I dabble across most media, but focus predominantly on writing.
Taking a break from novels I've decided to work on a series of flash fiction based on the illustrations of some of the amazing artists here on DA!
(~1500 words across any image/genre I feel like.)
This keeps me writing, provides me with a challenge, and stimulates ideas for future works.
The pieces I choose to work with and 'caption' vary, based almost entirely on my mood. I believe that art is highly personal, and hugely subjective, so the interpretation I take on artists' work is solely my own. If the artist has chosen to provide a short quote/story/thought with their work then I will potentially include this in my efforts, or work around it, though this is at my own discretion.
All artists' work will be linked and heavily credited. If through some oversight I have failed to do this please let me know and I will correct as soon as possible!
Finally, if I have chosen to caption your work and you are unhappy with me doing so, please let me know and I will of course remove the image. The words will remain, though without the wonderful accompaniment. I will be sad, but it's your work and I will always respect your wishes.
The wind crept through the trees, its gentle caress flustering the snow as it tumbled from the sky, the branches and limbs of the forest creaking and swaying in the cool night air. Hanging on the wind, clinging to its wings, the sounds of the festival seeped out over the forest; the chatter of the crowds, the bark of the vendors, the rhythmic thump of the drums.
Taki paused, one hand steady against a tree trunk as he listened, rotating slowly on the spot as he tried to home in on the noise. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been walking, how far he’d wandered into the woods, but he seemed to be deep enough that pinpointing the heart of the festival had become all but impossible. The dense crowding of trees around him curtained off any hint of the festival’s glittering abundance of light, and the thick trunks seemed to reverberate and thump in time to the beat of its drums, masking their origin.
He wasn’t scared as yet; he was a big boy, almost six, and though the woods were unfamiliar in the dark of night he knew them well enough from his daytime play that he felt confident he’d eventually find his way. The mountain was his home after all, his family’s house one of the few scattered across its lower incline. He was more concerned about preserving the state of his clothes, his crisp, clean festival robe threatening to snag at any moment on one of the forest’s spiky barbs, his clunky and cumbersome traditional shoes plotting constantly as to how best they could topple him end over end onto the muddy forest floor.
Casting another quick look in all directions, he set off toward where he hoped the woods would prove less dense, and he’d have a better chance of orienting himself. He’d wandered just five minutes or so when he stopped and tried again, his eyes straining in the dark, his ears focused on the effort. The only light that showed itself however was the soft glow of the moon, shining high above him, and the clearest sound was that of his stomach, softly rumbling to remind him of his hunger. The thump and chorus of the festival was still faintly present, so he knew he couldn’t have strayed that far, and his mouth watered at the thought of the snacks he could have on his return; deep fried chicken, octopus balls, buttered potato, grilled squid…
He wiped at his lips and set off again, his pace determined even if his sense of navigation was not.
“Are you lost, little one?” a voice asked from the shadows off to his right. “The festival is the other way, you know.”
He hesitated, gazing curiously into the darkness. “It is?” he asked. “Are you sure?”
“Oh yes,” his visitor replied, stepping from behind a nearby tree trunk and emerging into the light. “Not all that far, just a little ways.”
Taki considered this information, studying the stranger. At first glance he appeared a typical festival goer, his robes snug and well-fitting across his frame, a conical straw hat pulled low on his head, however this was where the similarities drew to a close. His skin was grey and mottled, like cloudy scum floating in a stagnant pond, his feet were long and pointed, hinging powerfully at the ankles, nails extending like gleaming talons, and a tall spindly horn emerged from a carefully-placed hole in his hat. As the newcomer lifted his head, tilting it to the side quizzically, an exceptionally wide mouth emerged, rows of jagged teeth glittering in the pale moonlight, and a large, solitary, central eye stared out.
Taki thought a moment, and then pointed back the way he’d come. “Just over there?” he asked.
The creature shook its head. “A little to the right. I can lead you if you’d like?”
“That would be helpful,” Taki replied gratefully, “if you’re going that way.”
“I am,” the creature smiled, stepping toward him and then loping slowly past. “I was planning to meet some friends there.”
Taki turned and followed the being as it ambled through the trees. “That’s nice,” he nodded. “I’m just there with my mother. I hope she’s not too worried, I only wanted to explore on my own a little.”
“I’m sure we’ll find her soon enough,” the creature grinned, its gait sure and unhurried. “Don’t you worry now.”
Taki shrugged. “I’m not worried. I wander off a lot, she’s kind of used to it.”
Ahead of him, his guide chuckled, shooting him a quick smile over its shoulder as it sauntered steadily on.
