofs from down the hill now illuminated the fog with a harrowing light.

“Freyja, go!” Hanna commanded, a crack in her voice. Hanna refused to get on with him. To Brandon’s protest the horse obediently started towards their home without her. Hanna trusted she would get them there, where his father was surely waiting so they could flee. She watched as they disappeared.

Footsteps approached where the watchman one stood, and Hanna slipped back inside the chapel and quickly hid in an adjoining chamber not far from the table. Two Vikings, one of broad shoulders with a bloodied great axe and the other taller, older with numerous scars and one blind eye. The latter carried a torch as they pushed open the chapel doors and began rummaging for anything of value. It did not take long for the elder of the two to come to a standstill at the table. She could hear them discussing something they were looking for; the book she now held where she hid. She recognized the dialect. They were not of the same ätt as her childhood family, but one she remembered to be a neighbor with a storied history of raiding.

A third raider approached the chapel. “Is it here?” the woman called to the two men as she entered. Her torchlight quickly met near where the others were searching, just narrowly out of Hanna’s line of sight. Her idea of sneaking out the door when they moved to search the rear of the great chamber was seeming a little less bright by the minute. The Vikings split up, turning through coffers and shelves, torch light casting long shadows everywhere. Slowly they made their way to the rear of the chamber as Hanna had hoped.

Hanna tip toed from her hiding spot and made a quiet dash to the door, only to come face to face with the keen point of an axe. The woman raider was taller than her, rows of blond braids framing her war painted face. “Ooh,” the woman spoke in a sing-song tone as Hanna froze. “Light reading?” She joked, lowering her axe. The other men stood near silently as if by command, watching. Outside the sounds of fighting was growing quiet. Hanna smelled rain.

“Someone was here,” Hanna replied in the tongue of her youth. All three raiders expressions shifted in response. “There are pages torn out,” she continued as she handed the book to the woman.

They opened the book; the eldest let out a whistle of appreciation. Observing the same missing pages she closed the book and began checking the situation outside. “Girl, what is your name?” the Viking woman demanded. “Do you read?”

“Hanna,” she replied, clearing her throat. “I mean, Hadda” she corrected bashfully. “And no. I want to learn to read.” She added.

The woman turned to face her directly. “How do you feel about sailing?”

 

continued in part 2

Speculative Assassin’s Creed Short Story, part 6

pirate woman on ship looks to the skies
Art commission by AyshaArt ig @k.ayshaart

This is an untitled speculative short fiction set in the world of Assassin’s Creed

This is the conclusion of this story. Read part 1 here

Part 6 – The Ship of Legend

Farah sat soaking the Miami midday sun at the window seat bar in the Bistro just across the street from the plainly labeled datacenter complex. Social media giant operations personnel chatted opsec secrets loudly adjacent to public safety IT analysts. Everyone here was in a technical field of some manner or another. The cute Puerto Rican gentleman waiting tables flashed a toothy smile at her and made a hand gesture to ask if she was doing ok or needed a refill on her drink.

It was a scorching Miami summer day, where the streets were freshly painted asphalt or concrete. No car under a hundred thousand euros to be found; no building without vibrant street art in sight. Her ride from the airport only briefly interrupted to check into her hotel room in the bay, she had met the engineer who would escort her into the datacenter where the animus bed was hiding in plain sight. The elderly gentleman, a Boston native Russian with cartoonishly wild white hair provided her with an access key card prepared already with her photo, assumed name and a sticky note with a key code in plain red print. He made two impossibly cliché “in the motherland” jokes in the span of ten minutes. Who was this clown? Nadji seemed to know him well. Nadji was to attend lunch with her, but received a text message he would not read out loud and departed with short notice. She still had not heard from him.

She hit the bottom of her glass of water with a loud buzz of her straw, momentarily pausing every spoken conversation in the restaurant. The waiter laughed, and without asking produced a different drink that looked like ice and milk with a dash of cinnamon. Farah thanked him and took a sip. It was overwhelmingly sweet with a hint of rice. “What is this drink called?” she asked through a mock expression of disgust.

“Venezuelan chicha” he laughed with a wink. Farah felt a rush of color in her cheeks. Did he just serve her alcohol at lunch? Then there was a tinkling of the bell on the door. Sitting down at the only free stool left in the place, the one next to Farah, was Farah’s mother.

“Is it five o’clock already?” her mother’s tone was like knives at play.

Farah’s face stung. She could only imagine her expression. No one else in the bistro noticed.

