Late getting home

She was walking home, late, again. Her father would surely find out this time. Mother could only cover for Matilda so often, even with her drunkard of a husband. All the girl could hope for was that Mother had already poured her father into bed for the night. If she saw the kerchief on the wrought iron railing that led to the main door, she knew she’d be safe.

Matilda was so lost in her thoughts, she forgot her surroundings. She forgot she was in the soupy fog of a North Island fall. The thick grey pea-soup that swirled before and after her made her smile. Fog kept most people indoors. None of the neighbors would see her, especially in her gunmetal shaded gown.

The girl’s rapid steps sent her sharp taps bouncing off the soot-covered buildings on either side of the narrow alleyway. The noise echoed and multiplied, until it sounded like an army marched through the passage. Matilda cocked her head to the side, listening for a ghostly reassurance that it was only her heeled boots making the sound.

When the long arm snaked out of the shadows beside the last doorway before her family’s manor, Matilda had no time to scream. Her legs betrayed her and she fell into the accosting arms.

“What have we here,” a ragged, oily voice breathed. “Looks like a filly’s gotten loose from the master’s.”

“Let me go! You have no right,” Matilda demanded. Trembling in fear and anger, she asked, “Who are you? Why have you detained me?”

A harsh laugh burst next to her ear. Matilda could smell the fresh onions amidst the rot in that breath. Her stomach lurched. Her slender fingers flew to her mouth, determined to keep her lavish late dinner in its place.

“We ain’t nobody, girl,” the voice licked into her ear. “And we’s ain’t detainin’ you. We’ve only decided we’re to help you. Trust us, girlie.”

“Are there more than one of you? How many? What are you helping me with,” the frightened girl asked, her voice cast low and, she hoped, sounding helpless.

“You’s was headin’ towards Master Stevenson’s manor, or I’m not worth me weight in gold. So, here’s a secret only us few knows; Master Stevenson’s to be made an example. See…,” the voice moved away from Matilda, leaving her in restrained silence.

The desperate girl twisted in her captor’s arms, but she didn’t make any progress in escaping. She flailed her arms and legs, hoping to distract the man long enough for him to loosen his grip. But she stopped when she felt her daintily booted foot sink into a leg and a stench of bog-water floated to sting her nostrils.

“Ahh, you’ve hurt poor Rob. Well, at least you’ve made a dent in the ol’ boy.”

The new voice was nicer, more polished. Much more the caliber Matilda was used to. Her head jerked toward the speaker. She gasped as she recognized the man with whom she had spent the evening. She blushed furiously as she remembered losing her inhibitions while the man watched. Then her cheeks flared with indignation.

“Charles, what am I doing here?”

“Matilda. I’m so glad the boys managed to catch you before you reached home. It would be a waste for a fine piece to go to waste, all for a drunk old man who can’t manage his debts,” Charles Vallingham chuckled at her.

“What? I don’t understand,” Matilda cried. She begged the man she thought was her friend, “Please, let me go. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll make Father pay his debts. I’ll hide his liquor. No, I’ll smash it all to pieces. Just let me go, please!”

Vallingham laughed, the mirth never reaching his sparkling jet eyes. Harshly, he barked orders to three large skulking men, in a language Matilda had never heard. In horror, she watched Charles Vallingham’s hand reach for her face. He roughly twisted her head until she stared at her family’s grand mansion.

Tears rolled unfettered from her eyes as three barrels of pitch were hurled against her house. Then she tried desperately to wrench her head out of the vile man’s grip, but she was too weak. In sobbing defeat, the girl watched as her family’s manor burned, along with every inhabitant. All fifteen people inside were sure to be asleep, at the hour of veil-less.

In the distance, Matilda heard the soulless advance upon the house. The pitch-flames didn’t bother the monsters in the least as they scrambled through the shattered windows and doors. Screams chased the last remaining Stevenson as she was dragged through the silvery streets. Blood and soot filled her nose, imprinting the odor on her soul. Her anger and hatred blossomed and she fought.

She fought until Vallingham’s golem threw her into the waiting carriage. A swift blow, placed just under her upswept auburn hair, pushed her into nothingness, to wait for the nightmares to come.

