Our newest writing prompt comes again from our friend, Brian, who gave us a unique challenge this time: he sent us the dark character below and five settings from which to choose. Hubby rolled a dice for a random selection, and this is the one chosen.
This was an interesting challenge. I went in a direction that even I didn't expect, and I'm curious to see what you think! Let us know and remember to vote on who captured your attention.
He’d wandered so far.
Over mountains, trudging through the waist-high snow.
Through rivers, pushed downstream by the current, struggling to stay the course across to the other side.
Across forests, hiding in caves and fighting the tree bandits that attacked many times.
Too many times.
He limped, favoring his right leg and cradling his left arm. He’d left his shield far behind.
Far, far back in the desert when his injured arm could no longer carry the weight of the hammered metal in the brutal heat.
He shifted his heavy cloak over his injured arm and continued doggedly on. Perhaps when he reached the rocky cliffs of Foresgard he could rest. Until then, he would not.
The sky turned slowly darker blue. Stars twinkled out of the velvet sky when the shadowy clouds drifted out of the way. Despite himself, he lifted his pointed chin and gazed painfully at the depths of the universe, looking for his home. Then his head, encased in the huge helmet, grew too heavy, and he looked down at his feet once more.
Step. Step. Step.
He could go on. He would reach the cliffs. He could go on.
He must go on.
The darkness from the sky crept up on him, slowly encompassing his mind as well as his vision, and he collapsed without even the knowledge of his falling body.
Dreams swirled round him, trying to engage his mind and attention. Disjointed pictures of tall buildings reaching for the sky, great hulking beasts that stared him in the eye, tusks dripping venom, and a woman dressed in purple with long white hair that hid her face…
None of them could catch his racing, pain-fogged mind and pin it down. He drifted through time and space, carried aloft by his exhausted subconscious.
Then came a time when he felt again, when dreams held his attention for longer, when he felt the emotions that came with the memories in his mind.
And then he felt his body again. His eyelids met in the middle under his brow, and he could feel…feel the light, the warmth…
He lay like this for some time, feeling.
His next sense crept slowly up and returned to him his hearing. Voices? Bandits? He struggled in his half sleep. His feeble limbs jostled slightly, feeling cloth. He felt constrained. Bonds? Was he tied? Had they finally captured him?
He snapped his eyes open, forcing them to take in the light of a candle dripping wax on a wooden table. He blinked over and over, raising his arm to ward off the headache that assaulted him as he raised his torso off the…bed? He used his other arm to feel the substance he had been lying on and felt soft fur and slithery silk. He jerked back his arm as he realized it was bandaged. Stretching it out before his eyes, he examined the wrappings.
Whoever had set it had not known what to do with his outer skeleton, he saw. Slowly lowering the appendage to his lap, he felt the cloth and the wooden rods that held his arm still. With a quiet snap, he released the inner claw of his index finger and slit both cloth and rod to free his arm. He ran his clawed finger gently down the hole-punctured exoskeleton, feeling for the cracks that had given him so much agony on his journey since the last forest.
They were no longer there.
He checked again – and again – but they were gone. Healed already?
His head jerked up. How long had he been there? Piercing fingers raged through his cranium. He cradled his head and sat still, waiting for the pain to pass.
It must have been while he sat thus that his hostess came to sit across from him.
He looked up and beheld the woman sitting silently in the chair by the doorway. Neither said anything for a long moment; they simply studied one another.
She wore white silk that flowed from her shoulders to her feet in graceful waves. Her feet, like the rest of her, were covered in long, thin, grey hair that shone in the candlelight. Only her face was devoid of the soft silken grey. The icy blue eyes, framed by high cheekbones and sculpted brows, peered seriously at him through long, long lashes. When she finally opened her black and full-lipped mouth to speak, he saw that her canines were long and sharp.
“You removed your heal-wrap,” she stated in a soft, velvety voice. He was startled when she blinked, obscuring that clear blue temporarily and then bringing it back suddenly.
“Yes.” His deep, raspy voice sounded foreign to his ears. How long had it been since he had opened his mouth to talk to another being?
“Would you like another? Was it not to your liking?” She seemed concerned. Her head was tilted to one side as she regarded him seriously.
“No. My arm has healed. It is unnecessary now.”
At this, her eyes revealed something else – curiosity, he realized, afraid. Curiosity in another species was never good for him. He reached back for his javelin.
It was missing. He brought his arm back down slowly. She was still looking at him with her head tilted.