They walked like that for a time, trudging slowly in the darkness, leaf litter crunching beneath their feet, before the creature finally cast him a curious glance. “You are not afraid of me, little one?”
“No, not really,” Taki mused after a short deliberation. “Should I be, Mister? You don’t seem all that scary. Unusual maybe, but that’s about it. Besides, it’s festival time, and they do say that we come together on this night to celebrate the magic of the mountain.”
His guide giggled musically, its laugh sounding like the tinkling of a dozen tiny cymbals. “Most people don’t actually believe that anymore,” it smiled. “But I’m glad you think like that, and you can call me Yokai.”
Taki nodded, giving the creature his own name even as he dwelled on its. It was said that yokai were mystic apparitions, capable of any number of impossible feats, though the majority of stories he’d heard surrounded acts of dastardly villainy, and fearsome deeds. Had he perhaps made a mistake in following this being?
He was pulled from his musings by a scattering of light appearing up ahead, dancing and glittering amid the trees. As they drew closer the elusive beating of the festival drums, which had seemed to ring out all around him in the heart of the forest, narrowed and focused, and with their aid he recognised the twinkling glow for what it was; the festival lanterns, obscured by just a thin barrier of woodland.
“We’re here,” Yokai nodded, confirming the unspoken question. “And my friends tell me you can find your mother at the central fountain.”
Taki smiled. The fountain was the meeting place they’d agreed upon in the event they were separated, so it made sense that she would be there. “Thank you, Yokai,” he bowed. “You were a very helpful guide.”
The creature shrugged, its giant eye winking at him bashfully. “My pleasure. I hope you enjoy the rest of the festival.”
Taki bowed once more and turned to go, eager to slip through the trees and find his mother, when he saw the apparition raise a staying hand.
“You should know,” the creature cautioned with a smile, “now that I’ve shown myself to you, the others of my kind will likely not mask their presence to you either. Well, it’s not like anyone will believe you anyway…”
Taki nodded, confused though he was by the yokai’s words, and hurried on his way. Soon enough, he was once again amidst the bustling crowds of the festival, the music swarming all around him, the scent of grilled meat lingering in the air, laughter bursting all around. Though it was not that long since he had left, his eyes took it all in anew, for in his absence the festival had truly changed. As he wandered along the row of food vendors he stared at the strange and altered sights of the stalls; the animal-headed creatures tending the grills, a many-limbed woman manning a cotton candy stand, and an umbrella that stuck its tongue out at him gaily as it bounced happily by. In the chilled night sky, floating above the lanterns, glimmering fish swum and danced, chasing one another and vibrating to the music of the drums, the falling snow flurrying in their wake. He watched as a woman lounging on a wall ahead of him removed her festival mask, revealing a face not dissimilar to that of a fox, multiple furry tails slipping from beneath her robe and coiling affectionately around her leg. A game stall operator grinned at him as he passed, its five-meter-long neck writhing and wriggling as it retrieved prizes and tokens for patrons. Throughout it all, humans milled and cavorted, enjoying the festivities, seemingly blind to the other-worldly creatures all around them.
Before he knew it, he had retraced his steps to the fountain, his mother’s lips breaking into a beaming smile as her eyes found his. As he approached her, a small winged apparition alighting on his shoulder and waving at him merrily, he considered telling her all that he could see, all that was happening around her, that she had failed to notice.
However, he knew that ultimately the yokai was right. After all, who would actually believe him, and willingly accept a reality seen through the unfiltered eyes of a child?
His pencil moved by itself, marks left on the paper free and haphazard, his eyes drifting to and fro, his mind somewhere else.
Everybody had an escape, be it meditation, alcohol, music, games, sport… For him it was drawing. It had been for as long as he could remember. Were he paying attention, the world around him would transfer to the page, his pencil capturing it as well as any camera, if not better, for he could mould the scene to his will before it even graced the paper’s pristine canvas. With his thoughts wandering, as they were now, reality would vanish from the page entirely, overwhelmed by flights of fancy. During such times he gave no conscious direction, paid no great heed to the movements of his fingers, and was often surprised when he returned his attention to his sketchbook and gazed upon the creations birthed thereon. There was little in the way of pattern; abstract shapes, mythical creatures, swirling vortices; each came and went as they pleased. There was one exception, which cropped up time and time again, and stirring from his reverie, glancing down at the fresh sketch resting on his lap, he saw he’d done it again.
A gentle smile tugged at his lips as he gazed into familiar eyes.
“Hello again,” he whispered.