“I thought you were in-“ Farah started, mind hitting racing speed in an instant.

“The only place on Earth I knew you would not follow,” her mother replied as if she had recited it in her head for this very moment. Neither said the name; the following silence was mutual.

“Then where?” Farah trailed off, anticipating disappointment.

“Inside,” her mother said with gravity. She watched Farah draw a conclusion before speaking again. “She was a remarkable woman, was she not?” The smile that followed was genuine. The first Farah had seen of her mother in years.

The conversation did not resume until they were safely inside the datacenter. The dull business grey partitions and privacy screened rows of machines were grander than any she had seen. The elderly engineer hummed a limerick of some sort in front of a small display. Compared to the underground hacker space, this looked more like they had misplaced a tanning bed at a mall print kiosk. The animus frame looked nothing like the other model, maybe an entire decade older without a preformed body recess or body sensors. A wheel-about medical sensor with just two monitor cables sat idle nearby. Hiding in plain sight, indeed.

Her mother quietly filled Farah in on what felt like years of their mutual ancestor’s history as she had experienced it. They determined they had in fact experienced the same brief island encounter following the sinking the first ship she had commanded. As it turns out, it was not the last one she lost. They talked for hours, eventually catching up in real life too. It was a funny thought, to be discussing multiple timelines and lives that connected them. One detail remained: How did Abstergo not already have this ship, the most feared pirate vessel of all time? Her captain’s death was well documented history.

The tone of the conversation turned somber; her mother sinking as if she was retelling a death. Because, she was. She had pursued the ship and her crew, commanding what to that day had been the deadliest ship to sail the South Asian Sea. She lost the battle and her crew. As she struggled to keep her own head above water, she desynchronized. Farah’s mother then told how she went into cardiac arrest in the animus frame – the same they now sat beside – and had to be resuscitated, followed by urgent surgery. She believed that was the end of the story. She found the ship of legend and died for it. Nearly twice.

The elderly gentleman stopped humming. “Ah yes, but there was more data.” He laughed at his own thoughts. “She was desynchronized just a third of the way into the memory frame. The subject lived to be 55!” he explained proudly.

“I cannot go back,” Farah’s mother mourned. “I cannot risk it so soon after the surgery”

Farah got excited. “Abstergo never found it because it did not sink? So, you put me back in at that point and I pursue the ship!”

Her mother nodded with a renewed smile. Everything started to come together, and they powered up the machine. Farah kept looking to the door to see if Nadji would show up. She checked her phone more than once, even though he had technically never properly texted her in the plain. The minutes grew closer together and soon she was lying on the unremarkable glass bed with coffin style lid looming over her. Sensors connected, injections complete and lights out.

Pinpoints of shadowless light, shifting lines and a return of her alter self’s strength. She was filled with even more vigor and cunning than before. Her mind blazed at the rush of collected memories. Above, the cry of an eagle. She had grown to know this sound, it was one that reassured her she would somehow always come out on top, no matter how dire the circumstances. No matter how unlikely she was to survive a leap from incredible heights.

She was on the deck of a ship, tied to a wooden chair at a small uneven table. Her armor and weapons were gone. Her head tied firmly back, the very center of her gaze on the great Black Flag above.

The ships captain approached, full crew at attention. A flagon of mead in one hand he sat down in front of her.

“Marry me” he proposed loudly, slamming down his flagon. “For today we return to the Caribbean!”

Farah could not contain her shock. “I’ll do no such thing!”. He crumbled, first with the anger of a man who despises being told no, then rejection. Sorrow faded into resignation and long silence. He finished his mead.

“Very well, then” he concluded and stood up to leave. “Cut her loose,” he commanded. “Return her weapons. It would be a shame if she expired.” His once boisterous crew was silent as the grave, producing one small rowboat and a blanket wrapped around a few pieces of armor and her trusted cutlass. They waited until she and the boat were lowered into the water and free of the ropes before throwing down the wrapped equipment.

There was no land in sight.

Farah’s pulse would not soon relent. The nerve!

She woke the following morning, momentarily confused that she had fallen asleep in the animus and woke up still there like the rowboat was her forever home. There was a silent image in her mind. A sidebar note on a Wikipedia page. Her page.

Died       3 December 1737 (aged 55). Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.           

Her brow furrowed first in silent revelation, then confusion. “No, that was definitely NOT Captain Edward Kenway!”