“Do you seek your staff?”
He didn’t answer. She didn’t seem discomfited but instead pointed.
“It’s there, in the corner.” She lowered her arm again and regarded his arm. “You heal very quickly. That is a wonderful gift.”
He ran his fingers along the outer skeleton. His claws clicked on the holes. Instinctively, he’d released them when he found his staff missing. She watched the caress with interest.
“Do all your kind heal as you do?”
He scanned the room, ignoring the question. When his eyes returned to her watchful form, he hesitated, then asked, “How long have I been here?”
She smiled, her canines showing in the flickering light. “Half a moon. It is good you awoke. I do not know your kind, but surely even you cannot go for much longer without food and drink.” She motioned to a wooden plate beside her and took up the cup that looked as if it were made of bark and held it out to him.
Slowly, he took it from her, noticing the way she studied his bone-covered fingers when they grasped the cup. Quickly, he held it to his lips and drank, feeling the liquid wash over his dry tongue like rain pouring over drought-cursed ground. The rocky surface of his mouth receded and became moist tissue once more. He drained the cup, and she stood to pour him more from a pitcher next to the plate. His pressing thirst assuaged, he stared hungrily at the mound of food on the plate. She followed his gaze and smiled.
“I would ask your name, Stranger,” she said, offering him the food.
“That is a fitting name,” he returned, biting into the soft brown bread filled with –
“Bean paste,” she said, answering the question in the look he gave her. “If you look for meat, you will not find it here. We do not eat those we live among.”
Slowly, he put down the food. “Where…where is this place?”
Smiling again, she stood enough to slide open the door. The wood creaked as it moved aside, revealing a night sky…and nothing else.
He clenched his bed. “But where is the…the ground?” he stammered.
“Finish your food,” she said quietly. “I will show you. Do not be alarmed – ”
Then she looked more closely at his face. “But, Stranger, you are not alarmed, are you?” She studied his quivering form. “Indeed, you are…excited…are you not?
Tears filled his eyes, and the joy made his voice catch. “What is the name of this place?” he whispered.
“City Over the Clouds,” she answered, looking closely at him.
“How can it be?” he asked. Tears ran down his face and fell, spotting the leather he wore. “How came I to be here, of all places?”
“You know our dwelling.” It was not a question, but he nodded. “You were found by our brothers, the flightracers.”
“Flying horses,” he whispered again.
She moved her chair closer to him. “Will you not eat, Stranger?” she begged. “I wish to show you our town that you seem to know already. I wish to know why. But I cannot take the chance of you fainting outside.”
As if in a dream, he raised the bean bun to his mouth and ate, slowly first, then more quickly, till all the food was gone. Enough strength leaked into his blood that he stood by himself, though he stumbled slightly with the first step. Catlike, she retrieved his staff and put it in his hand before he was cognizant of her doing so. Leaning on it, he looked up to see her holding out her wiry arm. Hesitatingly, he took it, ruffling the soft hair and finding her strength to be much more than he had supposed. She supported him unflinchingly to the door and out, where she stopped for him to gaze around them.
So he did. Mute with awe and longing, he rested his eyes on the clouds that drifted below them, then on the stars above, clear and bright, then on the tree-spotted rock mounds that rose up behind the one that they were standing on. Wooden railing lines the walkways that circled the mounds, enabling the people and creatures who walked them. The cold night air refreshed him; he took great gulps of it, feeling more strength flooding into him through it than from the food he had eaten. The quiet sounds of nighttime talk floated on the air, lending the atmosphere a peaceful, secure feeling.
She turned to him, a smile in her piercing eyes. “Stranger, will you not remove your helmet? I felt the weight of it before, but we could not take it off for you. Surely you will be more comfortable and be able to see more without it.”
He slowly turned his gaze to her. Distrust was in his look, but so was gratefulness. The two warred together for a moment.
Then he released her arm and took hold of the great, metallic structure that hid most of his head. Two of his claws clicked into two holes in the helmet, and with a hiss, it rose and came off in his hand. He lowered it to his side and looked out at the stars.
A hiss of surprise came from her mouth. She was staring at the long, red, tentacle-like hair that could now be seen cascading from his head. It waved slightly in the night breeze. “But you are…you are…”
He turned back to look at her with an inscrutable look. “A Nighslayer, yes.” He pointed slowly to the star that shone most brightly in the dark sky. “We founded this colony.”