Did one ever really get over their first love? Perhaps emotionally, mentally, even physically. Somewhere though, deep down, engraved in a place that transcended these arbitrary categorisations, a mark always remained; a token of their passing, a memento of their touch, a reminder of their presence.
How many years had it been? How many decades? How many others in between had come and gone, forgotten and lost to the dust of discarded memory, yet still he remembered her?
His fingers continued their steady work, life seeping from his pencil’s tip, and her form grew; curves he knew well became sure across the page, a figure recognisable to him from practically any angle emerging from the canvas, a face he’d never forget staring back at his own.
They’d been young, so very young, when they’d found one another. He’d dated before, had partners for a time, but none touched him the way she did; none pulled at him as she could; none made his heart skip simply by walking into a room. Looking back, he didn’t recognise himself. He became a different person when he was with her, a bundle of nerves treading so carefully, so confused by his own swirling emotions, unsure of how to even function in her presence.
Their first date, he thought his heart would explode inside his chest, and all he’d done was find the courage to hold her hand. They didn’t kiss until the fourth, and by then he knew he was bewitched, his every waking moment filled with thoughts of her. He counted down the time till he could see her next, revelled in every second he spent with her, and strove to extend them all as much as he was able. She became his best friend, his lover, his everything.
Unfortunately, giving your heart to another carries risk. Investing them with all of your emotions, your thoughts, your passions, can be a double-edged sword.
When they loved, their hearts sang.
When they fought, they were torn asunder.
He couldn’t recall the first disagreement; these things start small, and whilst the picture remains the fine details fade with time. Likely it was a series of miniature slights, tiny grievances and minor faults, which snowballed into the first of the significant indiscretions. They loved one another though, so it was no surprise when they came back together, each willing to overlook the past, begin anew.
He was young.
He didn’t know you couldn’t simply forget the past; it’s not that easy. The seed of their destruction was planted, and he didn’t even realise, could never see it to weed it out. For years they tried, but it was never the same. Something inside had broken, and it was never repaired. The trust was gone, and no relationship could survive without it.
Their story played out on repeat, the same mistakes recurring over and over, their love forcing them back together every time. He didn’t know how he could love so much, yet be so miserable…
Until he put love aside, and stepped away.
With his heart silenced, his head regained control. Under its guidance, they were done, and would never be joined again. For a long time he ached, his heart yearning for something his head denied it, but gradually it began to fade; the feelings he had been swept away with, overwhelmed by, slowly diminished, until they disappeared altogether, and he was free.
Looking down at her now, tracing her familiar lines, he knew that he still loved her. He knew he likely always would. However, he knew that his love had changed. He loved her not as a soulmate, but as a figure from his past; someone who had gifted him with the treasure that was love, helped him to experience the rollercoaster that was its passing, and shown him just another facet of an altogether indefinable, incredible construct.
The girl birthed upon his page was gone; a fragment of memory, that was all. She no longer existed in this world, overwritten and replaced long ago by the woman she had become; a woman he would treasure always, but walk beside no more.
Staring down at her now, the child who slipped from his pencil time and time again, he felt no remorse. She had hurt him more badly than he had thought it possible to hurt, but she had helped him too. He had learned from her, become the man he was today as a result of their two paths crossing. He knew now what love was, and what it could be. He had been ready for it when it came again.
As for her, the love of his past, the first he had ever known, the one who had ultimately tortured him so, he felt no anger, no regrets; just love.
Always, and forever.
I can’t remember the last time I slept. A few minutes here or there, a jerk of my head, and that’s it. I’m back on my feet, I’m running again.
It’s the sound. That’s what comes first, that’s what I hear, that’s what sends shivers down my spine, that’s what pushes me to my feet. That awful, scraping sound. Like branches scratching along a car door, clacking incessantly, striving to get in. I stand in a hurry, my heart racing, and I run.
I used to be happy. I didn’t appreciate it at the time; I bitched and moaned about the little things, complaining when people talked at the cinema, or when I got cut up in traffic. Now though, now that I can’t remember a time I wasn’t looking back over my shoulder, now I realise how fortunate I really was. It may not have been a glamorous life, perhaps. It wasn’t smooth sailing all the way. It wasn’t a continuous stream of jokes and laughter. But damnit, it wasn’t this. It wasn’t this…
I’ve nodded off again, my head jerking upright as I blink my eyes wide, straining my ears. I listen, frozen in place, my body screaming at me to move but my mind knowing I need to listen first. I need to know where it’s coming from. I need to make sure I don’t run headlong straight into it.