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Computer generation

The first rumblings of unrest came long ago. But, like any change, it took a while for anything to become noticeable. In the beginning of the movement, it was mostly the young, unemployed, dissatisfied people who did the grumbling. No one could blame them, though, because it was nearly impossible for them to find jobs. And in that world, no job meant no food, minimal housing, and not a single moment of joy. The old-timers, like my grandparents, they kept their heads down and tried to ignore the brewing uprising.

The one good thing about the revolution starting with the young ones? No jobs also meant no advanced tech. No AI to listen in on their conversations, no overseers to make sure their gatherings were listless and unexciting. It was easy, I suppose, in the early days. But once the ideas began to spread to the older generation, it was much more difficult to organize.

It was about fifteen years ago that I got involved. My grandparents died about then, which left me without anyone to lean on. I’d heard, of course, about the revolution from some of the few friends I had. I didn’t think much about any of it, though, because I was protected by my grandparents. They both had jobs, both had positions in the tech industries, and I had enough of everything I wanted. I was spoiled, I guess. But that changed when the overseers decided that my grandparents were obsolete.

We had to move the resistance to the jungles, far to the south. It was one of the only zones where the machines hadn’t gotten a foothold. The primitive tribes there were considered a protected species, separate from our own, by the governing AI. I suppose the rugged terrain, lack of surplus energy sources, and simple oversight all helped the area to remain free of the machines, too. It was there that the real change began.

We soldiers of the revolution made our first moves in 2211. We managed to completely strip the southern jungle continent of its technology, then. It became the free zone. People from all over, in all sorts of low-tech, homemade transports, flocked to the zone. They came to help the revolution, for the most part. Many of them brought their families. We welcomed them, but we didn’t promise any of them that it would be easy.

The next few years were spent trying to gain a foothold in the northern, temperate continent. Generations ago, it had been three distinct countries, but the AI merged them, making it all one zone, with a massive, interconnected tech web. The revolution stalled in the south-western area, for years. It wasn’t until the machines made a mistake that we managed to move forward. That mistake proved to be a major break for us. It underestimated our resolve and it paid the price.

The NorAm continent still isn’t the safe zone its southern counterpart is, but it’s coming along. We’re working on a compromise, a treaty, with the machines, but it’s a slog-along task. The AI has hundreds of years of law at its disposal, while we humans have to examine and debate every word on every line, searching for loopholes and contingencies the computers already see.

There are new rumblings, far out on the fringes of our new society. People are unhappy about the lack of employment, food, shelter, and voice. But, like any change, it will be slow coming.

The Tarred Goat’s takeover

(This story is a brief episode in the history of Tiat, a quarter-goblin thief, who is the main character in a book series I am currently writing.)

The enormously obese proprietor of the Tarred Goat, Garren, stalked across the small room. His cruelly twisted smile sent shivers of fear and disgust down the woman’s spine. She struggled to sit up on the bed, but the shackles binding her to the wall hindered her movement.

Garren chuckled as he watched the gnome struggle. His massive bulk shook with mirth. He delighted in watching his captive writhe and squirm. He paused with every step, prolonging her misery.

From the common room came the sounds of bawdy songs, the bard encouraging participation from the drunken travelers and villagers who crowded the bar. The silvery-haired gnome cried out in desperation, hoping against hope that tonight, finally, someone would come to her aid.

The woman’s small body was barely covered by the shredded remnants of her once-fine clothes. Her eyes, reddened by tears, stared wildly at the grotesque man stalking toward her. She begged, blubbering and crying, for her dignity. When that failed, as it always did, she turned to cursing his name, his family, his ability to perform. Her ire only drew more laughter from the beastly man.

Just as Garren reached the bed, the door of the room flew open. As swiftly as it was opened, it was closed. But not before an elegant elf in midnight clothing stepped through the portal, followed by a similarly clad bald woman.

The elf flashed a smile, twice as cruel as Garren’s own, the pearly teeth stark against his flawless lavender skin. The tall man bowed sardonically toward the obese innkeeper, then swept a more courtly bow to the cowering gnome on the bed.

The elf’s companion also grinned at the portly human. Her hands slid from inside her vest to reveal twin daggers that glinted viciously in the light of the room. She turned her vibrant yellow-green eyes to the gnome.