When he looked back at her again, she saw the tears that sparkled in his eyes now that his head was free of the shadow of the obscuring helmet.
“I’m almost home.”
Mojosh and Suji had an unfortunate number of things in common. Neither of them appreciated the sheer number of coincidental similarities they shared. They had similar taste in casual wear – they both favored a loose, kimono style traveling robe with rich, earthy colors. They had similar relaxed hairstyles that didn’t need too much upkeep. They both carried similar curved longswords that, crazy enough, both happened to be made by the Rin-Kyimo family. They had both ordered similar drinks and sat with their legs crossed the same way in the tea shop not ten minutes ago. They both jumped into a combat ready stance at the first sight of each other. Neither of them noticed at the time, but they used the same style of swordplay. They now shared in the same fate of paying off the damage they caused in the teahouse trying in vain to kill each other. They even had the same reason for assaulting each other. Their reason was their only obvious dissimilarity: their clans. Mojosh had grown up and was trained in the Kaltaran clan on one of the southern spires while Suji had been raised in the Fortho clan on the great eastern spire. Ironically, the only reason neither men had perished was they were both the greatest swordsmen in their respective clan.
Despite their similarities, Mojosh and Suji could only think about how much they hated and distrusted each other due to their rival clan upbringings. The Kaltaran and Fortho clans had been warring on and off for at least three centuries. At this point, no one alive could properly say why the clans had it out for each other. Out of the thirteen great stone spires that rose above the clouds, these two clans were the only ones that seemed to have any problem with another. In fact, it was often difficult to tell which spire anyone came from apart from their dialect. However, the Kaltaran and Fortho clans had taken to branding their adult men and women with their clan name for the sole purpose of telling themselves apart from the other spire clans.
Mojosh and Suji had met by pure happenstance in the tea shop. They were both minding their own business on their way to their respective shop suppliers when they ordered the same tea at the same time and noticed each other’s clan brands. A sudden chill took over the room and the mood became tense. After a few long moments of staring, both men reached for their blades and flew into furious combat. Both swordsmen were evenly matched and the only damage done was to the surrounding shop. By the time the spire authorities arrived, there wasn’t much left of the interior furniture and all the other paying customers had fled. The only other man in the shop was the shopkeep who decided to have these two pay him a favor instead of have the authorities arrest them. Since arrest on a foreign spire would mean almost certain excommunication for both of them, Mojosh and Suji consented.
The two were sent to a neighboring spire to help settle a dispute with a wealthy businessman. Mojosh and Suji walked silently one ahead of the other for the entire three hour trip, neither admitting to their sore feet or the need to relieve their bladders. Just after mid-day, the two arrived at their destination: a large wooden structure built directly into the side of the spire. The meticulous woodwork and extra support cables secured to the roof of the home made both men question just what kind of business this man ran. They kept their inquiries to themselves, however, wanting to keep the other in the dark if at all possible.
At the intricately carved front double doors stood two guards in heavy, dark armor. It appeared to be a combination of iron and leather – surface materials – and covered both guard’s faces so they had the appearance of two sculpted guardians. They repositioned their grips on their glaives, but did not advance nor step aside when Mojosh and Suji approached. The two men stared for a moment at the guards and then back at each other. Suji was the first to speak.
“We come on behalf of Mindo the teashop owner from Katmahall spire.”
Jumping in immediately, Mojosh followed, “We request an audience with Master Kimo.”
Neither the guards nor the two men budged. After another similar attempt, it was clear the guards were not planning on giving either men entry into the house. Mojosh and Suji, equally displeased with their arrangement and current delay, stepped forward, coolly intending to pass the guards by and pass through the doors. At this, the guards dropped the blade tips on their glaives and stood more directly in the way of Mojosh and Suji. Without much concern or effort, both men swiped the weapons aside and knocked the guards unconscious without having to draw their own blades. They left the two bodies slumped on the doorstep and proceeded inside.
Once inside, they followed the sound of laughter and the smell of cooked meats to a grand dining hall with a large table at its center. The table was covered from one end to the other with all kinds of meats, fruits, and baked goods. There were enough pitchers of wine to get nearly a dozen soldiers drunk. There was, however, only one man partaking of this feast. A very large man that both Mojosh and Suji assumed was Master Kimo sat at the far end of the table, his lounging robes loose and hanging open, displaying a rolling gut. He was flanked by petite, well-dressed women feeding him samples from the table off golden plates. It was nearly a full minute before Kimo or the women noticed their guests. The two servant women gasped in surprise and one even dropped her platter. Kimo just leaned back a little and raised his eyebrows in suspicion.