My limbs are fighting me, my legs, exhausted though they are, pleading with me to use them, to stand and flee before it’s too late. My arms are gripping my thighs, straining to hold them at bay, my fingers digging in so hard I know I’ll have bruises, though these are the least of my concerns.
The world fades away. People disappear, dissolving from my sight; they don’t hear what I hear, they don’t see what I see, they are nothing to me. Everything is quiet, so deathly quiet. Without the noise of the normal world, the sounds of the city that everyone else hears, I’m left with a vacuum; a void of sound, the silence unnatural and cold.
At the edge of my hearing, barely noticeable, but there all the same.
I leap to my feet, sprinting to my left, darting away from it. My concentration released, the world of noise slams back into me full force, people blinking into existence before my eyes, and I’m darting and weaving, jostling, bumping, and pushing without regard. Curses follow in my wake, and I feel a hand close on my shoulder, an angry face thrust into my own. An unexpected pirouette, a wild flail of my arms toward his eyes, and I’m free. An explosion of expletives, but I’m already underway, the distance growing. They won’t follow; they’re not like the one that hunts me, never giving up, never slowing down, always on my tail.
I’ve lost time though, the altercation stilling me for a moment in my flight. I know I shouldn’t, but I need to know how badly I’ve been set back. A glance over my shoulder, that’s all it would take. Just a small peek. I shouldn’t; I shouldn’t; I shouldn’t.
But I must.
It’s gaining. Stalking me through the crowd, who melt and flow around it like fish in a stream, not even aware they’re doing it. I wonder if I was ever the same, back when I was one of them, ambling temporarily off my path, returning to it a moment later, not realising what I’d done. I wonder this, even as I scream.
My foot has stepped into nothing but air, and swinging my eyes back around I watch helpless as I fall, the staircase arriving without warning, gravity sucking me down. I shouldn’t have looked; I knew I shouldn’t have looked; I should have stayed focused on where I was going.
My hands shoot out, grasping for anything to break my fall. Looks of surprise greet me, as I plough right into them. The crowd totters and tumbles, like pins at a bowling alley, and I ride atop, scrambling to get my feet back under me. Moans and complaints start up, a sea of them, with me clawing above, tumbling over and over.
When I reach the bottom, arriving on my back and out of breath, I see it looming above me, perched at the top of the staircase, gazing down. It’s frozen in place, and for a moment I think I’m safe; the people aren’t on their feet, they can’t flow out of its way, it’s stuck. However, this is short-lived. Though they’re scattered and broken, heaped and dumped haphazardly across the stairs, still they begin to move. A gap appears, a space in the crowd, and it takes its first step down; a twisted foot thumps onto the stair, its skin mottled and dead, its arrival noticeable only to me. Another gap, another step, the distance closing as it stalks toward me, the sea of humanity closing behind it as it comes.
The noise returns, that familiar scraping clack, so close I can practically feel it. I stare at my pursuer, my limbs pumping with little success at the squirming mass of flesh beneath me, my escape slowed. Its body is a veritable pincushion, arrow shafts jutting from all angles, its head a dandelion of spines. Its stomach is criss-crossed by wounds, blood the colour of ink staining its unearthly pallor. Its bony hands are massive, the fingertips black and deathly, the skin raw and burned. It must have lived for centuries, had countless brave souls stand up to it and unleash their fury, but the thing simply doesn’t die.
I fall backward, the tide of people at an end, concrete once more solid underfoot.
I turn and scramble up, fleeing as fast as I am able. What hope do I have, when so many others have clearly failed?
Behind me, the abrasive clack steadily follows; the shafts of its many arrows grating along the walls, scratching and scraping as it hunts.
My feet are exhausted, my legs utterly drained, but what other option is there?
All I can do is run.
What would you do, in order to succeed?
How far would you go?
What would you be willing to sacrifice?
Standing in the sunlight shining mutedly through the workshop window, her skin prickling like goose flesh despite the gentle warmth of the room, she swallowed heavily and pondered.
Eight years ago, when she’d first set out to become a tailor of repute, she would never have thought she’d stoop to something like this. However, eight years ago she would not have realised how critical an apprenticeship was to her future success. Wherever she went, however she tried to launch her career, that was the only thing people ever seemed to want to know; who had she apprenticed for? Potential patrons, money lenders, shop keeps; that’s all they ever asked, before they shut the door in her face. Frustratingly, even established tailors demanded the same of her; the very people she needed to give her the apprenticeship she so desperately required, wanted her to have already had one with someone else!
