Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Geek - Thankful February - My First (Public) Short Story

  It's a networking event.  You're handed post it notes and the facilitator says "Write down two truths and a lie". We know the game.  People get to know you better when they try to figure out which of the two weird and wonderful things about yourself are real and which is a fib.  Mine usually go along these lines:
  1. I write short stories and have written 2 full length novels
  2. My great-grandfather invented a particularly popular machine gun
  3. I've auditioned for the X Factor
I'll give you a moment to decide which one you think is the lie.

Got it?

  In case you didn't, the lie is number 3. For a long time people told me I should audition for the X Factor, someone once told me they were genuinely shocked I hadn't. But I've never been interested in that.  So, for clarity, my great grandfather did invent a machine gun. The Sten gun, in case you were wondering. And yes, I really love to write.

The Secret Hobby

  I've written 2 full length novels, but a trait I inherited from my grandfather is a dislike of other people reading them.  Or rather, I'm happy people read them, as long as they don't know it's me.  If I were to become professional, it would be under a pen name. I don't know why. I love people reading my writing and I love hearing what they think, so it's not a criticism thing.  But the idea of being public with something being mine is really freaky to me.   

  The point is, I am amazingly thankful I am able to write. I'm not saying I'm brilliant at it, but I know I'm pretty ok.  People have enjoyed reading my writing so far and pester me for more.  I particularly enjoy writing short stories as I can take a brainwave and quickly turn it into something that doesn't require months of work.  It's like a mini creative release.  But like with longer pieces, I still have trouble sharing them. So, as part of the Thankful-ness of Frugal February I am going to take the plunge and put a short story into the public domain.  This is one I wrote, inspired by my current obsession with Dragon Age and for ease of understanding, I call it The Harrowing as it's about a Harrowing.

What on Earth is a Harrowing?

  In the Dragon Age world of Thedas, Mages are feared and as such are kept in towers, known as Circles, where Templar soldiers can watch over them and make sure they don't go mental with their magical powers.  A person cannot become a fully fledged Mage until they have undertaken a test known as the Harrowing.  In a Harrowing an apprentice Mage takes a magical substance, called lyrium.  This knocks them out and allow their spirit to pass through the Veil to the Fade.  The Fade is a world beyond the normal one; a realm of spirits and demons where magic stems from.  It's a reflection of everything, familiar to Thedas, but ever changing and effected heavily by the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants.  The Veil separates the Fade from the mortal realm but can be broken, allowing what exists in the Fade through.  This is by and large very bad, as neither spirits or demons are suited to being allowed to roam free.  When an apprentice Mage reaches the Fade, they must stave off a demon summoned to tempt them to allow it back through the Veil with them.  In 'real' terms this means the apprentice must stop themselves getting possessed.  If it all goes wrong the apprentice is killed by the Templar soldiers guarding the Harrowing ceremony, to ensure the summoned demon doesn't enter Thedas.  If the apprentice succeeds, they become a fully fledged Mage and a member of their Circle.

  In this short piece, the apprentice is Elora Kendell.  She is gifted, but inexperienced and only 2 days before, learned of her friend, Phillip, undertaking and failing his Harrowing.  Understandably, she is not thrilled to be taking part in her own.

The Harrowing

All Dragon Age references are the property of Bioware.  This is fanfiction.  Don't sue me!

