Flash Fiction: “Sanctuary Through the Ages”

I wanted to write a story about time travel and monastic orders. This seemed like the best compromise.

This story is concurrent with “The Doctor and the Druid” and other Hornworld tales. Enjoy.

Sanctuary Through the Ages, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 977

The only thing visible for miles around in the snowy badlands was the monastery.

Groaning through her scarf, Shevaun tried to keep moving. Her legs refused to work. She prayed and pleaded with them—and with her God—to just keep moving. Just a few hundred yards, that was all.

As her limbs finally cramped up and she began her sad tumble onto the ground, the last thought to pass through Shevaun’s mind was Seriously, no more adventures after this one.

***

She awoke in a small, cozy room. Light flickered across stone walls from the fireplace. The air was crisp with the scent of mint and other herbs. And something else, too.

Fresh soup. Her stomach growled in appreciation.

“Ah, you’re awake,” said a gentle voice to the side. Shevaun sat up in her bed and blinked.

An old man in brown and green vestments sat in a wicker chair beside the hearth of the room. And it wasn’t much of a room, she realized. More like a cell.

“I hope you’re hungry,” said the monk. “The soup’s still hot.”

“Thank you.” Shevaun kept the covers of her bed wrapped around her shoulders. She felt stronger now. Walking through that wasteland didn’t seem real anymore. Just a bad dream.

But it couldn’t be, because this was the monastery she’d seen. And it felt familiar. So did the old man.

She took a seat at the small table and began to spoon the hot soup as quickly as she could. When she paused for breath, she smiled up at the monk. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

The monk shook his head, smiling sadly. “Still don’t remember, I see. Well, it’s to be expected.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“No need, no need.” The monk leaned forward and pressed the palms of his hands together. “I am Brother Vengard, O.V.T.” Then he spread his arms out, as if to encompass the room and the building beyond it. “We are the Temporalists. And this is Sanctuary.”

***

As Shevaun ate more of her soup and regained her strength, Vengard spoke. He belonged to a secular order known formally as Ordo Viatorum Temporalium.

In laymen’s terms, time travelers.

“The trouble, you see, isn’t simply traveling through time. Any Child of the Ages who makes the Great Journey will simply end up in a different timeline.” Vengard’s brow furrowed. “But there are Powers beyond the mortal races. Supernatural entities who want to merge timelines together. Create paradoxes that will suit Their Will.”

“And you… stop Them? Fight gods from changing history?”

“Since time travel was proven possible and made accessible, the Temporalists were granted a… well, let’s call it a special dispensation. We are outside the changing timelines. We observe them and we keep Sanctuary for those whom gods and men have thrown out of time for a brief time.”

Shevaun was shaking again, but she wasn’t cold anymore. “People like me.”

“I’m afraid so. This isn’t your first visit here.”

“H-how many…?”

Vengard shrugged. “By my reckoning, at least eight times now. Usually from a failed expedition on Hornworld, or a war between the fey and human races. Once, you brought your friend Kyle here.” Wrinkles formed at the edges of his eyes as he smiled. “He did very well here, as I recall.”

Shevaun stared down at the empty soup bowl. Thin red cracks of agony were racing through her head. It hurt to try and remember. The worst part was that she almost could remember.

Almost…

“I think…” She shook her head. “I think I was trying to save my friends. We were climbing…” She had to grip the wooden table as the memories came back. “Yes, that’s it! We were scaling Wrath Mountain. To find the Throne Primordial, where the river started…”

“And then?” Vengard prompted.

“And then…” Shevaun put a hand to her mouth. The tears couldn’t stop now. “And then I had to choose. I… let Kyle go.” She pressed her face into her palms, hating herself as she spoke. Hating herself in that memory. “I let my oldest friend die so Kumiko… sweet Kumiko…”

The old Brother put a hand on her shoulder, warm to the touch. “You are forgiven. That timeline is closed now. A new one opens and awaits.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because that is the nature of my duty to fellow travelers. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

***

Hours later, they stood at the Gate.