Furiously, she unwrapped her equipment. A few belts, bags, the cutlass and a familiar leather bracer with three buckled straps. With a flick of her wrist, she looked to the horizon.

In the distance, a lone Brig. Above, an eagle.

Thank you for reading!

Speculative Assassin’s Creed Short Story, part 5

pirate woman on ship looks to the skies
Art commission by AyshaArt ig @k.ayshaart

This is an untitled speculative short fiction set in the world of Assassin’s Creed

read part 1 here

Part 5 – Remembrance

A curse passed her lips. Farah remembered the woman’s name; it was not her memory alone but one she shared with her ancestor. It was her ancestor.

“Excuse me?” Naomi blinked. The dark-haired woman and Farah both lay in a tangle of sensor wires at the feet of the toppled animus frame. The once illuminated bed she lay in was dark. The air was thick with the sour smell of burnt copper.

Farah repeated the name to blank stares.

“The astronomer?” Nadji asked, surprised. “Not a pirate?”

“Yes,” Farah replied. “But also, a pirate,” she corrected herself.

Ray sprung into action. “Hell, she has her own Wikipedia page with verified dates of life events.” There was a long, grim silence as the page loaded before them nearly as quickly as Farah realized she was about to read how she dies.

How she died.

Children. Grand Children. Died peacefully. Farah openly wept.

No one spoke.

One by one the computer monitors went dark, after each another fan that was silent. The broken animus bed and associated equipment was loaded into an empty freight elevator. She was told the rest would be collected by an asset recovery and destruction crew after they had disappeared. Farah’s thoughts returned to home and her Nana. She looked at her phone, thinking about how often no one cared to check the phone at home when it rang and how often Nana refused to clear or even pay mind to app notifications on her mobile. Pages of unanswered text messages lit Farah’s face as she sent another. She called and there was no answer.

“Good news!” Nadji exclaimed out of nowhere with the joy of someone who had just picked up a pizza. Farah stared. He had her suitcases.

“How?” Farah stammered.

“The police,” Nadji answered with a wicked grin. “You caused a wreck.” Nadji paused to consider his next words. “I told them you were hurt and went to the hospital and they believed me. They let me have the bags.”

“They have you on record?” Naomi’s voice went from calm to urgent. Nadji hesitated.

“That reminds me,” Nadji pivoted suddenly. “We have another bed!” Everyone blinked.

That reminds you?” Naomi was hot.

“Yeah,” Nadji’s expression became his game face. “We have a plane to catch.”

“I just figured you had met someone,” Nana laughed. “I’m fine thank you. Your Babu’s boat though has a new leak.” Earlier in the phone call Nana had also mentioned it was raining, which Farah could hear was accompanied by some wind. Nana wrapped up the call with a kind word, reassuring Farah slightly. Farah had kept to the story Nadji invented and did not mention her new friends. The hospital, a wreck, her found luggage.

Farah and Nadji sat at the small airport terminal, one in a partition out near where sea planes took off. It was the only one capable of transporting both them and the damaged bed within the time frame they had available. Naomi had produced a flawless fake passport and associated visa papers out thin air, congratulating her on her attached college recommendation with a flourish. The praise in the letter was almost excessive. Farah worried it would draw attention and was still juggling the arithmetic of how she was already a legal resident before she even arrived. Harder still to process is how going to America was going to get them closer to locating something lost in the South Asian Sea.

The animus bed, obviously. Nadji’s contact had come through in spades, and although Farah did not hear the whole of the conversation it sounded like the bed was not even in the U.S. yet. It was en route from London.

While in confidence earlier Nadji had explained to Farah that Abstergo was so close to the trail of the team that did the other hack that they were accidentally ahead of themselves when they tracked her down. Abstergo was after the other team; the other team was after her. The men she had seen were Abstergo contracted private military who believed Farah was already in-network. It was sheer luck, the span of one night, that they ruled her a false positive match outside the job faire.

Nadji had procured the hacked animus bed, which the second group of London-based hackers now needed to get rid of. Abstergo was certain to notice the bed they had pinned to the bug bounty showing up connected to the network, no matter from where. A move so risky it may work. Naomi and Ray each disappeared separate ways. Farah would not meet them again.

Unprompted, Farah began laughing quietly. “They took one look at me with food on my face and knew I was not a threat.” Farah wiped away a tear as she retold the story of the night at the job faire as Nadji doubled over laughing.

Next stop, Miami.

(this story concludes in pt 6!)

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