She’d been on the verge of giving up, her purse rapidly dwindling, her reserves running out, when she’d stumbled on the notice; pinned up in the village square, the paper worn, its edges frayed, the handwriting rushed and near-illegible, but containing that all-important phrase ‘no experience req.’
She’d practically danced on the spot, before she saw the advertiser’s mark scrawled across the bottom of the page; Master Varun. She’d heard of him, of course. Everybody had. The man was practically a nobody, notoriously brusque and ill-tempered, and hardly the illustrious veteran she’d ideally choose to place herself under, however at this point she didn’t see any other option.
She’d presented herself to him immediately, almost sprinting from the square to his small workshop, her mind racing with the fear that if she didn’t hurry she’d arrive just in time, against all odds, to see the position given to somebody else. As it was, when she ran breathless through his door, a bell clattering loudly to announce her arrival, she found the front room of his workshop deserted. The Master himself only emerged from behind a curtain on her fifth calling, his attitude one of irritation and boredom in near equal measure. He’d listened to her application stone-faced, cast a calculating, and somewhat disconcerting, look over her, and then without ceremony simply told her to head into the backroom and get undressed. Speechless, she’d been unable to utter a word of protest before he disappeared upstairs into what she assumed were his living quarters. She’d hesitated, practically vibrating on the spot as she debated whether to storm out or go along with his instruction. In the end she’d given in, moving away from the entrance and toward the dingy curtain, though not without a great deal of heartache.
Now, standing naked in the backroom, she thought again on what she was willing to sacrifice in order to succeed. Her pride? Her dignity? Her honour? How much did her dreams really mean to her?
She was still debating with herself, moments away from gathering her clothes and fleeing the workshop altogether, when Master Varun brushed past the curtain and stepped unceremoniously into the room.
He cast one look at her, his arms full of fabric and tools, before rolling his eyes and moving to one of the side benches to unload his cargo. “I said ‘undress’, not ‘strip’,” he grumbled, his voice full of gravel and vinegar. “I need an apprentice, not a trollop.”
She stared at him for what felt like an eternity, her eyes wide and uncomprehending. She was still lost for words when he finished his preparations and turned back to her, observing her continued naked state with a quick and dissatisfied glance.
“Get dressed, damn you!” he growled, glaring at her as he crossed his hairy bear-like arms over his barrel chest. “We’re fitting a corset, not a petticoat!”
Snapping out of her daze she scurried for her clothes, cursing her own misstep. She couldn’t believe her interpretation of his command had been so inaccurate, and prayed she hadn’t blown her only chance at securing the apprenticeship. Blushing crimson, she struggled back into her leggings and chemise, only pausing in her mad rush to re-don her coverings when Master Varun barked at her to stop.
“That’s enough!” he cried, advancing on her with a package of material held tightly in his hands. “Now put this on and stand over in the light where I can see you.”
Nodding sheepishly, aware of the heat still radiating from her face, she took the bundle, supressing her surprise at its weight, and moved in the direction indicated. Standing once more in the beam of sunlight, she unrolled the fabric and stared at the unusual piece of clothing now in her hands.
“What is this?” she asked, gazing at the unconventional blending of metal and cloth.
“I told you, it’s a corset!” replied Master Varun, his tone gruff and irritable. “Now would you hurry up and put it on! I don’t have all day and this is a rush order.”
Blinking in surprise, she nodded again and began slipping her arms through the shoulder straps. The fabric, somewhat coarse, rubbed uncomfortably over her forearms as she stared at the irregular design. Unlike most corsets, this piece went up to the neck, flaring with lapels like a man’s jacket. Dipping her head, she passed it through the relevant gap and shrugged herself into the corset proper. Immediately, she noticed the weight of the contour hugging metal which covered her chest, pulling down on her neck and shoulders.
“It’s like a breastplate,” she whispered incredulously, staring down at the gleaming curves.
“There’s buttons for the shirt collar and tie,” Master Varun gestured impatiently. “Get those done so I can start lacing you up.”
Glancing down awkwardly at the corset’s lapels, she realised the tailor was right; a second set lifted up from the first, coming together to button at the neck and resembling to all outward appearances a man’s formal shirt, complete with elaborate cravat.
She caught a glimpse of herself in a corner mirror as Master Varun started adeptly securing the garment, the laces flicking from hand to hand faster than she could follow, the corset tightening around her as he worked. It was a masterpiece; clean, fashionable lines; feminine, but with bold masculine undertones; sleeveless, yet still managing to appear distinctly formal at the same time.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to simply don an undershirt, then wear a more traditional corset over the top?” she asked, her eyes taking in the tailor’s work appreciatively.