  Elora's eyes slowly opened. Her head felt like it was spinning. The kind of spinning caused by a particularly vintage wine, uncorked for her birthday. She'd never tasted lyrium before and quickly the thought came to her that she had no idea how Templars could take it so frequently. Forced magical talents weren't worth the strangeness she was feeling at that moment. Her body was strange to her; as if it was somehow lighter. It was if she would be able to move unhindered by physical burden, while being heavily aware that would mean relearning how to use every limb. When her vision started to clear, she began to comprehend why everything appeared so jumbled. She was in the Jainian Circle Tower, but not. It was as if colours had been drained from it and things looked... different. Still laying on the floor she looked around. The lyrium bowl was still there, on its obsidian stand, but the etchings in the stone floor that had surrounded it around it weren't. There were shelves of books where she could have sworn there was bare wall only moments before and bare wall where there should have been shelves of books. At least the Senior Enchanter was there. Only... it wasn't Freya. Or was it? As she peered at the figure, it appeared ghostly, like an echo of many people rolled into one; sometimes a woman, sometimes a man and ever changing as if it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. Her vision expanded to include the surrounding Templar soldiers. They too seemed to be ever changing; armour of days gone by melting into the more familiar metalwork and tabards of the day. There were men and women of different ages too; all ghostly. They were there. She knew they were there. But yet, they were not. 

  As Elora stood, it began to make sense. The lyrium had given her enough strength to pass through the Veil and into the Fade. These were echoes she was seeing. Echoes of all the Harrowings before. She looked down at her feet. Other feet were there too, but not just feet, curled up bodies in robes, some still as stone, some twitching and bloody. But it seemed that no matter how hard she tried to focus on one, she only ended up seeing nothing at all. Cautiously, she stepped back, not wanting to be part of the muddle of apprentices who had long passed into the Fade in the exact spot she had. Elora swallowed and looked to the only thing that appeared material in the room; the bowl of lyrium.

  As she approached it, the silver liquid rippled, as if blown by some forgotten wind, or touched by an invisible finger. Elora caught her breath as her gaze ran over it, her mind filling with words from no particular voice. Resist. Control. Faith. Strength. Control. Faith. Strength. Resist. She now knew what was coming and it filled her with a sense of dread unlike anything she had experienced before.


  She glanced up from the bowl. The voice was familiar. Very familiar. Too familiar. Standing a few paces away, though he hadn't been there before, was a young apprentice, who in life had been a friend. He had had flaxen blonde hair and freckles across his nose. He was grey now, almost blending into his surroundings as if everything had seeped from him when he died under a Templar blade.
"...Phillip" She gasped without realising she had even spoken.
"Hello Elora" He smiled. Or did he? As soon as she thought about it, she wasn't sure.
"...You died"
"Yes" He answered solemnly.
"What happened...?"
"I wasn't strong enough. I mistook a demon for a gentle spirit. I spoke with it. Shared things with it. Shared too much. I couldn't tell where it started and I ended. I couldn't resist."
"I'm sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s peaceful here.” He answered after a long silence.
She took a deep breath in, moving her eyes over his expressionless face “You are a spirit then?”
He nodded very slowly. “This is my home now. As it is for many.”
“…why are you here, Philip?” she asked cautiously. Elora was starting to feel as if she was very slowly being suffocated. As if the air around her was pressing and heavy, making it harder to think or react.
“When I underwent the Harrowing, there was no one here for me. I was alone and so afraid.”
“…It is supposed to be undertaken alone” she answered, again, cautiously.
“No apprentice should be alone here. It is cruel. All there is is loneliness. Loneliness and fear.”
Elora took the smallest step back “Are you here to warn me of what is ahead?”
“There is nothing ahead, Elora. This is all there is. Greyness... Emptiness. I know you have felt it, just like I have. All of our lives, that touch of empty in the moments our minds wander, in the moments before we fall asleep and wake up.”
“No… not always.” she shook her head slowly, though her words sounded stronger than she felt.
“I didn't want to admit it either. But there is no shame in it. Living a lie is worse than not living at all. I am glad I am here. I am free. I am what I was always meant to be.”
“…I’m happy for you, Phillip” she wanted to smile, but she couldn't; her belly tight with fear.
“What are you meant to be, Elora?”
“…I don’t know.” She was starting to feel like she shouldn't be speaking with him, but somehow she couldn't stop herself.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me. I am here to aid you.”
“Then aid me. Please. I want nothing more than a guiding hand.” She again tried to force a welcoming smile.
“Of course.” Phillip extended his palm, uncurling his fingers and beckoning her to take them.