Shevaun shouldered the field kit on her back and looked at Brother Vengard. He smiled warmly like a father.

The man who stood beside him was, as Vengard had put it, a Chronoscopic Friar. He didn’t wear the humble vestments of his order. Instead, the Friar wore a green flight suit with a flak vest, long boots and gloves, and a face-concealing helmet. When he turned to Shevaun, he bowed his head and crossed his arms in an X over his chest.

He would be her escort into the new timeline. Into another chance at life and absolution.

“Remember, do not give into fear and shame,” Vengard advised. “Regardless of your choices and divine interventions, you will always find your way back here.”

Shevaun frowned. “But for how long?”

“As long as it takes, my child.”

Shevaun nodded. She closed her eyes, saying farewell to the Kyle and Kumiko she’d lost before. Wishing the best for the Kyle and Kumiko she’d meet once again.

The Friar turned to Shevaun and held out his hand. Through the muffled visor, he said, “Are you ready?”

Something about his voice made the back of her eyes sting. It was so familiar.

Almost like Kyle’s voice.

She gripped his hand and smiled. It didn’t matter. She’d see him again—or another version of him—soon enough.

With simple faith, she crossed the Gate and reentered the swirling vortex.

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Flash Fiction: “Final Forest Exam”

You hear a lot about “treehuggers,” but no one ever talks about “predator pals” (no one that I’m aware of, anyway).

This is a prequel to “The Doctor and the Druid” and a sequel to “Fair In Love, But Not In War.”  Enjoy.

Final Forest Exam, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 925

Child, you are almost ready for your anointment.  You have just one more test to fulfill.”

Mother Nira’s words echoed through her mind as she slid to a halt behind a tree.  Several yards away, the wolf growled.  Kumiko closed her eyes and prayed to Mother Earth that the false herbs she’d dropped would distract the beast.

She didn’t know what she was doing.  From the moment she entered the forest, Kumiko knew she was a failure.  She could never become a true druid.

In her mind’s eye, she saw Mother Nira back at the Solar Shrine.  Gaunt-faced and tall, born as one of the male fey, but she wore the gown and veil of a priestess consecrated to the Great Mother.  Nira had smiled and touched the pointed tips of Kumiko’s ears with drops of holy oil.  The air around them had been filled with the birdsong chants of the Sun Dancers, honoring the gods at daybreak.

“You must not falter, you must not fear,” Nira had said, seeming as tender as Kumiko’s mother and aunts.  “The world is a mirror, child.  Show it fear and it will respond in fear.  Show it love and it will love you back.  Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely.”

Sitting behind an ancient black tree, with a great wolf on her tail, Kumiko didn’t think her wisdom could help her know.

The beast snarled and drew closer.  Kumiko cursed herself for trying to rely on false herbs as a distraction.  She was going to die unless she fought the wolf.  But what druid’s spell could do that?

She could heal a wound, tread silently, swim for miles, and sense the presence of flora and fauna alike.  But she was no battle-mage.  Her sorcery could only deflect.  It’d do nothing to protect her from being ripped limb from limb.

Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely…”

Mother Nira, you’re an old fool, Kumiko thought, falling to her hands and knees.  The Wild didn’t care if you were just or brave.  It just ate and gave birth to things that could be eaten.  Nothing more.

Kumiko wished she could see her family one last time, just to tell them how sorry she was to have failed as a druid.  Her father Lord Yori would be disgraced, as if his sept wasn’t in enough trouble with the Erlking.  She’d make everything worse just by being alive.

I’m already dead, the timid fey realized.  I’m dead and there’s no going back.

Impossibly, that thought calmed her a little.  She turned around and stepped out from behind the tree.

The gray, shaggy-coated wolf snarled when it laid eyes on her.  With a saliva-dripping maw widened, it raced forward on all four legs and leapt for Kumiko’s throat.  The fey tilted her head back, ready for the end.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to her family, to Mother Nira.  “Think kindly of me when I’m gone.  Do that for me.”