“Minaeve doesn’t care for excess,” he grumbled, the laces blurring in his hands, forcing the breath out of her. “Easier for me, but in her eyes it’s two garments where one will suffice.”
Staring at the military undertones of the corset, taking in the similarities to a breastplate, something in her head clicked. “Minaeve?” she gasped. “As in, Lady Minaeve?”
“Aye, that’s her,” the tailor nodded with disinterest, tying off the final knots of the lace with a powerful flourish and then stepping round to face her, studying her with an appraising eye.
“You’re a tailor for the Captain of the Royal Guard?” she panted incredulously, her breath coming thinly, the strict confines of the corset preventing her from drawing deeply into her lungs.
“I’m the tailor for the Captain of the Royal Guard,” Master Varun replied, irritation clipping his words. “Now shut up so I can get a look at the fit!”
She straightened her spine and did her utmost to stand at rigid attention, hoping to emulate as near as she was able the characteristic pose of one of the city’s most well-known and influential. The corset restricted her chest more than she would have liked, and the fabric felt heavy and common, but she had to admit, the design was quite striking. How was Master Varun not more widely celebrated? With talents as evident as his, and patrons such as Lady Minaeve backing him, he should have been the talk of the town, not secluded in this unimposing workshop!
“Looks okay,” the tailor muttered to himself, before turning his attention to her. “How’s the feel?”
She wheezed her impressions of the garment as best she could, but he waved her concerns away without hesitation. “Minaeve considers herself more soldier than anything else. Last time I suggested silk or some other such luxury she damn near bit my head off,” he grunted. “As for the fit, she’s a woman of muscle and strength. Where you’re fat, she’s lean and toned. It should be fine.”
Proud of her figure, which was certainly not toward the heavy side, she felt herself bristle. She was about to launch a scathing retort of her own when Master Varun turned away, digging through a pile of papers.
“With that done, I can make a start on the Duchess’ gown,” she heard him murmur, the rustling of the various pieces of parchment almost obscuring the words.
“The Duchess?” she asked, her question coming out as a rasp.
“Aye, some nob from the inner court,” Master Varun replied offhandedly, his attention focused on the papers as he searched. “They come up with some damned fool requests, but they pay well and they respect my privacy so I don’t get pestered by mobs wanting me to make some trite piece that any nitwit with a needle could do.”
At his words she felt her mind race, the opportunities practically staring her in the face. Master Varun’s lack of renown made sense now, and if she were to apprentice under him the networking potential alone would be invaluable! By the time her studies were done she’d have connections to the most prestigious of clients, and a better platform to launch herself from than most tailors dreamt of building up in a lifetime!
Reaching up awkwardly behind her, she snagged one of the corset’s laces with a fingertip, clumsily managing to loosen the initial knots and relieve some of the tension on her chest. “Will… Will you be needing me for the Duchess’ fittings as well?” she gasped, praying his response was in the affirmative.
Master Varun wheeled on her, his face a picture of exasperation. “Of course, foolish girl! What do you think the job of an apprentice is? Sit around and look pretty all day? It’s bad enough I’m going to have to waste my time training you, the least you could do is try to ask less stupid questions!”
His words stung, but in truth she barely registered them. She was too busy scrabbling to undo the corset, her mind already filling with hopes of things to come.
So Master Varun was abrasive. So he felt no compunction in calling her things like ‘fat’, to her face. The man’s work was extraordinary, and the doors he would open for her would be unparalleled! She could endure some hardships in order to work under him. She could stomach some sacrifices. By the end of it, her success would be practically guaranteed!
“The Duchess is a very different client to Minaeve,” Master Varun continued, paying her no heed. “Go into the front room, second cupboard under the counter. You’ll find what you need there.”
Brimming with excitement, finally free from the restrictive embrace of the corset, she placed the bundle of material carefully on the workbench and slipped through the curtain into the front room. Kneeling behind the counter, she found the specified cupboard and pulled the door open, expecting to find a set of tools or fabrics waiting within. What she found instead was a large chocolate cake.
“The Duchess is a large lady,” Master Varun growled as he passed behind her, his arms stacked high with papers. “Get stuck in.”
Staring at the decadent mass of sponge and icing, Master Varun’s footsteps echoing above her as he stomped upstairs, she found herself pondering once more.
What would she do, in order to succeed?
How far would she go?
What would she be willing to sacrifice?
The ash would take him soon.