  She was unsure, and the sickly feeling was growing and growing in her stomach. But somehow, despite all of that, she saw herself reach out her hand and slide her fingers into his.

“Good girl.”

  There was a rushing sensation through her body. Every tiny hair stood on end and her stomach instantly twisted into churning knots. She wasn't holding a hand, she was holding something black and spindly with course hairs all over it. Elora looked up and a hundred spider eyes stared back at her. Her mouth gaped in horror as every single one seemed to smile. A thousand tiny eight legged creatures poured down the thing it would call a face, down onto the leg she was grasping, into her hand and onto her skin. Within moments they found their way into her robe, she could feel the tiny legs and itchy hairs scratching at every inch of her. Elora screamed; a scream that even the Templars across the Veil could hear. Those in the room; the ones that were there but not, the echoes, the trapped ones, covered their ears and their eyes as the spider beast grew and expanded, filling the room with its beastly body and spindly legs. Fangs burst from its Phillip mask; dripping silver poison that threatened to burn anything it touched. The creature wrenched at Elora’s arm; its tiny minions helping to drag her by her skin to it. She could feel them burrowing into her. She could feel them in her eyes, under her tongue, drilling into her gums and into her guts. The spider beast felt triumphant. This warm body would be his. It would be the vessel to cross the Veil and into the mortal realm where his children could spread the loving embrace of terror to all they encountered. Elora screamed again as its poison touched her, burning through cloth and flesh and bone.

“Pretty Elora, I can fill that void; that emptiness. You can carry me, Elora. I won’t tell a soul. Give into me Elora and you will awaken. This will all be over.”

  She screamed so loudly the Fade shook. The echoes shied away, becoming as stone as the walls around her, unwilling to witness anything more. She could feel the Phillip spider delving inside her, teasing at her fears, her sorrows and bringing them to the surface where they were palpable and practically living things unto themselves.

“Pretty Elora, so alone. So frightened. So unsure. I can give you certainty. Knowing. Understanding. Say yes to me and the pain will end, Elora. Say yes.”

  She sobbed as it tugged her against its hairy spines, feeling each one pierce her like a needle. Elora could feel a blackness entering her through every pin hole; slowly but surely replacing Elora with the spider beast. The fear. She arched backwards, fighting the blackness with every fibre of her being; stretching her arm out to force the fingertips of her free hand towards the bowl of lyrium. She felt the spiders swarm up her throat, filling her lungs and spilling out of her mouth until she could no longer make a sound.

“Yes… Yes! Pretty, pretty Elora! So frightened! So empty!”

  Her fingers, now, were all that was left untouched by the Phillip creature. She stretched and stretched. She stretched so much it felt as if she would tear off her own fingers if she reached any further. Elora had no legs anymore. No, she did. She had eight. Eight huge, glorious legs that could carry her anywhere. And her belly, it no longer felt sick. It felt full. Full and pregnant with little beasties ready to crawl upon the earth. She could feel their triumph, their bliss, their power. That feeling was growing, reaching up in her chest and encircling her heart, filling the hole of fear with something black and solid. It was comforting to feel so complete, so at one with another creature that wanted her as much as she now knew the spider creature did.

  Now she was just an arm. An arm with an Elora head disjointed from it and teaming with spindly legged fiends. Elora managed to swallow, tasting how delicious she was to the beast. As her eyes swam with blackness and hunger she could feel the Veil itself. It was so thin, the mortal world was so close now she could touch it. She could push through. She could be there. Just one more breath and she would be released and free to carry her children across all of Thedas. 

  Elora’s fingertips curled around the edge of the bowl as her eyes became two of the hundred on the head of the embodiment of fear. She smashed it down on those disgusting seeing balls, flooding them with its contents, before everything became nothing.

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