Her eyes squeezed shut as the wolf’s forepaws slammed into her chest, pinning her onto the dirt.  Kumiko waited for the jaws to tear into her throat and end her miserable life.

It never happened.

Slowly, cautiously, she opened her eyes and stared into the wolf’s terrifying face.

It was looking down at her intently.  The beast’s breath stank of raw meat and fur as it panted.

“Why?” Kumiko asked.  She wondered if Mother Earth would appear in all Her glory and answer.

The wolf gave a short yip.  To Kumiko’s ears, she heard it as a common grunt.  But in the depths of her mind, it sounded completely different.

A voice.  A crude, masculine, unlearned voice.

Because girl says so.

“What?”

The wolf barked and she heard it in her mind as, Girl says think kindly.

“Y-you can understand me?”

Yes.

“How?”

With cantFirst tongue.

Kumiko had heard about Cant.  The language of truth, Mother Nira had called it.  A primordial language known to every beast of the Wild and buried deep inside the mind of every fey.  Only a true druid knew how to rediscover the words of Cant, to commune with all of nature and honor Mother Earth in Her Own Word.

And now Kumiko saw the truth of the matter.  That moment of stillness. She’d been ready to die.  She’d conquered her fear.  She’d opened her deepest self to the jaws of death and shame.

“I am not your enemy,” Kumiko said slowly.  She felt uncomfortable staring into the wolf’s golden eyes, but she owed it that much.  “I am a friend.”

Yes, the wolf whined as it pulled its paws off of her.  FriendAm Teor.

“Teor.”  As she sat up, Kumiko didn’t bother brushing away the dirt from her hair or the saliva in her face.  She looked around at the black forest with new eyes.

It wasn’t threatening anymore.  It just existed.  An extension of the Wild and nothing more.

“Teor,” she said calmly.  “I lost my way.  I must go home.”

The wolf barked and wagged its tail.  Home.  Know your scent.  Follow Teor now.

The fey smiled and, after a moment’s thought, she reached down to scratch the wolf’s neck.  When the canine panted in delight, Kumiko pointed back the way she came.  The wolf barked and led the way.

Somewhere close by, the birds were singing and a squirrel was running up the side of an oak.  Kumiko heard it all, just as she heard Mother Nira saying, “Show it love and it will love you back…”

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Flash Fiction: “Fair In Love, But Not In War”

Who says heroes are the only ones allowed to love?  Even scoundrels and scheming aristocrats can have a little affection now and then.

This is a sequel to “Elf War.”  Enjoy.

Fair in Love, But Not In War, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 960

From his private turret, Lord Yori nar Ríogan watched as his forces were slowly routed back to the keep.  His claws raked furious white lines into the stone wall.  It would not do for him, a Lord of Hornworld, to shout bloody murder at these foreigners.

The Earthlings had brought out their most cunning weapons to the fore: handheld mortars, rocket packs, and teleporter beacons.  All the fey lord’s knights had to offer were the bows, swords, and pikes of their ancestors.  Not even the battle magi could compete.  Their spells took too long to construct while Earth’s soldiers rained down fiery death from above or teleported in to kill them point-blank before disappearing again.

“Shing,” Yori muttered.  “What is the hour?”

Behind him, his brown-faced attendant knelt and answered, “It is the sixth hour, milord.”

“And still no word from Lady Moura?”

Shing’s hesitation was all Yori needed, but still he replied, “Not yet, milord.”

Yori bowed his head.  Shameful.  He’d acted shamefully and now he was paying the price.  All this fighting, all these casualties, all this dishonor—all because he’d dared to love the wrong fey.

“I don’t want Mab.  I want you.”

He’d spoken those words to her in the Sacred Grove outside Castle Leirath last summer.  She was quite beautiful under the moonlight: radiant white skin, pure black eyes, pale golden hair.  Every inch a true Lady of Hornworld.