He knew this in the same way that a fish knows to swim or a plant knows to stretch toward the light. It was inescapable. An inevitability, that would come to pass as surely as the sun’s transition across the sky.
The scent of burnt flesh filled his nostrils, the taste of grilled meat overwhelmed his mouth, and the heat was all-consuming. He could feel little else anymore, the assault of the fire upon his senses overriding with ease the otherwise comparatively trivial stimuli of his typical surroundings. Above it all however, he felt her; the Lady of the Flame.
She lingered at his back, a presence just at the edge of his perception. If he tried to focus on her, tried to bring her into the centre of his gaze, she’d simply slip away, her presence elusive and ethereal. He would still feel her though, sense her eyes gazing on his back, her fingers stroking lovingly along his arm. She was a part of him, her spirit dwelling within, her very being leeching away at his own. For years now, she had fed on him.
It had started with a whisper. A soft murmur, tickling at the edge of his awareness…
He was young then, more boy than man, taking his first hazardous steps into the unknown. His family were simple farm folk, the call of wheat and grain consuming them for generations. His father joked that the land of their ancestral farm had drunk as much of their clan’s blood and sweat as it had from any of the autumn rains, and during the summer harvests, the sun beating down on his back, the perspiration streaming down his face, he could almost believe it.
It was during one such harvest that he’d decided this life was not for him. There had to be easier ways to make a living, less arduous methods of obtaining one’s daily bread. His mind, harking back to tales spun by the fireside, stories of knights and beasts, riches and damsels, had settled on the path of an adventurer.
His father had opposed him of course; his duty as heir to the farm was clear, and it was unthinkable to walk away from it. His mother had wept, begging him to reconsider; her stories all had happy endings, childish tales that they were, but most adventurers could not claim the same. He had not listened to them, the over-confidence and arrogance of youth clouding his judgement. He’d set out the next morning, every coin that he had scraped together over the course of his life lining his pocket, destined for a procurer of gear and equipment, and a skip dancing in his step.
Limping toward the exit of his first dungeon, the blood trickling down his face, one arm dangling useless by his side, a feeble torch sputtering in the other, and a broken sword abandoned somewhere in the darkness, he’d realised he’d made a mistake. It was madness to have thought that he could do this; swinging a sword was harder than it looked, the necessary technique more refined than he had realised, and he was nowhere near up to the task. Struggling through the darkness, he had known this revelation had come too little, too late; he was slowing, and the calls of beasts he’d fled were growing closer by the minute. He had felt death closing in on him, and he had wept, knowing he was powerless to prevent it.
It was then that he had heard her voice.
Cool and calm, creeping soothingly across the frenzied heat of his troubled mind, she’d whispered to him. Lost in the darkness, with only the vaguest clue of which way the surface lay, he had known the dulcet tones echoing gently in his head came from another. Yet still his feet had twitched, and he found his course shifting. He could not explain the pull her voice had over him, but regardless he had edged farther from the light, farther from potential salvation, and instead trudged deeper into the abyss.
The beasts had followed, growing closer all the while, the scent of his fresh blood dripping on the floor, streaking along the wall where he stumbled, guiding them to him. He had known this, yet still he staggered on, following the silken voice that resonated in his skull, luring him deeper.
When he had traced the sound to its conclusion, he found only a smudge of ash streaked across a wall, and a gleaming sword nestled against it; nothing that would noticeably heal him, save him from the jaws of death that were closing in, snapping at his heels. He had fallen to his knees, the final vestiges of his strength falling away, his mind resigned to its fate, the tears shining damply on his cheeks, when the first dire wolf slipped from the shadows. Its red eyes had locked on his, and its razor sharp teeth emerging from a growling snout gave no illusion as to its purpose. When it leapt, he had known he stood no chance, but still he’d reached for the sword, desperation and fear driving him on where his extinguished strength could not.
The splash of warm blood across his face, for a time he’d mistaken for his own; till he noticed the cleanly severed head of the dire wolf resting on the floor, the still body of its former owner lying some feet away. The sword, seemingly weightless in his hand, had gleamed wetly crimson, though as he watched the blood dripped smoothly off, the metal left clean and pure in its wake. Staring at it, he’d felt tingling waves creeping up his arm, prickling tendrils extending over his chest.