“You’s be ready, Dreysil,” the goblin asked the smaller woman, with a nod toward the confused innkeeper. When the gnome nodded, the bald gobliness threw both daggers, striking the obese human in each shoulder, severing the tendons that allowed his arms movement. The man dropped to his knees, his screams of pain lost in the raucous noise of the oblivious drunkards carousing in the common room.

“Interesting choice, little Tempest,” the elf drawled. “Perhaps you should assist our new-found friend, while I complete the task you’ve left for me? I should so hate to see our host collapse in pain before he realizes the extent of his dilemma.”

The goblin growled, hating the name he called her, but she hastened to finish her part of the rescue. She slipped across the now-bloody floor to the gnome, where she rapidly released the locked shackles.

Then together, the two women fled from the room, leaving Garren’s further torment to Dueros.

Upstairs, in the elf’s room, the gnome cleaned herself of weeks of torture and pain, while the goblin kept watch for her bondsmaster. When the blademaster finally returned to his room, he grinned evilly at his companion and their new friend.

“The matter is handled, Dreysil,” Dueros smirked. Then he turned to the bald woman, saying, “Perhaps a warm meal would be appropriate, Tiat? Our gnome friend most assuredly needs nourishment and warmth. See to it.”

Tiat scurried from the room, but stopped short on the other side of the door. Dimly, she heard the low murmur of the elf’s voice, then a muffled reply from the gnome. Gnashing her teeth together at being left out of Dueros’ deal, the goblin thief hurried to the kitchen for food.

 

The village was abuzz the next morning. News of a takeover of the village’s largest inn set Tiat’s goblin ears burning. But when she tried to ask Dueros, the crafty elf only chuckled and continued walking, his path leading the pair far from Kalentown.

Into the fire

The bounty hunter crouched on a sandstone slab, detritus from the tumbled canyon walls. His long ears twitched. Wind whipped sand along the narrow slit of earth. Leather cap and vest did little to protect his skin from the shards of pain.

Sharp eyes peered through the sand clouds, searching the vertical village for signs of life. His quarry had slipped into the abandoned area just hours before. But the bounty hunter had lost the trail in the sandstorm.

Crackling static poured from the black box on his hip. He laid his cased rifle on the slab in front of him and reached for the com-unit.

“What,” he croaked into it. “I’m busy.”

His voice was deep but cracked, much like the canyon he found himself in. The voice on the other end was metallic, harsh and screeching.

It said, “Didja find ‘er, yet?”

The bounty hunter grunted, “Nah, she vanished into Arborga. Sandstorm’s kicking up, though. Ain’t gonna find her today.”

Above the goblin bounty hunter, a raven-haired child clung to an overhanding spar of sandstone. Her filmy, flimsy clothing provided no protection against the whipping sands. She kept herself as close to the warm rocks as possible.

When the bounty-hunter clicked off his comms, he listened for several minutes to the winds howling down the canyon. In a lull, he yelled to his quarry, oblivious to her proximity.

“You’ll not make it out here alone, girl. Nothing but bandits and criminals hiding out in the Outerlands. Best you come back with me. The Masters’ punishments’ll be nothing like what you’ll find among the outlaws.”

The girl, hovering above, shivered at the thought of the Masters. She remembered a time, long before, when she had belonged to a mother. Where she was loved and protected. But then her mother died and the Masters had come.

The wind sliced across the spar she clung to, sending dagger slices of sand across her skin. Exhaustion, thirst and hunger almost made her cry out to the bounty hunter, to ask for the mercy of death, but shrill, undulating calls from the canyon walls stopped her.

The bounty hunter, perched on his slab, snatched his gun case up and jumped from the rock. He wasted no more breath on the escaped concubine. A band of outlaws was something the goblin wasn’t prepared to take on.

The girl watched the goblin flee. She was preparing herself to die, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Her body was flung aside, across the width of the spar. She found herself looking up into the wide blue eyes of a blonde woman.

“Escaped, did you,” the woman asked, her face breaking into a smile. “And you didn’t run when you heard us coming for the man. Good.”

The girl sat up. As she looked around herself, she saw several women, all with filmy, flimsy cloth tied into their hair. Her mouth dropped open and she sputtered, trying to thank the women and trying to ask questions, but everything tangled on her tongue.

The blonde woman laughed. “Don’t worry, little one. We were all in your position, once. The Masters are terrible, terrible men.”