But Moura had looked at him with a contemplative stare.  “Lord Mab is a good match for your sept, Yori.  He’s courageous and handsome.  A gentle lover—”

“Mab nar Tuatha may be all those things, but he’s an idiot!  He’ll do whatever the Erlking asks of him.  He’s no better than a trained wolf.”

“And I have no interest in being your mistress.”

“Then be my true wife,” Yori pleaded.  “I only want what’s best for Sept Ríogan and Sept Leirath.  Our houses are strong, but together, we could be so much stronger!”

“It’s only politics for you, isn’t it?  I know what game you’re playing, Yori.”  Moura’s voice dropped an octave.  “It’s the Earthlings.  You can’t stand their presence on Hornworld.”

She knew him too well—a fact that both infuriated and elated Yori to no end.  “No, I can’t.  I’ve no fear of saying it, either in here or out in the open.  The Erlking is a fool who’s forgotten what happened to my kinsman Finelas.  But I haven’t forgotten.”  He smiled.  “And I know you haven’t either.”

Although her expression never changed, Yori spotted a hint of a blush on the Lady’s cheeks.

“You’re wise and deadly,” he continued.  “There is simply no other Lord or Lady like you.  Yes, I might have wanted you for a political marriage, but now?”  Yori took her hands into his and grinned.  “Now it’s real, my Lady.  As real as the Two Worlds can be.  I’d even let go of my family honor for a chance with you.”

Moura closed her eyes.  “Enough, Yori.  Though you may be flattering and desirable, I simply can’t break my vows.  My sept is in vassalage to Sept Tuatha.  If I give myself to you, our house will be disgraced.  We’d be outlaws.”

Yori gripped her hands to his chest.  “Then let’s be outlaws together, my Lady.”

“You’re intractable.”

“Music to my ears, my Lady…”

The kiss that followed was bittersweet.

The next day, war was declared between Sept Tuatha and Sept Ríogan.

“If she values her sept’s honor, she will not come.”  Yori could not look away from the carnage that the Earthlings and the Knights of Tuatha inflicted on his forces.  “If she really does love me, then perhaps it’s better this way.  Give me a quick death by Lord Mab himself, and she can pay homage to my memory in the Sacred Grove.”

“Milord.”  Shing leapt up from his kneeling position.  “Milord, we will tear down Castle Tuatha before we let that happen!”

Yori turned on his servant with a vicious snarl.  “Give it up, boy!  We’ve lost!  Are you really such a fool that you can’t see it?  We played the game and we lost.”

When his servant failed to answer, Yori felt his anger fade into resignation.  He retracted his claws and said, “Go to your kin and tell them to lay down their arms.  Accept the Erlking’s justice like a true fey.”

Young Shing looked like a whipped pup, but he managed to whisper, “Go with honor, milord.”

Yori nodded his thanks and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.  He turned back to the turret window as Shing fled the room.

Beyond the viridian battlefield now soaked with blood and ash was the Royal River.  To the east lay snow-capped mountains.  To the west were the crimson forests that separated Sept Ríogan from Sept Leirath.  Yori could see now why the fey called their lands “Our Garden.”  He wondered if it would be just as beautiful in death, or if the legends about the Gray Mists were true.

In the distance, trumpets blared.  At first Yori thought it was the signal of surrender.  But when he looked back at the battlefield, his breath caught in his throat.

New banners were emerging from the northwest.  Knights, pikers, and hydra-riders were charging the Earth troops with green and white banners.

The colors of Sept Leirath.

Tears blurred Yori’s vision of the battle.  When he heard a whisper of movement behind him, he turned and saw a pale yellow butterfly enter the turret room.  The butterfly exploded in a shower of light and smoke, which took on the silhouette of a full-grown fey.

And there she was.

They rushed toward one another.  Their lips met just as the armies outside clashed anew.

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Flash Fiction: “Foreign Exchange”

It’s always nice to see new places, meet new people.  Just first make sure the atmosphere isn’t poisonous and the people aren’t well-camouflaged predators, and you’ll be fine.

