It comes in tumbles. First a scream, then a sword. It is plunged deep into my chest. From the blade embedded in my flesh, I watch in horror as flares of bright burning flame seep out from the steel. It floods over my skin, catching as it goes, and I search frantically for the Tether.
It is behind me.
Once a sun of mechanical cores and spinning tops - but now the metal grinds to a halt. I watch it drop as the Tether snaps, and I am flung upwards, a pendulum swung. I tumble endlessly, the heat scorching. I curl my legs in to avoid the fire, wrap my arms around my chest, and try to become as small as possible. Become like a stone, little seed. A pebble cannot be burned.
And yet the claws of fire lick my skin. I open my eyes to witness a cyclone before me; a tempest of flame and destruction. It is white hot, and with tears flashing to my eyes, I know this is the end. The Forest calls to me, and I can run no more, so I wait for the Burn to come for me too. I wait.
My eyes flash open as I gasp, fresh air entering my lungs. Shut them, dear Child! I clamp them shut, alone in the dark. I wait. My legs shift under something. It is soft and a little bristled, and warm. The same material rests over my shoulders, pressed up to my cheek. I brush along the material; it feels nice. Soft. My hands move on their own, pulling the material closer. I feel my face nuzzle down into it, soaking in the smell of fresh cedar, grass, and a touch of wet ash. I am warm, but not burning. Perhaps they saved me before I could be burned! Yes, yes that makes sense. Supplanted me into a new biome. A soft, fuzzy biome that smells so wonderful! A little strange, I guess, but Mr. Wilt has always been innovative. This is a bit new, but so far I like it! Though it is a little dark in here. Maybe just a little peek...
I venture a single eyelid to open. Just a slit at first. Hm. Looks like I'm alone. Good, I guess. Okay, this time the whole eye. I feel it widen as it darts around the room, even as I try to remain as still as possible under this soft cover.
I am surrounded by cut wood. Dozens of chopped up trees, cobbled and tacked together. Some have even been portioned and sliced longwise, their bodies covering the floor! Others stand tall, wrapping around the edges of this small room, their stalks pierced by sharpened wooden spears that form tiny bridges above me. Slits of warm light spill through and between the oddly shaped logs. This was a structure of some type; Mr. Wilt had taught us about them. It was a simple word... Floors. Walls. Ceiling.
Both eyes shoot open as I sit upright with a start. "A house!?" I gasp, clamping my hands over my mouth.
A creaking on the far wall sends me back under my soft covering, burying my head under the strange marshmallow it was resting on before. I listen carefully, returning to the stillness of my mind. A good pebble, my Child. No one notices a cobblestone.
I can hear the padding of bare feet, and a gentle creak in the wood that lines the floor. It is a creature, and it's moving around the room. My vines slowly creep out from the folds in my skin, reacting to danger, and wrap around my shins and between my fingers. I hear a scrape of metal, and thorns extend from the vines. If it comes closer, I am ready. The vines harden, a layer of bark spilling from the small of my back and I feel the familiar setting of my face as a thin, translucent layer of armor flows over it.
The creaking stops...I think.
Something is placed right next to my bed and I nearly blow my cover. The thorns extend a full 2 inches now, threatening to pierce the cloth laid over me. I watch them intently as they push against the fabric, trying desperately to will them back down. Instead I feel the fury inside manifest, curling more layers of sharpened bark over one arm, a chitinous helm beginning to form over my scalp. The moment it lifts this fabric, I will strike. Just a few more inches, and it will rue the day it chose to harm me.
And then I hear something else. Music. No, humming. Why is it familiar? No time to wonder, as light spills into my cocoon, the fabric pulled back by a purple hand.
With a primal cry I leap from the covers, thrusting one thorn-covered gauntlet at this thing's face.
It stops my hand in its own, and I stare in awe at the claw of bark and sinew that dwarfs my fist. The corded threads of living roots wrap in spirals up the right arm of this creature, dozens of fireflies flowing in and out of its complicated fissures. The roots course up the shoulder, sending a familiar crosshatch over the bare chest of this creature; a defensive layer of barkskin, I know it well. Glowing embers for eyes stare back at me with patience, even as cracks form upon the face, bubbling lava beneath. If he wanted to, he could melt me where I stood. Instead, his other hand takes my own, and the thorns retract.
"Hyacinthe..." It comes out in a sob, and I squeeze his hand tighter. The barkskin turns to ash, reabsorbing into my flesh, and he pulls me into a hug. I try to form words as he holds me, "I thought... How? How are you alive? How are you here? ...What IS here?" I gasp and pull back. "Are we dead? Is this death? Did we avoid the Gray...or is it...waiting outside?"
Hyacinthe smiles and laughs, shaking his head. "Afraid not, little cherub. This is...something entirely different." His eyes drift to the far wall, the one that creaked before, and it creaks again! I watch in alarm as the wall, which I now realize is cut differently than the rest, swing open and flood the room with a warm, verdant light. Ah yes! A...a "door."
Another voice flows into the room. "Ah. We are sorry." It is feminine, and raspy, like a gentle breeze rustling leaves. "We can come another time if they are still recovering."
Hyacinthe answers instead. "No, please, come in. She is ready." Like hells I am! What authority do you-
Before me is a woman of smoke and wind. The edges of her form seem to break and crackle with energy, like at any moment she'll break apart. But as my eyes are drawn inward, her dissonant pieces seem to solidify. Onyx armor adorns her beautiful green skin, a bronze etching along its edges. The pauldrons and greaves look like they once held a symbol, but every time I look at it the image crackles and shifts. The only insignia I can pinpoint is cinched around her neck, binding tethers of the armor together. It looks like a tiny snake, or serpent, glowing white hot. Did its tail just move?