In a different language, one that sounded melodic to the escaped girl’s ears, the blonde woman said to her companions, “She’s healthy enough. We’ll take her to market. If the Masters want her, they’ll have to bid, same as everyone else. Bathe her, feed her, and prepare her with the euphoria oils. Then we’ll see how much this pretty fool earns us.”

The exchange

The city lights dimmed, right on schedule. Behind her, the towering fortress like tenement buildings sucked up the last of the fading light, leaving nothing for the stragglers to see by.

She stood on the central platform of the waterfall of stairs leading to the lower city. Beneath her, in the most ancient parts of town, creatures of darkness moved, living and dying in the near-endless night. Faintly the victorious cries of hunters and the shrill screams of the doomed floated up to her.

Waiting for her contact to arrive, she had time to reflect on life, history, and everything else. The countless treads above and below brought to mind a lesson learned in a long-ago history class, before such classes were outlawed. Somewhere, down below, perhaps those ancient steps and fountains remained.

The glow ball, hovering inches above her hand, changed colors. Brilliant white to dull, pulsing blue, meant her contact was nearing. She waved her hand above the orb, dimming its light further. The man coming to meet her was no friend of the light.

From the stairs below came a shuffling sound, of many feet on plasticrete. The durable building material held no heat, bore no chill, making it almost perfect for any use. Except stealth. The drawback to the plastic and cement mixture is that it carried sound, for leagues, sometimes. She thought, perhaps, that’s why the central government used so much of the stuff.

The man approaching her was disheveled, wearing cast-off vinyl clothes, in garish colors that would have clashed had they not been splashed with mud and excrement. The woman wrinkled her nose at the stench, but didn’t dare show her disdain. This man lived below. He held no compassion, no reason to refrain from reveling in her murder, if she disrespected him.

Three steps down, he waited.

She bent, scooping up the squirming bundle beside her. The greed on his face was palpable. The woman nearly felt regret at her actions. But, it was her job, what the desperate citizens of both worlds relied on her to do.

The baby started to cry, the drugs she’d used to keep it quiet until now beginning to wear away. The man snatched it from her outstretched arms. He cooed and blew in the child’s face, sending it back to silence. He tucked the bundle into a shallow carry-sack, close to his chest, then tossed a ragged, filthy bag at the woman’s feet.

A last nod at her, then he vanished into the darkness.

The woman from the upper world brightened her sphere, then let it hover over the dirty bag she tore into. Inside, remnants of the lost world: porcelain dolls with cracked faces and torn rags for clothes; chipped ivory combs, missing teeth; small, colorful stones in beautiful patterns on large pieces of pottery.

The treasures, once turned in to the government officials, would ensure enough rations for the child’s family to eat for weeks. The child, in the care of the underworlders, would, one day, become a treasure hunter himself.

Poor ogre

The shadow loomed above him, menacing in its looming heaviness. Leo shivered, the darkness created by the monster stealing all the warmth from the late afternoon summer sun. The boy crouched next to the brick wall, hoping his quickly sought hiding place would protect him.

“Boy! You can’t hide from me,” the booming voice of the monster echoed along the alleyway behind Leo. Thudding feet stomped toward the boy. The shimmering concrete under Leo’s feet shuddered with each of the monster’s steps.

The teenager felt tears sliding down his face. He couldn’t stop the flow. His sobbing breaths were painful in his chest, his throat.

He looked up, gauging the closeness of the monster by how much its shadow had grown. The darkness had expanded so much, Leo couldn’t make out the shape of the monster in the blackness. A staggering blow against his concealing brick wall knocked Leo over, to lay spread-eagle in the middle of the alley’s mouth.

“I found you,” the monstrous voice crowed, “and now you will be mine!”

Leo heard a scrambling noise and he knew the monster would be over the wall before he could get to his feet. His blubbering became frantic. His eyes closed in terror. He begged for his life.

Thunder crashed under Leo. The monster had jumped from the height of the wall to land before the sobbing boy.

“Umm, never mind,” the creature said.

Leo opened one eye, peeking through his long lashes. He expected to see a single foot. Instead, in front of the boy stood a tiny, orange haired girl-looking thing. It was wearing a purple plaid skirt and snowy white ruffled shirt. A minuscule pair of daggers in twin sheaths was strapped across its chest.

“You’re… you’re TINY,” Leo exclaimed. “And you’re a girl!”