His attention had been drawn back to his immediate plight however, as two more dire wolves emerged into the light, their nostrils flaring at the scent of their fallen brother. He’d had little time to think as they pounced, his arm swinging lightning fast to intercept one and then the other. More had come, streaking from the darkness, diving for him before he had a chance to gather his breath. The sword flashed out, over and over, slicing meat, sinew and bone as though they were mere water. A surprise attack from behind had caught his leg, and after he dispatched the attacker he’d had a moment of alarm as he watched a flame sprout from his flesh, pain lancing through him as the wound cauterised, before he was pulled back by necessity to the task at hand. The sword sang in his hand, and the shadows of death danced upon the wall in the light of the fading torch’s flame.
By the time he was finished, their bodies littering the ground, the pact was done; the Lady of the Flame and he were one.
In the beginning, his time with her was filled with jubilation and excitement. Emerging from that first dungeon, his wounds were healed, the scars of her fiery touch replacing them one by one. Her caresses over his tender broken flesh had brought pain, but they had also delivered salvation, and he was grateful for them. Her fire, burning within him, replaced his faded strength and marched him on. Her sword, swift like lightning, lashed out and dispatched all who stood in his path. Even when his foes outnumbered him greatly, when his body was pierced and barbed, her flames unfailingly stitched him back together. With her support, no task had seemed too great, no obstacle insurmountable. He had conquered every challenge that he faced, and the riches he had dreamed of for so long had been within his grasp. Life was good, and it was his for the taking. With her power, he was unstoppable.
However, as the years went by he began to notice the lingering effects of her touch.
At first it was simply a drying of his skin, a toughness that he countered with oils and balms where he could. He had thought nothing of it, putting it down to the exertions of his endeavours, his body hardening to the life of an adventurer. Soon though, he had found that the salves and treatments he lavished on his callused skin were simply not up to the task at hand. His skin cracked and peeled, as though it were burning away under the intense scrutiny of the sun. His tongue too began to dry more readily within his mouth, and his thirsts were less easily quenched.
Initially unconcerned, easily distracted by the baubles placed before him, both of metal and flesh, drawn to him through his success, he’d thought little of it. He’d focused on his indulgences, drinking more frequently perhaps, and bathing more regularly, but little changed.
In time however, he could not help but confront the ravages her flames had wrought on him. His skin had started to blister and blacken, hot to the touch, and he could taste his own tongue as it slowly cooked. Realising his peril, he’d tried to rid himself of the sword, cleanse himself of the Lady’s touch, but to no avail. No matter how hard he tried, the sword could not be removed. His hands refused to open when he tried to throw it from him, and if he left a room without it he was near crippled by a searing pain across his mind, the burning flames licking relentlessly over his eyes and ears.
He’d sought a cure, most ardently. He’d chased potions, rituals and artefacts, searching desperately for anything that would lift his curse. However, regardless of what he tried, despite all his best efforts, nothing could pry him from the Lady’s burning embrace.
He began to wear the armour; the armour that he never removed; the armour which people knew him by wherever he travelled; the armour of the knight of flame; the armour which hid the devastation of his visage.
He could no longer face his family; no longer return to his ancestral home. He’d thrown away that chance when he entered that first dungeon and sealed his fate within. He would never again see his parents, could not bring himself to show them what he had become, and all the treasures of the world and tastes of its pleasures could not bring him comfort.
He knew his time of reckoning was fast approaching. The Lady fed on him relentlessly, her loving touch a deadly poison, her hunger constant and irrepressible, her nature vampiric and malign.
All he could hope was to seclude himself in some forgotten alcove, bury himself in the deepest recesses of the darkest dungeon he could find, and pray he could spare another poor soul the same fate that befell him.
The taste and stench of grilled flesh overwhelming, he thought back on his first encounter with the Lady, her sword lounging ready, reclining against an ash streaked wall, and knew what his fate would inevitably be; his final mark upon this world little more than a smear of dust.
He understood now what treasure truly was, that shortcuts held their own pitfalls, and certain corners should never be cut.
Power, after all, never comes without a price.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
Her home was unlike any other. It was hers, yet it was also everyone else’s.
Originally, her house had belonged to her mother, now sadly no longer of this world. With her passing, the house had transferred to her. However, it was also a base of sorts for all the weary travellers of the world; explorers and adventurers she had met along her travels, or who had simply heard of her through friends on the road.
When she stepped out of the house, to visit the market, or relax a while in the park, the first thing she would check upon her return was the shoe rack in the entry foyer. Often, it would be overloaded; boots, heels, sandals, clogs… At a glance, she could get an idea of who was now in the house; or at least, what type of people.
Hardened travellers, their boots heavy and thick, the toes scuffed, mud from over two dozen countries dried into the soles.
Wandering spirits, their slippers colourful and gaudy, laces and ribbons adorning the fringes and fluttering gaily at the