Her eyes are black stone, backed by the living fire within her, and the same fire ignites the edges of her short hair. Those eyes bore into me...then she smiles, lowering into a curtsy. "Greetings, little one. I am Knell. The Alpha sees all new additions to our conclave." She steps aside, gesturing beyond the door. "Please."
I look at Hyacinthe, concerned. He laughs. "C'mon, friend. You need to learn sometime." He takes my hand and ushers beyond the door.
I am led past through an expansive village of dozens of dwellings like my own. Cinthe explains that for each of us that come here, a place is grown for us. It provides for us safety, warmth, and love. "How many are we now?"
"Well." Hyacinthe gestures around. "Start counting."
We are being followed. Tens of individuals. Too much to take in at once, so I try to find details. A set of horns, tufts of black feathers, a halfling here, a dwarf there, dozens of tall creatures with pointed ears. They flank us on each side, emerging from their own dwellings, standing from gardens. Some even smile, and others glare, gathering fire in their hands. I can feel my thorns creeping. Just try it, buddy...
"Hey." Cinthe squeezes my hand again. "It's okay. They just don't know that you're good yet. ...They will." Cinthe stops suddenly. "We're here."
It is a citadel. Flooded. Moss creeps up a set of four pillars that wreath a raised platform of stone and earth. At its center spirals a tree. It spins and curls, its branches reaching toward the sun that spills through a broken stone canopy. The leaves appear to be reflective; crystalline, even, and a deep crimson. After a few moments I notice that Cinthe is no longer next to me and I spin to look back.
He waits at the edge of the water, smiling and laughing a bit at me. I realize what I've done and look down.
The water looks like glass. In fact, as I step on it, the ripples fluctuate beneath the surface, obscuring my reflection, but do not affect what I'm standing on. I hop a few times, the ripples, like silent shockwaves, pulsing out from me. I start to giggle, then laugh in big bouts of joy, my voice echoing off the high stone walls and columns.
"We are glad you are having fun."
I am hunched over, mid-spring into a high jump. I arch my spine a bit to look at Hyacinthe and am surprised to find that he has apparently been joined by EVERYONE. Yeesh, no pressure. He nods his leafy head to the space behind me; to the tree.
With a deep breath, I turn back to the tree.
There is a creature sitting in front of it. I swear they weren't there before. They aren't looking at me. A few moments pass and I hear no other voices. I could just keeping jumping, but...I feel drawn to them. Alright then.
My steps echo along the glass water, the only sound for miles. I notice the long vines of moss, only months old, still fresh and clinging to the stone. Then my foot stops at the edge of the platform, knocking me out of my head, and I am struck with the vision before me.
A creature of tan alabaster skin and long dark hair tends to the dirt surrounding this tree. They sit with a coat and dress of rags and patches. It flows out beneath them like a sun of soil and sand. Simple cloths of earth tones; layered browns, sandstone, and pale gray. The only glint the gold from a belt buckle that binds a boned corset over their stomach. Smudges of dirt and soot and ash adorn their attire, and they continue to tend to the soft earth surrounding the tree. I watch them gather soil around a small sapling of deep amber and emerald, fingers dancing over its leaves, and sending a bit of breath to the stem.
I feel a little shiver run up my spine and watch the sapling grow an inch.
They lean back from this position, their gaze meeting mine and their smile filling with warmth and welcome. A pale hand reaches up to push silken black hair behind long, pointed ears. I notice the glint on them; dots of earrings and crystal - tiny, detailed symbols without meaning. A book, like a pin; a piece of tied thread; a wing; a lute.
I realize I am getting distracted and look back at their face. They have gathered the grass around their form, gently stroking the blades until they grow high. Blooms of roses and orchids join them, as daffodils spill forth from the edges of their dress. A path of snowdrops roll out from them as they stand, drawing a circle around me.
"Welcome." Their voice is soothing, young. Like me, but not at all. "What is your name?"
"Welcome, Niobe." They drift gracefully to me, cupping my hands in their own. A node of warmth forms between them, and the Alpha lets go, stepping back and grinning. I look down to find a beautiful fire rose, bright orange as it fades to a deep crimson at the edges, nestled blooming in my hands. "Welcome...to the Hearthstone."
It is hard not to smile. I keep waiting for the knife, but it never comes. No needles to prick me, no biome test to fail, and no Temper to cage me. The Alpha smiles wider at me, their eyes kind and understanding, like they've felt what I've felt before. They begin to turn from me, but the word spills out anyway. "And...uh."
The Alpha turns back, raising their eyebrows. I can feel dozens of eyes trained on me. But I stutter through. "And. Um. What...is your name?"
And they sigh, relaxing even more. They reach out behind them to touch the trunk of the young spiraling tree, looking up at its ruby leaves. "I think at one time I was called Petrya..." They turn back to me, and all of us, with a knowing warmth and understanding.
"But you can call me Petals."
The art in this short fiction is done by very talented people. Their info and credit is below, as well as links to their work. Or, you can just click the image you're interested in and go there anyway!
Hyacinth Concept: Hyacinthe | by BrBianca
Knell concept: isildae - portrait | by Artborne-WD
Petrya concept: still looking! If you know this artist, let me know so I can credit them!
When we publish our first book, its Link will be HERE!