“Who do you think you are?” Kimo’s voice boomed throughout the dining hall.
Both men remained silent, but they both thought this was an odd way to start off a conversation. They could have understood, “Who are you?” or, “What are you doing here?”, but to start with “Who do you think you are?” felt a little odd. Regardless, Suji responded first again.
“We were sent by Mindo the teashop owner from Kat…”
“I know who Mindo is, you stupid dirt licker! I asked who you are.”
“You asked who we thought we were,” Mojosh sighed under his breath.
“You say something?” Kimo roared. The two women left the room hurriedly.
“Yeah, I’m Mojosh,” he gestured to himself and then to Suji, “and this is…crap, I don’t remember your name.”
“Right, whatever. We’re here to discuss something and get Mindo’s name cleared. So how about it?”
Kimo looked momentarily confused. Before long he clasped at his bloated stomach and burst into a fit of laughter. It was now Mojosh and Suji’s turn to look confused.
“That dunderhead thinks he can borrow ten thousand from me and send some muscle here instead of repay it?” He laughed some more. Mojosh and Suji only grew more confused. “That brightened my day. Guards!”
Eight more guards all heavily armed and armored like the two by the front door entered the room from adjacent rooms and halls and began to close in on the two men. “Kill these two and then go burn down that stupid teashop on the next spire. Throw the bodies down below.”
The two men turned with dawning realization on their faces and said together, “That rotten geezer…”
Mojosh and Suji drew their weapons and slowly shifted back to back as the guards closed in on them. Two of the guards suddenly launched themselves forward with surprising speed given their armor. Suji called out to Mojosh and easily ducked under the attack of the one nearest him. Mojosh did a back handspring over one attack and under the other. The second guard’s greatsword caught the first one in the throat. The first guard clutched at the pouring blood and fell to his knees. Three more guards moved in in rapid succession. “Up,” Mojosh called out. Suji took a few steps and stepped off the first guard’s shoulder and onto Mojosh’s now extended arms. Mojosh flung Suji up in the air and over the head of the nearest charging guard. Suji tumbled under the next attack and swiftly cut down the last advancing guard with a well-placed swipe from the hilt. The second guard finally removed his sword from his ally’s throat and took another swing at Mojosh who easily deflected the attack into the stomach of one of the approaching guards. Mojosh took a dagger from the second guard’s belt and threw it into one of the guards that had been standing by, waiting for an opportune attack and caught him in a gap in his armor near the left hip. The last two guards moved in – one advancing on Mojosh and the other on Suji. Seeing another enemy approach, Suji backed off from the one he was paired with to better asses his surroundings. Mojosh faced his next guard head on and shouted, taking a half step forward. The guard panicked and stumbled, eventually slipping on a puddle of blood and falling to the ground and lying still - too embarrassed and intimidated to stand. With a slight shrug, Mojosh moved on to assist Suji with his last two assailants. Both guards had their attention squarely on Suji as Mojosh approached from behind. Catching Mojosh’s approach from the corner of his eye, Suji appeared to let down his guard and allow the guards to attack. Mojosh rushed forward and took the head off one of the guards as Suji sidestepped a vertical attack from the other. Suji then thrust his shoulder forward, pushing the guard back and stepped into the side of his knee, breaking it instantly. Simultaneously, Mojosh and Suji pulled their blades back and thrust them through the guard’s throat, each blade tip ending just inches from the other’s face.
In unison, they removed their blades and turned to face Kimo who sat in stunned silence. Sharing a quick glance, Mojosh and Suji stepped forward and took hold of the sides of Kimo’s chair, dragging him to one of the opened spaces in the wall with a view of the surrounding spires and the valley below. Kimo struggled and cursed, but the two men’s grip on the chair kept Kimo firmly in his chair. With a great burst of effort, Mojosh and Suji tipped Kimo and his chair over the side railing and watched them plummet below the clouds a hundred feet below them. Satisfied with their work, the two headed back to the teashop, grabbing some choice samples off the dining table on their way.
Mojosh took another lunge toward the last remaining guard lying on the floor who quickly scrambled to his feet, dashed toward the open wall, and leapt head first over the railing. The two men exchanged glances and Suji shrugged before leaving the home past the two still unconscious guards at the front door.