This is a prequel to “The Doctor and the Druid.”  Enjoy.

Foreign Exchange, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 684

Are you sure this will work?” Kumiko cried.  Her channel was buzzing erratically from the other end of the swirling Celestial Gate.

Shevaun lifted her datapad to double-check her equations.  Then she smiled and tapped her headset.  “If it doesn’t, I’ve already written my apology to the Council.  Get ready!”

The fey’s reply was an anxious squeak.  Shevaun grinned and clipped the datapad onto her belt.  When she looked back at the team of engineers and physicists behind the double-thick glass, she gave them a thumbs-in.

“Transfer procedure is now live,” Kyle reported over the intercom.  “Gate force is twenty-nine thaums and rising.”

Shevaun stared into the Gate.  The swirling green vortex was familiar now; she’d been terrified at her first encounter as a grad student.  But now her jumpsuit was tight and her research gloves fit perfectly.  There was nothing to fear except a failed experiment.

“Okay,” she said into her headset.  “Kumiko?”

Going in three!” the fey answered.  “Two… one…!

Shevaun ran into the Gate and dove headfirst into the vortex—

whiteout

fading green dissolving

nothing left of her now

pure disembodied conscious terror

wait

here was something

here she was yes still here still here

her name

her name was—

“Shevaun!”

When she came out the other side of the Gate, she fell onto her hands and knees.  Deliriously happy, she pat herself down.  Her body was intact.  She remembered her name, her past, and her purpose.

Her name was Shevaun.  She was a physicist employed by the Transdimensional Alliance.  And she had just performed the first simultaneous exchange of two individuals through the Gate.

Shevaun tapped her headset.  “This is Shevaun, checking in.  I’ve made it through to the other side.”

She took in her new surroundings.  Hornworld was beautiful.  Massive crimson trees towering like the skyscrapers in New York.  The planet’s rings crisscrossing the azure sky, creating an impressive series of rainbows.  Airships and balloons further ahead, forming lines of traffic from the great city Alfheim.

She felt great here.  She wished she could never leave.  But there were more important matters to attend to.  Shevaun tapped her headset again.  “Control, you there?  What’s Kumiko’s status?”

There was a burst of static.  Then Kyle’s voice came over.  “She’s not doing too well, Shev.  Are you feeling any side effects from the Gate transfer?”

Shevaun unhooked her datapad and activated the biomedical suite.  She waited for her suit’s built-in sensors to get a full-body reading and checked the results.  “No, I feel fine.  Why?”

Kumiko’s developed massive lung trauma,” Kyle reported.  “I think we didn’t account for the effect of Earth air on fey physiologyOr it’s a side effect of the exchange.  Are you sure you’re all right?”

Shevaun was getting worried now.  She frantically looked over her med-scan results.  “I seem to be fine, just fine!  Do you want me to come back through?”

No, stay where you are.  We need all the readings we can get about your end of the Gate.”

“Okay, but—”  Shevaun couldn’t finish that statement.  That dazzling feeling in her chest was overpowering now.  She coughed and wiped her mouth.  “Hold on, Control.  I’m… I’ve got symptoms of my own.”

Feeling nauseousBlurred visionConstant coughing?”

Shevaun dropped back onto her hands and knees, hacking up whatever was in her lungs.  She squeezed her eyes shut.  It was too bright now.  Too bright and sharp.

Okay, we’re sending over an extraction team.”  Kyle sounded like he was barely holding back his panic.  “There’s an oxygen imbalance between the Two Worlds.  Just stay calm and wait for the team.  Do you copy, Shev?”

Shevaun couldn’t answer him; she was coughing and retching too much to speak.  Her head was killing her.  It was easier to lie flat on the ground as the nausea continued to build.

But she fought through the sickness for one last glimpse.  One tiny glimpse through narrowed eyes of Hornworld and its rugged beauty.  She had a feeling this image would be the last thing she’d ever get to see of the other side of the Gate.

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