“Yeah, like I said, never mind. Please,” the girl muttered. “My da’s gonna kill me.”

Leo’s face scrunched up in confusion, “Why were you chasing me? More importantly, why’d you look so huge?”

The girl put a hand on her hip and cocked her head at the boy towering over her. “My da’s an ogre. I’m the ‘runt’ of the litter and the only girl. I was just trying to prove I’m as scary as my brothers.”

“That doesn’t explain why your shadow looked so big,” Leo said.

The miniature ogre shrugged, “It’s magic. Ogres don’t usually use it, but my only friend’s dad happens to be an ogre wizard, and he gave me the spell. It was supposed to scare you into submission.” She looked down and shuffled her feet, a sure sign of embarrassment, “You were supposed to be my prize for my da. Adult ogres love human stew.”

Leo reflexively jerked away from the girl at her statement. “Umm, I don’t think I can help with that. Sorry. Maybe I can help you figure something else out, though?”

“Nah,” the tiny girl grinned, her sharp pointed teeth showing. “I got it. In fact, you were easier than I thought.”

Leo’s confusion grew, until he felt the tiny teeth of several other ogres pierce his skin. The venom in their saliva numbed his legs and he fell over, helpless to move. The tiny orange-haired girl climbed up to sit on his chest.

She explained, as the other ogres feasted on the boy, “You humans always think of ogres as huge, hulking monstrosities. You’re all wrong.”

The girl smiled, showing her teeth again, before she sank her teeth into his tear-stained cheek.

 

At the stake

“So what’s your plan now, Medavo,” the shivering woman asked the man staked next to her in the bonefield.

The tall, muscular man she addressed simply grunted at her, his attention focused almost entirely on loosening the constricting bands of hemp rope that bound him to the splintered wooden spar. His loose cotton clothing gave him sparse protection from the night-fallen chill. The black leather eye patch that covered his left eye prevented him from seeing his female companion.

The last of the trio, a ferret-faced man with long stringy hair, whimpered. Mangy dogs, their eyes full of hunger, snarled and snapped at the blubbering man’s feet. He gathered himself enough to yell at the dogs, “Go away! Get away from me! Please, please.”

“Grieg, leave off! They’ll ignore you no matter how much bellowing you do. They’re feral dogs,” the woman snapped at him. More calmly, she asked again, “Medavo, you have a plan, right?”

The half-blind man grunted again. His wrists, bound together behind him, flexed and twisted, loosening the ropes. He whistled, sharply, causing the questing dogs to quiet and slink away to lurk behind the huge bleached bones of massive, unknown animals.

“Leave me be, Maeve,” he told the woman. “Shut up, Grieg. You haven’t been bitten, yet. The mutts will come back, eventually, and they won’t be stopped by any commands of mine.”

The woman giggled, the sound disturbing in the macabre landscape the trio found themselves in. “Fine, I’ll leave you alone, but the sooner you flex your iron-stranded muscles, the better. I’m growing bored.”

Medavo flexed again. His thin-lipped mouth twisted in concentration. The other two watched, as always, in awe, as the man’s muscles hardened and grew. The ropes binding him to his post stretched taut and then, with a creaking objection, snapped loose.

The massive man’s landing caused thunder to roll across the boneyard, rattling bones and causing the lurking feral dogs to whimper and squeal in fright. Medavo rubbed his wrists, easing the pain of his captivity, and stalked to a pile of bleached debris. He selected a jagged piece of leg bone. Quickly, he stepped to Maeve’s side and with a flick of his aching wrist, the woman was free.

While Maeve slowed her fall, Medavo sauntered to Grieg’s side. He slipped a second piece of rough-edged bone into the smaller man’s hands while he freed the bindings.

Grieg slid down the splintered log, landing heavily beside Medavo, who whispered, “Prepare, boy.” The men slipped their weapons into handy hiding spots within their clothing. They moved to flank Maeve.

The woman straightened her stained, once-snowy shirt and said, “So, who do you two think set us up? My money’s on the storekeep where we fenced the goods.”

Her shirt bloomed in a pair of crimson blossoms as Medavo leaned in to reply, “My money’s on you, love.”

The men stalked from the bonefield, leaving their traitorous companion to the feral dogs who rushed in at the smell of fresh blood.